From The Sketch Book

April 11, 2014

Studio Watercolor

Filed under: Uncategorized — scottnelson @ 3:54 pm

As I’ve mentioned in my blog before, I really love to paint outside.  But sometimes you don’t have time to sit outside and dedicate a few hours to a scenic spot. That or the weather is bit much and the bugs are biting. The list of excuses could go on and on. So I try to justify to myself that there is nothing wrong with taking a quick inspirational picture and coming back to it at a later date.  Today I’m going to show how a quick stop by Wells Harbor in Maine late last fall allowed me to paint inside my studio earlier this spring.

I started off by  lightly penciling the key spots in this painting with a 4H pencil on a full sheet of Cold Press 400lb Arches.  The cold press paper has small groves and a rough surface allowing your painting to showcase texture.  I very rarely paint on the smooth hot press paper but the more I think about it, this painting could have used either.  This is actually a lot of drawing detail for my watercolors as I usually like to paint in the details as much as possible. I simply didn’t want to ruin the perspective on the harbor master shack roof line.  Had I gotten that wrong the whole painting would have been for not. The Arches 400 lb paper is so thick that I often don’t need to tape it down to avoid buckling.  I lightly washed over the entire sky with clean water then worked in Raw Sienna.Image

When the Raw Sienna dried I then re-wet the entire sky again and worked in Cobalt Blue and Burnt Sienna as I tried to muster the dreary Maine sky.  I then carried the colors into the harbor and added in the beginnings of the reflective dock posts in the water. When painting water it’s best to work fast or wet into wet. The trick is to learn how your paper responds as you work it.  The 400lb is highly absorbent and color values really soak into the paper quicker than the other 140lb or 200lb paper I work with. I’m not afraid to dry brush the paint with the heal of my brush if needed either.  I like the effect of highlights happening randomly.  You can see that on the right side of the painting.  Remember, all of the white in a successful painting is the paper coming through.  You can’t add white paint back over this translucent medium and still call it a traditional watercolor.Image


OK, time for the harbor shack.  The overcast day didn’t allow for many shadows so as you can see, the left side of the shack is almost the same color value as the front.  This caused me to tighten up a little while painting and I’m unsure if I’m happy with the outcome. Of course had the sun been out the entire painting would have had a different feel to it but it’s these slight color changes that can make a painting pop or lay flat.  I think my efforts using Carmine Red, English Red and Violet  is somewhere in the middle here.  I did loosen back up when I painted the rock wall leading to the dock.  A few incidental paint splatter here and there gave the wall just enough character without overdoing it. I then added the land on the other side of the harbor making sure to not feature anything specific.  If you look close you can see a few roof lines of cottages but I didn’t want your eye to get busy as the dock was the focus of the painting.  Next I added the worn tar and cement that is used as a boat launch and faded it into the sand in the foreground.  I then added a bit of the scrub brush to give the painting depth.


I can’t really say what colors I used here as I always leave my painting palette dirty and work in all sorts of colors into one big gross muddy puddle.  I probably used a low of Raw Umber and I’m sure there was Olive Green and Prussian Azure tossed into the mix. I do this because when I’m at a location I see millions of colors and always want multiple colors mixing together creating happy surprises.  The dirty palette always me to immediately allow one color to be influenced by others haphazardly.  You’ll look like a genius if a color works out but more often than not it’s just luck. The maze of dock posts was very specific to the actual “structure” of the dock but as I started adding them the painting started to “lose its looseness.”  After bit of futsing  (my own word for trying to be perfect)  with them I finally just started slamming them down as fast as possible. To me this is the best part of the painting because I saw I was going down a “tight” road again and I forced myself to loosen up.  I then added more shadows in the water (wet into dry) then pulled some of the paint out with a clean wash.  The camera I used doesn’t do it justice but there are actually a lot of little green and blue tints inside the shadow.   I think this deep shadow helped anchor the painting to the paper and was what originally attracted me to this scene in the first place.


Done!  Total time…about five hours.  Most of that “futsing” time on the shack.   I usually mat watercolors but I had this old green frame in my studio and it seemed to compliment the image well.  I did trim a bit off the right side of the painting and the bottom to accommodate the frame but I don’t think it hurt the overall look.    So there you go.  A look at how I go about painting a real scene from my own reference photos inside my studio as opposed to painting outside.  Is it as good as Plein Air painting? Only you can decide.  🙂  If you’d like a print check out this link:       If you’d like the original, don’t hesitate to contact me at



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