Tips on Painting White in Watercolor from a Master

I am so excited to share these shots I took at the John Singer Sargent exhibit at the MFA in Boston. I was thrilled they let us use no-flash photography so I could use his work to help illustrate the answers to some questions I get from students.


First of all, I wanted to show you how Sargent addressed  white in his paintings. Painting white is one of my very favorite things to do because most of the time, white is not really white! In the first two paintings, he used the white of the paper along with varying shades of purple, blue and gray to indicate shadows on white. This is how he could display the architecture of a building and the stunning white laundry. Who knew laundry could be so captivating? You will see that the light washes of cool color make the white of the paper sparkle with highlight. Tip: Use color when painting white!

In the painting below, he painted a dark charcoal gray background, making the white petals of the flowers stand out. Sargent was known for using what we call Chinese White, which is an opaque paint that can be painted on top of darker colors for highlight. If you look closely at the top flowers and the sparkly white spots, he could also have used wax resist. Using a white wax candle or white type of crayon makes the darker paint resist adhering to the paper leaving it white. I believe that is the technique he may have used on these gorgeous branches. Tip: Try wax resist when painting white!


I chose to include the bottom piece of the man napping for two reasons. First, to demonstrate how Sargent handled the white sheets. You can see shadows of indentation where the sleeper is lying on the sheets in light purple, but Sargent also includes some light browns making the painting cohesive. Secondly, I wanted to point out that John Singer Sargent is a master painter and he left the pencil lines in his paintings! I know this bothers some students when they do a drawing on their paper and then realize that once you paint over the pencil marks, they often cannot be erased and are still visible. This masterpiece should help put the matter to rest. It is all a part of the medium of watercolor and loose and effortless pencil lines can even be a compelling part of the composition. Tip: Don’t sweat pencil lines!

Want to learn more tips like these? Join me in my next Watercolor 101 session in May!

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