Stencils with Watercolor: Recipes for Creative Success

Sometimes the hardest part of my process is coming up with something new to paint. There are days where I’m pretty sure I have run out of imagination completely. And don’t even get me started about the days my brain forgets how to draw!

I have developed a great way to give myself some grace on these less-than-productive days. I create an art-filled recipe card that reminds me how to develop an illustration based on my past work.

Combining stencils with watercolor allows you to create a variety of compositions.

You can read more about it in my newest book, The Art of Creative Watercolor: Inspiration and Techniques for Imaginative Drawing and Painting. The technique is also the focus of my companion video course, Joy of Composition. In the video, you’ll learn how to put the recipe cards together and use them to create a beautiful illustrative series, practice a specific composition, or play with new color palettes.

Using my recipe card for bell jar scenes, in this post you’ll learn how to use your stash of stencils in a whole new way, plus you’ll one of my new stencils available in the shop on my website.


  • Blank index card
  • Mechanical pencil with 0.3 mm lead
  • White vinyl eraser
  • Artist-grade 140-lb. cold-press watercolor paper
  • Stencil (I used my Bell Jar stencil from the Donna Downey Guest Collection.)
  • Water-soluble disappearing marker, fine tip (There are alternate versions that disappear with heat or air, but I have found that the water-soluble version is best.)
  • Watercolor brushes, small round
  • A clear jar with clean water
  • Artist-grade watercolors (pan or tube)
  • Mixing palette with several wells (You can use a lap-size white dry-erase board if you prefer.)
  • Fine-tip white ink marker or paint pen (I used a Uni Posca Extra Fine Marker.)

1. Using a blank index card, draw an extra-small sketch of your bell jar on one half of the card. On the other half, make notes about different ideas to include in the composition. Here, I added various shapes of the bell jar and variations of the sky, land, sea, and house. I have also included a note about the cake stand that the bell jar rests on and what details I could add to it, like a swing or banners.

Keeping notes on ideas for compositions gives you a head start on creating new pieces.

2. Place the bell jar stencil over the watercolor paper. Trace the stencil, using the water-soluble marker. Remove the stencil.

Outline the image first with a water-soluble marker to create guidelines.

3. Lightly trace over the object with pencil. It’s important to not press too hard on the pencil to be sure you don’t make indentions or marks you can’t erase later.

Mechanical pencils offer crisp, consistent lines and don’t need to be sharpened.

4. Wet a clean brush with clear water and apply it to the paper. Move the brush around with additional water if necessary to thoroughly remove any trace of the pen. There’s no need to scrub the paper. Let dry completely.

Applying water to the marker lines makes them disappear.

5. Touch up the bell jar and cake stand with the pencil now that you can see it more clearly. Referring to your recipe card, lightly draw the basic components of the scene. Don’t add little patterns or fussy details yet.

Based on your recipe notes, create your image inside the bell jar.

6. Add the first layer of watercolor. The process will be easier if you don’t paint each component separately in the first wash. I have painted a subtle wash of colors over everything but the clouds. Let this layer dry completely.

Using stencils with watercolor allows you to create a variety of scenes.

7. Continue to add additional layers of color to smaller shapes to define them.

Layers of watercolor add depth to a piece.

8. Add additional details with the pencil and white ink marker to complete your scene. Retrace your pencil lines where they intersect to create what I call visual tension. This process adds depth to your illustration. Add additional details sparingly with the white paint marker to complete the illustration.

Add final details with a white pen and more pencil lines.

Let Danielle show you how to create a painted and stitched spring garland in this blog post!

Danielle Donaldson has walked a creative path for as long as she can remember. Her love of art began, as most young souls do, with a big box of crayons and a stack of coloring books. Over time, she focused her artistic efforts in watercolor and graphite drawing techniques and eventually received her degree in graphic design. Her love of fine art, paired with her skills as a graphic designer, have provided her with an uncommon pairing of intuition and practicality. Her use of big color palettes and delicately drawn details allows her to spin the ordinary into imaginative and balanced compositions. She continues to grow as an artist by fully embracing the creative process in all she does and with each story she tells. Danielle thoroughly enjoys sharing her process and imagination through online classes, in-person workshops, social media, and in her books, creativeGIRL: Mixed Media Techniques for an Artful Life, and The Art of Creative Watercolor: Inspiration and Techniques for Imaginative Drawing and Painting, both from North Light Books. Danielle has also hosted several instructional videos for Artists Network TV.

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Get all of Danielle’s new products in one fantastic kit! The Danielle Donaldson Watercolor Collection includes her new book, three videos, and two cling rubber stamps designed by Danielle.


Blog, Mixed-Media Painting Techniques, Mixed-Media Techniques

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