Discovering luminescent watercolors

On a recent shopping trip to Daniel Smith Art Supply, I lucked into a hands-on demo of their line of luminescent watercolors. While experimenting with shimmer paint and duochromes and pearlescent colors was fun, the iridescent colors really caught my attention. When dropped into a wash of quinacridone burnt orange, three of the colors – sunstone, Aztec gold and copper – resembled the look of sunlight on a sleek chestnut-colored horse. I’m definitely looking forward to trying these in a full painting!

Today’s palette of colors

Had a request on Facebook to share my current palette, so thought I’d share it here as well. All are Daniel Smith watercolors. The code is: *=favorites, +=secondary, ×=lightly used.

Top row: phthalo yellow green(*), perylene green(*), green apatite genuine(+), cobalt turquoise(+), cobalt teal(*), manganese blue hue(+), lunar blue(×), cobalt blue(*), french ultramarine(*), imperial purple(*), payne’s blue-grey(×), verditer blue(×)

Yellows, top row: hansa medium(×), mars yellow(*), raw siena(*); bottom row: aussie red-gold(×), cadmium orange hue(+), monte amiata siena(×)

Reds, top row: perylene red(×), permanent alizarin crimson(×), transparent red oxide(*); bottom row: rhodonite genuine(×), burnt siena(+), van dyke brown(*)

I have a tackle box full of other colors, and will sometimes pull in a few different paints for a specific subject. For now though, these are the go-to colors…

Mounting watercolors to board

Tired of displaying watercolors behind glass? I was too! Even with museum glass to minimize reflections, there is still a barrier between the viewer and the painting. Also, some buyers don’t like the aesthetic of a wide white mat around a painting. Some feel it “cheapens” a piece, while others prefer not to have the distraction of the frame-within-a-frame look.

With this in mind, I decided to find a method that would eliminate the need for glass, and allow watercolors to be presented the way an oil or acrylic would be. After a fair amount of research and experimentation, I have developed the following process.

(When entering juried shows, *read the prospectus* carefully – most require matting & framing under glass or plexiglass.)

Gathering Supplies 

The important parts here are the board, the adhesive and the topcoat. Ampersand Gesssobord is a great panel. The acid-free surface is fairly non-absorbent, so the adhesive spreads well and doesn’t soak into the board. (Claybord is an option, but is harder to work with, as the surface is more absorbent and the adhesive wants to dry more quickly.) If the standard panel sizes don’t work for you, it is possible to order custom sizes – visit the Ampersand website for info.

For adhesive, I use Golden Heavy (Gloss) Gel Medium. Other artists that mount paper to board use the Soft Gel Medium; I suggest trying both and seeing which you prefer. For the protective topcoat, I use Golden Archival spray Varnish w/UVLS in Satin. (Read details from Golden’s website.)

Preparing the Painting

Once your watercolor is finished, signed, flattened and allowed to dry for at least a week, it is ready to mount. The first step is to spray three light coats of varnish to protect the surface and fix the pigments. (Follow instructions on can for temperature and drying time.) I’ll let that dry for 3-4 days before proceeding.

Note: Patience is key to this entire process. Be sure to allow for plenty of drying time, as moisture trapped in the paper could cause problems with mold and/or warping. There is also time needed for pressing, and cure time on the topcoats. If you need a painting finished for a show in three days, framing under glass is a better option!

This is a bit of a trial-and-error step – the gel should be applied not too heavy, but not too light, either…

Mounting the Paper

I use a 1-1/2″ wide flat brush to spread the gel medium across the board, since it fits easily into the container. For larger pieces, it might be best to grab a palette knife and pull a large amount of gel out at one time. Starting in the center, spread the gel evenly towards the edges. You want it thick enough to see brush strokes, but not so thick that you can no longer see the surface of the board. Be sure to get an even layer all the way out to the edges and corners.

The purpose of the wax paper is to prevent glue from getting onto the brayer and accidentaly spread across the painting.

As soon as the gel is spread, lay the painting face-up on the board, making sure it is centered and has a fairly even overlap all the way around. Lay a piece of wax or parchment paper over the painting, and press lightly with your hands to start adhering the paper. I then use a brayer to get good contact – starting from the center, roll out toward the edges with short strokes and a good amount of pressure.

Watch as you get towards the edges; if there is a lot of gel splooging out, carefully wipe it away so it doesn’t have a chance to get on the surface of the painting. (Reduce the amount of gel used next time; a little bit of excess gel is common but should not create a sticky mess.) Run your hand lightly over the surface – it should feel fairly smooth, with no obvious lumps, bumps or voids in the gel. Keep rolling until it smooths out.


What a great way to justify a collection of art books!

Once the gel is rolled out, it’s time to press. Grab a clean piece of parchment, or some plastic wrap, and lay it over the painting (still face-up). Then pile on books, pieces of wood, old laptops…whatever you have on hand that will create a lot of weight. Make sure it evenly covers the board, and isn’t leaning towards one side or the other. Even pressure is key here. Now, walk away for at least 24 hours. My studio is generally in the 60-65 degree range and humidity is typically not a problem. In a warmer, humid environment I might direct a fan on the painting during pressing to help the adhesive dry.

Trim and Finish the Board  

Be confident with your stroke when cutting – a sharp blade helps. Take care not to cut into the sides of the board.

Once the pressing is done, carefully flip the painting over onto a cutting mat, trying not to pull on edges or corners. I run a sharp X-acto knife along the edge of the board to trim off excess paper, being careful not to dig into the board.

After trimming, check corners and edges for complete adhesion. If an area is loose, carefully lift the edge and, using a toothpick, spread some more gel medium on the board. Press tightly with your fingers, and wipe off excess gel. Once all loose areas are re-glued, press again for 24 hours.

This tight shot shows how well the paper is adhered to the board.

The next step is to finish the edges. In this instance, with the border of white paper showing, I used acrylics to paint the sides of the board to match the paper. Most of my paintings extend edge-to-edge and are going in black frames, so I use a black Pitt brush pen (from Faber Castell) to color the sides of the board. This requires a very steady hand – you want to run the pen along the white of the cut paper so it matches the board, but take care not to get ink onto the surface of the painting! If using paint, keep it as dry as possible so it doesn’t add moisture between the paper and the board.


While it’s not a good idea to put any finished watercolor in a moist environment, it’s nice to see that a well-varnished painting is protected from surface splatters!

We’re almost finished! You’ll need a clean, dry, well-ventilated area for varnish application. (Check the can for recommended temperature.) I set the painting up on an easel at a comfortable height for spraying. With smooth, side-to-side strokes that extend a little beyond the edges of the painting, coat the surface with a fine, even spray. You should be able to see the varnish, but it should not be super shiny across the surface or thick enough to run.

Apply 4-6 coats of varnish, allowing at least 30 minutes between coats. If the surface still looks wet or smells strongly, wait a bit longer between varnish applications. I turn the painting 1/4 turn before each coat to compensate for any unevenness in my spray pattern. When finished you should have a smooth, satin finish that looks even across the entire piece.

A detail of my painting “Happy Hour” in a floating frame.

That’s it, you’re ready for the framer. I worked with Ken at Tsuga Fine Art and Framing to develop this floating look. Ask your framer for ideas on how to present your mounted paintings!


Watercolor step-by-step on the Daniel Smith blog

Daniel Smith Artists Materials recently shared a post I wrote for their blog featuring an in-depth look at how “Buster in Blue” was developed. The article includes plenty of photos, the “why” behind many of my decisions, and a list of all the Daniel Smith Watercolors used.

Read the article here

Exercise 1 – seeing detail

When looking at a reference photo, seeing all of the elements that make up the scene or subject can be difficult. There might be lots of colors, strong shadows, crowds of people, or a small forest of signs and light poles.

A great way to practice finding what’s important is to take a marker to a magazine. Open to a random photo, and start tracing out elements.

In this first image, I simply outlined the shapes in the model’s face. Rather than pick out features, I looked for transitions in light and shadow that marked the changing planes in her face and hands.

The second image was an attempt to find the common values linking the shapes. What I discovered is that one basic value extends from the blue labels on the left, through the pink cap and into the red label.

The goal of the third exercise was to define the light/dark pattern I would establish for a painting. The group at the table, as center of interest, would be the largest, lightest area. The rest of the lights should balance the composition and lead the eye to the table.

All of these concepts would be explored further prior to painting any of the subjects, but they’re very helpful in training the eye to make connections.

Love A-Fair – seeing detail

“Detail” can be a scary word; many people think of it only as cat’s whiskers, individual leaves on a tree, and other “fine print.”

When you think of detail in terms of a painting, it’s really all of the elements that make up a scene or subject. Shapes, objects, values, colors, reflections, edges, lines, transitions – the decision becomes which ones tell the story you want to convey.

This short video compares a reference photo to the finished painting, showing what details stayed, and which ones were downplayed or removed.

10 things to do in the studio when “art” isn’t happening

Having an Anti-Art day? On Anti-Art days, the brushes don’t feel right in the hand; pencil leads break, papers tear, the pigments don’t mix the way we expect, and every layer of paint feels like a muddled mess. Great. You managed to schedule two hours of studio time, and the remaining hour and 45 minutes stretches ahead of you like an eternity. No worries! There are lots of ways to fill time in the studio:

  1. Inspect your art tools. Whether you paint, sculpt, draw or collage, you probably have a lot of tools laying around. Gather your brushes, and give them a once-over. Clean what you can, purge what you don’t use, and make notes on which need replacement. Pull your pens and pencils out for a tune-up: sharpen leads, check that pens are working, sort by type and color, and stow duplicates. Clean storage cases of broken leads, eraser “scraps,” bits of paper and other debris.
  2. Refresh your palette and paints. Pry out cracked, dried cakes of watercolors, and leave the newly-cleaned well empty for a while. Either wipe out dirty favorites or empty the well, filling with fresh pigment. Check tubes of paint to make sure lids are secure, and toss tubes that are empty or have dried out. Order up replacement paints, or snap a photo with your phone so you know what to pick up at the art supply store.
  3. Watch an art tutorial. From YouTube to artists’ websites to Facebook Live and DVDs, there are great resources for learning from other artists. This can be a great time to check out an artist or technique in a genre you’re unfamiliar with. Don’t expect to work along with the artist, just kick back with a notepad or tablet and take it in.
  4. Update your website. Does your site display your freshest work? Is your bio up-to-date? What about your gallery or online store – are sold works marked, or removed? Is your “latest accomplishment” more than six months old?
  5. Organize reference photos. This is a tough one! Those of us that work from reference photos have hundreds, if not thousands of digital files. Start small by creating folders for each type: landscape, sky, portrait, dogs, buildings, cars, etc. Then, just dump everything you come across into the appropriate folder. Later, you can go back and evaluate the images in each folder and decide which are the best/most useful.
  6. Create an inspiration wall. Do you have a box or basket full of pages pulled from magazines, scraps of fabric or wrapping paper, greeting cards, internet memes or paint swatches? Get them out where you can see them and be inspired!
  7. Revisit a favorite art book. It seems like art books reproduce on the shelf, quickly growing from three to ten to a full bookcase. Grab a book or two and flip through them. Make notes or mark useful information. If nothing strikes you as noteworthy, consider donating the book to your art association or local school.
  8. Start or update your inventory. Whether you give your paintings to friends, take on frequent commissions, have an Etsy shop or sell in galleries, it’s a great idea to have an inventory of finished paintings. There are online resources available, or you can start a spreadsheet in Excel.
  9. Grab a coloring book. I know, it’s trendy right now, but coloring books are a great way to practice shading, color blending and setting a light source. Often, when we color our own sketches, we start to take things too seriously, and become afraid of “ruining” it. Coloring books are inexpensive, and are meant to be temporary, so it’s easier to “let go” and just play.
  10. Clean the studio. Clear off the table and give it a good scrubbing; wash the window(s), empty the trash, replace light bulbs, re-shelve books, file papers…after 15 minutes of this, you just may be ready to create art again!









New mini-class: Seeing Detail

> Saturday, Sept. 16, 12:00 – 2:00 p.m. at the Bellevue Daniel Smith store. <

Starting to prepare for a 2-hour, hands-on class focused on identifying detail in a scene or subject. No, don’t run away!

It’s about seeing all of the information that is present, not rendering the fine print. We’ll experiment with a variety of methods for choosing which details are important to the story you want to tell with your drawing or painting.

More details coming soon!

Test everything…

When my favorite art supply store has an in-store special for a free watercolor journal with purchase of watercolor pencils, *of course* I’m going shopping! I already had an 8″ x 5″ Pentalic Aqua Journal, and absolutely love the paper. The new journal is 5-1/4″ x 3-1/4″ – perfect for my purse. (The pencil set is also Pentalic.)

Pentalic Aqua journals in two sizes

I already had a selection of watercolor pencils in my sketch kit, but many were muted colors that didn’t give the clean mixes I wanted. So, I created quick sample squares of current and new colors, comparing the hues of each.

Of the 13 colors that made the cut, only four came from the original set! (There is also a water-soluble graphite pencil for drawing.)

While it is always tempting to grab new colors and start using them, it can quickly lead to frustration. In just 10 minutes, with 40 little squares, I was able to select a balanced palette of light/dark, warm/cool and saturated/muted. I will probably do a few more studies before I do a “serious” sketch, but I’m at least familiar with each color.

Free demo Saturday, June 10

Want to achieve predictable results in watercolor? Believe it or not, it is possible! Join me for a free demo from 12:00 – 1:30 PM on Saturday, June 1o, 2017 at the Bellevue location of Daniel Smith Artist Materials.

I’ll be showing exercises that can jump-start your mastery of the colors you already use, and how to integrate new colors into your palette. We’ll talk about how certain pigments are “shy” and others are more gregarious (yes, colors have personality!)

Other topics I’ll touch on are painting with intention, embracing where you’re at on your watercolor journey, and how take intimidation out of the 10,000 hour rule. If you missed this in February, I hope to see you there!