Painting white with watercolour

One of the most difficult things about learning to paint with watercolour is how to represent white in your artwork. As the medium is heavily based on transparency, one of the best ways is by allowing the paper to shine through and represent the highlight areas of the painting. A quality paper like Arches or Canson will greatly enhance how this white will be seen by the viewer.

When using this method it’s helpful to focus on the tone that needs to be added to white through shades such as grey or cool blues to represent areas that appear white, but may not be a pure white. When defining white you can also focus on the area that will surround the highlight instead of the highlight itself. The negative areas can define the area that will represent the highlight, by providing an outline.

Ferrari watercolour painting

In the image above you can see there are some clearly defined highlights such as the reflections on the top of the side windows. These areas of pure white are defined by the darker area below, and also the lines of the window outline. The highlight on the car roof isn’t a pure white, and can be defined by using a light wash in the colour of the car duco.

Sometimes a painting may be too detailed or difficult to define using negative space. For example the highlights on the wheels of the car are very tiny areas, and it may be difficult to do this accurately. White gouache can be used sparingly on top of a darker painted area to give an extra highlight, and due to its opaque properties it won’t allow the painted area below to show through.


Masking fluid is another alternative that can be used in very detailed areas. You can apply the masking fluid directly onto the paper in the areas you want to mask out. The masking fluid will protect this area from the pigment, and can later be removed to reveal the white area underneath. Whichever method you choose will largely depend on your preference and painting style. Looser painting styles will most likely work best using the gouache method, and more detailed intricate work can work well with the masking fluid technique.

Another technique that is useful when thinking about highlights in your painting is the removal of pigment from the paper. This can be achieved in many different ways, and through experimentation you can find the best methods that work for you. In general it works best while the paint is still wet, and is just starting to dry. You can use material such as absorbent paper, tissue, a damp or dry brush. You can also use implements to scratch white highlights into the damp paper, or fingers to smear the paint. Be careful when applying these techniques, as a mistake can be difficult to fix later. Experimentation and practice will help you to get a good feel for using this technique and learn to apply it with confidence.

If you prefer not to remove paint from the paper, you can just work in reverse and build up the level of pigment using gradual washes and dilutions of colour. The paper, the amount of water, and the amount of pigment are largely what determines how much white will show, and also how wet the paper is. If this article has been helpful to you please share it or if you have any comments, just add them below.

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