Lesson 8: Creative Process 2

Watercolor Study of a Young Girl

Different mediums convey different meanings. In a heavy bodied medium such as oil and acrylic there is the abstract structural surface, texture, in which to extol a sensualness of materiality of the paint. In watercolor one is stripped of that element and the artist must search out another means.

Often this searching opens unexpected doors to expression. Solving one problem in one medium points the artist into a new direction with another medium.

The artist who has acquired a solid foundation will face very little obstacle in working in a new medium. Drawing is drawing / color is color / design is design.

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#1: Intro and Notes on Drawing

#2: Unity

#3: Elements of Composition

#4: Architecture of Design

#5: Beginning a Painting

#6: Color Harmonies

#7: Creative Process | Pochade

#8: Creative Process 2 | Watercolor Study of A Young Girl

#9: Getting the BIG Shape

#10: A Walk in a Frozen Wood

#11: Drawing Hands

#12: Drawing the Skull

#13: Velazquez: Alla Prima

#14: Creative Process - Redux

#15: The Power of Triangles

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Pochade portrait painting

In Lesson 7 I discussed the importance of the Pochade in rendering an idea into a concept.

Yet still I am unsatisfied; something is lacking. Alas I am at a loss as to what.

My intent remains to render the young girl with bravura brush strokes. No delicate academic finish for this melancholic gamine.

In our age, an era of spectacular banality, I attach myself to a rather quaint, late 19th Century notion called Truth. Whatever the hell that might be.

Thus far, in this project, I am now sure of one thing: the flinty yellow/gray ground does not work. Curses!

Nor does the right-side blue/orange hair band work, it is distracting because it struggles for ill-warranted dominance like a chorus girl who flings off her knickers and belts out a bawdy tune.

Perhaps a watercolor study will yield new avenues to consider. Perhaps a strong cup of tea and a handful of cookies will allay my pictorial distress. Perhaps both.

watercolor portrait 1

A Process for Realist Watercolor Painting

Watercolor is a fickle mistress who brooks few missteps. And in my distress to resolve my pictorial dilemnas I erroneously grabbed a sheet of Rives BFK printmaking paper (well, it has a texture and deckled edge like watercolor paper) thinking it was 140 lb Arches cold-pressed medium textured sheet. In the world of watercolor painting this is akin to backing over the neighbor's dog in a rush to get to the supermarket.

An immediate decision was demanded: slam on the brakes to administer tender mercies or proceed post-haste to market. With deep contrition I admit the latter.

The most troublesome difference between the Rives BFK and Arches is the lack of glue-size. This means that my erroneous choice of paper will not hold as crisp an edge as I would like. This will demand a very delicate and sure touch less the paper pell like an carelessly cared for sweater.

In sum, the lesson thus far is to do what I say. Not what I do in my more bacchanal moods.

My pictorial surface is 8 x 10 3/8", a Root Phi (1.272) dynamic rectangle, upon which I will remain true to my geometric divisions of harmonious space. See Lesson 7 for a refresher.

Using a sharp 2H graphite pencil I sketch in the portrait. Any necessary corrections must be done gingerly with a light touch of a clean kneaded eraser otherwise you will tear the delicate surface of the paper. And that is something to be avoided at all cost.

I begin with a Cobalt Blue blocking-in of the dark forms. As with all painting media one always works from General to Specific.

watercolor portrait 2

Watercolor painting is a process of building layer upon layer continually defining form.

Of course, like any medium, there are many ways of painting in watercolor. Mine is an alternating cool/warm layering of hues to effect a full resolution of light to dark.

I utilize an optical grisaille to quickly differentiate the dark forms. Over the Cobalt Blue I layer in delicate washes of its primary compound complement, a mixture of Raw Umber and Terre Verte (a delicate Olive Green). For those of you who partook of last week's Color Theory Special Offer you should now be fully entranced, if not absolutely enraptured, by the intrinsic beauty of color harmony and primary compound complements.

The optical grisaille imparts a mother-of-pearl translucency to the dark forms. The Flemish master Peter Rubens' employed a similar rationale in his imprimaturas of yellow ochre streaked over with fine charcoal dust.

And to cap off my optical grisaille a wash of Naples Yellow locks it in. Oh yes! Yellow and Gray are primary compound complements. I know, I know, will this guy every shut up about this ... who needs color theory!?

watercolor portrait 3

Rendering realist flesh tones is a process of alternating warm and cool values. Thus I now venture into the reds, beginning with Light Red. And, yes, that is the name of the color.

With the Light Red I venture into the warmer middle values of the form with a very light touch. The darker values are laid in flat whereas the middle values are vaguely mottled. A fine line needs to be tread here. The middle values are somewhat mottled and broken but keep in mind she is a young girl. Don't effect an over mottled flesh like a broken-down, absinthe stunned syphilitic, the kind Edgar Degas loved to paint in the bars and brothels of Montmartre in the not-so-belle epoch.

The irises of the eyes should also be tempered with Light Red. This remains true even with steely-blue-eyed goddesses bent on delivering a well-deserved beating upon flippant watercolorists.

The ground too is resolved in step with the development of the figure. As much as drawing is important even more so is Unity.

watercolor portrait 5

There comes a time with every painting that one must make a break for it. Like a fugitive glimpsing freedom yonder and a freshly minted passport. With watercolor that comes soon. Much more than oil paint watercolor is fragile and can perish in an instance.

The purpose of the vertical dark bar is to break up the ground -- to extinguish the monolithic monumentalism of the yellow. Aha! That bar is defined by the underlying geometry of my design.

Robert Motherwell

In Lesson 4, The Architecture of Design I touched upon the principle of Dominance/Subordination. This is particularly true with Shape. It is the BIG shapes that are the singularly most important element, splendidly illustrated in the above painting by the American Abstract Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell. The big shape is the marquee that attracts and invites the viewer into your narrative.

The dark mass of hair defines and commands the composition. The vertical bar infers a rhythmic tension while unifying the figure/ground/canvas relationship.

watercolor portrait 6

And that's not all folks, into a shaped pool of water I dropped a well-saturated Italian Burnt Sienna into wet Ultramarine Blue. The differing weights of the pigments separated and reticulated in the water pool. Italian Burnt Sienna is an Orange, Ultramarine is Blue. Blue/Orange are complementaries and as many a jaded Parisian would comment, Voila, voila! which kinda translates into 'So it is.'

But hold on! Dark flesh tones like dark, still waters are cool. Not cold, mind you. A calming wash of Terre Verte tempers the dark passages.

The final push to the finish is not so much about the details but more about getting the full stretch from light to dark and locking in the expression.

There is always the danger, more so with watercolor than all of the other mediums, of going too far. The best watercolor portraits take you right up the edge of the abyss, your toes peering into the murky depths of color collapse.

But don't shy too much from the edge, that is where exhilaration lies, and a good tumble now and then sets you up for that next painting, hopefully a successful one.

Upcoming 2021 Virtual Art Classes via ZOOM

Painting Portraits in Oil | Foundation to Bravura

Oil painting art class

Michael Britton, Monique, Oil on Panel, 11x14", 2021

In this five-session workshop you will learn how to paint a dynamic portrait in oil from a photograph.

The language of the photograph is different from that of painting. In this workshop you will learn the process of how to translate the photographic image into a painting that is much more than a mere copy of the photograph.

You will learn how to accurately block-in the big shape before fixing the facial proportions to establish both your composition and the likeness.

Learn how to construct value structures to render three-dimensional form and the practice of spotting color notes mix accurate flesh tones that breath life.

The full course description and materials list.

Materials List

Saturday, 10:00 - 1:00
Pacific Standard Time
September 18 to October 16, 2021
5 Sessions


'I've learnt more from your online workshops than I have from my previous face to face courses combined and at a fraction of the cost. Your teaching is comprehensive, yet clear and engaging.'

P. Delaney
Sydney, Australia