The world looks better in watercolor


From Inspiration to Painting

How do you develop a mere idea... an inspiration... into a finished watercolor?

I am an artist just like you. I have the same problems actualizing my creative vision... my ideas... my observations. But one of the main differences is that I have a precise and effective “Working Method” that starts with the fist glimmer of an idea... and follows all the way through to my finished brushwork in a painting. This comes up so often in my Workshops that I thought I’d try to explain precisely what I mean by a Working Method.


A Working Method... is that collection of procedures... steps... and developments that I go through To finally arrive at a finished watercolor

How do you do something like this?

The ability to conceive of an “idea”... a “ vision”... a “concept” or “Inspiration” and then actually develop that germinal idea into a final work of art... does not just “happen”. And Watercolor in particular requires some rather careful planning... “after” you’ve developed the initial idea.

Years ago... working closely with a group of painters here in Cleveland... and trying diligently to help them upgrade their painting skills... I ran into a road block. It became self-evident that the problem wasn’t so much centered in their painting abilities. It was that they simply had never developed a good Working Method that made full use of their many skills.

In fact... they had no idea what I was even talking about. So I had to start from scratch.

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Step 1 - Opening your eyes

Understanding that “inspiration” just doesn’t happen... you have to seek it out!

Step 2 - Developing “Observation Skills”

Learning how to actually observe Nature. Employing an actual Observation Process.

Step 3 - Developing “Initial Imaging Skills”

Realizing that you need to develop, assemble, and test out numerous skills to see which ones you can employ to serve your artistic curiosity. These then become the beginnings of “your” Skill Set. You can begin to think about this by simply asking yourself... “What do I know how to do?” I would highly recommend you write this list down. But essentially... this is crucial artistic self-examination to discover both your weak points as well as your strong points. You’ll need to know both!

For instance... You may need to develop

  1.     Photographic Skills - Today this means taking photos with actual cameras... cell phones... iPads... & Video Cameras

  2.     Sketching & Drawing Skills

  3.     Watercolor Studies

Step 4 - Making your first really big mistake

Once you have an idea... what do you do with it? How do you proceed now?

The biggest problem is that most artists simply start painting. And that’s their very first big mistake!

Why bother?

Why do I need to bother with all this sketching... studies... and now this iPad stuff?

The reason this is important... is simple!

It’ll make you a much better painter!

John Singer Sargent - 1865-1925

As Watercolor Painters... we’ve all heard of John Singer Sargent. And we’re familiar with his astounding mastery of Oils, Charcoal, Pencil, and of course... Watercolor. But all too often we tend to just marvel over the virtuosity of his washes and spontaneity of his masterful brushwork.

The fact is that Sargent’s genius was the result of an extraordinary Working Method that included a lot of sketches and studies... which were also masterful.

Here is a field sketch Sargent did as he was preparing to paint this waterfall.

Notice how he worked out the shadows falling over the falls... as well as the seated figure and its posture that he included to provide visual scale to the scene. And he did these studies... before he began to paint!

Sargent was actually best known for his massive professional career as the top “Portrait Artist of his day... commanding $25,000 a head in the 1800‘s.

And here too... his Working Method was centered on his drawing skills in preparation for his portraits.

If you get a chance... take a few minutes and review this amazing album that fellow artist, Brian Neher has installed in his Facebook community.


Brian Neher

Facebook Album

Drawings by John Singer Sargent


Brian has created an amazing Facebook Album of over 100 charcoal studies Sargent did... from live subjects... in single sitting sessions... of about 2 hours each.

And remember... most if not all of these were “studies”... on the way to more finished portraits. He was doing this to get into his subject. He was trying out ideas, lighting, postures, and mood... before committing himself to the painting process.

My point here is to illustrate how an artist like Sargent... had honed his skills to such an extent that he could knock out exquisite charcoal studies like these in 2 hours... from live subjects... not photographs!

And even if our skills may never match his... it’s not about that! It’s about understanding the artistic importance of these kinds of imaging skills as a means to an end! This is where we do our fastest, best, most creative thinking about a potential subject. And sometimes these sketches & studies turn out good... while others not so much. But that is precisely why we use sketchbooks... and now... an iPad... to study, refine, and try out our observations to see if they hold up when visualized!

If Sargent were alive today... he’d have an iPad

I do these kinds of subjects and post them on Facebook to demonstrate how the great masters of the past might work today using these new digital imaging technologies. Here is recent one I did where I copied one of Sargent’s famous “Camping series watercolors”... using the Paper by 53 app on my iPad.

Merging our Traditional Skills into these new 21st century skills

The whole purpose of my efforts here in this workshop... are to help you not just learn how to use these new imaging technologies effectively... it is to help you understand that we’re not abandoning one skill for another! We’re not simply adopting this new technology and letting go of our old ways of working. Instead... we’re merging it all into a new skill set that includes both our traditional skills... right along with these new ones.

That’s precisely what Sargent would be doing!

David’s 45 Tutorial Watercolors on Facebook

The fastest way to develop skills with the Paper by 53 app... is to practice doing quick drawings... not fully rendered images. Then... add “simple color”... not complex color.

Here’s an iPad study where I started with a light grey background. The linework sketch is first... followed by the addition of a darker grey and just a little yellow. But even at the point it begins to take shape.

And here is as far as I normally go with a Quick Study. My objective is to begin to get a feel for bright light coming through the blossoms and casting soft shadows. Notice that by working on a light grey... the bright white then stands out and helps create the illusion of bright sunlight very easily. Learning how to assemble an image like this in 15 minutes or so gives you a very powerful skill that you can use with any subject.

And here is the watercolor I painted using my reference shown above.

And here’s another example. This is an iPad Study I did working from Anders Zorn’s famous painting of his wife reading the paper. It’s not a watercolor. It’s not a charcoal or graphite study. It’s a digital image created with a stylus on an iPad using the Paper by 53 app.

It’s a new 21st century digital medium.