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How to Tone Watercolor Paper

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How to Tone Paper for Life Drawing

By Vladimir London

In the Life Drawing Academy videos, you will see several artworks done on colored background paper. You don't have to buy colored paper. It is easy to make your own. Knowing how to tone paper is especially helpful when you need some specific color that is not available on the market.

How to Tone Paper for Life Drawing - Life Drawing Academy

The best paper for the job is 100% cotton watercolor paper. There are several brands to choose from, and it is up to you what paper to use. Good quality paper is usually watermarked. It comes at a price, though. A full sheet of 300 GSM Cold-pressed watercolor paper is used here. I wet one side of it using a flat, soft brush.

When the water is absorbed and no puddles are left on the surface, the paper is ready to be stretched on a wooden board, which is about 2 centimeters thick and 4 centimeters smaller than the paper on every side.

There are several ways to stretch paper. Some advice is to start from the center, but I prefer doing it from the two corners of the longer side. This gives more precision.

A staple gun is used to fix paper to the board. First, I fix two corners, making sure the paper is stretched. Then, I put one staple in the center and then a couple of staples in between. Depending on the paper size, I might put more staples to close gaps. The distance between the staples should be about 5 to 7 centimeters. When one side is fixed, I turn the board around and work along its other long side. It is important to pull the paper gently but firmly to stretch it. Once again, I start from one corner, although starting from the center would be equally good. This time, I staple the paper to the board, going in one direction from one corner to the other. The short side is stretched starting from the center. The corners are folded and stapled as well. The remaining short side is also stretched starting from the center. Damp paper is easier to damage, so pulling it requires more care. In a way, stretching paper is very similar to stretching canvas.

Remember, I wet only one side of the paper. This side is facing the board. The side that is facing the table is dry and therefore can be in contact with the table without causing any damage. When the paper is properly stretched, I turn it over and let it dry overnight.

When the paper is fully dry, we can decide on a color. For toning, I will use watercolor paints. It is a good idea to make some color swatches using the same paper so you know how the color will look. Of course, you can use big flat brushes to apply paint, but I will show you how to tone large-size papers using much smaller brushes.

How to Tone Paper for Life Drawing - Life Drawing Academy

First, mix a sufficient amount of watercolor of your chosen color. Tilt the board so it is about 15 degrees from the horizontal position.

Then, with a fully loaded brush, apply the first strip of paint at the very top. Make sure there is enough water, which flows down and creates a bead along the whole stripe. Then, using short diagonal brushstrokes, go along that line.

Load the brush as soon as the water runs out. Keep an eye on the bead. Repeat stripes of diagonal strokes, one after another. Overlap about 50% of the previous stroke with the new one. Because the board is tilted slightly and the strokes are diagonal, gravity does the job of mixing brushstrokes, so water flows from one stroke to another, making a smooth, wet layer of paint.

There are a few rules to keep in mind:
  • Have plenty of paint mixed to cover the entire sheet of paper. If you run out of paint in the middle of the job, you will end up with harsh line between mixes.
  • Do not pause in the middle of the job. Every sequential stripe of brushstrokes should be applied promptly while the previous one is still wet. Any delays might result in visible brushstrokes.
  • Do not touch the wet area above with the brush; just keep going. Any mistakes and irregularities in tone have to be fixed later. Repainting the wet surface will only make things worse.
  • Do not miss spots. If you miss one in previous stripes, leave it alone. When the layer is dry, you may go back and carefully fill it with a small brush.
  • Ensure that you work with constant speed. Any faster and slower runs will end up as lighter and darker stripes.
  • Make sure there is a bead of water at the end of each brushstroke. If you end a stroke dry, you will have trouble mixing it with the next one.
  • Make sure the tilt of the board is just right. A shallow tilt might not be sufficient for paint to flow downward, and a greater tilt might end up with paint running uncontrollably.

When the first layer of tint is fully dry, you can repeat the process once again. Do not attempt to do the next layer while the paper is wet or damp. This will end up in uncontrollable water runs. It is better to apply several layers of paint than to achieve the required tone in one go. Working in layers gives more control and results in a smoother tone. If you use watercolor, you need to know that it appears darker when wet. When a layer dries, it becomes up to 30% lighter depending on the paint and paper.

How to Tone Paper for Life Drawing - Life Drawing Academy

Here's another tip. When you come to the end of the board, load the brush with less paint—use water that collects in the bead. The last stripe or two, you may do with paint that is already on the board.

For the very last stripe, use a dry brush to collect excess water off the board so there is no bead left at the end. You may need to come back after a couple of minutes and collect any remaining drops of water for the layer to end in a smooth tone.

Needless to say, with such a technique, you can achieve any color of paper you want. I particularly love this method because when I draw on manually toned, 100% cotton paper, I can use a rubber eraser to erase watercolor paint to an almost white surface without damaging tough paper. This way I can achieve highlights on figures without using white pencils or paints.

[ The full lesson is avaibale to Life Drawing Academy members ]


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One-time payment: $297 USD

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Lifetime membership
One-time payment: $997 USD

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