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It’s all about the layers!

Updated: Oct 23, 2021

I was first introduced to the concept of “painting layers” when I began taking oil-painting lessons at the age of 10, in California (see my Blog post #2). I learned how to keep layers thin and translucent so that another color “deep-down” beneath my layers might be seen to “glow” through the translucency. I also learned a little bit growing up, from various art-teachers about the development of “Grisaille” layers implemented as an oil “underpainting” toward the late Renaissance. (Previously, a “Grisaille” — literally: “gray layer” in French — had been a painting created only in shades of gray to simulate sculpture in a highly realistic way, particularly on church walls. I often wonder if this was an inexpensive option to hiring a renowned sculptor?) By creating this underpainting in oils, most of the shadows of an object or portrait subject, are being painted in “gray,” and the structure of darker details is highly developed. After years of evolution, the method of painting "en Grisaille" changed as transparent glazes of color began to be applied over the dry layers of Grisaille shades. (Ex: flesh tones.)

What I did NOT know, and was never taught in my youth, was that this same type of painting could be applied to watercolor! When I learned that, it was a true “light-bulb” moment for me, and it changed my entire thought-process for working in watercolor.


The background for this is lengthy, so I’ll try to be concise here. I left “Corporate America” early at the age of 48, having become a completely frustrated Graphic Designer (of 30+ years). My health was even suffering from all the stress. So, at the age of 48, I quit my career, and with the help of my husband, launched a new one — slowly. Since childhood, I had only one desire: to be an artist. I could have easily pursued my oil-painting further, but I already knew I was TOO SLOW with oils. All those layers take monumental amounts of time to dry! I literally cringed at the thought of attempting watercolor again, but a wonderful thing happened: our son was dating a girl whose mother was a watercolorist and we became good friends. Long story short, she got me to go with her to a New Mexico Watercolor Society meeting in November of 2009, and the demo-artist for that meeting was none other than the brilliant New Mexico watercolorist, Jae Drummond! I was already a true fan of Jae and her father, David, and had encountered both of them at large art shows held here in Albuquerque. The meeting that blessed November morning changed my artistic life. I met with Jae later and told her I wanted to take a workshop or class from her, and thus began our acquaintance. Due to a diagnosis of breast cancer several months later, at which time my entire life was put on hold, I wasn’t able to take that workshop for another year. When I did, Jae saw potential in me and my work, and told me she would love to give me private lessons, and have me study under her. I eagerly agreed to that. So it was Jae Drummond who taught me “Everything-I-Always-Wanted-To-Know-About-Watercolor” between late 2010 and 2013. I felt truly blessed, and Jae and I are now good friends.

Next, I studied online under the incomparable Dylan Scott Pierce during the summer of 2016, after purchasing the 21st issue of “The Art of Watercolour,” (Winter, 2015/16). I learned a great deal from watching Dylan paint; learning the way in which he handles his color palette. Not only does he position his pigments on the palette with the traditional “complimentary color-wheel,” but his emphasis is on those pigments which create “perfect” neutrals. I have adopted his palette as my own, and my two favorite pigments are Winsor-Newton’s “Antwerp Blue” and “Brown Madder.” In my opinion these create a perfect neutral gray for the Grisaille underpainting technique. In addition, these two pigments are easily “lifted” and/or softened when necessary. (I’ve been called “The Edge-Softening Queen” by many of my watercolor students at the NM Art League where I now teach watercolor.)


Here then, are a few images to help visually describe my watercolor Grisaille technique. These were the steps to building my class demo-portrait: “Dame Maggie Smith.” In the portrait classes I teach, I have my students choose an image of a celebrity from “Google-Images” in order to learn to paint a high-quality painting from a rather “low-resolution” screen-quality image. The photo-reference I selected to use for my demo-painting was of one of my very favorite actresses, “Dame Maggie Smith.” (Photo-reference by Nick Briggs:; ©Carnival Films; by permission.)

Step 1: I begin every painting with this Grisaille “shadow layer,” painting “wet-in-wet.” Traditionally known as an underpainting in oils, with my “light-bulb” moment in 2010 came the realization that the first layer to touch watercolor paper is “embedded,” as the water or “water-with-pigment” is absorbed into the paper, “staining” the paper. All other layers merely sit on top of that first layer, and therefore can be moved or manipulated more easily. This makes planning the Grisaille layer very important. I paint the shadows of my subject the same color as my background (be it “Grisaille,” or “Brunaille” which is more of a brown layer), as this creates unity between my background and foreground. This is also painted very wet, and very loosely. I usually begin painting the eyes immediately after I paint the Grisaille layer, after it has dried. I should also add that painting the eyes of any portrait subject is my favorite part of the process! My goal is for them to look as real as possible, and I pay attention to all the subtle nuances of reflection and shadow. I love "giving them life." When viewers of my portraits closely study them in their frames on the wall, I want those eyes to look as if they might blink at any moment!

Step 2: Several steps later, I glaze transparent pigment over the DRY Grisaille layer. You can see how the initial Grisaille layer shows through the transparent layers of pigment. Her eyes were finished, so I began working on her beautiful “age lines.” (I refuse to say the word, "wrinkles!")

Step 3: To the left is a later step where I had layered a few more glazes of color, as well as softened the lines on the face, to achieve a smoother “soft-skin” result. I then began to add a few more “Brunaille shadows” to the hat. This is all a time-consuming process, but the results are usually wonderful and the good news is that the layers dry quickly, unlike oil!

Step 4: To the right is the next step in the process — mostly working on the finer details of her ear, adding the earring, adding more depth to the shadows on the skin, and working on the hat and her elaborate “Downton Abbey” dress.

Step 5: The finished painting. There are about 5-6 layers in total, each becoming “tighter" with detail, and using drier pigment. The final layers are the easiest to move, lift or manipulate because that paint is just sitting on top of everything else. I find that makes the final details very pleasurable to paint, and pretty-much “worry-free.” (I adore the actress Dame Maggie Smith, and I feel she would approve of this portrait, even though I did paint every one of her “age lines.")



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