I recently discovered a great trick that I'd like to share with all of you other watercolor artists. Let me start by saying that my watercolor paintings are bright and vivid. I really want my colors to pop and my figures to feel like they're coming off the paper. So in trying to achieve that look, I discovered that using black watercolor pigment really helps tremendously.
I've been an artist all my life, but mainly did sketching and drawing during my early years (black and white). When I was in college, I started to do my first paintings with color and began by using Photoshop to create digital paintings. When I was learning to paint digitally, using black to shade was a big no no. Even though my first instinct was to use black when shading, I read guides and tutorials that said to stay away from pure black. I quickly learned that using pure black or grey to shade in the digital medium, can oftentimes make the painting look very muddy and not vibrant. So, instead I learned to use dark blues, purples and greens to add shadows and shading. The only time I would use pure black is if I wanted something to be black like black hair or clothing.
So when I stopped using the digital medium and switched to watercolor, I used the same method for many years. I tried to use dark purples, greens and blues but I was never quite satisfied. I could never get my shadows dark enough for my liking. For a realistic, subtle type watercolor painting, I think those pigments would be perfect. But, for the style I was trying to achieve, I needed big contrasts between the highlights and the shadows.
I was working on a painting and got fed up with some shadow I was working on and decided to try black. I put a small amount of pure black pigment straight on my brush. I add just a teeny bit of water (since I work with pan watercolors, I need a touch of water to be able to paint - otherwise, I'd probably just use it straight out of a tube with no water). I also don't want it to be diluted, because otherwise it will be grey and not a nice black. Then I brushed it on the areas I wanted to be dark. Use a wet on dry technique for the best results. I added more water at that point to blend outwards.
I was amazed with the results! It was something so simple, but it really made such a difference. This may be old news to some of you, but it changed my paintings for the better. I think the trick is to use just a little bit here or there for areas you really want to be dark. Try not to overdo it, because there's definitely no going back. You can always add more, but you can't take away, so add gradually.
I would stay away from black for skin tone and stick to other colors to shade like blues, browns and purples. Save the black for clothing, background, objects, etc... Also, I learned a fantastic tip from a fellow fantasy artist Selena Fenech who suggested to use reds and pinks to shade skin tones. It's kind of counter intuitive, but using those colors especially around areas like elbows, fingers, noses, etc.. makes the skin tone much more realistic and a lot less muddy than if you use a lot of purple and blue.
Below, I will show pictures of my painting before I added black and after I added black.
In this photo you can see that I have most of the shading on the clothing done. Some may even call it finished at this point. But to me, even though there are nice variations from light to dark, it's still missing that certain something. It seems slightly flat and lifeless.
Then, in this photo, I added the pure black to the shadows. All of a sudden the colors come to life and the figure has a lot more dimension. I have placed arrows on the painting to show you some of the areas where I have used the black.
In the end, there's no right or wrong. You have to decide what colors are best for your style. But if you've struggled with making your watercolor paintings really pop, give black a try and let me know what you think!