This writing from 17 September 2012, just posted today (16 October).
Preparing for a show to be hung tomorrow, been emersed in painting on silk, and painting with watercolors. The same, yet different. I have been doing watercolors for many years now, and understand the colors, the texture of paint, how to layer (as in onion image below), how much load the brush should carry for the effect I want. Here is the painting process for watercolor.
I make a drawing that is as precise as possible, without a lot of detail, but with all lines clean and clear so that they won’t show up in my final artwork. Then I build up the colors gradually; the first layer is very light pastels…as much as anything to dampen the paper a bit so the next layer will go on readily, with edges forming smooth lines rather than rough edges. At all times I think about where I am going with the piece; what I would like the final image to look like. And with each brush stroke, and each layer, I am walking towards that final destination: my mind’s image of the final product. But as with any journey, the road offers up unexpected adventures and the endpoint is often not exactly what I had imagined!
Botanical paintings usually are represented by two separate color palettes: one for the flowers themselves (in a lily example yellows and oranges), and one for the foliage (various greens). I like to use two different palettes for mixing these different suites of colors.
I lay down a layer from one palette, the flowers for example, and while that layer is drying, I switch and lay down a layer from the other palette, in this case the leaves. I switch back and forth between the two palettes, letting layers dry as I switch to a different part of the painting, all the time being very careful not to smudge or drip on the painting!
At this point I’d like to bring up a phrase so commonly used to describe painting with watercolor: “they are unforgiving”! Well, they are, and they aren’t. Let’s take the latter first. Most think of watercolors as unforgiving because you can’t just erase or white-out mistakes, and that is very true. But also, some hues in watercolor stain the paper, and those (like viridian) should be used very cautiously, because once they are applied no amount of washing up can bring the paper back to anything even resembling white. But save for staining colors I find watercolors to be very forgiving in that colors can be lifted up as well as laid down.
There are several ways to lift color. The swiftest is to blot up color that one has just applied with the brush. My favorite tool is a paper towel, and I always paint with brush in one hand and paper towel in the other. If a quick blot doesn’t do the job, or one needs more precise and selective lifting, applying water to an area with the brush, next drying the brush, then using the dry brush as if painting results in lifting up the paint. Sometimes it is necessary to take an older brush and “scrub” the paper where you wish to remove color. In botanical art with the traditional white background artists sometimes use a very fine abrasive (such as “magic eraser” cleaning product) to sand off a blotch or drip (or cat paw tracks) that mysteriously appeared on the background area.
Each painting for me has a predictable emotional ride. It is relaxed and methodical in the beginning: I have my tools laid out, my work area is clean, I have my subject in front of me to reference frequently as I work. I select color for my palette, and mix those to use for the first layers of my painting. As I build up the layers, I begin to get increasingly anxious, as the painting walks further and further away from my imagined result (something much more perfect and impressive than photo-realism…). Then I persevere, having a mental argument with myself that all will be OK, just don’t get so frustrated and impatient that I start being sloppy (as this is NOT a sloppy endeavor). Finally toward the final layers, I begin to see that a beautiful painting might be taking shape, and by the time I add the line details which really make the painting “pop” I begin to relax and feel that is OK to be a painter.