Any watercolorist is bound to encounter the challenge of painting fabric eventually– either on a figure, in the built environment or as part of a still life. The key to painting draped fabric is thinking about shape, shadow and texture.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you master painting fabric in watercolor.
Mrs. Gardner in White John Singer Sargent 1922
As with painting any other three-dimensional object, the key to painting fabric is to think about light and shadow. Fabric is full of folds and irregular shapes, so you have to pay attention to the subtlest differences in value to pull it off. To practice, set up a simple still-life of some different-colored draped fabrics in your studio. Avoid laying the fabric flat– place a box or two underneath to keep the folds interesting and set up a strong light source to cast shadows on the arrangement.
Start by drawing a light pencil sketch of your setup. Notice that ridges and folds have shadows on the side away from the light and they cast shadows onto other parts of the fabric. Map out as much of this information with pencil as you can, being careful only to outline the shadows, not fill them in.
Starting with one color, block out the darkest shadow shapes. These need not be too dark as you can work back into them later to make them darker. Flat paint brushes work well for laying down these blocks of washes, and they can still give you detail and crisp, clean borders.
After these first watercolor washes are dry, work over the top of everything with lighter and darker washes, depending on the values you want to achieve. Leave only the lightest highlights completely white. Remember that if a previous wash is still wet, you might obliterate its borders and not be able to get clear differences in your values. Conversely, if you need to correct a mistake, such as making an area too dark, it’s a good idea to do it while the area is still wet.
Tip: You can add a tiny bit of black or grey to a wash to desaturate and help push it toward a darker value, especially if you are finding that layering several washes only ups the intensity of a color. Never use only black to indicate a shadow. Most shadows are just darker values of the same color.
Do the same procedure for any other color fabrics in your composition. It’s a good idea to do each different colored fabric one at a time all the way through to avoid picking up the wrong brush and accidentally contaminating an area with the wrong color.
If you lay in a darker background wash, the lighter values in the foreground drapery will really pop. Dark values tend to recede on the page, and light values tend to come forward. Plus, a darker background will make the volumes of the drapery seem more three-dimensional, which is something to consider when setting up your still-life. As with the shadows of the fabric, avoid using black for the background wash, but consider the quality of the lighting in the room. Incandescent light will be warm, so a warm, dark background of umbers and ochres might be appropriate. Fluorescent light will be cooler and greener, and natural light will seem more balanced between warm and cool.
Delve further into watercolor with Matt Rota in the online Bluprint class Portraits in Watercolor.