Sketching Portsmouth


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I’ve been experiencing a significant slump in my at-home painting routine. Most of my paintings are done while I’m on vacation. A few Fridays ago it was a beautiful and sunny fall day. I fought the urge to work on my to-do list, and instead packed up my sketch kit and walked into downtown.

To an observer, spending an afternoon sketching may seem like a free-spirited thing to do. But for those of us who experience creative blockage, it actually takes some significant mental gymnastics to get oneself to be creative and expressive. Creativity sometimes bubbles up, but more often than not, it is the result of making the time, which requires discipline and intentionality (which seems at odds with the creative spirit…).

So, with discipline and intentionality, I plunked myself down on the curb in front of Michelle’s on Market Square (a fine-dining French restaurant) to sketch my first of three sketches that day. I tried to stay very loose and quick, keeping myself in the process rather than sketching for a product.


I like how the perspective on this turned out, especially with the restaurant’s signage. I tried to stay loose with the figures, and I like the one on the far left. She’s holding hands with someone who looks eerily like Lee Majors with big hair (is that redundant?).

I picked up my kit and walked over to Commercial Alley, a lovely pedestrian walkway with restaurants and boutiques. Again, I tried to stay very loose with this sketch, focusing on composition, perspective, and figures that captured the essence of their movement or stance.


From there I made my way to Ceres Street to sketch the tugboats and two of the three bridges that connect Portsmouth to Maine. I like how the bridges in the background turned out (although it’s hard to tell that there are actually two bridges), and I also really like how loose and natural the figures are. The tugboats, however, look a little like they’re missing their back ends and they’re angled a little too much up (as if there’s a wave passing under their bows). Boats are HARD to get right.

The box structure on the left of the painting is a trash enclosure that has a vertical garden on it. Not sure if that kind of thing should be left in or taken out of a sketch (it looks just a little odd). I think this is another one of those times when artistic license comes in. Vertical gardens, apparently, are cutting edge innovations (at least in Portsmouth), and you have to look twice even in real life to figure out what it is. It probably would be better to just leave it out.


Regardless of how the sketches turned out, I sat down and did the work. This series of sketches got my momentum going and kicked off another series of sketches (saved for later blogs), which seems to have re-ignited my at-home painting. Mission accomplished!

Which sketch are you most drawn to? Which of them best puts you in the moment?



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Ellen and I took not one, but two beach vacations this past summer. We wanted to try to extend the somewhat short summers in New Hampshire, so we took one vacation in June (to Sanibel Island, FL) and the other in September (to Hilton Head Island, SC). My sketchbook during this stretch of time gets somewhat repetitive.

Beach 1: Sanibel Island is the self-proclaimed shell capital of the world. This scene captures “our” beachfront. We loved the constantly changing shade of the ocean (from deep blue to aquamarine, depending on the sky), the tall grasses that made us feel enclosed, and the stunning variety of seashells wherever we stepped. I’ve tried to capture all of these in this painting (including Ellen floating with her sun hat out in the ocean).


I quickly pulled out my sketchbook when a gull or tern of some sort (Ellen thinks it was a white ibis or snowy egret) perched itself on the fisherman’s bucket looking for an easy dinner.


Later that day I turned to my left and captured the scene up the beach. There was a storm coming in and I quickly sketched this before the wind and rain cleared the beach. There is a large patch of tall grass in the foreground on a little hill, rendering all of the figures in the distance much smaller. I never got around to painting this sketch.


Beach 2: Hilton Head is mostly known for its golf, but it has lovely beaches, as well. The beginning of our vacation was over Labor Day weekend. I had to work for most of the weekend (grrr….), but on our first day I was able to handle a few phone calls from the beach. Near the end of the day I pulled out my sketchbook to capture these three women:


As often happens, as soon as I started to sketch them they packed up and left, leaving me with only a couple of snapshots in my mind’s eye of what they looked like. I did the rest of the sketch from memory. I tried to capture the darker, shadow underside of the umbrella, as well as its cast shadow on the women. The water at Hilton Head wasn’t nearly as aquamarine as the water at Sanibel Island, and I think that difference shows up well in the color of the water when you compare the two beaches. I finished the painting while hanging out at the quiet (and shaded) pool at our hotel.

I think I’m pretty much done with painting beach scenes for a while. :)



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I was enjoying a coffee and spreadsheeting (yes, I love spreadsheets) at Popovers, a café in downtown Portsmouth, when out of the corner of my eye I saw smoke curling up against a bright blue sky. At the same time, I saw the telltale signs of something going down—the domino effect of one person, then two, then large groups stopping, turning, and pointing. I swallowed the inner voice that said, “You’re too cool to be a gawker” and quickly packed up my bags to follow the smoke (and shamelessly snapped a picture along the way).


I was able to worm my way into the alcove of a shop entrance and pull out my sketch book. I think this is the first sketch I’ve done standing up. It wasn’t easy, but it was made a little easier by my bike, which I was able to somewhat lean against. I took a few reference photos:

Blog - Fire

There were a lot of emergency vehicles and plenty of action scenes to capture. I settled on the ladder trucks—I liked the challenge of perspective. I sketched the scene on site and then left the crowds and finished the painting back at home that same day.


I played a lot with shadows on the ladder trucks, trying to show the reflections of light in the windows of the trucks, as well as capture the darker shadow side of the trucks (and their shadows on the street).

To create the smoke coming out of the roof, I first painted the sky and then dropped in a dark ultramarine/burnt umber mix wet on wet to form a background haze of smoke. After that had dried, I added some more of the mix to get the hard lines that create the billowing effect.

As always, after finishing I noticed a few details that I would have liked to have done differently. The firefighter on the roof is walking away from the fire and out of the painting. While that’s likely what he was doing when I sketched him, it would have made for a better composition to have him walking into the painting and toward the fire. Another similar detail is the firefighter descending the ladder (Ellen thought he was ascending with some very strange arm and leg angles). Again, he was actually descending as I sketched, but a much more interesting painting would have had him moving toward the fire. As it is, two of my three firefighters near the fire are moving away from it—not how you want to portray firefighters!

This happened about 4 months ago, and the residents and businesses in this building are still displaced while the building is being cleaned up and renovated. I’m not sure how I feel about portraying a serious event like this (thankfully no one was hurt!) in my slightly whimsical style. The juxtaposition of my style with the seriousness of a fire leaves me feeling curious about this issue. I’d love to hear what others think about it.

Painting Newcastle


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I’ve been doing a lot of consulting work lately—more than I’d like. My official arrangement is to consult about 20 hours per week, but lately it’s turned into 40, 60, and even 80 hour weeks. The downside of this, of course, is the lack of time to do other things (like painting… and blogging about painting!). The upside is that when I don’t actually have to work on Saturday, it feels like a vacation day. Whee!

So, on a recent Saturday “off,” instead of digging into housework, I hopped on my bike and rode 10 minutes out to Newcastle. Newcastle is a beautiful little island with one main road running around it. There’s a cozy beach, plenty of colonial-era houses, a coast guard station complete with a lighthouse, and a small downtown stretch. Downtown consists of an old New England meetinghouse, a post office, and a little coffee shop/deli called Henrys’ Market (don’t ask about the odd placement of the apostrophe – I still haven’t figured it out). And that’s where I plunked myself down with a latte.

Henrys Market

Across the street is the Newcastle Meeting House, the subject of my painting.

Meeting House

I set up my kit in the shade and got down to the serious business of observing and sketching. What a fun subject this was! At first I was daunted by the porch structure—lots of perspective that could go seriously wrong. But I took my time and tried not to be too exacting as I sketched. As always, I first sketched with pencil and then pen (thin-point Sharpie). Someday I’d like to try using pen right from the beginning. I’ve heard it helps you loosen up, but I fear it would do the opposite for me.

I really like how the painting turned out (Ellen says it conveys way more of the “quaint-factor” than the photo, which is cool since that’s the true feel of the space):

Newcastle Meeting House

I especially like the play of light throughout the painting—the shadows on the building, the light on the pavement, and how the shadows and light set off the woman and her dog and give the impression of a bright sunny morning. I also like how the flower pots and window boxes turned out. The yellow house in the background and the blue sky poking through the tree make me smile. The hose does, too.

I’ve read that less is better in painting and sketching—that the eye likes to fill in gaps more than it likes everything spelled out for it. I tried this out with the siding lines on the house, and I think it worked out well.

I like my paintings that have people in them much better than those that don’t. So while I was painting, I kept my camera at the ready to capture good potential subjects.

Newcastle Collage

I was nearly finished with the sketch when I remembered that I had wanted to include a person or two. I chose the older woman and her dog. In the picture she’s walking away from me, but I remembered some advice from a fellow artist blogger (Ruth Bailey) that I should be mindful of whether people are walking into or out of the painting (which has an impact on where the eye goes as it takes in the painting). So I turned her around and painted her entering the scene from the left. The spot where I placed her is the only spot where she fit (since the rest of the sketch was complete), but I think it turned out being quite a lovely spot for her.

The only part of the painting that gives me pause is the large tree. I like the trunk and the branches, and I also like the variation between lighted and shadowed leaves. But I think the foliage overall is a little too sparse and not “big” enough for the size of the tree trunk. (Ellen says she sees what I mean when I point it out, but that didn’t occur to her eye at all.)

I’ve decided to create a series of note cards using my paintings of local sights. As I type, this painting is being scanned and color-corrected by a local printer that works with artists. I have a quote from Sir Speedy (whom the local printer says is well-calibrated with his color settings) to do up a batch of note cards using three paintings of Portsmouth (and now Newcastle) that I’ve done so far. My plan is to market the note cards to a few shops in downtown Portsmouth. I’ll blog later on how that process goes…

I’ve gone back to this page of my sketchbook numerous times since I did the painting. One thing I notice about painting is that each piece of work has within it the power to bring you back to that moment. It’s as if the energy of the place is somehow captured on the paper. Not just that, though… simply looking at it brings me back to that particular place in time. I find that in losing myself in the moment, I actually end up finding a more real sense of myself and my surroundings that persists long after the moment is gone.

My Kit

“The City”


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Not being from The City myself, I’ve always found this moniker for New York City a little annoying. But I do have to say, if there’s a city in the U.S. that deserves to trump all other cities, NYC has more justification than most. I visited NYC recently for a short business trip. I was delighted to find that my hotel room had an unobstructed view of the Empire State building. I had hoped to see something like this:


Alas, my view was void of giant gorilla and swarming biplanes. But nonetheless, I was tickled pink to have such an iconic image welcoming me to my day each morning. So, the last morning I was there, before packing up to catch my flight, I sat down at the window and sketched.

But FIRST, I reviewed my painting checklist. I made sure to draw a border first, and I paid close attention to the composition, perspective, and lighting. My planning put the Empire State building at the left “third” line and the rest of the skyline at the bottom “third” line. I did all of the sketching on site, and then added paint in my studio back in Portsmouth.

The City Painting

Overall I was pleased by how the painting turned out. There’s much about it that “works.” I like how the shadow sides of buildings turned out, the Empire State Building is recognizable as such, I like the dark grey building in the foreground, and I like the effect of the background skyline—somewhat obscured by haziness. I also think the perspective lines turned out good, for the most part, but the upper reaches of the Empire State Building feel a little off to me—they’re offset a bit to the right.

My first attempt at the sky turned out to be quite upsetting. I seem to be stuck on ultramarine blue for sky color—any suggestions for how to change that up a bit?—so it looked more like a giant smurf lurking in the background than a sky (queue imagination: Giant Smurf perched on top of Empire State Building swatting at biplanes). After it dried, I re-wetted it and moved some of the paint around, blotting periodically. I think the end result is surprisingly one of my better skies. That’s proof positive that you can fix watercolor mistakes.

I tried to be looser in painting the buildings, beginning with yellow ochre to lay a base of sunlit stone. I used a combination of ultramarine blue and burnt umber for the shadow sides. After everything had dried, I painted two washes of ultramarine/burnt umber over the whole painting to give it a dingier look and feel. I’m pretty happy with how believable the colors are.

“What is that strange structure on top of the brick building at the bottom of the painting?” you  ask. It’s a billboard… facing away from me. That’s what I saw, so that’s what I painted. This is one of those perfect moments of 20/20 hindsight. Of course I should have turned the billboard around and painted some colorful splash of advertisement (a Coke bottle?). Darn. It would have added color and interest to the painting. And this is where practice, practice, practice comes in. I just didn’t think about it. In the moment, as I’m painting, I need to remember that I can take artistic license—I don’t have to paint exactly what I see.

Regrets about the billboard aside, once again taking the time to stop and paint grounded me in that unique moment and place. As I left my hotel I was more present, taking in the sights and smells. My hotel was in Chelsea’s flower district, and I reveled in summer flowers before the daffodils had even broken through back home. So much to take in when you visit The City…


Book and Bar


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Don’t those two words go great together? You can imagine my pleasure when an establishment with such a name recently popped up minutes from my home. Book and Bar is a book store/coffee house/bar, and is located in a beautiful, historic building in downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I recently spent a quiet weekday morning taking in the lovely ambiance with a latte and my paints. My goal was to be intentional about painting something – anything! I had realized that I had unintentionally taken a several month break from painting (and from blogging about painting, oops).

My first subject was the barista/bar tender:


I tried to do several things with this quick painting. I wanted to get the person “right” – the positioning of the body, the arms, the head. My first attempt placed the head above the beer taps. It’s funny, I got quite a long way into the sketch before realizing how giant the person would have to be for her head to be that high. So I erased it and started much lower. I also wanted to get the hands right (hands are always a challenge for me). I think I got the hand on the tap right, and I got close with the hand holding the beer, but the fingers aren’t quite the right length. I do like how the curve of the hand holding the beer defines the curve of the glass she’s holding.

Second, I wanted to try my hand at painting the rounded, silver structure to which the taps are attached. Frankly, I think I rocked it, if I do say so myself.  You can practically feel those metal cylinders. :) I used various shades of gray (ultramarine blue mixed with burnt umber) and painted the reflections on the metal, leaving some strips white. I really like how the color and shape turned out, but the angle is off – the horizontal bar should be parallel with the counter. I think this is a case of drawing what I thought I saw rather than what I really saw. Perhaps it’s really the counter line that’s off. Either way, counter and horizontal bar should be parallel.

I like how the taps came out, as well as the glass of beer. It’s a fun subject, isn’t it, with those cool shapes and colors? I quickly painted a dioxazine violet background to give the scene a little more interest.

For my second painting, I tried to capture the couches and patrons sitting in a corner:


I like how the couch turned out – I feel like I captured the mottled and worn look. But the outside scene (through the windows) is confusing. That violet square is an awning on the window of Book and Bar, and in retrospect, I think I should have just left it out of the picture. This is an example of when you should take artistic license and leave something out of a painting if it’s too hard to make sense of. When Ellen first saw my painting, she thought that whole window was a large funky piece of contemporary art hanging on the wall of Book and Bar.  It’s possible it would have worked if it had been more muted, making it feel more like the view through a window (which looked out over a fun little pub called the Rusty Hammer). Good lesson learned.

Funny, when Ellen edited this post, she noticed all the negative critique and judgments of so many details and it gave me a chance to verbalize that I’ve been a little down on my painting lately. I’m not sure how much I like the style that’s emerging consistently across my paintings. As an artist I wonder how much one deliberately guides/steers toward a desired style as opposed to letting it simply emerge.

Speaking of details, she thought that the lamp, wall, and chest are all great – that the perspective and colors are believable. She also liked how I captured the postures of the patrons, especially with the tiny hint of a tilt in the blue guy’s head. She likes how both of these paintings convey the energy of this place, and she said she can almost feel herself there. Those are high compliments for a painter. I guess that goes to show that it helps to share your art with an audience!

I went with faceless people on this painting (see my Sunbeams and Faceless People post).

Perhaps the biggest technical lesson from this painting is the books. I painted each book individually using about 6 different paint colors. The effect is that the bookshelves end up looking more like a carnival. I think I should have tried to capture a predominant color and then perhaps painted some details, but not for every book. Not sure… Does anyone have any advice about how to capture a book shelf like this?

Regardless of how the paintings turned out, mission accomplished. I enjoyed a latte while being fully in the moment through sketching and painting. And that’s a good morning.

Sunbeams and Faceless People


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I’m always struck by the amount of pleasure I get from doing a painting, regardless of the subject. When I get some down-time during travels, I always face the dilemma: Read? Nap? Zone Out? Watch another episode of The Office? or… Paint! I don’t naturally gravitate toward the last option (it takes discipline and intentionality to paint, whereas you can just slide into a nap or a book), but I’m trying to choose it more frequently than the others. And when I do, I never regret it.

So, I was waiting for a train at the 30th Street train station in Philadelphia during a recent business trip and was struck by the grandeur of the high ceilings, windows, chandeliers, and pillars.


I decided to try to capture the depth and height of the station. As I sketched and painted, I called to mind an old WWII-era picture of grand central station with sun streaming in (courtesy of


While the sun at 30th Street wasn’t gracing the dust motes quite as it is in this photo, I decided to exercise my artistic license and go for that effect.


To get the sunbeam effect I wet a stiff brush and ran it across the paper, rubbing out the paint in lines. I blotted each line/beam with a tissue. I also left the areas white where the sunbeams land on the benches and people. To further the effect, I painted over the rest of the painting with a brownish mix of burnt umber and other colors that I can’t recall. Overall I like how it turned out.

Then there’s the question of the faceless person. I usually draw in a hint of eyes and nose on my faces, but this time (and in a few other recent paintings) I left my people completely faceless (except for a small face in the background). It seems a little less “cartoon-ish” than putting in faces, but at the same time, it’s a little creepy. What do you think? Do you like rough features on the face or no features? You can look at my last post (Hotel Lobbies and Painting Checklist) to see faces with simple features.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments!

Hotel Lobbies and My Painting Checklist


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Yes, I am blogging about hotel lobbies. And why am I blogging about hotel lobbies? Because I spend a lot of time in them. So I decided to paint them. Most are unremarkable, but two that I stayed at recently definitely warranted the time to try to capture them on paper.

The first is the Hotel Monaco in Philadelphia (click here for photos of the Monaco lobby). I stayed there recently on a weekend business trip. My meetings weren’t until Saturday afternoon, so I decided to spend some of Saturday morning with a cup of coffee in their very eclectic and colorful lobby.


I tried to stay very loose with the sketch, capturing various people as they moved through the space. I’m trying to bring more texture to my paintings by adding darker colors for shadows. You can see it clearly on the red pillows in the foreground. Color mixing was a challenge and joy for this particular painting. I don’t know what the designer was thinking (or smoking?), but somehow it all works. These colors are pretty close to the colors of the actual lobby, believe it or not. It was very tricky to capture the range of colors, shapes, and textures without overwhelming the painting (some might say I didn’t succeed…).

The second hotel is Andels Hotel in Lodz (pronounced Woodj), Poland (click here for photos of Andels). Andels is a beautiful converted factory building (Lodz was the center of textile manufacturing in the Russian Empire). The scene in the painting is the view looking from the lobby area into the restaurant. Again, I tried to capture more dimension by adding textures, highlights, and shadows. I like how the pillars turned out, as well as the people sitting on the bench/couch in the restaurant. I also like how the brickwork turned out.


I’m not crazy about the purple ceiling (I was trying to capture a shadowed ceiling, but I think I would have done better to use a light gray). And the perspective on the second roof beam from the left is off – it should be straighter. But perhaps the biggest problem is the composition. A common mistake that I make is that I paint what I see without giving thought to exercising my artistic license. In retrospect, I think I should have split up the foreground objects (the 2 people sitting and the large plant) and located them on opposite thirds rather than in the center of the painting.

Another thing I painted without much thought is the windows. Specifically, the bottom ledges of the windows were at eye level, which, when painted accurately essentially hides them. While this is accurate, I think it makes the perspective of the windows a little strange. Again, with a little forethought and artistic license I would have raised the horizon line slightly so that the bottom window ledges would be visible.

In talking this over with Ellen when I returned, we had the idea of a pre-painting checklist. So now I have a sticky in my sketchbook that I can move to the next blank page after each painting to remind me to be thoughtful before I dig into a painting. Here’s what it says:

Before starting:

  • Draw a border (rather than painting right up to the edge of the paper)
  • Composition (it helps to stand back, consider how you might want to change reality, and then draw a composition sketch before starting the real painting)
  • Perspective lines (I really need to spend time studying the perspective lines to get them right)
  • Shadows and light (either I need to really study the lighting as it is, or if I don’t like the lighting as is, I need to be thoughtful about how I will paint the lighting)

Painting Reminders:

  • Blur the eyes to see the predominant colors (rather than painting a bunch of separate colors, there is often a predominant color that my eye ignores because it likes to go for the color variety (this was relevant in a recent painting where I painted individual book colors in a bookshelf rather than the predominant colors, making the painting very busy))
  • Clothing colors can be bland in reality (when I’m painting a painting with a lot of people, I tend to create a greater variety in color than really exists, creating a painting that’s too loud)

In general my goal is to not spend as much time in hotel lobbies (or anywhere else in hotels, for that matter). But as long as I find myself in beautiful lobbies, the next best thing is to sit down with some coffee (or whiskey…) and really notice what’s going on. And there’s no better way to do that than to sketch and paint.

The Milkhouse at Clayton’s Farm, New Hampshire


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I recently took a watercolor workshop from Amesbury (Massachusetts) watercolor artist Joan Gessner during a 4-month leave of absence from work. Joan is a highly technical artist, and her instruction focuses on technique. I thought this focus on the process would be good for me (and help me overcome my tendency to fixate on the outcome).

On my first day of class I thumbed through a set of Joan’s snapshots and came across one that intrigued me. This is the milk house at Clayton’s farm in New Hampshire:

Note: There are two barns in the picture: a brown barn in the background and a red barn in the foreground. I’ll refer to the background barn as the “brown barn” and the foreground barn as the “red barn.”

I’ve always been enchanted by stonework, and I’m drawn into paintings where the artist has been able to capture a rock or stone wall. I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to learn how to paint stones.

Each class was 2 hours, and over the course of 6 classes (and some work-at-home), a painting emerged that I never imagined being able to paint. Joan provided guidance each step of the way in terms of helping determine what to do next as well as giving technical pointers and tricks of the trade. Unlike some instructors I’ve had, Joan was very respectful when she needed to demonstrate a technique, always asking if she could enter my painting. I had an instructor who would take my brush without asking and paint in my painting until I asked her for the brush back. Joan would demonstrate a technique by painting a very small part and then turning the brush back to me. Often she would demonstrate on a scrap piece of paper.

If you’re interested in the blow-by-blow account, read on! If not, you can just scroll through the pictures to see how the painting developed.

1. Sketched the photograph using T-square and triangle to get the angles right. Applied masking fluid to preserve white areas, including the foliage lines (first coated the brush with soap so the masking fluid wouldn’t ruin the brush). Taped the photograph to my painting board (not shown in the image) so that I could transfer angles to the painting easily. Joan is a firm believer that if you don’t get the perspective and lines just right in the sketch, then your whole painting will be on shaky ground (so to speak).

2. Applied background washes. Drew in stones with pencil (looked at the photograph often to get the feel of the stone shapes). Lifted paint out of the shadow (left) side of the brown barn for clapboard effect. Drew in clapboard lines with pencil on both barn faces (being careful to get the perspective angles right).

3. Added detail (clapboard and weathering) to the brown barn walls. Darkened the red barn shadow (left) wall. Started stonework, painting each stone different shades of brown and gray and then adding a shadow color to the underside of each stone. Painted mortar lines between the stones with a mix of ultramarine blue and burnt umber. Painted in clapboard lines on the red barn.

4. Finished the stonework, adding a very light wash of violet for shadow on the left face. Added a background wash to the barn door to create a weathered look (started with a very light wash of burnt umber and ultramarine blue and then dropped in a darker gray (same mix) to the wet wash). Painted vertical lines on the red barn walls for shingles.

5. Added splatters to all barn surfaces for texture and dimension (used a hard-bristled toothbrush and very intense mix of the same paint color as the surface being splattered). Painted panes of the front window on the red barn, pressing my thumb into the wet paint to give texture. Added cerulean blue to the windows on shadowed sides for reflected sky. Added a cast shadow under red barn roof. Removed masking fluid from the barn (felt very good to finally see the white!). Lifted some paint out of some of the stones to give them more dimension.

6. Painted panes on the side windows of the red barn. Added burnt sienna for rust on the door hinges (ran a dry brush with burnt sienna down from each hinge to create the rust-stained look on the wood). Removed masking fluid from the foliage edges. Painted peeling paint on all white surfaces of the barn (dry-brushed masking fluid and painted over it with light burnt umber and ultramarine blue mix, leaving white areas when the masking fluid was removed). Lifted paint with a fine brush to create window panes on the window under the peak of the red barn roof. Added slight violet shadow to the roof fascia.

7. Painted foliage on right side with sap green and burnt sienna/sap green mix (for darker green) – first painted a wash of light green, then dropped in dark green to the wet paint (I never would have thought of using burnt sienna to darken the green, but it created a warmer green than using a blue to darken it). Added salt for texturing and spritzed with water for a mottling effect (the image shows the still-wet paint with salt crystals). Added paint to the left windows for more complexity (using the thumb-in-the-wet-paint technique). Added knots to the wooden doors.

8. Painted trees behind/above the barn (spritzed water on the paper and then loosely connected water spots with green paint – a very cool technique). Began foliage in lower left corner. Painted sunlit field in background with mix of yellow ochre and hansa yellow. Notice the foliage on the right side – after the paint dried, the salt crystals and water spritz created the leafy texture of this background layer.

9. Added additional branches to the tree behind the barn to break up the line on the top and the side of the tree (Joan is always looking to break up space and get rid of lines where there should be randomness). Added shadows to define the underside of branches on the right foliage (darker mix of sap green and burnt sienna applied after spritzing the dried background layer). Painted the background for the bottom foliage (using salt and spritz techniques).

10. Added violet flowers to the bottom foliage by putting down water and then dropping in violet paint. The photograph didn’t have flowers in the foreground, but Joan thought the painting needed something different to break up the foliage in front of the barn – I think they add a lot to the texture and composition of the painting. Added shadows to define the underside of branches in the left foliage.

11. Darkened the foliage behind the flowers to push it into the background. Added grass stems, both lifting paint and adding paint (first a green mix, then a yellow/brown mix). Added texture to the sunlit field in the background with a darker mix of the same yellow ochre/hansa yellow mix. Splattered cerulian blue (!!) on the shadow side of the barn and the front foliage to add texture and tie into the sky (I never would have thought of that on my own). Added a very dark green mix to the edges of the foliage on the right side to better distinguish the line between barn and foliage.

12. Added my signature to the bottom right corner. Belabored this decision: Initials only? Full name? Upper or lower case? Location? Kind of wish I’d gone with “D. Ronka” closer to the lower edge. (See more on signature angst).

Here’s the photograph, again:

Here’s a slideshow that shows the whole progression of paintings:

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So, what did I learn?

  • Joan Gessner is an incredibly patient and technical teacher. She helped me to think through what each next step should be. I’d like to blog at some point on the differences between the various teachers I’ve had.
  • A painting of this scope takes a LONG time – no wonder original art is so expensive!
  • Finding the right color mix is not easy. Joan would often help me, and it seemed that she had a sixth sense for color mixing. In her words, the only way to get better at watercolor is through “seat time.”
  • Foliage normally freaks me out, but the techniques that Joan taught me took the fear out of the foliage – salting, spritzing, mottling, and shadowing the undersides are all now part of my repertoire.
  • You don’t always paint what you see. The sunlit field adds depth to the painting, where the picture only has more foliage in the background. Also, the field with flowers in the foreground breaks up the mass of foliage in the picture.
  • Masking fluid works wonders. But you can’t leave it on too long or you may have trouble getting it off.
  • Splattering is a cool technique for creating dimension and breaking up space, but it can be over-used. Finding the right balance, I’m sure, is the result of ruining a painting or two with over-splattering.
  • There are very few men who take painting workshops in the middle of a weekday morning (thank you for your encouragement and painting camaraderie Lynn, Casey, Arline, Suzanne, and Liz, and thank you Joan!).
  • Stones are cool. But I already knew that. And painting stones is way cool. The step-by-step of drawing the stones, painting the mortar, painting each stone, shadowing the underside, and lifting paint out of the top or center takes the mystery out of stonework. I look forward to putting this technique to use on many rock and stone walls in the future!

What’s so great about watercolor is the myriad of approaches and techniques. Sometimes you stumble on a great technique, and sometimes you pick it up from a fellow painter. I’m grateful for all of the artists who are willing to pass on what they’ve learned.


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