Fantasy landscape - step by step with gouache and HORADAM® watercolours by Sarah Bronder

The Berlin-based illustrator Sarah Bronder has only recently set up her own business and has been publishing atmospheric paintings and strong characters with her label "". She draws her inspiration from nature, dreams, and her vivid imagination with which she creates fantastic scenes from everyday situations. This is also reflected in the colour world of her paintings. With a mixed technique of watercolour, gouache and coloured pencils colourful worlds are created, in which her characters find a home and invite everyone to daydream! In this blog, she takes us into her world and shows in many detailed steps how she builds her pictures and brings them to life.


  • Schmincke Designers´ Gouache: 199 Opaque White, 788 Ivory Black, 566 Permanent Green, 311 Naples yellow reddish, 561 Fir green
  • HORADAM® GOUACHE: 232 Cadmium yellow dark and 462 Delft blue
  • HORADAM® watercolour in tubes: 230 Naples yellow reddish, 516 Green earth, 787 Payne's grey bluish, 351 Ruby red, 670 Madder brown
  • Other materials: Cold pressed watercolour paper with a thickness of 300 g/m² e.g., from Arches
  • Various watercolour brushes
  • Coloured pencils for details and shading e.g., the PABLO waterproof artists' coloured pencils from CARAN d'ACHE
  • Masking tape
  • Paper towels
  • Water

From the idea to the painting

Blank backgrounds can be daunting. I know the overwhelm that can occur when thinking "How can I fill the space around the figures I just drew with life?

Here I know a small and simple trick: simplify and layer!

To create a beautiful moody landscape, you do not always have to be able to draw in perfect perspective. Sometimes it helps to simplify shapes and imagine your painting like a theater stage, with actors, props and background spread across different layers. This is how I work my way from the background, layer by layer, to the foreground. From light to dark or from small to large. Once you understand the principle, you can play with different variations.

Step 1:

Since I work with a lot of water and want to avoid my paper curling during the painting process, I stretch my paper with masking tape on a piece of cardboard. Since I use a block from Arches that is glued all around, this step was not necessary for me. I always like to leave a white border on my paintings. To make sure this is as clean and even a spossible, I mask it with masking tape.

I always use two cups of clean water for my brushes. I use one cup just to wash the brush and the other to paint. In between, I change the water regularly. The cleaner the water is, the less the colours get mixed with other colour pigments and the colours keep their brilliance. I keep paper towels next to the cups to wipe off water or paint from the brush.

Since I use a mixture of watercolour and gouache, I presketched the painting with a pencil. Gouache is so opaque that I don't have to worry about the pencil lines showing through. If you are working with less opaque colours, you can use colored pencils that have the same colour range as the colours you are using for the painting.

Now that I've finished my preparations, I start to dampen the background (sort of the backmost and final layer of mypainting) with clear water and a brush. It should be wet enough that it hasn't dried even after a minute, but not so wet that large puddles form on the surface!

Step 2:

In the background, I want to paint an atmospheric sky. It is the furthest away from my figure in the foreground, so I don't want the colours to be too bright, but rather soft.

To create a nice colour gradient, I use the wet-on-wet technique: I apply wet paint on my wet paper, which I moistened with water for this reason. To create a sunrise mood, I use for my gradient 232 Cadmium Yellow Dark, 311 Naples Yellow Reddish, which I mix with some 351 Ruby Red. The result should be a gradient from pink to orange.

I mix the colours with a lot of water, so they don't get so intense and start with pink: I paint with the pink, on the still wet paper, from the top to the middle of the painting and let the colour get weaker and weaker until the middle. With the orange, I paint from the bottom half of the painting up to the center, again letting the colour get weaker and weaker, and start mixing both shades in the center of the painting. In order to achieve a gradient that is as streak-free as possible, the painting must not begin to dry out during painting. Once the painting isevenly wet, you can paint over it again and again with the brush or tilt the painting from one side to the other and let the colours run.

Step 3:

Now I paint the mountain range. It forms the second layer and may therefore have stronger colours than the sky. The mountain range is again divided into three layers. To create a sense of closeness and distance, the rear most mountain range should be the faintest. The middle mountain range is shown a bit darker and the foremost one is the darkest because it is closest to our eye. To make the last mountain range look like it is far away, I use the 311 Naples Yellow reddish again. Only this time, I mix the paint with less water so that the hue stands out strongly against the sky.

After the layer is completely dry, I mix the 311 Naples Yellow Reddish with a little bit of 462 Delft Blue and paint the second mountain range. Once it has dried, I mix another 462 Delft Blue into my colour mixture and use it to paint the last mountain range.

Step 4:

Now all the rocks will be painted. I start with the rock with the temple. I want it to look as if it emerges from the mistand floats in the clouds.

That's why I use the wet-on-wet technique again: Using clear water, the first thing I do is to paint the area of the rock. Then I mix a lot of water with 462 Delft Blue and dab the colour onto the wet paper with my brush. Using 788 Ivory Black and 462 Delft Blue, I make another watery mixture and dab on rock textures and structures. While the rock dries, I paint the two other rocks in the foreground. Since they form the second and the last layer and are almost closest to me, I want these rocks to be darker than the first one. 462 Delft Blue is mixed again, only this time with a higher amount of black. After the paint is applied and still wet, I add a little pure 788 Ivory Black and paint a gradient from black to blue/black. Once everything is dry, you can start painting the details, e.g. the rock texture or cracks.

Step 5 and 6:

For the temple, I mix 199 opaque white with a tiny bit of 311 Naples Yellow reddish so that I don't get pure white, with the effect that it looks like the sunrise is reflected by the temple. Here I make sure the colour doesn't get too watery but is still wet enough that you can work in gradients with 462 Delft Blue. I carefully dab 566 Permanent Green into the still wet paint to create a mossy texture, then I mix a bit of 788 Ivory Black into the green and, after the templeis completely dry, I paint the details for the moss with this darker green.

Now I paint the plant area of the rocks: 566 Permanent Green with a little 788 Ivory Black is applied thickly to the temple rock and while the colour is still wet, I paint a gradient from dark green to light green. I mix some 199 Opaque White with 566 Permanent Green and work out the highlights of the drooping vines with this resulting light green.

I apply the same principle to the two rocks in the foreground. But here I add more Black, so that the green is a little darker, since these two rocks mark the foreground and are placed in the shadow, thus giving us the feeling that the rock with the temple is far away in front of us.

Finally, I paint some small details, like single leaves and blades of grass.

When everything is dry, I mix 199 opaque white with a lot of water and use it to paint a large cloudy area that wraps around the rock in the middle. Then, when this layer has dried as well, I expand the motif with small wisps of clouds that stick to the mountains and rocks. Since our paint is applied watery, it works as a glaze and is only semi-covering. Here it is worth working in several layers. Even though the paint looks very opaque at first glance, it lightens up again after drying. So, if it doesn't cover well enough, you can paint it over again several times until you achieve that semi-transparent cloud effect.

Step 7 and 8:

Now we come back to the penultimate layer and focus onthe trees. They are the closest to us and for this reason they must be painted with strong colours. This is where the gouache comes into use. Since I worked with light glazes in the background, I didn't have to worry about painting cleanly around the trees. Gouache, with its colour-intense and highly opaque nature, can easily cover up mistakes and minor mishaps. First, I paint the foliage of the trees, which I also divided into4 layers and start with the darkest area. Therefore, I mix 462 Delft Blue with 351 Ruby Red and a little 199 Opaque White until I have a violet tone. With this mixture I paint the lowest layer of foliage. After that, I mix a little white into my violet to achieve a lighter shade. With the lightened violet I paint now, after the colour is completely dry again, on the darker violet a further leaf layer. I repeat this process twice more, adding more and more 199 opaque white each time, until I end up with a light purple.

Now only the tree trunks are missing. Therefore, I mix 788 Ivory Black with 670 Madder Brown. I want the trunks to be as dark as possible, but not yet completely black, and to have a slight brown tinge.

I apply the paint fairly thickly so that it covers the foliage, and with the opaque white I paint into the still wet colour to create a slight gloss effect. This gives the tree trunks plasticity and makes them look rounder.

In the foremost part of the painting, we can still see some leaves and branches. This is our last layer. I now paint these plants with pure ivory black, leaving them completely into the shadow. This gives the painting a nice frame and we, as viewers, get the feeling that we can push a side the branches that interfere with our field of vision to get a glimpse of the adventurer and the forgotten temple.

Step 9:

For glazes, I like to use HORADAM® Watercolor. The colours are brilliant and colourful even when applied weakly. The fact that they are easily removable after drying allows us to play with many interesting effects. For the adventurer's skin, I use 230 Naples Yellow Reddish. I mix it with a lot of water and add a touch of Designers' Gouache 311 Naples Yellow Reddish. I use the very waterycolour as a base and paint the face, ears, neck, and hand with it.

Now we can play with the pigments and manipulate them. This time I take the pure 230 Naples Yellow Reddish and add it into the wet colour to paint slight gradients where the face should be darker: under the chin, at the hairline, ears, etc..

With 351 Ruby Red I paint over the wet colour again andthus create reddened cheeks and lips, as well as a slight gradient for finger and nose tips and the ear.

The ingenious thing about watercolours is that you canremove pigments with water and paint over them again. With this technique, you can create exciting effects. For this I wash my brush thoroughly and dab it slightly on the paper towel. With the half-dry and clean brush, I now remove colour from the places where reflections would be expected in the face.

I proceed similarly with the hair: With 670 Madder Brown and 788 Ivory Black, I make a slight gradient from darkbrown to brown and remove colour from the areas where the hair shines. At the end I paint with the remaining brown individual strands and hair that hangs into the face.

Once everything is dry, I paint the outlines with coloured pencils. Details like freckles, skin redness and the eye follow.

Step 10:

For heavier fabrics, like the thick sweater, I go back to gouache. For the sweater, I mix 788 Ivory Black and 199 Opaque White to a light grey and apply it quite thickly, mixing another bit of 788 Ivory Black to my grey to intensify the shades of the sweater. 351 Ruby Red is used to paint the collar and sleeve ends.

For the backpack, I mix 516 Green Earth twice with 199 Opaque White, once with more white and once with more green. I use the lighter tone to paint the flap and outside pockets of the backpack and the darker green to paint the rest of the backpack.

For denim, I prefer to use those watercolour paints, which are hard to wash off (staining) and which are opaque. Unlike colours that wash off easily (non-staining), these colours don't come off the paper easily with water and stain the paper slightly. I take advantage of this effect because the dyed paper texture looks like washed denim. For this I use 787 Payne's grey bluish on my adventurer. I paint the pants completely blue and again use a clean brush to wash out the colour in the areas where the jeans have a wash.

Finally, I use the brown I mixed for the trunk to paint the shoes and the loop of the walking stick, the grey of the sweater for the walking stick itself, and 351 Ruby Red for the handle of the walking stick.

I use coloured pencils again to paint small details, like folds and seams or shading.

Step 11:

Now we paint the part that is the most fun: the final touches! To reinforce the sense of closeness and distance, I use 199 Opaque White to paint a flock of birds fluttering in the distance. I use the remaining purple from step 7 to shade the birds, painting falling leaves into the air and onto the two rocks in the foreground. Small quirks can now be corrected, and final details added.

The artist

Living and working in Berlin, Sarah Bronder set up her own business in 2019 as an illustrator and has been building her own brand ever since. Personalised commissioned drawings are just as much a part of her repertoire as custom-designed prints, postcards, and folding cards. Exciting characters and vivid fantasy worlds make up her motifs. As an illustrator, Sarah Bronder draws inspiration from nature, dreams, and her vivid imagination, which she uses to create everyday situations into fantastic scenes. This is also reflected in the colour world of her paintings: with a mixed technique of watercolour, gouache and coloured pencils colourful worlds are created, in which her characters find a home and invite everyone to daydream!