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  • Yufen Zha

Tutorial: Baby, Don't Be Afraid - Feel Good Watercolor on Paper

Updated: May 10, 2021

When Renee from the "Weekly Watercolor Challenge" Facebook group told me that their March monthly challenge theme is "babies", my mind started racing. When she asked me if I could incorporate the theme into one of my bi-monthly virtual live paint along sessions for watercolor beginners, my mind started racing even more.

The truth is, I was very excited when I heard the challenge theme and immediately knew the image I wanted to paint, the new pigments I'd been meaning to try out with this painting, and the style I wanted to paint it in. However, to be able to guide watercolor beginners to complete this project within 2 hours and still have everyone feel good at the end is a challenge in and of itself. (Now that the paint along session has occurred and completed, I can't express how happy and proud I am of each and every participant; your work is absolutely beautiful and way exceeded my expectations!)

The above photo is the jumping-off image that I had in mind. The apparent bond between the mother and baby elephant warms my heart every time I lay my eyes on it (photo courtesy of @comfreak from Pixabay). The beautiful light that streams and creates a glistening water surface is an added bonus.

I switched into high gear and spent a whole weekend completing four paintings based on the above photo but using different techniques and paints. It's sometimes hard to believe how differently various brands of paints behave. This post contains the step by step instructions for the techniques used in the live paint along session but done in the beginner watercolor palette I recommend to all my students. Below is the completed painting.

There is also an accompanying video tutorial to this post. You can find it here on my Youtube channel.

"Baby, Don't Be Afraid", watercolor on paper, 8" x 10"

Here is the line drawing for this painting. for help tracing this line drawing onto your watercolor paper, please read my blog post here.

Below is the supply list for this painting. I’ve included a few affiliate links so you can find the products I love.


Supply List

I've found that painting without a preliminary sketch helps me loosen up and not laser focus on the smallest details (for those that know me, you know how down to the details I can get; lol). I painted two of the four paintings without any sketches but decided to do two with sketches as that is what we usually do in the beginner paint along sessions.

Before starting each painting it is always a good idea to test out all the pigments that you plan to use on scrap pieces of watercolor paper; preferably the same type of paper you use for your final painting. Even if I'm intimately familiar with each pigment, I still do a color swatch as I especially like to see how the different pigments interact with each other. I learn something new each and every time.

For this painting, I chose Permanent Yellow, Turquoise Blue, Olive Green, Light Red, Burnt Umber and Sepia from the Sakura palette.

I did not have a plan before I started painting this piece and just let my intuition guide me. When I looked back at the photos I took during the process, I realized how much I jumped around when painting this piece, lol.

Another important point I want to bring up is that I never pre-mixed any paints on the palette for this painting. All pigments were dropped onto the paper either wet-on-wet or wet-on-dry, and were subsequently allowed to mix on the paper directly. This is a very useful technique; one that would help you preserve the luminosity of the pigments and boost the vibrancy of the painting.

For this painting, I started by loosely defining the lights and darks of the subject as well as the background. This would be our first layer.

1. First step was to wet the face area and drop in Light Red and Burnt Umber. Here I let some of the paint flow outside the boundary of the face to avoid harsh edges.

2. I then wet the body of the baby elephant and dropped in Burnt Umber, Light Red, some Permanent Yellow (for the lighter area of the body, mainly the top and where the legs meet the body), and a smidge of Turquoise Blue.

3. While I was here, I decided to start on the background and the water as well. I wanted the atmospheric feel in the background with lots of light but without rendering all the individual trees and leaves. We only have two hours, right? For both the background and the water, I used Olive Green, Permanent Yellow, Turquoise Blue, Burnt Umber, and Sepia. Please watch the accompanying video tutorial to see how the background and water were painted. I also dropped in colors in the front legs as well.

4. The same technique was used for the mother elephant using Burnt Umber, Sepia, and a smidge of Light Red.

At this point, the first layer of the painting is done, except the rocks (which only needed one layer at the end). Below is what my first layer looked like.

I felt a big relief at this point. I knew the hard part for this painting was done. I have loosely defined the lights and darks of the subject as well as the background with pigments. What's left was the fun part of strengthening and moderate detailing so that the subject will have additional form definition without getting too fussy.

These next steps are where your observation skills really come into play. Since we already have the basic form of the elephant, all I was looking for in my reference photo at this point was the lights and darks of the different areas. This would greatly simplify the steps your brain would have to process.

5. I started by strengthening the body and the hind legs of the elephant using the same pigments as before. Burnt Umber and Sepia were added to the bottom of the belly, legs, and middle of the body.

6. Next up is the head of the baby elephant. There was no definition for the ear in the first wash. Using Burnt Umber I lightly "drew" the shape of the ear, skipping some areas so it's not a solid paint line. I then went back and dropped in Sepia for the shadow. Using the same pigments, I also strengthened the cheek, mouth, and trunk.

7. I strengthened the mother elephant's trunk the same way. Now we are done with the strengthening stage! Below is what it looked like at this stage.

8. Once the second layer is completely dry, I painted in the eye using my rigger brush and Sepia pigment. There is a black pigment on this Sakura palette but I always try to avoid pure black pigment in my watercolor paintings. Instead, I try to use a dark paint that's being used somewhere else in the painting, or mix a dark pigment using two paints already used in the painting. This way the dark pigment does not look too harsh and out of place.

9. We are nearly done! Now is the time to add the detail lines to mimic the elephant's wrinkles. If you take a close look at the reference photo, there are wrinkles everywhere. Please don't try to paint the wrinkles everywhere in your painting! Only a few lines here and there will effectively give the illusion of wrinkles everywhere.

10. Last step: the rocks! Pick up some paint in fairly high concentration without using much water. If the paint is too wet, use a tissue to extract some of the moisture out of the brush. Using the side of the brush tip end, lightly brush some paint in the rock area. You should get some brushstrokes that skip part of the paper (this is called "flying white" in Chinese brush painting). Then immediately go back with a clean damp brush and brush over SOME of the brush marks that you just created. This creates both the edge and the mass areas of the rocks.

That's it folks! That's our loosely painted baby and mother elephant. Please check out the accompanying video tutorial here on my Youtube channel. Over the years I've found that a written step by step tutorial coupled with demonstration video is the best way for me to progress in my art adventure. Below is the final painting.

I hope this written tutorial in addition to the video tutorial on my Youtube channel gives you a good starting point for trying out this painting as well as helping you improve your painting from the session.

To see the work from fellow artists of this session or to share your work from these paint along sessions / tutorials, please follow my Facebook studio page "Yufen Zha Studio" and request to join our private group "Friends of Yufen Zha Studio".

Please remember to subscribe to this site so you won't miss any future tutorials.

Until next time, happy creating...


Mar 16, 2021

Thank you so much!! I love your talent, style and very clear and inspiring demo. I can’t wait to give this a go for a baby present I’m doing!

Yufen Zha
Mar 16, 2021
Replying to

Thank you so much, Patti! Would love to see what you come up with! Make sure to upload it to our FB group "Friends of Yufen Zha Studio".

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