Realistic Watercolor Painting: A Demo

John Bayalis captures familiar life moments and adds intensity with a light-to-dark painting process in his realistic watercolor paintings.

By Stefanie Laufersweiler

See John Bayalis’s step-by-step demo for Cloudburst (watercolor on paper, 18×30), below.

We’ve all been there: stopped at a red light, slowed in a construction zone, detoured along a side street, confronted by a railroad crossing. For most of us, these are exasperating times, but not for John Bayalis. He paints these familiar moments in a hyperrealistic way that reveals how captivating the commonplace can be.

Early on in his career, the cityscapes and rural scenes of Edward Hopper, Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth impressed Bayalis. Later, on trips to New York City as an art student, he saw the urban landscapes of photorealistic painters Richard Estes and John Baeder.

“I decided to try my own version of the urban landscape featuring views of my hometown in Wilmington, Delaware,” he says. “I found the window reflections and street scenes a good fit for my detailed style.” His interest grew while living in Milford, a Delaware town where he painted and taught art for 30 years. “The street scenes and the vernacular landscape outside of town opened up a wealth of painting subjects.”

The Appeal of Anywhere

Bayalis uses only the white of the paper for his whites, such as for the streetlights and headlights in Central Avenue at Dusk (watercolor on paper, 16×30). He lightly scrubbed the edges to lift color and soften them.

Bayalis’ travels have taken him as far as Ireland and Cuba, but his painting inspiration today comes form his home in St. Petersburg, Fla. “The specific locations often aren’t as important to me as a more universal look — a view of ‘Anywhere, USA,’” Bayalis says. “I’ve often gotten reactions from viewers who were sure that I had painted the scene in their hometown.”

In his interpretations of city and suburban life, Bayalis embraces what he calls the disappearing American landscape — pieces of present-day culture that may be gone tomorrow. For example, the World Liquors store in Central Avenue at Dusk, above, was sold and demolished shortly after Bayalis completed the painting. He’s also drawn to specific lighting scenarios related to the time of day and the weather. “These are situations we can all relate to, sometimes more subconsciously,” the artist says.

Details and Washes Co-Exist for Realistic Watercolor Painting

The southern Delaware scene in Moonrise (watercolor on paper, 16×30) is a nod to the American landscape. “I like to include all the commonplace or ‘vernacular’ objects, like signage, phone poles and wires,” Bayalis says.

Solid planning allows Bayalis the freedom to make changes later. To begin, he develops a workable photo composite on his computer, leaving out distractions that interrupt the composition’s unity, but largely aiming to paint things as they are.

He then transfers a printout, scaled up to the size of the painting, to hot-pressed paper. Bayalis prefers the ease of drawing crisp detail on this surface, a discovery he made when adding lettering to a still life painting. “I transfer the basic image by toning the back of the photo with graphite and then redrawing over it onto the watercolor paper to pick up essential elements,” Bayalis says. “I add more details before starting to paint.”

Bayalis aimed to maintain brightness and color without garishness in Afternoon Showers (watercolor on paper, 18×30), with tropical greens against volatile gray-purple skies.

Then the challenge lies in balancing the loose fluid washes that create gradations and subtle value changes, and the tight rendering of the detailed areas that finish the realistic watercolor painting. “For my painting to be a success,” he says, “neither of these can overwhelm the other. They need to work together.”

Bayalis, who studied oil painting at the University of Delaware before trying watercolor, isn’t a rigid proponent of a limited palette. However, he does avoid complicating the process with too many colors, and he isn’t timid when it comes to application. “I know I can always tone down an area that’s too bright, but I can never brighten what’s too dull.”

Connecting to Viewers

Bayalis’ still life paintings share a nod to iconic elements of Americana with his landscapes. Awake (watercolor on paper, 22×30) features everyday items connected by light and shadow.

You’ll rarely see people in Bayalis’ artwork. “I’ve used people in some of my street scenes. But I think, in general, viewers connect to the scene by placing themselves into it when there aren’t any people present,” he says. “I believe that it enhances the reality of the experience. When we look at paintings, we’re total spectators unless such a connection is made.”

DEMO: Working Light to Dark

To create a realistic watercolor painting, John Bayalis works the entire surface in a traditional light-to-dark approac. Typically, he’ll use his favorite blues — ultramarine and manganese — and violet, along with sepia and phthalo green. He describes his process in his own words, below.

The Artist’s Toolkit

  • SURFACE: Bayalis prefers Arches hot-pressed watercolor paper. “I’ve got to use 300 pound,” he says, “because it’s thick enough that I can really soak it and saturate it with layers of color. My fog paintings require a lot of wetting. I soak them with water and carefully layer to get those irregularities I want in the sky, and even in the foreground.”
  • PAINTS: Sennelier’s tube watercolors are Bayalis’s favorites for their density. “Their warm colors, in particular, are rich and bright.” He also uses Holbein and Winsor & Newton, especially cooler hues such as cerulean blue, manganese blue and violet. Green tube colors run the risk of appearing too artificial in a landscape painting, Bayalis says, so he rarely uses them alone. “I almost always use a yellow hue to begin, and then I mix blue or green into it.”
  • BRUSHES: “I use a combination of kolinsky and synthetic brushes,” Bayalis says. “The synthetics are excellent for lettering, edging and detailing.”
  • OTHER: “The best masking solution I’ve found is made by Sennelier,” the artist says.

Reference Photo

The photographed scene is flat and somewhat gray — and in need of more life for the painting.

Step 1: Loose Washes

After making a pencil transfer drawing on Arches 300-lb. hot-pressed paper, I decide which areas of the composition need masking. This allows me to apply washes liberally and loosely, without losing the white areas I’ll need later. I do color testing for the base background areas. Usually I lean toward brighter colors to start with for the sky and street areas. Watercolors dry to a less intense color, and I can soften any areas that appear too bright with later washes. I wet the entire paper to allow free application for the sky and street areas. After the initial washes dry, I paint in some of the essential elements, such as background trees, buildings, and cars.

Step 2: Intensifying Color

I intensify the overall color, keeping washes loose. Active brushwork over the entire surface creates a rainy look. A bit more violet in the predominant manganese hue intensifies the sky. While the paint is still wet, I also intensify the street and trees, indicating more details. At the same time, I develop the reflective areas of the paved surfaces. I will pick out smaller details in the cars and buildings as well. Next, I evaluate whether the overall value seems dark enough to provide contrast against the streetlights and headlights.

Step 3: Adding Details, Checking Values

Once I’m happy with the overall value in the sky and street, I add traffic lights and details to the buildings on the left. I paint the trees using richer values and subtle textures to maintain an atmospheric feeling. Meanwhile, I use more intense color in the reflections on the wet street. Next, I determine whether the values are accurate in the background. Once the masking is removed, it’s difficult to paint back into it.

Step 4: Bright Finish

I remove the masking from the highlighted areas using a shaped kneaded eraser. I want these areas to be as bright as possible and to “shine” through the rainy background. This requires colors like cadmium yellow light, opera rose and cadmium red light for the warm lighting effect. I apply details to the cars, rewetting them as necessary to soften them. In Cloudburst (watercolor on paper, 18×30), I’ve worked to keep the focus softer, as it would appear on a wet day.

Meet the Artist

JOHN BAYALIS’s work is noteworthy for its distinct realist style. His skill with realistic watercolor painting, and with contemporary themes and subject matter has earned him acclaim from art critics and collectors throughout the United States. He has received numerous awards, and his work is featured in both private and public collections. Learn more at

STEFANIE LAUFERSWEILER is a freelance writer and editor living in Cincinnati. A version of this article first appeared in Watercolor Artist magazine.

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