Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Step-by-Step Watercolor Painting: "May Morning"

If you have followed my blog for long, you know that most of my watercolor paintings are done in my sketchbooks. I like the continuity of seeing them all together, a record of my life experiences. I never remove pages from my sketchbooks, even if I'm not happy with my work. I figure it's part of the package, the good with the bad, and the sketchbook is richer and more interesting because of the variety of work in it.

So when I was asked to submit a painting to the "Fresh and Greene" spring art show at Waynesburg University, in nearby Waynesburg, PA, I had to step outside my comfort zone and do a larger painting on watercolor paper, rather than in my sketchbook. I always freeze up a little at the thought of putting my work on display, but I steeled myself against the doubts and began to think about what I might want to paint.

I finally decided to develop the sketch that I had done of Mother Earth Farm a few weeks ago. What better subject matter for an art show titled "Fresh and Greene"? (Our little corner of Pennsylvania is Greene County.) All those flowers and shrubs with their rainbow of colors are an artist's dream!

Mother Earth Farm in Ruff Creek, PA

I thought you might enjoy seeing the step-by-step process of how my painting, "May Morning", came to be.

First I gathered my resource materials: a variety of photos of the nursery, and my earlier sketch. I like to view the photos on my laptop because I can zoom in on certain areas to see more detail.

I printed out the view I wanted to paint and drew a simple grid on it.

I drew the grid in a larger scale on my watercolor paper, then made a rough sketch of the scene. Using a grid helps me to keep my proportions accurate.

I used a 4B pencil for the sketch.

I soaked my watercolor paper in water, then stretched it gently as I stapled it to a board. Most artists use Gatorboard to stretch their paper, but I've had these ceiling tiles (like you use for a dropped ceiling) for years and have always used them to stretch my paper. One of these days I'll invest in some Gatorboard, but for now, these work just fine.

I clamped the board to my studio easel, which is a tripod with a ball socket head on it. A piece of plywood is fastened with a T-nut to the ball socket, giving me a base which can be tilted in any direction. This helps when using watercolor washes - I can direct the flow of water by tilting the paper.

My palette gets a little messy when I'm working. When things start to get muddy, I clean it off and start fresh.

When I'm painting in the studio, and using my tripod easel, I usually set up in an L configuration like this ...

To begin my painting, I put in the first layer of color washes. The sky was pretty much done in one shot, with just some touches of lavender added after the blue had dried. I put a light grey-blue wash on the greenhouse, then started on the bushes.

Light washes were laid down on the canopies, grass areas, flowering shrubs, and the tree.

Then I tackled the forest behind the nursery, using deep greens and blues. The cool blues helped the trees to recede into the background.

The midground tree foliage was done with a combination of brush, sponge, and spattering with a screen. I also added some deep darks behind the group of trees on the left and painted the small trees in front of the turquoise wall at the sales area. I further developed the figures in the midground.

In this close-up shot, you can see that I've added the shadow area under the blue canopy and put some richer layers of color on the canopy tops. The foreground is still mostly undeveloped although I've added some lighter washes here and there to the bushes.

Finishing up with some of the details, I painted the blue-black containers (lots of them!), started on the trees in the lower left corner, and began putting more washes on the foreground.

More detail in the shrubs and flowers ...

More work on the bushes to the right of the path and in the left foreground ...

I added the final shadows and the foreground plants, spattered some texture in the grassy areas, added a little texture to the paths, and declared it finished!

"May Morning" 11" x 15"

Here it is framed and ready to submit to the show ...

The good news is that my painting sold before the show even opened!

If you'd like a close-up view, here are some detail shots that show brushstrokes and textures:



I hope you've enjoyed looking over my shoulder as I painted "May Morning". If you like seeing the step-by-step behind-the-scenes process of watercolor painting, let me know. I'll be happy to post more in the future.


  1. Leslie your work is so inspiring. Love the details and the colors in all your work, no wonder the painting sold before the show opened. Thank you for sharing your process. Your work just warms the heart.


  2. This was a tremendously beautiful presentation! I enjoyed every bit of the step-by-step. Please, do more in future when you have time!

  3. Thank you so much for this demo.
    Amazing how rather dull scene turned into so juicy painting. Or I just do not see the beauty around me))

  4. Yes, it's interesting that the photograph dulled down what was a really colorful scene and made it look kind of drab. We think that cameras can capture reality, but in fact, our pictures often turn out disappointing because the vibrancy of a scene somehow doesn't translate well into a photo. I think my painting captures the feel of that day much better than the photo does. The camera sure is quicker though! :)

  5. Enjoyed following your painting process. The finished picture is simply beautiful. I can see why it sold right away. Thank you for sharing.


  6. thank you. very helpful. not to mention lovely!

  7. Leslie,
    I was lucky enough to view this painting at the opening of "Fresh and Greene" last month; it was one of my favorites. I was there to read a poem and sing in our little band. . .I write a column for the O-R about Greene County, and I'd love to profile you at some point. I am also travelling this summer, but perhaps in the fall we could connect? If you're interested, please leave a comment on my blog,, and we can plan from there. Thank you, and wonderful blog!

  8. I'm glad I found your blog. I have really enjoyed looking at all your paintings and sketchbooks. I love your step by step of 'May Morning' and would love to see more of them. A video would be nice, too!

  9. I really like this. Step by step May Morning shows me how not to try to create a painting to look like a photograph. I am a beginning watercolorist and my "best" work is in my sketch book.
    Thank you for your inspiration.

  10. Really lovely. Would love to see more.

  11. I loved watching the step-by-step progression of your work! It's beautiful!!!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...