If you’re accustomed to painting with oils or acrylics, you can easily add sparkling highlights any time you choose.
However, with watercolor it’s a little more complicated.
You need to plan those highlights and white areas ahead of time to wind up with a painting that has true, bright whites.
Sparkle Is In The Details
Painting realism with sparkle and shine in watercolor demands attention to detail before you ever lay a stroke of color on the support. Whether you plan that detail in your mind and paint around highlight areas or mask off white spaces, you need to decide things like light sources, shadows and the refractory quality of your compositional elements beforehand.
For most of us, that requires a bit of preliminary detail drawing. You need to lay out your compositional objects, plan the light source and lightly sketch in the highlights. You may try to do this from your imagination, but you’ll do a far better job that portrays your images convincingly if you’re able to set up your composition with the proper objects and lighting.
It’s surprising how light can bounce around. It shows up very strongly in some spots and repeats itself in a less intense way somewhere else on the object. You need to decide which areas are truly deserving of reserving the pure white of the paper and which areas are actually toned with either local color or reflected hues.
How To Preserve The Whites
Once you’ve got your composition sketched out with the pertinent white areas identified, you need to find a way to preserve them. You must either paint around them or protect them from paint or colored water. Painting around a highlight requires concentration throughout the painting process, as one slip of the brush can result in the loss of what may be a critical highlight.
The safest, most risk-free way to save whites is by using masking fluid. Several different manufacturers produce this product and it’s known by several names. Some manufacturers add color to their product. In this way, you’ll be able to see at a glance where the saved areas are.
There are other producers who choose not to tint their product. They make it rather difficult to find all the highlight areas when your painting is completed. I imagine the reason these manufacturers don’t add color is so you aren’t distracted by a color while you’re painting and studying your work, but it certainly makes removing all the masking fluid a game of hide and seek.
More About Using Masking Fluid
There are a couple of caveats when using masking fluid. Foremost is that you should never use a good brush to apply this to your painting. This is liquid rubber, and once it dries on a brush, you can just say goodbye to the poor thing.
Either use an old, raggedy brush that has outlived its usefulness or pick up a bunch of very inexpensive craft brushes. If you’re quick and careful, you can clean your brush good enough to use multiple times. However, if you’ve ruined the brush, just toss it out.
After you’ve applied your masking fluid to protect your white spaces, allow it to dry. It forms a waterproof, rubberized shield so you can paint right over it without fear of tinting your paper.
When your painting is completely dry and you’re ready to see those white highlights, use a rubber remover or hard eraser to gently scrub the masking fluid from the paper. Your fingers work as well, but the oils or paint residue on your hands may discolor the pristine white of your support, so limit your ‘hands on’ approach to masking fluid removal.
Now you have crisp whites with sharp, hard edges. In some cases, this is exactly what your painting needs. At other times, you may want to soften the edges by using a clean, moist brush to blur that very sharp edge. You can also use a wet cotton swab for larger areas, and you can also lightly tone down the pure white if it’s too off-putting.
A Last Resort To Salvaging White Highlights
There’s a rather drastic measure you can use if you find your painting needs highlights you neglected in your original layout. This method is not for the faint of heart and requires that you’re using a pretty good, thick watercolor paper.
You can use a sharp hobby knife to gently and carefully pick out highlights. You’re actually cutting away a very thin layer of the paper to reveal the white paper beneath your paint. One slip and you’ve cut a neat, surgical slit through your painting. This method is for the steady handed artist with very good vision or a magnifying glass.
If the area in question is larger than you wish to attack with a hobby knife, you may try using sandpaper. However, you are drastically changing the surface of your paper. This may or may not be acceptable, and you attempt this at your own risk.
This thought-out preservation of white space is one of the reasons that people think that watercolor is so difficult. You get few second chances and you need a clear image in your mind of how you want your composition to appear. Once you become accustomed to the mindset required for watercolor painting, it really isn’t any harder than most other mediums. It just takes a little forethought and planning. But, it sure is fun and satisfying when everything falls into place.