M. Stephen Doherty

M. Stephen Doherty
The editor of Plein Air magazine at work

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Watercolor Painting As a Live Performance

I normally paint with oils mixed with Galkyd fast-drying medium, so I assume I can make radical changes in the composition of shapes, values, and colors as I formulate the intended outcome of my pictures. But I had to exercise more thought, control, and restraint when I painted scenes of Costa Rica in watercolor during a recent vacation with my family.
It occured to me that one might compare the difference between painting with watercolors and oils as the difference between a live stage performance and a filmed presentation. With watercolor, every gesture is observed and judged by the audience of viewers as if they were watching the painting take shape; whereas with oil the performance is carefully edited so that only the best strokes are seeen. That is, each stroke of watercolor paint brushed across a sheet of paper affects the surface in a way that is permanent; so an artist has to plan the mixtures of pigments and the sequence of application in such a way that a carefully considered result is achieved. Adjustments can be made, and lots of teachers explain how to "salvage" a painting that is either timidly executed of overworked, but the best results are almost always the result of deliberate, planned, and economical actions.
After working on three paintings of the Costa Rican landscape that lacked this kind of sponteneity,freshness, and clarity, I achieved some level of success while sitting on the white sand beach in Manuel Antonio, a growing tourist city along the Pacific Ocean. I drew the key elements of the scene on a 9" x 12" block of Arches watercolor paper using a Sakura Koi Watercolor Brush, a plastic pen that holds and releases watercolor paint like a felt-tipped pen. I filled the pen with a mixture of transparent, non-staining pigments (rose madder genuine, cobalt blue, and aureolin) so the drawn lines with disappear as I brushed stronger colors over them. I started by painting the sky area, applied a dark base color to the rock formations, and gradually refined each area of the picture over a period of 90 minutes.
The finished painting isn't anything I want to brag about, but it does capture my experience of relaxing in the warm, humid atmosphere of the tropical environment. It didn't impress the white-faced monkeys and racoons that were trying to steal food from people on the beach, but it satisfied me. I took some reference photographs so that eventually I can develop a larger and more considered studio painting.


  1. a great lesson and I like your thoughts about your work.
    best regards from Portugal

  2. Hey Steve, I'd be rather proud of this painting - it's beautiful!

    I've found that painting plein air with watercolors is sort of like practicing a sport. After awhile, you build skills so that you get to the point where you can just respond to the scene without having to think as much.

    My gosh, this painting is just gorgeous. You should be more than satified but rather pleased :-)

  3. I agree with Lori Woodward Simons that you have a beautiful painting. Thanks for including the video of the shoreline.

  4. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I think I will leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often. lots in Costa Rica

  5. Excellent way to make art! I love all kind of paintings. Generic Viagra Especially this one, I think you've enough talent to do something more sophisticated. But this artwork is absolutely amazing.

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