Using an Under Painting in Watercolor

August 8, 2014
"Jake" watercolor 5x7 in.

“Jake” watercolor 5×7 in.

Anyone who has ever taken a painting class with me in oils or acrylics knows I believe strongly in the practice of doing a monochromatic under painting first. However, many watercolor artists will tell you that it isn’t possible to do an under painting in watercolor–that simply isn’t the case! While I don’t always do an under painting when I work with watercolor, it can be an effective way of establishing your drawing and composition. Think of it as a replacement for starting out in pencil, you will get a more fluid look to your finished painting and can do more than just outline your subject. Here is the approach I used on the painting above:

– I started out with a wash drawing of the kitty using only yellow ochre, I used a #8 round brush. I didn’t just outline him, you can see the under painting in the final painting, it is visible when you use it with watercolor where as it is totally or almost totally covered when working oil or acrylic (I sometimes let bits of my under painting show through, especially if it is done in a color specifically meant to show through. The art police purists will tell you that isn’t allowed, I don’t care, it works effectively for the manner in which I paint.)

– Once the under painting was complete and dry, I went back on top of it with a mixture of Prussian blue and alizarin crimson to  create the stripes and darker grey areas of his fur, I let the white of the paper remain white in the areas where the fur is white, such as on his chin.

– Last of all, I hit the darkest darks one more time with a more concentrated (less water, more paint) application of the Prussian blue / alizarin mix.

That’s it, I did this in about 20 minutes, working quickly can help you to stay loose and keep your painting nice and fresh, not over worked. I find under paintings in watercolor to be an effective alternative to drawing in pencil. Give it a try, especially if you have trouble making your paintings unified, the under painting takes care of that from the start!

Paint Every Chance You Get!

July 28, 2014
watercolor sketch from Smartphone, about 6x9 in.

watercolor sketch from Smartphone, about 6×9 in.

Artists seem to worry a lot about things like what to paint, is it ok to paint from photos, is it plein air if I do it in the car, is it ok to paint pets, etc. A lot of energy is spent thinking about painting rather than actually painting. My advice to my students is to paint every chance you get! Doesn’t matter what or where, just paint (or draw). The more you do it, the better you will get.

My preference is to work from life or direct observation–but that is not always possible. I may not have access to a model, or I may want to paint something it is not logistically possible to paint (the inside of the Holland Tunnel for example). Rather than agonizing over whether it is “OK”  to paint it or not, I just do it. I always note my sources when I post my sketches online and use only my own reference materials.

Another thing that seems to create much consternation is the definition of plein air. Plein air means you painted something that is outside while you were outside. So is it ok to paint in your car? Of course, just say “I painted this from my car” when you post it or exhibit it. Edward Hopper painted from his car frequently, if the car is ok for him, it’s certainly ok for me.  If the idea of not adhering to the strictest of definitions prevents you from painting, or from enjoying the process of painting, is it really worth it? I’d much rather paint inside my car on a cold rainy day than out in the elements, so I do.

The point is, get out there or stay in your studio, but whatever you do, get the paints out and paint. Or get the charcoal out and draw. The only way to improve is to do it every chance you get…in the manner that works best for you at the time!

Skill vs. Technique: Know the Difference!

July 14, 2014
Watercolor sketch from direct observation, old spoons, 9x12 in.

Watercolor sketch from direct observation, old spoons, 9×12 in.

I get concerned when new students tell me they want to learn “techniques”, this usually implies that they want to skip the basics–drawing in particular–and move right into how to create specific effects with a given medium. In my view, technique is secondary to skill. If you have the right skills, you can work successfully in any medium. Techniques are easy to learn and fun to develop on your own, but they will never replace or compensate for skill, particularly when it comes to drawing.

For example, in the little study above, I used watercolor to create a monochrome study of some old silver spoons. The spoons in and of themselves are not all that interesting, but I’ve used them to create a dynamic composition by placing them at angles to move the eye in a variety of directions–to effectively do this with any subject, you must have developed skill in composition. I find the shapes (forms) of the spoons particularly interesting. If you’ve ever drawn a spoon, you will understand that getting the proportions and angles of the stems and bowls just right is key to making them look like they could actually function as eating utensils. In order to do this, you must use drawing skills–the ability to see form, value, proportion and perspective. It is the values that create the illusion of dimension, as well as suggest surface texture, they tell you whether you are looking at the inside or the outside of the spoon’s bowl. The shadows create some of the forms from the negative space–if all of this sounds foreign to you, you are not ready to be learning technique, you need to go back to basics and focus on building skill.

So, where does technique fit in? Once you have built your skills and developed confidence using basic media such as charcoal, pencil or monochromatic pastel, you are ready to start exploring how different techniques can enhance the work you create using those skills. In the example above, I used my knowledge of drawing and composition (form, value, proportion, perspective) to create the structure of the painting. I used the technique of very loosely applied brush strokes in a variety of tones of Prussian blue watercolor to create the effect of the spoons melding with the background in some places and coming forward off the page in others. If I couldn’t draw the spoons (have the skills), I would not be able to create this effect (use the technique).

Until you become highly proficient in drawing, don’t rush into learning a whole host of techniques in different media. Focus on the basics, build confidence and skill. When you feel you can create something good with the most basic of materials, you are ready to start learning about techniques in specific media.

Commissions: They CAN be fun!

July 3, 2014
Watercolor and Ink preliminary sketch for a current commission

Watercolor and Ink preliminary sketch for a current commission

Any artist who has ever painted something on commission probably knows that commission work presents a unique set of challenges. You are painting someone else’s painting, so their vision and yours need to be on the same wavelength, otherwise, the process can become frustrating for both you and the client. I have found that I actually enjoy doing commissions if the match is right between me and the client. I have also found that being as specific as possible in a written proposal goes a long way in ensuring that there are no surprises along the way in the form of unexpected and unreasonable requests for changes, quibbling over price or delivery dates. Spell it all out upfront, and the process will go smoothly! Here are a few steps you can take to ensure the best possible experience for both you and your client:

  • Get to know your client and what they want, and have them get to know you! The first thing I do when I get a request for a commission is tell the client to visit my web site and really LOOK at my paintings. They should ask themselves the following questions: do they like my painting style? Is it appropriate for the subject they want painted? Would they enjoy having one of my paintings in their home to live with for a long time? Because I paint in a very loose and painterly style, I often will specifically say “this is not going to be a rendering of the subject, it will be an expressive painting that hopefully captures its essence, is that what you want?” You can modify that question to suit the style you work in, it’s a good way to avoid having someone who doesn’t really know what they want get started down the wrong path (with the wrong artist for their project).
  • Paint only subjects you WANT to paint–if someone wants a painting of their grandchild, I’m going to send them to a portrait artist. I love painting people, and I do enjoy capturing likeness, however, most people want a specific, formal look to a portrait of someone they know. There is also an intrinsic element that more frequently than anything else causes them to say “no, that’s not really my….”. So, I politely decline those projects and suggest other artists who specialize in portraiture. Again, it isn’t that I can’t paint a portrait, it’s just that I would rather not deal with the intangible idea of trying to capture someone I don’t really know. On the other hand, I LOVE architecture and the landscape, so if someone wants a painting of a place or of their home, I am more inclined to accept the project–providing they understand that it will be an interpretation of the place, not an architectural rendering.
  • Once you have decided that you want the job and the client wants to work with you, it’s time for the proposal. Include everything in the write up: a detailed break down of how much you will charge for each part of the process: materials, preliminary sketches, finished product. Ask for a non-refundable deposit of at least 10% up front–this will ensure that you are paid for your time and expenses during the preliminary sketching phase. I almost always do a preliminary sketch phase, unless it is a small watercolor commission where I might forego the sketches and just suggest views, but if it is an oil painting, I always provide the client with 3 sketches done monochromatically in watercolor to choose from. This is to work out the composition and format. If it is a very large painting, I might take one more intermediate step and do a color version in pastel, but only if it is a very large piece.
  • Include time frames in your proposal–tell the client how much time you will need, be realistic based on other commitments you have–you don’t want to be in the position of rushing or having to tell the client the painting will not be done on time. Finishing earlier than expected is always appreciated, not finishing on time, is not.
  • Charge enough to realistically cover your time and expenses, know what your time is worth, and spell out how open you are or aren’t to input from the client. I prefer to work with clients who do not want to micro manage me, I like initial input and direction, and then I take it from there, always doing my best to capture the essence of the subject in the way it was requested. However, I will not re-paint a painting simply because the client is buying new furniture and wants the painting to match the couch–again, it comes down to screening. You can usually pick up on these traits early in the process and if it seems like it could go that way, don’t be afraid to walk away from the job instead of taking it on. Remember, your name has to go on that painting–if you have someone directing you to do something you know is not going to work, you do have the right to say something. Again, that’s why the screening process, proposal and preliminary sketches are so important, especially on a large project.

Once you find a way of managing the process, commission work can be rewarding and a nice source of steady income. Just be sure you are enjoying the process and still painting the way you would paint something that was not a commission–that will ensure you are doing your best work, and your client will no doubt be happy with the end result!

Note: I accept commissions for a variety of subjects, landscapes, architecture and urban scenes are my specialty, if you would like to talk further about commissioning a painting, email me at

How I Did This…

June 19, 2014
Elizabeth's Teapot - oil on panel, 8x10 in. from direct observation

Elizabeth’s Teapot – oil on panel, 8×10 in. from direct observation

Have been too busy to do much blogging lately, so here is a quick entry–an in depth description of how I painted this little still life of a metal teapot. Here’s what I did:

  • Toned a gesso board panel with yellow ochre acrylic so that it was a nice middle value
  • Began with an under painting (drawing, composition and values) in raw umber oil & turpenoid
  • Used the following palette: raw umber, ultramarine, King’s blue, cad red medium, cad yellow medium, cad yellow light, brilliant yellow light (an odd color I happen to have on hand, I used it instead of white)
  • Mixed raw umber and ultramarine to block in darkest darks first
  • Then mixed ultramarine and cad red medium for dark middle values on cloth, mixed about 3 lighter and brighter values of cloth color by adding progressively more cad red medium plus a tiny bit of cad yellow medium and brilliant yellow light, used this to block in the background cloth
  • Next, I worked on the metal, used the darkest mixture of cloth values and just added more cad yellow medium and brilliant yellow light to create a neutral (purple cloth color + yellow = grey of metal), made a range of values by adding more brilliant yellow light as needed
  • Used King’s blue and brilliant yellow light to create highlights on metal in warm and cool tones
  • Apple = ultramarine + cad yellow medium for shadow; King’s blue + cad yellow light for bright areas
  • Lemons = cad yellow medium + dark value cloth color (purple made from cad red medium + ultramarine) for shadow areas, cad yellow medium by itself for bright areas on lemons

That’s about it!!!

Saying a lot with just a little

May 8, 2014
Rooster, ink, water

Rooster, ink, water

I have not written anything in awhile. I have been very busy with my teaching and painting for upcoming exhibitions, but more importantly, I have not felt I had anything all that compelling to say. Brevity and authenticity are important concepts to me, both in my work as an artist and in communication in general.

From a visual perspective, I am striving to become as efficient as possible with my brushwork and color, putting more emphasis on gesture and values.  I am doing a lot more work in monochrome and limited palette.The intent is to make a strong statement with as few marks as possible. The rooster was created simply with water and ink applied with one Chinese brush. No pencil drawing (I rarely do any pre-drawing), just washes of value laid on watercolor paper. Working in this manner on a regular basis helps to ensure that color and brushwork are used efficiently even on more complex subjects and larger compositions. It is a good way to practice knowing what your visual message is, and how to get it across effectively.

Sequence of Events, Order of Importance

March 31, 2014
Cupcake, watercolor sketch, about 4x4 in.

Cupcake, watercolor sketch, about 4×4 in.

There is a sequence to the way I build a painting. I start with a foundation or structure and build the other components on top, if the structure is not sound, the painting will not hold together. I often tell my students to think of it as baking a cake, you have to make the cake first before you can put the frosting and decorations on it.

In painting, the structure is the composition–if the composition is not effective, the painting will not be successful. Therefore, composition is #1 in my order of importance. It is closely followed by the drawing–correct proportion, perspective and values are vital to creating a sense of depth and space. I cannot put enough emphasis on this second stage of the process as it truly determines whether or not the painting will have dimension. This is followed by color, if working in color (I always view color as optional), the palette must be cohesive and harmonious. The colors must accurately match the values mapped in during the previous stage, if not, the piece will lose its depth and dimension. The last part of the process is the addition of surface texture and detail–again, to me this is optional. I believe a painting that has good structure and form can stand on its own without a lot of surface detail. However, that is up to the individual artist–if you like detail and surface texture, always be sure that it enhances rather than detracts from the overall form of the subject. Too much detail and patterning can flatten the dimension of the form. Be sure the details you add follow the contour and lighting of the form. There will be less detail visible in areas that are in shadow, and more in those that are in light.

I find that following this “order of importance” or sequence ensures a successful end result. It just requires a little bit of forethought and discipline, don’t be in a hurry to get to the pretty colors, it’s the composition, form and values that need the most attention!

Time Well Spent

March 15, 2014
white tulips, watercolor study from direct observation

white tulips, watercolor study from direct observation

I firmly believe in managing my time as efficiently as possible. I teach 7 courses in drawing and painting every week, plus a weekend workshop or two each month. That does not leave a lot of time for developing ideas for my own paintings. I have a solo show later this year, some new work needed for one of the galleries that represents me and I’d like to begin planning a workshop in Europe for 2015. Here are the things I do to ensure my work stays fresh and that I keep growing as a painter.


Practice Everyday – this means EVERY day. I always take at least 20 minutes to focus on some form of drawing or painting purely for the sake of practice. It may be a little water color study, a pen and ink drawing or just a quick gestural sketch or two in charcoal. Whatever it is, it is done purely with the intent of building skill with no expectation in terms of an end result. The end result is learning.

Develop Awareness – ideas for paintings are all around us. I am always composing in my mind as I walk down the street, drive my car, or ride public transportation. I look at things and think of how they might carve up the space on a canvas, and how I would put the paint down, and what medium would depict them the best. This builds observation skill and opens your mind to new ideas for subject matter.

Speak Clearly with Paint – for me, that means getting across the message you are trying to convey with your painting with as few strokes as possible. Before you can do that, you have to know what your message is, why do you want to paint your subject? What are you trying to say with it? It does not have to be narrative, it may be purely visual or purely abstract. The important thing is to know what you want to say, and to say it clearly and concisely, make every stroke count.


Sketching In the Car in Winter

February 24, 2014
Farmer's field sketched from my car, watercolor

Farmer’s field sketched from my car, watercolor

The Northeast has been buried under lots of snow this winter.  I’ve enjoyed painting it in the studio using some references I’ve taken as departure points, and also have rediscovered an interest in pen & ink sketching from my window. I have missed painting on location though, so I went out this morning in search of a good place to paint from the car.

The hardest thing about painting in the car is finding a good place to do it. Some of the best vantage points are on busy roads, and where I live, these can be very hilly, winding and narrow–with no good place to pull over and park. I find using watercolor or pen & ink to be the easiest and cleanest way to sketch in the car. I’ve worked with pastel, but it really is too dusty for a confined space. Using hard pastels however, does help a lot.

I keep a small back pack readily available and usually in the car with the following supplies:

– Winsor Newton portable watercolor set

– Small bottle of water and a little container

– Moleskine watercolor sketchbooks

– A few paper napkins

– Mechanical pencil for making notes about location

– Sharpie marker for any ink I may want to add

This small bag ensures that no matter where I am, I have what I need to sketch at a moment’s notice. I often find I have time before classes or when running to and from appointments and having the materials with me enables me to sketch wherever I happen to be. If you are pressed for time, try assembling a little kit like the one I describe. It doesn’t have to be a watercolor kit–you can substitute pencil, colored pencil, charcoal or pen & ink. It’s a great way to get in more practice time and build your skills for when the weather warms up!




Drawing Subjects in Motion from Life

February 19, 2014
Gestural study of birds, from life and memory, watercolor

Gestural study of birds, from life and memory, watercolor

Bird in about 5 strokes, charcoal and Sharpie, 1 minute sketch from direct observation

Bird in about 5 strokes, charcoal and Sharpie, 1 minute sketch from direct observation

Remember all those figure sketches you had to do in 30 seconds in life drawing class? Didn’t they seem like a waste of time, because after all, what can you really draw in 30 seconds? Many years later, I am finding quick, gestural drawing to be an excellent way of really understanding how subjects move.  By working quickly, you are forced to grab the purest essence of what makes a bird a bird–how it balances on a branch, how its feathers puff out against the cold, how it looks as it takes off with its wings fully spread.

Drawing in this manner is appropriate for any subject that you wish to depict in motion–cars, figures, animals–anything that moves! I find the best media for this to be ones that are the most immediate, charcoal and watercolor work very well because you can block in large areas with form and value. Throw a little bit of line work on top with a Sharpie, and you are able to really capture the movement quickly and efficiently.

Try not to focus on the outcome when you do this–rather, try to learn something about the subject you are studying. That’s why it’s called studying, because you are doing it with the intent of learning, not of creating something that is a masterpiece.