Step by Step- It Was a Secret View

Secret View Final v2.jpg

I wanted to share this painting I recently did, as I had the forethought to take photos as I went along. This process is definitely a version of the “slow painting” I went over in a blog post earlier this year. Some paintings I hammer out in an hour and a half or two hours. Others take 5,6… 10 hours. I fiddle with them, put them aside, photograph them, assess them, fiddle with them some more, add a wash, etc.

With this painting, it was an exploratory process. I could never give a demo with an image like this—when I started, I wasn’t really sure how I was going to paint it. Oh, I have enough experience that I had some vague ideas at the beginning (work light to dark, etc, block in values and hues, etc), but after that… basically you’ve just got to start, and find your way, and keep working until you think you’re done. !! That’s messy, but sometimes it’s the truth. The more complicated the shapes and shifts in value and hue, the more so.

Step 0- You Think You’re Done, And Then You’re Not

Secret View Final v1.jpg

Sometimes, you work on it, until you think you’re done, and then you recognize you’ve gone too far. With watercolors, there’s not much going back. There’s nothing to be done but to let that painting be. Either you accept its faults as part of the whole, or you’re deep enough in to an image that you’re prepared to spend another 5+ hours re-building it from scratch in “round 2”.

I finished this piece, and later on I recognized a few things I didn’t like. It was these critiques which guided me in repainting the image-

1) The perspective is skewed in the window panes and the cabinet door. I don’t care much about this sort of stuff normally, but here, the geometry is really very dominant visually. Practically the whole reason I’m painting the image is because of these repeated panes and the dingy empty cabinet. To me, they’ve got to be right or what’s the point in painting them? I need the shapes to be correct so I can tell the story I want, and not have them detract from the experience.

2) The image is, in my opinion, too dark. The contrast is too strong, like a hammer on the head.

3) The exterior view is not compelling enough. At first, I thought the exterior through the window could be soft and ambient like in this image-

Left Open.jpg

But the truth is that the exterior here is comparatively a much larger portion of the painting, and much closer to the viewer. After I finished, I recognized I wanted more “push and pull” between the interior and exterior. I needed more compelling details.

4) The image is just a little too static with just the panes and the cabinet. I felt that I wanted a third location to draw the eye and circulate you around. I had additional source photos, and used them to nudge things around.

Step 1- Building a Composition


I don’t have a photo of my sketch, but with all the above thoughts in mind, I brought together different source photos and began to build my image. As you’ll see, none of them are good photos. I’m not copying the photo, that’s for sure. I paint partly from the photos, salvaging and cobbling details together as I need them. I paint partly by feel, and discover things as I go along. I paint partly from memory, from a sense of smell and emotion and tactile input, and just trust that I’m listening and being true to what feels right.

Here, I brought the exterior view in from a different photo that had shifted ever so slightly to the left. It’s just off-screen in the other photo.


I took the dog door from another photo that showed those details under the window…


and the cabinet shelves came from another. I added in the other box on a shelf to activate the area visually and hold the eye a bit more.

Step 2- Initial Global Washes

Sometimes, you can’t do big global washes. The edges and white areas are too distinct, the hues too different, and the values too similar. You have to approach things differently and paint each area individually. Each windowpane is a small painting. The cabinet is a painting. The wall is a painting. The old dog door, etc. It’s slow and more painstaking, but if you want control over your shapes and hues and values, it’s the only way I know.

Step 3- Layering In Darker Shapes

Secret 2.JPG

Here you can see me beginning to layer in darker shapes- the darker trees in the background go in, the shadows under the leaves that have a crisp edge, the shadow on the little exterior wall to the left. The exact same process was used earlier for the dog door, the brown mat outside the windows, the odds-and-ends and darker shelves in the cabinet, etc. These shapes are blocked in now partly because they’re a darker value than the areas around them, but even more so because I want the edges to help separate things. As I put in washes later, the edges will soften some, but the shape of things will remain.

Step 4- More of the Same

Secret 3.JPG

Here you can see the shadow on the door, where I have a hard edge on one side and a soft edge on the other. The surface of the paper has to be dry to get that crisp edge. The dark warm interior of the cabinet, the dark cool wall around the cabinet, and the area under the window are all glazed too. Note the large (though not very dark) cast shadow out in the garden.

Step 5- Window Trim and Global Darks

Secret 4.JPG

Here you can see two things I’m focusing on. The first is that I’m beginning to work on the window trim, creating my shadows. But also, I begin here to drop in big, semi-global washes to darken whole areas. All the prep work earlier, cutting edges and dropping in localized, shape-specific darks, begins to pay off. I can make a big wash over the whole area for the cabinet and everything in it, and I retain my individuated shapes, and yet everything is bonded together and softened by the wash. Same goes for the doggy-door area, where I’ve dropped a global wash in, with a darker, graduated area under the window sill. This helps that area feel recessed, as if there’s a very soft cast shadow within the cavity.

Step 6- All The Little Details

Secret 5.jpg

My desire to paint this has a lot to do with paying tribute to this space. So all the scruffy little bits mattered to me. The left over duct tape on the window to seal a crack, the scruffy patch on the wall, the window putty to seal the panes, the cobwebs, the dusty grime on the windows, the little specks and nails and scratches. This is a meticulous part, but done with love and precision. I darken things up too, here and there- the wood around the dog door, the trim around the panes, etc.

I got to this point after a long day of painting, about 7 or so hours straight. Got a kink in my neck. Took some Ibuprofen, etc. I thought I was done. I even framed it up to share for Thanksgiving, but….

Step 7- You Think You’re Done and Then You’re Not

Secret View Final v2.jpg

Framing and photographing things is very instructive. They often help you see things objectively, like someone else painted it, instead of how you dream it looks. Photos often change things too- push contrasts and shift hues, etc. Sometimes, I like the photo better, and understand how I should change a painting. Sometimes, I can tell the painting is done instead, and I have to correct the photo to match it.

So I framed this up and shared it. But once I got home, I thought “What is this painting about? Where do I want your eyes to go?” The light was a little too flat, the contrast too muted. Where was the drama?

The reflected light that seems to have no source (bouncing off the hidden side of the open cabinet door) was compelling to me. Some of it, honestly, happened by accident, but some of it was on purpose. I recognized the preserved highlights, and decided to push the effect. I wanted to pull you in to the edge of the panes, where that warm raw lumber is, and the light arrives from both inside and out. This is not really how it is in any of the photos, but I could see now, towards the end, the story I wanted to tell.

I pushed the transition in value on the right side of the window pane, lightening and lifting up top, while darkening the values in the bottom right corner. I gently darkened various things once more- the edge of the window sill, the area by the dog door, the cabinet interior, and the bottom right corner of the room. I also darkened the far left side of the painting- the window sill and the panes- to push your eye in towards the gentle glow.

And then I was done. Sometimes, these things are a meandering affair and you end up at the finish line unexpectedly.

Doing the demonstration at this month's CWA meeting


This is a quick post to let folks know that I’m the guest artist this month at the California Watercolor Association’s meeting on Wednesday, November 21st! Considering doing this painting, but we’ll see… Gotta squeeze it into an hour and fifteen!

The meeting is held in Walnut Creek and starts at 730. My demo will start at 800 and go to around 915-930, with a break in the middle. I have a stock of framed paintings, so I’ll be bringing them in for folks to check out in person and perhaps buy (in anticipation of X-Mas?!?). At the very least, it should be fun and educational, and it’s definitely very exciting to get to demo at the CWA. I’ve seen some great artists up there in front, so it’s a very cool thing to be asked to do the same.

Hope I don’t screw it up! LOL! :P For those of you who are local, I hope to see you there!

Where and When-

CWA Meeting

Shadelands Center for Community Arts

111 N. Wiget Ln.

Walnut Creek, CA

Wednesday, November 21st, 730-930

A Basic Primer on Watercolor Pigments, pt. 4- My Current Palette


The Basics-

At the bottom of this post is a list of the pigments in my current palette, full of brands and pigments based on my own idiosyncratic painting process. My palette is composed of lightfast, single pigment color choices. I skip common “convenience mixtures” such as Sap Green or Hooker’s Green, etc. My opinion is that single-pigment colors allow for better prediction of color-mixing outcomes. Additionally, I only purchase paints in tubes, which I then distribute into the wells on my palette. My experience is that paint purchased in tubes (and applied while still wet) allows for a “juicier” application of paint when needed. This will let you get rich, pigmented darks and more chromatic washes with much greater ease.

What Details I’ve Included in the List, and Why-

Beyond those basic recommendations, please don’t feel I’m suggesting that folks use only these pigments or only these brands. Most pigment choice has to do with how we navigate the color wheel from hue to hue- not that each pigment or brand is essential (of course, there are exceptions, but that’s the gist of the idea). As such, I’ve included in the list below the alpha-numeric label for my pigments, so you can substitute alternate brands as needed, as well as some hue-similar alternate pigments, if you don’t care to use the exact pigments I use.

If you are interested in purchasing only a very few pigments to start off with, I’ve labeled what I view as “essentials” with an asterisk. These are spread around the color wheel, and with a bit of mixing control, you can achieve a very wide gamut of color with just 5-6 paints. The real goal is to make sure you have a good distribution of hues to allow yourself a wide color gamut for mixing purposes.

Finally, as an aside, I’ve noted commonly used hue-similar fugitive paints that should be avoided (how’s that for a mouth-full?!). Please don’t use these pigments. I’ll be frank and blunt- although people sometimes debate these things academically, in my opinion you’re giving watercolors a bad name by doing so. If you love watercolors, do the whole medium a favor, and only use lightfast pigments. Ok, PSA done. ;)

How Do I Choose What Goes on My Palette?

It’s probably also worth saying that I’m not one to buy a pigment because I find the color attractive (or unattractive, for that matter). And I never think, “Ah, this paint looks just like bricks, or beach sand, or pine trees, or sign posts, etc.” Of course, sometimes all of those things do happen, but truth is that I include paints in my palette because of how they’ll work with other paints. The goal is always to assess how your paints will work in cohort with each other. That is the most important point. Below, you can see one of my color doodle-sheets, where I explore different reds and how they mix with greens, to mute them, and how I might apply the red. From swatches and explorations such as these, I decide what to include in my palette-


So, the introduction of pigments into my palette is all about finding good mixing compliments or creating mixing lines for hues I want to arrive at more easily. Paints never work on their own. I’ve always got some basic sort of plan for how I might use a paint, for what sort of subjects, and in conjunction with what sort of other pigments I have available. Even if applied straight from the tube, without mixing, they’re always a team once they’re on the canvas.

As such, I’ve included a short description with each pigment, describing why I have it on my palette, and what I use it for, what combos, etc. Just to give you a sense of what goes through my mind, and why I chose these pigments specifically.

(Interested in knowing more about how I approach and try to control mixing outcomes? Check out these posts on Color Mixing, Mixing Greens, and Navigating Color Space.)

The List-

*Cadmium Yellow (PY35), American Journey

Lightfast Alternate- Benzimidazolone Yellow (aka Azo or Winsor Yellow) (PY151 or 154)

Common Fugitive Example- Aureolin Yellow (PY40)

I mix a lot of greens with this yellow. I use Cad Yellow because it’s mildly opaque for a yellow, is a strong mixer despite it’s light value, and is relatively “pushy” wet into wet, and yet won’t explode across the page. It also works well with Dioxazine Violet as a mixing partner. I recently decided to give it two wells, because it’s my primary yellow mixer for a lot of greens.

Yellow Ochre (PY43), M. Graham

Lightfast Alternate- Raw Sienna (PY42 and PR101)

This yellow-brown is rather opaque and gooey, which has a use. It will hold it’s own spatially, and yet is inactive (inert), wet-into-wet, like Cad Yellow. This works great for muted greens, and makes nice browns with Dioxazine Violet.

Cadmium Orange (PO20), American Journey

Lightfast Alternate- Pyrrole Orange (PO73)

Redder Lightfast Alternate- Cadmium Scarlet (aka Cadmium Red Light) (PR108)

What can I say? I like clean oranges from time to time, and they’re almost impossible to mix. I don’t use this straight very much, but it’s a very useful mixing compliment. I use this to mix strange, warm greens and also to make browns get punchier and more chromatic.

*Burnt Sienna (PBr7 or PR101), American Journey

Darker Lightfast Alternate- Burnt Umber (PBr7 or PR101)

An essential part of the Ultramarine-Burnt Sienna combo. Makes lovely natural greys. One of my most used pigments. This combo provides me one of my darkest, most versatile mixes. It gets two wells just to save time refilling them.

*Permanent Carmine (PR176), Winsor Newton

Lightfast Alternates- Permanent Alizarin Crimson (PR206), Quinacridone Rose (PV19),

Quinacridone Magenta (PR122)

Common Hue-Similar Fugitives- Alizarin Crimson (PR83), Rose Madder (NR9), Opera Rose (PR122)

The endless quest to find a replacement for Alizarin Crimson continues. I like this paint mostly because it mutes and darkens greens well. Other reds that are warmer (like Cad Red) make by greens turn brown. No way, Jose. Lovely in skies from time to time. Combined with orange, it also can mix a pretty good red if need be.

Dioxazine Violet (Winsor Violet) (PV23), Winsor Newton

Lightfast Alternate- Manganese Violet (PV16)

Dark as hell. A good darkener in general, and a good mixer with greens, to mute, darken, and cool them.

*Ultramarine Blue (PB29), American Journey

Lightfast Alternate- Pthalo Blue (aka Winsor Blue) (PB15)

The most useful blue, IMO. Good for skies and water, etc. Part of many mixing combos. Used to make greens, but also browns and cool grey-blue shadows. It gets two wells for a reason. Lovely granulation.

Cobalt Blue (PB28), American Journey

Similar in hue to UMB, but paler in value and slightly greener. Good for skies and water. A lovely secondary blue for me.

Prussian Blue (PB27), American Journey

Lightfast Alternate- Phtalo Blue, Green Shade (PB 15:3)

Not often used, but it’s also very dark, which can be useful from time to time. It makes great dark, dusty greens when mixed with Yellow Ochre.

Cobalt Turquoise Light (PG50), Winsor Newton

Lightfast Alternate- Cobalt Turquoise (PB36)

I use this sometimes to mix punchy greens. Has a nice, mildly opaque cast. Hard to mix the hue, so I keep it for very occasional use.

*Viridian (PG18), American Journey

Lightfast Alternate- Pthalo Green (PG7)

A dark, opaque green. Good as a starting point for many greens. I almost never use it on its own.

The Visitors-

It’s worth saying that I keep a little ziplock bag in my painting backpack that has a small variety of additional paints in it. I don’t keep them on my palette, but they’re useful to have around for certain subjects and effects. They include- Pthalo Yellow-Green (PY3, PG7), Quinacridone Rose (PV19), Titanium White, Perylene Green (PBk31), and Pyrole Red (aka Winsor Red (PR254)

Additional Good Lightfast Options- Cadmium Red Deep (PR108), Cerulean Blue (PB35), Perylene Maroon (PR179)

A Basic Primer on Watercolor Pigments, pt. 3- So What Should I Buy?


Artist and Student Grade Brands-

There are a variety of artist-grade brands, and the truth is that despite the fact that they’re not all the same (pigments often handle differently or have a gently different hue in one brand versus another) they’re all, generally speaking, excellent. Daniel Smith is great, and Winsor Newton too. DaVinci, M. Graham, Holbein, and Sennelier are excellent too. Don’t worry too much on that account.

Each has a reputation for certain handling characteristics or brand details, with some grain of truth to the generalizations. Winsor Newton is more expensive, but the quality is almost always good and it can be found almost anywhere globally. M. Graham and Sennelier both use honey, and are goopier and runnier than other brands- they work very well in a studio but can cause sometimes problems in the field because they’re so gooey and active in the palette. Holbein uses a different kind of dispersant and tends to be more inert wet-into-wet. On and on. Many experienced artists often mix and match pigments between brands, as they come to prefer the characteristics of this or that specific pigment by a specific brand. There are no issues with doing that.

So, what about student grade paints?


Historically, student-grade paints often featured both fugitive pigments and tubes that are less densely pigmented than their artist-grade counterparts. This is part of why they cost less. That is changing though. Two good quality student grade brands that I have experience with are Cotman’s (which is Winsor Newton’s student brand) and Van Gogh. Both currently feature generally lightfast pigments that are (yes) less densely pigmented than an artist-grade counterpart of the same pigment. However, it is worth saying that there are all kinds of student grade brands out there, and many of them are of highly varying quality. You’ve got to, oddly, know more about your paints to make sure you’re looking at an off-brand student grade paint, to make sure they’re lightfast, single pigment, etc. Many aren’t. But a big brand name, like Cotmans as an example, is generally very good these days (compared to the reputation they had, say, 20-30 years ago), and easier to buy without as much research or fretting.

Many beginners understandable purchase cheaper student-grade paints. However, general advice is often that students should learn with artist-grade paints as early as possible, as the more densely pigmented artist-grade tubes can handle differently. This is true, in my opinion. Artist-grade pigments also often provide a richness and vibrancy to color application that can be difficult at times to achieve with student paints. As such, there can be a frustrating re-learning phase when a student switches over. But is it essential to use Artist Grade paints? Absolutely not. Are there some professional artists that use lightfast student grade paints, and make great work? For sure. Nothing is really dogmatic on this.

Having said that, my advice is to buy the best quality paints that you can. It’s better to purchase a smaller range of artist-grade colors in the beginning (distributed judiciously around the color wheel), than to buy a whole bunch of student grade paints that you’ll eventually discard or move on from. Still, even then, if one is just beginning to dabble in watercolors and is feeling frugal, I would recommend Cotman’s and Van Gogh as the best quality low-cost student-grade paints I have personal experience with. It’s cheapest to buy from an art store (online or in person) like Dick Blick, Cheap Joe’s, or Jerry’s Artarama. Common “craft” stores charge a premium for pigments.

Tubes versus Pans-


Every once in a while, I get asked about this. What can I say? Every artist has a personality and approach, and, to me, it’s a clear recommendation for tubes.

The primary benefits of tubes are two-fold, as I see it. First, it’s far cheaper per ml of paint to buy things in tubes than it is in pans. Secondly, my experience is that its far easier to get rich juicy applications of color when you’re working from fresh blobs of paint from the tube. Some companies state that they put some sort of special humectant in their pans to make them rewet better than tube paints, but experientially, spritzing tube paints in a palette has been fine for me and many other far-more-well known painters out there.

The real benefit of pans, as I see it, is that they’re interchangeable and they’re hyper portable. When you squeeze out your paints into your palette from a tube, you’re sort of stuck with that paint in that well for a while. This is true. Tube paints can also get messy. Sometimes they move around in the palette a bit, particularly after painting when everything has gotten pretty moist. That’s a bummer, for sure. Pans are hard and compact and tend to stay put. So there are some logistical arguments to be made in favor of pans if you’re doing plein air work (although I still use tubes for plein air work, myself), but for studio painting… I can’t see why one wouldn’t just use tubes, all the time.

However, if you’re really interested in pans, I would suggest buying the little empty cubes and filling them up with tube paint and letting them dry, instead of buying the pre-filled ones. Like this-


Then, voila- you have hard, portable, interchangeable pan options made using the cheaper tube paint. You have to buy a palette that allows this can of “snapping in” ability, but they’re out there. Here’s a link.


This is a video on the subject-

I’ve read of artists who swear by this ability, so it’s a real thing. It seems awfully finicky to me!! LOL. But to each their own. :) However, it is worth saying that I understand that functionality and have an alternate means of switching up my palette for special subjects. I keep a little ziplock baggie in my backpack with alternate paints in it that I use only now and then. I squeeze out a little into the far side of my palette, in the big mixing area, and wipe them away later when I’m done with that subject. This approach is much like the benefit of having the “snap in” pans. So, it’s not like the issue isn’t real.

Even then, most pans, even the full-sized ones, are smaller than I want them to be. I like to use big brushes, and I don’t like to have to dig around in the well for paint. This is another minor but true selling point for using tube paints in palettes with bigger wells, versus using pans. But all in all, these are the personal elements of painting. Can interesting images be painted from a small palette with little ½ pans of paint? Of course! If you’re using good, lightfast pigments, the rest of these sorts of logistical details are often dictated by personal preference and style.

My Current Brand of Choice-


For what it’s worth, I currently use American Journey paints when possible. Research suggests they are a rebranded version of DaVinci paints, marketed under the Cheap Joe’s label. They are lightfast, well pigmented, handle nicely, and are significantly cheaper per ml and come in huge 35 ml tubes. This is great when you know what you want and you want a lot of it. It’s bad for testing small quantities. The other major issue is that you can only get them online through Cheap Joe’s. If you are traveling and run out while far from home, you’re out of luck. For those who need an alternate good brand to pick up, I suggest Daniel Smith, Winsor Newton, or DaVinci, as all three tend to be well made and widely available.