The Story I’ll Paint: Part 5 – Painting with Guts

Watercolor is an unforgiving medium, but it works so much better if you can paint with guts. Here are a few things I did to prepare for the final art and make sure I could paint big, brave washes and avoid overworking the paper.

1. Choose materials carefully

I splurged on my paper, settling on Fabriano 300 lb. Normally I like the texture of Cold Press, but this time I chose something called “Soft Press,” which is somewhere in between a hot and cold press. It held the paint beautifully, was smooth enough to accept colored pencil, and was thick enough that I didn’t even think about stretching it or taping it down. Here are all the materials I used to make the final art:

  • Fabriano 300lb soft press paper
  • Raphael #10 and #2 sable round brushes
  • Synthetic flat brushes. Cheap, and they seem to do a fine job
  • A variety of watercolor paint, by whatever brand was on sale at the time.
  • Huge assortment of Prismacolor colored pencils
  • Masking fluid (only when absolutely necessary, as it changes the texture of the paper a bit.)
  • Aquacover liquid watercolor paper. This is essentially watercolor white-out. Sold in several shades that exactly match your paper. It was perfect for the pages with stars in the night sky.
2. Know what you’re doing ahead of time

Before I start my final art I like to prepare a bit in order to minimize disasters and wasted paper. If I wasn’t completely confident that I could complete the final without making a mistake, I painted a miniature version of the illustration first. It might sound time-consuming, but these mini-paintings were relatively quick to do and they gave me the chance to make mistakes in advance. When I sat down to do the final art, I felt confident about what I was doing, and I could relax and let the paint do what it does best. This was especially important because I was mailing the art to the publisher, and thus would not have the opportunity to just “fix it in Photoshop.”

Mini paintings!

Mini paintings!

3. Make friends with your water

They don’t call it watercolor for nothing. If things aren’t going well, you can try using more water. A lot of beginning watercolorists misinterpret this advice and end up using a whole lot of water with very little pigment, resulting in a weak, pastel painting. In order to get intense colors and dark shadows, it’s very important that the paint is damp before you start. I like to spray down the palette with a squirt bottle so that all the colors are ready to go.

I push myself constantly to make bigger, looser washes. Of course that’s not the only way to paint with watercolors, but I greatly admire artists who do it well. To get the feel for it I like to paint scraps of paper with random, loose splotches before diving into the final painting.

There are some great tutorials on Youtube that show various watercolor techniques. Milind Mulick is one of my favorites.

4. Don’t be afraid to experiment

For this project I decided to add colored pencil to the images to create extra texture, something I’d never done before. It allowed me to add light on dark–something impossible with watercolor alone–and gave the book a gentle softness that I thought would be nice for a bedtime story. But most of all it was a lot of fun to try something new.


Coming soon to a bookstore near you!

That wraps up my series on technique. Thanks for reading! Next week I’ll do another giveaway so be sure to check back then for a chance to win a signed copy of the book.

Other posts in the series:
Trick or Treat
We Have a Winner


  1. by Brooke Boynton Hughes on October 28, 2015  6:49 pm Reply

    I've loved seeing your process for this beautiful book, Jessica! Painting with guts is definitely something that I struggle with and hearing about your approach to watercolors is really helpful. Thanks for the great post!

  2. Pingback : Jessica Lanan Illustration » Pictures and Words » The Story I’ll Paint: Part 3 – Devil’s in the Details

  3. Pingback : Jessica Lanan Illustration » Pictures and Words » The Story I’ll Paint: Part 2 – Finding Harmony

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