How to paint with watercolor - Yong Hong Zhong
Yong Hong Zhong, "Under the Concho Bridge," 2018, watercolor, 12 x 9 in., Private collection, Plein air

West Coast painter Yong Hong Zhong builds on his training in illustration and calligraphy to approach watercolor with trust and confidence. 

The following is part of a series featuring a leader in the art community who will be joining us on the faculty of Watercolor Live, a virtual art conference taking place January 26-28, 2023, with a Beginner’s Day on January 25.

No Fear Watercolor

When students of Yong Hong Zhong marvel at his brushwork, the Portland-area watercolorist simply shrugs in response. It’s natural to him. He’s aware that assertively placing bold, dark, or saturated color in the middle of the composition can ruin all the previous work done on the painting. Still, he’s not afraid.

“You have to have an idea of what to say to begin with,” he says. “And then you can’t be timid in the way you use your design, your brushstrokes, or your values — especially in watercolor. Because the medium doesn’t leave a lot of room for correction, you have to be confident. You can even break the rules if you do it confidently. You can do things like place your subject matter in the very center of your paper. There will be a lot of mistakes and failures, but over time, your work will get better.”

Yong Hong Zhong, "The Magic Hour," 2018, watercolor, 7 x 10 in., Collection the artist, Plein air
Yong Hong Zhong, “The Magic Hour,” 2018, watercolor, 7 x 10 in., Collection the artist, Plein air

In other words, don’t be afraid of mistakes, or of destroying your work on a piece to that point. Each failure teaches you more. And when a “mistake” is made, the mark can be used to the artist’s benefit. Zhong points to the demonstration in this article for an example.

In step 4 of the watercolor painting demonstration, you can clearly see how the two strokes on either side of the main tree — the left side being very dark and the right side being sunlit — fail to completely cover the white of the paper near the core shadow of the tree trunk. Zhong did not intend to do this, but it happened. (See the full six-step watercolor painting demonstration here.)

Step four of Zhong's demo on how to paint a landscape with watercolor
Step four of Zhong’s demo on how to paint a landscape with watercolor. Click here to see the full step-by-step process.

As he further developed the painting, this white bit of sparkle was toned by washes of color, but remained a light value and suggested texture on the trunk, providing a more natural feel in accordance with the light effects in the scene. “The light on the front of the trunk was not intentional — a big brush and urgent strokes created that,” he says. “If you trust in your brushstrokes, you will have these kinds of events. And then you can make something out of what you have put down.”


Clearly, Zhong is resourceful and pragmatic. He learned to improvise and embrace the ephemeral nature of some artwork as a child, back in the Canton Province in China. Growing up in the countryside with little means, the artist recalls practicing drawing by using a stick to mark the sand.

A master of watercolor technique, he didn’t get his first watercolor set until his family moved to New York City when he was 12 years old. There, he went to the highly respected La Guardia High School, then graduated from Pratt Institute. He worked for Disney for 14 years in the layout department. “My first film at Disney was Pocahontas, and my last film there was The Princess and the Frog,” he says.

As a layout artist at Disney, Zhong worked primarily in black and white, and found he missed playing with color. He ventured into plein air, painting outdoors on his lunch hour. Sixty minutes may not seem like enough time to paint, but he was a professional illustrator and worked fast. In these sessions, he worked in oil and was under the sway of the classic California impressionists. He still works in oil today, but watercolor is his primary medium, mostly because he finds it much more convenient for plein air work.

His artistic temperament was also shaped significantly by what he learned early on in New York City — the traditional artform of Chinese calligraphy. “I did a lot of calligraphy growing up, and you cannot make corrections when you put a stroke down with ink on rice paper,” says Zhong. “You have to be confident, from beginning to end. If the work is not good, you destroy it. But during the process, you have to trust that it is going to be fine. Most of my brushstrokes are done in one motion. I mix the color, practice the stroke in my head, and then put it down. Spontaneity is part of the beauty of the medium, and speed comes with confidence. Only if you can convince yourself can you convince your audience.”

Yong Hong Zhong, "Shades of Gray," 2016, watercolor, 12 x 16 in., Private collection, Plein air
Yong Hong Zhong, “Shades of Gray,” 2016, watercolor, 12 x 16 in., Private collection, Plein air

Zhong’s color palette is relatively small. He uses about 14 colors when painting with watercolors and a split-primary palette (using two shades of each primary color — a warm and a cool) with white and black for oils. “I feel that it is best to mix your own colors so you know how you got there and you can adjust them much easier,” the artist says. “In general, I love really bright and saturated colors. I love manipulating the mood of a scene through the use of light and shadows. But there are also times when subdued color really appeals to me.”

Perhaps the biggest factor in Zhong’s art career at this time is his family. He’s in the thick of it, with two kids; and as with many parents, his schedule revolves around them to a large extent. He does not see his family life as interfering with his painting, however. In fact, he sees a connection between them.

“I realized that raising kids is very similar to painting with oil and watercolor. With oil, you can put down one spot of color and it won’t move or change when it dries. You kind of know what it will do; it’s similar to taking care of a small infant — very predictable. But as children grow older, they develop their own personalities and they behave more like watercolor. They won’t necessarily listen to what I say, and I just have to make the best of it. I have to let go and trust that everything is going to be fine — just the way I paint with watercolors these days. Both kids and watercolor are spontaneous, with a little bit of control held by the parent and artist. It was an important discovery for me as a father, husband, and artist.”

Plein air painter Yong Hong Zhong
Drawn to Oregon’s beautiful landscapes and family-oriented communities, Yong Hong Zhong lives in Portland with his wife and two sons.

Learn more about Yong Hong Zhong at

Save years of struggle and frustration by discovering techniques revealed by the world’s top watercolor artists – including Yong Hong Zhong – in just three days at Watercolor Live, the world’s largest online art training event January 26-28, 2023 with Beginner’s Day on January 25.


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