Saturday, November 19, 2016

Step-by-Step Watercolor: Olive Sketch

The olive oil from Fattoria Bacio (the estate that hosts my workshop in Italy) is the best I've ever tasted! During our week at the villa, the students and I sloshed it over just about everything at dinner each night: bread, pasta, salad, meat, and vegetables. And by the end of the week, we all joked that it had magical properties, because it seemed that none of us had gained any weight, despite the fact that we were eating a multi-course meal at the villa each evening. Now, that's some good olive oil!

10" x 7", pencil & watercolor, Handbook Field Watercolor Journal

So I dedicated a page in my journal to the wonderful olives grown at Fattoria Bacio. The sketch includes a bottle of olive oil, a plate with herb-infused oil and bread, an olive branch laden with fruit, an olive tree, and a vintage olive oil jug filled with flowering vines.

The sketch was drawn while I was at the villa, sitting in the shade of the big chestnut tree in the courtyard on a warm, sunny afternoon. One of my favorite students, Karen, was doing her own olive oil page, and it was so nice to sit there painting and chatting, with that amazing view of the Tuscan hills spread out before us.

Here's my pencil sketch:

1 - Pencil drawing

 Can you see the line drawn down the center of the olive oil bottle?

When I have to draw something that's symmetrical, like this unusually shaped bottle, I draw a vertical line right down the center of the object. That makes it easier to compare the left and right side and make sure they match.

Since I didn't have time to paint the sketch that day at the villa, I thought you might enjoy seeing how I tackled it, one step at a time, when I got back home, using the photos I took that day for reference.

I began with the olive tree, dabbing on paint with a round brush to suggest the fine texture of the olive leaves.

Step 2 - Paint first light washes

Olive trees can vary in color from a yellow-y green to a more bluish gray-green. To mix the color, I usually start with a Cerulean Blue base, then mix in some green (like Sap Green), then mute it with Burnt Sienna or Payne's Gray. Cobalt Blue + Sap Green + Burnt Sienna works well, too. I brushed on the lightest values first, then dropped in darker values to blend wet-in-wet. In some places, I added pure Cerulean Blue, and in others, Moonglow (Daniel Smith) to make things more interesting and hint at shaded areas in the foliage.

After the first washes dried, I added more marks to suggest leaves, using darker values. The tree trunk was painted with mixtures of Yellow Ochre, Burnt Umber, and Ultramarine Blue.

The leaves on the olive branch were painted with the same colors I used for the tree foliage, but I varied the individual leaves, making some bluer, others warmer, or lighter, or darker. For the lighter yellow-green leaves, I added Yellow Ochre or Cadmium Yellow Light to the gray-green mixture.

I continued painting initial washes in light and medium tones on the olives and plate.

Step 3 - Add more washes. Mask where needed.

The colors of the olives ranged from warm yellow-green to red to deep dusky purple. I painted them with a variety of colors - Olive Green, Shadow (American Journey), Moonglow (Daniel Smith), Permanent Alizarin Crimson, and Quinacridone Violet. I let the paint colors mingle wet-in-wet to mimic the variation I saw in my photo of the olives. Highlights were lifted out of the wet paint in places with a damp brush.

The antique olive oil urns at Fattoria Bacio haven't held oil since the 1970s. Now they're used as huge planters, filled with flowering vines. Since I wanted to show the vines cascading down over the urn, I used a round brush to paint on masking fluid (I use Pebeo brand) and preserve the white paper so I could easily paint the rusty color of the vessel without having to paint around the tiny leaves.

I also masked some highlights on the olive oil bottle.

Next, I painted the first washes on the bottle, terra cotta urn, and flowering vine.

Step 4 - Continue applying light and medium values

A mixture of Payne's Gray and Cadmium Yellow Light was perfect for the olive oil bottle. I varied the wash by brushing in areas of yellow and purple. I also left a couple more slivers of unpainted white paper for additional highlights.

When I started painting the vine, I suddenly realized that I should have masked out a few flowers first, up in the area above the urn, so I paused to do some masking. After it dried, I continued painting the vine with a round brush. I used Olive Green and Yellow Ochre plus a little Cobalt Blue in spots. The yellower colors in the vine helped to differentiate it from the olive tree, with its bluer tones.

In the next step, I began to pull everything together, adding darker values and details to the sketch.

Step 5 - Add darker values and detailing

Darker streaks of green were added to the olive oil bottle to indicate the varied reflections in the glass. I used the same Payne's Gray/Cadmium Yellow Light mixture that I had earlier, but with less water, so it would be darker and more intense.

At this point, I also needed to think about how I was going to paint all the gold lettering on the black olive oil label. I decided to mask out the lettering with masking fluid using a small round brush. The lettering didn't need to be perfect. It was just a suggestion of what was there.

Next, I added some darker leaves to the mass of green vines and did some detailing of the pattern on the urn.

Shadows were painted on the urn and cast shadows were added under the olives.

The floral pattern on the plate was finalized and the herbs on the oil and bread were painted. To make the marks look irregular, I used spattering for some and painted others with a small round brush.

Subtle detailing was added to the olive leaves and twigs, and a few shadows were painted on the olives themselves.

This is the stage in the sketching process where I usually begin to think about painting the lettering. I like to have most of the sketch painted before deciding on what colors to use for any text. Here, I thought a deep, dark, dusky purple color (like ripe Fattoria Bacio olives) would be just perfect.

Step 6 - Paint the lettering

I painted the title with a size 2 brush...very carefully...

Then it was time to work on the vines. I removed the masking fluid on the flowers and painted them a pale yellow.

Next, the highlights I had masked off earlier on the bottle were revealed.

They look rather harsh, don't they? In the next step I'll take care of that.

Step 7 - Completed sketch

To fix those harsh white areas on the bottle,  I went in with a damp brush and gently rubbed along the hard edges of the white highlights to soften them and bring a little bit of the surrounding color onto the light area. It made the highlights look much more natural, don't you think?

After that, I painted the label on the bottle with a rich mixture of Payne's Gray and Ultramarine Blue. After it dried, I lifted off the masking fluid and painted the lettering with a Yellow Ochre/Raw Sienna combo.

A few more cast shadows were added to the olive oil urn...

and some dimples on the olives.

I decided to lighten some areas on the "Olives" lettering, so it didn't look so solid and dark, so I lifted a bit of the paint with a damp brush.

The branch needed a few final touches. I added some cast shadows on the leaves and painted the shadows where the stems attach to the olives. A little spot of dark value can really make something pop.

And that's about it. This little 10x7 sketch took me quite a few hours to complete, but I enjoyed working on it and remembering those idyllic autumn days I was lucky enough to spend at Fattoria Bacio, painting with my friends, eating wonderful food, and just relaxing in a place that makes me so very happy.

I think all the women who accompanied me to Tuscany this year would agree that there's just something so special about that place and the time we spent together there.

It's impossible to describe. There was joy and happiness and excitement and wonder all wrapped up together in a beautiful package. It was the best of times.

I'll be returning to Fattoria Bacio to teach again next year, and the workshop still has a few openings. Come sketch with me September 23-30, 2017. It will be one of the best weeks of your life! (Click here for more information.) And don't forget about my Provence and Greece trips, too. Lots of great options for those who love to combine sketching with travel, like me! 


  1. Leslie, I am loving this post but for some reason your photos #9-#17 are not showing--they are coming thru as minus signs. I am anxious to see the rest. Thanks for posting your step-by-step process.

    1. I've been having major problems with Google photos, where I host my images for the blog. Yesterday I was uploading a picture and suddenly an entire album of 174 photos just disappeared! They were unrecoverable. All of the blog posts they had been used in now had nothing but minus signs where the photos had been. I had to go back and upload everything again and try to figure out which photos went where. It took hours and hours. And now this blog post keeps dropping photos out. They are there in my Google photos account, and they were in the post last night, but this morning they were gone. So frustrating. I've inserted them again, so please let me know if they go away again.

    2. Leslie, I am so sorry you had to redo all,of that work. Blogs can be so frustrating. Last week, I had a post that kept saying it was published--but it wasn't--finally fixed. This post of yours is phenomenal. I think it is one of my favorites. I love how you took the time to explain your thought process and post all of the steps. Your work is always so beautiful!

  2. I upload my photos straight to 'blogger' but I had sort of the same issue, I have an Android phone, and I removed some photos from my phone, little did I know it was deleting them not just from my phone, but from my Blogger blog too. I hope you get it figured out... I can't see the photos now just minus signs... it is 7:40am EST

    1. I've inserted the pictures AGAIN. Can you see them now?

    2. It's 6pm... and I see them now... so you've got it going... Love your blog always learn something here.

  3. Leslie, I have seen a lot of your work now. For me, I think this is one of the most beautifully appointed pages you have ever done. And that is saying a lot! The layout,the colors, the lettering--just gorgeous.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind comment. I guess I'm improving, and that's a good thing.

  4. HI Leslie -- L-O-V-E your page and all the detailed instruction! And...what a surprise when I read my "honorable mention" ;-) . This inspires me to open my sketchbook and reclaim the dreamy days of my Italian vacation!
    RE: the lost photos (ugh) -- when I looked at this post on my iPad, the "minus" marks were there, but now everything is showing beautifully on my Mac...

    1. I'm so glad the photos are "sticking"! At least for now. This has been so frustrating!

      I thought about you the whole time I was painting this sketch. Wasn't that a dreamy afternoon? I'm so glad you're feeling up to painting again. The thank you card you sent was beautiful. I have it propped on the mantel in the kitchen, where I see it every day and think about my friend, way off in California. Can't wait to see you in February!

  5. This is a great step-by-step and a beautiful sketch, Leslie! I love all the variations on the theme (and I can see all the images just fine). Thank you for sharing your tip for using a sort of plumb line to draw a symmetrical object and for sharing your color mixes. Love, love, love Moonglow.

    I have a question: When you describe painting a lighter value and then dropping in a darker value wet-in-wet, do you generally drop in the second color while the paper still has a sheen, or do you wait until the sheen is gone but the paper is still damp?

    1. I drop in in while it's still wet and shiney, so the colors will run together. If I wait until it's drier, I might get a bloom instead of a nice watery blending of the colors.

  6. I appreciate all of your tutorials. I have been thinking about putting my favorite Christmas recipes to watercolor, but I've not ever done a recipe. A tutorial on making a recipe would be lovely, perhaps even with a Christmas theme.


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