Celestial Watercolor: Learn to Paint the Zodiac Constellations and Seasonal Night Skies

Celestial Watercolor: Learn to Paint the Zodiac Constellations and Seasonal Night Skies

by Elise Mahan, D.R. McElroy


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The zodiac has been used for a millennia to bring humans closer to the cosmos. With this creative masterpiece, it's your turn to travel nearer the heavens following simple directions for painting each of the constellations, accompanied by information about each sign of the zodiac. A basic introduction to watercolor techniques and its tools will get you started.

Learn how to paint the beautiful night sky throughout the seasons while learning about sun signs and their place in astrology with Celestial Watercolor—complete with an overview of the tools and techniques of watercolor.

This guide to painting the stars also features:

  • How to achieve the look of the night sky unique to each season, from the light blue summer night to the deep blue of the winter
  • Watercolor wash techniques: wet-into-wet and wet-on-dry painting
  • How to paint moons throughout the year, including the 12 moons from the Native American and spiritual traditions
  • Adding environmental elements, including trees, mountains, and lakes
  • Ideas for night sky painting gifts for baby showers, weddings, birthdays, and other occasions
Express your passion for the night sky in paint with -Celestial Watercolor, whether you're a weekend artist or a more experienced artist looking to expand your repertoire.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781631065880
Publisher: Rock Point
Publication date: 04/02/2019
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 362,697
Product dimensions: 8.65(w) x 10.30(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Elise Mahan works as an educator specializing in creating open-ended mixed media art projects for children of all ages. Her painting and process have evolved from her research of astronomy and natural history. She believes that each painting is a chance to draw upon ethereal elements that explore texture and pattern.

D.R. McElroy has a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture and a Master of Science in Environmental Resources. She is the co-author of Celestial Watercolor and has been a professional editor and writer for ten years. She lives in Michigan.

Read an Excerpt


Tools & Techniques

Watercolor is an incredibly diverse medium, and with just a few materials you can create your own celestial paintings inspired by the beauty and power of the cosmos. In the following pages I have included a few of my favorite tools and materials that I work with. However, I encourage you to experiment with a variety of paints, pens, brushes, and papers throughout your artistic journey, as you will certainly find something unique that works for your style of watercolor painting. It is my hope that this book will inspire you to explore the endless possibilities that watercolor has to offer.


Watercolor Papers

There are several different types of watercolor papers you can use to make your paintings. There is hot press (smooth); cold press, which has a little texture to it; and rough press, which has the most "tooth," or texture, to it as well as the longest dry time. I generally prefer to paint on cold-press watercolor paper for most of my paintings, as it contains a beautiful rough texture in addition to being smooth enough to achieve incredible detail with both watercolor and ink.

As with any material, I think it's a great idea to try out a range and decide what works best for your paintings. You will find that hot press has a smooth quality to the paper, and as a result, the paint will dry faster. I like the rougher textures because it also gives me the ability to work in layers without worrying about saturating my paper with too much paint, or causing the paper to shed, buckle, or rip. I tend to work on heavier, artist-grade papers so that I can layer and experiment.

There are some great student-grade papers made by Strathmore that are 140 lb, which tells you the weight or thickness of the watercolor paper. You can purchase as thin as 45 lb and as thick as 300 lb. For most of my celestial paintings, I like to use extra-heavy 300 lb paper, because making a luminous sky requires much layering. Below I have included a list of a few paper suggestions that might assist you in choosing an appropriate watercolor paper. Artist-grade paper is generally a better price and is good for studies and smaller works. I like professional watercolor paper because it is archival, which means that it will not age or yellow over time.

Once I have chosen my paper and cut it down to the appropriate size, I tape off the edges with masking tape onto a drawing board to achieve a crisp line for my full-page landscapes and to keep the surface of my paper from buckling while I work. This also gives me a good amount of space to frame my painting once it's finished. For my circular paintings, I generally use a compass, or sometimes a circular embroidery hoop, as a template.


Strathmore paper • Reeves BFK paper • Fluid 100 watercolor paper • Arches watercolor paper • Moleskine journal (it makes an excellent watercolor sketchbook for rough sketches)

Watercolor Paints

I have several favorite watercolor brands that I use and adore for different reasons. I like Sennelier, due to its soft, buttery, and easy-to-mix qualities. I also love Winsor & Newton, as they have a great range of watercolor products, from student to professional quality, and I also have a weakness for Gansai Tambi Pan watercolors, due to their delightfully overwhelming array of colors within their 36-pan set. I will gladly find any excuse to purchase and test new watercolor paints, since all have such unique qualities, but the above three are my favorites, because they are bright, vivid, and lightfast, and can be used in combination with other water-based media, such as walnut ink, metallic pigments, and gouache. Below is a more comprehensive list of paints that will also work well for making celestial paintings.


Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolors • Sennelier watercolors • Gansai Tambi Pan watercolor set • Holbein watercolors • Dr. Ph. Martin's watercolor inks


I have tried and, sadly, destroyed a great many paintbrushes during my time as a painter. I used to purchase top-quality brushes when I worked at an art store and was able to justify the expense due to my employee discount. However, over the years I have realized that I am particularly brutal on my brushes, and despite my best intentions, I ruin all of them quickly no matter what quality they happen to be. As a result, I tend to mostly purchase inexpensive, round, nylon brushes.

There is a wide range of brushes that are great for landscapes. I buy round, flat, and angle brushes for different purposes. I use an angle brush because it is good for circular paintings and has a great edge. I like size 4. For my watercolor washes I use a ½-inch (1.3-cm) flat brush to lay down the color. I also use a larger ½-inch (1.3-cm) flat wash brush to create my larger skies. I use 000 and 0000 brushes, which are just about as small as you can get. These brushes are great for details like stars, constellations, and botanical details like leaves, bird feathers, and grasses. A small round detail brush such as a 4 is nice to have for larger areas and for texture on rocks and mountains. I especially like Winsor & Newton Cotman synthetic watercolor brushes, because they are reasonably priced and hold their points despite my harsh treatment.

There are some amazing natural watercolor brushes on the market as well. They are generally made of squirrel or sable hair, and you will find that they hold their point longer and will hold more water. Prepare yourself to put forth a much larger investment for them than you will for synthetic watercolor brushes.

Finally, I like to use water brushes, which have a small reservoir for water attached to them, so they are excellent to do a variety of watercolor washes with, and you can control the amount of water that comes out of the brush. Water brushes are especially fun to use to create night skies, because they spread water so well. They are also great for wet-on-wet technique, which is an effect that I used for all the skies in my zodiac paintings (see here). Below are some of my brush suggestions:


Winsor & Netwon Cotman synthetic brushes • Princeton brushes • Niji water brushes • Sakura Koi water brushes

Pens & Pencils

I adore all art materials, which can be seen in my pen and pencil collection as much as in my paint collection. For most of my celestial paintings I use Sakura Pigma Micron pens, mechanical pencils, and Uni-ball white gel pens during my creative process. Because I also regularly use them in my sketchbook drawings, I like to have a lot of variety. I also like using water-based inks, such as walnut ink, so I occasionally use a Speedball calligraphy pen for some of my detail work.


Sakura Pigma Micron pens • Sakura White Gelly Roll pens • Uni-ball white gel pens • Staedtler pencils

Work Area

I always start any new project with a clean desk and easel. To stay motivated, I clean my studio before I start any new work, and although it tends to get messy when I'm in the middle of a new painting, it is part of my process. I also share my art studio with my husband, Matthew, who is a sculptor, and with our two-year-old son, Miles, who absolutely adores painting and wants to be involved in every project. We are all constantly inspired by each other, and even though I never get as much work done as I might like, working in the studio as a family gives us the opportunity to create together and to raise our son in an artistic environment, so I wouldn't have it any other way.


I like to work from my natural surroundings as much as possible, so I take a lot of reference photos when I am in nature to serve as inspiration when I need a new idea for a painting. I also keep a list of ideas for new paintings that I regularly add to my sketchbook so that I have a bunch of ideas ready to use. I also collect leaves and botanical elements, which I press into my sketchbooks and display in my studio. These everyday mementos provide me with color inspiration when choosing a color palette for a new piece, and they also serve as a source of inspiration for life drawings.

When I decide on an idea for a painting, I first try several variations in a set of sketches to be sure I have a successful composition before moving on to my good watercolor paper. I try to always keep in mind that composition is really up to the taste of the viewer. I have made paintings that I personally did not feel were quite the right style or composition I originally intended, yet they sold to a buyer who felt very differently. Therefore, I think it is up to you, as the artist, to decide what works in your painting. For example, if your botanical details feel too crowded, there is a good chance they probably are; however, the overcrowded quality might really work for a viewer, so I suggest showing your sketches and paintings to a friend or partner for a second opinion before scrapping an idea or a composition. Sometimes it just takes another person to see something in your painting that speaks to her or him to know you have created a good composition.


I have been collecting art history and natural history books for as long as I can remember. My book collection has long been a place to which I can turn for researching and learning about artists and painting techniques. I aim to discover the different ways that art has influenced humanity, and what themes and symbols emerged at different times throughout history. As you can imagine, the night sky is a constant source of inspiration for so many great artists, and it is amazing to see such a diverse array of artistic depictions of the cosmos. My book collection has been a part of my life for so long and reminds me of how far I have come as an artist, and it keeps me constantly wanting to learn and evolve as an artist as well.

I also use a sketchbook in my painting process because it helps me with the preliminary layout, composition, and colors for a painting. In addition, I usually experiment with mixing colors and painting swatches, which allows me to be sure my color palette works well before I move on to my final painting. For my night sky paintings, I like to alternate between creating imaginary constellations and studying astronomy books to learn about the ones that actually exist in the sky.

Painting with Watercolors

Painting with watercolor is really about experimenting with what incredible things paint can do when you apply it to your paper in different ways. Over the next pages, you will find descriptions of various effects that will work beautifully for creating your celestial paintings. There are a great number of other techniques for watercolor, and I suggest you explore them if you find yourself loving these effects, as they are really just a starting place when first exploring watercolor painting. These effects are the ones I use the most to create my skies, and I experiment in my sketchbook so that I can be sure I like an effect for my painting.

I like to mix paint samples and swatches when I am working on a new piece, and if I am working on a long-term or large project, I mix several colors ahead of time. This way, I do not have to think about how I mixed the colors later in my painting process. Also, it can help to have a few palettes, including one with small-lidded paint containers, readily available to mix and label your washes. When I was starting out as a painter, I struggled to remember how or what I used to mix a color, so it can really help to make notes or swatches when mixing colors so that you know exactly how you made that gloriously verdant green shade, for example, and be able to create it as many times as needed.

Once you have a good sense of the colors for your painting, it is time to decide how you want to lay that color down and which technique will work best for your purposes. I tend to start with an underpainting, which can help you decide whether you want your painting to be focused on a range of warm or cool colors. The underpainting can really determine that in a sky. For example, for most of my zodiac paintings, I started with a very light wash of the color I want to work with, and I lay that wash down first with a small amount of water. I let that wash layer dry, and then I choose a slightly darker version of that color for my second layer. I go back into my painting with a medium round brush (4) and add a small amount of water to make the pigment flow back over my first layer. These two layers blend together, and give you a luminous and flowing sky.

In addition to washes, there are two main watercolor painting techniques: wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry. Each has its advantages. I like both techniques and use them often. I find that when I'm working on my skies, a wet-on-wet technique blends the best because it spreads the paint across the paper in a soft and unpredictable way. I tend to use wet-on-dry techniques for creating a more opaque quality in my skies, because the paint will flow and move across the paper less when there is less water involved, so it makes for a good minimal background.


There are several types of washes that can help you create a beautiful sky. The first is a graded wash, which is a technique that starts with a dark color. When you add water, your wash gradually lightens near the bottom of your painting, creating a lovely ombré effect that makes for a luminous and magical sky. The second is a flat wash, which creates an even distribution of a single color on your page. Once this layer is dry, you can go back in a second time with other complementary colors to make your sky pop, or you can leave it for a very minimalist and stark-looking sky, which works well for a winter scene. Finally, a two-color wash or gradient wash uses two colors on a wet surface. You can either use two different colors or the same color in varying degrees of pigment intensity; they will mix and blend together when dry to produce a lovely effect.

Wet-on-Wet Technique

The wet-on-wet technique begins by adding a water wash onto the paper before adding your preferred paint color. This first wash will cause the watercolor paint to spread and bleed across the paper in a beautiful and unpredictable way. I use a ½-inch (1.3-cm) flat wash brush to lay down a thin coat of water, but you could also add a small amount of color for a light wash. For my skies, I like to add a very small amount of gold metallic pigment to my water for this step, so that the gold paint will re-wet when I lay down my second layer of paint and create that lovely metallic effect. After I lay my wash down, I then go in and apply dark to light pigments with whatever colors I have chosen for my sky.

Wet-on-Dry Technique

The wet-on-dry technique begins by loading a flat 1-inch (2.5-cm) wash brush with a color and painting directly onto the paper. This technique allows for a more controlled distribution of paint, but gives less of a transparent, flowing quality than the wet-on-wet technique provides. Both are great techniques, and for my skies I tend to use aspects of both within the same painting. For example, I will lay down a light water wash onto a small part of my painting, then load my brush with pigment and work on the dry part of the paper near where I laid down my wash. I let that paint slowly blend with the wet areas, creating a bolder, more pigmented area alongside a softer, blended area. There is less of a spreading effect with wet-on-dry technique, but it provides an intense, dark quality to certain areas of your sky.

Colors & Effects

My favorite colors to work with are rich, saturated tones, such as blue, green, and hints of red, gold, and metallics. I always try to expand my palette by experimenting with different color combinations in my sketchbook, and I make lots of test colors and swatches before I settle on a color scheme for a new painting. As important as I believe color theory is to the art-making process, I also believe that you, the artist, will intuitively know which colors work best for your painting. There is no harm in trying out a color only to realize that you want to paint over it and use the initial color as an underpainting. I recommend letting a color dry completely first, so as not to muddy your painting, but generally that extra layer will just give your painting more depth.

In the next chapter are some of the colors I like to use for representing the seasons. I like to use a light wash to start off these paintings. There are several lovely watercolor effects that you add to a wash using household items such as salt or rubbing alcohol. It can be fun to create a unique sky by laying down a light wash and then using a sprinkle of salt over it and letting it dry. Once dry, the salt rolls off and you will see that the places where the salt is laid down resist pigment. When you lay down a wash of paint and then drop a small dot of rubbing alcohol from a small round brush (I generally use a 000 round brush), you will see that the alcohol repels watercolor and spreads in a really unique and unpredictable way. You can find examples of these two effects in several of my seasonal paintings starting shown here.


Excerpted from "Celestial Watercolor"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Elise Mahan.
Excerpted by permission of The Quarto Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 Tools & Techniques,
Watercolor Papers,
Watercolor Paints,
Pens & Pencils,
Work Area,
Painting with Watercolors,
Wet-on-Wet Technique,
Wet-on-Dry Technique,
Colors & Effects,
2 Astrological Signs,
Fire Signs,
Earth Signs,
Air Signs,
Water Signs,
Painting Astrological Watercolors,
An Astrological Watercolor,
Astrological Variation,
3 The Moon,
Moon Lore,
Painting Moon Watercolors,
Painting a Moon Watercolor,
Moon Variation,
4 Seasonal Night Sky Landscapes,
Painting Seasonal Night Sky Watercolors,
Painting a Spring Watercolor,
Summer Variation,
Fall Variation,
Winter Variation,
About the Authors,

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