Watercolor and Crayon Resist Fish Paintings

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Using reference pictures of tropical fish, students made several fish drawings, one or two of which they chose to use in their final painting. Using a light table or window, each student repeatedly traced their favorite fish to create the illusion of a school of fish swimming. Each student was required to demonstrate some overlapping, and had to balance their composition by using the edges of their paper.

The tracings were then gone over with a thick layer of white crayon. This created a resist effect when painted over with the watercolors. Prior to actually painting their fish, each student learned several different watercolor techniques, (wet-into-wet blending, salt effects, one color wash, and two color blending,) and practiced them as a graded exercise. It was required that at least three of the four techniques were used in their fish paintings. This lesson was adapted from a project/article by Cecilia Pichini that was featured in the March 1999 issue of School Arts Magazine. The artist used as inspiration in Pichini’s lesson is Hawaiian Watercolorist, Sherri Reeve

For a step-by-step breakdown of how I do this project with my 7th graders, READ ON!

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First, we spend about two classes drawing with pencil on paper. I provide each table a folder with reference pictures of a variety of fish photos and illustrations. Students draw 2-3 fish, with these goals in mind: Draw LARGE, so each fish is roughly as large as their hand with their fingers spread. Draw SIMPLY: basic outlines and interior details are essential. (Knowing that we are going to be outlining the fish with white crayon later, it is very important to not over-detail their drawings!) Draw REALISTICALLY: I allow them to “mix and match” fish features, but it should be evident that they drew from careful observation.

When the students have their drawings complete, we consult on their favorite(s), and ultimately, they choose 1 or 2 to use for their final project, going over the drawing(s) with a thick Sharpie to aid in the tracing step,  which comes next.

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Now, each student receives a 17″ by 22″ piece of watercolor paper. They have the option of adding elements of an ocean floor, such as seaweed, rocks, coral, etc. If they desire to show the ocean floor in their picture, they sketch these items in lightly with pencil at this point. NOTE: I use this paper for this lesson. It’s reasonably priced and has a good weight and surface for this lesson.

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Now for the tracing! I have several small light boxes, but we also spread out in the school halls and use the doors and windows for this step. As students trace their composition with pencil, they are given these goals: they must show at least three examples of overlapping, they must cover at least 50% of their paper, and they must have a fish swimming in or off every edge of the paper. (Exception: students who did the seaweed/coral step don’t need to have a fish swimming up from below…but they can if they want!) This tracing step requires good supervision as there will be pitfalls: students  may trace too many fish, resulting in a confusing layout, or they may trace “see through” fish without eliminating parts of fish that should appear overlapped.  Another common issue is that sometimes a kid will not vary the position of the paper or fish enough, resulting in an unnatural “stack” of fish.

I generally save a few “epic fails” from previous years, (with the students’ permission of course,) to show some of these common mistakes. Here are pictures of students tracing successfully!

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Regardless of how often I tell the kids to trace lightly, they WILL draw too dark! So, I always have some kneaded erasers on hand so they can lighten up their drawing prior to the white crayon step. They should lighten their lines to diminish their appearance, but so they can still clearly see where they should apply the crayon. Here is the student from the above right picture with her finished composition, lightening her lines:


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After students lighten their lines, they are ready for the white crayon step. This is the most laborious part of the project and really requires emphasis on its importance! The problem: it’s hard to see what your doing, and therefore easy to dismiss the critical nature of the work. I give each student one brand new white crayon, (but tell them it will not stay sharp and will likely break, so be prepared!) I demonstrate the proper technique, which is to go over each line with firm, small, back-and-forth strokes, laying on several layers of crayon by the time you’ve worked across a segment. It usually takes 2-3 class periods for students to do this step well.

TIP: turning off the lights allows the “gleam” of the crayon to show up better when the paper is held towards the light from your windows. Another good way to check your work is to look across the paper, flat, against your classroom lights. This better allows one to see the waxy sheen of the crayon. I always check EVERYONE’S work when they think they’re done crayoning: extra eyes are always a good thing!

Projects in the midst of the crayon step: (lights off!)


A student checking his crayon work against the light:


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When most students are finished with the crayon step, we put aside our fish drawings and do a watercolor exercise. This generally takes two classes. I teach the kids four different techniques, and they demonstrate each one twice for practice. EVERY ONE OF THESE TECHNIQUES REQUIRES THAT THE SECTION TO BE PAINTED IS PRE-WET WITH PLAIN WATER FIRST. This allows the color to flow and blend softly on the surface without just immediately being sucked into the paper.

Wet-into-wet Blending: Two or more softly blended splotches of color that create a random tie-dye effect. Be sure not to over blend, or it will become all one color.

Salt Effects: Same as above, but sprinkle salt lightly on the wet areas of paint before it has a chance to dry. (Do not disturb salt after sprinkling— the crystal effect blossoms as the salt dissolves over several minutes)

One Color Wash: Apply a line of concentrated color along one edge of your pre-wetted section. Wash your brush and use clean water to pull from the line, back and forth and down, to create a fading effect from dark to light.

Two Color Fade: An Ombre effect where one color fades into another. (Essentially, It’s two wash techniques meeting in the middle!)

Here’s a student with his completed watercolor exercise: Practice makes perfect!


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Now for painting! Notice something unusual about the way the student below is painting? Read on!


When students have completed their white crayon work, AND successfully practiced all four watercolor techniques, they are able to move on to painting their fish! Despite their instinct to want to paint a whole fish, from start to finish, this would only end in a frustrating result: wet areas of paint that touch will mix and run into one another. The best approach is to pick a SECTION of your fish and paint ALL those sections with the same technique and colors, at the same time. This is the best way to make all your fish match! Even if the color saturation and blending varies a bit from fish to fish, they will look natural and of the same species. The student above is starting with all the top body sections of his fish, using the Wet-into-Wet Blending technique.

The student below started with her tails, using the Two Color Fade technique:


This student started with a stripe on her fish, using Wet-Into-Wet blending.IMG_8754

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More paintings in progress:


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The last thing we paint is the background. Students pick two analogous colors for this step, and they should choose colors they have not used much in their fish. Sometimes two warm colors are the best choice if one’s fish are predominantly cool colors:


But… two cool colors in one’s background can be a lovely way to emphasize warm-colored sea creatures:



Regardless of color choice, Salt Effects or Wet-into-Wet Blending are the best techniques for the background. Students should wet and paint individual sections at a time, (rather than trying to wet the entire background at once!)

My students are required to use three of the four learned techniques by the time their painting is done. How and where is up to them, and color choice is totally free!

One last very important reminder: Although the wax crayon will naturally resist water, the paint has enough “body” that it will cover all the white lines students worked so hard to create during the crayoning step. Encourage your kids to avoid painting over the crayon as much as possible. For the turtle shells in the painting below, for example, the student was careful to drop the paint only in the divided sections between the crayon lines in order to allow those nice white lines to stay emphasized:IMG_8924

This is always a successful lesson for me and I have tweaked my instruction many times over the years. Try it yourself first, and you will learn a lot of important things to share with YOUR students! Good luck!

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Dave Perry
    Aug 28, 2016 @ 22:52:49

    Dear Ms. Amsler, I greatly admire your tropical fish paintings. Are prints of these available for purchase? Do you have a phone number or email address that I may contact to discuss how I might obtain prints of some of them? Thank you,
    David Perry, (954) 525-5906
    email: davelauderdale@yahoo.com


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