Here is my idea for the painting. This is a value sketch, not a very good one but a value sketch non the less. Values are what I believe makes or breaks a painting. I think more of values than I do color. The sketch suggests the lighter tones which will appear to come forward and the dark shaded area which will appear to recede. To help you see values, squint at your subject or reference photo. You should recognize the lightest and darkest areas easily. The balance of the photo is made up of mid-tones.
For the sack of simplicity, think of a row of squares numbered 0 through 10. At the far left, number 0, is white, the lightest light. The last square to the right, number 10 will be black or, the darkest dark. The remaining squares will be shades of gray, lightest at number 1, gradually getting darker through number 9. Number 5 will be your prime midtone, halfway between white and black. Using this grayscale, I apply the various tones to my value sketch to give me a roadmap of tonal values. Whatever colors I use in a particular area will, or should, have a value comparable to that area in the sketch. The key to this painting will be the brightness of the ducks and grasses to the left and center contrasting with the darker grasses and alligator to the right. The lights should come forward and the darks recede. My value sketch will be in front of me throughout the course of this painting.
Now that I have my concept, I need to determine the size of the sheet of watercolor paper I will be painting. The brand of watercolor paper I prefer is Arches 140# cold press. A full sheet of Arches is 22" x 30". A half sheet is 15" x 22" and a quarter sheet is 11" x 15". I want to maximize the approach of the ducks into the hidden lair of the gator so I've chosen to use the full 30" length the sheet. However, I don't need the 22" height so I've decided on a half sheet cut in the long direction. My sheet size will be 11" x 30". I believe Arches is one of the finest watercolor papers available. It is made of 100% rag and can stand up to vigorous scrubbing. All papers are given a protective coating during the manufacturing process called sizing. Thin and water-soluble, old dogs like me prefer to remove the sizing and stretch my paper. To do this, I cut the sheet to size and place it in a shallow bath of water, gently washing each side with a sponge. I then lift the sheet by one corner and let it drain. I place the sheet on paper towels I have previously placed on the table and again gently wipe the surface with a sponge, this time removing any excess water. Next, I place the sheet, right side up, on a solid wooden drawing board. With a staple gun, I staple and stretch the sheet from the opposite side of the staple. I proceed back and forth until I have stapled the sheet on all sides. Most all paper, including watercolor paper, has a tendency to bulge, buckle or ripple when wet. Good quality, heavy rag paper, washed and stretched, will show minimal wrinkling after it is dried and rewet for painting. I prefer to air dry my paper but you may want to expedite the process by using a hair dryer. While my sheet is drying overnight, I prepare my subjects for transfer to the watercolor sheet.
After the concept has been rendered, I peruse my files of reference photos to find material that will aid in my pictorial interpretation. Using the half sheet of watercolor paper, cut in the long direction, will allow me a panoramic opportunity to strategically place my subjects. Here are two of my reference photos. I photographed the alligator in a South Carolina wildlife refuge and the mallards were photographed in a pond near my home. Both of the drawings are final, single line images traced from my original drawings. If any of my drawn images are objectionable in size, I will scan them and resize them to suit my needs.
After drawing the images in the desired positions on the now stretched and dried paper, I begin painting the background. Watercolors are traditionally painted light to dark. This means the lightest colors are applied first followed by the mid-tones and the darkest values last. I first lay down the lightest grass tones into which I push some slightly darker cool tones at the base of the grasses near water level while the color is still wet. If you squint at the photo, values are more distinctive. Notice how the lighter grass stands out or comes forward. That's because it's surrounded with darker values. The darks appear to be further away because darks tend to recede.
The application of the darker values that surround and define the shapes of the grass is called negative painting. Each glaze of color is applied after the previous glaze has dried. Each application is another opportunity to create additional grasses with darker values. The more shades of grass, the better the expression of depth of field or distance.
This is grass that is in the background, behind the alligator. I want the viewer to focus on the subjects in the foreground. To do that, objects in the background should be out of focus or contain soft edges. One of the ways you can direct the viewer's eye to a particular portion of a painting is through the use of lost and found edges. Hard edges resulted using the glazing technique for the grasses to the left side of the painting. These sharp, clear focus edges attract the viewer's eye. The grass in the background is somewhat fuzzy or out of focus and does not demand attention of one's eye. To render this portion, I applied color and let it absorb into the paper. At the stage when the sheen has disappeared but the paper is still damp, I lay a folded facial tissue over the area and using the handle of one of my brushes, I scribe lines to indicate grass. This lifts color off the paper leaving the under tones. Because the paper is not completely dry, the color remaining on the sheet will slowly creep into the scribed area, giving a fuzzy appearance or soft edge.
On the left, is an overall view of the initial series of glazes to help identify the grasses and their values. More glazes are forth coming as I build the entire painting from light to dark values. Let's take a look at the upper right portion of the painting in the detail below.
The negative painting continues as I develop more and more grasses at various depths of field. Notice the dark section in the close-up photo to the left, below. A few more soft edges using the lifting technique are added to help push that area back. You need patience for an area like this. It's a personal choice as to when you think you've done enough to tell the story.
The initial wash on the alligator begins to show the reptile's form. It has also identified the light grasses. The lightest value of the water is applied at this time as well. I have also worked on the hen mallard duck. I want to get her color down before I proceed with the grass behind her. Nature has colored the hens to blend in with their surroundings, particularly important during nesting. It is the values of the grass and duck that will distinguish the separation between the two.
I continue to paint the hen, adding shading to the head and completing her bill. Next, I begin the drake mallard. I use the same color wash to paint the drake as I do it's reflection in the water.
Here are the additional washes that give the gator his character. Washes must be added quickly, jumping the blades of grass as you go, in order to retain color consistency in your subject. The alligator needs to appear as a single unit behind the grasses.
Below is the finished piece. Final steps included completion of the mallard drake, the reflections in the water and shading of the grasses.
Thanks for taking the time to view this lesson. I hope it has been both interesting and informative. Perhaps I'll see you in one of my future classes or at a show. I welcome your comments via email.