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An Apple a Day, watercolour, (13inx17in)
An Apple a Day, watercolour, (13inx17in)

How to Paint Watercolours from Photographs


Henry W. Dixon - Posted on 28 Sep 2010

Demonstration: Transfer your photo with a computer

Scan the original photograph

Apples photograph

Scan your photo and enlarge it in Adobe Photoshop or a similar imaging software to the size you decide the painting should be.

Divide the enlarged image

Divide an image for paiting proportions

Divide the image by cropping it into different sections, making them into separate printable files. You can have as many as four to eight different files, depending on how large you want the painting.

Put the files together

Print out the enlarged files and tape them together to match the original photograph.

Trace the image

Tracing an image

Tape a piece of tracing paper over the enlarged image and use a 3B drawing pencil to trace the entire image. This step will also allow you to make changes to your composition if you so desire.

Apply graphite

Applying graphite

Flip the traced drawing and apply graphite to the back of the image lines only. This will save time as opposed to spreading graphite on the entire surface of the tracing paper.

Transfer the image

Transfer an image

Flip the tracing paper over to the original drawing side, tape it over your watercolour paper and trace over the lines of the image with a red ballpoint pen. A pen is harder, rolls smoothly and will not tear the tracing paper as easily as a pencil. The red colour shows where you’ve already traced. Do not press too hard. Once the transfer is complete, you can add areas where you want more shadows, etc. Now you can start painting.

Demonstration: Apples in a barrel

You will need…


  • 300-lb. (640gsm) cold-pressed paper
  • Nos. 6 and 8 sable rounds
  • No. 6 synthetic round
  • Alizarin crimson
  • Burnt sienna
  • Burnt umber
  • Cadmium red
  • Cadmium yellow
  • Cobalt blue
  • Ivory black
  • Olive green
  • Payne’s grey
  • Raw sienna
  • Viridian
  • Yellow ochre
  • 3B or 4B pencil
  • Craft knife with no. 616 blade
  • Masking fluid


Graphite drawing of apples in a barrel
Use a 3B or 4B pencil to complete a drawing of the still life, placing the highlights accurately. When highlights are in rounded forms like on these apples, their shape is vitally important. You will eventually lighten these lines and they will be absorbed into the painting.

Using masking fluid
Use a No. 6 synthetic round to mask the highlights on the apples in the bushel basket.

Wash a pale mix of cadmium red and cadmium yellow over the entire apple area. Overlap the edges of the apples. Let dry completely. Then, apply a medium-value wash of olive green to the apples at the bottom right of the pile. Use a No. 8 sable round for this step.

Adding a wash
Mix cadmium red and alizarin crimson and use a No. 6 sable round to paint the apples in strategic areas, achieving local colour and form. Notice how the area of the olive green wash you laid in Step 3 now represents reflected light and gives the pile of apples depth.

Adding deeper red in watercolour
To add a deeper red to the apples in order to show more depth, apply a mix of cadmium red, alizarin crimson, burnt umber and ivory black to the apples using a No. 6 sable round. Let dry, then add a darker version of this mix to the shaded side of the apples.

Darken the original apple mix and continue to develop the apples’ forms, adding burnt sienna to further darken the areas in the shadows. Refine the apple highlights by softening the edges with a No. 6 sable round and let dry. Use a craft knife to gently scrape the centre of the highlights to bring out the white of the paper surface.

Stage 7
painting a basket of apples
Add the initial wash to the basket with a medium-value mix of cadmium red, yellow ochre, raw sienna and a small amount of Payne’s grey. Wash this over the entire surface of the basket with a No. 8 sable round, including the three rings of the basket, and allow to dry. For the green rings, apply a medium-value mix of viridian, olive green and cobalt blue. For the red ring, apply a medium-value blend of cadmium red and alizarin crimson.

Finishing the basket is just a matter of darkening the colours for the green and red bands and the colour for the vertical slats with additional layers of the original colours. Then, add the shadows with the addition of ivory black to those mixtures. Add alizarin crimson to the mix for the red reflection of the apples on the basket. With a damp No. 6 sable round, lift out the colour in the top portion of the basket, just below the top green rim, to show light filtering through the wooden slats.

Stage 9
Adding the background establishes the subjects within a specific space relationship. Paint the brown boards in front of the basket with a mixture of burnt umber, alizarin crimson and Payne’s grey. Notice the addition of the dark wall that is not present in the resource photo. This will further establish a mood and helps show off the strong light source that’s penetrating the basket. Also, because the light source is suggested and not shown, the mood suggests an air of mystery

The finished painting

An Apple a Day

An Apple a Day, watercolour on 300lb (640gsm) cold pressed paper, 13x17in (33x43cm)


The full feature in Start Art 7 is an extract from 'Paint Amazing Watercolours from Photographs' by Henry W. Dixon, published by North Light Publications, rrp £18.99

To order from painters' books, at the offer price of £13.49 click here. Or telephone 0844 880 5853 between 9am and 5pm (Mon–Fri). Quote code 201798

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