I consider myself a traditionalist when it comes to watercolor. I prefer to work with transparent color and let the layers of color shine through. I use a three-step process to build my layers. When working with students, I introduce this process early on. It gives them a framework with which to work. So often, we get to the middle of a painting and feel stuck, or don’t think that it is going well. The problem is, with watercolor, the layers have to be built in order of their value, and the shapes and values have to be built before we can add detail, so the painting does not look as we expect it to. This process helps to move us through that stage and complete the painting.
I always start with a value study—a small pencil sketch, ink, marker or a larger monochrome watercolor sketch— that helps me sort out problems with composition and shapes. I can see the design and adjust if something is not working. Having put the shapes and values on paper, I have the composition and can focus on working with the paint. When designing, I look for good shapes that hold the viewer’s interest, a movement that carries them through the painting, and a strong abstract structure that holds the piece together.
When I have decided on the composition, I move on to color. I choose my palette before I begin. I work with a limited palette, which keeps things simple and helps maintain color harmony. Typically, I use four to six colors per painting. My color choices are made by working color samples on paper and seeing what my mixtures will be and how they fit with the painting. I have some favorite color combinations that work well for my subject matter and return to them often, but sometimes with an additional twist. I like to push the color in a landscape a bit beyond the local color to give the painting an emotional boost. I also mix most of my colors on the paper, by working wet into wet and letting the water do the mixing part. Too many paintings are ruined by over mixing color until everything starts to look gray. By letting the colors find their own mixture, beautiful color transitions are created.
Once I have the values, shapes and color decided, I use a 2B pencil to transfer my design onto the paper. At this point, I may use a frisket to mask areas that will remain white. For many paintings I don’t need to use this, but when painting water, it helps to capture the small whites of sparkle and splash that are difficult to workaround. I then let the frisket dry.
The first step is to apply underpainting, which is a light layer of color to tone the paper and includes the lightest value colors that will show in the painting. I wet my stretched paper completely and brush or pour the underpainting. These colors must be applied first and may be applied under areas that will be darker in value. I let the color blend and flow to create some wonderful transitions that will help to shape the final piece.
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