Watercolor techniques

Watercolor painting – Techniques, use and expressions

Text and watercolors by Frits Ahlefeldt

Pure watercolors are considered one of the most poetic and hard to do of all the visual art forms. In its most basic form, using only transparent watercolors, brushes, water and paper, there is still a lot of things that can accomplished.

Watercolors can be made both very fast, for expressive sketches, or slow and precise for exact documentation – especially through history watercolors have been used to show technical and precise drawings of anything from botanical studies to the most complicated gigantic technical drawings of houses and steam engines.

Combining watercolors with either ink or pencil ( graphic tools) covers much of the foundation of the illustration, concept-sketching and visual storytelling styles used both throughout the world and history, from the earliest cave paintings to the digital revolution of today.  

Watercolor of an orangutan in a suit, artwork by Frits Ahlefeldt
My Watercolor tools – How my desk looks many of my workdays

For more than 30 years watercolors has been a very close friend of mine. Still learning new things about watercolors all the time and it is by far the most difficult drawing technique I have worked with so far. Watercolors are the tool I use on most workdays and in most of my stories, projects and also in most of my jobs ( often in connection with ink or pencil )

Here are some examples from my work with watercolors of used in different situations and for different results:

Five ways watercolors are used:

As illustrations in printed stories

Watercolor by Frits Ahlefeldt of Blue tribal elephant
Blue Tribal Elephant Blue Watercolor

Watercolors is one of the grand illustration techniques and using only watercolors without ink or pencil can give a very special feel to a book, from the most dreamy to an photo-like exactness

As a concept and design tool for architects and designers

Watercolor painting of an art exhibition
art museum sketch by Frits Ahlefeldt

I received much of my education in watercolor painting the many years I studied architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of fine arts. Watercolors was used in a lot of different connections from showing how the feel would be, to how light would fall through a window, or on location, doing detailed studies of houses or places. Architects used to paint watercolors in a lot of different context and situations. And many of the greatest buildings around us was presented, originally, as watercolor paintings to explain and show the concept and vision – ( That was before digital visualization, screens and 3D techniques took over this world)

In digital media

man standing among framed images
Framed stories in a digital context

A whole new role for watercolors are in digital screen based media, watercolors are one of the most beautiful visual tools you can use. The transparency of the watercolors, where light is reflected by the different layers of colors and from the white of the paper is a very good match for the way screens work, by making light come out and back to the viewer. It might be possible that watercolors can find a new role in digital media

As logbook notes

Watercolor of two kids watching fish, painting by Frits Ahlefeldt
Watching fish with my daughters –  Watercolor logbook

Watercolors are easy to carry, small and light and not explosive, so they can be used in many different places, in the landscapes, on the trails, in planes, on ships. They are great for diary and logbook notes, for research studies and for sitting down and relaxing. And watercolor painting can even be used for getting in contact with the locals, as watercolor painting a scene is much less intrusive than taking photos. All you need is a small box of watercolors, a piece of paper or notebook, a small jar of water and some brushes.

And your watercolored impressions, logs and notes will be much more personal and give events, stories and memories their own life.

As fine art

Collection animal in clothes A4 watercolor art prints by Frits Ahlefeldt

The popularity of watercolors as a fine art form come and goes, it had its peak in the end of the romantic period, just before photos came to the stage. Most artist have a high respect for the difficulty of mastering this expression, but few have done it to an almost impossible lightness. Today watercolors are priced much lower than oils and acrylics. And are considered one of the not so fine ( expensive) investments. often selling at half or lover price as a same sized oil or acrylic painting.

I have a collection of my watercolors for sale as fine art originals; see them here:

 FritsAhlefeldt.dk  – Watercolor Originals

Watercolors used in connection with pencil or ink

When combined with pencil, charcoal, ink or other drawing tools and techniques the expression of the watercolors can change a lot. Two examples are the classic concept sketch and the cartoon:

Classic Concept sketch – pencil and watercolor

Click image to see concept illustrations by Frits ahlefeldt
Click image to see my concept illustrations of innovation

Doing concept sketches can not only help one see the idea better, but can also be used to both understand existing designs or present new designs. This style is unique in it’s not so finished look, that helps people understand that it is really a sketch, and not a finalized design or product. Something that can be very important to help people get creative.


Drawing of a small backpacker bull, angry and walking
Angry bull walking illustration by Frits Ahlefeldt

When watercolors are combined with ink sketches you get a very different expression, one that is very easy to read, close to storytelling and most often used in both cartoons, in communication projects, reports and even in clip art. Combining watercolors and ink is a much faster and much easier thing to do. It is a technique where the ink does most of the work and the watercolors are mostly left to fill in the blanks

My collection of watercolor projects:

Elephant Tribal walking, by Frits Ahlefeldt
Walking Tribal Elephant – example from my watercolor elephant collection here ( click image to see my Watercolor elephant collection)

The other day I just realized that I have whole collections of watercolors all in the same style and made at a special time, in a project or connection with stories I wanted to tell for different purposes:  you can see some of them here on my collection of watercolor projects on my site right here:

Watercolor projects by Frits Ahlefeldt


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