Chinese/Lunar new year is just around the corner

I give you a sneak peek into the making of my Chinese/Lunar New Year cards utilising layering and detailing techniques.  This post is part of the watercolour series in the “Creating with …” category.

Layers coupled with touches of details adds depth
The Chinese character means “joy”

In about three weeks’ time, my family and I will be celebrating Lunar New Year.  In my household, I have learnt to use the term Lunar New Year instead of Chinese New Year as the Vietnamese celebrate the new year too.  Being only three weeks out, I had to get down to the serious business of painting the image that will grace my greeting cards.

The painting employs two painting techniques.  The first is a watercolour technique called layering.  This is where you lay down one layer of paint, wait for it to dry and then paint another layer over it.  Because of the translucent nature of watercolour, the colour of the previous layers changes the look and feel of the upper layers.  This technique is almost exclusively a watercolour technique because of the translucency of the medium. You could achieve this layering look with acrylic paint by adding a lot of water and/or adding a glazing or retardant medium.  However, I have found that it doesn’t set as smooth and matte as watercolour.  If you have been following me, you would know that it was this layering technique that helped me get over my fear of watercolour.

Layering adds depth
Layering adds depth

The image above is a work-in-progress shot.  After having worked with this medium and this layering technique for awhile, I can offer the following tips for making this technique work for you:

  1. Always start with the lightest colour of your chosen colour palette for the painting.  If you are using just the one colour as I have done in the painting below (ignoring the mid yellow for the moment), start with pigment that is mixed with a LOT of water and gradually with each layer reduce the ‘dilution’ of the paint pigment.
  2. Be patient.  Always wait for each layer to dry thoroughly before you begin the next layer.  I would say at least 30 minutes.  To be sure and if you are in a humid environment, wait at least an hour.  This technique cannot be rushed.  If you do, the previous layer will bleed into your current layer and you will not be able to achieve clean lines.
  3. Watercolour always dries darker when the water has evaporated and the pigments settle on the paper.  To avoid putting down a shade that is darker than what you would like, always test out on a scrap piece of paper and wait for it to dry. (Edited: I need to clarify here that I meant that the colour you see on your palette after you have mixed with water will dry slightly darker.  This is likely due to the water content reflecting light. So ALWAYS test your colour on a scrap piece of similar paper you are painting on)
  4. If you are painting shapes like I have, always start with large shapes in the lightest colour.  As you put the next layer down, reduce the size of the shapes.  In the image below, I started off with large leave shapes using a size 20 round tip brush.  As I added less and less water to the paint, I switched to a smaller size 14 round tip brush.
  5. When painting really ‘diluted’ watercolour, there is a balance that is needed between the amount of colour pigment, water on your brush, and your hand movement on the paper.  If you are not careful, you can leave streaks and ‘puddles’ that has the potential to create a ‘cauliflower’ effect when the paint dries.  There is nothing wrong with these effects if that is what you want but if you are after flat colour, be sure to pick up excess paint when you finish painting each shape.  Achieving flat colour and a consistent ‘halo’ on the outline of the shape (as can be seen in the mid yellow oval shape) requires practice.  Personally, I am not quite there yet so need to do a lot more practice myself.  If you have just moved from acrylics to watercolour like me, don’t fear the unintended ‘cauliflower’ effect.  You and I just need a lot more practice.
  6. Try to paint each shape in one go with as few strokes as possible.  With my painting above, I have tried to paint each leaf with just two strokes.  This will help create a flat colour without streaks.

I could have left it the way it was but I like the extra interest detailing provides because it adds another scale to the painting.  Your eyes will naturally look at the large overall shapes and because of the strategically placed details, your eyes get drawn to the focus point.   I added detailing using white gouache giving a little more definition to the darker leaf shapes and texture to the mid yellow oval shape.  I used a Westart no. 0 Prolon rigger tip brush.

In this drawing, I decided to try my hand at Chinese calligraphy because I wanted to add a wish or greeting as the focal point.  Chinese calligraphy is something I haven’t touched since primary school and needed my dad’s help with choosing the right character to write.  The Chinese character below means “joy”.

"Le" meaning joy.
“Le” meaning joy.

For those who can read Chinese, I know it is only one half of 喜樂 (xǐ lè) but I thought I could use a little artistic license here and still be able to capture the meaning.  I was initially thinking of writing both characters and forming them into the segments of the mandarin but I didn’t trust my VERY rusty Chinese calligraphy skill here.  So I went with the singular to avoid having to redo the entire painting which up to this point had taken two late night sessions to paint.

If you are wondering, the mid yellow oval shape represents a mandarin.  Mandarins symbolise gold and wealth during the new year.  I could have used the more common character (福) that means “prosperity” as the focal point but “joy” carries far more significance to me than prosperity and I know that my family feels the same too so I’ve chosen to capture a more personal greeting here.  Now to scan, print and send to my dear family and friends.

My 2016 Lunar New Year painting
My 2016 Lunar New Year painting

Happy painting,




Resource links:


  • Brushes used for this painting
    Brushes used for this painting from left to right: Westart no. 0 prolon rigger tip, a supermarket bought no. 2 round tip brush used as my substitute Chinese calligraphy brush (this was the softest round tip brush I could find lying around the house), Escoda Versatil no. 14 and no. 20.

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