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How to Sketch Wildlife in Watercolour with Julia Cassels

Posted on Tue 18 Dec 2018

Watercolour is perhaps the most immediate and exciting of all paint media. No other pigment compares in pure luminosity and clarity of colour. The joy in watercolour lies in the way it captures a mood and evokes an atmosphere through its wondrous loose translucent washes, colours blurring effortlessly together, and sharp, hard or deliciously soft edges. It can have a sublime delicacy of an almost ethereal quality yet pack a punch, too. In this way, watercolour is unique.

Elephant sketches, watercolour on Saunders Waterford 140lb NOT watercolour sketchbook

Why watercolour?

Some media lend themselves better than others to the description of movement, and watercolour is definitely the best for painting the fleeting quality of light on a landscape, patterns of light and shadow falling across the back of a moving animal, and the distorted chaos of disturbed water as a bird rises in flight.

Watercolour is versatile, fluid, immediate, quick and spontaneous. Most importantly, it is easily transportable. With just a pencil, brush, two or three colours and water I can capture an image in my watercolour sketchbook effortlessly, such as the elephants ( see above).

As a medium, watercolour responds perfectly to the wildlife in motion that I strive to capture. I have always been focused on catching that moment, as if one has just glimpsed the subject before, or as it moves off.

Watercolour’s luminous nature allows you to work with the paper tone, revealing it through thin washes, or leaving well-judged unpainted areas to form chinks of light and highlights.

Sketching first

I sketch first; I love to sketch. The fluidity and simplicity of a line can say so much. There is nothing more exciting than making the first mark on a large piece of paper, stretched ready on a board before you. By using your whole arm and holding your pencil in a ‘grab’ grip – like picking up a piece of chalk from the floor – you will naturally produce a looser, more flowing and uninhibited line. By pressing down hard with a dark heavy line in the shadowed areas then a lighter line to complete the shape you will quickly and effectively create form.

There are no rules with watercolour, and many watercolourists like to go in straight with paint, or perhaps make a light loose sketch with diluted watercolour first. I sketch or draw out first, as I like a parameter for my watercolour, and also the line-work can add a certain energy.

In sketching, you naturally and unconsciously abbreviate the subject in front of you whether it is a figure, animal or landscape, by drawing or shading what is important. With a moving figure, animal or bird you abbreviate even more so as you have limited time and probably have to work quickly! This is important as well as extremely helpful for when you come to paint.

Living in the bush in Zambia for many years taught me not only to observe, but to capture that quick essence of line in a sketch to describe the subject: The U-shape of neck in a skittish impala; the solid boxiness of a grumpy buffalo with its head down as if its horns are too heavy to lift; and the characteristic upturned white tip of a leopard’s tail.

Observation is key, not only to capturing those little idiosyncrasies that identify an animal or bird, but also in accurately portraying a convincing image.

Rhino sketches, 6B pencil in sketchbook

The painting next

With watercolour you are effectively painting the shadowed areas, while leaving the highlights as areas of unpainted paper, essentially using your paper as a ‘colour’. I find the areas of unpainted paper and those irregular chinks of highlight add a distinctive liveliness and zest. The more unplanned the unpainted areas look, the greater is the effect of spontaneity (see my sketch of a young zebra, below).

Painting in watercolour doesn’t have to be a fast or a panicky ‘I can’t stop or I’ll ruin it’ process. If building your painting with layers, or glazes, you can stop and have a cup of coffee while one layer dries and settles itself into the paper before painting a second layer.

If working wet into wet, by using lots of water and really wetting the paper you can buy yourself time so you don’t necessarily have to be in a rush to drop or place the colours into the wetted paper. The paint will only flow where there is water so to that extent it is controllable. Bear in mind, however, that the wetter the paper, the more diluted the colours will be when dry so remember to over compensate slightly with the strength of colour tones.

Young Zebra, watercolour on Saunders Waterford 140lb NOT watercolour paper, (31x41cm)

Back in the studio

At home I always prefer to work from my sketches than a photograph. Even if the sketch is only a tangle of lines, I have caught the essence or moment that I want to translate into a painting.

Most importantly, I was there, and working from my sketches brings me back to that moment. It means a lot to me that I was in the bush with the giraffe, or sitting in a Mediterranean sun-soaked village square, as I always want my work to resonate with that integrity.

Photographs freeze the subject in its motion, with everything in focus and regular tone. They are, however, very useful for reference of colour, shadow shapes and the detail I would have missed in a quick sketch, which can be seen in my Wallowing Hippo (below).

I work with my paper stretched onto a board and laid on a table, with the board slightly propped up. I stand to work, which gives me the immediacy and the freedom to use my whole arm to sketch and paint.

The drawing has to work anatomically, compositionally and have the necessary verve and emotion I’m after. Importantly, I must be happy with it before committing to paint.

I have a large dog bowl of water and I am known for often working with dirty or tinted water. This not only has the huge advantage of me being able to see where I have wet the paper when working wet into wet, but also for unifying the colour and tone of the painting.

I use a large white ceramic tile for my palette. I use Winsor & Newton Professional Water Colour tube paints, which I squeeze out around the edge of the tile then I drag the colours across to the middle for mixing.

Wallowing Hippo, watercolour on Saunders Waterford 140lb NOT watercolour paper, (31x41cm)

Working process

Before beginning to paint it is necessary to acknowledge the direction of light and highlights, and the strength of tone where the darkest darks and the lightest lights lay. Choice of colour is important, too.

I like to create an exciting painting with colours that harmonise and don’t jar on the eye. I hold my brush lightly, halfway up the handle and keep it ‘dancing’ as I paint, getting into the rhythm of the painting.

I try to exploit the advantages of the translucent and opaque hues for effect, and use a variety of techniques depending on what the subject requires to express it best. Primarily, I use a combination of wet-into-wet washes, flat washes, dry-into-wet and soft and hard edges – always remembering that less is more!

Working with this wonderful medium, it is worth treating it with respect and giving it its own time to allow it to do what it does best. It blurs and blends so perfectly and effortlessly on wetted paper in a way that no nudging or tweak of a brush could ever naturally achieve – and to do so would be a crime. Above all, it is a joy.

Demonstration Flamingos

You will need:


  • Arches 140lb NOT watercolour paper, stretched and taped around all four edges onto a board, (48x72cm)

Artists’ watercolour

  • Prussian blue
  • Vandyke brown
  • Raw umber
  • Raw sienna
  • Alizarin crimson
  • Cadmium red
  • Indian yellow
  • Permanent rose


  • Luxartis Round sables Nos. 16 & 8 (
  • ProArte Rigger No. 3
  • Hake 2in.


  • 2B pencil
  • Art masking fluid by Winsor & Newton
  • Gummed tape and board
  • Water
  • Kitchen roll
  • White ceramic tile (24.5x20cm) used as a palette
  • Pheasant feather quill to apply the masking fluid
  • Da Vinci hobby paintbrush No. 4

Step 1

I used a 2B pencil to draw a fluid and light linear sketch to depict the flamingos paddling on the shoreline.

Step 2

1. With an old and non-precious hobby paintbrush I masked out the body shapes of the flamingos with a tinted masking fluid. This allowed me to wash in my background uninhibited.

2. For masking out the ripples and splashes I used the quill end of a pheasant feather as it produces a more natural broken line.

Step 3

1. With a large puddle of Prussian blue and Vandyke brown ready, I thoroughly wetted the paper with the hake, leaving occasional dry chinks where the flamingos’ legs break the surface of the water.

2. The Prussian blue and Vandyke brown mixed was drizzled across the painting, followed by the raw umber in the foreground and touches of neat Vandyke brown.

3. Tilting and tipping the board allowed the colours to blend and blur together. Once dry, I removed the masking fluid.

Step 4

1. I now began on the flamingos. I worked wet-into-wet with a combination of Indian yellow, raw sienna and cadmium red to create the peach-pink. Leaving the highlights as the crisp unpainted shapes left by the masking fluid, I concentrated on painting the shadowed areas and giving the flamingos form.

2. Neat cadmium red created the intense wing colour and a mix of Vandyke brown, Prussian blue and red produced the darks.

3. Beginning with the flamingo on the left, I used Prussian blue to add the shadows.


Note how the crisp white shapes of unpainted paper produced by the masking fluid effectively create the shapes of the backs. I used a variegated wet-into-wet wash of cadmium red, Indian yellow and raw sienna for the necks and underside of the bodies.

Step 5

Once the initial flamingo colour had dried, I added touches of Prussian blue for the shadows and a more intense orange to the shoulder. This emphasised form and added a bit more strength and punch.

Step 6

1. Standing back from the painting, I used swift strokes of the Rigger loaded with alizarin crimson to describe the legs.

2. Wetting the foreground water slightly, the reflections were painted loosely, together with the darker shadowed water around the flamingos’ feet. This helped to anchor them convincingly on their African lakeshore.

3. Finally, a little splatter completed the painting, adding an essence of spontaneity.

The finished painting

Flamingos, watercolour on Arches NOT 140lb (350gsm) watercolour paper, (48x72cm)

Julia Cassels

Julia is well known as a wildlife artist and author of How to Capture Movement in your Paintings (Quarto Press), who tutors to art societies and on painting holidays for Art Safari. Join her on her next painting week in Suffolk this spring (visit for details). Julia also exhibits with Cricket Fine Art in London and Hungerford, and will be having a solo show in London in November 2019 (

For information on her exhibitions, workshops, classes and holidays please visit her website at

This feature is taken from the January 2019 issue of Leisure Painter

Click here to purchase your copy

How to Sketch Wildlife in Watercolour with Julia Cassels


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