Welcome to my blog about the process I went through to achieve the fine detail on this Photinia (Red Robin) autumn leaf painting. I’ve decided to split the blog into sections this time as they are quite a few aspects of the process to explain. You can click on the link below to jump to each section. Here’s the list:
1 The problem with Fabriano Artistico!
Everyone is familiar with the problems we have had with our beloved Fabriano watercolour paper of late. Here I will explain how you can still use your Fabriano by making a few adjustments to your painting style. The reward for a little more time spent is worth it as you can see from the success of this painting. Patience is key!
I have always favoured Fabriano Artistico HP Extra White 140lb as my preferred watercolour paper. For my Red Robin leaf I have chosen the heavier weight, 300lb, as I had heard the surface was more sturdy and manageable, although not perfect as in the old days! The difference between 140lb and 300lb is great and I must admit the heavier weight does seem more reliable. This can be bought by the sheet. The heavier weight does seem to have better surface sizing applied. The lighter weight can vary between sheets and blocks. Here’s how to check the lighter weight paper…
Look at the surface in good daylight and use a magnifying glass if required. On a poorly sized surface you will see a linen/cross hatch pattern. Now turn it over and check the other side. You may find the other side looks better and you can see paste marks where it has been surface sized. If it is then use this side to paint on. If both sides don’t show this cross hatch pattern obviously then you’ve got a good sheet! If both sides looked cross hatched then use it for swatch colour testing or practicing only. It’ll drive you mad otherwise! The density of the sizing will also give you a guide as to how successful your sheet will be. If you can see sizing (smooth paste brush marks) and a little hatching too then it will behave badly. Too little sizing affects the flow of paint across the sheet and won’t take water well.
Painting technique changes: Some changes to technique are essential. Working in wet in wet is not advised as the new weaker surface fibres tend to break up and burnishing them back isn’t always successful. However, if you haven’t added too much water to a smaller section of your painting the surface fibres will dry back. Depending on the size of the area it can take far longer to dry, even as long as overnight! With this in mind, I advise to work drier and only use thin soft washes/glazes once the layers underneath have dried completely. This can take a half and hour or a few hours depending on the size of the area you have applied the soft wash to. You’ll need to be patient!
Erasing out is still possible but again you have to be extremely careful not to disturb the fibres too much or you end up with a mushy mess! Burnishing can help to flatten the fibres back but beware as they will never be absolutely flat again. In fact, I’ve burnished an area to a nice smooth surface recently only to come back a little while later to find the fibres have all popped up again! Extremely frustrating… Take great care when applying fine detail, dots or lines over the top of an area like this. Use a magnifying glass to see the damage first and paint it dot by dot if needed!
So, in a nut shell, it’s better to work drier. Dry brush is perfect. Thin soft washes/glazes are good in small areas. Paint small washes over smaller areas rather than use wet in wet technique. Buy the heavy weight paper in sheets. Underlay colour where possible to enhance colour from below. Use transparent/semi transparent pigments at all times. Colour enhancement (see section 4 below) is still possible on subsequent layers but only as a very thin glaze. Don’t overdo it!
2 Making the drawing
I decided to make a larger than life painting of this beautiful Photinia leaf in order to get as much detail in as I could. The actual painting of the leaf is 28cm in height. To start the drawing I clipped my leaf into a clamp and shone a bright light on it so that I could see all those veins and details. I then proceeded to draw in every single vein. The reason I did this is because once you start painting something as complicated as this you can very easily lose track of where you are. You need a detailed map!
After drawing up the leaf on tracing paper I then made an outline drawing too with a black fine liner pen. This gives me a chance to tidy up and check the drawing before I transfer it. If I had chosen to use the lighter weight Fabriano I would have used this line drawing under my watercolour paper and transferred it via a light pad. This way I only need to trace it off once. As I decided to try out the heavier weight Fabriano this time I traced off the drawing on another piece of tracing paper using the reverse of my line drawing. This was then transferred from the tracing paper onto the watercolour paper in the conventional way. Tip: Once transferred I use a Faber Castell kneadable rubber to take off any excess graphite where I may have pressed to hard. In general the pencil lines can be rubbed out after 2-3 watercolour layers have been applied but with this painting I found the intensity of pigment covered most of the pencil lines. Now we are nearly ready to go!
3 Brush types
I have a selection of paintbrushes which I use for all my paintings. There aren’t many of them! As you may know Billy Showell sable brushes were my absolute favourites and still are even though she has discontinued her sable brush range. These brushes are actually Raphael Kolinsky Sable 8408 series and this is what I buy now. They have a unique pointed tip which is ideal for fine detail and the full body is perfect for washes. The full body also ensures you don’t run out of paint so quickly as you would with a regular brush. I use a number 2 and 4. The ‘Eradicator’ brush (for erasing out) is still available on Billy’s website as she still sells her synthetic brushes. I also have Billy’s synthetic ‘Fine Liner’ which is perfect for really thin lines. It has a brilliant needle point. The blue handled brush is for mixing only.
4 The techniques : Planning colour and painting techniques
Planning: The planning of my colour palette was crucial as I wanted to make my leaf really vibrant and show off those beautiful red/brown hues. To do this I knew I had to include some bright primaries as well as use transparent pigments. Transparent pigments are the best and I always use transparent or semi transparent pigments. I do this to ensure translucence. With opaque pigments you don’t get that ‘see-through’ effect which creates depth and form.
This painting was painted with primaries only. A selection of reds, blues and yellows. It is important to shine a bright light onto your subject to see all the varying hues. Across my leaf were various hues of warm, middle and cool tones. To achieve this colour range I would need a selection of warm, warm-cool and cool primaries. My selection was as follows, I’ve included my short codes for each for when you read the painting technique details later:
The Reds: Quinacridone Red (QR) – warm, Quinacridone Magenta (QM) – cool, Permanent Rose (PR) – warm, Permanent Carmine (PC) – warm to cool, and a little Scarlet Lake (SL) – very warm. I did try Winsor Red (WR) in some mixes but found Scarlet Lake to be more appealing as it is less gloopy when mixing and brighter! Scarlet Lake proved very useful for punching up colour with a thin soft glaze over areas.
The Blues: Winsor Blue Red Shade (WB(RS) – cool, and Winor Blue Green Shade (WB(GS) – warm.
The Yellows: Transparent Yellow (TY) – cool, New Gamboge (NG) – cool to warm, Quinacridone Gold (QG) – warm, and not forgetting the all amazing Indian Yellow (IY) – warm…. vibrance with transparency, perfecto!
I selected colour tones from my leaf and made a range of mixes on my palette ready to start painting. I make a paper swatch with colour codes written on it too so that I can remember which pigments I used to make the the colours. Tip: QM was mixed with WB(RS) to make a violet for highlights on the leaf, explained below. It’s practically identical to Winsor Violet when mixed!
So, where to start painting! I generally start on the left side and work my way across and down the subject. I’m right handed so this works for me. Protecting your painting is crucial. I overlay layout paper across the painting to ensure splashes don’t happen on the precious areas of the painting. I’m especially concerned about the right hand side as, when working upright on a table easel, this area is most vulnerable to the paint brush catching the side (see middle photo) as you bring up the paint from the palette! Even with this protection a splodge decided to appear bottom right of my painting…ugh! After carefully erasing and burnishing, which wasn’t going well because the fibres were determined to stand up, I decided to place my signature over the offending area!
Painting technique: I began with the top left area of the leaf. There was a lovely highlight on this area and to ensure I retained this I added a very thin soft glaze of my violet mix to enhance it before painting the base tone layers. To get a crisp papery look to my leaf I needed to ensure strength of pigment tone, cool highlights and good general colour transition from warm to cool.
Underlaying colour to enhance first: In the photo below you will see on the right side that I have laid a thin glaze of transparent yellow first. I also placed a thin glaze of my violet mix under the highlight area on the left side. This adds coolness. Underlaying colour is a great way to enhance the layers above when using transparent pigments. Tip: You can add in your shadow tones before you start painting. For instance, lay down violet on deep shadows of a conker and it will shine through the conker reddish browns creating the shadow without having to risk paint it on afterwards. Perfect! It’s often easier to do this if you are adding many layers on top as there’s always a risk of smudging when many layers are applied. Tip: If you work with thin layers and let the whole thing dry thoroughly before adding another, you will find that the paint will seep into the paper instead of laying on top of it. You can add very thin glazes to totally dry paint with this method but you must ensure it has dried totally before attempting this and use very gently brush strokes. Note: Fine lines and details which demand full strength colour should be added at the very end.
The whole left side area in the photo below was painted with about 5 layers. There is a change from cool to warm across the area. The cooler area being where the highlights appear. The curved part near the midrib vein of my leaf was quite a warm reddish brown except at the peak of the curve where it meets the central midrib vein. There was a lighter area at this point. It’s a sort of S shaped curve. I painted the base layer of yellow (TY) in here and afterwards the rusty browns avoiding the midrib vein area. I then painted in the dark midrib vein. The little secondary veins where they went into the lighter area of this peak were painted at the end. Before this I painted in the subtle pale colour on this crease and let it dry thoroughly before adding in the veins. This avoids smudging of the darker full pigment paint which is a much thicker mix! To enhance the curved area even more I added very thin glazes of Scarlet Lake (SL) and an orange mix (IY and QR) over it, once totally dry. This created the vividness which was present in the actual leaf. Tip: Colours of shadows are always different across the subject. Sometimes they are much darker and other times lighter. It’s important to check this beforehand or you could paint them in too heavily. Squint your eyes to see the colour it really is by comparing it with other shadows nearby. Shadows are never just grey. It also matters how wide you make the shadows, there are thinner and wider shadows. You need to check this too. On the left side of my leaf it was quite a wide lighter shadow which creates the S shape curve. On the other side of my leaf there were shorter darker shadows creating one sharp curve.
I began the top right side area once I was happy that I had painted the left side to the best of my ability. It pays to stand away from your painting and double check things as you go. Always check to see if the curves are working, the indents look like they are indenting, are the tones right or does it need cooling or warming etc… Creases, indents and curves have different widths of shadow. Check as you go. All these things help to create realism! You can overlay thin soft glazes (not too watery! wipe off the excess on your brush a little before doing this) to cool or warm up areas using thin watered down PR, TY or Violet.
The layers: In the photos above you will see on the right side that I have laid a thin glaze of TY to certain parts first. There’s also a very little bit of PR ( see photo 2) on warmer areas and violet on the cooler corner (see photos 3 and 4). Notice the shadow tone is darker on this side of the midrib vein and the darkest tone is shorter and darker than the rest of the shadow area. This gives the indented appearance. Not to be forgotten, there is also a very thin almost white highlight on this side next to the midrib vein.
In photos 3 & 4 you will see how I have enhanced the secondary and tertiary veins by putting short shadows alongside some of them with a darker line representing the vein below the highlight. Fiddly work! Tip: When painting in the darker lines of veins try not to paint the whole vein in. There is a transition of colour along the veins and sometimes it will almost disappear and reappear later along it’s route. To avoid veins sticking out like sore thumbs, don’t paint the whole lot one colour or paint what you can’t see. Only paint what you can see. Squint and use a magnifying glass to see this clearly.
In the first photo here I’m adding the fine detail, enhancing the dips and rises on the secondary and tertiary veins with short shadowing and painting in some of the finer tiny veins. The number 2 brush is ideal for this stage with it’s finely pointed tip. Used lightly and in a ‘treat it like a lady’ fashion you can achieve lines almost as fine as a hair. The shadows are not all the same tone though, neither are the smaller veins. The decaying part in the centre had a pale tone of my violet mix added carefully to the highlights (see photos 4 & 5). The left side: As the layers were thinner on this lighter area the underlying colours shine through nicely. Again I’ve added thin glazes of TY, PR & Violet before adding the layers above. Without the underlying colours it wouldn’t have such a great effect.
The whole painting has been painted in small sections between the secondary veins rather than a whole large area. With wet in wet technique you can prepare the first layers over a larger area saving a lot of time but new Fabriano won’t let us do this! However, with this complicated subject it was nice to approach it in small sections. The highlights were difficult on this paler area as the indenting was quite subtle. Retaining the highlights is sometimes hard when applying so many layers and colour mixes. If you overdo it there is help though! Billy Showell’s Eradicator brush can help bring back highlights if you use it carefully.
Erasing out: Photo 1 is before erasing out and the other photos after. It’s subtle but has made a lot of difference. When erasing like this you have to be very careful not to disturb the fibres of the paper too much. Tip: Use circular motion for wider areas and the tip of the brush for thin areas. If you use the corner of the brush in circular motions on a small area you’ll get a tiny circle. Handy for adding subtle water drops! You will never be able to erase back to white paper so don’t expect to. This brush is purely a tool for lightening areas after you’ve finished painting. It also depends on the staining quality of the pigment being removed.
For the finest detail I use a magnifying glass to help me position fine veins, add in the serrations to the edge of the leaf and tidy up edges. A subtle but dark shadow was added to the bottom of two little holes in my leaf (see photo 1 & 2). I love to paint these little features as it all adds to the realism! Tip: Always try to stand back from your painting as you go. It pays to give yourself a little distance as you will see whether the whole painting is working. It will highlight areas to you that may still need a little more toning or colour adjusting, deepening or lightening.
You can make a greyscale version to check your tones (I convert the photo to greyscale on my phone or computer) and see if it works all round. Greyscale enhances the highlights and lowlights so you can see them more clearly.
Well, I hope this has been a helpful blog for you all and look forward to your comments. If you have a question please don’t hesitate to ask!
Until next time, have a fabulous Christmas and New Year holiday!
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