How to bring back watercolor highlights

Have you ever experienced that heart-sinking moment where you realise you’ve taken the highlights in your painting too dark? It can make you feel like throwing your painting in the trash, and it can feel REALLY demoralising if you’ve already spent a long time on the painting. But in most cases, it IS possible to bring back watercolor highlights if you take them too dark.

And it doesn’t involve using white paint!

Painting highlights too dark is an easy mistake to make.

Sometimes it can happen because the paint you applied to a highlight came out darker than you expected, or it can even happen if you briefly lose concentration and your paintbrush strays into an area you didn’t mean to paint in.

Prevention is better than cure, so before I show you how to bring back watercolor highlights, let’s just remind ourselves of how to paint highlights in watercolor.

One of the foundation principles of painting in watercolour is that the colour of your paper acts as the white colour in your paintings. So as we build up layers of other colours, we need to preserve the paper colour in the areas of lightest tone.

This means being really careful when we’re painting in and around the lightest parts. I usually begin a painting by applying a REALLY watery version of each colour I see, to map out the colour areas. I try to match this colour to the lightest tones I can see in that area, i.e. the highlights. And when that’s dry, I apply a second very watery layer to everywhere except for the lightest areas. I call this “isolating the highlights” because it helps me to see exactly where they are.

If you follow these steps to start your watercolor paintings too, you stand a good chance of preventing situations when you need to bring back watercolor highlights.

But even then, it can still occasionally happen that you accidentally lose your highlights. If that happens, here’s what to do:

So now you know how to bring back watercolor highlights, I hope that if you accidentally make your highlights too dark, you’ll know how to deal with them. You could even dig out any shelved paintings in case it’d make a difference to brighten their highlights.

If you enjoyed this video, make sure you check out these tips on ways to get better at painting. It always helps to make sure you’re using quality supplies too. They’ll put you in the best position for achieving good results, and they’re more forgiving when you make a mistake and need to fix it.

Have you lost your highlights before? What did you do? I’d love to hear from you, so please share your experiences. And if you’ve found this video helpful, please let me know by leaving a comment below.

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15 Comments

  1. Kathy Howard on September 5, 2023 at 3:28 pm

    I haven’t tried using a paper towel. I have used a clean damp brush.

  2. Margaret Wright on September 5, 2023 at 4:18 pm

    Thank you, a very useful tip

  3. Linda on September 5, 2023 at 4:20 pm

    That’s very helpful

  4. Jackie Heckford on September 5, 2023 at 4:26 pm

    Thanks for that, a really helpful tip.

  5. Adele Fenwick on September 5, 2023 at 5:12 pm

    Thank you Anna, I love your hints & tips, & find them very useful, as you say, especially when you think all is lost, especially with highlights, I have a friend, who always puts candle wax, on the highlight area, when she starts, so they are there for her, I don’t know If that is what some other Artists do? although I do know its permanent, so would have to be placed in the correct area! Thank you!

  6. Ellen H on September 5, 2023 at 6:04 pm

    Great tip to avoid frustration and waste!

  7. Barb on September 5, 2023 at 8:10 pm

    Thank you so much. ! Always appreciate suggestions to improve ????

  8. Jackie on September 5, 2023 at 8:17 pm

    Thank you Anna for your very useful tips!

  9. Valerie Czempinski on September 5, 2023 at 11:40 pm

    Thank you Anna for the great tips, very helpful.

  10. Jolene on September 6, 2023 at 2:32 pm

    This mini tutorial came at a perfect time for me. I was working on a pair of pears lol and I lost a highlight in one of them. I’ll be attempting today to remedy it.

  11. Gloriadawn on September 12, 2023 at 3:10 am

    Thank you for the great advice..

  12. Gloria dawn on September 12, 2023 at 3:11 am

    Thank you for the great advice..

  13. Marilyn on October 24, 2023 at 6:00 pm

    Thank you for your good info, but didn’t quiet understand the examples of the Cheeries

  14. Liz on October 26, 2023 at 12:38 pm

    Really useful tips and explained clearly.

  15. […] much easier to keep adding another pale layer than it is to fix a highlight you’ve taken too dark, so at this stage I recommend a cautious approach, with a light touch and working in very pale, […]

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