Techniques and Tips

Starting With a Midtone

Starting With a Midtone

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By Soon Y. Warren

This is an excerpt from Judith Fairly’s full feature article “A View From the Garden” in Magazine (November 2013). Click here to read the full issue, or click here to subscribe.

I find that starting with the midtones simplifies my painting process. This works especially well when the details are darker than the background, as in Koi Pond­—Yellow Leaves.

1. Select and assess reference: I liked this photo that I took of a koi pond with a reflection of the sky and surrounding trees; however, I felt the elements, particularly the leaves, were spread too evenly in the photo.

2. Crop photo to create focal point: I decided to draw the viewer’s eyes to two yellow leaves in the bottom right corner. Those particular leaves don’t fight with the other elements, and they create a good center of interest.

3. Create drawing and apply midvalue wash: On my watercolor paper, I drew pencil lines (barely visible) of the larger reflection, plus the koi and some of the pine needles and leaves floating on the water. I then used an old brush with a slanted tip to apply masking fluid over the shapes of the pine needles and leaves (the masking fluid is yellow). Then, after moistening the paper, I applied a midvalue wash of cerulean blue (lighter area in the upper portion of the painting) and ultramarine blue (darker area in the lower portion) over the entire surface with a 2-inch hake brush. After this first wash dried, I masked some “wiggle lines” on the top left side of the painting to preserve the lighter blue. Masking allowed me to apply the midvalue wash with smooth, free strokes, brushing right over the masked areas that I wanted to preserve for the white of the paper or lighter colors.

4. Begin darker colors: To get the overall feeling of the water’s midvalue color, I layered another wash over the entire surface with cerulean blue at the top and ultramarine blue at the bottom. After this wash was completely dry, I applied colors to some of the darker elements: Hooker’s green for the green reflection, scarlet lake for the underwater koi, Prussian blue for the tree reflection, and burnt sienna for some in-between areas. From this point on, I used various sizes of round brushes.

5. Add wash and develop darks: Before moving forward with the details, I washed the entire painting with a mixture of permanent alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue in order to give an overall light lavender cast to the painting. After letting the painting dry, I began layering colors on the elements, letting each layer dry before applying the next and paying attention to the way the reflections dissipate as they move toward the foreground. My colors included scarlet lake for the koi; a mixture of Hooker’s green and sepia for the dark green reflection of the tree; and cadmium yellow, aureolin, and burnt sienna for the tree reflection as it transitions to a lighter hue. I drew the smooth lines of the tree-branch reflections with a diluted mixture of Prussian blue and a hint of permanent alizarin crimson. Once these lighter reflection lines had dried, I started layering on a darker, less diluted mixture of blue.

6. Remove mask and address lights: I continued working on the branch reflections, using a mixture of indigo, sepia, and Hooker’s green for the darkest lines. After completing these details, I removed the masking fluid and then painted the leaves and pine needles, most of which included the lightest values of the painting. For the yellow leaves, I applied aureolin in the lighter areas and cadmium yellow for the darker accents. For the maple leaves, I applied permanent magenta, leaving some white spots of the unpainted paper for highlights. With a light mixture of burnt sienna and permanent alizarin crimson, I painted the pine needles. Koi Pond—Yellow Leaves is detailed and appears tightly painted, but because I preserved the light-valued areas with masking fluid and began layering with the midvalues, adding dark details and retaining highlights was easy.

Post-Painting Tip

To flatten a finished watercolor painting, Warren sprays a fine mist of water on the back of the paper and then places a sheet of plexiglass over it. She weighs down the paper and plexiglass with a heavy stack of books, and then lets the paper dry for a few days.

Meet Soon Y. Warren
Soon Y. Warren is a full-time artist and teacher. She has an associate degree in commercial art from Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Virginia, and is a signature member of the National Watercolor Society (NWS), American Watercolor Society (AWS), Southern Watercolor Society (SW), Texas Watercolor Society (TWS), and Society of Watercolor Artists (SWA). Her work has earned numerous awards, including Best of Show and People’s Choice Award (SWA); Purchase Award (NWS); and Best of Show, Merit Award, and Patron Purchase Award (Kansas Watercolor Society). Warren has published two North Light books on watercolor painting techniques: Vibrant Flowers in Watercolor (2006) and Painting Vibrant Watercolors: Discover the Magic of Light, Color and Contrast (2011), both available at bookstores and online at She’s represented by several galleries in her home state of Texas: Your Private Collection Art Gallery (Granbury); Southwest Gallery (Dallas); and Weiler House Fine Art Gallery (Fort Worth). Visit her website at


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Watch the video: Midtone Luminosity Masks (July 2022).


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