HOW TO Watercolor – Altering Mood & Atmosphere


Simplify values and adjust the mood

“Morning in Hokokuji Garden” by Peggy Burkosky

An early morning visit just as Hokokuji Temple was opening for the day provided a serene and uncrowded moment as the sun filtered through the grounds of this ancient site. Located in the Kanagawa Prefecture of Japan, Hōkoku-ji is an old temple of a sect of Zen Buddhism located in Kamakura, Japan. Famous for its bamboo garden, it is also known as “Bamboo Temple”.

A slightly overcast sky created somewhat neutral colors, nothing too eye–catching as far as color goes. The surrounding bamboo forest towered over this sanctuary darkening most of the scene, however my eye caught the distant smoky haze of morning light. Here’s where I “saw” a mood that I could develop, pushing back the dark values of trees and creating an ethereal brightness to the scene.

Simplifying Tonal Values

The original shot has trees in dark values off in the distance. Nothing wrong with that, however I wanted to create an illusion of light bathing the scene in a more dramatic way.


After working out a thumbnail sketch in vine charcoal or 4B (or softer) graphite pencil, I achieved 2 things: I established the focal point and worked out a basic value plan. Simplifying is imperative. Reduce the clutter of many details and make a plan to join shapes of darks, mid-tones and lights. It’s good to be confident of the drawing, however not so over-detailed. The first light wash of cadmium red and cobalt blue is worked over the entire surface, avoiding white highlight areas. Dry completely.


In comes the mid-tone wash which describes distant tree forms and joins into middle ground joined and simplified shapes. Keep in mind those saved white areas for highlights, especially the tops of buildings, fence rails, head tops – anything that catches the light. This mid-tone wash can alter in temperature of warm to cool colors however try to maintain a middle value. Dry completely.


Now come the finishing darks and details. Where is the light coming from? Dark values describe form and define details. the “signature” calligraphy comes at the end. I like to keep all the little details simple, expressive and not too worked at. Brevity of strokes keeps things expressive and “in motion”. Finally, cast those shadows! Shadows say a lot. If the light source is close and brilliant, shadows tend to be dark valued with sharp edges. They can really set a mood. If they are soft, mid-valued, they give a gentler feel to the scene.

Notice that the finished piece retains lots of saved highlights. There are common shapes in our world that we identify with, such as the head and shoulders of figures in crowds, the tops of cars and buildings, rails, “stuff”. Leaving highlights on just the tops of objects is all that’s needed, our minds fill in the blanks. It is best to use the least amount of “words” with our brush strokes and let the rest be filled in by the viewer.

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