Art Lesson

Composing a Fairy Painting in Watercolor By Sue Miller/ Copyright 2004

Composing a painting is a very natural thing for's like breathing. My Father, Tony Pacheco, professional artist, musician and teacher taught me how to paint at a very young age. He always told me to look and study everything very carefully. Study all the details of the things in life, He would say, Look, look and look again. The more you look the more you see. There's magic out there that not many people even see or notice. They don't teach you how to see in school. They seem to teach you every thing else but they don't teach you how to see and that is something you will have to learn if you want to be a great artist. Look, look and look closer. By the way that's the secret to finding a Fairy in your back yard. So LOOK and you shall see!

I have been a professional Artist/ Painter all of my life and I was a Commercial Artist for over 20 years. But about 13 or 14 years ago I started my own teaching business while pursuing a very active painting schedule. I teach and paint in my home studio in New Jersey and have over 100 students. My students, ages 5 to senior citizens learn how to draw and paint in watercolors and more. I have taught thousands of students of all ages over the years. I love kids of all ages! My home is like a Fantasy Museum where I have all my original paintings on display for people to see and enjoy when they come in for their lessons. I have years and years of paintings that I've done- Fairy Series, Angel Series, Clowns Series and Fashion Illustrations, Pin Up Girls, Landscapes, Florals, Portraits, Wildlife, Cartoons and character designs. Plus, I've done serious statement paintings about world events...And MORE!

I have been working on a line of Fantasy postcards for many years, which I sell locally plus on the Internet thru my web site I am also presently beginning to sell prints of my artwork thru my website. I always tell my students that the artists pursuit is 10% inspiration 90 % perspiration. You have to keep working at it to be good or hopefully great one day!

When I first start a painting I come up with a series "IDEA"
I get a lot of my ideas from original photos that I take. I am so blessed to have two beautiful nieces that I have used as models for the past several years. They appear on many of my postcard designs. Plus, I have hundreds of beautiful students who come to my home every week. I photograph them for inspiration and ideas for my paintings. Many times I also work from my own imagination...but most of the time I find I can create more detail if I have a photographed image for reference to look at and work from. I have thousands of painting ideas ready to begin work on from the years of photos I?ve taken. I am an avid and prolific photographer also. I keep all of my idea/inspiration photographs carefully organized and filed in folders and photo books called ?IDEAS, READY to PAINT.? With the new computer technology I also now use a digital camera, which makes storing and organizing my photo ideas easier and takes up less space.

I set up the photo and composition of the photo with great care and planning. Having the model wear a specific hat or outfit that I want to paint or holding a special prop that I want use in the finished painting. Once again I will be able to see the detail in my original photo to work from so I can create a more detailed sketch for my painting. From the photo session I will have plenty of references to begin my drawing. Obviously, as an artist, I sometimes take artistic liberties in how I interpret these photographs for the finished painting.

Before I begin my painting I always make sure my work area is clean and organized with all the art supplies I will need to compose and paint. I even sharpen all my pencils ahead of time and keep plenty of clean water containers around to clean my brushes when needed so that I don't have to stop in the middle of my creative time. I always have a scented candle lit in the art room while I work because I believe in aromatherapy and it's calming effects. Plus, I usually have a potpourri burner going with a cozy cinnamon scent or apple pie scent. I also listen to music (usually soft) to keep a relaxed mood in my studio. I never answer my phone when I am painting.

I first sketch the drawing in pencil from my original photo, sketching lightly on the watercolor paper so that I can easily erase if I want to change something. I use a kneaded eraser which is very delicate on watercolor paper it doesn't hurt the surface of the paper when I erase. Erasing is OK and I encourage it. It might take a few times to draw a tricky area takes hard work and focus. Don?t give up. Stick with it and look, look, look. If you are struggling with it are probably NOT looking at it closely enough to see the actual shapes. Try to make it as perfect as you can...there is no rush. Rushing will spoil your work. Look at the shapes.

I use De Arches 300 lb. watercolor paper and most of my paintings are 22 by 28 inches in size. The paper is very expensive but well worth the money. Never scrimp on the quality of your watercolor paper or supplies. My Father always used to say, "You Are Only As Good As Your Tools." If you make a mistake on cheap paper it will not have as much mercy as an expensive paper and will tear when trying to correct (mop up) even the smallest of mistakes. So buy quality paper and supplies.

When I sketch or painting I tend to start with the head and work my way down the figure. I get the face going FIRST, especially the eyes. The eyes tell the whole story of life at that moment.
As I sketch the face and the eyes, the character comes alive and I begin to capture the spirit and soul of the character and the mood of the painting. So, spend a lot of time on the eyes...make sure they are right and beautiful before you go on. Make the top eyelid thicker for a more dramatic eye. After you draw the head, hair and face, work down. Next, get the neck and shoulders drawn in then the arms and hands. Hands are very hard to draw, but study the shapes of the fingers...the bends of the fingers...there are fine lines where the fingers bend so don't forget to look for them and sketch them in. They will help make your pose more convincing. If your figure is wearing clothing, make sure you sketch in the stress marks and folds. They create the motion the figure might have or need or make the clothing or outfit look more detailed and realistic. After you have satisfactorily sketched in the figure, then you can start thinking about what you might want your background or your negative space to be and sketch that in also.

When I start to paint I begin with the lightest colors first... usually the skin tones. Always premix your colors first on your palette before you start to paint. Make sure you mix enough paint to finish your wash. It's better to have extra paint left over on the palette then not enough and have to stop the washing technique, which would probably create an unwanted water line. I start light by mixing water with naples yellow, a pinch of burnt sienna, a pinch of both cadmium red light hue, and thalo crimson. Then I build in the darks very carefully after the base coat is in. The base coat is the first wash color. When you paint a wash, always load your brush with plenty of paint, start at the top and work your way down working fast but carefully, always reloading the brush quickly as it starts to run out of paint. Never stop for too long because the water color "does" start to dry and if it dries too much it will create a water line which will look like a mistake or a blotch that you might not want, especially on the skin. It takes practice to lay a perfect wash so don't get frustrated. Stay with it. I use the Jon Pike Palette. It has a cover so you can cover the paint set each night to keep your paints fresh, clean and dust free. Plus you can mix paint on the reverse cover side. It has lots of mixing areas. I also always keep testing paper by my side while I paint and always check my color mix first on testing paper before I start painting on the actual watercolor paper.

If you make a mistake while painting in your wash (like going outside of the line), dab with a tissue quickly... hit just might be able to pick up the blob or the mistake. If it doesn't come out completely, don't panic. You can always cover it up by painting thicker later on in the painting. Most of the time you can never really ruin a painting. That?s a line I often tell my students. There's usually something creative you can come up with to correct a mistake and turn it into a HAPPY MISTAKE! SMILE

When you mix your paint you will add the watercolor paint and water together. The texture of the paint especially when starting the painting should be like the texture of milk. I use the top name brand of watercolor paints in individual tubes. Windsor Newton or Grumbacher are wonderful name brands.

I also always paint with a brush in one hand and a tissue in the other. Often when watercolor painting, the amount of paint in the brush determines how thick a line will be when you paint. If there is too much paint on my brush I quickly control that by tapping my brush a bit against the thirsty tissue and it empties the brush just enough to perform the particular stroke I want or need. Another trick is to press down hard on the brush for a fatter line or press gently for a thinner line. To create a very thin line I use a white liner 00 brush and I get an extremely thin line by turning the brush gently to a pinpoint on testing paper before I do the thin stroke on my painting. That prepares the brush for this difficult, super thin line work. Always buy good quality brushes. Cheap brushes make for a cheap painting. IMPORTANT...never mix your paints with a detail will destroy it. Only use a larger brush for mixing and save the detail brushes for your line and fine detail work.

I use real watercolor paper for my testing paper. I tear up small sheets and keep them by my side. This way I know exactly what color I am going to be working with. There's no chance of a mistake in color if you always check it out first on watercolor test paper.

After a while this process becomes as natural and easy as breathing. You get lost in the FLOW which is a creative time lapse...a time where the world disappears around you and you are totally engrossed in your work. Time escapes you...sort of a meditative Zen-like state of mind.

After getting all the base coats in the painting, then I begin to paint bolder or darker adding shadows to create a three-dimensional look. I always tell my students, ? The darks are just as important as the lights?. The darks next to the light colors make the light colors look lighter. And, the lights next to the darks make the darks look darker. So be brave with color.

In painting, gradation is a gradual transition of color from light to dark or dark to light without any line. For example, I do this when shadowing faces of the Fairies or anything that is in shadow in the painting. (Around the face or hair line there is usually a shadow.) I start painting the darker line to outline the face. Then I jiggle my brush clean with water, hit the brush 3 times against a tissue, which takes most of the water out of the brush. My brush is now prepared to enter the painting area where I left off and I gently fluff or smudge (back and forth) blending the darker color to the lighter color until the two colors blend and there is no line...just a graduation of color. I do this where there are shadows on the clothing of my fairies, on the hair, foliage and even the background. It makes the picture look more realistic.

When I paint the hair, I always start with the lightest shade first. I give the hair area a base coat of the lightest shade. While it is wet, I take the back of a flat ended brush and pull out or scrape out an even lighter color from the hair in quick long dancing strokes. This technique is actually removing paint from the area allowing some of the light of the watercolor paper to show through. I now have two colors in the hair. Next, when the area is drier, I start adding more dark strokes using a liner brush. I always make sure to add thin wispiness to the top and outside of the head area so that the hair looks more realistic and not like a wig. I keep building hair texture with assorted darker colors always trying to have the hair flow or dance to fit the personality of the particular Fairy, Angel?or Clown or person.

In the painting called "In Touch With Nature,? after painting the Fairy Elf, I painted the background color by first wetting the background area with clean water. Then, after pre-mixing the green paint on my palette, I loaded my brush with paint and applied the green paint to the wet background. When the paint hits the wet paper, a bleeding effect results which gives the painting a soft focus appearance. This technique is called "the wet into wet technique".
In addition to this technique, I add another technique of sprinkling table salt (yes, regular salt) gently in the background, which creates a chemical reaction with the paints, salt, and water. It wonderfully creates the texture effect that appears in the green background of "In Touch With Nature."

Fairy wings are very important so they have to be just right for flight. What I do is paint the wing first with the lighter color then tap in the darker colors where I want them creating a bleeding soft focus effect. Next I sprinkle table salt on the wings, which creates a texture effect. Sometimes I go in and paint more detail when all of this is dry. Other times I leave it, depending on the look I want.

On my painting titled "The Fall," one might notice there are a lot of beautiful fall leaves cascading all around. To create this effect, I first used liquid frisket to cover all of the leaves. Liquid friskit is an invisible covering that is painted over an area that you don?t want to be painted. After it dried, it made it possible for me to paint the blue sky background color over the leaves without covering the area where the colored leaf is suppose to appear. Then, when the blue background was dry, I was able to rub the now dried liquid frisket off with the finger...or use a rubber cement pick up to quickly remove the dried frisket. This left the leaf area untouched and ready with the colors of fall foliage.

In the painting I did called ?The Snowflake Elf,? I painted the Elf as explained earlier. However, when it came to the background, after painting the background area sky blue, I dried it with a hair dryer to save time. Next, after this was dry, I covered the elf figure with carefully cut frisket paper then used a toothbrush and Chinese white water color paint to create the snow storm effect. I took my fingernail and brushed it against the toothbrush making the snow. To create larger, closer up snowflakes, I used the flat back of a larger paint brush and hit the brush into the white paint, then gently hit the paper. (It?s important that you water the Chinese White paint down a little bit before doing this technique.) The finished look is a nice, soft snowfall. Note?. before applying this toothbrush effect, I had sketched in the larger snowflakes and also used the liquid frisket process described above. After everything was dry I removed the frisket paper and liquid frisket, and hand painted all the detail with a super fine liner brush to create the larger, closer up looking snowflakes.

Take good care of your brushes and they will take good care of you. When putting away your brushes, make sure you clean them carefully, tap them gently in a sideways motion as not to ruin the bristles, then store them upright with the HEADS UP... in a cute coffee mug or interesting container. Your brushes are your best friends.

Copyright 2004 Sue Miller? No part of
this art lesson may be reproduced with out permission

All artwork & content copyright Sue Miller-Pacheco
No unauthorized usage of artwork is permitted.

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