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Artist Community
Morning Calm
Written by John Fisher

Nothing quite matches the pleasure of painting watercolours outdoors, but many of us find it difficult to justify the hours away from home and family. Add to that the problems of changing light values, heat, wind, mosquitoes and curious onlookers, and studio painting has its advantages. Your "studio" might be anything from a basement room to a card table set up in the dining room, but painting watercolours from photographs can still produce acceptable results.
Watercolours from photographs
If you have little or no skill at original drawing, the use of a projector in getting your image on paper gives you a head start, and you can concentrate on producing pleasing results. "Morning Calm" was based on a photograph taken early one morning at the marina in Panama City, Florida. The memory of that beautifully calm morning still lingers, and I think I captured it to my satisfaction. Using the following simple techniques, you will be able to paint from photographs and enjoy successful watercolours
Your image size
Before you begin you need to consider the mat and the frame in which your watercolour will eventually be displayed. I selected the appropriate frame which matched the proportions of my photograph. To see how your photograph might fit any of your existing frames, take a measuring ruler and place it diagonally across the two corners as shown. Anywhere along this line you can create an image size to suit your needs. If this differs from your existing frame or mat you must crop the photograph accordingly. Proportions are not carved in stone, but generally I like to have a slightly bigger space at the bottom of my pictures. With your image size selected you can proceed to make, or buy, a mat to suit your painting. I like to have the mat on hand to see how my painting looks as I proceed.
Projecting your image
Having marked out your image size on your selected watercolour paper, you should arrange your projector in the most comfortable position in order to sit down to do your pencil drawing and avoid having your own shadow get in the way. I always use Arches 300lb cold pressed paper as it gives me all the options I need for later techniques. It doesn't need stretching and it takes a lot of abuse, accidental or intended! Fix the paper to the wall and get everything in sharp focus. I prefer the negative from a colour film as you aren't influenced by the actual colours, but any image is fine.

Using a sharply pointed 4H pencil carefully trace off the image you will be using. Go ahead and use a straight edge if you prefer - it's your painting after all. Once in a while let your shadow obscure the projector to make sure you've not left anything off. Don't press too hard as you will want to re-draw this later.
Re-drawing the image
Mount your 300lb Arches paper on a board and re-draw your image in its final form, using the basic reference photograph to put in all the detail you wish. At this point you can edit the image and leave out anything you feel spoils the composition. The magnifying glass helps here  as well as a good imagination. Always allow about at least 1/4" around your image size to be on the safe side.
Perspective problems
I ran into problems trying to determine where the pilings ended and the water began, as the water was so calm it acted as a mirror. I reverted to an old tip and laid out my vanishing point. Normally there are two such points along any given eye level, but I only needed one here. Depending on your style and attention to detail, establishing the proper perspective often helps in solving proportion problems
Final drawing
Final drawing
Now you should have your completed pencil drawing, and at this point it's always a good idea to sit quietly and decide exactly how you're going to paint this picture. Will you put in the sky first? How will you prevent the sky colour from blotting out the masts and the boat? I always make a check list of exactly how I will proceed. I note which areas I will frisket out (more on this later), and which areas I may have to mask out with masking tape. If the ropes are lighter than the water they must be masked out - same with the water reflections. Your own style will dictate how you approach any given painting, but a few moments quiet reflection helps in the long run. Actually write the steps down in point form and refer to it constantly. Don't "paint ahead of your brain" as my old art instructor used to say. Think of it as reading a cooking recipe carefully before galloping ahead with mixing the ingredients.
Masking and frisket
In my painting I put in the sky first, and used standard masking tape to mask off the other areas. I also used Incredible White Mask liquid frisket to protect smaller areas. Keep your bottle turned upside down when not in use to prevent air from drying out the liquid. I use Curry's Series 2600 Round brushes , or H.J. series white Taklon for liquid frisket. These are relatively inexpensive and disposable. I clean them with a liquid mask cleaner. Protect the rest of your painting with paper and prepare your sky wash.
Sky wash
I did a trial wash first on a separate sheet of paper as this was a difficult area and I wanted to get the tonal values right. I first filled in the area with a clean wash of water, making sure the edges didn't collect too much surplus moisture. When it was almost dry I applied a wash of Antwerp Blue with a touch of Ultramarine Blue with a one inch brush. About a third of the way down I drastically thinned out the colour and then  added a light wash of Brown Madder to give me that early morning sunrise look. I carefully removed the masking tape using a small hairdryer to soften the glue, and gently lifted off the frisket in the mast area.
Painting the details
You can use your photograph as a starting point, or pay close attention to the details. It's up to you. I always begin with the centre of interest, and as my old art instructor used to say "If you screw that up you don't have to waste a lot of time!" I began with the mast details, using a rigger brush to put in the boat's lines. Keep your painting covered up when working on specific areas to keep it clean, but remove everything and step back periodically. I then painted in the cabin and main part of the boat. For the whites I use an almost invisible pale mixture of blue, or for warm afternoon shots a very pale yellow.
Introducing the mat
Now it's time to reward yourself! Placing the mat over your painting gives it an immediate lift. It seems to enhance the colours and makes you realize how far you've come. I do this at many stages of my paintings, and it never fails to re-motivate me to carry on. Maybe this one will be the award-winner, or at least hang in the living room.
The pilings
The pier pilings were made of pressure-treated green lumber, so a wash of Aureolin Yellow mixed with a little Sap Green and a touch of Sepia came first, then washes of green-tinted Brown Sienna and Sepia to suggest the shape, keeping in mind that some reflected light nearly always appears on the darker side of the pilings. After I finished these and began the water I discovered a serious mistake. I had accidentally painted over an area which should have been left white. How could I correct this in a watercolor painting?
correcting mistakes
Correcting mistakes
Now comes the wisdom of using 300lb Arches watercolour paper. I carefully masked off the areas I needed to correct, and using an stiff oil painting brush I wet the areas and scrubbed and blotted until the area was white again. Don't overdo this as once you damage the surface of the paper it will bleed the colours all over the place. Remove the masking tape gently and you're ready to proceed again. This masking, scrubbing and blotting technique can be used in  many cases and is particularly useful in water scenes.
water reflections
Water and reflections
Using my frisket, I painted in the areas of white reflection in the water and the lighter ropes leading to the pilings. Don't forget frisket can also be painted on existing colours if you want something to show through later. I used this technique on my wet-in-wet water areas. As it was almost a mirror image of the sky I used the same technique in reverse. The same applies to the pilings and deck structure, only here I literally turned the painting and photograph upside down to avoid any confusion in my mind as to what I was painting. Later I went back in with my stiff oil painting brush and removed areas of colour, especially around the base of the pilings as they touched the water level. The reflections from boats were painted in last.
matted and framed
Matted and framed
The moment of truth! I matted and framed my picture and stood back to reflect on what I'd done. By using the mat at various stages I knew what it was going to look like, and the photograph I used meant I could paint in comfort during a long Canadian winter. With a CD by Don Gibson playing the sounds of surf breaking on a beach somewhere, I was transported back to that moment of morning calm.