5 Watercolor Artists Share Their Unique Processes | Part 2

They artists create healing, meditative floral images, the look of stained glass, and vignettes of people in their element.

From left: Be Yourself by Georgia Mansur; Inside and Outside by Julia Dufault McGrath

By Norman Kolpas

In this two-part series, we’ve invited five successful watercolor artists to share some works from their portfolio as well as the unique processes they use to create them. Their stories and approaches shed light on watercolor and the steps involved, offering a wide-ranging look at the medium.

In Part 2 below, you’ll learn about Georgia Mansur and Julia Dufault McGrath; these watercolor artists employ detailed, unique processes to create healing, meditative floral images, the look of stained glass, and vignettes of people in their element. (Check out Part 1 for even more incredible watercolorists.)


Georgia Mansur

Georgia Mansur enjoys a worldwide reputation as a watercolorist and teacher known for vibrant plein-air landscapes. But when her husband died last year, after a brave battle with brain cancer, Mansur began focusing on a deeply meditative painting process that enables her “to really tune into my feelings in a very peaceful and healing way.”

The results are expressive floral images that seem to spring directly from the soul.

Juicy puddles of orange, red, violet, and green coalesced into an exuberant study of poppies that seem to be blowing in the breeze.

Mansur’s Process

Working from her home in the Northern Beaches region of Sydney, Australia—in a studio with a water view—she begins by using large brushes to apply “a big, wet, juicy wash” of colors—selected from her own signature palette of 16 by Daniel Smith Watercolors—on a full or half sheet of rough-textured 300 lb. watercolor paper from Arches, Saunders Waterford, or Baohong. “I want a paper that won’t buckle when I saturate it with a lot of water and pigment,” she explains. While the paint is still liquid, “I move it around to create different effects, bruising and scratching the paper with a palette knife, credit cards, toothbrushes, kitchen tools, whatever I need.” Then she leaves the paper to dry overnight.

After laying down broad washes of color and letting them dry overnight, Mansur begins the gradual process of defining the images to create a watercolor she titled Be Yourself. “I literally decided to go with the flow of the painting,” she says.
Be Yourself

Following Her Instincts

The next day, she regards the color-washed sheet anew. “I’ll turn it around from every angle to let it speak to me and see what’s emerging,” Mansur says. Following her instincts, she embarks on the next step: She uses a scalpel or sharp, fine-pointed scissors to cut out small, abstract shapes from sheets of old X-ray film. She then strategically places these templates on top of her watercolor and lifts away the areas of colored wash beneath the cut-outs, using a damp sea sponge or paper towels, gradually “designing the painting in a way that makes sense.” Lastly, she fine-tunes the composition by adding details with a tapered brush.

Mansur organizes her palette of signature colors from Daniel Smith Watercolors in a color-wheel arrangement. “If you set complementary colors opposite each other, you get a gray that’s in perfect harmony with the colors you used. It’s the gorgeous grays that make the other colors sing.”
Hydrangeas x 2 began, says Mansur, “as a class demo, showing the students not to be scared of being a little bit wild and crazy in the first stages of a painting. Those flowers were just two giant purple blobs until I cut out my little shapes and started putting in those leaves underneath the heads of flowers and negative space behind the vases.”

Mansur now shares this process in workshops. To her deep satisfaction, she finds that it helps her students “address their own stress or grief or trauma. Then they start creating the really joyful, beautiful paintings they want to create.”

To learn more about Georgia Mansur’s artwork and creative process, visit https://georgiamansur.com.

Julia Dufault McGrath

Even the quickest glance at one of Julia Dufault McGrath’s watercolors speaks to her painstakingly detailed painting process. Yet, her ultimate goal is to arrive at something that looks almost effortlessly intimate, whether it’s a nature scene that is “more a vignette than a full landscape” or a portrait that reveals subjects in “captured moments doing something they love.”

Sand Artist, says McGrath, is “my favorite painting of all time.” The work also serves as a perfect example of her primary goal for her figurative watercolors: “capturing people doing everyday things they love to do.”
Credit the sunlit quality in much of McGrath’s work to the fact that, when the weather allows, she often likes to paint outdoors. “If I see a beautiful object that’s casting a beautiful shadow, it’s speaking to me. I love it.”

A Love of Watercolor

Michigan-based McGrath’s love of watercolor began haltingly in a prerequisite course as a painting major at Wayne State University. “The grad-student instructor never taught us how to harness the magic of the paint,” she says. But when she was pregnant with her second daughter at the age of 29, she revisited watercolors. She finally learned to respect and love the medium, treating it with the deliberation it deserves. This sometimes means spending as many as 120 hours on a single work. “With watercolors, you really have to think about the end game and plan the painting out before you start.”

Inside and Outside is a portrait of McGrath’s daughter Chelsea. Using half-inch-wide black artist’s tape, she formed a random grid around Chelsea’s image, resembling the lead that frames the pieces of a stained-glass window.
Once the watercolor image for Inside and Outside was complete—including the stamped patterns that are a signature of her work—she removed the tape, mixed a dark hue reminiscent of weathered lead, and painted in the grid.

McGrath‘s Process

McGrath’s deliberations begin with “a lot of sketching and drawing,” sometimes inspired by reference photos or, for still lifes, by objects she sets up. Once she arrives at her composition, she executes a pencil drawing on a sheet of vellum the same size as the painting will be. She flips the vellum over and goes over the drawing on the reverse side. Then she turns it face up again and places it on top of a sheet of 300 lb. watercolor paper—she likes Arches and Winsor & Newton. She traces over it once more, the pressure transferring the pencil lines on the back side onto the paper’s surface.

Once her sketch is ready, McGrath begins the painting process. Some aspects of a subject, such as skin tones, can involve more than three dozen separate layers of watercolor. “I’ll lay down cadmium yellow light, let that dry, then go in with a wash of alizarin crimson,” she explains. “If I need it to be cooler, I’ll lay down some dioxazine violet or Hooker’s green dark or French blue. It’s like stained glass: You can see through each layer, and it gets richer and richer.”

A Drawing Transfer In Action

On a 2014 visit to the port city of Sa Đéc in southern Vietnam, one stall-keeper in particular caught McGrath’s attention. “Her gaze, looking straight at me very proudly, reminded me of Manet’s Olympia. I immediately snapped a photo.” Back home, that image became the basis for a detailed pencil drawing, which she then transferred to watercolor paper.
Before beginning her painting of the central figure, McGrath applied pale washes of color to the paper. “A lot of watercolor artists like to get rid of the white of the paper, which can intimidate you,” she says.
The finished painting, Woman of Sa Đéc, demonstrates the artist’s mastery of capturing fine details in vibrantly saturated colors.

To learn more about Julia Dufault McGrath’s artwork and creative process, visit https://www.juliadufaultmcgrath.com.

If you haven’t already, check out Part 1 of this series to get to know the work and unique processes of Ellen Diederich, Tina Bohlman, and William Ressler. These three watercolorists have mastered the art of capturing rural scenes and small-town life.

All 5 watercolor artists as they appear in this series:

Kolpas is a Los Angeles-based freelancer who writes for Mountain Living and Colorado Homes & Lifestyles as well as Southwest Art. For more inspiring artist profiles, get your subscription to Southwest Art here.

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