Monday, May 21, 2012

Step-by-Step Watercolor Painting: "My Own Sweet Time"

"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.

Pencil sketch

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.

Adding greenery

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.

Adding more lacy greenery

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. 

Finished painting

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)


  1. Thanks for sharing! Being that I'm not a painter I love reading about your methodology! Of course the painting is beautiful! Thanks for enlightening me! :)

  2. It's fun to see it all come together. Maybe you should try it sometime, Colleen!

  3. It's beautiful. Had so much fun going through the whole process. It felt as if I am actually watching you paint! I can really relate to it all so well. Thanks for sharing, it's very educative and inspiring.

  4. An incredible lesson, thank you! I will go back & read each section thoroughly. It was nice to see the close ups, in your previous entry I hadn't seen the ink lines as well. Very lovely painting. I love Midda's books & I think you caught this one so well! Shadows: it is my next goal, to work with them. PS Do you know the books of Hannah Holmes & Claire Walker Leslie?

  5. Absolutely fascinating reading about how this painting came to be. I love all your details and appreciate that you pointed many of them out. I feel like I've just watched a very informative and entertaining movie. The finished piece is beautiful! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Sketchbook Wandering - I've only read one of Claire Walker's books and had never heard of Hannah Holmes. Thanks for the heads-up! I'll check them out.

    Claire - I think a lot of people would be bored to tears with this post, but a certain few love reading about the details. Guess you're one of them! Thanks for taking the time to read my rambling account.

  7. What a treat to be shown step by step how you achieved such a detailed painting,I love your style & the way you sat back & got the final details you were aiming for. Absolutely wonderful work thank you for sharing. I'll be looking at your paintings again to help me get back into my watercolour painting again after a long break.

  8. As someone who can barely pick paint for a wall, I am awed by your gift. I enjoyed reading and scrolling back and forth to see how the painting developed. I am curious, how long does this take you?

    1. I think I worked on it over the course of two days. You know how it is, Ann. Work a little, stop and put a load of laundry in, work a bit more, stop for lunch, add a touch more paint, then it's time to walk the dog. :)

  9. I just love how you explained you painting step by step, for years I've dabbled with watercolors and your process has given me the encouragement to continue with my love of the medium. Thank you Leslie, I have subscribed to your blog andlook forward to receiving it.

    1. It makes me so happy to know that this post was an encouragement to you! Just keep dabbling and enjoying the process. None of us ever feels like we know it all, least of all me. Let's keep learning together.

  10. Fantastic, what a great tutorial and beautiful painting.

  11. Never ever boring....really enjoyed this. Thanks for your time to put these steps down.....encouraging!!

  12. I very much enjoyed your detailed lesson. I've been away from painting for a number of years and now that I am retired I'm looking forward to picking it up again. Little nervous and intimidated but you have given me some inspiration. Thank you.

    1. It's wonderful that you'll have the time now to pursue something you enjoy. Glad I could be of some help to you.

  13. What a treat I came across today! Your step by step narrative is very inspirational and helpful. I love that good artists have to conquer fears of things like glass too, Your details are so fun, love the tea bag tag and my favorite is the detail on the handle of the spoon. I would love to see more of your works in progress posts.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed this post. I haven't done a step-by-step for awhile - thanks for reminding me I need to do another.

  14. What a treat I came across today! I thoroughly enjoyed your step by step process and it is nice to see that good artists have fears of things like glass that they have to overcome. Love your details too, the teabag tag, and the teabag itself. My favorite detail has to be the handle of the spoon. I would love to see more of your step by step paintings.

  15. I love that you took the extra time to document and share your process. Many thanks!

  16. Just Brilliant
    I am learning to do watercolour Leslie but finding. Very inspiring tutorial. Have you any dvds to purchase or youtube tutorials as I would be interested.
    Geraldine Crowley

    1. No, I don't have any DVDs. I have a few YouTube speed-painting videos. You can find all my tutorials if you click on the "Tutorials" tab above. I do share a lot of step-by-step painting tutorials here on my blog.


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