ILLUSTRATION KNOW-HOW Using Layers in Watercolour

For children's book illustrators using traditional materials, watercolour remains one of the most popular mediums. Belgian illustrator Christof Simons describes his technique of layering tints to suggest temperature and depth.

When it comes to illustration for children, colours are very important. But how can you use colour to create temperature? Being able to manipulate colour temperature will give you the ability to make images more three dimensional, and because watercolour is easy to layer, you can add different colours for subtle changes. In this Knowhow you’ll see how I came to use underpainting in my watercolours, and I’ll show you some experiments I did and how I use temperature shifts in my watercolours to better define my shapes.

In the following image you can see the four stages of a watercolour in two basic forms: the cube and the sphere. I defined a purple color for the parts of the image I wanted to be colder in temperature, later adding some lemon yellow to the warmer parts of the forms. The row of images is finished with a simple burnt sienna layer on top of the underpainted form, followed with some Payne's grey to define the shadow area.

Basic Forms

You can see here that because watercolour is transparent, its temperature shifts depending on the underlying layers.

Later this got me thinking: what else could I establish with these underpaintings? Obviously tone is one of them. But how about detail such as texture? So for my next experiment, I worked on spheres with a hairy texture. Here are the different steps that I took to create three textured spheres.

Textured Spheres

As a last example, here’s a simple watercolour of a dog which I created using the same process. Once again the colours are limited to purple and yellow for the underpainting which I then follow with yellow ochre, burnt umber and Payne's grey for the image itself.

Steps for a dog

Since discovering this way of working I really feel it adds depth to my work. Why not do some experiments of your own? How about a cold light? Does that create a cold or a warm shadow? What colours will you need to use as layers in your watercolours? It’s a great way of learning and I’m sure there are others like me who’re interested in reading about your findings - so please let us know how you get on in the comments box below!

Mr. Jeremy's Surprise, constructed using layering techniques (© Christof Simons)


Bilingual illustrator Christof Simons regularly attends SCBWI British Isles activities from his home near Ostend. His website is 

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting! I should experiment more with layering.


We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.