The Weight of History: A Step-by-Step Watercolor Demonstration

The Weight of History:

A Step-by-Step Watercolor


The University Club, New York

The Subject
   New York is a great place to paint while traveling–there is an endless variety of subject matter on the streets. There is also a world of interesting subject matter contained in the interiors of historic buildings for those who would bring an artistic eye to them. Some of these places are open to the public, some not. Not long ago, Ann and I were invited to a reception at the private University Club in Manhattan.

   “This venerable institution was designed by The firm of Charles McKim, William Mead and Stanford White, who were all members, got the architectural commission and went on to design what remains one of the grandest clubhouses of the city's prominent social clubs.

   Erected in 1899 in a Mediterranean Revival Italian Renaissance palazzo-style and particularly noted for its reading room (with ceiling murals by H. Siddons Mowbray
modeled after the Vatican Apartments), dining room, and the attempt made by the architects to disguise a nine-story building behind what seems to be a three-story facade.”        -   Wikipedia

My Motivation
   The architecture is truly magnificent inside and out. This is a place completely out of another era and it is in beautiful condition. I was most impressed by the art collection, the vaulted library chock-full of old books and the old globes mounted on heavy stands showing a far different political geography than today. The ceilings in the vaulted portion of the library are covered in beautiful murals by Mr. Mowbray and contribute to the sense of history and power. I could sense that the men who have relaxed in this building over the decades were the leaders of their day in every aspect of the government and economy. Their decisions affected everyone. Some of them may have contributed to the collapse of the Stock Market in 1928. Perhaps some of them had made momentous decisions during wartime. I decided I would make some paintings–watercolors of what I saw and felt in those spaces.
                          arches block of watercolor papers    pencil drawing by John Hulsey


   After my pencil sketches were complete and satisfied my intentions, I redrew the composition on my block of Arches cold press paper. I prefer the cold press surface rather than the rough because I can lay down washes faster and hold more detail in my focal area on its surface. I use an H or HB lead in a clutch pencil to do this drawing. Those leads are not hard enough to dent the paper nor are they soft enough to smear. Any erasures must be made with a grey kneaded eraser—no other type.

John Hulsey's watercolor equipment  I believe in getting my tools and equipment properly prepared before painting, particularly when working in watercolor.  This is just as important as the drawing and compositional aspects of the painting to come. I can't afford to stop in the middle of a wash because I've failed to put enough paint in my palette or mix enough to finish the wash. To fail to do so might spell disaster! This is a photo of my taboret table next to my inclined painting table. Notice the very large (150 oz.) blue plastic water container made from a laundry detergent bottle. This ensures that I need never stop and get clean water during a painting. Also on the table are a mini version of the water container for quick sketches, a tall water supply squirt bottle to efficiently put water where it is needed, and a bottle of gum arabic. Gum arabic is the “glue” which holds watercolor pigments together and can also create a stained glass effect in colors. I have also laid out my favorite Richeson brushes for the job ahead—two size #20 rounds, a size #12 round, a 1-1/2 inch flat wash, and a 1/2 inch flat wash.

The Painting

   I generally get to know a subject by executing small, 12 x 16 inch watercolor studies before attempting a full-sheet painting. This allows me to uncover any problem areas in composition, color or technique before committing to a big sheet of paper. Working on a 20 x 30 inch sheet is impressive, but the size can compound problems really quickly.
                             Watercolor string.

  Just like in oil painting, I prefer to mix color strings before I paint. Basically, these are mixes of the mass tones in the painting, from warm to cool. I will paint my first washes from these two strings.

                                                      The Weight of History watercolor, © J. Hulsey


   It is always a good idea to begin painting in the focal point of the painting. In this study, I chose to paint finished areas as I went, keeping the detail in the focal point fresh and clean.

The Weight of History watercolor, © J. Hulsey


With the focal figure finished, I began working the contiguous areas, keeping a wet edge and softening details as I worked. I try to paint the way we see—that is, the subject of interest is sharply focused, everything peripheral becomes softer. With watercolor, this is simple to achieve by using wet washes for the other supporting areas. Simple, but not necessarily easy! Good instruction, intense focus, accurate timing and lots of practice controlling wet into wet washes is required before attempting this technique.

The Weight of History watercolor, © J. Hulsey

      This close-up of the mural detail gives you an idea of how I use a schematic drawing with no shading, to guide my wet-into-wet washes in these areas.
The Weight of History watercolor, © J. Hulsey





This is the next color string—the greens in the mural. You can see here how I have moved the last string over and saved it to use for my colorful harmonized neutrals.

The Weight of History watercolor, © J. Hulsey





    I always look for places where I can hide an edge so that my wash doesn’t have to be too large. Once an area is wet, the paper has been conditioned and the clock on that condition starts ticking. Color laid in too soon just runs into a blob. Color put in at just the right moment softens, but holds a shape. Color put in too late doesn’t “marry” with the previous wash and creates a hard edge which stands out. Here I am using the edge of the throne as a natural boundary, which allows me to wet the entire right section of the mural and stroke colors in as the watercolor clock allows. I used the same approach for the left side of the mural, and then painted the throne last.
The Weight of History watercolor, © J. Hulsey



   This is the color mix for the throne details and the new batch of colorful grays which resulted from pushing the last string into the previous one.

The Weight of History watercolor, © J. Hulsey


  Here you can observe my progress as I work the right hand side of the page from top to bottom, finishing the washes as I go. Notice how I have left dry white paper in the shelving so I can retain the bright highlights on the book labels. Planning washes ahead of time is essential to the management of these details. Once they are covered up, it is hard to ever get back the white of the paper.

  While I normally paint progressively from light to dark, in this case I wanted a soft edge on the floor where the dark shadow is cast from the entry. That meant painting the floor all at one go. Because the contiguous area of the bookcase would also be quite dark, there was no risk of that dark shadow bleeding into a lighter wash as I painted next to it.
 The Weight of History watercolor, © J. Hulsey 

   This photo shows how carefully controlled wet-into-wet washes can perfectly suggest details without rendering them exactly. All the books were laid in first as finished tones, followed by the lines of the shelving when dry. This took only a minute or two to complete largely because I used the pool of colorful grays for my paint source. Because they are already representative of the colors used in the painting so far, I knew they would harmonize perfectly with the picture. I used the dry paper of the unfinished door frame as a boundary between my finished focal area and the wet bookcase wash.


              The Weight of History watercolor, © J. Hulsey    The Weight of History watercolor, © J. Hulsey
   In the photos above, I am just about to quickly repeat the bookcase performance on the right side before I move on to the door frame. At this point, I can still adjust any colors or values in the mural which butt up against the frame without risk. Once the dark door frame is in, any lighter washes which might overlap or even touch it could be contaminated with the dark frame tones. Again, thoughtful planning is essential.

  The lightest highlights in the mural area are either the white of the paper reserved for that purpose, or touches of opaque white gouache where leaving the paper would have been too tedious. Gouache performs quite similarly to watercolor when diluted and marries well with the watercolor surface. I only employ opaques for tiny little touches in my watercolors. I have always felt that overuse of opaque paint in watercolors is a violation of the spirit and surface appeal of transparent watercolors. 

The Weight of History watercolor, © J. Hulsey

The Finish

   I am reasonably happy with this first effort, but I think that a larger version should be even looser and less detailed. I resolve to work much wetter on the next one and let the paint chips fall where they may. This is the great thrill of acquiring some technical facility with watercolors—the ability to let go of the need to control it and let the paint do what it does best.

Copyright Hulsey Trusty Designs, L.L.C. (except where noted). All rights reserved.
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