Making a Painting — Part 2

When we left off the last post, I had just taped my soaking-wet watercolor paper to a sturdy piece of board and left it to dry. Here’s what happens next in my process.

(If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.)

The studio set-upAt this point the paper will stay totally flat, no matter how much water or paint I put on the surface, which will keep the watercolor from pooling in the valleys of warped paper.  I keep a variety of brush sizes available but will often paint an entire painting with only two brushes. My favorite is my trusty Winsor and Newton Series 7 (size 8.) I know these are awfully expensive, but adore this brush. I can paint incredibly fine lines or nice broad strokes with it, and it holds a ton of water. If I ever forget how great it is, I need only use a different brush for a few minutes and I’m quickly reminded. The other brush I’ll commonly use is a sable square wash for covering large areas with washes or gradients.

Sometimes I will pre-mix some color in little glass bowls if I need a lot. The three dishes below have the three main colors I used for the painting: French Ultramarine, Quinacridone Red, and a warm yellow that was a mixture of New Gamboge and Quinacridone Red. I will spend a lot of time testing out different color combinations on small scraps of paper to make sure I have the gamut right. I still keep my full palette handy for extra touches if needed and for color mixing.

Materials and paletteOkay, ready for some painting already? Here we go!

I usually start with light colors and work my way to the darker areas, but since large washes are the most dangerous thing to paint (it can easily go awry) I figured it would be best to start with the sky. If I screwed that up, I could start over without having to re-do everything. I turned the board upside-down, since the gradient becomes darker toward the top of the page. Plus, that way the excess paint runs off the board (and not onto the rest of the painting.)

painting the sky first, upside-downTo speed things along, there is the painter’s secret weapon:

The painter's secret weapon!

I continue blocking in the light colors. The watercolor gets lighter when it dries, something to keep in mind when mixing. Some colors (like Quinacridone Red) lose a bit of saturation as well.

Putting in lthe ight background colorsNext I start adding some midtones, to start balancing the value range. I keep adding darker and darker colors bit by bit until the shadows start appearing.

The painting progresses... adding some midtones and shadowsNow you might notice that the water is not at all done. I had the grass in the foreground to contend with. Painting around complex shapes is not particularly pleasant, since the watercolor will dry while you’re trying to paint around the object, and you’ll get a frustratingly uneven look. It was time for some masking fluid! This is an old bottle I bought in Germany and what’s left in there is almost dried up. I briefly considered making a dash to an art store but it turned out that some vigorous shaking did the trick.

Masking Fluid! Yay!When you paint on the masking fluid, use your WORST, OLDEST, MOST UNWANTED BRUSH. It will most likely be ruined in the process. Seriously, do not use your Series 7 Kolinsky Sable fancy-schmancy brush. (But you knew that already, I’m sure.) Let it dry completely. I sometimes use the secret weapon for this, too.

Let the masking fluid dry...completely.And now the grass is ready to resist all the watercolor I can throw at it! I paint away, using the same general light-to-dark strategy.

Water...done!Then, rub off the masking fluid. It’s kind of stretchy and fun.

Rubbing off the goo. Whee!After that, I finished the grass in the foreground and added some final touches to the painting. I added a bit of Hooker’s Green to liven up the foliage because French Ultramarine makes a pretty icky, grayish green, and in a few small spots I used some Lamp Black to get a darker tone.

It is finished! I think.Time to cut it free! See, this is the advantage of watercolor. When you’re done, it’s done. None of this “let it dry for three days” oil painting business. By the way, this is a staged photo. In real life, I use a ruler (and I don’t awkwardly take photos with my other hand while I’m doing it.) I love the little “pop” noise when the paper snaps free. It sure was stretched!

don't try this at home, kids.And then I throw it on the scanner. Perfect fit, right?

What?So as much as I’d love to have a fancy, large-format scanner, in reality I have a hand-me-down scanner from an ex-roommate’s ex-boyfriend. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for this little trooper.) But I have to scan in parts. It took four scans for this painting.

There’s a neat trick in Adobe Bridge CS5 (and possibly other versions as well? Not sure about that), and if you ever spend time piecing together scans, this might save you some trouble. Highlight your four scans and go to “Tools > Photoshop > Photomerge.”

Screen shot 1After that you’ll get a window with some settings to select, and then wait a few seconds and… voila! Merging done. Note the different layers and masks that were automatically created for each scan used. You can use this trick for photo panoramas too.

screenshot2After that I just flatten the image, crop to the proportions I need, and check to make sure the color looks okay. I will sometimes fix any small watercolor anomalies at this point, like bits of fuzz that might have caused a weird spot (UFO) to form, or drips.

screenshot3Finished. Total time can vary wildly, depending on the complexity of the drawing and perspective, the amount of research needed, whether or not I make a mistake on the painting (downside of watercolor: you have to start over.) The earliest stages are the most important and the most time-consuming. Time from start to finish for this was 2 days (maybe 18 hours of work.)

Zoo Doodles. (Zoodles?)
Making a Painting - Part 1


  1. by K Reilly on May 17, 2012  4:22 pm Reply

    This was really interesting to read and look at. I haven't looked at your website in a while. Ought to keep up...

  2. by Jess on May 29, 2012  8:22 pm Reply

    Thanks, glad you liked it!

    (And I ought to post more consistently, haha... I suppose that would help!)

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