Seasons + Mixed Media Process

I am a very seasonal person.  I find my creative energies waxing and waning with the growth of the plants, the temperatures outside, and the natural palettes of the earth.  That said, summer is definitely my period of "creative hibernation."  Maybe it's the intense heat and humidity of the Southeastern United States, maybe it's the bugs and sweat, but every year when summer rolls around, I find myself creatively exhausted.  I'm definitely a cold weather person!

Different seasons bring different sorts of inspiration for me.  For instance, I find I do the most writing in fall and early winter, while late winter/spring are good for editing.  Similarly, I seem to be particularly inspired with papercuttings in that period of Indian summer: the tail end of August through the middle of September.  Then I revert back to more traditional watercolors as the trees turn.  These aren't "rules" of mine by any means, simply observations of my own particular artistic rhythms.  Of course, no matter the season, I have to complete my normal work; but isn't it nice when preference and obligation sync up?

Everyone goes through creative slumps or "down-times" now and then (for me, it's easier to call them "down-times" than "blocks" as the latter tends to be quite a frightening word for creatives).  But I think it's important to keep working through them: drawing/painting every day, learning new skills, and sharpening existing techniques.  Because deadlines don't care about how you're feeling. 

These days, I almost always have a mixed media "doodle painting" going on my desk that I work on here and there while other paintings dry or I just need a break.  Unlike oils or other similar mediums that I have to work on in long spurts, mixed media allows me to dabble some now, some later.  Below, I outline my basic mixed media process (which for me involves mostly watercolor and gouache) from start to finish:

1. Sketch

Since I work primarily in watercolors, I sketch quite lightly, then tap the sketch down with a kneaded eraser which accomplishes two things: 1) it lightens the sketch so that it won't show in the finished painting and 2) removes excess graphite so that the paint pigments don't become muddied. 

I sketch like a painter, which is to say minimally and loosely, since all the real work for me comes later (and a lot of details are lost in the first few washes anyway).  This also gives me the freedom to further refine the image as I go.  My one exception is the face: I'll include most of the facial lines/details in my sketch, since a very small change here can drastically alter the image (nose too long, eyes too small/not even, etc.). 

2. Background Washes

There are lots of "rules" for mixed media (what goes down first, how to layer and combine media, etc.).  For the sake of brevity however, I'll stick to explaining just my own process.

With watercolor, lay down your lightest shades first, as well as the areas furthest back in the painting (usually, your background).  Which, I completely disregard here.  That's the funny thing about art: there are all kinds of "rules," but you have to learn the rules in order to break them (I'm a big believer in this, especially when it comes to things like realism, anatomy, and perspective).  Since the selkie will be painted in gouache, I don't have to be so careful about preserving her outlines.  If you want to be really careful, you can apply masking fluid to the figure.  I, however, am not that tidy.  I also like doing a wide background wash, as it helps tone the figure and keep her palette harmonious with the background colors.

The scan below actually shows several washes, adding different colors each time.  Watercolor takes a bit of layering to darken up/make really vivid, so for the edges, I applied several washes of deep ultramarine + burnt umber, with a mix of deep ultramarine + viridian + aqua for the middle.  The great beauty of watercolor, for me, comes from all the colors you can hide in one area.  If you look closely, you can spy tinges of purple, rose madder, and burnt umber in the background. 

I also took the opportunity here to add some texture to the background with a sponge.  This is a very old technique, used by illustrators like Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham, but can be quite tricky as it relies on precise dry times (I have a separate tutorial for it here).  I also sponged away the pigment at the focal point of the painting: the selkie's face to help it stand out more. 

3. Base Colors

In doing so many dark background washes, I almost completely lost my sketch (thankfully I had scanned it earlier, so I could refer back to it as needed).  However, I can see the basic shapes, such as the selkie's face and the curve of her tail, which is enough for me to get started.  This is why I never spend too long on the sketch.

Using gouache, I lay down the base colors for the selkie: her skin, sweater, and tail.  Then, I start marking out her face and adding the making the gradient for her hair.


4. Details

Once the base colors and shadows are painted, I start adding details, such as the cabling on her sweater, strands of her hair, and tail spots.  I also add highlights to her face and hair to help them pop more.



5. Photoshop Test

If this was a real illustration, instead of just a doodle painting, I would've already planned out the image and colors with thumbnails and color comps.  However, since I didn't do any planning, I decided to scan it and do some test runs of different colors/rock placements in Photoshop.  This allows me to play with endless different options without affecting my painting.  This is an especially helpful tool with watercolor, as there's no going back once you've made a mark on the paper!


6. Background Details

If you covered the foreground (in this case, the selkie) with masking fluid or knew that you were going to use opaque acrylic gouache for the figure, you could've done this step after completing the background washes.  But again, since I more or less made this up as I went, I finished the background pattern towards the end.  In this case, I added rounded diamond shapes in gradients to represent the flowing Arctic waters.  I also added the rocks with acrylic gouache and painted patterns on them with watered down gouache in a light mint.

7. Finishing Touches

To finish off the painting, I added some white highlights to her hair, and painted ripples in the water with a more watered down white.  Overall the painting still has plenty of problems, but since it's just an un-planned doodle, I'll let it stand as is.  There is a very fine line between putting enough work into a painting and knowing when to stop.  Unfortunately, this is one of those things that is best learned by doing (and messing up plenty!).

And even if I'm not totally satisfied with the painting, I still accomplished my goals with it: to visually think about Arctic selkies and how to represent them and to have fun!

Happy painting!