Category Archives: Figure Painting

THE FIGURE IN OPAQUE WATERCOLOR; A DEMO

In today’s post I thought I’d demonstrate my approach to painting a figure in opaque watercolor.  

While anatomy is important to me, drawing and painting anatomically correct figures isn’t. In my paintings, I’m much more interested in realizing these two intentions: 1). Going beyond the obviousness of a subject to create a world that is at once both personal and universal, and 2). Creating a rich picture surface that is alive with emotion and enchantment. My subject is the jumping off place for achieving my two intentions.  

Working from a photo I took in New York’s Central Park, I began with observation, aiming to understand the figure; its anatomy and what its body language says to me. Then I looked for the natural abstraction present in the subject, working hard to see everything as simple masses of shapes and values.

In putting together my compositions, my aim is to put together a design that consists of a few large interlocking masses of light and dark. That design provides the abstract structure for my painting. The composition process begins the moment I choose my subject, and doesn’t end until I place the last brushstroke on my painting.

Because I like to let everything unfold in an intuitive, spontaneous, improvisational way in my paintings, my medium of choice is opaque watercolor (watercolor combined with gouache), which allows me to change my mind, make corrections, and try out any ideas that occur to me in the process of painting without worrying about ruining my picture surface.

Here is how the painting process unfolded for my painting, Morning in Central Park:

Step 1:

In this step, I did a drawing on my surface (Crescent #15 Hot Press Watercolor Board) using a staining watercolor. In this case it was Holbein’s Bright Violet. When the drawing was dry, I mixed up a light green wash on my palette and did a transparent underpainting.

Step 2:

In this step, I began the process of building layers of color and searching for my painting’s composition and color scheme. This is a spontaneous, improvisational process of putting down colors and responding. If I like what I see, it stays. If I don’t, I adjust the color or colors until I see something I like.

Step 3:

In this step, I continued to lay down and adjust the colors and their values. Nothing is finalized at this stage – I’m just sort of feeling my way through the painting. I won’t be able to judge whether my color and value choices are working until the whole picture surface is filled in – what I call “grunt work.” For me, a painting doesn’t really begin until the “grunt work” is done and the whole picture surface is filled in and I can start looking for creative ways to connect everything together into what will hopefully be a strong abstract composition.

Step 4:

In this step, I experimented with ideas for how I might approach the painting’s negative space.

Step 5:

The finished painting, Morning in Central Park. This painting won the Francis Nell Storer Memorial Award in last year’s American Watercolor Society Exhibition in New York City.

Happy Painting!