From Frederic Whitaker’s book, Whitaker on Watercolor

Chapter 5


In preceding sections we have covered the basic fundamentals of watercolor technique.  Now we are about to consider the additional methods of handling the medium, special tricks that are sometimes useful in special situations, and ways of making changes and corrections when necessary.


Wet-in-wet painting is a method of painting on water-saturated paper with relatively thick pigment, so that the color diffuses somewhat.  For a painter who is skilled in orthodox watercolor technique, it is only necessary to control the diffusion.  Before beginning a wet-in-wet painting, soak the paper in a bathtub or sponge both sides of it with water until it is limp.  Lay the wet paper on a drawing board, mop off surplus water from the face of the paper with a large brush, a cloth, or a cleaning tissue, and you are ready to paint.  Brush in the large areas first.  As the paper loses its moisture, add the smaller ones, finishing up with the sharp accents.  Even line work can be added when the surface is sufficiently dry.  This was done with the painting, “Vegetable Still Life” on page 52.  The trick in this method is to apply the color at exactly the right stage of paper dampness.  Naturally, the color spreads as it touches the damp paper.  Only practice can tell you at what point the paper is ready for the particular effect you have in mind.  It is advisable to lay on just a small amount of color to see how far it spreads before painting a whole area.  Remember that the thicker the paint on your brush, the less it will spread on the paper.  With very thick paint, it is possible to paint quite a sharp thin line on moist paper.

While working from damp to dry, the paper can be kept moist by lifting the edges and inserting water under it with a sponge or small syringe.  Drying can also be retarded by using a nonabsorbent base, such as glass or masonite, instead of a wooden drawing board.  Individual areas may be moistened with water sprayed from an atomizer.  Rough paper is best for wet-in-wet painting.  The deeper surface depressions hold the pigment and give the artist greater control.


Flat washes can be laid one a top the other if each is allowed to try thoroughly before the next one is applied.  In wash-over-wash painting virtually no modeling of wet color is attempted.  Though seldom seen in contemporary American watercolor work, the method has been followed by many British artist, particularly in the past.


In drybrush painting, the brush is charged with color, squeezed or shaken out until little moisture remains, then brushed lightly across the paper.  Since there is little or no diffusion of color, the effect is crisper than in a wash, with areas of white showing through where the brush has not quite touched the paper.  If one wished, it would be possible to cover large areas of the paper with drybrush strokes, but this is not unusual.  Complete pictures are rarely painted using drybrush technique, but it can be very effective in combination with wash.  Part of a picture can be painted with wet solid washes while other sections are drybrushed.  Drybrushing can also be added right over a light wash.  Another approach is to use the drybrush method, then flood plain water or color over certain areas to pull them together.  To much drybrush technique alone, however, is likely to have a brittle, incoherent appearance.   Use rough paper for drybrush work, so the depressions will remain white as the minute elevations catch the color.


Some pictures lend themselves to a combination of line and color.  This is especially true with architectural subjects where one wants to indicate precise detail, without losing the dash of watercolor.  There are several ways to handle this technique.  Some artists begin with a complete drawing, then brush the color over it loosely.  Others apply the color first, then the line; still others work in line both before and after placing the color.  Usually the line drawing is made with pen and black or sepia waterproof ink.  Sometimes steel pens are used, but bamboo pens are frequently employed, for with them lines can be made as heavy as one pleases.  Occasionally I draw the picture with a sharp sable brush using sepia casein because, when dry, the casein cannot be moved again with water.  At other times I draw the line work with standard sepia watercolor so that when washes are later applied, the lines will be diffused and merge imperfectly with the wash.


Palette knife painting is usually regarded as an oil painting technique, but there is no reason why the watercolorist can’t use it too.  An example of this technique is shown in Figure 4.  Apply watercolor pigment to the paper.  While still fluid, spread it into the pattern desired with the edge of a palette knife or painting knife.  Fascinating, unorthodox effects can be obtained in this way.


For large, bold subjects or for abstract or semi-abstract work, try starch painting, as shown in Figure 5.  Place a bowl of ordinary liquid laundry starch alongside your water bowl.  Use the water for washing out your brushes and the liquid starch for mixing with your colors.  Brush the color and starch onto the paper in thick applications, or cover the painting area with the starch first and then immediately paint the color into it.  The pasty mixture can be pushed around at will and the color will stay exactly where it is left.  By adding water, starch and color from time to time, the mixture can be kept pasty enough for manipulation as long as required.  An atomizer filled with water can also be used to moisten the whole picture if necessary.  Parts may even be mopped out and new color added.  Manipulation is the key to this process.  Any suitable instrument can be used.  In addition to regular watercolor brushes, try a standard housepainter’s brush, a pointed stick, a spatula, or a painting knife.  Use the thumb, the fingers, or the heel of the hand for moving the color about.  One artist I know uses her elbow and forearm for broad effects.


Turpentine and watercolor combine in an interesting way that is particularly useful for backgrounds or semi-abstract pictures.  See Figure 6.  With a small housepainter’s brush, spread turpentine over the painting area.  This will be absorbed by the paper immediately.  Now, using a large brush, swish loose, watery color over the area without delay.  The light, oily film of the turpentine will make the watercolor take hold in unusual patterns.  If you continue brushing over the surface, the effect of the turpentine will wear off, and gradually the paint’s behavior will revert to normal.  The painting can be stopped at any time.  The effects can be left extremely accidental or brought under control.  For the painting “The Sisters Lopez” on page 134, the paper was first brushed over with turpentine as suggested above.  The color in the background was left as it originally settled, but the influence of the turpentine was partly overcome in the clothing by repeated brushing.  The faces and arms were brushed even more, until the turpentine effects were almost eliminated.


There are quite a number of technical “tricks” that can be helpful in solving special problems, although one must be careful to avoid placing undue reliance on them.  There is no real substitute for straightforward painting.  The following devices and techniques may suggest others that you can invent for yourself.

Water Additives

By adding a little glycerine, honey, or gum arabic to your painting water, you can slow the drying of the color.  Alcohol, on the other hand, will make it dry faster, and some artists have been known to paint with wine to achieve fast drying.  There are several commercial preparations available in art supply stores which, when added to water, enable you to paint on glass or other smooth, repellent surfaces.

Masking Preparations

Watercolor compositions often include small light areas in the midst of a large expanse of darker background color: a birch tree against a dark mountain or a white seagull flying across an azure sky, for example.  The easiest way to gain such effects is to mask out the light area in advance and brush the darker wash over it.  When the masking material is removed after the wash has dried, a pure white space will remain.  Depending on the composition, this space can be left white or a small detail can be painted on it.    Rubber cement can be used as a masking material if necessary, but the special masking mediums which can be bought at art supply stores under various trade names are preferable.  They are more easily applied, have better covering power, and leave the paper pure white.  To remove these rubberoid masking preparations, it is only necessary to rub them off with the thumb, a soft eraser, or a wad of dried rubber cement.  Scotch tape and other adhesive masking tapes can be used, but the artist has to cut the material to fit the shape of the spot.

Stencils for Scrubbing Out

To clean the paint from a small spot, say the size of a dime, a stencil cut out of heavy paper or a sheet of acetate can sometimes be helpful.  Using a razor blade or other sharp pointing cutting instrument, cut out a stencil of the right shape, hold it on the painting in the desired position, then with a moist rag or nearly dry sponge, scrub the paint down to the white paper.  I once used this trick in painting the red polka dot skirt of “La Coqueta.”  I simply painted the skirt red, and when the paint was dry I mopped out the circles to a pure white using a half-inch circle from a piece of acetate as a guide.  Later, I touched up certain parts with loose paint to destroy the suggestion of mechanical treatment.  I know one artist who always keeps at hand a piece of acetate pierced with a large number of small apertures in different shapes.  Using these, he can mop out virtually any small shape.

Transparent Acetate

A sheet of transparent acetate or celluloid (the stiffest you can get) can be helpful for testing projected changes or additions in a painting.  If, for instance, you decide you want to add a figure to your nearly finished picture but are not sure where to put it or how large to make it, place the acetate over the picture and paint the figure on it roughly.  You can move the acetate about and change the size of the figure until the arrangement suits you.  The figure can then be painted just where you want it on the paper itself.  Watercolor will adhere to the acetate if it is mixed with opaque white or if a commercial glossy-surface painting preparation is used.

Razor Blade and Pocket Knife

The corner of a razor blade can be used to scratch out white lines in dry color––such as wheat stalks, a cat’s whiskers, or the like.  Some artists break razor blades with pliers to make sharp cutting edges about 1/8 – or 1/16-inch wide to use for scratching out.  Pocket knives are less sharp and are better for scraping out color while it is still moist.  The curved end lets the artist control the width of the swath.  If the color has dried, moisten it with a brush where the scrape is about to be made.  In scraping out moist color, be careful not to cut the surface of the paper; just take off the color.  This method is excellent for indication light tree branches, for giving character to the bark of trees, and the like.  See Figure 7.  It works well with sedimentary or earth colors, poorly with penetrating dye colors.


Atomizers filled with clear water can be used to remoisten surfaces that are drying too quickly, or to soften hard edges while they are still wet.  Colored water sprayed by atomizer can change the tint of any given area.  When using the atomizer, be sure to keep the paper flat.  Use a stencil to control the limits of the are to be sprayed.


It is often said that watercolor cannot be worked over.  It must be brushed on directly and left alone.  This is not true.  No watercolor is finished as long as it can be improved.  If an area or line offends, it should be taken out.   Some artists, particularly in Britain, base their customary techniques on repainting.  They first paint the entire picture broadly and simply in approximate colors, let it dry, then mop or scrub the whole with a sponge or brush until colors merge and lighten and only a reminder of the image remains.  This provides a wonderful “quality” and a base for the picture proper.  Then, with deft strokes, the picture is repainted in correct colors and values.  The combination of the underpainting of scrubbed color and the directly painted surface suggests spontaneity without the rawness sometimes seen in oversimplified paintings.  Actually, watercolor can stand a great deal of handling.  Very few simple, direct, on-the-spot renderings pass the juries of national competitive exhibitions today.  Most of the prize-winning pictures are carefully composed and carefully handled.  They may have been mopped out and repainted, in the preliminary study if not in the finished painting itself, for a perfect composition rarely happens by accident.  But no matter how much work has gone into the development of a painting or how much “working over” may have been called for, the final picture should appear fresh and spontaneous.  There should be no evidence of the toil, sweat or anguish that accompanied its production.  Since repetitious painting ordinarily results in muddiness, how can be retain freshness while repainting and correcting?  The answer is by clean, direct repainting after the undesirable passages have been thoroughly cleared out.  Some of the tricks or techniques that can be especially helpful are discussed in the following pages.

Removing Color

Color may be removed in a number of ways.  The simplest method for a large area is to mop it with a sponge and clean water.  In some cases, one can return almost to pure white paper by sponging.  A more forceful method is to brush the space with water, let it stand a moment until the color loosens, then rub the color off with a cloth.  If the color does not come off easily, it can be scrubbed off with water and a stuff bristle brush.  For very stubborn cases, sandpaper can be used when the surface is dry.  All these methods apply only to sturdy, all-rag paper.  To remove color from a small area (up to about 1/2” in diameter), wet the area, then wad up a bit of dry rag into a tight knot and, holding it firmly in the hand, place it over the spot.  Press down quickly and firmly, then with a hard side-wise swipe, pick the color out cleanly.  Wet watercolor can be lifted out easily with a blotter-like “thirsty brush”––any regular watercolor brush which has been dipped in water, and squeezed virtually dry with the fingers.  A kneaded eraser is very good for picking out previously dampened thin white lines.

Repainting the Cleared Areas

After color has been removed, the paper should be allowed to dry thoroughly.  Naturally, adjacent colors are likely to be affected by scrubbing and mopping.  In repainting, one must be careful to make repairs invisible.

Lightening the Value of Dried Color

If color needs only to be lightened a little, just wet the surface and after a moment or two press it with a blotting paper or dab it with a cleaning tissue or rag.  Another way of lightening color is to use an ordinary flat varnish brush, about 1” wide.  Wet the brush and squeeze out as much water as possible.  Then, using the side of the brush, not its end, press firmly downward and draw it across the dry paint.  The strength of a color can also be substantially reduced by using an eraser on the painted area when it is dry.  It is advisable to practice all these methods on discarding painting before trying them on new work.

Darkening a Passage or Changing Its Hue

A wash of a darker or different color can be run over a previously painted, thoroughly dry area without picking up or disturbing the under color if the new wash is brushed on quickly and lightly, without stroking twice over the same spot.

Coordinating Incompatible Colors

Sometimes adjacent color fail to harmonize.  However, hues with a common color in their makeup will usually tend to harmonize with each other, so you can simply wash any light color over both offending passages and bring them into accord.  You can achieve the same effect by flooding a little of either color into the other.  A common tint may also be useful for pulling together a color-jumpy picture.  It is better to avoid an over-all wash, however, because a was can’t be set down rapidly enough to avoid disturbing the underlying pigment.  One method that I have used is to blow a color mist through a fixative sprayer while the painting lies perfectly flat.  This sometimes produces a speckled effect, but this can be avoided by first spraying clean water the flat painting so the color spray can mingle with it.  Some artists prefer to tint their entire paper with a pale color (often yellow or orange) before starting to paint.

Modeling Color

By “modeling” color, I mean manipulating pigment in a manner comparable to a sculptor’s manipulation of clay or wax.  The results can be surprising.  Wet the painted area to loosen the pigment, if necessary stirring it up with a brush until it becomes pasty.  In this condition the pigment can be manipulated for an indefinite time.  Keep it moist and pasty until the repainting is finished.  Take color our, brush new color in, move the pigment about until you are completely satisfied.  Use brushes, rags, a sponge, jackknife, or what you will.  The thumb is especially good for indefinitely shaped objects such as trees.  Sedimentary colors are more amenable to modeling than dye colors.

Using Crayon Over Wash

By going over a dried passage with crayon or hard pastel, you can change the color slightly, not enough to obliterate the watercolor but enough to give it a different cast.  This technique can also be used for special textural effects.

Choosing Paper for Working Over

If one wishes to indulge in vigorous scrubbing, one must use a good grade of 300 or 400 lb. rag paper, preferably linen, with a touch surface.  A.W.S. Paper, endorsed by the American Watercolor Society, is perfect for the purpose and most of the better grade English papers will stand a good going over.  Some watercolor papers, however, are of intentionally soft composition.  Scrubbing will remove a “skin” from the surface which cannot easily be repaired.  While soft papers have their uses and virtues, they should be used only for direct painting.

Painting Over White Casein

White casein can be used in special cases where it is necessary to paint out an area that you wish to repaint.  I was once called upon to insert a motor truck, 6” high, in the foreground of a completely finished full-sheet watercolor.  I carefully pencilled the truck on tracing paper, laid it on the painting for exact positioning and registered the outline there.  Next I covered the area of the picture in which I planned to paint the truck with white casein paint and left it overnight to dry.  (When dry, casein is impervious to water.)  The next day, using regular transparent watercolor, I painted the truck right over the white casein.  The repair could not be detected.  Occasionally, I have also used this trick successfully for correcting small areas.

From Frederic Whitaker’s book, Whitaker on Watercolor

Chapter 4


The unique characteristic of painting––the attribute that distinguishes it from all other forms of art expression––is color.  The beginning painter should understand color fundamentals so that when he applies his paints to paper or canvas, reason and knowledge will guide his movements, quickly telling him things that trial and error might taker longer to teach.  Surprisingly, many students, and even some successful painters, know very little about the laws of color although the general principles are easily memorized.  In fact, it was not until Isaac Newton’s experiments, less than three hundred years ago, that the world at large began to understand the nature of color.


Color is simply light, broken up into its component parts.  When a ray of sunlight is transmitted through a glass prism and projected onto a white wall, it appears not as clear light, but in rainbow hues of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet.  Observing this, Newton reasoned that light is not a simple element but the combination of colors we now call the spectrum.  He saw then that a rainbow is simply sunlight separated into its basic parts by refraction through rain or mist.  To demonstrate that light, or white, is a combination of all other colors, divide a cardboard disc into six equal sectors and paint each of the six divisions with one of the spectrum colors noted above.  If the disc is spun rapidly, no color will be seen at all.  The effect produced approximates white.  I say “approximates” because the actual effect will be a light gray.  Pigment color, with which we paint, tends to absorb some of the light by which it is seen; thus, in a visual mixture using pigments, it is impossible to obtain pure white.  If the spectrum color are combined by projecting colored lights on a screen, however, pure white light will result.  White, then, is not a color but a combination of all colors.  Nor is black a color.  Black is the absence of color.  Were there no sun in the sky, everything would be black, as it is when you shut yourself in a lightproof closet.


Color is said to have three dimensions: hue, value, and chroma, which is also called saturation or intensity.  If the degrees of these qualities could be stated accurately, it would be possible to duplicate any tone of any color without seeing the original, just as it is possible to duplicate any geometrical form from written measurements or any musical note or chord from a printed score.  Color meters and color systems have been devised which are scientifically valuable, but the practicing artist must still depend upon his eye for color analysis.


Hue refers to a particular color, such as red, blue, or green.  It is the name by which we distinguish a color.  Hues may vary in value and intensity.  Light red and dark red, for instance, are both red and are therefore of the same hue.  Crimson and brick red are both red and are therefore of the same hue.  Color Wheel I on page 41 shows the six basic pigment hues.  Color Wheel II shows a wide range of intermediate hues.


Value refers to depth of color, that is, its degree of lightness or darkness.  It has no bearing on hue.  Thus a light and a dark blue are of the same hue but they differ in value, whereas a medium red and a medium green differ in hue but may be identical in value.  The Color Chart on page 41 shows different values of the same color.  The rectangle at the top center of the color panel shows a pure red.  In the rectangles to its left, the colors progressively become lighter in value, while those on the right become darker.

Chroma, Saturation, or Intensity

These terms, which are used interchangeable, refer to the purity or strength of a color.  Thus pure Cadmium Red is a bright red of very high chroma, brick red has a less intense chroma, and a grayed red, one that might appear almost brown, is a red of very low chroma or saturation.  The word “grayness” is sometimes used as a negative way of measuring this quality.  Chroma, saturation, or intensity stresses the purity or brilliance of a color, while grayness emphasizes the departure from brilliance.  The top line of the Color Chart on page 41 shows seven values of a single hue.  As the colors descend on the chart their chroma is reduced.  In other words, they become grayer without changing in value.  For the purpose of simplification, we have shown only 24 hues on Color Wheel II and only six values and two degrees of grayness in the chart of values and chroma.  Actually, there can be an unlimited amount of gradations in each department.  The steps between red and orange, for example, could be measured in hundreds of degrees.  Each hue can become progressively lighter until it reaches white or darker until it reaches black, or it may gradually lose its chroma until it becomes a pure neutral gray.


Color Wheel I on page 41 shows the painter’s basic colors: three pigment primaries (red, yellow, and blue) and their three secondaries (orange, green, and violet).  Red, yellow, and blue are called primaries because they cannot be reduced to subdivisions.  They cannot be produced by mixing other colors.  Orange, green, and violet are called secondaries because each is a mixture of two primaries.  Orange is red and yellow combined; green is a mixture of yellow and blue; violet is a combination of red and blue.  Tertiary colors, which are mixtures of all three primary colors, are really grays with a tendency towards one or another of the prismatic colors.  Mixtures of any secondary with either of its component primaries produces an intermediate hue such as red-orange or yellow-orange, blue-green or yellow-green, blue-violet or red-violet.  The above facts apply to pigment color mixture.  Physicists, psychologists, and others interested in color designate other hues as primary and secondary.  In the mixtures of colored light, for instance, certain tones of red, blue, and green are primaries.  Anyone deeply interested in color will want to investigate the subject more thoroughly.  For the average painter, however, it is enough to know that when dealing with artists’ pigments, red, yellow and blue are the basic colors.


Every color wheel, whether it contains only six hues or is made up of many more, is based on the three primary colors––red, yellow and blue.  Between each pair of primary colors is the secondary color which is the product of the two primaries.  Orange, for example, the product of yellow and red, is placed between them.  Any two colors opposite each other––red and green, yellow and violet, blue and orange––are complementary colors.  When the two are added together, the result is a combination of all three primary colors.  Green, for instance, is a mixture of blue and yellow.  When it is added to its complement, red, all three primary colors are, in effect, combined.  The result when two complementary colors are mixed is always the same: gray.  It would, of course, be white were it not for the absorption of light by each of the pigments.  Sometimes, in practice, the gray will appear quite brownish.  Again, this is probably due to the nature of the pigments.  Few, if any, are pure in color; most have an undertone of warmth or coolness that affects any mixture in which the pigments are included.  The color wheel is not necessarily limited to six colors.  It may be subdivided by sixes into as many divisions as desired, but the hue in any given sector must be halfway between the hues of its adjacent neighbors.  Whatever the number of intermediate hues, any two opposite numbers when mixed together should produce the name neutral gray.  Yellow-orange and blue-violet, for example, are complementary.  They should always be located directly opposite on a color wheel and, if mixed together, will produce gray.  How do you as a watercolorist use this information about color?  There are many ways, which will quickly become apparent when you begin to paint.  For example, if you have used a color which is too bright for the rest of your picture––a red, for instance––you may neutralize or “gray” it by adding a small amount of complementary color, in this case, green.  This subdues the red, but does not change its value (depth of color).  Some artists add black to neutralize a color, but black will darken it as well as dull it.  A peculiarity of complementary colors is that they do not usually combine well in close proximity.  A visual vibration is sometimes set up that is painful to the eyes.  For example, if bright red letters are painted on a bright green ground, many people will find it almost impossible to read.  However, if the red and green colors are separated by a reasonable amount of white, the effect will not dazzle the eyes.  With practice, an artist looking at any surface can estimate accurately the various colors that go into its appearance.  Viewing a barn of an unusual brown, let us say, and equipped with a knowledge of color mixture, he will say to himself, “That calls for Raw Umber with a little Emerald Green.”  With experience, this diagnosis and prescription will operate without conscious effort.  I remember the first time I painted outdoors with an instructor.  Referring to the heavy clouds I was trying to reproduce on paper, he said, “You haven’t enough pink in them.”  My reaction, though unstated, was a flip query as to how anyone might imagine that gray rain clouds could be pinkish.  Since then, of course, experience has taught me that very few hues ever rest on the dead center of any one color.  Virtually all include a slight cast of something else.  The trained eye can sense it as quickly and intuitively as a color meter.  This faculty, which starts with calculation based on knowledge of color rules, soon becomes almost automatic.


Colors are divided into “warm” and “cool” groups.  Blue is usually considered the coldest color and other colors seem cold or cool according to the degree of blue in their makeup.  Red and yellow, on the other hand, are warm colors.  In combination they make orange, the complement of blue.  Other colors are called warm if they tend toward red or yellow.  Violet and green are intermediate colors in this sense.  They can appear either warm or cool depending on whether they favor blue or orange.


Teachers often hear students say, “Your colors are beautiful.  Mine are drab.  Why?”  Actually the beauty of color in a painting depends almost entirely upon the way the several colors are used together.  Attractive pigments do not automatically make for beautiful color combinations in a painting.  Colors that by themselves are sparkling may be hideous when used side by side, particularly if they happen to be complementary.  Two or three nondescript hues, on the other hand, may unite into a lilting color pattern.  Although there are traditional rules of color harmony which can be studied, it is, in the long run, only experience with your own pigments which can tell you how to put together combinations your artist’s eye will tell you are pleasing.


Once you are familiar with the standard color mixtures, experimentation and practice will show you how to make innumerable others and to foresee exactly what any two or three colors on your palette will produce in combination.  Few artists deliberately mix complementary colors as a general practice, for if used in equal strength the two complementary pigments neutralize each other completely.  If, however, complementary colors are mixed in unequal strengths, or if the two colors are each a little off-center chromatically, unusual and desirable results may be obtained.  For instance, Alizarin Crimson (a red tending toward purple) and Emerald Green (lighter than the green used on the color wheel) add up to a quiet red-purple.  Innumerable “off-center” blends are possible and they need not be complementary.  Vermilion mixed with Cerulean Blue produces a lovely gray-violet.  Cobalt Violet and Emerald Green combine to make an attractive muted blue.  For blue skies, which can be sickening when painted with pure blue straight from the tube, I sometimes mix a wash of Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Violet and Emerald Green.  Spend some time trying out other possibilities.

From Frederic Whitaker’s book, Whitaker on Watercolor

Chapter 3


No two artists paint alike. It would be presumptuous, therefore, to say how a picture
should be painted. But I can tell you how I proceed. Naturally, I adjust my method to
the particular subject at hand, but I do follow a general routine based on specific
procedures. The steps, explained in detail I the following pages, are as follows:

1. Choose a subject.
2. Plan the picture with a very small pencil sketch.
3. Pencil the composition on the full sheet.
4. Paint the whole picture simply in flat local colors.
5. Paint in the pattern of shadows or dark areas roughly.
6. Add the finishing touches.


For practice, any object will serve as a subject: a house, a tree, a doll, or
whatever is at hand. But if one is painting a serious picture, more care in selection is
needed. An artist who hopes to contribute to mankind’s store of art has no right to offer
a creation closely similar to one already painted. Whatever he presents should be his
own conception. Students frequently find it difficult to see a picture in the myriad details
confronting them. This is understandable, but the procedure is really simple. First
make sure that the subject possesses some individuality. Some feature or features
should be arresting: the atmospheric mood, the color combination, the architectural or
structural character, the dress of people, or some other aspect. The subject should not
be banal. Then, choose a scene that would make a picture as nearly complete as
possible. One can, of course, build a composition around any single item, depending
entirely upon his imagination for supporting material, but this calls for considerable time
and effort. So if you can find a subject that requires little change, it is foolish to reject it
for a less promising theme. Don’t waste time needlessly. It is better to approach your
subject with an open mind, ready to accept whatever is good rather than to demand
scenes that fit preconceived ideas.
So, assuming the prospective picture is to be a landscape (though the rules
apply to other classifications), cast about until you find something you consider striking.
It may be a hamlet in a valley or a cluster of trees about a house, or it may be nothing
more than a peculiar cast of light on an otherwise commonplace object. Then, having
found the distinguishing factor, look about to see if there are other secondary units in
the vicinity that might be combine with it satisfactorily. If not, look into your storehouse
of memory for whatever additional details are required.

The scene before you should be used only as inspiration. If a part of the scene is
poor, you should not say later, “Well, that’s the way it was!” You must change or
eliminate any factors not helpful and add anything that may be needed.
Every work of art is a composition. A composition is not an accidental
arrangement. To lay out a composition––that is, to design the pattern of a picture––
start by making a small pencil sketch. This need not measure more than a few inches
and may take only a few moments, though more time may be needed. The sketch should be developed sufficiently to show that your composition is satisfactory and to
reveal what must be done in the final painting. This is very important. To essay the
painting of a large picture without some sort of pre-calculated guide demonstrates poor
planning and ensures a waste of time.
There are, of course, experienced artists who by just looking at a scene can
mentally change or rearrange it to make a good composition, but such artists are not in
the majority. A thumbnail plan is a necessity for most of us.
For your small sketch, first draw, in the middle of a paper, the part that you
consider indispensable, whatever it was that first attracted you. That is to be the heart
of your picture. It may be a barn, a panoramic group of objects, a doorway, or any of a
number of things. Keep the sketch small in relation to the size of the paper so that
when all other parts of the picture have been added white space will still surround it.
This is important. Otherwise, you will find your plan running over the edge of the paper.
Having drawn, simply and quickly, the most important feature––let is say, the
barn––add other components one at a time: a large tree behind the barn, a group of
bushes beyond, a small building to one side, mountains in the distance, rocks in the
foreground, and so on. Extract from nature those things that are good for your picture,
reject those that are useless, change the size, position, value, or contour of those only
partly acceptable. The sketch, meanwhile, is expanding outward in all directions from
the original note, the barn.
Now decide just where the picture should be lopped off––on the sides, at the top,
and at the bottom––for you have probably extended the sketch to include more ground
than the composition will need. Draw vertical and horizontal lines through the pencilled
sketch to mark the found boundaries. Keep the rectangle as small as possible,
excluding everything you can possibly do without.
Figure 3 shows how cardboard angles shaped like a carpenter’s square can be
useful in deciding the extent of the picture. Overlapping the two pieces to form a
rectangle, move them upwards, downwards and sideways on the diagram until the size
and arrangement seems satisfactory. By using these angle cards, you can change the
position of everything in the picture. How? Well, suppose the barn is in the center of
the picture and you don’t like it there. Moving the angle pieces to the left will have the
effect of moving the barn to the right; moving them up will place the barn nearer the
bottom of the picture; moving them down will show how the barn would look near the
top. And all these rearrangements can be tried without redrawing anything.
Once satisfied with the arrangement, draw a pencil line to mark the inner
boundaries of the angle pieces. Your composition plan is finished. If you wish, you can
roughly color the sketch. Sometimes this can be very helpful. A good small diagram is
the key to a successful painting.
This planning step may sound complicated but, in practice, it need not take more
than a few minutes.


Having carefully laid out a small sketch plan, you now reproduce that pattern on a large sheet of paper.  Draw only enough to show the placement of the principal masses and picture components––no details––for the pencil lines will likely get lost in the painting process and the detail drawing, if any is required, can be done later with the brush.  But accurate placement is important.  Many students make large drawings whose proportions bear little relation to those on their painstakingly prepared pictureplan sketches.  Of what use is a plan if it isn’t followed.  If the horizon line is one-third the way up the picture in the small sketch, you don’t want it halfway or quarter-way up in the big picture.  You want it one-third the way up––exactly.


Using simple flat washes, paint loosely the various picture areas in their general colors, being careful to keep them lighter than you want them so they can be developed later on.  The whole picture, with the possible exception of the sky, should receive color.  The colors need only be approximate, for they can be changed easily.  The painting should be done in a broad manner––no niggling.  If a small red spot belongs in the yellow hillside, slosh the weak yellow pain right over it.  Remember, you are simply laying in the general color pattern.


Most landscape pictures are made up of a pattern of sunlight and shadows or of lights and darks.  The local color already applied represents, roughly, the lights.  To add the darks, prepare a pan of “shadow color” (usually a warm gray mixture of brown and blue) and apply it flatly and loosely to the appropriate areas, using the same gray throughout, but adding a bit of local color wherever it is needed.  This finished, you will be able to see and evaluate the entire composition and make plans for its completion.


Most compositions can be divided into definite units.  A group of six trees standing alone might be one; a broad hillside another.  Take any one unit, preferably the most important, and proceed to finish it.  Consulting the scene before you, the range of colored masses already on the paper, and your mental conceptions, you must decide how strong to make the chosen are, what the exact colors should be, and how dark the values. The lightly applied color already on the paper can be loosened with water and manipulated without difficulty.  Now repaint the darker colors somewhat more carefully, but not fussily.  While the whole are is slightly moist, “model” or manipulate the whole mass into shape.  This means putting the lights and darks and the colors into proper relation to each other and inserting the amount of detail decided upon.  I can think of no better verb than “model” for this stage of the work.  As the sculptor is able to model his plastic clay, changing it about until he is fully satisfied, the painter can model with pigment.  Keeping it slightly moist, you can manipulate the color for an indefinite period, mopping out with a brush, cloth, tissue, or sponge, or even adding more color.  You can push the color about with your thumb, scoop or scrape it out with a knife or razor blade, or modify it in any of a dozen ways.    I have already mentioned applying a uniform “shadow color” to all dark areas of the picture, regardless of their local colors.  Naturally, some shadows or parts of shadows must be darker than others.  Now is the time to change their intensity.  If you have a yellow house, for instance, which was originally painted an over-all yellow, with a strong war gray later applied to the parts in shadow, you can now model or manipulate that shadow to bring it to the exact strength desired, introducing a bit of the original yellow into the shadow color while it is still wet.  In the work of beginners the shaded and lighted sides of a single object often are so different in color that they appear unrelated.  The addition of a drop of local color to the gray shadow makes it a reasonable counterpart to the sunlit side.  White surfaces in shadow should receive the same initial gray, but some of the gray should be mopped out with a brush or cloth while still wet. When the first area has been developed, go on to the others until the whole picture is virtually finished.  If the sky was at first omitted, paint it now.  The process described here helps to pull together the whole shadow pattern of the picture, thus avoiding “jumpiness,” a common compositional fault.  After the various areas have been developed, you may still find a few parts out of line with the whole.  The values of certain sections may require lightening or darkening, a color may need accenting or subduing, or a few light or dark accents may be needed here and there.  When the corrections have been made, the picture is complete.


The Preliminary Sketch
The preparatory sketch is the plan for the finished picture.  Sometimes a pencil sketch is enough, but in this case I made the sketch in watercolor, changing it by overpainting with opaque color until I was satisfied with the composition.  The opaque white outline was drawn to indicate how much of the sketch would be included in the actual panting.  With this sketch as a guide, I knew exactly what I wanted to do in painting my large picture.

Enlarging the Composition and Painting in the Local Color
The composition was enlarged from the original sketch.  It was pencilled in very roughly with just enough line to show the positions of the masses, but with no details whatever.  Next, the local color was applied very loosely with almost flat washes.  No attempt was made to follow the pencil lines closely or to set down exact colors and values.  The important point was to cover the paper with color and to register the big masses in approximately correct intensities, knowing that the color could later be modeled, changed about, lightened, darkened, brightened, neutralized, or even removed.  My aim up to this point was to set down quickly on the paper a representation of the whole picture, for a picture must be a unit, not simply likenesses of a number of different things.

Laying in the Shadow Pattern and Developing Individual Areas
The shadow pattern was indicated roughly and simply, using a 1¼” flat sabeline brush, which was used for most of the painting.  All of the areas of the picture were then developed individually––first the monument, then the right-hand evergreen, finally the house.  With this done, the picture was finished except for a few last-minute corrections.

Finishing the Picture
In the final stage the trees were painted almost completely in pasty color that was pushed about with the thumb.  The evergreen tree trunks and branches were scratched in the wet paint with a jackknife.