Watercolor – tackling complex subjects, Venice

May 24, 2013


A student colleague in my watercolor class took this photo and loaned it to me because I thought it would make a nice watercolor. I liked the shaft of light between the two buildings; I wasn’t so impressed with the bright blue cover on the motorboat though. This subject is far too complex for my current skill level, so I’m working on other simpler subjects to prove to my teacher I’m following his advice.

In my spare time, though, I’m applying what I’m learning to this Venice view and another European bridge.


Here’s a very quick pencil sketch with some wash, just to see if I like the subject as I imagined it. I will persist.


Here’s a second pass, still working small at 10x14cm, with less emphasis on pencil foundation and getting closer to the values of the original. Still liking it.


Here’s my third pass, nailing down what it is exactly I like about this subject.  I’m keeping color at bay, using just gradations of Payne’s Gray.

The more I draw and paint, the more I see in the reference photo, so it’s hard to keep things simple and not be distracted by the detail. For example, the colors are more intense and darker in the water reflections than above the water level.

My teacher talks about four steps: Drawing/Washes/Details/Shadows. Another watercolorist Marc Taro Holmes, talks more about the strength of watercolor paint as the work progresses: Tea/Milk/Cream where the lightest washes have the consistency of tea and details are expressed with thicker paint, the consistency of milk, and later cream. I found another analogy from another watercolorist last night: he talks about adding the “jewellery” last, that is, the finest detail. Or “Vegemite”, a sandwich spread which only Australians know about, which has the consistency of the “cream” advocated by Holmes. My Australian watercolorist warns his students that the painting looks “undressed” till that last step. My teacher, as well as Holmes, also mentions how “bland” or “unfinished” the watercolor looks until the final step.

My own personal metaphor for what’s going on is Body/Clothes/Jewellery. The “body” refers to the initial washes which are covered (partially) by clothes, those darker washes and details which come afterwards. The model still looks “bland” or “ordinary” until the jewellery and makeup come on, that last stage when shadows and calligraphic lines and expressive dots and dashes are added.

All done on Canson Motnval 200g watercolor paper.


More anon!

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