Create stunning fire effects in watercolour

Discover how to create the light, warmth and reflection of fire.

The play of light from flames, the mystery of shadows and the reflections of fire on transfixed faces are the main goals of this masterclass.

Composition is the most important part of a painting. Here, my picture is composed of location, people, big areas of light and shadow, and the play of contrasts. My aim is to focus the attention of the viewer onto the faces of the people and the light of the fire. 

The rest of the painting will only be detailed slightly to portray the cold surroundings. The fireside is the main focal point of the composition, with the family being the secondary focal point. The candles will create small additional light sources and reflect onto the wooden floor to create a sense of warmth.

Because I usually paint from nature, I don’t use photos in most cases. But if there’s something special or specific that I want to create, I will use a reference photo. Also, when I paint flowers, trees or landscapes, I don’t usually make pencil sketches. However, in scenes with people, proportion is very important, so when I paint figures, I usually make a sketch first.

I’ve used a few photos here. I have a photo of the family near the fireplace, a separate photo of a fireplace that I preferred, and lastly a separate detailed photo of fire. If you feel that any details in your reference photo are unnecessary, just ignore them.

01. Start sketching

Use grids or proportions to create the sketch

First, I attach my paper to the board with masking tape. If you like, you can grid up your photo, but I prefer measuring by eye. I sketch the fireplace, then find the correct place for the family. I check the proportions of the figures, especially the girl, who is on a front plane. I can now move onto the additional details.

02. Prepare the palette and paper

Ensure paints are wet to keep them usable

I place my paints on a plastic palette. If they get dry, I wet them with water from a small spray bottle. The same goes for the paints in pans. I then wet my paper on both sides and place it flat onto some glass. It will sit tight until it gets dry. Once dry, I wet the edges of paper from the back.

03. Painting shadows

Wet-in-wet painting creates beautiful shapes

I apply the main colour to create the shadows. The paper is wet so the paint behaves very nicely – colour flows in every direction creating great shapes. This wet-on-wet technique looks good when paper has natural torn edges. This is why I don’t tape the paper down at this stage, in case it damages my nice natural edges.

04. Adding colour

Colour flows easily over wet paper

It’s now time to add in the main areas of tone. Here, the intention is to split shadow and light. Because the paper is still very wet, the paint is flowing nicely. We're now starting to get a lovely strong sense of the scene.

05. Fixing mistakes

Rogue paint can be easily lifted off the page

With this technique, it’s easy to remove unnecessary paint while things are still wet. I squeeze out any excess water from my brush with my fingers, then use the brush to absorb any unwanted paint on the paper. You can also use a clean wet sponge or paper towel.

06. The fire is white

Nothing looks brighter than white paper

Now it’s time to paint the fire. White paper will always be brighter than any paint, so I often use it to show the brightest spots, such as the fire here. It requires some planning to keep these spots clean from the beginning. I create the flame as a gradient starting with white paper, then Lemon Yellow, Cadmium Orange, Light Red, Sepia, and Payne’s Grey paint, in that order.

07. Working on shadows

Cold colours create a sense of depth

Wet-on-wet works great for shadows too. To add depth to the room, I paint cold shadows to create an opposite to the warm orange flames. I use a mix of Indigo and Payne’s Grey. It gives a huge contrast and the fire looks much brighter already. If the paper becomes dry at the edge, just wet it again using the water spray.

08. Christmas tree

Remember to keep details on the border rough

I paint the tree and add tiny reflections in the window on the left. I use wet-on-wet for the branches and remove the dark paint to form the baubles, using a piece of paper towel. There’s no need to add intricate details so close to the border of painting, as it will only distract the viewer from the centre of composition – rough spots for the baubles are enough.

09. More detail

White paper helps to illuminate the warm colours

I can now start adding in new tones. First, I add light to the faces. Because it's produced by fire, I use very warm tones of red, orange and yellow. These are the same colours as the textured rug, which I paint with a very thin brush. White paper plus orange fur gives us a white rug illuminated by direct fire.

10. Detailing fire and reflections

Dry paper makes the detailed brushwork really stand out

I added the candles when I painted the fire, so now I just need to refine them to include the reflection. I also add small details and work on the fire a bit more. By now, I’m painting on dry paper, which makes it easier for detailing. I use my smallest brush here. My painting is now done.

11. Flattening the painting

Time to smooth out the wrinkles

The paper becomes more wrinkled as it dries, making it unsuitable for framing. So, I wet the back of the painting with a sponge and leave it for 15-20 minutes. I then spray it with water, until it becomes flatter. I can now remove any excess water with a paper towel. After, I place the painting between clean cloth and cover it with hardboard. I place some heavy books on top to act as a weight.

12. Ready to frame

The finished painting is ready to frame

I leave the painting under the books for a whole day, then remove it. It's now dry, flat and ready for framing.

This article was originally published in Paint & Draw magazine issue 2.

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