How do you paint white in watercolor? It’s a question that arises time and again. The most common response among watercolorists is to reserve the white paper.
But my answer is to paint the colors around the white and allow the lightest tones remaining to suggest the local color. “White,” after all, is a comparative value. The darker the surroundings are, the lighter the lightest value appears.
In my recent painting of Victoria Harbor (#140110w) I wanted to use the white boat as the picture’s focal point. Yet in my reference photo, the white appeared too flat. (See the previous blog for a discussion on cropping the reference photo I used.) I chose to exaggerate the color to develop a sense of the boat’s curving lines to help set it apart from the straight lines of the distant waterline, the pier to the left, and the houseboats to the right.
The cobalt and ultramarine blues of the sail covers and trim were used straight from the tube to keep those hues as pure and vibrant as possible. This effect was emphasized by using those colors to mute the strong analogous yellow-orange-red notes elsewhere. To create the effect of warm, angled sunlight, I used the warm colors to suggest form and reflection on the lit side of the boat and to modify the blues on the shadowed side.
I actually reserved only very small areas of the paper’s original white to maintain crisp, sun-touched lines on the bow, the gunwales, and around the cockpit windows, as well as around the windows in the yellow houseboat near the center. And even some of these white areas were later softened with a light wash of yellow as a reflection of the warm sunlight.
The reflections on the hull were lifted out of the granular blues of the hull afterward. But even they weren’t the pure white they appear, at first glance, to be. They have been softened with a light wash of yellow-orange so they don’t appear too stark in comparison to the warmer side of the hull.