Urban Landscape: "Live Jazz" Watercolor of Skylark's
Last fall, I was one of over a dozen artists who worked with muralist Lanny Little to freshen up his large painting on a wall beside the Village Green in Fairhaven, Washington. I didn’t know it at the time, but that couple hours of painting bricks led to an invitation to a group show titled “Ya Gotta Love Fairhaven” at the Lucia Douglas Gallery. I was delighted to get Lanny's invitation, and took this opportunity as a challenge to push my boundaries once again. 
 
First, I took photos around Fairhaven, just letting the camera find whatever it wanted. After reviewing the photos—and dropping the idea of painting a portrait (Lanny wanted Fairhaven, not someone from Fairhaven)—I decided to create a watercolor painting of the sidewalk outside Skylark's Hidden Cafe. This setting includes an iconic red phone booth, a green awning, windows (reflections), lettering, and a chaos of iron chairs and chains. The bricks brought me back to the reason for the invitation in the first place. The location is overflowing with details, and would be challenging as a painting.
 
Above you can see the photo I decided to work from, and the Arches cold press watercolor paper where I would transfer the drawing.
The trusty grid transfer system is a pretty good way to begin a painting like this. First, you draw a gridwork of carefully spaced lines on the photo and another gridwork with the same number lines on the paper. Then you begin to draw, copying the details of each square on the photo onto the paper. 
The more precisely you can draw the grid on the reference photo and the paper—and if you can make the details inside each square you draw look exactly like those from the photo—the more accurate your painting will be in the end. Does it sound easy? It's not as easy as it sounds.
The weird gray blob in the middle of this photo is my rubber eraser. I started the drawing with the phone booth, and worked toward the right. That eraser came in very handy. And perhaps I could have used it even more.
Half the paper to go! Rather daunting. But it’s interesting to see how almost half the painting is filled with the booth and the bricks—and that three windows, a bunch of chairs, a table, and most of the sidewalk, lighting, and more, will share the other half.
 
Here’s the paper with the entire drawing, and the first underpainting. I decided to add separate underpaintings for each of the main sections of this painting. Often, in watercolor, you'd lay down a light wash over the entire paper, usually a wet wash on wet paper. But this painting had so many disparate elements that I decided to unify the painting another way.
The most important thing in any painting is to make the drawing you'll work from as good as you can. Penciling just a little lighter on the paper might have been a good idea, but I was a little nervous about this painting and just couldn’t help myself. The darkest lines are where I was thinking “Yikes!” But my trusty pet eraser was right there by my side. And I was also thinking that I might want to have those lines showing here and there throughout the painting because it shares the process with the viewer.

A close up of the drawing shows some of the details I’d be dealing with later. At this point, the painting was… frightening. Here you can see the grid, and how the lines of perspective from the location didn't exactly have any resemblance to the grid, except the verticals. 
This photo shows the progression of underpaintings. I worked left to right for two reasons: 1. The larger sections were on the left and would end up being the focal point of the piece, so I wanted to spend more time with them. 2. The lower right third of the painting would require the most thought to put down, given the number of details there. 
What was I going to do with that chain! And all that wrought iron chairs and table? And how about finishing up the drawing of the chairs? What about that? Those are some of the things I needed to think about.
Here is where I worked on the painting. This is my studio. I wouldn't mind if it was my house, but it isn't. There are tables, chairs, couches, and a propane furnace downstairs. Upstairs, in less that 300 square feet, is my graphic design studio (computers, printers) and storage for the publications produced by Egress Studio Press, my poetry publishing imprint. Those books in the background are about artists, art history, and art mediums and techniques. Currently, I am reading about the Pacific Northwest artists. Read about Guy Anderson just last night.
There are some people who say once you put watercolor on the paper, you can’t make corrections. That statement is incorrect. There are many ways to make corrections in watercolor. For example—and yes I know I'm not supposed to mention things like this, but I call it honesty and just a good way to be—my grid drawing had a flaw or two in perspective that I needed to address. If I couldn't change what I had drawn and painted, the perspective would have seemed like an error jumping sideways off the page. But you can coax watercolor to do just about anything. 
I decided to have a little fun with the ivy behind the telephone booth. So I painted it leaning toward the abstract—like jazz, perhaps.
Here you can see the underpainting on the left hand curtains working with the layers I put over the top. Good to work in layers from light to dark. It's fun to go back in to paint in the details, even the tiniest ones. Sometimes, they don't even show, but they help make the painting work itself into being. 
 
You might also notice that the grid can be erased as the painting progresses.
My studio has this wonderful table I bought from Western Washington University from the website where they sell their old and often very sturdy equipment. I have two of these tables, and I use them all the time. Also have some bookshelves, a light table and other equipment from the same source. 
I painted a very quick underpainting under the awnings, just the vertical lines. The plan was to paint over the top of these so they would look like they were in shadow. There were small lights here and there scattered in the darkness, and I began those by desinating them yellow.
Here you can see reflections building on the glass, and the tops of the curtains reflecting some light. People who work in watercolor are often drawn to the contrasts between light and dark.
One thing you don't want with a watercolor is to get a phone call right in the middle of doing a step, since many watercolor techniques often require waiting for clear water, painted into a specific area, to dry to a matte look, not shiny wet and not dull dry. The matte wetness is a small window of opportunity to get the best out of your paint.
 
On the phone booth, for example, I worked wet on wet (wet brush on wet paper), and wet on dry (wet brush on dry paper), depending on what I was trying to have happen. 
The small lettering was done with a tiny brush with long, soft bristles. The larger letters I used that same brush and a couple others, too. I tried not to shake.
A little earlier than this point in the painting I decided on the title: "Live Jazz," and I wrote it on the brown paper that adheres the watercolor paper to the board. I didn't want to forget it. As a poet, I believe it's important to name each artwork something other than "Untitled." Artist-poets are supposed to be creative, and a title sometimes gives the viewer a way to look at the painting. Once the painting draws their interest, they want to know as much as they can about the artwork, and a title is a good way to help give that to them.
The chain. At first, I wasn't sure about the chain, and even contemplated leaving it out. But I changed my mind, and painted it in. It turned out to be rather fun to do, as well as rather complex.
AS you can see, I put the sidewalk in square by square. And this is where some of the corrections to the original drawing happened. But, like a poem, a painting can be painted forever. At this point, I had many details to complete, and it's those details that can make a painting work, or not. 
Here I have added the color beneath the table and chairs. But I still have many details to go, and lots of paint. You can see my reading glasses on the left of the board. I really needed them for many parts of this painting. Glasses from the Dollar Store!
The painting is a little loose and I'm hoping that it feels like jazz is about to begin. 
 
The only thing you must never, never, never do with watercolor is to mix too many colors together, unless you like mud. But that's not hard to avoid if you take your time. Watercolor is not a fast moving sport, but it does tend to need some strategy to play, so let's say it's like a good game of cribbage. Not chess though. Watercolor moves a little faster than that.
The wrought iron challenge. Man, this was on the difficult side. The photo wasn't trying to help either. I had to look and look to see what was happening, and try to find which line went to what chair and good grief. Like trying to draw a pile of string. I wasn't finished at this point.
Here, I began to put in a little white goauche along the awning, a bit on the chairs, the chain, even the phone booth. 
I think, even at this point, I was still working on the wrought iron chairs, slowly. Adding more lines, mixing blacks, adding small highlights. The photo was trying to help, but refused to reveal the details clearly. I ought to have made the background behind and under the chairs darker, maybe, but by comparing one chair to the next I was able to keep the painting fairly light. This part of the restaurant is in shadow much of the day, as it was when I took the photo, and I wanted to show that at least somewhat.
Here, on the phone booth, I began scraping paint off with a razor blade, and also a wood block chisel. There are a lot of scuff marks on this old booth, as there should be. You can also see where some white and grayish white gouache was applied to add highlights to the upper edges of the door or window sashes.
"Live Jazz." This little poster was in the window, and it became the title. Skylark's often has live music in the evenings, especially jazz. You can see how the loose dance of the watercolors in this detail can make a painting come alive.
Here is a detail of the awning, with the gouache applied to the rounded flaps. And you can also see the vertical lines, and the light fixture shapes, which were painted in prior to the dark bluish black.
If you look carefully, you can see that I scratched the word "HYENA" into the door of the booth, just like someone else had done to the actual phone booth. Details like that are good to keep. You can also see that I added more lines to the right of the booth to represent the vine branches that were removed from the cement wall in the not-too-distant past.
This is a close-up. There's is more of the painting showing in the frame than I have here. But at this point I was just about ready to call it finished. This is the first building I've painted, though I've done several portraits and enjoy landscapes when I can. I would like to find more time to spend painting, but wouldn't everybody?
Urban Landscape: "Live Jazz" Watercolor of Skylark's
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186
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Published:

Urban Landscape: "Live Jazz" Watercolor of Skylark's

A watercolor painting in response to an invitation to a group show at the Lucia Douglas Gallery titled "Ya Gotta Love Fairhaven."
10
186
2
Published:

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