Watercolor Techniques For Creating Children's Book Illustrations by Lorraine Watry

I’ve started to get a system for producing the watercolor paintings for the children’s book, “For I Am Yours” by author Pauline Hawkins. I have all the drawings for the 17 illustrations ready. As I start to finish up a painting that I am working on, I will use my light table and transfer a few more drawings to my watercolor paper. I work on Arches, 140 lb. cold press, watercolor paper. After I have transferred the drawing to the watercolor paper, I stretch my paper onto gator foam boards. You can see my Youtube video about the process at this link: How to Stretch Watercolor Paper and Transfer a Drawing.

Creating A Value Sketch For A Watercolor

In the image above, I have transferred the drawing, stretched my paper, and begun the painting. I also scanned my drawings and made small copies of them to create a value sketch (seen at the top of this image). These value sketches will help remind me where my light is coming from for the watercolor illustrations. I am working with minimal photo resources and making up most of the scene. So, I have to chose the direction of my light source and taking the time to create the value studies is important to help get the light and the composition right.

Adding Layers To A Watercolor

I started these two pages by painting the first layers of color on sections of the painting. At this stage, I am working with the lightest value of the color in each of the shapes. In a few areas of the illustration at the right, I have started to add some shading. I use water on the edges of these shadows to soften them into the lighter area because the light on the subject is indirect light from a window or room light.

The second image shows the baby taking the blanket outside with her. I started this painting by wetting the grass background and then applying color. I wanted there to be a variety of greens in the grass. After the grass dried, I added the leaves of the tree branches by spritzing some water in that area and then painting random leaf shapes over and around the water drops. Some areas will have soft edges due to the water. Then I added the first layers on the sandbox, blanket, her skin and pants.

Now that I have a basic idea of how the colors and composition are working, I can begin to add more layers. The next steps show this process.

Focusing On One Illustration

After I have the beginning stages on both of the illustrations, I usually get interested in one of them and start working on it solely. In this case, The baby pulling the blanket outside, caught my attention. I knew what colors I wanted to use in this illustration. I used a paint called Tiger’s Eye Genuine for the sandbox because it is very granular and would automatically give me the look of sand. I mixed it with some ultramarine blue in a few places for the shadows. I believe the leaves on the tree were done with mixes of Sap Green and Ultramarine blue, some Green Apatite Genuine, or some Serpentine Green.

I added the shadows last over the top of the other colors. Whenever I create shadows in watercolor, I lay them over the base color, like the grass, the stepping stones, or the blanket. I want the base color to effect the look of the shadow. I also don’t want my shadows too dark or they can look like black holes. In this case I used Ultramarine Blue and Pyrrol Scarlet (a warm red) to create a neutral or muted purple shadow color.

Deciding on a Color

When I went back to the first painting, where the baby is reaching out for the blanket, I had a hard time deciding what color I wanted mom’s clothes to be. I could have done a small color study beforehand or in this case I used some clear acetate that works with wet media like watercolor to get an idea of my colors. In the image at the right, I have laid the acetate over the painting and then painted with my watercolor right on top of the acetate to get an idea of the color I might use. (Sorry about the bright highlights. Those are my desk lights reflecting in the acetate.) I chose to go with the gray tones in mom’s outfit because there were a lot of bright colors in the rest of the scene. I felt there needed to be some neutral colors to counter balance the bright colors.

Finishing the Illustrations

I kept adding layers to both illustrations. When I didn’t know where to go with one or I was waiting for the paint to dry, I would work on the other one. I added more glazes to both to deepen the colors. I used the same color or a mix to add depth. I also added some more shadows to the outside scene and used a little Indigo on the inside scene to shadow the corners. Shading the corners helps keep the viewers eye focused on the center of the illustration.

These were now complete enough to move onto the next illustrations. I will often leave the recently completed paintings on my board for a few days to make sure I don’t see anything else that needs adjusting. I will be continuing to blog about this process if you would like to follow along.

Not All Watercolor Paper Is Created Equal

As a watercolor instructor I ask my students to purchase the professional grade watercolor paper rather than student grade because the surface can really make a difference when painting with watercolor.

Professional grade watercolor papers are made with 100% cotton fibers as compared to student grade papers that are often made with wood pulp or a blend of synthetic and wood pulp fibers. Professional, 100 % cotton papers are acid free and free from impurities that can damage the paper over time. Wood pulp papers do not have all of the acidity removed and contain natural impurities that can cause the paper to yellow, age, and break down over time.


Yes, student grade watercolor paper can cost less and there is a perception that they are just students, so they don’t need to spend more and get the professional paper. Even if the student doesn’t care if their early works survive, the problem with the student grade paper is that it doesn’t work the same way with watercolor as the professional paper does. Therefore, the money they put out for the student grade paper is a waste because they are not going to have a good experience when trying to learn watercolor techniques.

One of the issues I have noticed is that student grade paper can dry faster. So, when I show them how to do a smooth glaze on my professional grade paper and they try to replicate it on student grade paper, they often end up with the brush strokes drying too quickly and that will leave lines and banding.

Another issue is that there is a different amount of sizing in student grade paper that can lead to the watercolor behaving poorly. The professional grade papers have sizing and different brands use different amounts and kinds of sizing. With the student grade, wood pulp paper, the sizing is often over-done leading to the paper resisting the paint, the paint will bead up and run off, or if there is too little sizing the paper will be too absorbent and the color will look bland.

I have also noticed that the student grade paper tends to lead to more blooms and muddy colors. If the student is not seeing the same effect on their paper, so they tend to over work it by going back into the same area multiple times and this can cause blooms, muddy colors, or marred paper.

This brings me to my final point, the wood pulp paper can not handle the same techniques that most professional watercolor papers can. I use masking tape and masking fluid on my Arches - 100% cotton paper. However, these techniques do not work on the student grade, wood pulp papers. The masking tape and masking fluid will tear the surface upon removal. I also use a flat brush to lift color off of my paper and this technique can often scratch or tear the surface of the wood pulp paper. There are some professional grade papers that don’t handle these techniques as well as the Arches brand.

If you are new to watercolor, I would suggest buying the “Professional Grade” 100% cotton watercolor paper over the student grade, wood pulp paper. The process of learning watercolor can already be a bit daunting without adding another issue into the mix. A sheet of 22” x 30” watercolor paper can be torn up into smaller pieces and both the front and back of the paper can be used. So, if you are trying techniques, color mixing, or doing a painting, the backside is still usable because the paint will not seep through to the opposite side.

Technical information about watercolor paper:

  • Good “Professional” brand papers are: Arches, Fabriano, Jack Richeson, Kilimanjaro, Lanaquarelle, Saunders Waterford, Twinrocker, and more. (if you really want to learn about the technical aspects of these papers, look at www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/paper2.html. My favorite paper right now is Arches, but I also like Fabriano. Arches handles a lot of abuse, taping, masking, and scrubbing without issue.

  • Watercolor paper comes in standard weights: 90lb., 140lb., and 300lb. There are a couple of brands that have weights in between these or heavier. The weight refers to a ream (500 sheets) of 22”x30” paper. For example, a ream of 140lb. paper weighs 140lbs (US) or 300gsm (European). The weight I use most is 140lbs. I stretch my 140lb paper so that it doesn’t buckle when I am painting on it. (see my “How to Stretch Watercolor Paper” on Youtube). There is a little difference in how much the paint is absorbed between the different weights. Try them out to find the one you like best.

  • Three standard surfaces of watercolor paper - Hot Press, Cold Press, and Rough. Hot press is paper that has been pressed with heat to give the paper a smooth surface. Cold Press (or NOT “Hot Press” in Europe) is paper that has some texture. Rough is paper that has the most texture. I use Cold Press paper the most because it is sort of a middle of the road paper that can handle a lot of different watercolor techniques. I use Hot Press for ink and watercolor because the smooth surface works well with ink pens.