The making of a watercolor: A public building

March 27, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Buildings and structures are among my favorite subjects when I paint with watercolors.

Part of the reason for that has to be that when I was learning watercolors, I was teaching at the University of Alabama (where I spent 25 years of my career). That campus has to be one of the prettiest in the nation, and the reason for its beauty is that it is filled with wonderful buildings.

So, several weeks ago — after a furlong from landscapes in general — I decided it was time to paint an interesting building. I am no longer in Tuscaloosa, but East Tennessee has some paintable structures, and for this exercise I chose the Blount County Courthouse in Maryville.

Figure 1

Figure 1

My goal was to avoid a rendering of the building that was too “architectural.” That is, I wanted a somewhat loose painting that could still represent the building in question and would be recognizable to those who would see the painting and knew the building. Therefore, I worked at getting the overall shape and significant elements of the building correct in their shape and proportion, but I did not worry about with too many details.

I drew a light pencil sketch on a piece of Arches 140 pound coldpress paper. Coldpress paper is my preference because of the way that it absorbs paint and allows the painter to mix colors on the sheet.

The sketch can barely be seen in this photo, but it was enough to guide me in getting started.

Figure 2

Figure 2

As usual with almost any landscape, I started with the sky. My basic color was coldbalt blue (Daniel Smith paints), and I mixed in a little yellow just to give it some variety. That same yellowish-green is what I put in the foreground. The principle is that using the same color in more than one place in the painting gives it unity.

The main goals at this stage are to define the building and establish a sense of where the painting is going.

The painting isn’t about the sky or the foreground, so I’m not too concerned with either. They’re just bit players in this drama.

Figure 3

Figure 3

This is where the fun begins. I begin to mold the painting by painting some of the major shadow areas of the building. I’m not really concerned about color or detail. This gives me a lot of freedom to try something different or even a bit wild. Consequently, there is a lot of red in the shadow areas of the left portico. I simply wanted to see how this would work in the painting.

I did not paint every shadow, of course. I made my selection of shadow intuitively. I just wanted to do enough to see the building emerge. This is where I decide if the drawing and the painting are good enough to continue. I generally like what I see.

Figure 4

Figure 3

The courthouse bricks have a distinctive color — one that, fortunately, corresponds closely with the yellow ochre on my palette. I used that color for the main areas of the building and was surprised at how good it looked.

At this stage, I let the watercolor mix with the paper in whatever way it would. That’s part of the fun. There is a point in watercolor where you let the paint take over and hope that it will cooperate.

Figure 5

Figure 4

Now it’s time for the final details of the painting.

I have to remind myself that my goal is to produce a loose painting and that I should include as few details as I can get away with. Still, the windows, steps, and shadows must be recorded. Cast shadows, such as those on the steps, do a great deal toward getting a range of values in the painting and in convincing viewers that this is a realistic representation. The little corner of shadow across the left portico helps in this regard, too.

The finished painting

If I like a painting and think that it’s worth showing to anyone else, I will give it a name or title, sign it, and put a date on it. That’s what I did in this case.

The final painting


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