Making a Watercolor Painting

August 7, 2017

I just finished a custom 8x10 painting for a customer, and I thought it might be fun to write a post about making a watercolor painting from start to finish. As a total (and probably irrelevant) side-note, I made my first "custom" painting almost three years ago. I had made a little sketch of a wedding dress I'd seen from a photo on Instagram (from the Explore page, not a friend's photo, so a literally sketchy sketch), and one of my friends (and co-workers at the time) saw it, and asked if I'd do the same thing for her sister, who had just gotten married. I am so thankful for that friend- up until then, I'd been trying to sell painted mason jars on the Etsy shop I'd started a couple months before, and I hadn't sold any. At that point, I was happy just to be making things and hadn't really considered that I might actually be able to sell anything (I never did sell any mason jars- but that's a story for another time). 


I had no idea what I was doing, but thought that I might as well try it out- I used the same process then (I actually used almost all of the same materials, too) that I still use today... but more on materials some other time. Anyhow- the first step I always take when making a custom watercolor painting is making a pencil sketch. I usually sketch the background (buildings/landscapes/etc. if there is one) first, and then I add in the people/pets/etc. Sometimes I use reference photos from Google image search, and sometimes I use photos from the client. This was for a couple who had gotten engaged in front of the Capitol (hopefully you can tell that much- if you can't, then I didn't do a very good job, haha), and I used a combination of a photo taken at the actual engagement, with a stock photo of the Capitol. I always use a mechanical pencil- I got this .5mm Staedtler one after my sister's engineer boyfriend informed me that it was a fancy brand. One of my teachers in college made fun of me for using the mechanical pencil, but I'm too impatient for a pencil sharpener and already make such a mess with eraser crumbs that it makes things simple. I also like to draw really tiny, and it helps me make tiny details. 

 Once the client has approved the sketch (sometimes after one or two rounds of edits), I use a waterproof pen to draw over my "good" lines (I'm a very messy sketcher, and have always been so jealous of artists who can paint with super light pencil lines, or no pencil lines at all!). I will write another post on materials, but I tried to include some of the labels in the photos. I use a very fine pen (.005 tip) for tiny details, like faces, and larger pens for background/building details. I have a very difficult time drawing straight lines, but one of my favorite artists, Ludwig Bemelmans (the illustrator of "Madeline") never has perfect/straight lines in his paintings, and I think that the imperfect lines can make paintings more interesting (or at least this is what I tell myself). 

Next, I erase all of the pencil marks. The eraser crumbs go everywhere, and make up/cover 95% of my carpet/hair/clothing/etc. I know that some people like to use kneaded erasers, but they are just not my cup of tea, and I don't really care about making a mess.

 I usually try and paint a couple of things at once when I'm working on commissions, so that I don't waste paint. I use a combo of tube watercolors and a little portable watercolor cake (I can't remember the actual names for these things!) palette- I use the tubes when I need a lot of a color, and the cakes when I only need a little. If you haven't used watercolor tubes before, it's probably a good idea to experiment with them a little bit before you use them on a project. I first used them my senior year in college, and didn't realize that you were supposed to add water (I know, "water"colors... ugh). I used an entire tube on one painting, and couldn't understand why anyone would ever pick up such an expensive hobby. Anyway- a little bit goes a long way!


I paint the white areas first with Chinese White. It's hard to tell which areas I've painted, since I paint on white paper, but it helps if you hold your paper up to the light.

Next, I add the sky. I use a big, flat brush for the sky (this one is 1/2 size). I combine Chinese White and Cobalt Blue, and paint a layer, let it dry almost completely, then paint another thin layer just at the very top of the page. I didn't realize this until I read it in Klutz book (remember those?!) a couple of years ago, but if you take a picture of a bright blue sky on a sunny day, the sky is the darkest blue at the top. 

At this point, my white paint on the Capitol has totally dried, and so I go over the shadowy areas/windows with Payne's Gray. Payne's Gray is my absolute favorite color, because it makes almost any color darker without making it muddy-looking (which black often can), and it works for so much (windows, glass, shadows, bodies of water when mixed with other colors, etc.) I mix Payne's Gray with a little white and dilute it a lot for light shadows, and then add more Payne's to make the darkest shadows. I use a thinner brush for shadows, and a lot of water, so that they don't take over the painting.

Next, I add the skin tones. Skin tones are really tough, because they're all so different. When I taught, I would have kindergarteners mix tempera paints until they matched their own skin tones, but it ended up making way too much of a mess and wasting way too much paint. Anyway- I usually mix a very tiny amount of red, blue, and yellow (shown- you can use different pigments) and some white, and I'm able to get somewhere close to the skin tones I'm looking for. This works for any skin tone, but it takes a really long time, and so I have a couple of containers of different pre-mixed skin tones that I use sometimes. 










Now, I add in some warmer neutral colors (fancy words for different shades of brown). For hair colors, I usually use some combination of Sepia + Van Dyke's Brown + Payne's Gray + Chinese White for brunettes (more Payne's to make a darker brown), add Sepia to that combo for red hair (and sometimes ever some actual red), add Yellow Ochre and much more white for blonde, and use Ivory Black for black hair. 

I use the same combo for blonde hair with a little more Payne's Gray and White for "sidewalk" color (I can't think of the actual name for that color? It's in almost every painting with a building!), and I use the same combo for brunette hair for tree trunks (plus some Payne's Gray and White) (also, I know that there aren't any tree trunks in this painting- I'm just saying, if there were, that's the color combo I'd use!) 

Now, I add in blues and greens. I'll do another post with color combinations for things like oceans/lakes/tree leaves/etc. that I don't use in this painting, with colors like Indigo (good for blue jeans) or any brighter neon-ish colors, but for now, we'll stick with these. I usually use some combo of Hooker's Green, Sap Green, Yellow Ochre, Lemon Yellow (not shown), and Payne's Gray for grass/trees/leaves/etc. I use a bigger round brush for things like tree leaves.

Finally, I paint anything that needs to be painted black Lamp Black. I always leave black last, because it can really take over and muddy up your whole palette. 

 The final step is to go back over the important details with the ink pens. I like to go over only some of my lines a second time, because it lets me pick out the details I like the most (like the little dentils or the tops of the columns) and sort of highlight them.


Thanks so much for reading, and let me know if you have any questions. Again- I am absolutely not an expert in any of this- I didn't touch watercolor paints until senior year of college, and will probably never learn the "correct" way to paint with them, but this works for me.  I'll follow up sometime soon with a post on materials, but let me know if there's anything else that might be interesting to read, and I'll try and write something!





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