How to Paint Darks and Shadows in Watercolor by Mara Mattia

About Mara

Mara Mattia PhotoI enjoy being an artist! And I’ve been at it longer than this internet blogging stuff. In fact, blogging is all new to me! So I will start by telling you a little about myself. Our nest is not quite empty because we still enjoy the presence of our college-aged kids at home. And because they are busy with work and school I am able to enjoy uninterrupted painting sessions during the day-light hours instead of in the middle of the night like I did when they were little. A bit here, a bit there and I keep my projects alive! One project I’m working on is a cookbook. Originally written for my husband and children, I re-structure classic recipes we love, to make them healthier. I’m also writing and illustrating a series of children’s books. Finding time to Draw, paint, and teach has been a challenge while raising a family but finishing a project is very rewarding to me. And I hope you like my artwork and lessons and enjoy watching my progress with various projects!

Please follow this link to visit Mara’s website to view more of her art lessons.

How to Paint Darks and Shadows in Watercolor

(Click images throughout this lesson to enlarge)

Complimentary Shading 1 to 4

Painting darks and shadows in watercolor is really easy. It just takes practice.

I’ll start today with drawing a figure of a woman from my imagination (Don’t worry about this part because I’ll teach the basics of drawing people in another lesson).

You will need watercolor paint, paint brushes, paper plate (or watercolor palette), big mouth containers of water, paper towels or rags, #2 pencil, a soft pencil (#4, 5, or 6), eraser, Hair blower (optional), and the color wheel you made from my previous lesson.

Start by making a drawing of a stick figure on scratch paper. Add the contours of underlying muscle covered with skin, and crisscross marks on the head for placement of facial features. Draw indications of clothing. Then erase the stick lines of your figure.

Complimentary Shading 2

Refine the lines of the clothing. When you are finished turn your paper over and scribble, covering the area under your drawing with a soft lead pencil (#4B, 5B, or 6B). Then take a wadded up tissue and smear it all over by rubbing it. Now you have a carbon transfer sheet.

I like to do all my preliminary drawings on a separate sheet of paper before transferring it to watercolor paper because I do a lot of adjusting, erasing, changing, etc. and all that business would ruin the surface of the watercolor paper.

Complimentary Shading 3

Turn your carbon/drawing right side up and place it on top of a piece of watercolor paper or illustration board. Tape it down at the top. Now trace the lines of your drawing onto the watercolor paper with a ballpoint pen or hard pencil (#HB). Remove your drawing and you are ready to start painting! If some of your pencil lines are too dark take a kneaded eraser to lighten some of them up with a gentle blotting motion. Now, choose only one color to paint with. I have chosen yellow-orange (see my previous post on how to mix this color from the basic primary colors yellow and red). But you may choose any color you like!

Complimentary Shading 4

Squirt a little paint on your plate and mix with a little water to make your desired color – not too thick or too thin. Wash out your brush. Set your paint mixture aside for a moment.

Complimentary Shading 5

Now paint just the hat and dress with clear water on your drawing. Add more water if any part dries up. Gently squeeze out the water from your brush with a paper towel without scrunching or pulling the bristles and “suck” up any excess water with the dry bristles. I am doing this near the bottom of the dress here.

Complimentary Shading 6

Now load your brush with some of your pre-mixed paint and begin applying it to the wet areas of your drawing. Just watch what it does…this is really fun!!

Let it dry completely (You may use a hair blower on low to speed things up a bit).

Complimentary 7

Now look at your color wheel and find your color. Now find the color straight across from it. Hurray! That is called its complimentary color (If you chose green its compliment would be red. If you chose purple its compliment would be yellow).

Complimentary Shading Watercolor 8

Now, on my paper plate, I’m going to mix just a little bit of bluish-purple to my mixture of yellow-orange (because that is it’s compliment) to make it darker. And I’m painting a little sample on a scrap piece of watercolor paper to see what it looks like.

Complimentary Watercolor Shadows

Do you see where I’ve added a little sun up in the right-hand corner of my picture? I’m imagining the shadows from that light as I paint a little of my darker mixture on the under- side on her hat. Now, quickly clean your brush in clear water, dab it off a little on a paper towel and run the brush along the sharp edge you painted to soften it. Paint dark paint in other places where you imagine the sun casts a shadow. Rinse your brush, dab, and soften the paint edges with your damp brush. Turn your paper if you need too!

Complimentary Watercolor Shading Exercise

Watercolor Shading Lesson

Watercolor Demonstration

Step by step watercolor tutorial

Right about now I’ll bet you notice that your painting is a bit rough and messy! There are streaks of paint that are too dark and streaks that are too light. That’s actually a very nice style! But if you want it smooth you can blot away the dark streaks.

Wet your brush with clean water, shake off the excess or touch the brush on a paper towel to remove the excess water, and “clear water” paint onto a dark area you want to make lighter. Take your paper towel and blot that spot. Notice that it’s removed some of the paint! Continue until you have it as smooth as you like. Add more paint if it becomes too light – back and forth.

Now pencil in and shade the woman’s features (or paint it if you’d like)!

Just keep practicing and you will get better. I’ll give you other lessons to practice, some easier, some more challenging. It’s nice to look at a photo also, so you can actually see how the sun shines down on the subject you are painting.


  1. Patrick Ferguson says

    I have learned more tips and trick from the site than many others. I had strictly been an acrylics and airbrush painter. I most recently got into water colors and it quite a change from using acrylics.
    I was first frustrated with water colors until using creative spotlite.
    Doc Ferguson

  2. Maria says

    The carbon transfer you demonstrate is ingenius! I love it. The simplicity of the entire lesson is great. I am very impressed with the whole thing. I hope to see more from you. I just started with this site and I’m very happy with all I have viewed so far. Thanks!

  3. Marjan says

    You are indeed a professional artist. I thought I was able to paint a little, but I realise I have to get back to lesson one. I found your site via Idrawandpaint. If you go there, and are interested to see and critice my work, I am signed in with the name Marjan.
    I will follow your instructions. Thanks.

  4. Armando S. Valdes says

    Tried the lesson. I would appreciate it greatly if you could guide me. The main problem was softening the hard edges. I have always found this difficult! (1) What happens when I do it is that the underlying paint (i.e. the orange) gets absorbed, and what is left is the softer edge but with a ‘whitish’ border, lighter than the orange (as the white of the paper shows through). (2) Also, it appears ‘blotchy’ (i.e. not a smooth, gradual transition, but has a granulated texture). Any suggestions? Thank you in advance.

  5. maria says

    THis is a very well done demo. If all would be like this most poeple would not feel frustrated painting and make progress.

    THis is a very well done demo. Thank you for sharing and good congratulations for to have been featured.


  6. sandhya bodas says

    Thanks!! This is very useful demo for learners like me with some very useful tips. I would definitely like to try this one out.

  7. Maxine Green says

    This is great! I’ve been searching for something to really explain how to do shading and how to use complementary colors. This was SO useful and clear. And that carbon-transfer technique is great, too! Thanks so much.

  8. says

    Love, love your demo! I am so glad I took a look at this. I have not painted for quite a while and to use a compliment to make a color darker for a shadow, great! It is in my head forever now because of how you explained it. Thank you so much.

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