Bringing someone to tears

The phrase “the eyes are the window to the soul” always comes to mind when I paint a portrait. In fact, whether the subject is a person or a pet, every painting starts with the eyes. When working on a commissioned portrait, the pressure to “get it right” is pretty intense. With “Christine,” I was able to show the work-in-progress to this little cutie’s mom. When she started crying at the sight of a cell phone photo of the painting, I knew it was on track. The first thing she said was “those are my baby’s eyes!”

Plastic wrap texture

It’s pretty common for me to have 3-4 paintings going at once, since many of the techniques I use require a lot of drying time. This early stage of “Twisted Slumber” is a good example.

The first step was laying in a heavily-pigmented wash of quinacridone gold, pink and coral, plus some cadmium orange hue. A couple of pieces of plastic wrap were scrunched up, placed randomly on the surface, and covered with books. 24 hours later, the results were revealed: a good start on the texture and movement of a Japanese maple in full fall color…

Painting in the dark

Was really excited to get started on this painting, but the power was out! No worries – found a headlamp and a couple of lanterns and got to work. The lighting wouldn’t work for “real” painting, but was plenty to get a first wash in.

This painting will be called “Shake Off The Night,” and is being worked on a canvas that has been coated with fiber paste. The paste, by Golden, adds some texture and makes the surface somewhat absorbent, allowing watercolor to act like watercolor.

One weekend, 3 1/2 paintings…

The Samish Island Paint Out is a five-day art retreat that happens three times a year. Artists from all disciplines and experience levels enjoy a break from “real life” and a chance to create as much art as we want.

We just finished the September session, and it was a very productive three days for me (I went up Thursday through Saturday). The painting at far left was started Saturday morning and is about half done. The blue roan Arabian and the lighthouse were both started and completed over the weekend, and the foal was finished up. Each painting uses half of a 22″ x 30″ sheet of watercolor paper.

Progress – tall paintings

A couple of weeks ago I shared a tall painting that was in progress. This marks a new direction in my work over the past year. The tall, narrow format allows for a real emphasis on skies, one of my favorite subjects. (I’ve also flipped it to wide and short, as in “Spotlight,” the Appaloosa painting.)

Here is an update on the San Juan Island painting, which is nearly finished. The new one, depicting Mt. Rainier, is in the “roughed in” stage. It will get quite a bit more work in the foreground, and most likely some more color in the sky.

Working tall

For the first nine years of my painting journey, I worked almost exclusively in a 10.5″ x 14.5″ rectangle. This size is known as “quarter sheet,” since a full sheet of watercolor paper is 22″ x 30″.

A couple of years ago, an early buyer of my work mentioned seeing paintings that were wide and short – perfect sofa paintings. The idea stuck in my head, but I started playing with tall and narrow so I could focus on skies.

This is my current sky painting, depicting an early summer sunrise in the San Juan Islands. Others are in the works, so stay tuned for updates!

Lunar Blue

I absolutely love this color from Daniel Smith. A mix of Mars Black and Phthalo Blue, it doesn’t granulate so much as it separates. The small bits of black fall away from the blue gradually, as a wash dries.

Tonight in the studio, I did something I rarely do – planned. Deciding to work with a very limited palette, I chose four colors: Van Dyke Brown, Cadmium Orange, Verditer Blue and Lunar Blue.

Fall scene color studies

Why these selections? Wanting to paint a moody fall sky, I needed a warm and a cool grey mix – but I also needed warm earth tones for the foliage and foreground.

Fall scene in four colors

For the sky, I mixed two puddles of V.D. Brown – one with Lunar Blue and another with Verditer. The trees are blends of all four colors. For the foreground, I wet the entire area, then brushed in straight Cadmium Orange. A bit of Verditer across the treeline and some Lunar Blue on the bottom finished off the scene. Now it just needs a title…

Fall scene detail


One of my favorite things to photograph is rust. Rusty locks, rusty tractors, gates, trucks, chains, railroad lanterns…if I can find it, I’m probably going to take a picture of it. And when I take those photos, I’m always composing them with a future painting in mind.

That was the case with this gate and lock. Besides the rust, wear and general patina, I was captivated by the bright colors. Not wanting to create drab, brown, dirty rust paintings, this felt like a great candidate for a vibrant image.

Normally I would wet the entire paper, staple it to a board and tape the edges. This helps keep the paper from buckling while you work. Having just attended Carol Carter’s demo, where she said she likes to leave the paper loose to expand & contract naturally with the water, I decided to give that approach a try.

first washes in

At this stage, each surface of the gate had been wet with clear water, and the color dropped in to merge and mingle. As washes began to dry, more concentrated pigment was placed to create some of the “dirt.” I knew I wanted the lock to be brighter and look shinier, so I wanted to establish the background elements first.

starting lock

With the gate pretty well finished, it was time to start on the lock. This gives a really good idea of the section-by-section approach. The vertical portion of the lock was first, and then the blue base. By the time the base was finished, the vertical section had dried enough to start the flat top.

just needs details

The very bottom of the painting was a bit of a challenge. The reference photo had a board that featured peeling paint and lots of distressing. Beautiful, but too busy and distracted from the lock. Wanting some depth and color, I put in a wash of cadmium orange, french ultramarine and shadow violet. Now to let it all dry so details could be added…

curve detail

The focal point of the painting, and the title, is the stamped-in “HARDENED.” I love how the rust had started creeping into the letters, partially obscuring the shape of each, and nearly making the word unreadable.


Finished – 15″ x 22″. The board at the bottom of the gate has been simplified to look like unfinished wood that has weathered. The goal throughout the process was to create a vibrant, interesting portrait of something most would find mundane, if it was noticed at all…

Igniting the spark

The artistic fire is a strange beast. In some, it burns hot, demanding that the artist creates every day. In  others, it flares once, brilliantly, then burns itself out.

My fire is an inconsistent creature. The embers are always smoldering, so I’ll find myself considering the color palettes of scenes flashing by the car window, or rolling painting ideas around in my head. I’ve spent the last two months at smolder, with no flame creating the urge to paint.

Sketches from the fair

In the last two weeks, that all changed. So what sparked the flame? Color. I’ve been sketching in pencil all summer, and was ready to move past that. So on a hot day at the state fair, I pulled out the watercolor pencils and brought a couple of 20 minute sketches to life.

Horse portrait in sketchbook

That lead to a studio session where I could explore the pencils some more – I’ll probably do an entire blog post on that! It was interesting to see how the layered drawing of the horse, left, came to life with the addition of water, right.

Renee and Carol

Then I went to Carol Carter’s demo at the Daniel Smith store. I’ve long been a fan of her non-traditional use of color and the way she uses “blooms” to her advantage. Watching the way she handled water and pigment, the urge to head for the studio began to grow.


The next day, out & about with my husband, I started noticing the way manmade objects interacted with the sky, and my mind started racing with ideas and approaches. Within 15 miles, I had an entire series of paintings mapped out. Spark lit.

Study in blue

Of course time and daily life dictates studio access, so my brain ping-ponged around creative ideas and settled back on color (for now). This little study is just 2.5″ x 3.5″ and was done entirely with blue and purple paints (and a touch of white pen).

Detail of horse portrait in progress

By Friday night, the creative fire was burning brightly, and I couldn’t wait to get into the studio and play with color and technique! While painting two very different subjects – a cranky horse and a rusty lock – the focus is on color, and allowing pigments to mix and mingle with limited interference…

Four feet

Mingling colors

Letting go…

We artists love to share finished paintings, sculptures, drawings and other work. I think it’s just as important to share the pieces that end up on the scrap pile – it’s a good way to show some of the work and process that goes into a success.

In this case, my first go at “Getting Acquainted” just came off the board. It’s pictured with another work in progress that is coming along well. Can you see how crisp and lively the colors are on the left, and how dull and muted the painting on the right is? Would you believe both horses are painted with the exact same colors?

The difference is in how and when those colors were mixed. At left, colors are being dropped onto wet paper and allowed to mingle as they will. At right, most of the colors were mixed on the palette, then brought to the paper.

While I could layer paint over this and make some of the colors more vivid, I’ll never regain the freshness that the first meeting of a little girl and a big horse should have. So I’ll rework the composition a bit to give her some breathing room, and give it another go…