Watercolorist Brenda Swenson shakes creative boredom by making colorful mixed-media collages. Here she shares her step-by-step process for San Juan Bautista Mission (watercolor collage on paper, 11×15). Read her article “Little Pieces of Color” in Watercolor Artist (June 2011).
Step 1: Drawing the Image on Watercolor Paper
Consulting my reference photo (below), I make a sketch with black waterproof ink on an 11×15-inch sheet of Arches 300-lb. rough watercolor paper, which is sturdy enough to withstand multiple layers of collage and has a nice tooth for the collage papers to grab onto. I draw only the major elements in the scene to establish their placement and the overall design. As most of these lines will disappear under the collage, it’s essential to make the original line drawing dark. For most pieces, I use a Pitt pen, size M (medium); for larger collages, I switch to a pen with a broader brush tip. If I need to re-establish some details later, I can easily draw them back in with a pencil.
Step 2: Adding the First Elements of Collage
I begin the collage by tearing the paper to get the desired shapes and blocking in the large forms. When I need to work around a complicated element, such as the bell tower, I’ll lay the Japanese paper on top of my ink drawing and use a wet brush to outline the shape; the paper will tear in a more controlled manner along the wet line.
To adhere the collage paper to the surface, I use a 1-inch flat bristle brush—stiff enough to attach the paper firmly to the surface but not so hard that it tears the more delicate papers—to coat the section of watercolor paper with undiluted matte medium. I then place the stained collage paper and apply just enough matte medium on top to secure it—near the borders, the collage paper should overlap the edges of the watercolor paper.
Step 3: Covering the Surface
For this process, the entire surface of the watercolor paper must be covered with collage. So, in this case, even though the building is white, I still need to cover the area with collage papers. I use Japanese Masa paper, which has two distinct sides: I prefer to work with the soft side up and the slick side down. In the foreground, I introduce some warmer-toned paper along with some violet colors from the sky. Integrating the sky color into the landscape and the landscape colors into the sky helps to keep the collage unified.
Step 4: Establishing the Overall Design Pattern
At this stage, I’m not concerned with details; I just want to get the major shapes down. I use both transparent and opaque collage papers and cover the surface with a variety of large, medium and small pieces. The smaller pieces are used mainly around the area I want to develop as my center of interest. To this point, I’ve used a relatively limited color palette, consisting of double complements (red and green, violet and yellow) and neutrals. Although the collage still has a rough, incomplete appearance, the cruciform design format is clearly evident now, and the overall composition is established.
Step 5: Making Adjustments
The ability to make adjustments is one of the advantages of watercolor collage. In reviewing the work in progress, I decide to change the shape of the tree on the left. O do so, I add more violet paper over the top section of the tree. Also, although I like the look of the swirl pattern in the sky (made by Tosa Lace paper, by Awagami), the violet sky seems a bit monotonous. To remedy that, I add yellow, the complementary color, on top. Now I like how the colors in the foreground relate to the colors in the sky and vice versa.
To suggest additional flowers, I tear small pieces of orange and red papers and collage them in the foreground. Additional pieces of violet are also added to strengthen the vertical band in the foreground on the left side.
Step 6: Painting to Unify the Composition
Before I begin painting, I seal the surface of the collage with a 50-50 mixture of matte medium and water and let it dry. As this process reduces the absorbency of the Japanese papers, I use less water when I mix my paints.
I start painting by glazing the right and left sides of the sky with quinacridone violet. I use a mixture of burnt sienna and phthalo blue for the deep green in the tree behind the building on the right; the dark green against the white creates the value contrast and sharp edge needed in my center of interest. Using the same green mixture in the foliage on the tree in the left-hand foreground, I add form and define the trunk. I also start to define the tile rood with quinacridone sienna and transparent pyrrole orange. To tone down the yellow in the sky just a bit, I use a dab of permanent white gouache near the top of the building and fade it out with the colors from my palette, the watercolor paint blends in seamlessly, tying everything together.
Step 7: Adding Details
Only at this point do I begin to think about details. To start, I paint the cast shadow on the building with a glaze of cobalt blue, then, before it dries, I drop in quinacridone sienna. (Note: The first time I paint the shadow I’m not happy with the result. Thanks to the treated surface, I can easily wipe off the color by going over the area with a damp brush and blotting it with a paper towel. Once the area is dry, I simply repaint it.) I also paint a darker value of quinacridone sienna and transparent pyrrole orange under the overhang of the roof. To highlight a few of the red roof tiles, I use a bit of permanent white gouache.
Step 8: Finishing the Painting
I carefully review the painting and make color and value adjustments. In the foreground, I use negative painting to suggest flowers, a technique that keeps the area from seeming too busy. To balance the large white shape of the building, I add a few white flowers with permanent white gouache. The flowers also serve as a passage of white that leads the eye through the foreground up to the center of interest, the old mission. The last thing I do is glaze the two bottom corners; darkening the corners moves the viewer’s eye into the center and away from the edges.
Although there are similarities to the reference image as far as the architectural style of the mission goes, my collage expresses the unmistakable joy I felt at the scene, and no photograph could ever do that.
Read “Little Pieces of Color”
By Brenda Swenson
Stained Japanese collage papers can provide a rich, textured surface for your watercolor paintings. Follow along as this artist shares her process.