Watercolor Painting Exercise One: Lemon

For your first watercolor painting exercise, you’ll follow along with Beginner’s School instructor Christine Oliver as you paint a still life of a lemon!

Finished WC lemon painting

Here’s a list of the tutorial videos in order:

Part One: Palette And Sketch

Part Two: Initial Painting

Part Three: Adding Details

Part Four: Completing The Painting

Download this image here by right clicking and saving it to your computer, then print it out (if you have a printer available) for handy reference as you’re working on your painting.

Lemon 2

Before you begin painting, make sure you have a prepared piece of paper to work on. This means either a block of watercolor paper or a sheet that you have stretched so it doesn’t wrinkle when you add water to it. For a reminder on how to do this, see our Watercolor Paper and Other Surfaces lesson.

Also be sure to have two containers for water, your brushes, some paper towels or a rag (to wipe excess water from your brush), and a pencil and eraser for drawing your lemon onto your paper.

We recommend you watch the video completely for the part you are working on all the way through once without painting, then follow along the second time you watch. It’s also helpful to read our text all the way through before you try to paint along. To make the video full screen, click the box in the lower right hand corner:

full screen annotationExit full screen mode by clicking the same box again.

Don’t forget, you can pause any time you need by clicking on the two vertical lines, then restart by clicking on the triangle. When you begin following along, don’t expect to be perfect! This is your initial learning experience. If at any point the video is moving too quickly for you, remember you can always pause!

We expect that each part in this lesson will take up to two hours to complete, though this may vary from student to student depending on your individual pace. Take your time, don’t rush, and if you need to stop you can. If you have more than an hour to spare, then work as long as you feel comfortable!

Part One: Palette and Sketch

Don’t forget to set up your work space before you start painting. You’ll want your paper lifted up off the flat surface of your work table a bit, using either an angled box (see Locating And Setting Up Your Work Space: Watercolors)  or another sketchbook/book/other small item to set your paper at a slight angle. Set out your paints on your palette. At this point, you should have all the paints on our Recommendation List:

  • Quinacridone Rose
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Grumbacher Red
  • New Gamboge
  • Aureolin
  • Winsor Green (blue shade)
  • Cobalt Blue
  • Prussian Blue

Christine has these colors laid out on a small, round palette. The reason for this is that her normal palette she uses all the time has more colors than we recommend for beginners, so in order to keep things as simple as possible, she’s using an entirely new palette with only the Beginner’s School colors. She’s still using her usual palette to mix the colors because it has a broader surface area in which to do so. Of course, you can use this broader, white plastic palette on our Watercolor Recommendation List, if you purchased it, but if not, you can use whatever palette you choose.

When you begin painting, you can use a spray bottle with water to “mist” your paints so they get a little bit soft and easier to work with. This is a handy technique to use when your paints dry out too. If you need to leave your painting session for the day, you paints will dry on your palette–that’s okay! When you’re ready to start painting again, spritz them with a little water and they will reconstitute and you can use them again. This is unique to watercolor paints and can’t be done with acrylics or oils (once they dry, they can’t be used again).

Christine mixes her paints with an older brush so that she doesn’t damage the tips of her new brushes by using them to mix. If you don’t have an older brush yet, that’s fine–you will eventually! You can mix your paints with a brush you have and when the tip starts to dull, just buy another brush and keep the dull one for mixing and the new one for painting.


After explaining and showing us examples of the colors in her palette, Christine starts out her painting by making a value sketch of the reference photo. This is a good practice to get into regardless of your medium, but especially with watercolor since any white parts will be blank paper. If you add watercolor paint to an area that’s supposed to be white, you’ll have a hard time getting it back! Making a value sketch helps you figure out where your lights and darks are in the painting beforehand so you don’t make that mistake. You don’t need any fancy supplies for this part–just a piece of plain printer paper and a regular pencil. Any kind of pencil with a soft lead, from HB up to 6B, will work.

Start your value sketch after the first time you watch the video. You can continue to work on it while you watch the video for a second time as Christine is drawing her value sketch, or you can complete your value sketch before watching the video the second time, then skip ahead to around 10:00 when you’re ready to start painting.

Here’s Christine’s value sketch:

WC Lemon Value Sketch

You’ll notice on the left-hand side of her value sketch, there are several color swatches. Christine likes to check her paint color after she’s mixed it but before she applies it to her painting, and checks it on the side of her value sketch. She explains this in the beginning of the first video in this series.

If you need a refresher on value sketching, see our Value And Gesture lesson. After you’ve finished your value sketch, draw your lemon out on the piece of paper you will be painting on. This doesn’t need to be a very detailed drawing–only spend about 5-10 minutes on it. The most important part of this sketch is making sure everything is proportionate. Don’t worry about filling in shadows because you’ll do that with your paint. Keep your pencil lines faint and simple. After this point, you’ll be referencing the photo of the lemon more than the value sketch, but keep both handy in case you need a reminder of where your darks and lights are.

Make sure you have clean hands before you begin your painting. If you’ve gotten any graphite from your value sketch onto your hand, it can easily transfer onto your painting and smudge your clean surface.

After you’ve completed your value sketch, lightly draw out your composition on a clean sheet in your watercolor block (140-lb. cold press). You don’t need to add the values into this sketch–you’ll do that with paint later. These should just be very light guidelines so you know where to lay your paint. Keep the pencil lines very light so they don’t smudge when you add paint over the top of them. Later, once you have your painting nearly completed and the paint is completely dry, you can erase your pencil lines with a soft kneaded eraser, which you should have if you’ve completed the Drawing Course.

Christine gives a brief demonstration of each of the paint colors on the Recommendation List and mentions that water-to-pigment ratio is one of the most important things you can learn when painting with watercolors. Too much water and not enough pigment will create a pale painting with very little contrast or interest. Too much pigment and not enough water will make the paint look opaque and that negates the purpose of transparency, which is what is so beautiful in watercolors.


Part Two: Initial Painting

This video is a little longer than the last, so if you need to pause, a convenient spot is at 10:12 after she’s finished the wash on the tablecloth. Don’t worry, we’ll remind you in the video in case you forget!

In this video, Christine begins by putting in a graduated wash. She’s mixing opposite (or complementary) colors to make a neutral tone. Use a little Alizarin Crimson with about an equal amount of Winsor Green to create a nice neutral color. To make it less dark, add more water.

Christine puts in a wash of clear water in order to start a “wet-on-wet” technique. You don’t need a ton of water for this part–only enough to make the page glisten slightly. A few swipes with clean water should do the trick. Remember to have two containers of water at your workstation–one for dirty/rinsing water and the other for clean/painting water. Always rinse off your brush in the dirty water first then use the clean water to paint. You can continue using the dirty water to rinse your brush for the duration of the painting process, but if the clean water starts to look murky or has a hint of color in it, take a moment to empty it out and get fresh water. If you get too much water on your brush, dab the brush onto your rag or sponge to remove some of the excess water.

After she lays in the graduated wash in the background on the top part of the page, she starts to lay in the foreground color on the bottom part of the picture. To keep the two areas from mixing, she’s leaving a “hairline” of dryness between them. This doesn’t need to be thick–you just want a small area of dryness so that the paints of the background and foreground don’t mix together.

The color she’s mixing for the foreground (tabletop) is a violet. To get violet, she’s mixing Alizarin Crimson and Cobalt Blue. There isn’t an exact recipe for this violet–use your artistic license to mix a color you like, but do try to err on the blue side (not red side) of violet. Having a cooler violet (more blue) will cause it to recede and allow the warm yellow of the lemon to come forward. Because violet/purple is the complementary color of yellow, this will make the lemon really stand out by the time we’re finished with the painting!

Christine’s Four-Step Process to Painting:

Step One: Light Color Blocking (graduated washes in backgrounds, initial lemon layer with Aureolin and New Gamboge)

Step Two: Medium Tones + Textures

Step Three: Darker Tones

Step Four: Shadows

There may be some moments in which you need to let your paint dry before continuing. Depending on how much water you’ve used and the heat/humidity where you are, this could take 5-10 minutes. If you need to stop painting for the day, that’s fine. Your painting will be there when you come back, whether it’s in 30 minutes or 30 days. If you do stop for the day, make sure to do so at a logical point, for instance after you’ve finished the background wash. You wouldn’t want to stop in the middle of that because when you come back to your painting, the paint will be dry and you’ll have trouble 1) blending seamlessly into the dry paint and 2) mixing the same exact color again. So quit for the day when you’ve finished a section or object–not halfway.

Part Three: Adding Details

Again, because this video is a bit longer, you may want to pause around 9:55. We’ve put a reminder in the video too, just in case!

Christine wets her brush, but then blots it off. You don’t want too much water on your brush or paper because that can cause “blossoms” or “blooms” as Christine mentions in the video. Blossoms are rough edges that appear when wet paint is applied to paint that has already dried. The edges can be softened on these “blossoms” by applying clean water with a semi-dry brush and gently going over the rough edges to soften them.Here’s an example of a watercolor blossom:


In this video, Christine talks about shadows and how they are transparent–not opaque. For instance, if you were painting a landscape with grass and a bush or tree and there’s a shadow being cast from the bush or tree onto the grass, you are still able to see the grass in the shadow–it doesn’t disappear into a black hole. That’s because the shadow is transparent. Remember this when you’re painting in shadows–they’re not opaque nor are they black! Very often, shadows are violet, blue, or purple–the opposite (or complement) of “sun color”, which is essentially yellow.

When adding more color into the lemons, you may find that you’ve gotten too much paint or too strong of a color laid down. If that happens, you can do as Christine says and “lift up” paint by using a relatively dry brush. By having a relatively dry brush, the bristles are “thirsty” and will soak up any wet pigment they come in contact with. So if you accidentally add too much red to your lemon and it’s starting to look like an orange, don’t fret–just lift up some of the still-wet paint with your brush and that should help. Alternatively, you can also use a tissue to blot up some of the wet pigment. We suggest using a facial tissue or Kleenex in order to avoid transferring the texture of a paper towel onto your painting.


When adding shadows onto the sliced lemon, Christine mentions that this works because of capillary action. What this means is that because the paper is porous and sitting at an angle, the shadow color applied to the still wet lemon will draw itself downwards without the help of a brush–it will naturally flow downwards and blend into the rest of the paint.

Christine is now going to start adding in what she refers to as “my mediums and my darks” and by this, she is talking about her mid-tone values and shadows. This is step 2 in Christine’s Four-Part Process!

There’s a lot going on with shadows and reflected light in this video. If you need a refresher course on these terms and how to use them successfully in your painting, see our Drawing Lesson, Value And Mass.

Once you’re ready to add the shadow underneath the lemons, you may find that it’s difficult to see your initial drawing. If you like, wait until your paper is dry then go back in with your pencil and redraw where your shadows are. These are to be very light pencil marks, only serving as a guide for where to lay down your paint–the pencil is not creating the shadow. Christine mentions in the video that she usually works on several paintings at once so that way she has something to work on while waiting for one painting to dry. If you need something to do while waiting for your painting to dry, read through the lesson text or make a drawing. We don’t expect you to work on more than one painting at a time!

Because watercolor is transparent, it’s best to work in layers. You may find that your initial shadows have dried lighter than they should be and that’s perfectly normal. Continue layering your colors until you’re satisfied with the values and colors. Christine notes that you can build up about four layers with your paint before it starts to get “dirty” or “muddy” (meaning not pure color, but a color that is getting messy because you’ve added too much to it).


Part Four: Completing The Painting

In the final video, you’ll be working towards completing your first painting! Congratulations–you’re almost there!

Christine is working on softening some of the edges in the painting, making sure they blend nicely and there are no hard edges. To do this, she’s using a clean brush with clean water on it to “move around the pigments”. This just means that by using the clean water on the brush, she’s reactivating the dry paints in her painting, thereby enabling them to move around and blend together more easily.

When she goes to put in the texture of the lemon peel, she dabs some paint on with her brush then touches the paint with the tip of her finger to create a little more texture. You can use your fingers to paint–nothing bad will happen! Your fingers obviously have a very different texture than brushes and because your finger isn’t as porous as the brush, you’ll be able to create texture in the paint without lifting it up and removing it like a brush would. If you’re not sure of this technique, you can take another small piece of paper and experiment with it first before trying it on your painting.

To make the segments (triangles of lemon flesh) stand out a bit more, Christine is using a little bit of violet mixed with her Aureolin/New Gamboge mixture to make a deeper shade of yellow. Then, she paints in little lines from the outside rim of the lemon towards the center to add some interesting details here.

About halfway through the video, Christine goes back into her shadows and makes them darker. She’s doing this by mixing another cool violet with her Alizarin Crimson and Cobalt Blue, again erring on the side of more blue to make it a cool violet (shadows are always cool in temperature). The shadows should be applied to your dry painting so that the shadows don’t bleed into other colors. You’ll notice that she switches paintbrushes during this process. That’s because she realized she was using her color mixing brush (with a blunt tip) to paint with. Mistakes are a natural part of the painting process. Remember that you’ll use one blunt tipped brush to mix so you don’t ruin your good brushes by mashing them around in your palette mixing colors together. To paint with, you want a good brush with a sharp tip so you have better control over where the paint goes.

Christine adds the darker shadows under her lemons to make them “pop off a little bit”. What she means by this is that, by adding in that dark, complementary color, it makes her lemons seem to stand out more.

After you’ve added in your darker shadow layers, check and see if there are any other areas that need retouching or enhancing, If not, you’re done! At this point, Christine mentions that after she finishes a painting, she props it up somewhere in her house so she can look at it for a few days. This is a necessary part of the artistic process. Sometimes when you’re painting, you’re too involved in what you’re doing to see it with “fresh eyes” so it’s good to leave it alone and walk away from it for a bit. Look at it in your house for the next few days and see if there is anything you’d like to change. Sometimes you’ll notice after a day or two that you need to darken a shadow a bit more or that your lemon has a flat spot. You can always go back to your painting in a few days or a week or a month and retouch any spots you feel need some attention.

Once you’ve lived with the painting for a while and have decided you’ve done all you can do, sign your name in the lower corner! And of course, send us a photo–we’d love to see how you did!


Next exercise: Watercolor Painting Exercise Two: Flower

  1. January 21, 2020

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