Reserving and Recovering Light Values: Strategies to Consider

moon and breaking wave
Getting light color values in watercolor works a little differently than in other mediums, since watercolor is transparent. In watercolor, we rely on the white color of the paper to give us our lighter values, meaning that a watercolorist’s main options are reserving or recovering whites. This article lists some of the strategies you can use to reserve and recover whites and light values.

Getting light color values in watercolor works a little differently than in other mediums, since watercolor is transparent. In oil paints, lighter pigments are generally some of the most opaque, which allows oil painters to begin by blocking in large, mid-value shapes and add whites and other light values as they go along. In watercolor, however, we rely on the white color of the paper to give us our lighter values, meaning that a watercolorist’s main options are reserving or recovering whites. Many people reach straight for In this article, we’ll discuss some of the strategies you can use to reserve and recover whites and light values.

If you have a plan for where your white and light areas will be before you start painting, you can reserve those highlights using a number of techniques. Reserving is great for getting bright, sharp light values, since it prevents darker and bolder pigments from ever entering those areas of the painting. Some of the different ways to reserve a white or light area are:

However, there will be times when you find yourself having to recover a light value instead. Maybe you forgot to reserve it, or made a mistake that allowed paint to bleed into the reserved area. In some cases, you might choose to recover your light values instead of reserving them—this can be a great strategy for softer or more subdued highlights. Ways to recover a light value include:

  • lift with a thirsty brush while pigment is wet (see Eggs in a Glass Bowl or Introduction to Shadows and Highlights in Project 2 of Watercolor Jumpstart)
  • lift with water after paint is dry (plan for this by using liftable colors, lift aid, heavily-sized paper, YUPO, etc) (see the second lesson video in Project 5 of Watercolor Jumpstart)
  • lift by washing out with a natural sponge (possibly making a shield first) (also in the second lesson of Project 5 of Watercolor Jumpstart)
  • lift with eraser (hard to do these days because you need a pretty abrasive eraser like the old “typewriter” erasers) (I don’t have a demo of this method, because I don’t use it myself*)
  • sand down (also, not something I do myself)
  • scratch out with corner of razor blade or X-acto knife (and again, not something I do myself)
  • use opaque paint (gouache, casein, matte acrylic, ink)
  • collage
  • watercolor ground (Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground or Golden Cold-Pressed Ground are two to consider)

I hope this has given you some ideas about the many ways you can go about incorporating light values into your watercolor paintings. If you want to learn more about how to reserve and recover light values, and learn how to apply these techniques to a project, check out my free Watercolor Jumpstart series or the Postcard Paint-Alongs. Some of these techniques are demonstrated in Project 2 and Project 5 of Watercolor Jumpstart. If you’re coming from another medium, such as oil or acrylic, learning to reserve your whites ahead of time and work with the natural color of the paper for light values can be a little bit of a learning curve. Be patient with yourself if it seems counterintuitive at first, and have fun exploring the different techniques!

*I tend to avoid the three “destructive” methods of erasing with an abrasive eraser, sanding and scraping or scratching out because I find I can avoid them by more careful planning, and I do not care for the appearance of the roughened paper. However, many artists use them and love them, so I’m sure you can find demos by searching online.

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