How to Paint a Mountain Scene in Watercolor

By braniac
Mountain Scene by Robert A. Sloan

Painting a mountain scene in watercolor can be challenging. A failed flat wash is an invitation to lift soft clouds out of a smooth blue sky. Masking fluid creates snow-capped mountains that show atmospheric perspective. Shadowing and detailing with a pointed round brush completes this magnificent mountain scene.

Watercolor supplies for Flat Wash project

Organize all of your supplies and prepare your paper. Tube paints are easier to use for large flat washes, because you don't have to pick up paint out of the pan repeatedly. I found it easier to do flat washes on small paintings than large ones, so I recommend a watercolor block that's 4" x 6" or 5" x 7" for experiments.

If you don't have a watercolor block that size or close, cut a loose sheet of watercolor paper 4 1/2" x 6 1/2" and mark off a 4" x 6" area on it. This will let you do a 4" x 6" artwork with a little extra room on it for matting. Mark the edges of your painting area and tape the loose paper to your drawing board with artist's tape.

Horizon line masked with blue masking fluid

Decide which way you want your painting to hang, vertical or horizontal. The top is going to be flat blue sky, lots of sky for a big flat wash. Your horizon line can be mostly flat, or it can be very jagged to put some distant mountains in. I like the idea of distant mountains, so I'll use masking fluid to create a mountain ridge.

Masking fluid is a whitish or blue or yellow gummy liquid used to draw on watercolor paper. Choose a brand that has an applicator tip on the bottle or use a cheap brush to paint it on. Draw a line of masking fluid across your paper to make the horizon line. You can draw with the fluid and avoid having a pencil line show on your painting. Using the applicator tip or a cheap brush, paint a ragged up and down line about a third of the way down the painting to create a mountainous horizon. Be sure that line is continuous without any gaps.

Let the masking fluid dry completely before doing anything else. Wash the cheap brush you used for masking fluid immediately using a good brush cleaner/conditioner. Get all of the masking fluid out of the hairs carefully. It can be used more than once if you clean it every time.

Sky wash dry, snow masked on mountains

Mix more blue wash than you think you'll need to cover the area above the horizon line. For a small block like this, that would be about three tablespoons of water and enough paint to make it good and strong. I put in a squirt of paint about 3/8" wide before adding the water. Mix thoroughly using an inexpensive brush (not the same one you used for masking fluid).

I used Pthalo Blue Green Shade. You can use any blue you like.

Make it darker than you want the sky to come out, because it will dry lighter than it looks wet. Also, we will wet the block before adding the wash, so it's going to be diluted by the water that's already on the block. Test your wash on a dry bit of white paper like the inside of the watercolor block. If it's a little too light, add more paint. I added another 1/8" long squirt of paint, using the brush to take it off the tip of the tube. As you see your test swatches dry, you can see how the paint dries lighter than it looks in the bowl.

Use one bowl of water for washing brushes, the other for putting clean water into paint to make washes. That's why there are two bowls of water. The larger they are, the cleaner the washing-up water will stay.

Wet the sky area of the block with clean water using the 3/4" wash brush. Try to get it evenly damp all over. Working quickly, repeat the process with long smooth overlapping strokes with the blue wash. Don't stop, don't hesitate, just paint back and forth till it's down. Now let it dry on a perfectly flat surface.

If your flat wash does not dry entirely flat, accept that watercolor is a quirky medium that does what it wants. I've been practicing this for some time and I still don't always get perfect flat washes. If you want clouds in the sky, it's very easy to lift them out later by dampening just the cloud area and blotting it up with a soft cloth or facial tissue. This is one of my favorite fixes for not-so-flat sky washes.

Let the paint dry thoroughly before going to the next step. Don't throw out the blue wash. You can tell it's completely dry when the paper lays perfectly flat on the block again. It may still be damp but dry to the touch if it's still puffy.

Add some more masking fluid to draw bits of snow down into the valleys on the mountains. We can use reserved white for white snow on this painting. Add another line of peaks and sketch in snow coming down more on the left side than the right -- snow always accumulates more on the less sunny side of peaks.

Mountain base colors painted in, snow still masked.

Because we still have plenty of Pthalo Blue (Green Shade) wash left, let's mix a purple darker than the sky by adding Permanent Rose. Put a little of the blue wash into a palette cup and add the rose color. Rose colors mix much better purples than red. If you don't have a rose color, use Alizarin Crimson and a warmer (more purple) blue like Ultramarine for the mixed wash.

Paint in the background peaks, stopping short of the foreground peaks, this is why the snow ridge isolates them completely. Use the #4 round brush to do this area or a much smaller flat wash brush like 1/4" flat. Move the paint around a little to get it spread evenly into the area and work wet over dry for the mountains. They should be darker than the sky. Drop paint into any little holes that are completely encircled by masking fluid from the snow areas. Sometimes crags do poke through the snowcaps on peaks.

Mix a little more Permanent Rose into the foreground mixture, and maybe brown it a little with Burnt Sienna so the rocks are less blued than the purple mountains. Now let the washes on both layers of mountains dry completely flat before doing anything else.

Don't clean out the palette or empty any colors until we're entirely done. Have patience and let the paint dry. The front row of mountains is a purplish brown, the distant mountains distinctly purple. They'll look very cool when the masking fluid is removed and the snow is white rather than turquoise.

Right now it looks like weird sherbet flavors with a blue-green candy coating.

Mountain scene with masking fluid removed

Carefully remove all the masking fluid with the rubber cement pickup. Be gentle. Remove the smallest areas of dried masking fluid first.

If the paper tears under any of the snow patches, do not paint over the torn part. Just leave it there to be part of the snow texture. If it starts tearing, pull away the rubber cement remover and start working toward the tear from the opposite direction so as not to make it worse. Work inward on large areas from the edges to reduce any tearing, and be gentle.

This is so dramatic it deserves to be a step by itself. Tearing and cutting paper to create sparkling white highlights is a legitimate watercolor technique, most commonly used for sparkles on water. Since it's on snow, when it happens accidentally it's not a problem as long as we paint around it. Use your mistakes, treat them as serendipity.

Mountain scene with clouds shaped and created by lifting

Now we are going to create some clouds in the naturally light areas of the sky wash, since they fall into an interesting arrangement anyway. Paint some clean water onto the areas that look lightest with your clean sky-wash 3/4" wash brush. Blot it up fast with facial tissues. Repeat if it didn't come up light enough for contrast.

Use gentle circular strokes laying the brush at an angle so it's almost flat to the surface of the painting. Lift some areas more than others so that the lifted clouds fade out into the soft blue sky. You can turn the brush on its chisel edge to sweep some narrow little cirrus clouds into the sky too just to vary them. Always blot immediately and push the blotting paper toward the cloud so that you break up any darker edges where paint migrates to the edge of water. If you get those, lift a slightly larger area and push the water toward the middle while picking it up.

Place your clouds wherever the paint happened to be lightest, or where you want them. Cloud shapes are unique and change moment to moment.

Let the lifted areas dry, this shouldn't take as long since you removed most of the water from your clouds by blotting. Your mountain scene is ready for detailing, from grooves in the mountain furrows to soft shadows on the snow.

Mountain Scene by Robert A. Sloan

Mix some of the purple from the background mountain ridge with some of the remaining blue sky wash for a purplish blue midway between them. More purplish than the sky, but bluer than the mountains. Shadow the snow, and carry the shadow color down into the gullies and furrows on the shadow side of the mountains.

Atmospheric perspective creates depth because things get bluer as they recede into the distance. When this layer is completely dry, use some of the now much darker foreground mountain color to create deep darks in the background mountains. Use a thick solution of it to delicately paint one soaring broad-winged eagle in the distance, high above everything.

Look closely at the shape of the little eagle--unlike seagulls, in silhouette their wings are much broader and you can see the head slightly, plus the fanned tail. Use the very tip of the round brush to paint the eagle. Soften the bright whites on the background mountains with the purple-blue water you've been washing your brush in, if that isn't strong enough for an effect, use that with just a touch of shadow blue-purple. It should be barely perceptible, but sharper contrasts on the nearer mountains is more realistic.

Sign it using the darkest foreground mountain color down in one of the shadows where it's distinct but unobtrusive. Let it dry completely and take pride in a beautiful mountain scene painted half by you and half by serendipity. Watercolor goes where it wants to. Guiding it rather than fighting it produces the best results.

Tip

With pan watercolors, rinse your brush before picking up the next color out of another pan. This helps prevent muddy stains on the top of the cakes and saves paint since you won't have to wipe them clean after painting. The larger a bowl of water you use, the longer your fresh water will last. Cereal bowls are good. 4" x 6" watercolor blocks are much easier to use than stretched watercolor paper, and not very expensive. They are bound like a pad on all four sides and won't peel up or buckle. Work on several small paintings at a time, or draw while waiting for paint to dry. Watercolor takes patience, but you can use up leftover washes painting another similar subject on another block or piece of paper.

Warning

If you use pan watercolors, don't use your best brush to pick up the paint out of the pans. That can produce wear on good brushes. Don't use normal masking tape from the hardware store for masking on watercolor paper. Get artist's tape from a hobby shop or art supply dealer, it has less stickiness and won't damage the paper. Get 140lb watercolor paper or heavier. 90lb student watercolor paper will buckle with heavy washes like a flat wash. Use 90lb watercolor paper for paintings that have plenty of white background and watercolor sketches instead. If you don't use a watercolor block, you will need to stretch your watercolor paper before cutting and using it. Follow the instructions in the article on stretching watercolor paper in Related Articles. If using masking fluid, be sure not to use so much wash that it goes over the line. It helps not to get the part of the block below the line wet, too. Do not leave masking fluid on the paper more than a day or so. It is much more likely to tear the paper if left for long periods of time (weeks, months) and in large areas. Clean brushes with a good brush cleaner/conditioner after use to extend their life.