Paint Like a Pro

Paint Like A Pro!

The “BreakThrough” Method of Painting

Why continue to struggle with your watercolors without getting any better?

Maybe you see some improvements, but you’re still not satisfied with your paintings. I was at this point in my career, too – and I found many ways to get on the track to fast and lasting improvement in my paintings. I would like to share some of these ways with you.

My name is Stephen Blackburn, and I have been painting in watercolors for about 15 years now. Here’s my story; maybe you can see some similarities with your journey in painting.

Like every beginning artist, I started painting the standard barns and landscapes. I used subject matter from magazine pictures, greeting cards and even other artists’ published work. This is a great way to start learning how to paint and leads me to my first Breakthrough  to becoming a better artist:

Stop painting from other artists’ work!

While this may be a good way to start, as soon as you begin to get a feel for the medium, you need to develop your own subject matter. That means either setting up your own paintings and painting from life (landscapes, figures or still lifes) or working from your own photo references.

I’m primarily a studio painter, so except for a few still life paintings, I work mostly from photos that I take. This was a major Breakthrough for me for a few reasons. First  – by forcing myself to work from my own photos, I learned a bit about cameras and photography and even invested in a good camera. Second – I realized that I was limited by painting from someone else’s picture, whether it was a copy of a painting or a photo in a magazine. That artist had already figured out the composition and the lighting – many of the elements that go into a good work of art. Also, by drawing from life or my own photos, my drawing skills increased – which brings me to my second Breakthrough . . . . .

Learn how to draw!

I know – sometimes you just want to paint and not spend a lot of time on the drawing, but as the old saying goes, “Your painting is only as good as your drawing.” I spend a lot of time and thought on the drawing and composition stage, especially after I’m done pouring and getting ready for the brushwork. One of the best things an artist can do is compose the drawing and then pick up a brush full of color! Spend time on the foundation of your artwork, and the result will be worth it.

The best way to learn how to draw is to draw from life, especially figures. Take a class on figure drawing and it will really help you with your paintings! And then try . . . . . .

Standing up when you paint!

I know this sounds like a simple thing, but you might be surprised how this will loosen you up to paint more freely. When you’re sitting down, you can’t have the arm motion needed to paint with confident strokes. You might also tend to use smaller brushes when sitting, and I like to use the biggest brush possible for each passage. When you are standing, it energizes your whole body, and gives your arm the freedom you need to paint more confidently.

You may also want to try something that really helped me Break Through to my current painting style . . . . .

Stress negative painting!

In watercolor it is so important to paint around your subjects – always think Shapes, not Things! Negative painting will teach you to design your composition with your shapes in mind and not concentrate too much on your subject. Every composition is just made up of a bunch of interrelated shapes, anyway, and it is very important to stress both the positive and negative shapes. This takes plenty of planning in a painting – even though my paintings look like they are done loosely, I spend a ton of time figuring how the shapes fit together. Learning how to paint negatively is what helped me to do this.

After many experiments with negative painting years ago, I finally painted what I consider my first breakthrough painting:

April Bloom

April Bloom (15 x 22)

This simple landscape painting was created completely with negative shapes. I first laid in the colors that would become the trees, then painted around them with increasingly darker shapes. Up to this point I had been painting around mostly white areas, but then I got the idea of charging the positive spaces with more color. Then when I painted around them, these areas came alive. I was excited to finally get it to work on this painting in 1990 – and then I was thrilled when it won an award in a local show!

This way of painting around shapes also helped me learn to . . . . .

Master the use of edges!

Soft edges, hard edges, lost and found edges . . . . . it can all be so confusing. But getting a handle on edges is not only one of the most important things for a painting, it is also a lot of fun! Watercolor, unlike acrylics, can be used to create very interesting soft edges, and this can add so much to the life of your painting. I like to use hard edges (and darker contrasts) near my focal point and then soften the edges as I get away from that area. You can learn to do this by practicing with your brush. Put down a passage of very wet paint, rinse out your brush and take out most of the moisture with a sponge. Then add just enough CLEAN water to move the paint around and try to soften the edges. The amount of water depends on a lot of things – how much water is on the paper, how rich and dark the paint is, even how staining the pigments are. Soon you will develop a feel for how much water to use. I try to avoid drying the brush too much with a paper towel. Just use your fingers to take out the excess water – this will help you develop the feel for how much water to leave on the brush. Then take out the edge. I try to have mostly soft edges in a painting with hard edges where I want to direct the eye of the viewer.

Learn the economy of brushstrokes!

Sometimes I notice students picking at their painting with short, quick brushstrokes.

This can actually detract from your painting, as it can lead to overworking areas and muddy passages. It is much better to think about what you want to do in an area of the painting, and then just get in there and do it! What I always say is that I would much rather paint a confident stroke wrong than labor over a passage just to get it right. This means that I spend time thinking about what I want to say there, and then I pick up the brush, get plenty of pure clean color, and confidently and quickly apply the paint. Then I can adjust it with some water or more paint. Watercolor is a medium of adjustment – you put down some paint and then adjust it lighter or darker, more or less vibrant. This keeps you from muddy colors and overworked paintings. And the confidence you need will come over time as you paint this way – it will never come by being hesitant!

Open up and get experimental!

A few years ago I felt like I was in a rut with my paintings – after many years of painting in watercolors I developed my style to a point where I knew how each painting was going to come out. Of course, in this medium it is often beneficial to plan out your entire painting, and I did this by developing sketches, value studies and color studies. Then I would visualize the finished painting, and as I improved I was able to see most paintings come out like I had planned.

However, after a while I got bored with this process, and decided to try some new things. I felt like it was time to get experimental! This led me to working with poured paint and liquid frisket, and helped me develop the style that I am most known for today. At first it was difficult, and I had a big stack of paintings that didn’t work out. It reminded me of my days as a beginning artist! I learned that this feeling is a good indication that I’m about to discover something worthwhile. After several attempts with this new way of working, I came up with a winner . . . .

“Sunbathe” Giclee Print (20″ x 28″)


I started this painting by pouring frisket on a piece of hot-press watercolor board. What a great surface for this technique! I had used this support before for my watercolors, but I found that it was perfect for pouring paint, since the paint tends to sit on top of the surface and give you time to move it around. I also began to get more colorful with this painting – I even changed my paints from Winsor and Newton to Daniel Smith. I feel like their paints are a bit brighter and that was the look I was going for.

The biggest challenge on this piece was after I had finished the pouring and removed the frisket. The most creative part of these paintings is figuring out where to go at that point. I usually need to redraw the whole painting, but that actually is helpful because I don’t want to be tied down to one path in this process. I have to admit that “Sunbathe” was a challenging piece to work through, but sometimes the paintings I struggle with the most come out the best. This one was like that, because some time later this painting received the Grand Prize in International Artist magazine’s “Floral and Garden” competition. That was just icing on the cake, though, because I knew with this painting that I had come up with another Breakthrough!

What would it take for you to Breakthrough and reach new heights in your paintings? I hope and pray that my artwork has inspired you, and I would like to help you reach your artistic goals! Keep checking back here to my new website . . . . I will be adding articles about watercolor painting and other links and information. If you would like to learn my creative pouring techniques, you can click here to order my video “Pour It On” – 70 minutes of instruction covering parts of three different paintings. Or sign up for one of my workshops and get real hands-on instruction.

I’m always looking for new ways to energize my watercolors, and I’m looking forward to sharing these with you when I discover my next Breakthrough!