Watercolor Tutorial with Judy Betts

This demonstration is from “Chords of Color” by Holly Davis in the July/August issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

“Chords of Color” By Judy Betts

“First, an idea!” as Rex Brandt would say. You must have a passion for the subject you paint. As children, my sister and I shared a horse, and my husband and I owned horses early in our marriage. Over the years, my equine interest has expanded to ranches, cowboys, and rodeos. Ed Whitney said, “If in doubt, repeat the theme,” so I planned to include several cowboys and horses in my painting; however, to simplify the idea I would leave out fences, trees, sky, dogs, cattle, children, vehicles, and barn—any of which might appear in my reference material.

I decided that my first layer of color would be light, diagonal warm and cool washes running corner to corner. Before I applied these initial washes, however, I had to decide whether I’d paint around light areas and arbitrary white shapes or use a liquid resist. For the painting Cowboy Tales (page 73) and its preliminary studies, I decided to use liquid resist.

As I worked on my studies, I also considered my color dominance—warm, cool, or gray. This entire thinking process takes a lot of time. I think of my studies as dress rehearsals. The final painting is the performance.

After the initial wash, I applied three glazes (sometimes I apply 10 or 12). My glazes usually cover the corners, putting the spotlight on the center of the painting. As I neared the end of my painting, I added bursts of color to small, saved white areas. These decorative pieces added accents and rhythm—like staccato in music.

A. Diagonal Washes: To create a diagonal wash, I wet the paper with a 2-inch flat brush and ran diagonal warm and cool graduated color from corner to corner. You can see the warms and cools going from corner to corner in all of my preliminary studies (B). Even in the finished painting Cowboy Tales (page 73), you can see that those initial washes still show through the subsequent layers of paint.

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B. Studies: With each of these 6×9 or 9×6 studies, I worked through ideas of various portions of my full design concept. First I created broken-line drawings with a No. 2 pencil on 140-lb. watercolor paper. Then I applied liquid resist to preserve the light values. After the resist dried, I applied the initial washes as described in A (at left). I never wet the paper after applying the initial paint layer, but once a paint layer dries completely, I may add additional liquid resist, as I did in the study of the three cowboys, to preserve light colors. The study of the cowboy standing behind the horse has the initial washes only. The other studies have additional layers over the initial washes.

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Below: In Cowboy Tales (watercolor, 15×22), I gave the figures as little detail as possible. I think of the three cowboys on the right as the chorus and the one on the left as a solo performer. The orange and blue areas behind them call attention to the men, and the horse on the left serves as an arrow pointing to the figures. Notice the small pieces of color throughout the painting (the insides of the horse’s ears are two different colors!) as well as the large graduated areas of color. Notice also that my darks are really just colorful, darker midtones. For me, these combined effects of value, shape, and color create a symphony. I can almost hear Aaron Copland’s Rodeo!

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Judi Betts earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in silversmithing and jewelry making from Indiana University Bloomington and a master’s degree in education from Louisiana State University–Baton Rouge. She’s received more than 100 awards from major watercolor competitions, and her work has appeared on national television, in more than 35 books, and in numerous invitational exhibitions around the world. She’s taught more than 425 workshops and written two award-winning books, Watercolor … Let’s Think About It! and Painting … a Quest Toward Xtraordinary, both available from Aquarelle Press. For more information, visit her website at www.judibettsaws.com.

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