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Take your watercolor art to the next level with this step-by-step explanation of tried-and-true watercolor painting techniques by artist Chris Beck. You’ll learn how she uses masking, lifting, washes, bleeds, glazes and more. See the feature article on Beck’s techniques in the September 2012 issue of Magazine.
By Chris Beck
1. Transfer Drawing
After transferring my drawing to the watercolor paper by tracing on a lightbox, I go over the entire image with a kneaded eraser, “blotting” up the excess graphite and lightening up the image. (Soaking the paper will set the pencil lines in the paper, so I don’t want them to be too dark.)
2. Soak the Watercolor Paper
I soak the paper briefly (3-5 minutes) in cold water (a shallow pan for small pieces, the bathtub for larger sheets), hold it up and let the excess water drain off, then carefully lay it out on my stretcher board so there are no air bubbles under it.
3. Staple Watercolor Paper to Board
I staple the paper down at the center points on each side and then work back and forth, stapling out toward the corners of the paper at roughly 2-inch intervals. When I finish stapling, I set the board aside, keeping it flat so it dries evenly. It must be bone dry before proceeding with taping and masking. This can take several hours. If the paper feels cool to the touch, it is not thoroughly dry.
4. Masking Edges and Highlights (Watercolor Masking Technique)
When the paper is definitely dry, I take masking tape and block off the borders of the paper to give a clean edge to my finished painting. I stir the masking fluid gently. If it seems a bit thick, I will add a drop or two of plain ammonia to thin it and stir again to mix. I wet the white nylon brush and dip it into a small dish of detergent to coat the bristles, then rinse it slightly and blot it on a tissue before dipping into masking fluid. I use a separate water container with a few drops of detergent in the water for rinsing my masking brush.
I paint the highlight areas with masking fluid, enlarging them slightly to allow for smudging their margins at the end. For details like the salt shaker holes, I paint masking fluid out to the highlighted edges and paint the details in at the end. When the masking fluid is completely dry, I can start to paint.
5. Initial Watercolor Painting (Watercolor Painting Technique)
I fill a different container with clean water for painting. Working quickly with a good-size brush, I generally paint the larger areas I’m working on with plain water just before I add paint. I do not paint the water all the way to the edge of a section, but leave a small gap between the water and the outline. That way, the edge of an area stays well-defined. When the paper is no longer shiny, but just damp, I add my paint, pulled from pigment-rich puddles of color. That gives me a little extra time to blend paint and create smooth washes.
6. Painting the Body (Watercolor Wash Technique)
For Dippy Duck #2, I started with the yellow, mixing a little scarlet lake into my puddle of Winsor yellow to warm it up. I created a second puddle of yellow shadow color by mixing more of the warm yellow with a touch of Winsor violet. With one of the larger brushes, I painted the main yellow area up to the outline of the wing and, while that was still wet, pulled in the shadow color to give form to the body. Then I painted the small section to the left of the bill, just touching the outer edge with the shadow color to add depth. I let both sections dry. If the color needs a boost, I repeat these steps one or two more times.
7. Painting the Bill
When the yellow was dry for Dippy Duck #2, I moved on to the bill. I mixed a rich puddle of scarlet lake for the main bill color, and a puddle of scarlet lake with a touch of ultramarine for the shadows. Again, wetting the bill with plain water before painting gaves me the smooth look I’m usually after. I painted in the red with a large brush and pulled the shadow mix along the edges of the bill with a small brush while the red was still wet, blending the colors slightly to give form to the bill. I let it dry. if the color isn’t strong enough, I repeat these steps until I’m pleased with it.
8. Bleeding Color for the Wing (Watercolor Glazing Technique)
I then created a puddle of cobalt green for the wing color. I wanted the green to bleed into the yellow as it does in the glaze on the ceramic, so I repainted just the top sections with warm yellow and then painted in the wings while the yellow was still damp. Because cobalt green is a granulating pigment, repainting this section might have ruined the effect, so the first application of color had to be strong. I practiced on a scrap of watercolor paper to see how long I’d have to wait to add the green and what proportions of pigment to water would give me the results I wanted.
9. Painting the Head
The last major section of the bird was the blue head, painted in ultramarine. The shadow color is ultramarine mixed with just enough quinacridone sienna to give a deep blue. I applied paint as for the previous sections to create rounded forms. When it was dry, I moved on to the background.
10. Background Wash (Watercolor Wash Technique)
Using a large brush, I painted the entire background with a light to medium wash of rosy-purple (permanent rose with a touch of Winsor violet). I wanted the color to be strong, but light enough for me to see the drawing of the feathery forms. When the rosy color was thoroughly dry, I mixed a dark blue-purple using ultramarine, Winsor violet, and a touch of quinacridone sienna and carefully painted around the parts of the feathers with a medium-size brush. I let that dry thoroughly and then, using a very light touch, pulled a quick wash of water across each background section to soften the shapes. While a section was still damp, I went back in with a small brush and a strong mix of the rosy-purple to reinforce the color in the feathers.
11. Remove Masking
The final steps will bring the painting to life. First, I remove all the masking fluid using the rubber cement pickup.
12. Lift Out Color (Watercolor Lifting Technique)
Using a scrubber brush that’s wet but not dripping, I lift out the highlights, blotting up the lifted color with a tissue and rinsing the brush as necessary. I smudge the margins while keeping the centers white to give the illusion of shine. I also use the scrubbers to lift color on the head and add volume to the shape. I paint pale colors back into some of these lifted areas to indicate reflections from the bill and body. I carefully lift out a narrow line along the midsection of the body to convey the edge between the top and bottom parts of the ceramic piece.
13. Detailing and Finessing
Then for Dippy Duck #2, I mixed a deep shadow color for the body, adding more Winsor violet to my warm yellow mix. With a small brush, I painted the fine shadow line at the midsection of the body and then used the same mix to paint the shadow under the bill, dropping in a bit of scarlet lake at the bottom edge to add life to it.
Using a mix of dark brown made from ultramarine and quinacridone sienna, I painted the spots on the body with a small brush, blotting each one lightly with a tissue before it dries. I darkened that mix to make a black and carefully painted in the nostril and the eye, as well as the outline of the wing and its details.
Using the same small brush and some of the blues I originally mixed for the head, I carefully defined the salt shaker holes, leaving a suggestion of a highlight at the edge of each hole. I added just a touch of color to the interiors of the holes to make them seem three-dimensional. A faint wash of green-blue in the eye completed the painting.
Meet Chris Beck
Chris Beck’s award-winning watercolors have been featured in books and magazines, including Watercolor Artist and Magazine. Between 2008 and 2011, Beck curated and wrote a watercolor showcase blog, Brush-Paper-Water (www.brush-paper-water.blogspot.com), in which she posted 66 biweekly features on watermedia artists. Although inactive now, the showcase remains available as an online resource. Beck is a signature member of the National Watercolor Society, the Transparent Watercolor Society of America and Watercolor West. Visit her website, www.chrisbeckstudio.com, and her personal blog, www.chrisbeckstudio.blogspot.com, for more information.
Materials and Supplies
- Winsor-Newton 140 lb. cold-pressed watercolor paper, approximately a 1/2-inch margin on each side of image
- HB pencil and kneaded eraser
- detailed drawing on lightweight paper, showing highlights and other features of image
- stretching board — preferably gatorboard or incredible art board
- light duty staple gun
- masking tape
- masking fluid (Winsor-Newton, Pébéo, or Incredible White Mask recommended)
- inexpensive small white nylon round brush — size 4, dish detergent, rubber cement pickup
- watercolor brushes: rounds — sizes 4, 8, and 10 or 12 — and any others you like to use
- assorted small to medium scrubber brushes (Cheap Joes or Daniel Smith)
- paints: Winsor yellow, scarlet lake, permanent rose, French ultramarine blue, Winsor violet, cobalt green (all Winsor-Newton); plus quinacridone sienna (Daniel Smith)
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