52 Weeks of Watercolor Painting 2017 No. 1 #Watercolor #52WeeksOfWatercolorPainting #StillmanAndBirn

IF you are here for the Stillman & Birn Delta Softcover giveaway, go here.

And I'm off!  Week 1 of '52 Weeks of Watercolor Painting'.  I have a step by step below for those interested.

My reference photo came from the Morguefile.

First a word about the reason I chose a Stillman and Birn 9x12 Beta series wirebound sketchbook for this year's 52 weeks.  The Stillman & Birn Beta paper is actually formulated for more than just watercolor, which means it handles differently than watercolor paper does.  This isn't a bad thing, especially if you want to do more than watercolor.  It just means I know I will have to adjust for certain things when using the paper.

One of the things I want to improve this year is my brushwork.  I work very loose.  Sometimes too loose.  I don't want to lose that fluidity, but I want to improve my precision.  The Beta Series paper dries very quickly, which means you are more likely to get hard edges, but it also means you can see your brush strokes.  I think this will help me by letting me see how wild I'm getting with those strokes.

Now, a little about my setup.  A while back I purchased a baby food try (ice tray) with a lid.  I premixed some Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna in a couple of the sections.  I did one mix that is predominately blue and one that is predominately brown.  These two colors combined are one of the best mixes for creating dark, dark values and I use it a lot.

For this painting, I used the two mixes in combination with Qor Green Gold (PY129). The entire painting was done with nothing but the three colors in varying combinations.

I used a 1 inch Silver Black Velvet Flat brush for the initial wash.  For the rest of the painting I used a Fabart Round, Dagger and Cat's Tongue brush.  The size of these brushes aren't identified but I think they are about size 6.  I chose these brushes for the type of strokes they make, and made a specific effort to use those strokes.


The first thing I did was sketch in the ferns.  I also thought about what I wanted to achieve with this painting. My two major goals? 

  • Use my brush strokes to imply the shape of things--the swirl of leaves, the sweep of the fiddlehead stalk.  
  • Make sure I have a foreground (the fiddleheads), a mid-ground (the other ferns) and a background (the open area of color).

I wet the entire page with water.  Then using just the Green Gold I applied a light wash.  Notice the streaking.  I expected it, and didn't let it worry me.  The paper curled, but after about 5 minutes I curled it the opposite direction and weighted it for a little while, and it straightened out.  This was the only part of the painting where I used the flat brush.  It's the largest brush I have and is designed to apply lots of paint over a large area.

Before continuing, I sprayed  some water into my palette...

...and created some mixes. I tried to mix up enough to last for the entire painting, though I knew I'd add more pigment as I went along to get different colors.  This gives you an idea of the consistency of the paint I used.  Remember, every time you add water to a mix, the more you dilute the color.  So if you can't finish the painting in one setting, and the paint dries, you'll want to add both more water and more paint.

Once I felt the initial wash was dry, I painted in the darkest areas using the blue mix.  With watercolor, you usually paint light first and build to dark, but I like to block out the darkest areas.  I don't worry about getting them as dark as they will be, but I find it helps me decide where everything should go.  This is an artistic choice and not everyone prefers to do it this way.

I combined the blue mix and Green Gold to get grays and blocked in the background, paying particular attention to the direction of my brush strokes.  I used the Cat's Tongue brush to paint around the ferns, and the round to paint the open areas.

Next I used my greener mixes to start building the up the fiddlehead, using the round brush, and thesurrounding ferns, using the dagger brush. Where before I was 'negative' painting - painting around the shape of the ferns and curled fiddlehead leaves, I now painted in the shapes of the ferns and seeds. I used the greens for the fore and mid-ground, and the blues for the ferns that were further back.  The theory is that the eye sees blues as being further away, so it helps to give a sense of distance.

At this point, I use the sides of the brush as much as possible- more like spreading butter on bread than drawing.  I try not to use the tip of the brush until the very last steps of the painting and then only for the smallest details.

From here it was a matter of going over the same areas, adding more and more of the colors, using the browns and blues for the darkest areas and the greens for the fiddleheads.  

I know this is the major part of the painting but it's difficult to take photos at this point. It is really is a matter of picking away here and picking away there.  Just more and more of the same, adding more pigment - using the same paints to build up the darkness of the color while leaving some areas lighter, until the foreground, mid-ground and background are clearly defined.  I concentrated more on negative painting, increasing the shadows around shapes, rather than actually painting details.  The last step is to add the smallest details with the tip of the cat's tongue brush (or use a liner brush.  Something I seldom do, but which many prefer).

Since the paper dries so fast, especially with the dry winter weather, I didn't have to stop to let the paint dry.  I just moved to another area and painted there for a while.  On another paper, or a day with different humidity, I might have stopped to let areas dry before painting further.  With watercolor, you need to let layers dry in-between or your colors may get muddy.  The exception would be if you were using wet-in-wet techniques.  I did not use those techniques with this painting.  

The last step is to critique the painting.  I believe that is important to critique in order to improve, but how you do it really counts.  'I hate this and it sucks big, fat rocks' isn't helpful, so I try not to look at it from the point of view of liking or hating.

What catches my attention? There's a real sense of movement and energy.  I think I did a good job with controlling my brushstrokes and using the qualities of the paper to the best effect.

What should I try to improve?  I think I could have built up the values even more, especially for the midground.  I was starting to fuss though, and that can be deadly, so I quit.  I may come back and work on the midground ferns.  I'll make working on values a goal for my next painting.

Did I succeed in my goals? My main goals were to use the  direction of my brushstrokes to imply the shapes of things,  and to make sure I had a definite foreground, mid-ground and background.  Yes, I think I succeeded.

Was this break-down helpful to you?  I won't guarantee to do this with every painting because I wouldn't be able to keep up my commitment to a painting a week if I did.  If people seem interested, I'll try to do one a month, though.