Great Blue Heron

This post is going to be a long one – full of terror and delight. Well, as much as watercolor can be.

I haven’t watched a lot of Youtube watercolor tutorials, but I have looked at a few and have read a few on other online sites. They all seem to go the same way; someone produces a photo, then flawlessly shows you how to paint that, start to finish.

Well, I am still learning. I have learned a lot over 50 years of painting but still make mistakes and learn more everyday. It’s what keeps me going. So my tutorials – if you can even call them that – are a little different. Sometimes, I have no idea what I am doing. I usually have no idea how I am going to make a painting look like I want it to. And sometimes I just fail.

Anyway, I saw this photo, maybe on Facebook and I loved how the reeds partly obscured the heron and created a graphic frame.

I wondered if I could do something like that…

Great Blue Heron in the reeds

I looked through my own photos and found one of a great blue heron that I took, near where I live.

Great Blue heron

First I draw out the heron and draw reeds around it.

Preliminary Drawing

Note – this is also the first time I am trying Arches 300lb cold press. I’ve always used rough as I like the texture but some of my paintings lately seem to me like they might be better on cold press.

If you are unfamiliar with watercolor paper terms, these refer to the surface of the paper. I think of it like a shirt right out of the dryer. “Rough” is as is and has a bumpy surface. “Cold Press” is a little smoother as if you used a cool iron on it and “Hot Press” is really smooth as if you got heated up your iron before ironing the shirt. 

Masking Fluid on paper

To mask the reeds, I grabbed the new bottle of Fineline Masking Fluid that I recently received from Amazon. They were out of the “20 gauge” or really fine applicator, so I bought the 18 gauge.

I started applying it and – GACK! – I hate it. Well, I am not used to it and it is not really working for me. Not only is it a different color but it pours out and bubbles. Maybe this is a good thing if you are masking a large area but… I am not convinced.

Fineline Masking Fluid

Globs and bubbles!

Fineline Masking Fluid

Now the reeds are all masked. I tried to get them to be varying widths and directions

Fineline Masking fluid on paper

I think this is good to go so I pour water into my pigments I have on my palette and get them ready to go. I am thinking Undersea Green, Cerulean and maybe Lunar Blue, a color that I recently got and haven’t really played with (paid links). As I have said before, I think Undersea Green is a really harsh, ugly sour color unless it is mixed with something like Cerulean – then it is lovely. It is like the vinegar of the watercolor world.

I get the background all wet then start swirling in color. And maybe too wet as nothing is really working like I want it to but I can go back over it and bring out details later. I ended up adding a little Terre Verte and Indanthrone blue. Terre Verte is a very sweet, gentle blue/green like a Tiffany bag and Indanthrone – or “Idiot Blue” – is a very full, sweet, rich blue.

Watercolor on paper

The next day, after this was all dry, I went in with more blues to try to add details to the ripples.

I know every painting can go through an “ugly” stage, but this one has just grown up to be ugly and I don’t think it can be saved. I don’t have a firm grip in my head as to how to approach the idea I have of the way the water should look.

Watercolor on paper

I let it dry overnight and the next morning… I just can’t. This is too awful. I have totally overworked the background and it is just… heavy handed and… awful.

So what to do? I start over. Fresh paper.

Masking fluid on paper

Yes, starting over. Looking at this, I just want the reeds to be different thicknesses and if the reeds in the foreground are thicker, it might add depth and dimension.

The final layer of mask. Yes, I am using the blobby applicator as it does seem good for thick lines, bubbles and blobs notwithstanding.

Masking fluid on paper

And then the background – you’ve heard all this before. This time I am NOT using Undersea Green or Lunar Blue. They are just not working for me right now.

Watercolor on paper

I was imagining deep pools of brilliant color. Yes, I got that but there is something very missing here. I don’t want to make another mess so I got to thinking, I have seen people use alcohol to create effects on watercolor. Maybe that might give me ripples?

I googled and went over a few sites showing the effects of different alcohols when dropped or dabbed on watercolor and I’m not feeling it.

Then I see a link to using soap bubbles… I check out a few tutorials and the best one has the artist using the fluid from one of those bubble blowing wands. She gets great effects!

And I just happen to have one of those. You never know when you need to blow some bubbles, right? Here’s the set up.

Bubble blowing liquid

I pour a little in a bowl of water and with a straw start blowing. Fun!

Soap bubbles in a bowl

I think smaller bubbles might work best – if you stir the big ones, you get smaller more foam like ones. I start putting them on a scrap of watercolor paper (a reject painting) and they start disappearing as fast as I can scoop them out. I may not have used enough soap.

But I put out a few scoops and drop watercolor into the foam.

Soap bubbles on paper

And it all starts running and well, not looking too impressive.

But I have dishwashing liquid – that might work better.

Bubbles in a bowl

I don’t know how archival this is so I don’t use much soap – maybe half a squirt? But still, pretty impressive, sturdy bubbles.

And onto the paper they go, again dropping pigment on top. You can see the bubble blowing bubbles right next to the more robust Dawn ones.

Bubble blowing liquid test

This actually dries quite quickly and… wow. I like this. I threw in some Payne’s Gray and I think that is what caused the blackish flecks. You can clearly see the difference between the dishwashing liquid and the bubble blowing soap!

Testing soap bubbles

While I love this effect, do I dare to just plop bubbles on my painting and see what happens?

Why not? Before, I was using a business card to scoop the soap bubbles (it was handy) but to cover a larger area, I was finding scooping like this to be inefficient and the bubbles were popping almost as fast as I could get them on. So I went for it and just blew bubbles letting them fall out of the bowl onto the paper. No photos as I did this – you have to work FAST.

But here is what I ended up with. Not very even but…

Watercolor on paper

And when it dries! Not perfect but I confess, I love it!

Watercolor on paper

And closer up? Needs some smoothing but, wow.

Watercolor on paper

I let this all dry and then removed the masking fluid.

Watercolor on paper

Masking fluid tends to leave harsh, rough lines.

Watercolor on paper

My usual way of dealing with the harsh edges is to smooth with an old brush. In this case, I am dealing with fine lines so what works is a stiff, oil painting brush. It is stained green from prior use with oils.

Watercolor on paper

Now, I have smoothed all the edges and evened out some of the blobs left by the mask. I have no idea how to paint the heron but it has such fine detail that I decide to get out my old “Technical pen”. I actually bought a set of these more than 40 years ago and still use them. Yes, they clog and can be a true challenge to unclog but for fine India ink lines (and lasting 40 years!) there is nothing like them. I’ve also added a few lines of masking fluid to the feathers to preserve whites.

Watercolor on paper

Kinda goofy looking but I think this might work.

Watercolor on paper

Starting to add color… Daniel Smith makes this odd pigment they call Minnesota Pipestone (link to Amazon). It is made from, yes, Minnesota Pipestone and is a tan/adobe/pinkish color. I am using it here on the neck with Daniel Smith Bloodstone which is sort of a violet gray.

Watercolor on paper

What works for me is to get the area pretty wet then float in the colors so that they mix and granulate. I am doing the feathers with Daniel Smith Sodalite (a granulating dark blue), Daniel Smith Amethyst and Kyanite (affiliate links to Amazon). All are “Primatek” colors, meaning that they are ground minerals with granulate. The thing I like about the Primateks is that the pigments don’t mix, let’s say, red and blue, but the mineral sit next to each other. You can use greens and violets together, for instance, without making mud.

The Kyanite is a gorgeous, muted blue but unfortunately like a few of the Primateks, it has flakes like Mica which are glittery. A little glitter goes a long way but I think is not out of line in feathers.

Note, I have masked that one reed that is in front of the heron.

I truly am making this up as I go along – adding a little more ink, a little more color, a little more mask.

Watercolor in progress

More work on the feathers. I am doing this little section by little section, getting the area wet then dropping in the pigment to let it run and granulate. The darkest blue is Sodalite.

Watercolor on paper

Time to start painting the reeds. I know there are brushes for getting a nice fine line but I don’t have one. I am using the oil paint brush. It doesn’t hold much paint but gives a nice straight edge. I am using my favorite green – Daniel Smith Jadeite and the yellow is, I think, Hansa Yellow Light (affiliate links). It was already on my palette and looked like it would work.

Watercolor in progress

Finishing the reeds.

Watercolor in progress

And here it is all done! The soap bubbles got under the drafting tape margin but I can crop before framing.

Finished watercolor
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