Watercolor Basics, Watercolor Project

CC Cathedral Project: Part 1

So, after my disastrous watercolor yesterday, I’m going back to basics and I think I’m starting a new chapter. This couldn’t have come at a better time.

I was laying in bed last night and thought about my disaster. A few things came to mind, 1) The drawing was not scaled, 2) the first wash was a disaster and 3) the tones, light were a disaster.

So, I woke this morning with renewed energy and outlook. I want to tackle all three today in an effort to improve the outcome of my paintings, especially the landscapes. To help me, I began reading again and watched a few videos on drawing. I did post earlier saying how a good painting is usually preceded by a good drawing. I watched a couple of videos and practiced in my sketch book on proportional drawing. You’ve seen it, most artists will have their arm extended with one eye closed, measuring the proportions to a pencil. I went outside this morning and did some preliminary drawings using my pencil and paper. And it worked! I was able to successfully proportion my drawings. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s a start. It’s been a long time since I drew, but forgot how much fun it was just to pull out a sketchbook and draw!

To address my first wash blues and tones, I went back to my bible, Joseph Zbukvic’s book, Mastering Atmosphere & Mood in Watercolor. I’ve already read the book 3 times, but never get tired of reading it. It seems that I discover something new every time I read it! So, I turned to page 22, Painting on Site – An Afternoon in Venice.

I used this beautiful photo (courtesy Nitzel photography, CC , Texas) for my subject.

Corpus Christi Cathedral over the bay (Courtesy Nitzel Photography- CC , Texas)

My project for the CC Cathedral, an iconic landmark here in CC, was similar to painting the Venice scene. It had a simple backwash, and 2nd wash that included painting the buildings (In this case the Cathedral and the back scene such as the landscape bay.

So, here I start with the drawing, free hand, with improved scaling.  Now, it’s not perfect, but I will surely improve with practice.

My scaled drawing by free hand. It’s an improvement over my last attempt at free hand pencil drawing of my bayfront project.

Next, I did my first wash. Zbukvic proposes in his Venice scene to wash the sky with a mix of Cobalt Blue and Cadmium Orange. In our case, the horizon actually has some purple, so I started the first wash with a mix of Cobalt Blue and Violet. I actually started the first wash with it being too light, so I increased the tone a bit not to overpower it. I then let it completely dry.

CC Cathedrol Practice Project 1- First Wash
The first wash. The camera doesn’t do this photo any justice. It turned out almost perfect, with a good smooth wash. I blotted out the road and some of the domes and building to maintain the bright areas in the photo.

The hardest stage is obviously the 2nd stage.  I’m glad I did this preliminary go around, because I found myself not using enough pigment, and then when I needed a darker color, I fell back on using Indigo blue, which after a few passes, it started to look dirty.  So the lesson learned here:  On the 2nd stage, use the colors in your wash and if you have to tone is up, just use more paint and don’t start mixing different paints.  I also tried to match the yellows and should have just stuck with the burnt umber, which was the base of my second wash.

Here is the second stage wash completed:

On the 2nd wash, when I started it was actually somewhat ‘magical’.  The colors were just right, but the tones were lacking.  In my zeal, I began to use Indigo to add shadows and tone.  I didn’t use enough of the initial color, but rather began using Indigo to darken the highlights. This gave the 2nd wash a dirty look, which I really didn’t like.  Because it dried, the 2nd wash was cut short and then the indigo didn’t bleed well into the initial wash, giving it what Zbuckvic calls a “stuck on look”.  He stresses that “all the shapes must be joined by the flow of the same wash or you will end up with an unrelated and unconnected series of shapes.”  I think using the Indigo on other colors is a mistake and I won’t make that again.  I would rather use the colors for whatever you are using in this crucial, second stage.

In the final stage, I began to detail the work with small palm trees, some people and birds. This was a quick run for a larger work later, but I wanted to run though it quickly just to get a feel for the colors. This is the final work after completed with the details:

This was the final detailing adding some palm trees (which a very common here in our city), some figures, a road and some birds in the sky.
Here, I added water with my spray bottle to the final work to see what would happen. It’s obvious that the darker Indigo began to bleed down the paper. Even the birds began to bleed. Of course, this is not a look that I was after, but a good exercise in experimentation.
Here I use a white wash after the work was dry just to see what would happen. It gave it a milky appearance, much like what Herman Pekel teaches. However, should be left for middle and far distance objects and not objects in the foreground.

I learned quite a bit on this project. I learned to use a single initial wash for the sky and background, and don’t go over it a second time, just leave it alone.  I like how the water sparkled by not completely going over the paper in the second stage.  It still lacks a little connect, but overall I’m learning.

Zbukvic calls these highlights in your second stage “gifts from heaven”.  I tend to agree.  I like how the ornamental people, trees and road turned out.  I used some white paint to highlight the sun on the right side of the trees since the sun is coming from your right.  Also the shadows are correctly placed on the figures.

It’s obvious the Indigo highlighting is totally unnecessary and gives the work a ‘dirty’ and ‘amateur’ look to the work.  Tones are great, but they need to be of the colors used in the painting to keep everything in harmony.  I also used tissue paper in the second stage to blot out some of the distant colors to give the painting some distance and depth.

Zbukvic emphasizes that the initial wash should be really “pale” like the consistency of tea.  I got better today with this wash and felt like it was the first time I could grasp it.  He states that the color is not important and can even be taken from left over paint in your palette!  He also stresses to leave highlights when you can in the second stage.  Once painted over, they never come back.  Remember, a little white paper showing through is a ‘gift from heaven’!

If you want a uniform wash, use “Mr. Bead” and keep your wash smooth for a bright and light, calm sky or calm seas, bays, rivers or any other body of water.

It’s important that in the second stage (the toughest stage), your buildings, middle distance objects and distant objects (water in a river or canal, mountains in the background, trees or whatever) need to CONNECT.  This is the best time to leave some highlights too.  Forget about highlights in the first and last stage of your painting.  Use the thin strips of dry paper to keep your second wash from bleeding into other lighter areas.

This is an area I could definitely improve upon.  I left very little white paper on my wash of the Cathedral, which was crucial in maintaining the ‘light’ on the right side of the building walls.

In my initial project here, I should have left some white paper between the front of the Cathedral (facing us) to the rear wall where all of the sunlight is showing.  This will keep your darker tones from ‘bleeding’ into the lighter areas.

You should also always start the second wash from left to right if you are right handed to prevent smudging your work.  It is opposite if you are a lefty.

I learned a lot about tones and colors too in this project.  Remember, don’t only use one color (in my case indigo) to paint the darker tones in the second stage.  Use the colors which ties everything together.  This is completely a personal preference for any painter.

Also, use ‘negatives’ when painting in this second stage.  If there is a window of some shape with a highlight (such as a window seal), fill in the darks and leave the original building color as the cross-hatches to your windows.   You can also ‘lift’ paint to reveal those type of highlights, but you have to work fast!

I used primarily a # 6 brush for the second stage and used a flat, 1/2 inch brush for the initial wash.  The detailing was done with a very tiny brush and my rigger.  Remember, it’s important to use the right size brush for the right stages of your work.

It’s important that the work ‘connects’ and I feel like this is the first instance I had a pretty good idea on what I was after.  I’m getting closer.

There is a lot to be said about “LESS IS MORE” in this go around.

I often think in this stage of my painting career (I’m only in my first month of painting!) , the one Joesphism that sticks:

“It’s far better, and so much easier, to learn the one and only correct way to paint, rather than hundreds of fix-it techniques”!

I will try and improve my next painting by taking this practice project and creating a larger work.  Stay tuned and happy painting.



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