Monday, June 21, 2021

Mounting Watercolor Art Onto Wood Panels


The other day I mounted four of my watercolor paintings onto cradled wood panels and I thought it would be a great opportunity to share with you what I have come to regard as my favorite way of turning my watercolor art into something you could hang on a wall.

I didn't know this was possible a couple years ago because watercolor is a fairly fragile artform and is usually protected using a mat and frame.  Which can kind of get expensive, especially if your art is large or a custom size or shape.

A tub of Dorland's Wax Medium
What really makes the whole thing possible is a cold wax and resin product called Dorland's Wax Medium, which is used as the final layer applied over the painting after it is mounted.  This provides the protection needed for the painting.  As long as you keep the painting indoors, I guess.  It doesn't really change the look or character of the watercolor painting.  The finish is matte, which I like, but as I understand it can be buffed once it's dry to a more glossy finish.  I like the look of it!  If I am not mistaken, it seems like it makes all the colors in my painting just a little more vibrant.

Why else do I like it? 
  • Like I said, it's less expensive than traditional framing methods when the art is large or is an odd size or shape (such as square -- it's so hard to find square mats and frames!).
  • I love the immediacy, the accessibility, of the art for the viewer.  It's no longer behind glass or acrylic.
  • This method provides a clean line and look to the art.  There is not the bulk of the frame around it.  I do still enjoy the look of matted and framed art, but this has an attractive aesthetic as well.

If you are ready to entertain this idea, I can point you to a couple of videos which are excellent demonstrations of the process:

1.  The video that first introduced me to the idea was by Annie Strack.  The video demonstrates the usefulness of this method for tryptics:

2.  A more recent video, also an excellent demonstration  with a lot of detailed information, is by Angela Fehr:

These two videos are pretty consistent with each other in their process.  The one thing Angela does (that I do not do) is to first spray the painting with an acrylic varnish before applying the Dorland's Wax for an extra measure of protection.

Materials Needed:  
  • 20x30" painting smaller than the panel
    Your watercolor painting!  One tip is to make the painting slightly larger than your wood panel.  After you mount your painting to the wood panel you will use a craft knife to cut the paper flush with the panel; this results in a clean edge and a more professional look.  It's not required though, I have mounted paintings that were smaller than the panel.  This is okay as long as the paper has a nice clean edge (or nice deckled edge, if that is your taste).
  • Wood panel.  I like cradled wood panels with about 1 1/2" depth.  I have ordered 6x6" panels from Dick Blick (I like the Blick Studio just fine), but I have a local friend who hand makes panels for sale and I like to use them too when I need larger sizes.  You have options for finishing the wood panels.  I have left them to a natural wood finish (coated with the Dorland's as I coat the painting itself) or painted them with wood stain or acrylic matte black spray paint before mounting the painting onto it.  A good breakdown of your finishing options is on a blog post by Ampersand.  
  • Gel medium.  This serves as an acid-free glue to mount the painting onto the wood panel.  I am currently using Liquitex Matte Gel Medium. I use an inexpensive brush to apply.
  • Brayer.  Assists in mounting the painting flat to the wood panel.
  • Heavy books.  To ensure the painting dries flat to the panel as the gel medium dries.
  • Exacto knife. Used to cut the painting flush to the wood panel once gel medium has dried.  As Angela does in her video, I smooth out the edge of the painting with sandpaper (400 grit) as needed.
  • Dorland's Wax Medium.  The magic stuff to seal and protect your watercolor painting.  When I was first trying out this method I bought the 4oz jar, and when I got hooked on this method and finished the small jar I bought a 16oz jar.
  • Hanging hardware.  I drill holes 1/4 to 1/3rd distance from top, insert screw eyes and attach picture wire.  A video I like about attaching the picture wire is here:
I highly advise you to watch the process videos I have linked, but here are my basic steps for the process:

1.  Make your painting.  As I mentioned, it is helpful to paint it slightly larger than your panel (on the order of 1/8-1/4") in all dimensions.  That way there is a little lip of paper that can be trimmed flush to your panel after you mount it.  Another tip, I paint with my paper taped to a support board, or use a watercolor block.  This helps prevent warping of the paper which is helpful for mounting it nice and flat to the panel.  If your paper does warp or buckle, it seems like it'd be good to flatten your painting before trying to mount it.  

2.  I like to mark an outline of the panel with pencil onto the back of the painting.  This helps me position it more accurately when it it's time to glue it.

3.  Brush the gel medium evenly onto the top surface of the panel.  Be sure to get the corners.  Wipe off any excess that ended up on the sides of the panel.  With the painting facing down, I place the panel onto the backside of the painting, using my penciled-in outline as a positioning guide.  I press down gently, and wipe off any excess glue I see that has seeped at the edges with a paper towel.

4.  Carefully flip the painting + panel so the painting is up.  Use the (clean!) brayer over the surface of the painting to flatten it and ensure contact of all the painting to the panel.  Start generally from the center of the painting and work your way out to all edges.  As Angela demonstrated in her video, I like to push the edges of the paper down, bending it slightly over the edge.  I want good glue contact especially along the edges and corners.  

5.  Carefully flip the painting + panel back upside down.  Check again for any gel medium seepage along the edges and wipe off.  Next is to stack books on top of the panel to provide some weight to ensure good contact as the gel medium dries.  For each of these small 6x6" paintings I recently mounted, I used a hardcover book, then stacked a 15 lb dumbbell on top of that.  Let sit for several hours, overnight is recommended.

6.  Once the gel medium is dried I trim away the lip of excess paper around the edges using an exacto knife and a cutting mat.  You'll discover why I mention wiping away glue that has seeped out along the edges; paper is easier to cut through than a blob of dried glue.  It's hard to be super precise with the knife, that is why it's handy to follow up with a bit of sand paper (about 400 grit).  Be careful to not sand away your stain or paint on the panel sides.  It doesn't usually take much sanding to get a smooth even edge.  Wipe away any dust from sanding.

7.  Apply the Dorland's Wax Medium.  Angela uses a lint-free cloth, but I like to use my bare fingers so I can get a better sense of how much I am applying, and can feel if I have good even coverage.  I dip my fingers into the jar for a dollop of wax, at least a marble-sized amount.  I then rub the wax over the surface of the painting in mostly circular motions, as well as the sides of natural or stained panels (ones painted with acrylic don't need the wax protection).  You only need a thin layer, but you want it all covered.  You'll be able to tell by feel if you have all surfaces covered; you'll feel some resistance under your fingers for the areas lacking wax.  There is a slight milkiness to how it will look, and you will see texture from your strokes.  Don't worry.  As the wax cures it becomes fully transparent and becomes more smooth.  Allow several hours to cure as you did for the glue.  If you want a more glossy shine, you can buff the surface with a cloth, but I never do.  You can do a second layer, but I never do.

8.  The last step is to install the hanging hardware to the back of the panel.  Then...ready to hang!

3" Ornaments

I have also used this mounting and sealing technique onto 3" wood disks for ornaments, it's pretty cool!

I hope this post has opened new avenues for displaying your art.  It provides an option that perhaps you have never considered before.  While this method is certainly more work than traditional framing techniques, the results in my opinion are very beautiful.  

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Blacktail Canyon Step By Step

Blacktail Canyon Narrows, 20x30"
 Blacktail Canyon Narrows is one of my favorite places to stop on a river trip through the Grand Canyon, 120 miles downstream from Lee's Ferry launch.  It's a narrow slot canyon of Tapeats sandstone (the multilayered stuff) and when you go in it has a wonderfully peaceful ambiance that inspires either silent reverence or an impromptu musical concert.

For each of my four trips along the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon I have been fortunate that by group consensus I was able to visit this place, and all but one time even camp here!

I love this place so much I decided to tackle a large painting, which is normally something I don't do since I prefer to work small.  But a big place calls for a big painting!

So here is the finished painting.  I am keeping the original to hang in our living room, but if you are interested in a print you can get one through Fine Art America.  Here in this blog post I'd like to share how the painting progressed.

A slot canyon such as this can be very difficult to photograph well and even then required processing levels of brightness in the photographs to see all the cracks and rock shapes correctly in order to draw them.  I used the grid method to draw the contours first with pencil, then when satisfied, drew the lines with a black ink pen.  I transferred the lines onto a full sheet of Arches 140lb cold press watercolor paper using a light table.

Drawing out the many shapes using the grid method
Once the lines were drawn onto the watercolor paper with pencil, I soaked my watercolor paper in the bathtub then stapled the paper along the long edges to a Gatorboard-like foam core board.  My intent was to have a finished 20x30" painting so I wasn't able to staple all four sides.

The first wash for me is an ice-breaker, setting the tone for the lightest values and adding baseline colors as an underpainting.  I love to make things quite colorful at this point, letting the paints mingle.  For this wash I used Daniel Smith Monte Amiata Natural Sienna, Daniel Smith Pyrrol Orange, quinacridone violet, and I think a bit of phthalo green.  The bits of blue tape help me to distinguish the boundary between the foreground rock and the background rock.

Then I started working on the rock layers in earnest.  I separated out each layer of rock as its own wash, blending in usually Monte Amiata Natural Sienna, dioxizine violet, ultramarine, and burnt sienna.  I was careful to not paint to the outer edge to try to give the layer a bit of lighter edge.  Again I used bits of blue tape to let me know to stop and start making darker rocks in alignment with the photo.

So I kept plugging away with the rock layers.  I tried not to become to slavish to the photograph but follow a trend for how I painted each layer.  First a wash of the Natural Sienna, then drop in the dioxizine violet, particularly around the inner cracks, drop in some quinacridone violet and maybe some burnt sienna, letting the colors mingle.  When I got to the region of the darker rocks, I placed more emphasis on the purple, incorporating some ultramarine for the exceptionally darker areas, and using less of the Natural Sienna and more of the burnt sienna.

I painted the slot canyon floor with blends of Natural Sienna, burnt sienna, quinacridone violet, and I think a slight amount of green.  But before painting the floor I masked out the rocks on the floor so I could paint more freely.  Once dry, I added texture by spattering gently.

I wanted the boulders and rocks at ground level to have more of a magical quality.  My first attempt at grays left me feeling uninspired.  They were just too dull and boring.  So to add a bit of interest to these rocks and to hopefully convey a more magical quality to the slot canyon, I incorporated Daniel Smith Jadeite Genuine and quinacridone rose into the mixes.  To me, pink and green are colors of the heart, and being in Blacktail is a very heart-centered spiritual experience.

Once I was satisfied with all the Tapeats rock of Blacktail Canyon Narrows itself, I began washes for the Grand Canyon wall on the opposite side of the river.  Most of the wall you see is Redwall, so named for the staining of the red sandstone above it for millions of years of weathering and erosion.  Aside from Tapeats, the Redwall is one of my favorite rock layers in the Grand Canyon.  I wanted the orange sunlit layer to really stand out so for my first washes I incorporated pyrrol orange with Natural Sienna, and some azo green for the areas destined to be brushy alluvial fans.

Subsequent washes of the background rock face and features provided a deepening of color as well as textures and cracks, shadows, and crevices.

 Once I felt the background wall was complete, I noticed that there wasn't enough value contrast between the foreground and the background rock layers.  To correct this I needed to darken all the Tapeats rock of the slot canyon walls.  So I washed over both sides with diluted mix of quinacridone rose and ultramarine or Indanthrone blue (purple, of course).  Ah, much better!  And a whole lot less confusing.  After some minor fine-tuning here and there, I called it complete.

So my plan is to mount this painting to a cradled panel using gel medium and sealing the painting with Dorland's wax.  Angela Fehr had a really good YouTube tutorial on the process for doing this.  I really am enjoying this display technique, and for a large painting like this, it's much more cost-effective than a mat and frame.  I ordered a cradled panel from my friend Lindsay who makes panels via her own company CanvasStrong.

What follows is a series of progress images with captions:

Detail in the rock layers

Continuing on with the layers

Painting more layers...

Ground-level rocks with greens and pinks

Continuing ground-level rocks

Satisfied with the floor and Tapeats layers

Starting the background wall

Two more layers for background wall,
but there is not enough value contrast
between the foreground and background
rock faces, making the painting rather confusing.

Darken Tapeats walls to correct contrast
with diluted purples mixed from
quinacridone rose and ultramarine or
Indanthrone blue.

Some finishing touches to all areas

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Rocks in Watercolor: Double Arch Step-By-Step

Double Arch, Arches NP, 8x10"
As I said in my previous post, I have been teaching a series of classes on "Features In the Landscape", and this fall I am covering rocks and mountains.  In addition to demonstrating El Capitan as in the previous post, in this post I demonstrate Double Arch from Arches National Park.

Double Arch is a bit more of a challenging painting mainly because we are closer to the rock and can see much more detail in the rock, both in color and form texture.

Reference Photo
The reference photo was taken mid-day, which is pretty intense light for most situations and usually unfavorable.  However, this rock formation has a lot of overhang so much of the formation at this time of day is in shadow, so the interesting streaks and textures are subtle.  There is also interesting glow of reflection on the downward-facing surfaces from the brightly-lit floor.

First Wash
I regard the first was as an opportunity to break the ice with a painting and exaggerate the color.  The sandstone rock of this formation generally reads as orange, so for my first wash I chose to work wet-into-wet with a warm yellow (Indian Yellow in this case, but I also like New Gamboge) and a rose.  I first wet the entire rock formation with clean water and dropped in the yellow and rose, letting them mingle on the paper.  I tended to emphasize yellow in the more sunlit areas and rose in the shadowy areas.

In hindsight, I would have liked to have used stronger concentrations of color at this stage because it required later washes of yellow, rose, and burnt sienna to correct the color.  But it is better to err on the side of being too light because that is easily correctable in watercolor by going in with more layers.

Layers Two and Three - Shadow Shapes
 After the first wash you generally have a choice between working on the shadow shapes or working on the local color and textures.  In the El Capitan painting of my previous post, I chose to layer in the color and textures on the rock face in the second wash then work on the shadow shapes after that.  In this painting, I chose to work on the shadow shapes first, mainly because they were a particularly important part of this painting (I think it's nice to do the important parts first!), and when shadows are so prominent in a composition, painting in the shadows can really make a painting come alive for me earlier in the painting process, which I find exciting and motivating.

In the first layer of shadow shapes I painted in the entire shadow shapes as one, not differentiating between the arches or neighboring walls.  They all received a continuous wash of rose plus ultramarine, not uniformly mixed but allowed to mingle on the paper in their separate components.  I wish I had remembered to take a photograph after Layer Two to show you!

In the third layer I refined the shadow shapes, painting the deeper shadow areas with an ultramarine-heavy mix with rose and drawing out the paint with a clean damp brush to blend it and soften the edges.  Refining the shadow shapes helped to separate out the distant arch and rock wall from the foreground arch.

Layer Four - Glaze in more orange color
I felt I needed more color in the overall rock shapes so I glazed in a very dilute wash of warm yellow, rose, and burnt sienna.  I think this warmed up the rock more.

Final Layers
I still felt I needed more color so I did more glazing of warm yellow (taking special care to the underside of the far arch to include the warm reflection from the sunlit rock below it) and also included glazes of pyrrol orange.  More burnt sienna and rose glazes as well were added.

I also begun to add the streaks of colorful patina in the rock.  I used washes of burnt sienna mixed with indian yellow, rose, and/or dioxazine violet or ultramarine to provide the varying color and value to the streaks.  The brush technique I used was to paint the streak with one brush, loaded with color, then soften and/or draw out the streaks with a second clean damp brush.  If I wanted the streak to stand out more I used more paint and less water; if I wanted the streak to be subtle I would mix in a bit more water.

I also used the same colors for the blotchy shapes on the rock as well.  A bristle brush was helpful for this process at times because that assists in providing natural irregularities.

I also painted the sky in the three visible sections.  In my blue skies I tend to use a total of four blues:  cobalt teal blue, cerulean blue, cobalt blue, and ultramarine, and use them in that order as a gradient from horizon to zenith.  I also love to drop in bits of rose in the upper reaches of the sky to add interest and color.

Rocks in Watercolor: El Capitan Step-By-Step

El Capitan, 8x10" watercolor
I have started teaching a series of classes at The Art Verve Academy here in Tucson about "Features in the Landscape".  In my latest class this fall I cover rocks and mountains.  For the rocks session I decided to demonstrate using two subjects, El Capitan and Double Arch, because these are instances where basically a big rock is the "star" of the composition.  Each rock has interesting color and texture to practice varying painting techniques.

In this blog post I'll demonstrate a step-by-step of the El Capitan painting and in a following post I'll demonstrate the Double Arch process.

El Capitan Reference Photo, cropped to 8x10"
I took the reference photo one morning during a 2011 trip to Yosemite National Park.  As you can see in this light, one face has full direct sun but the contours of the formation create a sizable cast shadow in the middle section.  There are also cast shadows in the main cracks and fissures, providing a bit more texture to the rock face.  For beginners I thought this would be an easier subject to tackle.

First Wash
After tracing the contour lines onto an 8x10" piece of watercolor paper I made the first wash.  I like to use a bit of exaggerated color, wet-into-wet, in my first wash because I believe overall it adds interest to the subject, and the color can always be toned down later in areas as needed for greater realism.  It's a opportunity to break the ice with a new painting and start an artful interpretation of your subject.  Since most of the rock face of El Cap reads as white in the photograph, I decided to let mingle three dilute colors of a primary triad:  azo yellow, quinacridone rose, and cobalt blue.  Where the light was the strongest I emphasized yellow.  In the mid region I tended to drop in rose and places destined for gray I dropped in cobalt blue.

Second and Third Layers

Once the first layer completely dried, I then started laying in earthy yellow streaks using a two-brush technique.  I used Daniel Smith Monte Amiata Natural Sienna on one brush, then soften the edges of the streaks with a second brush that was damp with clean water.  Then I applied the gray streaks using a similar method, this time with a dilute mix of burnt sienna and ultramarine.

One dried, I started applying the shadow shapes using a mix of rose and ultramarine.  In the main shadow swathe I dropped in some sienna as well.

Fourth and Fifth Layers
In the fourth layer I started painting in my foliage at the base of the rock.  For the trees I used mainly a mix of azo green and ultramarine, my new favorite combination for greens lately.  I also dropped in some burnt sienna in places to add a more natural effect.  For painting the foliage I used a "dancing brush" technique to try to get natural leaf cluster shapes and allow an airy quality by leaving some untouched spots.  When the trees were dry enough I painted in the initial wash of the grassy area with the same greens with the addition of my sienna for the dry sunlit grasses.  Wet-into-wet is useful for dealing with the reflections in the water because it provides an effect of vague shapes.

In the fifth layer I refined the tree shapes with  negative painting using darker valued greens.  In some cases I added more ultramarine or Payne's Gray and in others some Quinacridone Violet.  I was aiming for near black in the deeper shadow areas.  To see the darker areas in the foliage I did a lot of squinting at my reference photo.  It takes a bit of intention to override your brain's commands and trust what your squinted eyes see in terms of light and dark values.  I often used my second brush, damp with clean water, to soften edges.  I also refined some of the shadow shapes in the grassy area and the water reflections.

In the fifth layer I also tackled the sky, up to now an unpainted white.  Honestly I thought the plain blue sky in my reference photo looked too ordinary and boring so I decided to take a risk and put in a stormy sky.  One of my favorite situations of light is where your subject is "spot-lit" against a stormy sky because it really illuminates the subject, so I aimed to create that effect with this painting.  I wet the entire sky shape with clear water and started with a gradient of blues (as if I was painting a blue sky) to give a foundation color to the sky.  So at the horizon I dropped in my greener blues (cobalt teal blue and cerulean blue), then going up in zenith my cobalt blue then ultramarine at the top of the paper.  Then I got a little wild and dropped in various concentrations of gray (mixture of burnt sienna and ultramarine), quinacridone violet, dioxazine violet, sienna, Payne's gray, and more ultramarine.  I kept dropping in more color, in some cases gently blending with my brush (but not too much!) until I was satisfied with the results.  As long as your wash has a sheen it's okay to continue to work and drop in more color.  It felt right to emphasize a really dark value next to the right diagonal shape of the rock (with the help of my Payne's Gray), and I think my intuition was telling me to use the dark clouds to help balance the composition.  I'm actually quite pleased with the result and very glad I took the risk.

Final Painting
For the final layer I did some refinements here and there.  Using a tiny brush (size 0) I added some fine streaks of gray to the top of El Cap, and added any streaks, blotches of patina, and cracks that seemed to be missing.  Then for the trees I used my tiny brush with white gouache plus a bit of indian yellow to paint in the lighter-valued tree trunks and their reflections in the water.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Saguaro at Night Step-by-Step

Saguaro at Night, 6x6"
I'm getting better at taking progress photos of a painting as I paint it, and I thought I'd share another step-by-step with you here.

This is of a saguaro whose photo I took during a morning walk with my camera, right in my neighborhood!  Of course, I put a fun starry night sky in my painting.

Reference Photo
Here is the reference photo.  For the painting I cropped for a square composition.

Map the shadows
The first step I made for this painting was to map the shadows using mixes of Da Vinci Red Rose Deep and M. Graham Ultramarine Blue.

Paint the brownish areas near the spines
I used mixes of DS Goethite, DS New Gamboge, and MG Quinacridone Rust for the brownish areas of the saguaro along the spines.  I think this means this particular saguaro is an older one?

Paint the greens
I used mixes MG Azo Yellow and ultramarine for the greens of the saguaro flesh.  My technique was typically to paint the yellow-heavy mix on the outer edges, and drop in blue-heavy mix towards the more shadowy interiors.

Paint the spine holes
I mixed up some dark grey/near black (I think using DS Indanthrone Blue, Quin. Violet, and New Gamboge) and painted the spine holes and the scars.

Paint the sky
Satisfied with the saguaro for now, I painted in the sky, leaving a light area for the "Milky Way", and warm areas close to the horizon.  The paints I used for the sky are richly pigmented:  MG Ultramarine Blue, WN Winsor Violet, MG Quinacridone Violet, and WN Payne's Gray.

Spatter in the stars
I use Winsor Newton Permanent White gouache and an old 1/4" bristle brush to spatter in the stars.  The gouache is opaque enough for this purpose.  I used a tiny round brush to add more stars here and there.

Deepen the shadows on the saguaro, finished painting
Now that I have the dark value of the sky in the painting, I can more clearly see the values in the saguaro itself and noticed that I needed to darken the values in the inner folds of the saguaro.  I used more mixes of ultramarine and azo yellow, heavy in the ultramarine.

Then I declared it finished!

This painting is destined to be donated to the Scottsdale Artist's School to support the school.  They have a program where they accept 6x6" art from teachers and students, and sell this art for a very modest and affordable price.  The proceeds support the school, which is a small, independently-run school.

Monday, May 6, 2019

El Capitan Under a Starry Night Sky

El Cap Under the Stars, 7x10"
I guess I can't get enough of these starry night sky paintings!  I painted this one concurrently with the Delicate Arch painting in my previous post.  El Capitan in Yosemite is indeed a special and iconic piece of rock.

Reference Photo

I took this reference photo one morning.  I guess we were fortunate to get a camp site in the valley that year!  I liked the composition, enhancing the sheer vertical nature of the nose of El Capitan, framed by the trees.

Pencil Drawing on Watercolor Paper

I traced the photograph using a clear plexiglass sheet and a wet erase pen, then used a light table to transfer the drawing onto Arches cold press 140 lb watercolor paper.  I taped the paper onto a plexiglass sheet using blue painters tape.

Underpainting Wash on El Cap

I like to break the ice in many of my paintings by first doing an underpainting wash of warm yellow and rose, painted wet-into-wet.  I like the colorful rosy glow this technique ultimately creates.  I emphasize yellow where there will be more illumination, and rose in places destined to be in shadow.

Underpainting Wash on Trees

I also did an wash of yellows and reds in the trees.  Since most of the trees will be dark value, it's fine to have more rose.  I emphasized yellow on the tips of the trees that might catch more "backlight" from the sky glow.

Initial Shadow on El Cap

I could have gone either way at this point with the rock of El Cap, map the shadow or start dropping in some local color.  I mostly mapped the shadow but there is a bit of Quinacridone Rust in areas to start representing the local color.  My blue is Indanthrone Blue, but I could have easily chosen Ultramarine.  I love both but I cannot resist the richness of the Indanthrone Blue.

First Layers Local Color

I further developed the rock of El Cap by painting a bit more local color in the form of sienna and Q. Rust.  I also started mapping out the cracks and mottling on the rock face.  Also, I have a first layer of local color for the trees.  The right trees are evergreen and the left is a cottonwood.  For both I painted them wet-into-wet using Azo Green, Indanthrone Blue, with a bit of rose blended in here and there.  I made sure there was variation of both color and value in the trees.

Completed Painting

Well, I was not so good about continuing to take photos of all the intervening steps between the last photo and the finished painting.  But generally I:

1.  Further developed El Cap by dropping in more local color and shadow areas until I was satisfied.

2.  I painted the far ridge first with a rosy underpainting, then about three more washes to include local color, shadow, and cracks/crevices.

3.  A second darker layer on the trees, more intense mixture of Azo Green and Indanthrone Blue, careful to leave "holes" in the trees for the prior layer to come through and give an impression of light in the trees.

4.  Paint the starry sky using same process as demonstrated in my previous blog post for Delicate Arch.  The streak of the "Milky Way" is positioned as a design element to "point" to the star of this painting, El Capitan.

5.  I used my Rapidograph ink pen to outline all the edges of washes in the landscape features.

6.  I used a couple dots of white gouache to represent the headlamps of climbers camped out for the night on El Cap.  Can you find them?

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Delicate Arch Under a Starry Night Sky - Step-By-Step

Delicate Arch Under the Stars, 5x7"
I painted this watercolor of Delicate Arch under a starry night sky in preparation for teaching my "Skies In Watercolor" class at the Art Verve Academy This coming Saturday I will teach the session on how to do starry night skies.  When I first learned how to do these kinds of skies myself (thanks to a YouTube demo by Untamed Little Wolf), I fell in love with this way of treating the sky and transforming what would otherwise be an ordinary painting into something I felt was magical.  When I was a teenager first discovering the night sky after having moved from a city to the country, I grew so enamored with it I thought I wanted to be an astronomer!  (Watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos series on TV also provided further inspiration).  Alas I never became an astronomer, but now many years later I can channel my romance with the night sky into art!  I found it can even be done in watercolor (with the help of a little bit of white gouache).

I want to show you a step-by-step in how I created this little painting.

Materials Used:
- Paper:  Arches 140lb Cold Press watercolor paper
- Paints:  DS New Gamboge, DV Red Rose Deep, MG Quinacridone Rust, MG Ultramarine, MG Quinacridone Violet, WN Winsor Violet, and WN Paynes Grey, WN Permanent White Gouache
- Brushes:  Silver Black Velvet rounds 16 and 8, bristle brush
- Ink lines:  Rapidograph .30 w/ Rapidograph Ultradraw Black India ink

 The first step is to choose a subject to put under your starry night sky.  You have a choice of creating a silhouette image of landscape features like mountains or trees (like in Untamed Little Wolf's video, linked above), or use a reference photo from a photo taken in daylight and turn it into a night scene.  To do the silhouette is more in line with how our eyes, and most cameras, would actually sense the scene.  It's the nature of the limited dynamic range of our vision, and especially of cameras.  There is an element of realism in that approach.

But what if you had eyes that could see BOTH the stars and colorful nebula gas of the night sky AND had good enough night vision to see the landscape features in all the glory of color and light?  Maybe we could even see the "aura" of a place...  Wouldn't that be magical?  I think so, and that is why I've fallen in love with this approach!

Reference Photograph
Pencil Drawing
I have found that I really enjoy turning reference photos of interesting landscape subjects -- even if photographed under an ordinary blue or overcast sky -- into an imaginative and fanciful painting of a special place under a starry night sky.  In this case I chose Delicate Arch from a trip a few years ago.  We had hiked the 1.5 miles to watch the glow of the setting sun on the arch.  I traced the photograph to get the pencil lines onto the watercolor paper.  I like to tape my paper to a plexiglass sheet, in this case using blue painter's tape.

First and second wash
Since starry night skies use such dark and intense pigment, I find it best to paint (most of the) landscape features before painting the sky so I don't run the risk the sky bleeding into my landscape if my damp brush happens to touch the sky.  So my first washes were on the arch and the distant land ridges.  I like my first wash to be more of an underpainting of rose and warm yellow tones; I learned this trick from artist Jonathan Frank and I like how the underpainting creates a rosy glow to the landscape.  I apologize for forgetting to photograph after making the underpainting, but in the photo at left you can see remnants of the rose and gold tones.  On the arch, I didn't bother to stay within the lines.

After the underpainting dried, I did a second wash on the arch itself to lay down the lighter tones of the local color.  I did drop in darker tones (a bit of violet) for the areas destined to be deep in shadow.

Though I normally would further develop the landscape before painting the sky, I decided in this painting to paint the sky next.  As my up-coming class was focused on the sky, I wanted to make sure I dusted off my technique for the sky ASAP to be ready to teach it.

Wet the sky area with clear water
Drop in warm yellow and rose for the horizon

As we are working the sky wet-into-wet, the first step is to wet the sky area with clean water using a large brush.  From here on, we will work steady, dropping in various colors of paint, before the paper dries too much.  So be ready!  Mist your paints; we will be using the New Gamboge (or you can use raw sienna), Red Rose Deep, Ultramarine, Winsor Violet, Quinacridone Violet, and Payne's Grey.  The first colors to drop in are the warm yellow and rose at the horizon.  This suggests that there is enough of the setting sun below the horizon to still impart a glow.  And...I like how it adds more color to the sky.

Drop in ultramarine

We will be leaving some of the paper a bit white (from the left side of the arch diagonally up to the upper left corner of the painting) to simulate the Milky Way, so here in this image you can see that I drop ultramarine around this area, and spreading out above the horizon.  I am dropping in fairly dense paint, my brush is getting paint directly from my palette well and not a diluted pre-mixed puddle.  We want the sky to have enough dark value and vibrant color, so don't dilute your paints with water too much.

The next paint to drop in is the Winsor Violet.  You don't have to use Winsor Violet, any brand of dioxizine violot (PV23) will do.  I also like Daniel Smith's Carbazole Violet and M. Graham's version of it.  I forgot to photograph the step after the violet and before the Payne's Grey; I added the violet between the ultramarine and the yellow/rose at the horizon.

The next step is the Payne's Grey, and this paint is crucial for the dark sky.  And for this paint I won't try any other than Winsor Newton because it mixes well and is transparent.  It works great for me and I'm afraid to try anything else with the risk of getting something too sooty or opaque.  Notice I am dropping in the Payne's grey at the upper reaches of the sky, around the "Milky Way" and down to the horizon opposite the yellow/rose tones.  I am adding the Payne's over the existing ultramarine and violet, allowing them to mingle together and provide interestingly-colored darks.

 So the basic sky-work is laid, now time to add more color while the surface is still wet:

Deepen the rose at the horizon

Drop in ultramarine bordering the "Milky Way"
Drop in violet bordering the "Milky Way"
Drop in Q. Violet bordering "Milky Way",
and above horizon
Okay, whew, take a breather and let this dry!  I think we have enough value and color in the sky.  We'll know when it dries.  If we don't, we can always go in with a second layer after the first layer dries and deepen color and value if needed.

I love the next stage -- spattering in the stars.  I used to use acrylic white ink because it makes nice opaque stars over the dark sky, but I found it difficult to fully wash out of my bristle brush so I switched to white gouache.  The stars are still opaque enough and the cleanup is easier.  You can use an old toothbrush to spatter on the paint, but I have an old favorite bristle brush (an oil painter's brush) that makes spatters just the way I like them.  I get a nice thick consistency of gouache and water and load up my bristle brush.  I practice my spatters first on a scrap paper (that has color, so you can see your spatters).  I cover up my landscape features with tissue paper so I don't spatter white gouache onto my arch too!

Spattering in the stars

My gosh, it's full of stars

So with the sky complete, it's time to work on the landscape, developing the shadows and midtones (and local color in the case of the distant ridges!).  Most of the local color is using Quinacridone rust, mixed with rose, violet, blue, and even a bit of Azo Green.

Landscape features painted
Finished painting
When I am satisfied with the watercolor painting, I ink all the outlines with my Rapidograph pen, filled with permanent black ink.  As was the case this time, my pen had old ink in it so I had to completely clean it, using bulb syringe fitting, Koh-i-noor cleaning solution, and my ultrasonic cleaner.  These pens are not easy, but I do love them for this purpose.

Little Colorado River


Turks and Caicos

Rainbow Bridge

Saguaro Desert (ornaments)

Locust Point, Grand Canyon

Tumamoc Hill View towards Tucson