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!



  1. Colleen Sabo

    This was a wonderful first thing to see on FB today, Donna! Thank you for posting….makes me want to go right to the studio and get painting. Still love your work and your enthusiasm. Thanks for sharing this!

    1. Donna Post author

      Thanks Colleen – I still remember the fun at the Potomac Watercolor Society workshop, and how excited I was to meet you! Hope Wag is doing well!

  2. Connie

    Love the demo! Please advise what you used to draw with….it states Holbein bright violet Is this a watercolor pencil? Thanks

  3. Susan Wiley

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts through the process of this painting. Of course, your work is always stunning and engaging and this one is no exception. Thank you, Donna.

  4. Judy gilmer

    Call me stupid, but was the finished painting all in WC? If so, do you use really heavy opaque. Basically I am wondering how you bring greens and violets up to the light yellow. It is a brilliant iece. Thanks.

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Judy,
      My paintings are done in watercolor and gouache mixed together and with enough body to have covering power. I lighten mid-value and dark colors like green and violet with lighter values of green and violet if I have them on my palette and then with white gouache for the very light values.

    1. Donna Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Barbara. Shapes, values, and colors, Oh my! Relating them two-dimensionally on the picture surface creates magic!

  5. Toni Stevenson

    As always I am knocked over by the process of your painting steps. I do love the final painting. It is so interesting how you add various colors of paint until is is pleasing to you. I am still working on it, inspired by your mastery, to change a photo representation into a lush powerful painting.

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Toni – it’s so nice to hear from you!

      You shared that you’re still working on turning a representational subject into a lush (love that word!), powerful painting. So am I. I’ve come to realize that while that is my final destination, that’s also my journey, and I’m trying to relax more, loosen up, and enjoy that journey.

    1. Donna Post author

      I don’t use acrylics as they aren’t water solubile. What I mean by that is that while acrylics are diluted with water, they dry permanently. Watercolor and gouache are impermanent and can be removed at any time with water.


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