In which we end up with a starfish

I don’t know why I wanted to paint a starfish. Maybe I just wanted to play more with the wonderful Daniel Smith Transparent Red Oxide that I recently bought.

But there I was in the bathtub drinking coffee when I started imagining a starfish in a pool of water. Maybe half covered. With sea foam around it. Maybe with the water partially over the starfish so you could see the color change…

Anyway, I started by pulling up some random starfish images for reference (turns out most people call them “sea stars” – who knew?).


I wanted these to get a feel for how all those “bump” patterns work.


Next step is to start drawing out the composition. And, I can’t get it to work. This whole “random puddle with a starfish in the middle” thing is just not gelling. That’s OK. There are still things that I am just plain not good enough to paint yet but if I keep working, I figure I will get there one day.

But I still want to play with that Transparent Red Oxide.

So, here is what came out.

Pencil drawing

You can see where I kept drawing and erasing and redrawing… Note, my cell phone keeps adding these lighter bands on photos. I keep trying ways to stop that but they still show up at times. I took these photos before I finally figured out a solution.

Nest step is to trace this out on the watercolor paper.


Next step is to mask out the starfish and the rocks, then start working on the sea foam.

The sea foam is done with Fineline Masking Fluid. You can doodle and draw with it just like you would with a pen. Yes, sometimes it gets clogged and sometimes it gets a little blobby but with a little care, you can get amazing effects with it. The only downside is that it is such a pale green that at times it can be hard to see what you have done so far.

Masking fluid on paper

As I continue, I am sort of making it up as I go along with the patterns of the sea foam around the rocks and around the starfish. Not sure how I am going to get the effect of the foam OVER the arms. I do it wrong a few times until the obvious answer comes to me.

Masking Fluid on paper

Now I spend a little time just making random dots with the Fineline for texture and sand/pebbles.

Masking fluid on paper

With the mask all done, now it is time to play in puddles of water. I pick the colors on my palette that I am going to use and wet them down.

Next, with clean water and a big brush, I wet the paper all over well. Then I wet it again. I do not want it to dry out while putting in the background.

Then it is just a matter of dripping pigment into the water puddles, swirling it around and just playing with it as the colors merge and blend. The wonderful thing with Daniel Smith pigments is that they don’t get “muddy” easily, and well, if they do, I am basically painting mud here.

I have “go to” colors that I like for backgrounds like Burgundy Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, Bloodstone, Amethyst and Cerulean blue, Amazonite and Undersea Green for water. I just mix until it looks right. And remember, it will always be paler and more “washed out” looking when it dries.

When I have it where I think it might do, I sprinkle salt around and then add some extra paint to the salted areas. Salt – regular old Morton’s salt – absorbs the water and moves the pigments around so it works best if you give it a lot of material to work with.

Here it is, all very wet.

Watercolor on paper

And here it is dry the next morning. You can see the texture added by the salt.

Watercolor on paper

The next step is removing the mask. The “Rubber Cement Pick Up” used to remove the mask, also removes any salt.

Watercolor painting

If you look closely, you will see the main downfall of using masking fluid. It does tend to leave hard, harsh lines. I usually go over the sea foam quickly with a wet brush just to wet, not blend. This allows the lines to soften nicely. I am not bothering to soften the rocks and starfish yet.

Watercolor painting

Just for a little more texture, I take a small fine brush with some Tiger’s Eye and flick a few darker brown spots/speckles here and there. I know some people use a toothbrush for this but I prefer the control of a very fine brush. Only a few specks end up where I don’t want them.

Watercolor painting

And now for the starfish detail… Looking at several photos, all of the starfish seem to have different patterns even to the point of have dots in a grid on one leg and in a line on another leg. I end up pretty much winging it, going for the overall feel instead of precise copying. I kinda like it!

Masking fluid on watercolor

After this layer of mask has dried thoroughly, I wet the whole starfish down. Using the Transparent red oxide, I start building up layers of color. Shadows are laid in with Daniel Smith Permanent Brown – which is really orange – and a little Quin Sienna.

After it is done – but still wet – I like the colors and granulations but wonder what would happen if I tried to make it even more “gritchy” and add some salt on top. No idea how this will work. Here it is wet:

Watercolor painting in progress

And here it is dry. The salt did not do much but still, it adds a little texture.

Watercolor painting in progress

Yes, at some point in this process, I took a little detour and started painting in the surrounding pebbles and little shells.

Before removing the masking inside the starfish, I want to give it a bit more dimension and color so, even with the salt on there, float in another layer of color.

Watercolor painting in progress

Time to remove the masking fluid from the starfish~

Watercolor in progress

The last step is to blend in the white masked areas with a damp brush and smooth any harsh outlines on the starfish.

And here is the finished piece. Not totally happy with it but I learned a lot.

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  1. Ok. Commenting, again. You are such a talent and a good teacher, I love your writing style. Very entertaining. I have to try the star fish. Thank you!

  2. Just discovered your page and blog, I love it! The comments are funny and informative and the paintings-wow! Ive just ordered a fineliner masking pen to have a go at that sea foam but I’m not sure I’ve got the patience 🤨

    • thank you. Once you get the hang of it, you can just draw with the Fineline like you would with a pen. That’s fun not patience. Sure it clogs but you will get the hang of unclogging it. I have a thin wire I keep on hand 🙂 Have fun with it!

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