Thursday, March 6, 2014

Watercolor Demonstration Class: Still Life with Pears and Strawberries -- Part 2

In Part 2 of this article I will describe how I did the painting that goes along with the reference photo below.  As usual it turned out to be harder than I thought, and I wasn't able to finish it in the three classes that we had, so Part 3 with show the finished steps that I did on my own.
reference photo
Step 1.  First I created a paper template of my reference photo by printing it out on cheap paper with a medium format (17" wide) printer.  I am lucky to have the ability to do this.  To do it on a smaller desktop printer, you could crop the image into four letter-size pieces, print them out, and tape them together.  My watercolor paper is a 16x20" sheet of Archers 140 lb cold press that has been stretched and stapled onto a Gatorboard.  Strips of 1" 3M drafting tape were put around the edges of the paper so that the resulting painting would have a nice, clean border.  The template was laid on top with several sheets of gray graphite transfer paper (wax-free Saral brand) underneath.  All the contour lines were traced with a ball point pen to transfer the image onto the paper.  By the way, you see here the Kodak Color Bars I laid on top when I photographed this image, so that the white balance could be corrected later on the computer.
template created on medium-format printer

Step 2.  Here is how the drawing looks on the watercolor paper after the tracing.  The graphite can be erased a little with a kneaded eraser if you feel it is too dark.

the drawing transferred onto the watercolor paper

Step 3.  Since I was planning to do a dark background, I decided to mask out the pink carnation and some of the little white flowers.  I used a Masquepen, which is a little squeeze bottle with a pointed applicator. Next I decided about the colors I would use.  I wanted to keep a soft, granulated look in the painting, so I chose to mix all the greens using mainly Hansa yellow (an arylide yellow) and either cerulean blue or ultramarine blue.  Here I have painted the pear and the shadows.  The dark corner on the pear was done by mixing more ultramarine blue into the wet paint.  A little brown madder (a red color) was dropped into the pear for color variation. 
     I decided to paint the shadows on the dish towel before doing the stripes, because most of the colors I use are very "liftable" (i.e. they are not staining colors) and I was afraid the stripes might lift off if I painted the shadows later.  The shadow color is a mixture of ultramarine blue and brown madder.
masking fluid applied, plus pear and some shadows painted

Step 4.  I decided to start painting the background early in the game in order to get an idea of how dark all the values would need to be.  I debated about two possible solutions for the background: 1) doing a very dark, smooth wash that would look almost black, as in the photo, or 2) doing a softer "flannel gray" background that would have a granulating texture.  I went for the latter because I thought the black might be two strong.  For this wash I mixed about a 1/4 cup of three primary colors in a separate container: Hansa yellow, ultramarine blue, and brown madder.  It came out a little bluer than I intended.  To apply the wash, I turned the board upside down and propped it up about two inches, and started applying the paint with a big brush along the "action line" (where the subject meets the background).  Working along sort of horizontally, I let the paint move down the sheet with a bead of wet paint always on the leading edge.  It is important to have the board slanted and leave it that way in order to avoid getting backruns.  Despite this, the wash was a little more variegated than I wanted, but I decided to let it dry as is instead of fiddling with it.

background wash applied

Step 5.   This painting was done over the course of three different class groups in two days.  In order for each group to see similar parts of the process, I worked a little on this and a little on that...  So here I am showing how I would start the stripes on the cloth.  For the sake of unity, I am using the same pigments wherever possible.  So the green stripes were mixed with Hansa yellow and ultramarine blue and the red stripes are primarily red madder.  The most narrow green stripes were applied with a liner (also called a "rigger" because this long, narrow brush can be used to paint rigging of nautical paintings).   By the way, the yellows you see on the white flower and its vase are yellow paint that I put in as a base color (it is not masking fluid). 
starting the stripes

Part 6.  Here I have done more stripes, two of the strawberries, and the base color on the knife.  One thing I like about this set-up is the way the stripes appear inside the two glass vases.  To give the illusion of clear glass, you need to paint what is behind it and under it!  Just paint exactly what you see, simplifying it a little since all the reflected and refracted shapes can be very complex!  Here the vase on the right had water in it, and was acting like a very strong lens, really distorting the stripes behind it.
    For the strawberries I started with a base color of brown madder and added a touch of ultramarine blue for the dark shadow.  BTW, the tiny seeds had been masked out.  The stripes on this towel are fun because they accentuate all the folds, which is all the nicer and makes the painting more interesting.
starting the strawberries; more stripes

Step 7.   Painting the white cream pitcher was fun because of the opportunity to show reflected light in the shadow side.  If you look closely at the reference photo, you can see a touch of green coming from the pear in the shadow side of the pitcher.  This is the advantage of including white objects because these reflected colors will really bring them to life!
    The quintessential problem of watercolor painting is getting the paint to stay where you put it.  Since the pitcher had almost all soft edges, I was going to have to work wet-in-wet.  So I wetted the whole pitcher with clean water and stroked in the shadow color, using the same combination as on the dish towel, namely cerulean blue and brown madder.  When this was still wet, I stroked in some of the bright green from the pear.
    For the clear glass green vase, as a first step, I just tinted the whole thing with viridian green, making it darker on the bottom. 
painting the pitcher and green vase

Step 8.  This photo simply shows what the painting now looks like with the masking fluid removed.  I hesitated to do this because I am considering re-doing the whole background, but I decided to take my chances.
masking fluid has been taken off

Step 9.  A lot has been done in this step.  The pink carnation has been given its base coat, and some of the flower stems have been painted in with very dark tones. I started darkening some of the shadows, such as the side of the cut pear.  Also some reflections were lifted out of the creamer.  The knife blade has been painted, showing a slight reflection from the cut pear above it.  I still haven't really addressed the white flowers because I need to do some more drawing in there -- they are very confusing to paint and I was getting lost!  I did tint the tiny flowers green and paint the leaves on the strawberries. 
 "Pears and Strawberries" almost finished

     This is where I left off at the end of the last class.  Part 3 will show how the painting was finished.  As it stands now, I see some problem areas.  I am not crazy about the background or the way the pink carnation sticks up into it on that spindly stem.  I may add some thicker leaves around the carnation to break up the background a little.  Also I may add some thicker leaves behind the white flower that will go up into the background and break up that large rectangular shape made by the left side of the background.  I don't like the equilateral triangle we have to the left of the white flowers.  I am wishing the table looked more round and may get rid of the way the cloth rises up a little behind the pitcher.  All these changes should be possible because I have been using liftable paints.
     I am considering changing the whole background to a much darker color.  This will be tricky for several reasons.  Working a large wash around the complicated edge will be tricky.  Painting on top of an existing wash is always uncertain.  Since the existing wash does have liftable paints, they will re-dissolve and could create mud.  So before I take this drastic step, I might open the painting photo is Photoshop and play around with darkening the whole background.  Stay tuned!

I will work on finishing this painting today and post the remaining steps on this blog by Friday late afternoon.  Wish me luck!

Sue Murphy, a warmer day in March, 2014


  1. I like your idea about adding leaves to the white flower as well as the stem of the carnation. It really looks good even without doing that but I understand your reasoning.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Sherry! Yes, as you can see in Part 3, I did add some leaves to the while flower, although I wish I had made them taller and more uneven in shape. Looking back at it, there are a number of things I would have done differently in this painting. Sometimes the "first shot over the bow" misses the mark!