My Second Painting and How I Made It

I finished another painting...again, the scanned version doesn't really look nearly as good as the actual painting because when you see a watercolor in person, the light passes through the paint, hits the white paper and passes back through the paint to your eye, giving it a vibrant and lustrous look. I tried to tweak it in Photoshop but it's not easy to replicate that radiant quality that a watercolor has when you see the original in person.

Also, like the previous painting, it's 3 and a half inches by 5 and a half if you click on it you'll get a much bigger version than the actual painting. And it's destined for the "Super Big Micro Show" at Gallery Nucleus this December, just like my previous painting.

Here's a photo I took of it outside that shows the brightness of the colors a little bit better:

I don't know much about painting, so I try to keep it simple. My last painting was based on the complements yellow and violet, while my new painting is based on the complements red and green.

The original inspiration for the painting is sort of a strange one. During the development of Disney's "Tarzan", Disney artist Vance Gerry did a ton of watercolors exploring the characters and environments. He always seemed to put a yellow underpainting under his green jungles and it gave them a very luminous quality and the underpainting tied each painting together well. So my whole impetus for the painting started with just wanting to try a jungle scene with a yellow underpainting.

Of course, like most projects, the whole idea behind it changed along the way and it morphed into something else. The painting has a yellow undertone but the way I added a black wash over the top at the end dulled down the lush green foliage, although the yellow underpainting still gives the whole painting a bright luminous quality. It makes all the colors shine brighter.

Vance is the only real watercolorist that I've known in person and that I have seen a wide range of work in person from. His work is amazing and I can't help but be affected by what he did successfully, but at the same time I don't really work like he did at all.

For example, Vance would draw his original sketch on paper with china marker and then xerox it onto card stock (although china marker is waterproof and you can watercolor right over it). Then he watercolored over the xerox. If he made a mistake, he would make another xerox and start over.

I like drawing in pen and especially for these tiny-sized pieces I found a pen worked well for the original art, then I xerox my sketches onto 140 lb. watercolor paper, which is much heavier and more porous than the cardstock Vance used, but still on the lightweight side for watercolor paper (I use that weight because I'm nervous to try sending anything heavier than that through a xerox machine). I find that the cardstock that Vance used simply doesn't take enough layers of paint for my liking because it's not that absorbent. But because it's on the lighter side for watercolor paper I try to do no more than three layers of paint - more than that and the paint gets so thick that the luminous quality of the paper underneath becomes diminished.

So on this one I knew where I wanted my tones before I painted it, and I debated laying them in with a china marker before I xeroxed it. But I didn't for a couple of reasons...number one, Vance does his whole sketch in china marker so the tones (the grey and black parts) match the line art organically. When you're starting with a pen sketch the china marker isn't going to match the line art well. Also I really like dark blacks and, once you xerox it, the black isn't as intense as when you add it to the final product after it's xeroxed. The xerox process dulls it down a bit. Also I tried adding china marker after I xeroxed it, but the watercolor paper surface is so bumpy that it wouldn't go on evenly and didn't look good at all. Again, I pictured it with dark, dark blacks but my plan changed as I went along. As much as I like black blacks, in the end I also like the radiant quality of the watercolor and really black blacks cover up the luminous feeling of the colors. So I opted for a black wash instead. Believe it or not, the wash is actually black - I made it from an equal mix of Alizarin Crimson and Windsor Green (Blue Shade) - but it laid down more of a purple when I actually added it to the final painting, because of how it interacted with the layers beneath it.

From the beginning, my color plan was all about contrasts: I knew I was going to base it on the complements red and green. I knew that there would be a lot of green space so I purposely kept the green spaces duller, and since I knew I would have very small red spaces I made them very intense. This is all pretty standard color technique: the smaller the space, the more intense and saturated the color can be, while the bigger the area, the more dull or desaturated the color should be. If your painting is all big saturated swatches of bright color it looks too intense and there's no harmony, interest or contrast. The smaller the area, the more intense and bright you can make the color within it.

Watercolorist Jeanne Dobie talks about this kind of approach in her book "Making Color Sing". She suggests using a lot of what she calls "mouse colors" - greys and browns - to fill the big areas of your paintings, and then setting your small areas of color like jewels within a setting. From the book:

The idea is that the big "mousey" washed out areas provide contrast for the brightly colored small pieces. To make the "jewels" stand out to their best possible potential, the greys and browns around them should be contrasting colors to them. For example, if your "jewel" is purple (like in my previous painting) then the greys or browns surrounding the purple should lean towards the color yellow, which is the complement of purple. That way the purple will be shown to its best advantage.

Likewise on my more recent one, I made the accents (or "jewels") red to complement the green foliage. Even though the leopard's skin color is a golden tone, I mixed a lot of red into the golden color. Also the hunter's book and the stock of his rifle have a lot of red in them. Even though these objects aren't sitting right next to the color green they still contrast well and give the picture vibrancy.

If you look at Vance's work, he did this a lot. His paintings tend to have large areas of brown and grey (or greyed out green, or red, etc.) contrasted with small areas of bright color.

Also I like to contrast warm and cool areas, so I did a warm yellow underpainting and then painted cool green and cool brown for the trees, and cool greys for the jungle floor which seems to react well against the yellow underneath. Then I painted the leopard, hunter and gun in warm colors to contrast the cool trees. Then I made the shadows on top cool black to contrast the warm colors of the leopard and hunter. I think the alternating warm and cool layers have a nice contrasting feeling that gives the picture a vibrant feeling (again, much of this is more apparent in person).

Vance also leaves white areas of the paper to great effect, which I don't. Most of the great watercolorists that have inspired me use the white paper very effectively as another color area, but for whatever reason I conceived both of my paintings as mostly color with just little spots of white. I'm enjoying my results so far, but maybe someday I'll have a concept that works better with bigger areas of white....we'll see.

In retrospect, both of my paintings tell similar stories...they both tell the tale of an unwitting "victim" being stalked by a threat that is concealed in the shadows (and on the upper right, no less). I didn't do that intentionally; I actually did a lot of different subjects that didn't turn out well, it just happened that this one was my second "success". Also (unintentionally) both are based on a triangular composition.

Anyway, that's a bit about how I approached the painting and how my technique changed along the way. If there's any overall purpose to this post, I guess it would be that one of the things that's integral to becoming an artist is to learn how to find an initial inspiration for your work, keep it in mind as you work but allow your approach and technique to evolve as your work develops. Vance's work provided a lot of initial guidance and inspiration for me but, in the end, my technique is very different because I adapted it to my own needs and discovered what worked for me and what didn't. And as I continue to paint my technique is sure to evolve and adapt (and get better).