Going Green for Art Show Season
Yet More Dealing with Art Directors
Your Workspace and Work Habits
Creator and Destroyer
Painting Sunspot - A Watercolor Tutorialby Melissa Acker
This painting is a good example of how an idea can evolve and change, and how things don't always turn out the way you planned. I'm going to walk you all through one of my watercolor paintings, and we'll go through my materials and my process, as well as what I was thinking when I painted what. So let's get started!
My materials are pretty simple. I always keep paper towels handy, along with masking tape. I use an old margarine tub to hold my water. I have a very basic selection of brushes: a 1-inch flat, a 3/4-inch chiseled flat, several rounds, and a small detail brush. And of course my palette; the colors I use, from upper right clockwise: permanent yellow deep, aurelin, cadmium yellow deep, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, cadmium red, permanent rose, alizarin crimson, cadmium orange, cerulean blue, turquoise blue, pthylo blue, cobalt blue, ultramarine, burnt umber, viridian green, mars black and indigo. You don't need all those colors of course, but a warm and cool of each primary, plus viridian green and burnt sienna, will make your life easier. Cadmium orange is also impossible to mix and is handy to keep around.
Having a sketch to work from is very helpful. How I start depends on how I happen to have been inspired to do the painting. In this case I drew an egret, and decided to turn it into a phoenix. So in this case I'm starting with a subject, and working a composition around it. Sometimes I'll sit around drawing some thumbnails first, and work out a good composition, and then stick my subject in it. Here I have my initial sketch of the phoenix, with no great detail. Then I go over the bird, working out the various planes, using contour lines. This is to help me understand the form of the subject, so that when I decide on a light source I'll be better prepared to put in shadows.
Here's the finished value sketch. You may notice that the bird and the branch have different looks to them. That's because the bird was drawn traditionally, then scanned in, and a background was drawn in with my tablet. Since I had no clear idea what I wanted for a background, I was able to go through wildly different ideas, and pick one I liked without damaging my original sketch. Sometimes I will instead print out the sketch on different pieces of paper and draw in different backgrounds that way. This was the third background I drew, and I decided to stick with this one. The background has no value, but I am imagining it as a light, clear blue sky.
Preparing the Paper
First off we have to stretch the paper so it won't buckle when we get it soaking wet. To do this, we need some kind of support (I use 1/4inch thick masonite board), some kind of tape (masking tape or craft tape), a big brush, your paper, and lots of water. Take your big brush, and evenly wet the back of your paper. Turn it over and wet the front. Then tape it down to your board as fast as you can. If you can lay it down flat and weight it down, that will also help flatten it. I use another heavy board on top to weight it down. Now you leave it for a day or so to dry, and make sure you don't touch it until it dries!
The faster you can get this done, the less buckling you'll have to worry about. You should be able to do the process in about a minute. This can get tricky, so here are some helpful hints for you. You may find it helpful to draw your line art onto the paper before you stretch it. If so, before you wet the paper, lighten your pencil lines as much a possible. Once you stretch the paper, those graphite lines are permanent. Also, the less graphite on your paper, the less likely you are to smudge it all over the place. You may also want to draw your 'border' on your paper, so you know exactly where to line the tape up with. I also measure and cut my tape before hand so I can stick it on as quickly as possible.
This painting is about 8 ½ by 13 inches, on 140lb cold press watercolor paper.
Generally I start all my paintings with one very light, wet and loose layer. However since this painting has a very clear sky behind the subject, I decide to do it in two steps to limit the bleeding. My first layer is various combinations of aurelin yellow, permanent rose, and cobalt blue over the bird and the branch. At this point I'm just laying out my initial value pattern, referencing my sketch. You can see how loose it is. Once the bird is bone-dry, I quickly lay down a layer of cerulean blue over the sky, trying to keep it slightly lighter at the bottom than at the top. Then we wait for paint to dry.
I often set my paintings to dry in an area where I can keep an eye on them, to see what king of impression I'm getting from them. At this point I decided I didn't want the blue background anymore; I wanted something warmer and more vibrant. After a little deliberation, I decided on a very warm orange-to-red background, perhaps centering on the phoenix. So I wet the sky with clean water, and scrub it with a stiff brush and paper towels. I lightened the blue considerably doing this.
Using fairly dark but wet mixes of aurelin and permanent rose, and my 3/4-inch flat, I start laying in color. I keep my brushstrokes going out from the phoenix, sometimes holding my brush straight up and drawing lines into the pigment with it. I add more permanent rose to the mix as I move away from the bird. Then I leave it for a few minutes, until the shine of the paper is just about to go away. I take a few drops of cadmium red and drip them into the sky to form the 'spots'. I wait a few minutes for those to spread, and then place a drop of cadmium yellow into the center of the drops. Now I let the whole piece dry. Once dry, I carefully wet around the phoenix and scrub out the paint, so it appears uniformly light.
Now, because I changed the light source, I have to change the values on the rest of the painting. Using various dark mixes of aurelin, permanent rose, and cobalt blue, I start building values, and adding a bit of texture, to the phoenix and the branch. The subject is now backlit, which is much more dramatic. It's still pretty loose at this point.
I take my #4 gold sable and dampen it. Armed with a paper towel, I start to lighten the center of the spots, and then lighten their outlines as well. I like to do this by taking the damp brush and lightly scrubbing the area, then picking up the pigment and drying the area with the paper towel. You can pretty much get to the white of the paper in small areas when you do this. I also added some light lines to the sky using this technique. The reason this works so well right now is because the two colors I used in the sky, aurelin and permanent rose, are both non-staining colors. They are relatively easy to scrub off, and that is why they are always in my first layers.
And now is time for the detail brush. I do a lot of work with my detail brush, which is why I go through them so fast. I mix up dark mixes of cadmium yellow, alizarin crimson and pthylo blue for the phoenix, and cadmium yellow, burnt sienna and pthylo blue for the branch. I take my time, building up the local color and the texture. My brushstrokes go in the direction of the feathers (or bark). Every time I dip my brush back into the paint, I add a little bit of a different color, to keep the mix fresh, and to give the layers a subtle change in color. The brushstrokes touch each other slightly, so there is a little bit of blending but not much. The tail is mostly pthylo blue. After the tail dried I scrubbed out the white spots using the technique from above. Since the layers are pretty concentrated, they dry relatively quickly, and I go back and forth over them.
The difference between this step and the last one is subtle, but it represents several hours of work. Much of this time was spent looking at the painting to see what needed to be tweaked. In my final layers I often use a lot of (relatively) opaque pigments: my cadmiums, ultramarine blue, etc. The mixes they make can get very dark, and remain colorful. I went over the red areas of the phoenix with a mix of cadmium red and viridian green (complements of each other, creating a very beautiful brown), concentrating on the shadows. Once that dried, a light wash of cadmium orange over the back helped bring it all together. Ultramarine and alizarin crimson were used to darken the violet wing feathers. Ultramarine and burnt sienna were used on the tail, darkening the vanes and adding feathering. Then a light wash of cadmium yellow were added on the edges of the tail and the plumes on the back. Another mix of ultramarine and burnt sienna was used to darken the shadows on the branch, as well as the crown on the phoenix's head. And finally a wash of cadmium red and alizarin crimson was added to the bottom of the sky to darken and cool it down a touch. Once it dried I went back in with my damp brush and scrubbed out the whites again.
So there you have it, a watercolor painting from start to finish. I hope you learned something from watching me go through this with you, and I hope you won't be scared to make mistakes. The more preparation you do before you start to paint, the easier the painting process will be for you. Practicing with your paints is the fastest way to become confident in yourself, so the more often you paint, the more you'll enjoy it!
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