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Study for Tulip Painting in Watercolor

Kaiser Hospital Tulip painting study, watercolor, 4.5" x 6.5"
Kaiser Hospital Tulip painting study, watercolor, 4.5" x 6.5"

I accidentally arrived an hour early for a doctor’s appointment at one of Kaiser Oakland’s medical offices that has an amazing hidden garden. The building is an architectural treasure, built around a courtyard in 1912 by Julia Morgan as a hospital and home for unwed mothers (or so I’ve been told). Instead of reading old, germy magazines, I spent the hour in the courtyard sketching, wandering and taking photos.

After working out the composition and colors, I’ve got two paintings ready to start: a full-size watercolor sheet of the above image and a slightly smaller canvas of another garden scene.

Before starting a large painting I like to do a study first, getting to know the image more intimately, and experimenting with pigments and techniques so when I start the real painting I have a plan of action or at least a sense of direction.

Tulip study and notes for painting, journal spread
Tulip study and notes for painting, journal spread

Since I only recently began experimenting with opaque watercolor pigments after years of using only transparents, I made some discoveries with this study and took notes as I worked. Here are a couple that might be of interest:

  • Opaque pigments (Cadmiums, Cerulean, Yellow Ochre) are great when putting down an area of strong color and leaving it (such as when painting in my journal). But they lift too easily when adding layers over them, and become thick and unattractive when trying to mix darks. As I learned in oil painting, darks/shadows are best when thin so they don’t draw attention to themselves with texture.  Seems to be the case in watercolor as well: better to use staining, transparent darks that won’t lift or get thick. For the dark green areas in the painting I’ll use Sap Green with Sepia and vary with a bit of Indigo, Winsor Violet and/or Alizarin.
  • The Legion/Utrecht 100% rag watercolor paper I’m using in my journal lifts incredibly easily. This is great when you actually want to lift paint but not so good when you just want to soften an edge and a bunch of paint lifts off instead!

Here are the original reference photo and the Photoshopped version. As you can see I got rid of some distractions and changed the proportions a bit.

Original reference photo of tulip in garden
Original reference photo of tulip in garden
Photoshopped tulip reference photo
Photoshopped tulip reference photo

Photoshop CS5 has some great new composition tools, such as “Content-Aware Fill” which I used to fill in the windows, white at top right corner and a tulip on the right margin. You just select and delete sections you want to replace and PS fills them with information from the surrounding area. I also narrowed the image to fit the proportions of the 22×30 watercolor paper using Content-Aware Scaling which preserves the proportions of the important stuff while squeezing in (or stretching) the other stuff.