Tim, color study


I am painting again, or trying to… After my 5 months graphite marathon, a.k.a. The Sketchbook Project, I forgot how to paint. This is my second watercolor study of Tim (click the link to see the graphite portrait of him). The first painting study of him was a disaster and I am not posting it. But it is all good and valuable, I am slowly remembering how to handle glazes, a little dry brush, handling and mixing colors. It goes very slowly, I feel as if I am struggling with my hues and values, forcing the media to do what I see in my mind’s eye. This is very different from the free and fluid feeling I had with graphite. By the end of the Sketchbook Project I was simply using the media to render what I wanted, not trying to subdue it into compliance. But I now know about practice, diligence and patience, and what results can be achieved with that. This after all is only the first of a new series I have in mind.

7″x9″ (18 x 23 cm) watercolor on paper


  1. asmalltowndad January 27, 2011

    This is incredible, I struggle with portraits using watercolor. I can’t seem to get a clean, smooth blended texture like you have achieved. Give me a hint on how to do better if you don’t mind!

    • Alex Zonis January 27, 2011

      Oh, Ryan, you just made my day! Asking a novice like me for a watercolor hint! Ha!
      This is a glazing technique, I will try give you my understanding of it, which is a combination of my painting teacher explanations and several books I read.

      The key concept to keep in mind is an OPTICAL blending. As opposed to color mixing and direct painting.

      There are several ingredients to this recipe.

      1. Colors used for glazing and optical blending must be transparent. It is best to use transparent primaries and transparent single pigments. Not convenience mixes like for example Indigo which consists of PB60+PBk6 (indanthrone blue + lamp black).

      2. Glazes prepared for painting are watery and light in concentration. A separate glaze for each pigment.

      3. Application is multi-layered. It may take from as few as 2-3 glazes and up to 25-30 glazes to reach the desired depth of tone. Each glaze is applied individually, and you add different pigments on top of the previous one to build the needed color.

      4. Glazes are applied onto wet surface and allowed to dry completely. Apply clear water to a given area, allow it to stop shining, apply a second clear water wash over the first one, allow it to sink in a little and then apply your pigment glaze. Allow the glaze to dry COMPLETELY before working in that area again.

      5. Take care of the edges. The clear water wash applied before the pigment glaze must be much larger than the area about to receive pigment. This way the pigment migrates out smoothly without leaving a crusty edge. Watch your pigment dry :), it is fascinating! If you see an undesired edge forming, you can smooth it out while wet with a soft damp brush, I use a squirrel hair brush for that. If you missed it, and the edge dried out, you can remove it with a harder brush, a synthetic hair bright. Wet the brush, rub the dry edge gently to wet and dislodge it and blot with paper towel, repeat if needed. Don’t use your Kolinsky for that.

      6. Use cold press or soft press paper initially, it makes softening and removing edges much easier than hot press. Once you’ve got the mechanics of it, any paper is fine.

      7. Leave dry brush work and details to the end. Pigment applied by dry brush sits on the surface, it does not sink in like a glaze, so if a glaze is applied over dry brush it can smudge it or wash it away.

      Prepare to be very patient. This is the second most important concept for this method. It may take a week or two weeks to slowly build up the tone optically. Not for the fainthearted!

      Ok, this is my current understanding of it. I am pretty sure any professional watercolor painter would laugh his or her head off reading this. All disclaimers apply! Use at your own risk!!! But do ask questions, if you have them. If I know the answer, I will share it :).

      • asmalltowndad January 28, 2011

        Wow this helps a lot, I’m going to check this out, and give it a try. I have never had schooling of any kind for painting, it’s all just trial and error, so watching and learning from artist like you helps tremendously. Thanks again!

  2. Carol King January 27, 2011

    When I first saw Tim I thought you had moved on to color pencils. What an amazing study. You handled the watercolor so expertly. And thank you very much for your explanation to Ryan. It was very helpful.

    I can’t wait to see more!

    • Alex Zonis January 27, 2011

      I am so glad you like this study, Carol. I have to admit that I declared it finished before it got to the level that really satisfied. I had to stop because the painting was becoming tired, I began to see traces of muddiness. But it achieved the goals I had for it – I made a new painting after a long break, I began to re-acquaint myself with color, and I learned what I need to work on in the next painting. Good stuff! Thank you for the comment!

  3. lesliepaints January 27, 2011

    This is absolutely beautiful and expressive Alex. You have an incredible touch with this process. I like it that I can still see some of your pencil line. I don’t know why I like that, but have always enjoyed seeing layers of an artists work in the finished piece. You have a vision for perfection. This is so real in appearance I imagine his eyes will blink any second.

    • Alex Zonis January 28, 2011

      Thank you, Leslie! You make an interesting observation about pencil lines. I am undecided whether I like them or not. Sometimes I like to see them in other artists’ work, it’s like looking into a window of their thought process. Other times they can be a bit annoying – why didn’t she bother to clean that up… I saw charcoal grid and construction lines on an important Renaissance painting in the Art Institute (forget which, sorry!) and was thrilled to be allowed to see how he worked. It was so neat!

      • lesliepaints January 29, 2011

        I think the word for it might be “timeless”. I can view a work and get lost in it much easier if I see the journey in the work.

  4. Shelly January 28, 2011

    i read your explanation on color blending, and even though i knew what a process it was i’m still a little shocked. im so impressed with your patience and skill mama. great job! this water color is amazing.

    • Alex Zonis January 28, 2011

      Thanks for the comment, sweetie! The explanation is both too long and too short. Too long because I had to include materials and tools, you don’t have to go over that once you have them all assembled – then it is just the process. And it is too short because there are too many details of the process to be able to mention them all, there are books written on the subject of glazes. Thanks for the Facebook link!

  5. Cathyann Burgess January 29, 2011

    Hi Alex, I came over from Carol’s. I will be back to look at some more.
    This portrait is incredible! I envy your patience with watercolor. While I use from time to time, I never really spent too much time in wc with my favorite subject, portraiture. I have only done a couple. These instructions are generous of you to post. Thanks for visiting my post last month, btw. best-

    • Alex Zonis January 29, 2011

      Thank you, Cathyann! Appreciate the comment about patience, it is not a burden if you enjoy the time put into it. I keep thinking that painters in the old times spent months on a single painting, the results of this time are obvious to us today. Not that I would dream to put my little studies next to the old masters’, but there is something to be said about patience and diligence, it pays off, even if it is uncommon in a world hunting for immediate gratification. Thank you for your visit!

  6. nicola (pointypix) January 30, 2011

    Wow. This is stunning Alex! Clearly you are as good with watercolour as with graphite pencil. I have to be honest and admit i was more than a little lost in reading your explanation of the process- i clearly have a lot to learn as i don’t have a process other than to mix colour and slap it onto the page!

    • Alex Zonis February 3, 2011

      Thank you, Nicola! I have to say that graphite is much easier than watercolor at the moment, but I hope to get some fluency with the wet media if will power and determination will make a difference. Mixing color and slapping it on paper sounds like an excellent process to me, one day I hope to have enough self-assurance to do just that :).

  7. lindahalcombfineart February 1, 2011

    Wonderful! Talented! Incredible! This amazing Alex. Thank you for your generosity. The explanation of how you achieved this is very helpful. You discussed some points I have never thought about before.

    • Alex Zonis February 3, 2011

      I am glad my long-winded explanations were helpful in some way, Linda! I was thinking maybe I should make that comment into a post, do you think there’s value in doing that? Thank you for stopping by here!

  8. Rob Carey February 3, 2011

    I see this is the first of a new series- amazing already. You are so right about the lessons of practice, diligence, and patience. You can apply this to all of life, can’t you?

    • Alex Zonis February 3, 2011

      Thank you, Rob! These things seem to be pretty fundamental, funny how that is. Yes, I am thinking about a watercolor portrait series with images being informal and candid. The thought is to continue portraits of people around me and pick up watercolor skills in the process – “A Community Portrait“.

  9. debra February 5, 2011

    Beautiful Alex….and thanks for all the technical info…I might have a try. Glad you’ve got over the post sketchbook burn out

    • Alex Zonis February 9, 2011

      Thank you for the comment, Debra! Glad you thought the technique is interesting. It does tax one’s patience, but the results are worth it, I think.

  10. Jill Cooper February 13, 2011

    This is fantastic, I love your drawings/ watercolour sketches. I came over from Debra Morris’ blog. Well done on finishing the sketchbook project, I also did it. It was my first time, hopefully not the last and I may even learn how to draw for next time.

    • Alex Zonis February 14, 2011

      Thank you, Jill! And great to meet you! I am thrilled to have won Debra’s painting, and to meet new blogging artists as a result of her post. Do you have your sketchbook images uploaded on the Art House site? I would like to see.

  11. Barry Coombs February 23, 2011

    It’s a very strong portrait and an articulate explanation of the techniques employed.

    • Alex Zonis February 25, 2011

      Thank you so much, Barry! I am so relieved that you found my description comprehensible, I was a little worried that I might lead someone astray.

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