In Which I Explain How We Got Here. 

I’m writing a blog. So what’s the deal? I am a member and admin on a Facebook group called “Accidental Watercolorist”. Every time I post a painting, I get asked, “How did you do that?” And “Would you do a tutorial?”. Now, this is not because I am so good, but I think because I am just plain different.

I went to art school for like 6 years. I did a bit of everything but mostly majored in design. I took up oil painting just because, well, I sort of had to. I had paintings inside that needed to come out. I still do.

The problem is, I am a very slow oil painter. Each painting takes months.

One day, I picked up a cyclamen plant at the grocery store and painted it. I was incredibly stressed from my “day job” and I found it calmed me down. And it did not take months.  I could knock out a watercolor in one evening or a week.

In short, I am well versed in art theory, design and graphics but self taught as a watercolorist. I do what I do. I don’t watch youtube tutorials. This is not because they are beneath me but because, well, I do what I do.

And I work at it. I get better with every painting but every painting is my own.

So I have been asked to do tutorials. Fine. But I paint slowly and circuitously and no way could I ever youtube that. You would want to kill me. I would want to kill me. I am not one of those lovely people with a soft voice who mixes up a puddle of pigment and swirls it on paper and magic appears.

Still, I have learned a few things in my 40+ years of playing with this.

So here we go. Stick with me and you will learn something here and there and maybe I will learn from you. We will have fun

I live near a place called Honeymoon Island. Miles of white sand beaches. It is my happy place for inspiration.

A trip out there washes out my head and gives me food for painting. On this day, I specifically wanted to look at sea foam and how it forms and moves. It is tricky actually painting the beaches out here as the sand is white. Just white. Yes, I have painted it as white but frankly, taking the liberty of making the sand ochre, or violet or blue is just more visually appealing to me in a photo.

Here is Honeymoon Island:

Yes, how could you not be inspired? I have learned through the years that the best way to recharge your batteries when you are feeling stuck or uninspired, is just to get out and look at things. Now, I go out and look at beaches and flowers and all of nature around me. However, I would think that if you paint, let’s say cars, your therapy would be to go out to a car show. Just look at things – shapes, colors, patterns. Just look. Sometimes I am inspired by the colors of a building lobby and then that gets painted as a beach scene. You don’t have to paint what you see – just feed your head, your spirit, as you feed your body.

So this day, I went out to look at sea foam:

Rock on beach

I did not see any good shells but the tide was going out and there was foam around the rocks… Sparks flew in my head!

I kept looking at the shapes formed by the rocks and trails of foam.

Rocks on sand

I knew what I wanted to paint next.

I paint with the paper mounted on a lightweight drawing board from Blicks. The thing should crack and warp but after about 10 years for the oldest one I have, it is still in pretty good shape. I have 3 so that I can work on one painting while another dries.

Foam core board
Paper on board

I use 300lb Arches rough which holds up well even when very wet but I like it perfectly level. I use drafting tape to mask the edges for a margin, then strapping tape to make sure it is not going anywhere.

Note, the strapping tape is probably not acid free and might leave residue so it never touches the paper – it is stuck to the masking tape and the board.

Yes, a light pencil drawing of the layout is hard to see even though I have bumped up the contrast but here is a trick I recently figured out.

Drawing on paper

I am trying to be better at shadows and getting dimension in a piece. I was stopping a lot to figure out where the light would be coming from then one day, it just occurred to me – make an arrow. That is the direction of the light source. OK, this is not perfect, but whenever I get lost in the work and start to add volume or shadow, I look over and make sure I am following the arrow.

I am actually not working from any photo here other than the rocks on the beach and one I took of a shell so I can make it all up. However, it helps to be consistent.

Here’s the basic layout:

Pencil on paper

Now for the mask. I use Fineline Mask from Amazon. Sure, it clogs. Sure, it needs to be babied but it allows me fine control and lets me get the effects that I want.

Fineline Masking Fluid
Fineline Masking Fluid Buy here

I mask around the shell than start just doodling circles letting them travel and weave in and out. They do not have to be perfect.

Yes, this is pale green on white paper so it is VERY hard to see at time and I have to take breaks but I still find it relaxing. Contemplative. It is like knitting or any other detailed creation.

I started as an elementary school kid doing beading and beadwork and some of that detail and fine work might come through here.

Mask on paper

There are no “tricks” or shortcuts just doodling with the masking fluid

lines on paper

Moving along – this is after a few hours with a few breaks. While I do draw out the basic composition, the foam has a life of it’s own and does not always “stay within the lines”. And sometimes I change my mind about how I want it all to be as I work on it.

Now, for texture and contrast, I mask the smaller rocks and start to “dot” in sand and pebbles. Mostly, I am just dabbing the paper with the Fineline mask.

Masking fluid on paper

Now it gets fun. I have planned out the colors I want for the background. They are all wet on my palette. I have a lot of clean water.

I wet the paper and get it soaked. Then I wet it again. This is just what works for me. I am painting a wet beach. I start just floating on the colors I want. I mix them on the paper – not in the palette.

I use only Daniel Smith. These have a vividness that other paints I have used lack plus, some of the pigments have incredible granulation, that is the paint breaks down and leaves little granules or sandy globs and does not spread on smoothly. I furiously spread color. Sometimes as I am doing it, I hate it and add a color that I had not planned. This is where knowing your colors cold is key. Know each color. Know how it mixes and blends. If something looks too green, for instance, KNOW without thinking what will tone it down. I like doing all of this while it is still wet.

I know some people use mister bottles to wet things but I like the just leaping into the puddles.

And believe it or not, if you hate it later, you can probably change it.

One thing that I find the hardest at this stage is that watercolor is more vivid when it is wet. It may look too bright and garish now, but might look perfectly fine later. What usually happens is that it all looks right wet, then when it dries, it is this faint, pale, pastel thing that makes you go… “oh”.

This is wet. I have used undersea green, amethyst, cerulean, mayan blue. and some ochre, probably burgundy yellow ochre. I place it on a level surface to dry and sprinkle salt over some areas. Salt pulls the pigments as it dries and adds some texture. I use regular Morton’s cheapo table salt. It works for me.

Wet paint

Here’s a detail after it has dried showing how the salt has added texture. While I do paint in a detailed, controlled manner, I love how you will never know how it will all turn out when it dries.

Watercolor on paper

Here it is dry:

Notice how the salt has pulled the pigments around and made them uneven? Undersea green is a mix of ultramarine blue and quinacrine gold and the salt seems to pull the gold out of the mixture.

Watercolor on paper

This is granulation. I also use “rough” paper even when painting small details as I love the effects that you can get as the colors settle into the dips in the paper.

Watercolor on paper

Before I remove the masking, I find it is easiest to add shadows around the little pebbles and sand. Nothing too dramatic, just a little dab on the shadow side.

Then it is time to take off the mask. I find I can leave Fineline on about 10 days. Longer than that and it does get harder to pull up. You use what is called a rubber cement pickup to remove the mask. They are about $2 and I am using the same one I bought in college – many decades ago!

Watercolor on paper

Here’s a detail of the effect of the salt:


I love this as this is what water on sand looks like! I could never get this effect without the right pigments and salt.

Now it is time to paint the pebbles and rocks. I don’t know why it is that I always do the hardest part last. It makes no sense. If I mess up on the shell, I might as well throw the rest of it away but still, it is just what works for me but I know, it is counter-intuitive.

Watercolor on paper

And it is starting to look like a painting! Now I mask the inside of the shell. 

Watercolor on paper

There are details that I want to preserve the whites of – at least for now.

Masking fluid on paper

Time to be brave and start painting the shell. I can’t find the little yellowish shell I was using. it was pretty plain but is gave me the basic outline of what I wanted.

So we have a little cerulean on the outside under edge – reflecting the water.

Watercolor on paper

Cautiously adding more color. And more color…

Watercolor on paper
Watercolor on paper

Painted a little more and… I hate it. You WILL come to this stage with most paintings. I just hate it. What was I thinking? Pink and gold? This is awful and ugly. Time to take a break.

Watercolor on paper

More color and I have made it worse. I don’t know how that could be but this is just awful. I wanted that brilliant outside edge but this is just silly.

Watercolor on paper

No shell has ever looked like this in real life. And the colors don’t even work together

But I can either throw it away or play with it. I start to deepen the shadow inside

Watercolor on paper

Darker but not better. Still just playing with it. Get it wet, float in color, let it run. See how it looks.

Added more mask/stripes to the outside shell. More color. Still not working.

Watercolor on paper

Yes, I am still scared of “going dark” and deep shadows. I take tiny baby steps. Little by little.

I am thinking that if I lighten that edge and the top of the shell, I might be able to save this. I take a quick cell phone photo and pop it into Pixelmator. I use the “dodge” tool, that is a tool that lightens an area, to lighten the a few areas. I don’t take a lot of time doing this, just enough to give me the idea. I think this will work. This is the computer image:

shell on paper

I use “Q-tips” and a sponge to lighten a few areas. I did this on another shell painting and accidentally got a nice effect of smoothing the paper a bit and giving the rounded top of the shell a nice, smooth realistic look.

Watercolor on paper

And that’s about as good as this one is going to get… A few more areas darkened and lightened and time to finish it up…

And here it is all done and signed, ready for framing 🙂

Buy a print?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *