Painting against time

clarinet player
Klezmer musician sketch
8.5″ x 12″
Watercolor on Arches #140 cold press
© 2014 Margaret Sloan

I tend to paint slowly. I spend hours getting the drawing right before I move to color. Then I paint deliberately, thinking about each stroke. Sometimes I think too much,  standing in front of the easel, brush in hand, looking and daubing.

Eventually I start feeling trapped, like some old hen pecking away in a chicken coop. I’m afraid to move from my comfort zone because I’ve got too much invested in a particular painting. Yet, with no forays out of the barnyard into the woods, well, where is the exploration? Where is the learning? Where is the joy? All I’m doing is laying eggs.

But I want to fly.

Perversely, sometimes limits can free an artist from gravity. Rather than spend hours on a painting, I decided to give myself some parameters: half hour for the drawing and an hour for the painting. I wanted to see what I could accomplish in a short period of time.

What a great exercise! It forced me to think in terms of big shapes, clear color and correct value. I let go of trying to have a “finished” product and made choices quickly. And I was quite surprised at how instinctive painting has become.

Most valuable tool in this exercise: The kitchen timer.

Happy baby

This is the finished version of the happy baby that started out as zombie baby.  I don’t know why babies make people so happy, but they do. Anyway, when they’re smiling and laughing, they make me happy. This painting  tickles me, and I hope it starts your week off with a smile.

Watercolor of laughing baby
Watercolor on Arches #300 hot press
© 2014 Margaret Sloan

I wish the best for this little guy, the newest member of the fiddler’s clan, and I look forward to seeing him grow up.

How to paint teeth in watercolor

I normally don’t paint portraits of smiling people. It just doesn’t have the weight of a more sober pose. And it’s darned difficult to pull off. If not well done, teeth tend to get all snaggly in a painting.

But for a recent portrait, I completely agreed with the client that, for a variety of reasons, a smiling portrait was the best possible choice.

I ALWAYS make a study (or two or three) before embarking on a painting. Since the smiling mouth presented the most difficult challenge, I did a small version of that. And for once in my painting/blogging life, I had the presence of mind to have my camera out and take photos of the process to share on this blog. So here we go. How to paint teeth in watercolor.

Start with a line drawing

Line drawing of teeth
Line drawing

For a portrait, I always start with a detailed line drawing. This is the most time-consuming stage, as this is where I do much of my thinking and planning. Here are some of the things  I think about:

  • Shapes and the rhythms of those shapes (getting the shape of the teeth is most important, but I don’t worry about all the details. I concentrate on the general outline.)
  • Lost and found edges
  • Value and color within the shapes

It’s kind of like mapping a journey and getting an overall picture in my  head of where I want to go, because I find that in watercolor, if I don’t know where I’m going, I’ll never get anywhere.

Adding the first light wash

On the day I met with the subject, I made some color studies. Using these studies for reference,  I lay in the first light wash, keeping the warmest colors and lightest values in the lit areas of the portrait, and the cooler and darker values in the shadows.

I don’t preserve a lot of whites on my paper. They seem too harsh once I get the darkest values down. I like to have a light value tone to begin with, and preserve that through out the process.

To make this first wash soft and flowy, I make sure I have plenty of pure color mixed up with lots of water on my palette, ready to go so there’s no chance for the wash to dry into a hard edge.

First light wash in watercolor
First light wash: Computer screens don’t give accurate color. This wash is about 3 steps lighter in value, and not as red.

Ack! It looks like Jabba the Hut! That’s why the next step is so important.

First dark values

The picture below is better, isn’t it? The dark green defines his face and neck. Whew.

Adding dark values
Adding dark values

I start adding color to build the forms and I start adding in the first of my darkest values. I use a dark red in the mouth, painting carefully around the teeth to preserve their shape. The red looks terrifically bright (it’s a little frightening at this stage!), but I know that I’m going to tone that down later with a blue or violet wash. A warm color like red or orange is a way to bring glowing light into the shadows.

Building form

Building form
Building form

I keep building form, continuing to think of hue, value, and those pesky edges. I love to paint into the shadows.  Forms in the mass shadow also have temperature, hue, and value.

Continuing to build form

Building form using darker values
Building form using darker values

If you deconstruct the face, you’ll find that it’s really a collection of spheres and cylinders. As I’m painting, I’m thinking about those shapes rather than thinking of the painting as a face.

I know this looks rather alarming, but I’ll keep adding light washes, and eventually it will come together.

Final image

Final Image
(Not-so) Final Image

Many layers of transparent paint, and a final light wash of ultramarine blue, it will come together—or not. The use of blue and violet on the lips was a mistake. It looks like Grampa Munster‘s smile. So I’ll leave this tutorial with a bit of a cliff hanger. Can I repair it? Stay tuned for the next episode of The Watercolorist in Fix-it Mode!


Big time portrait painter John Howard Sanden has a good essay on the question of the smile.

How to draw a sphere

Big heart in a small package

© 2012 Margaret Sloan

I finally finished this portrait of my fiddler’s aunt (my aunt-in-law, I guess). She was a tiny thing, but her heart was as big as the world. She accepted me into the family with joy and kindness, even though she’d never before met me. She loved to feed people. She loved to be around people. She was funny, opinionated, and caring.

The yiddish in the painting says, “small hearts surround the big world.”  
I’d have to work to grow my heart to be as encompassing as hers.


Painting from life

Watercolor portrait

Red-haired Girl (cropped)
Watercolor 300# Arches hot press
Copyright 2012 by Margaret Sloan

Model guild benefits are wonderful opportunities for painting. There are often two sections: short poses and long poses. I like to spend the morning at the short pose session, warming up with gesture drawings. After a quick lunch, I  get down to brass tacks for a single long pose. After racing through the brittle morning time of 1-, 2-, and 5-minute poses, I can relax into the long 3-hour pose, and the afternoon unravels and stretches like a rubber band. My mind settles solidly into the work.

It may feel luxurious to have 3 full hours with the same pose, but the model’s timer is still ticking, so I like to organize my process. For this 3-hour pose, I allowed myself 40-minutes (2 20-minute periods) to make a graphite drawing, then I started painting. I try to get an accurate drawing quickly, as poses shift slightly over time, and even the best, most rock-solid models have to take a breath now and then. And once you start painting with watercolor, you can’t make a lot of easy changes.

There is really nothing like painting from life. You are able to see infinite numbers of color that could never show up in a photograph. The blue-green in the shadows around the eyes, the mineral violet in the shadows. You can see the subtle shifting of values, the way the skin flows over muscle and bone.

I’m not against painting from (your own) photos. In the interest of time and money, I often use digital references. But there is nothing like painting the portrait of a live person. Here’s to life.


The power in a word

Watercolor 23″ X 19″ 300# Arches hot press

Copyright 2012 by Margaret Sloan

When I painted this picture, I remembered that Mary Whyte, in a workshop, told us to name our paintings before we made our first washes of color. I couldn’t for the life of me remember this girl’s name (the daughter of a cousin-in-law, she’s a delightful girl, but I only met her once), so I just called her princess. I don’t mean princess in a bad way—all diva and finer-than-thou—but princess in a good way, a fairytale Cinderella-sorting-ashes or brave-and-loading-bullets sort of way.

As readers of fairy tales and fantasy-fiction know, names have power. So I let the word princess guide my brush. When I was stuck for a color choice, I whispered the word: princess. The taste of the word on my tongue gave me the flavor of the color I needed to use in that passage.

My favorite part of the painting, and the whole reason I wanted to paint this, is the shadow that curls under the sunlit eye. I love the way the curve describes the roundness of the cheek. There’s something delicate and fragile in that shadow, a sweetness and hope particular to young women.

Kate Detail
Watercolor 23″ X 19″ 300# Arches hot press
Copyright 2012 by Margaret Sloan

Then suddenly, as I approached the end of the painting, I recalled that her name is, or might be, Kate. If it’s not, it’s still the name of this painted princess-girl.

Painter, have no fear

Before the Big Adventure
Watercolor from Ted Nuttall Workshop

Copyright 2011 by Margaret Sloan

In early fall I took a week long watercolor workshop with Ted Nuttall, one of my favorite watercolor painters. Ted is a marvelous painting coach, and I feel like the workshop changed some important circuitry in my painting mind. Ted said that one of the things he hoped to accomplish in this workshop was changing the way we think about painting. I was looking for a change and I was an easy mark; he succeeded.

The most important thing I learned? Do not be afraid. Go ahead and make mistakes. In fact, Ted says he often purposely paints unexpected colors, streaks, daubs, dribble, and of course, his famous “sloppy dots” in order to give himself problems to solve.

Watching him paint is like taking a roller-coaster ride. (Yeah, I know, painters are easily thrilled). Some strokes made me gasp in fear—I’d never make that kind of mark deliberately—but Ted deftly tied it in to the rest of the painting as he moved along.

I’m not quite brave enough to deliberately make mistakes. I make enough accidental problems to solve in the course of a painting. But I think the answer to that is to make more paintings, and learn from all those accidental mistakes.

More painting? That’s never a bad pursuit.