Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Step-by-Step Sketch - Mission San Juan Capistrano

My how time flies! It's been almost a month since I returned from gallivanting around Sicily and England, and I've been longing to share some pictures with you and work on finishing up my travel journal, but I've had to put all that on hold while I put the finishing touches on the two classes I'll be teaching in San Clemente, California, in a few days.

I wanted to get back in touch though, so I thought I'd give you a preview of one of the projects I'll be doing with the students in my two-day "Sketch Your World" plein air sketching workshop. We'll be visiting Mission San Juan Capistrano the first day, and our warm-up project will be an elongated sketch that captures a slice of a scene at the mission. I've dubbed this a "Stacked Layers" sketch.

Ink & watercolor in a 10 x 7 Handbook Field Watercolor Journal. Each sketch measures 1-3/4" x 3-3/4".

For this example, I did three line drawings on a page in my 10" x 7" Handbook Field Watercolor Journal using reference photos. Each box measures only 1-3/4" x 3-3/4", but the students in class will draw a single larger rectangular sketch. The idea is to draw the layers of the scene, starting with the foreground and gradually moving back through the mid-ground and background to the sky, stacking one layer above and behind another.

If you look at the full view of the completed sketch at the top of this post, you'll notice that I kept the layout simple and left plenty of white space around the boxes. This helped to focus attention on the miniature sketches.

After the ink drawing was completed, I painted the sky wet-in-wet using American Journey's Sky Blue. I kept the look of the sky consistent across the three sketches to unify them.

Next, I began painting the sunny base washes on the architectural elements using mixtures of Yellow Ochre, Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, and Getz Gray (American Journey).

Then I painted the lightest values on the flowers. These blocks of color act as placeholders, reminding me where not to put green in the next step. I also painted a violet shadow on the brick arch and masked out some poppies in the mid-ground of the sketch on the right.

Time for the green! Light values were brushed onto dry paper first, then darker values were dropped in here and there and allowed to blend a bit.

Next, I added texture to the buildings by brushing on tans, browns, and grays to suggest stone, brick and a stucco/brick combination. I also added color to the bells and fountain in the center sketch.

To give depth to the foliage, medium and dark values were added.

The deeper greens were mixed using Sap Green as a base, modified by adding Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine Blue, or Payne's Gray.

Varying the hues of the greens helped to distinguish one mass of foliage from another.

After I finished painting the green foliage, I removed the masking from the middle-ground flowers in the sketch shown above and gave them a base wash of muted salmon pink.

The final step was to give the flowers form and depth by adding medium and dark values.

I'm always amazed at how those darks make a sketch come alive.

To paint these darker values, I mixed concentrated color using the same pigments I had used for the base washes. To deepen the color even further, I sometimes added Ultramarine Blue (for the purples) and Alizarin Crimson, Quinacridone Magenta, or a bit of Payne's Gray (for the reds).

One final touch was needed - some bubbling water in the fountain! For that I brushed on white gouache straight from the tube and tinted it with a few strokes of blue-gray watercolor.

Here's my little sketch, all finished...

...or is it? I still may add some color to the lettering, or maybe a simple stroke of paint above and/or below the lettering. I think I'll discuss the possibilities with my students at the mission. Will sixteen heads be better than one? We'll see. :)

Why not give a "stacked layers" sketch a try? Pick a scene and capture just a slice of it, like you're peering through a keyhole. A single sketch would be perfect in a vertical format sketchbook. It's a great way to capture the essentials of a scene in a dynamic and efficient way.


  1. This is wonderful!! We used to live in SoCal and our kids are still there. The mission wasn’t far from our home in Irvine. Thanks for sharung this!!

  2. I am one of the sixteen and it was fun to get a preview. See you Friday.

  3. Leslie, thanks for sharing your step by step process. Great little sketches!


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