|"My Own Sweet Time", 10" x 15", watercolor & ink|
This post is a behind-the-scenes glimpse into my sometimes focused, often haphazard, approach to painting the watercolor shown above. If you don't care to read all the details, just scan through the pictures, but if you're like me, you might find it interesting to see how one person's way of working differs from your own.
In early April, our local art league's spring show deadline was fast approaching. I wanted to enter a few pieces, but since most of my work is done in sketchbooks, I don't have a lot of finished paintings lying around. I like to keep my sketchbooks intact, so I decided I needed to do a brand new painting for the show.
I had attended a bridal shower a few days earlier, and was lucky enough to win one of the pretty floral centerpieces, so I decided I'd set up a still life using that as the focal point. Since I love antique blue and white china, I thought I'd include a blue willow tea cup and saucer, along with a couple of homemade cookies. I needed a few other things to round out the composition, so I pulled out some old family silverware and added some sugar cubes, which I think are just so cute and real, a throwback to the days before Splenda and Equal. I arranged everything on a vintage white cutwork tablecloth and got to work.
I sketched the composition on a sheet of 140 lb. watercolor paper in pencil. For the tea cup, I just indicated a general idea of the main motifs. No need for a lot of detail at this point, but it was important to get the symmetry of the cup and saucer right.
I began to ink the lines using a Faber-Castell Pitt Artist's Pen with superfine nib. The floral arrangement was first.
|Inking the pencil sketch|
|Close-up of ink lines over pencil sketch|
When I got to the tea cup, I found that it was easier to turn the paper around and draw the arcs upside down, since the swing of my arm corresponded to the shape of the line I was drawing.
|Drawing upside down|
After I inked the flowers, tea cup, spoon, and sugar cubes, I stood back and took a good look. I didn't like the large blank area in the upper left corner of the composition. It was way too empty and uninteresting. After mulling things over for a few minutes and dismissing several possibilities, I decided to add a stack of books from my art library. The lines of the book covers would help to lead the eye into the painting and toward the flowers, plus they added to the theme that was beginning to take shape - tea, cookies, art books, taking a break, relaxing.
|The still life I worked from|
With the books in place, the empty corner was more interesting. (Drawing a couple of preliminary thumbnail sketches would have helped me to work out this problem earlier. Lesson learned! Don't be in such a rush to get started.)
|Completed ink drawing|
After the drawing was complete, I erased all the pencil lines with a soft kneaded eraser, then gave the paper a good soaking in a sink full of water and stapled it to a board (see photo below.) What kind of board? Well, believe it or not, it's a ceiling tile. I've been using the same couple of acoustical ceiling tiles for years, and they work just great. You can pick them up at any home center, cut them to your desired size, and tape the cut edges with masking tape. They're cheap, they work well, and the staples are easily removed when the painting is finished. (For those of you who aren't painters, the idea behind soaking and stretching the paper is to keep it from buckling as you paint. The stretched paper dries perfectly flat and smooth.)
|Paper stretched on board and painting begun|
When approaching a painting like this, I'm never quite sure where to begin. I just pick a spot and get some paint down on the paper, so I can begin to judge my colors and values. Here I started with the background, then the topmost book and a few touches on the others. Then I put some initial washes on the tea cup, and a few spots on the flower arrangement. I had to be careful to paint around the branch of foliage that extended out into the background.
I had daylight coming from a window on the left side of the arrangement plus overhead fluorescent lights, but I supplemented it with an incandescent light on the left to give me consistent shadows no matter what time of day I was painting. Having the light source closer to the subject also helped to make the shadows stronger than the diffused light from the window did.
I laid down a light golden wash on the tea cup and the cookies to give them a warm glow, then began painting the tea. There was a strong reflection of the top book showing up on the surface of the tea, and at first I painted it as I saw it, but as I kept working, that slash of light color bothered me. It looked odd and didn't seem to read true to what it was. I eventually got rid of it and was much happier with the look of the tea.
|Light golden tan wash added to cup and cookies|
I dove into the flowers next, putting in some light washes, midtones, and a few spots of dark green. I tentatively began painting some of the stems showing in the glass vase.
|Beginning to paint the flowers|
I haven't painted glass much at all, so I'll admit I was intimidated by that part of the picture. But I figured I'd just look really carefully at what was in front of me, and paint what I saw, just as I was doing with the flowers and the books and every other part of the picture. The only way I was going to learn was to give it a try. It's better to challenge myself and attempt something new than to always avoid painting that certain something that makes me nervous.
|Adding more flowers and leaves, beginning to paint the vase and spoon|
I used a variety of techniques on the flowers, sometimes painting successive layers of color, other times painting wet-in-wet and allowing the colors to blend.
At this point, I added more color to the stack of books and to the silver teaspoon. The spoon had a silvery grey base color, but I could also see reflections of colors from the china, the books, and the flowers in it. For now, I simply put down a few of the blue-grey shadows.
|Adding more color to the books|
The books were fun to paint. In the stack I had a couple of instructional books about painting flowers (gee, it might have been a good idea to read over them before I started this project!) plus The Sweet Life by Laura Stoddard, In and Out of the Garden by Sara Midda, and Maine Sail by Margaret S. McCrae, all illustrated memoirs which are fun and inspirational.
Adding the shadows really made the books pop. It's like magic! Things can look flat and dull, then I paint on some blue-grey shadows, and they suddenly have depth and dimension.
I indicated the tiny fruits and vegetables on the cover of the Midda book very simply with squiggles and dots of paint.
|Book cover pattern|
When I'm painting in my home studio, I use a John Pike art palette. Its 15" x 10-1/2" size gives me a large mixing area which I find essential. It has a tight-fitting cover that helps to keep the paints moist, and, when they do eventually dry out, I just spritz them with water to make them usable again. Having a large mixing area enables me to keep certain color mixtures on my palette to use over again. Repeating colors in a painting helps to lend continuity.
|John Pike palette|
I clean off sections of the mixing area periodically, though, so my colors don't combine too much and get muddy.
I primarily use Winsor and Newton watercolor paints, with a few American Journey colors thrown into the mix.
Next, I tackled the raspberry strippers (see the recipe here) and got around to fixing the reflection on the surface of the tea. Looks better, don't you think?
|Fixing the tea reflections, painting the cookies|
I love that little shadow of the tea bag string that falls across the cookie.
I was still avoiding doing the blue pattern on the tea cup - I had to psych myself up for that a little later when I was adding the finishing touches to the painting.
Next I added the pine trees and island on the cover of the Maine Sail book.
|Maine Sail cover design|
Then I worked on the spoon a bit more, finishing the handle and adding a hint of reflections in the bowl. The sugar cubes and tablecloth were given a few pale shadows, with stronger ones under the spoon.
I sure hop around the picture a lot, don't I?
|Finishing spoon and sugar cubes|
I was surprisingly happy with how the vase was turning out - it had just enough detail to show some stems, but looked abstract enough to convince the eye that there was water in there. It was even beginning to look like a glass vase! Yay!
|Vase almost finished, shadows added|
I worked on the flowers continually, adding splashes of contrasting color or spatters of paint, and darkening certain areas. As the painting progressed, I focused on details like buds and stamens.
Subtle washes of pink, yellow, and blue were painted on the tablecloth to take away some of the stark whiteness and repeat the colors of the blooms. Shadows were added under and behind the vase.
More subtle shadows were added to the tablecloth to indicate fold lines, and I painted the Red Rose tea tag, along with the shadow falling on the saucer and tablecloth. I like to include little details like the tear on the paper tag and the way the string goes under the staple. I just get a kick out of that stuff. With just a little squiggle of a line, I can turn a generic paper tag into a particular one, the one that happened to tear when I pulled it apart to dunk in that pretty tea cup. Those quirky little details make artwork come alive.
|Tea tag and shadow|
Finally, it was time to dive in and paint the blue and white pattern on the tea cup. It turned out to be a lot of fun. When you're not trying to paint with photographic realism, you can roughly indicate a pattern or suggest a motif and not worry about it looking perfect. Even though I suffer from severe perfectionist tendencies, I really love painting in a more sketchy style like this. It seems so much more interesting to leave things to the imagination of the viewer rather than revealing everything in an obvious way.
|Painting the blue pattern on the tea cup|
After painting the pattern on the china saucer and darkening some shadows, the painting was almost finished. All it needed was a few final touches.
A branch of small-scale greenery finally took its place against the background where I had earlier saved white space for it.
Lacy fronds of filler greenery were painted where they fell down over the glass vase. There were some in the water, too, and they were painted with more subdued colors and less detail.
The embroidery and cutwork on the tablecloth were suggested with blue-grey shadows, adding much-needed interest to the foreground. Washes of blue and cool pink tone down the lower left corner. A hint of a warmer tone on the right side helps to balance the warmth of the cookies and books on the left.
|Painting cutwork, embroidery and tablecloth shadows|
I painted the pattern and shadows on the saucer.
I love the casual look that spatters give to a watercolor painting. I try not to overdo it, but I tend to think that they usually improve a painting, giving it added interest and texture.
|Spattering and light washes|
Looking at the painting critically, I decided that the area in the upper left really needed to be beefed up a bit. It was looking pale and washed out. I mixed up some puddles of deep, rich blues, greys, and toned-down purples, and brushed them onto the beadboard background. It helped the background to recede and the books to push forward.
|Darkening the beadboard background|
Ah, the painting was finished at last and ready for framing! My still life was still sitting where I had arranged it days before, but now the roses were limp and droopy, the lilies were shriveling up, and tulip petals were dropping onto the table. The tea was like mud, and the cookies hard as rocks.
But in my painting, they will always remain fresh and beautiful, inviting me to stop for a spell, open a book, dunk a cookie, take a deep cleansing breath, and sip my tea.
Double matted prints of "My Own Sweet Time" are available for $45.00 plus shipping
(Email me from the Contact page)
(Email me from the Contact page)