Making a Painting – Part 1

I recently finished re-reading “The Wind in the Willows.” I’m not sure when I read it last, but it must have been at least a decade ago. Even though this classic has already been expertly illustrated what seems like dozens of times, I wanted to try my own version.

Rat and Mole on the river - The Wind in the WillowsI had in mind the scene where Mole has just met the Water-Rat, and is discovering the wonders of the River. They spend a lazy afternoon rowing about and enjoying themselves. This time I managed to remember to take photos of my process, so in two parts I will demonstrate how I go about making a picture.

It started like this:

Thumbnails for the "Wind in the Willows"Here I am trying out various ideas. I knew I wanted the characters to be in the rowboat, but I wasn’t sure about which angle or how much river to show. It usually takes a lot of experimentation to find “the one.” Once I’ve found my composition, I will color it with water-soluble colored pencils to try different color schemes.

Colored thumbnail for Wind in the WillowsAt this point I’ve decided on the composition and general mood of the picture, and it is time to figure out my characters. I felt that Rat should have his sleeves rolled up and be jacket-less; it seemed to suit his easygoing riverbank lifestyle. Mole is a traveler at this point, so he’s a bit more dressed up. And of course a mole must be wearing glasses…

The Water-Rat and Mole - Character studiesWhen I’ve gotten used to my characters from a variety of angles, I will begin the drawing itself. For this picture I collected images of rowboats and English rivers and weeping willows and storm clouds, but no amount of Google image searching gave me exactly what I needed. So, I got out the construction paper and modeling clay and got busy:

Model of rowboat and clay charactersArmed with these references, I was finally ready to start drawing. In the past I’ve drawn on paper but have migrated to using tracing paper exclusively, starting rough and refining with each layer. The tracing paper is cheap and keeps me from being too careful with it. I use a colored pencil for keeping track of my perspective. If the perspective is really tricky (for example, a three-point perspective with inaccessibly distant vanishing points) I will scan the drawing in at this point, create an accurate perspective in Adobe Illustrator, and print it at scale so that I can trace over it.

Rough drawing on layers of tracing paper for Wind in the WillowsWhen the drawing is finished, I scan it so that I can experiment in Photoshop. I have been known to smudge things horribly on tracing paper, so I’ll often map out the tones on the computer where I can easily fix things and it won’t turn into a grey smudgy mess. This isn’t meant to be a finished piece of art, but just a step in the process.

Wind in the willows grayscale drawingWhen I’m happy with the drawing and decide that the tone is working okay, it’s time to prepare my paper. The first step is tracing the drawing onto a sheet of Arches Cold Press watercolor paper. (140lb is good–you can still see through it well enough on a light box.)

Tracing the finished drawing onto Arches PaperAfter tracing I will gently erase some of the lines, especially in the lighter areas (in this case the clouds), because once the paper has been soaked they cannot be erased. Then I fill a few inches of water into the only basin large enough for paper-soaking: the bathtub.

Soaking and stretching the paperI leave the paper in the water until it no longer springs back to shape when I gently bend a corner down. Maybe 10 minutes? I forgot to time it, so that’s just a guess. After that I’ll pull it out and shake off the excess water, then tape it to a board with gummed paper tape.

This is when I leave it overnight to dry, and where I’ll stop this post. Part 2 coming soon!

Making a Painting -- Part 2
Saturday Sketch