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How To Paint a Watercolor Cover

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

In this tutorial you'll learn my step by step approach to painting a watercolor cover for the comic book Andraste.

This painting took about 4 days, spending 8-12 hours each day.

Tools And Materials

Before we get into it let me share the tools and materials I'll be working with in this tutorial. The paint on my palette is watercolor. I use a combination of brands but if you need one to start with W&N is a great choice.

The Mockup

Usually I start with some small thumbnail sketches for the client to choose from. These thumbnails are rough and just focus on composition. For this piece it was simple (the most complex part was the character's setting).

Once the thumbnail is drafted, I scan the sketch and open it in Photoshop. I use a combination of photos, 3D assets and tons of painting to create a collage of generally what I want the cover to look like. Sometimes this process alone can take a day.

I make sure most of the structural issues and value relationships between the colors are solved inside Photoshop. This is necessary because I do not like to go into a painting blind, unless it's personal work.

When the mockup is finished, I proceed to scale it to the surface area I'll be working with, then print it out ready for the transfer.

For the canvas I use a pre-primed Aquabord then use Absorbent ground to prime it again for the desired texture.

Next I transfer the mockup onto the canvas. The reason I prefer transferring the mockup instead of drafting it up straight onto the canvas, is because I have noticed some issues such as scratching from drawing and erasing which can damage the surface and later cause issues with the layering.

With that said, rarely is the transfer perfect, so I usually go in afterwards with touch ups and cautiously add the subtler details to the piece without being too overkill. The drawing is the backbone of a painting so it’s got to be treated with same degree of care.

Painting The First Layer

For this first step I'll use my oval mop brush and 12 round to establish a base coat for the background. I like to start my layers light and build them up over time. It is easier to control the values this way.

My palette is comprised of cool primary and warm secondary colors. Having a warm and cool palette helps control the temperature of the color scheme as the painting is being developed.

The light colors tend to shift in tone. Sometimes this can create an eyesore in the piece, so it's best to maintain an even balance between hard color shifts. This is especially important for capturing realistic light as it projects through the atmosphere and reflects off of objects and materials within the scene.

Painting The Second Layer

The surface of the canvas takes the most abuse as the second layer is painted on. I repeatedly remove and apply paint to capture a convincing water effect for the ocean.

Completing the background first is important especially with a scenic piece. The further back the landscape recedes, the less detail we see. Colors and values are also adjusted to enhance the level of depth within the scene. This requires control over your palette, and an understanding of how the colors within it complement each other.

Over the horizon line, I glaze the surface with a neutral white that's diluted with water. I work very carefully and make sure a minimal amount of pressure is used. Glazing is done with an airbrush specifically because being too harsh with a regular brush could cause the layers underneath to reactivate and lift.

Once most of the background is wrapped up, I begin working on the figure.

Highlights And Textures

Here is a little more about the “abuse” I referred to above. The image below shows a technique I stumbled across by accident, but it happens to work surprisingly well. I’m not going to say I am the first to do it but I certainly haven’t see anyone else do it.

Using the airbrush I fill my top feed with water, lower the pressure to about 10-15 psi and spray over the area to reactivate certain parts where I need to push away the paint. This method helps to create highlights and textures.

The surface does have its limits and can only take so much pressure from the airbrush, but if you apply it carefully you can easily lift the colors, leaving very little stain from the pigment. It’s a fun but risky technique, and I look forward to seeing it applied by other artists. If you would like to see this method in action, I have some videos on my Instagram you can check out: @arielcolonart.

Painting The Third Layer

Now I'll fine tune the painting and add the final touch ups. At this stage I am only using my 2 liner and 10/0 liner alongside the airbrush. Her face is glazed with red before the structure is finalized, which involves making some anatomical adjustments.

I use the liner to add brighter highlights to the areas that were removed with the airbrush, punching out the lighter tones. Further adjustments are made to the atmosphere and water droplets are painted onto the figure.

After I feel the painting is finished, I'll put it down for a day. Taking a look at my work some time later with a set of fresh eyes helps me catch certain aspects about the painting that I might've missed.

Something I've learned from the other wonderful artists I've come across throughout my career is knowing what to tighten and what to leave loose. While some areas of the painting are barely rendered, the important focal points are extremely refined.

Painting Technique

One of the reasons I use liners at a later stage is because they help me control how much water is held by the brush. The less water used, the easier it is to control and apply paint to build up the layers. This allows each subsequent layer to dry faster thus getting the piece done faster. It's for this same reason I typically work small, because larger pieces take way too long.

In addition, using the airbrush helps lock in the underlying layers so when I apply paint over the top, it covers well.

All the techniques I've shared with you today will work well on wood or paper. I recommend Arches Watercolor Paper, 300 lb. Cold Pressed.

Final Thoughts

Thank you for taking the time to join me on this journey! Although I left quite a bit information on the table, I hope I’ve given you a general idea on how to approach a water color painted cover without too much confusion.

I look forward to revisiting this topic with you again sometime in the future, giving you more more insights on creating covers even sequential work.

Before I go let me share some artists that inspire me whether from books or in person:

Dan Thompson, Glen Orbik & Laurel Blechman, Steve Assel, Daniel R Horne, Alex Ross, Das Pastoras, Irvin Rodriguez, Esad Ribik, Mike Colon & Ray Sierra.

If you would like to find out more about Andraste and see the other covers I've created for the book you can find them here:

You can also follow my other artwork here:


Ariel J Colón

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