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The 5 D’s: A Framework for Watercolor Painting

5d watercolor


Watercolor painting can seem daunting to those just starting out or trying to improve their skills. But following the 5 D’s provides a helpful structure for tackling watercolor projects with confidence. Let’s break down what each “D” entails in more detail.

The first “D” stands for “Decide.” Before starting a new watercolor piece, decide on your subject matter. Not all scenes and subjects are easy to portray in watercolor.  Will you paint a landscape, portrait, still life? 

The second “D” is for “Design.” Now you can dive into designing your piece and planning out details of the composition. Start with light pencil lines mapping out the key elements. Play around with what looks best in terms of balance and spacing. You’re setting the foundation that the rest of the painting will be built upon. Don’t rush this step, as a thoughtful design leads to better results.  Decide if you’d like the focal point to be centered or follow the rule of thirds. Sketch some quick thumbnail options to decide what you’d like to paint. Having a clear vision first makes the rest of the process much smoother.

Time for the fun part – daubing on that first layer of color! The third “D” stands for “Daub” which refers to broadly filling in different sections with a wash of paint. Let the water do most of the work in gently dispersing and blending the pigments. The daubing stage is meant to cover the white of the paper with an underpainting that subsequent layers will be added to. Don’t aim for precision here – big and loose is best!  Generally use your biggest brush for this stage.

Now you’re ready for the fourth “D” – “Darks.” To build form and make certain elements recede or advance, begin adding darker values with another layer of brush strokes. Define shadows and points of contrast that make a composition pop. Be bolder and target the most prominent contours and lines, letting previous washes show through for midtones. This stage starts bringing depth and dimension to the piece.  This stage requires some more careful painting and use a brush with a good point and a good edge.  Talking of edges, this is where we want to try and get a range of different 'hard' and 'soft' edges.

Last but not least is the “Details” stage, our final “D.” To put the finishing touches on your watercolor project, gently layer on precise thin lines, small dabs of color, heightened highlights and subtle textures with a small brush and concentrated mixes of paint. Step back frequently to assess what needs to be softened, lightened or lost altogether. The details should enhance, not overwhelm the focal point, and unify the piece as whole.  Time to use your smaller brushes!

The 5 D’s give watercolor artists of all skill levels a helpful blueprint. Try applying this sequence as you tackle your next piece. Decide, Design, Daub, Darks and Details – with practice you’ll discover just how manageable and magical watercolors can be!


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