Tiger In Watercolor
Interview with Jessica Douglas
Video Game Designer Envy
Tiger In WatercolorBehind the Art
by Melissa Acker
I'd forgotten how long it's been since I've done one of my watercolor paintings, so I knew it was about time I got to it!
This individual I'm painting is a tiger named Tongwa, who lives at the Toronto Zoo. He is a Siberian, or Amur, tiger, and so his fur is not quite the vibrant orange that you see in the Bengals or the Sumatrans; however, this reference photo washes him out even more – it is a little over-exposed and washed out, so we'll have to compensate for its lack of color.
A pencil drawing is pretty much mandatory whenever you are attempting to paint realistically in watercolor, so of course we start with that. I've darkened the lines here so that you can actually see them -- on the paper they are much, much paler, so that they will show through the paint less, and so less of the graphite will get pushed around by the water.
I've also cropped it much differently than the photo -- I like this close-up much better for a portrait. I also find it interesting to occasionally do portraits of the big cats without showing their eyes, pretty as they are; there are so many paintings of cat eyes out there it's almost overdone. And it's a challenge whenever you render any creature without showing its eyes; as visual animals ourselves, the eyes are the part of the picture we are normally instantly drawn to.
The base layer is next. When I part using this technique, I always start with my transparent colors. Now, you might think that all watercolors are transparent, and to a certain extant that's true. However, certain paints definitely have opaque properties, and are actually quite capable of covering light layers of paint. The cadmiums are all opaque, as are yellow ochre and ultramarine, among others. The transparent colors I began with here were raw sienna, burnt sienna, burnt orange, as well as a very little windsor blue for some of the cooler areas.
I tried to leave the white patches on the face alone, and worked with one of my larger brushes to keep me from attempting any sort of detail work. At this stage, I am more concerned with color temperature than value or local color. By 'color temperature', I of course mean how relatively warm or cool the color is. All blues are cool and all yellows are warm, but there are some blues that are warmer than others, and some yellows that are cooler than others, and the same is true of every color out there. So at this point I just tried to keep the foreground warmer than the background. I've also started suggesting the texture of the fur already.
Now it starts to get more time-consuming. Switching to a smaller-sized brush (but only one size smaller), I started rendering the local color. I still limited myself to transparent colors, and still kept the colors warmer and more intense in the foreground than in the background. I also kept all the detail focused on certain parts of the face, leaving, for example, the ruff of the back of the neck and the leg behind the head very indistinct. Sharp edges are your enemy when you are trying to push something back into the distance -- always, always leave the edges at least a little 'fuzzy'.
When I use this technique, I generally move back and forth through the piece, working on several different areas at the same time. I keep the brush strokes going in the same direction as the fur texture, often letting them just barely touch each other so that they blend a little. And every time I dip my brush in my palette, I add a little more of one color or the other to add variation. But, unless you want a rather unappealing gray, pay attention to what you are mixing -- never mix together all three of the primaries: red, yellow and blue. So you have to know what colors you're actually using. For instance, ultramarine blue has a little red in it, so if you mix it with a green or yellow, you do not get green, you get a gray. On the other hand, ultramarine blue can be mixed with reds to make very strong violets.
I worked the next layer in a similar fashion, but I switched to a brush one more size down. The colors become darker and more intense as it nears a more detailed state. The eye is instantly drawn to details, which is why you have to be careful where you put them. And you also have to pay attention to where your darkest dark and lightest light are -- for maximum effect, try to put them close together or, even better, touching. The contrast is a magnet for the eye. It is very convenient for us that the white patch over a tiger's eye has black stripes touching it!
After I worked on this for a bit, I decided that the front paw was drawing far too much attention to itself -- the darks were too dark, and it looked awkward. There were a few different options at this point. I could try to lighten the darks, by wetting the area and scrubbing it with a brush or paper towel.
Or I could finish my background values, and then I would have a better idea of just how wrong the values on the paw are. That was a much better option -- value does not exist in a vacuum, and if I changed the paw now, I would probably have to change it again after I finished the background anyway.
The only difference between this image and the last one is the background -- I barely touched the tiger at all. That is why you can't just work on one area of a painting at a time -- you have to work all parts of it, because they are all affected by the areas around them. Notice how vague I left the rear leg behind the head -- the stripes are barely suggested. That's because I don't really want the viewer paying any particular attention to them.
In this step I was still mostly working the background, darkening the shadows and trying to keep the paw from looking like it's 'floating'. Although I'm still not happy with it, it definitely doesn't look as bad as it used to.
For the purposes of this tutorial, I've focused on the face, as this technique is very, very time consuming. I switched to a smaller sized brush again, and mixed my colors even darker and stronger. A few pale neutral washes on the far side of the face pushed it back into the distance a little more. But, for the most part, this step was all about building more and more texture, in thin layers, bit by bit. Keeping the strokes close together added subtle variation, as some of them blend and some of them don't, and I kept adding little bits of different colors every time I dipped my brush in the paint.
I repeated this step five or six times, before I thought the fur texture was deep enough and the color was working well. It just takes patience -- lots of patience -- and you also need to constantly step back and evaluate the composition as you go so you can see how the different areas are working together.
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