A Transparent Watercolor Painting from Start to Finish

start to finish watercolor example, before and after watercolor example, painting from start to finish, transparent watercolor photo to painting

The following discussion about this particular painting will help you better understand what I’ve been talking about in the other sections of this website. I’ve organized this discussion into six sections:

1 – Developing the Composition
2 – Completing the Drawing
3 – The Application of Masking Fluid
4 – The Initial Painting Effort
5 – Removal of the Masking Fluid
6 – The Final Painting Effort

Part 1 Developing the Composition

I’ve included a photograph (Exhibit 31) of what we’ll discuss… the narthex/entry into St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Long Beach, CA.

Exhibit 31 – Photograph of Narthex St. Luke’s Church

I’m very familiar with this place, what might make a good subject, and the best time of day to paint it, but also what day of the week I should do this so I won’t be interrupted by what might be going on about the place. These are the kinds of things you need to think about when you’re planning to do a plein-air painting. It’s best to select a site you’re familiar with. If this is not the case, be sure to visit the site before you go there to paint. Go at various times of the day, take notes and perhaps do some sketches. Focus on details that enhance your composition. If it’s private property, get permission ahead of time to paint.

(Much of the following discussion compares the photograph (Exhibit 31 of the Narthex) with my initial drawing effort (Exhibit 32). You’ll want to flip back and forth between both of them as you’re reading the following text.)

When you look at the photo (Exhibit 31) of the narthex, you’ll see what really interested me.  It’s not only the way light enters this space through the door and window openings, but also the nature of the perspective view into the covered entry area beyond. I noticed that either the morning sun coming through the window (that you can’t see on the left) or the afternoon sun coming through the window (that you also can’t see on the right) made for an interesting composition. The sun shines all day long through a tiny brightly colored stained glass window on the wall above the entry door, a window few people notice when they’re leaving the narthex (because it’s so high above the floor). More light seems to enter the narthex in the afternoon through the window on the right, because the stained glass in it is not as dense as in the window to the left. That’s why I decided to do this painting in the afternoon.

You’ll notice that the potted plant and small writing table on the right hand side of the painting catch some of this afternoon sunlight, as does the wall beyond them.  But from the vantage point I chose, you can’t see the actual window itself. Nonetheless, I’ll try to capture some of the interesting colors from this window that play across the wall to the right of the doorway.

The light streaming through the doorway provides the focus I wanted for the composition. The vanishing point, somewhere behind it, is intentionally hidden from view, and the light coming through the doorway puts much of the composition in shade, providing the contrast I desired.  The lightest values in the composition lead your eye through the open doorway, beyond the threshold, and into the entry area.

Part 2 Completing the Drawing

Referring now to Exhibit 32, you’ll notice I included the tiny stained glass window above the doors and the wood paneling on the ceiling. These panels are of course in the photograph, but perhaps wouldn’t normally be in the painting. You’re allowed to do this… leave out or include anything you wish to.  Not so with a photograph!

You’ll notice a number of other items that were omitted: the exit sign above the doors, certain details of the grandfather’s clock to the left, as well as other furniture in the space… whatever I felt was unnecessary… whatever might detract from the composition, or add nothing to it.

Exhibit 32 – Drawing of the Narthex

I arranged the furniture on the right hand side so as to balance the furniture on the left. I also intentionally placed the furniture closer to the viewer, though it may have been further away.

The joints in the paving within the narthex were drawn so they’d lead your eye toward the open doorway, its threshold, and beyond. The actual joints and paving in the narthex do not line up with those in the covered entry. I could most likely have ignored this fact and made them all the same, but I felt it added some additional interest to the composition.

The pattern of the wood tympanum above, paneled doors below, the trim which runs around them… all these provide added interest to the composition. I made a point of capturing the light that plays across the wood panels and trim. I also attempted to illustrate the interesting manner in which light strikes the curving, beveled plaster jambs of the doorway.

The composition of the painting has a definite perspective with the vanishing point on the right-hand side, rather than dead center. This was done intentionally. Avoid placing focal points right in the middle of your painting! I also drew the paneling of the doors and typanum above accurately… the hardware and furniture as well.

When finished doing these things… an hour or so after I had begun the drawing effort, I took my kneaded rubber eraser and swept over the entire drawing to remove any unnecessary pencil-work. Some of the line work ends up showing through the subsequent painting effort, but this, I believe, helps reinforce details and perhaps even the composition itself. Before I began placing masking fluid on the paper of my initial drawing (but after I had a photo made of the painting which you see in Exhibit 31), I added the light fixture hanging from the ceiling, in the upper left hand corner. Like the little window high above the doorway. It’s virtually out of view. But I felt this contrasting dark/light element added interest to the composition. Be open to making such changes along the way.

Part 3 The Application of Masking Fluid

As you’ll see from Exhibit 33, the masking fluid has a sort of yellowish tint. This helps distinguish areas where you’ve applied from those where you have not. The masking fluid will be removed at the end of the first stage of the painting effort, once I’ve covered the entire painting with watercolors and established light and medium values. Perhaps I will even lay down a dark line or two with my rigger brush. I have the option, once I’ve removed the masking fluid, to leave the white paper exposed, or to paint over it. Areas not covered with masking fluid will appear darker, once I remove the masking fluid. How much darker depends on how much painting I’ve done over and around the areas where I placed masking fluid.

Though I rarely do this, I could lay down additional masking fluid during subsequent stages of the painting process. But since each application of masking fluid takes more time to apply, dry and remove, this increases the total time needed to complete your painting. Time is generally a factor when painting outdoors.

Exhibit 33 – The Application of Masking Fluid

Part 4 The Initial Painting Effort

The initial application of watercolor pigments is used to establish the basic colors for various areas of my composition. As you can see from Exhibit 34, the background of the doors and typanum area above vary considerably. I actually changed the values of the pigments, and once dry, over-painted these areas at least once with slightly darker values and distinguishing brushwork to better define the shadows and textures of the wood panels and trim.

Exhibit 34 – The Initial Painting Effort

Similarly, the narthex walls and floor reflect several applications of watercolor paint in different colors and values. The entry ceiling area beyond received additional color and darker values to help distinguish it from the narthex walls. This was done also for the furniture and potted plant within the narthex.

The wall area was covered first with plain water. Then as it began to dry, I came back into it with a brush full of warm yellow ochre, observing closely how the pigment traveled about while I tilted my masonite easel one way and another (wet on wet).  Much of the painting that I did early on was accomplished with larger brushes loaded with more water than pigment.  Smaller flat brushes, loaded with more pigment than water, came into play as the paper dried and the painting effort progressed. Generally speaking, you don’t want to overpaint an area ’til it’s dry, since this muddies up the pigments and causes problems, such as uneven drying of an area. If you’re not sure whether an area is dry, check it out in the sunlight before you over-paint.  The sun also helps to speed up the drying process. When painting indoors, you need a hairdryer to accomplish the same thing.

The final painting effort doesn’t begin ’til you’ve removed all masking fluid from the paper.  I usually don’t have any problem doing this, only perhaps in areas where I may have applied it too thin, or where it may have not have thoroughly dried.  One hot, humid summer day while doing a painting in Newport, RI, the sun caused the masking fluid to dry too fast. Perhaps I may also have applied it too thin… or did not fully mix the fluid by shaking it up enough.  I may also have been working with the very last bit of masking fluid that was in the bottle.

When I decided to remove the masking fluid, I became aware it was still a bit sticky, so I tried using my pink pearl eraser. But this too didn’t work. I simply ended up smearing the semi-dry fluid. To make a long story short, I simply had to stop working on the painting.

Sometime afterwards, upon returning to the West Coast, I pulled out this same painting and once again tried to remove the masking fluid. It still seemed a bit sticky in certain areas.  So I decided to attack it with an electric eraser.  I was able to remove most of the masking fluid, but, nonetheless, the pure white paper beneath was not fully revealed in its glory… even though it no longer felt sticky. Perhaps some of the gooey stuff got embedded in the fibers during the erasing process.  So I had to go back in and touch up these areas with lighter opaque pigments, outlining them with an ink pen to make them stand out, which of course was the reason I applied the masking fluid in the first place.  I produced the desired effect, but it was a radical change in technique.  And, of course, having done this, my painting was no longer (literally speaking) a transparent watercolor.

This experience taught me several lessons:

(1) shake the bottle of masking fluid thoroughly before using it
(2) don’t use the very last bit of fluid in the bottle
(3) consolidate: open a new bottle and pour remnants of the old one therein 

Part 5 Removal of the Masking Fluid

No such problems with removal of masking fluid occurred with the painting of the narthex. You can see this by comparing Exhibit 35 (how the painting looked after the dry masking fluid was removed) with Exhibit 34 (how it looked before). A much lighter value has been restored to those areas that were masked out. The painting thus has far more contrast than it did before the dried-up masking fluid was removed. You’ll also see it will have even further contrast when I add darker values in the final painting effort (see Exhibit 36).

Exhibit 35 – Removal of the Masking Fluid

Dried masking fluid can generally be rubbed or peeled off quite easily with your thumb or fingers, particularly where it’s been laid down heavily with a brush. But in areas where you lay down the masking fluid rather thinly with a paintbrush… for example, areas to the right where sun from the windows strikes the wall… I had to use my pink pearl eraser to remove every last bit of masking fluid. In the process of removing masking fluid, you’ll remove any painting you’ve done over it.  But when using an eraser, you most likely will also remove the pencil work beneath.

Edges of areas where you’ve applied masking fluid are often uneven. Subsequent over-painting can “correct” such “mistakes”, but errant brushwork with masking fluid often provides some interesting effects, breaking up line work and softening edges, thus enlivening the overall composition. You can see how this happened in the beveled wall area about the doors.

These effects will only become apparent after you’ve exposed the paper beneath the masking fluid. It gives you, so to speak, a second chance to adjust colors, values and details. By restoring the lightest value to the composition, you have the opportunity to develop a much broader range of values. You’re “inspired” by the newly created white paper to move immediately into the final step of the painting effort!

Part 6 The Final Painting Effort

Now’s when you must decide what additional work needs to be done. For this narthex painting, the outside patio area in the center of the painting had to be completed… plants, bushes and flower pots, pendant lights also needed to be articulated… also the door leading out into the patio… and the inside wall where masking fluid was removed… the beveled wall around the door opening.

The little window in the wall above the door required some color, and the pendant light fixture some attention. The flower pot where masking fluid was removed also had to be finalized.

Such things reveal themselves at the end of any painting effort. One’s tendency is to labor over this final painting effort and spend too much time on details. Such overwork will kill your painting. Do only what’s necessary! Remember: sometimes less is more… attractive!

As you’ll see when you examine the final painting (Exhibit 36), I introduced some bright colors (red and blue) into the little window. The pendant light fixture may have been overworked in an attempt to better define the details. The patio area was developed using very light values, loose brushwork, so as not to destroy the pleasant feeling of this brightly sunlit area. The addition of some brighter green values helped articulate indoor plants. Indoor wall areas were worked over a bit to soften the transition between surrounding surfaces while still preserving the sense of light that comes from the window to the right.

How you finish things is not necessarily the most important task in the total painting process.  However, beginning them is… deciding to do it… committing yourself to the effort, and following through each step of the work effort. That’s what distinguishes a true artist! And in the final analysis, that’s what life’s about!

Exhibit 36 – The Final Painting Effort

Douglas Stenhouse also wrote a book about watercolor painting.

“I decided to write about how I paint, not only to share my observations with others, but also, frankly, to do some self- examination. I wish I had done this earlier in my life! But then, how was I to know I’d benefit from doing so, certainly at a time when I had no aspirations of becoming a professional artist.” 

To learn more about Doug’s Watercolor Painting Book and/or purchase a signed copy, click here.

Douglas Simms Stenhouse, watercolor artist, transparent water color art, watercolor painter, painting with water colors