The making of “Elsie Takes a Pea”

I start with a piece of Winsor & Newton 144# cold press paper, 22 x 30.  I soak the paper briefly in cold water and then stretch it on a product called Zipp clamp (available at ). I work pretty wet, so the stretching prevents the paper from buckling down the line.  The Zipp clamp leaves a clean white edge all the way around when the painting is complete, which I like.

After the paper has dried, I prop the board at a slight angle and rewet the paper with clean water and a sponge.  I wipe the wet sponge on the paper in a random fashion, kind of like I’m wiping off a counter.  There are small areas that are missed by the sponge and stay dry, but most of the paper is pretty wet.  I mix up small pots of diluted watercolor in four colors: new gamboge ( a golden yellow), peacock blue (saturated turquoise), French ultramarine (a deep blue that granulates beautifully) and one red.  I have experimented with a lot of red pigments, but lately my choice is often permanent red.  Using large brushes, I randomly apply each of these paints to the very wet paper and let them mix and run.  I don’t really brush them on; I drop them and drip on more clean water with a sponge to make them really move. The areas that were left dry will stay white, and these add interest to the final painting.  I let the paper dry again after this step.

I do my drawings on tracing paper, not on the watercolor paper.  This allows me to erase as I’m drawing and not mar the surface of the watercolor paper.  When I am happy with the drawing, I transfer it to the paper, on top of the layer of random color.  I use homemade carbon paper and trace my drawing using a pen, so I can see where I’ve been.

Now I’m ready to begin painting the subject.  I like to start with the darkest darks.  I mix up a cup of something that is almost black, using alizarin crimson and winsor green, yellow shade.  I apply it in the large background area and on the hat brim, starting in one corner of the area and using a pretty small brush, constantly moving the edge of the paint a little bit and keeping the edge always wet.  I must move quickly on this.  Next, I paint the hat brim by wetting the entire brim and dropping in color.  I use a very limited palette:  the four colors from step 2, plus occasional use of alizarin crimson, winsor green (ys), aureolin yellow, sepia, burnt sienna and burnt umber.  I will also often use one Daniel Smith quinacrindone pigment in a painting.  In this painting, I use quinacrindone coral.

Now I start on the face, because that’s what I’m really interested in, and for me the painting doesn’t start to have a life of its own until the person shows up in it.  I look for natural lines on the face (the edge of the cheek between the nose and   mouth, for example) and use those as edges of a painted area.  Then I wet the entire area I’m planning to paint and drop in color where I want it, using gravity and the angle of the painting board to get the paint to flow.  I try not to brush paint on so much as touch it to a wet area and let it mix with another color that I place nearby.  The painting looks funny at this point, but I can see where I’m going and the painting is starting to develop a personality.  I leave highlights where the light hits the nose and lip, but you can see that these are not white, but the colors of the first layer.  They “read” as white or as sunlight because of the contrast with the darker colors, but they are random colors and I think they are more interesting than flat white highlights.

I finish the rest of the face in the same way and paint the hair, which is mostly ultramarine blue.  I have a pot of the blue ready to go before I get to the hair edge of the face, because I want the hair to mix wet into the face so there’s not a hard edge there.  I drop other colors in with the ultramarine while it’s wet to make the hair look interesting– burnt umber and sepia, mostly.  I want this painting to have a red/green complementary color scheme going on, so I get this nice coral red in on the inside of the shirt.  This is mostly quinacrindone coral with some other colors dropped in.  I like it with the green on the collar at the back of the neck.

I paint the closest hand, using the same method as for the face.  I find a natural line (veins and tendons, in this case), wet up to that line and drop paint in until I’m happy with it, let it dry, then wet another area and do the same.  I also get some green on the shadow side of the white blazer.  This green is mostly peacock blue with my two yellows.  I decide on a deep purple (ultramarine and alizarin) for the purse, to make it similar to the hat band and keep the color scheme from getting too busy.

Now I paint the other hand.  I don’t have a photographic reference for this, since the lady’s other hand wasn’t in this position in the original photographs I took.  I used my own hand as a reference when I was doing the drawing, and my hands aren’t quite this old-looking (yet!)  So I need to try to make the hand look older, with wrinkles I make up and enlarged knuckles.  I hope this is successful enough that it won’t look odd to anyone.  I do like that the highlight on the hand ended up being very gold, by chance.

The produce bag is a challenge.  The shadows on the original bright white bag are very subtle, but there is so much color in this area from the first layer that I need to make the shadows dark enough to show up as shadows, rather than as a design painted on the bag.  I end up with kind of an abstracted version of the bag, and I’m OK with that.  I also put in a nice dark but warm area to represent the inside of the sleeve in the foreground.

The pea is last!  A few adjustments here and there, and I’m done.  “Elsie Takes a Pea.”  I hope people think the name is funny, not offensive.