The colors of the changing leaves in Seattle (while beautiful) are a far cry from the Autumns I experienced growing up in rural Pennsylvania. So, I found myself sitting outside of a coffee shop next to a grocery store thoroughly uninspired, and trying to work on this month's Coffee Shop Studio article. The sky was gray and the air was cold and damp with drizzle and fog.
I sat and moped for a little bit and then I noticed some Fall colors. These weren't leaves changing hue, but a big display of pumpkins, gourds and corn stalks in front of the neighboring grocery store. One of those somewhat large retail store displays that says "The season is here for these items. Buy, buy, buy!"... and I thought: how much fun would it be to try to create a painting based on items observed in a retail display & and not have my painting look like I'm just drawing their display?
I accepted the challenge and began pulling out all sorts of art supplies from my backpack.
As I was setting up, I was thinking about the final outcome. I didn't want a sketch for this one; I wanted a finished painting, in watercolor. I needed to be at work in about 45 minutes, so I didn't have time to create a full watercolor painting out in this moist air. Drying times would have been prohibitively long. I decided I would paint this one at home, so I focused on creating a sketch with enough shape, color and value details to complete the painting later.
Using colored brush pens, I sketched out the shape of the pumpkin and then the basket of mini pumpkins behind it. Very quick, and in light colors. I then brought a darker orange to the pumpkin, followed by a green for the main shadow areas. The pens went down darker than I had hoped, so I used an opaque white gel pen to restore highlights of white light from the gray sky.
Once my color-key sketch was complete, I switched to my watercolor sketchbook and lightly penciled in my subject and background with a sharp HB pencil. When that was done, I noticed I still had some time, so I began to lightly wash in the major color areas for the painting, including fully washing in and finishing the background elements. After that, it was time for work where I was able to leave my sketchbook sit open and continue to air dry.
About a week later, I finally found the time to finish the painting. Luckily I had my color-key to fall back on because I had forgotten much of what the scene looked like over the course of that week. I wanted to contrast the subject (pumpkin) against the light, subdued background. To accomplish this, I decided to use a strong value range in the subject (strong lights, strong darks, and a range of middle values) as well as having the pumpkin's colors be rich, saturated and gritty. I used a process called granulation for the rich, gritty color, then glazed my darks over top when it was dry.
Granulation: I learned this technique in a DVD on granulation by the fantastic watercolorist, Don Andrews. For those interested, I highly recommend his videos. I clipped my sketchbook to an easel so I had a very steep angle (maybe 60-70 degrees) and began by painting the entire pumpkin in very rich, very wet Phthalo. Blue (GS). Once finished, while it was still wet, I painted the entire pumpkin again, this time with French Ultramarine, working from the top to the bottom, so the new, wet blue washed out most of the previous blue. You can see the drip marks, at the bottom, where all this color was washing off the page. I continued this process, working around my palette, next through my violets, then reds, then oranges and finally yellows. All-the-while, I kept the image wet and allowed new colors to wash out previous colors.
Once I had gone around my palette, ending in the color area I wanted this to finish at, I began adding oranges, reds and yellows, pushing and washing back and forth, until I fine-tuned the colors I wanted in terms of hue, saturation and intensity. This whole process results in a color with depth and grit. It’s a far different result than simply mixing the "right" color in a palette and then placing that color on the page.
With my highlights adequately washed back out, I allowed the whole thing to dry completely. I then finished the image off by mixing a dark, transparent earthy green and glazing the shadows onto the pumpkin. There was a potted plant near the pumpkin, just off the page, and the reflected light from it was causing part of the shadows to be filled with a green light, so I decided to use that green for all of the shadows. This helped to unify the entire image and simplify my color choices.
If you're not familiar with granulation, give it a try. Set your paper up at a high angle so color can drain off the page. Keep things wet. And just go for it. Start with your colors that are nothing like the color you want to end with, then slowly work your way around the palette until you get to a color destination. Then, while still wet, fine tune colors back and forth until the color is exactly what you wanted. Finally, lay your paper flat or mostly flat (to reduce draining) and allow the color to dry.
The granulation process is a great way to get depth of color in a subject, whether it is a dirty pumpkin, human flesh tones or color-changing fall leaves. Working wet into wet and washing colors out grants a large amount of control (you're never stuck with a bad color; just wash it back out). However, as granulation is a messy process requiring color to drain and wash off the page, I prefer not to paint this way at coffee shops or diners for fear of getting kicked out or simply making their place a mess. But a quick, non-messy sketch while you're out can help you create a granulated painting when you get back home.
Enjoy the changing colors this Autumn and keep those pencils moving.
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