Watercolor Painting as Live Performance

The beach scene in
Manuel Antonio.

I normally paint with oils mixed with Galkyd fast-drying medium, so I assume I can make radical changes in the composition of shapes, values, and colors as I formulate the intended outcome of my pictures. But I had to exercise more thought, control, and restraint when I painted scenes of Costa Rica in watercolor during a recent vacation with my family.

It occurred to me that one might compare the difference between painting with watercolor and oil to the difference between a live stage performance and a filmed presentation. With watercolor, every gesture is observed and judged by the audience of viewers as if they were watching the painting take shape, whereas with oil, the performance is carefully edited so that only the best strokes are seen.

Each stroke of watercolor paint brushed across a sheet of paper permanently affects the surface, so an artist has to plan the mixtures of pigments and the sequence of application in order to achieve a carefully considered result. Adjustments can be made, and lots of teachers explain how to "salvage" a painting that is either timidly executed or overworked, but the best results are almost always the result of deliberate, planned, and economical actions.

After working on three paintings of the Costa Rican landscape that lacked this kind of spontaneity, freshness, and clarity, I achieved some level of success while sitting on the white-sand beach in Manuel Antonio, a growing tourist city along the Pacific Ocean. I drew the key elements of the scene on a 9"-x-12" block of Arches watercolor paper using a mixture of three transparent, non-staining colors to establish a drawing that would disappear under the subsequent applications of paint. I started by painting the sky area, applied a dark base color to the rock formations, and gradually refined each area of the picture over a period of 90 minutes.

The finished painting isn't anything I want to brag about, but it does capture my experience of relaxing in the warm, humid atmosphere of the tropical environment. It didn't impress the white-faced monkeys and raccoons that were trying to steal food from people on the beach, but it satisfied me. I took some reference photographs so that eventually I can develop a larger and more considered studio painting.

The finished painting.

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

2 thoughts on “Watercolor Painting as Live Performance

  1. I think you should give yourself bragging rights- your painting has a nice sense of atmosphere, strong feeling of light, and makes me want to be there. I appreciate your demo too; it seems like you must approach watercolor in a neat, orderly way, that’s why I can’t get into it. With oils I am a bit too messy and need to backtrack and ‘fix’ things. Maybe spending time with watercolor would improve my handling with oils.

  2. I think your watercolor is very “considered”! It captures the color of the water, rocks and foliage perfectly. As someone who has to work from photos a lot, I have to work hard to recreate that kind of spontineity in the studio.