Master Study: Michal Jasiewicz – Part 1

A user on Reddit posted this image, asking how the artist (Michal Jasiewicz) achieved the effect on the distant cliffs. I am not sure how he accomplished it exactly, but I posted this as my best guess.

I don’t know how they did it, but here’s what I would try. Forgive the over explanation, I didn’t check your profile before writing this, you may already know how to do most of this.

  1. Use 100% cotton paper, on a board.
  2. Keep the paper at a 20 degree tilt.
  3. Wet the whole paper.
  4. On the palette, mix puddles of ultramarine blue, potters pink (or any red), and yellow ochre to the consistency of tea.
  5. Paint a stripe of blue at the top of the paper, and a stripe of clean water beneath it. Then alternating stripes of red (use tons of water, the red is barely there) and yellow ochre until half way down the page, then let gravity bring it the rest of the way down, and finish with a stripe of red at the bottom.
  6. Let it dry – BONE dry.
  7. Use clean water, and paint the background cliffs with the clean water. You are just getting the paper wet.
  8. Let that absorb until the paper doesn’t shimmer any more.
  9. Mix yellow ochre to the consistency of milk on the palette. (Tea = little pigment, coffee = more pigment, milk = even more pigment, cream = lots of pigment, but still more water than pigment.)
  10. Mix a puddle of coffee-thick neutral grey (Yellow ochre, raw umber, and ultramarine blue) on the palette.
  11. Clean the brush with water, and tap it on a rag so it’s only slightly damp.
  12. Charge the slightly damp brush with coffee-think yellow ochre, and paint a single line of pigment just ABOVE the wet paper, touching the wet patch of paper every now and then.
  13. Clean the brush, and tap it on a rag so it’s just damp.
  14. Charge the brush with the coffee-thick neutral grey.
  15. Wait a minute or so for the yellow ochre line to dry a bit, but not completely.
  16. Paint the grey beneath the line of yellow ochre, making sure to touch the bottom of the line of yellow ochre.
  17. Let the grey fall down the page on its own.
  18. Swear a lot because that didn’t work.

Now, I definitely am not certain that this would work, but today I figured I would give it a shot. Doing a study like this is usually a good way to test techniques, and learn from other artists.

What follows is going to be a really long post, but I learn a lot from this sort of exercise, so I figured I would write it up in full, both to show how you can achieve an effect like that in Jasiewicz’s painting, and (more importantly) to demonstrate how we can improve by trying to recreate paintings by other artists.

  • Use 100% cotton paper, on a board.
  • Keep the paper at a 20 degree tilt.
  • Wet the whole paper.

These three are sort of no-brainers, but I never know how much people know about painting with watercolor. Because I think these three steps are so important, I think it’s helpful to mention them.

One thing I want to mention here. When I’m working on a new painting, I like to divide a piece of paper into quarters. (This is a trick I learned from Rick Surowicz’s YouTube channel and podias.)

Here, I am working on a quarter-sheet of Arches 300lb rough paper. I used some masking tape to divide that quarter sheet into quarters. This gives me eight practice paintings in a single sheet of paper (I use the back) and saves me from ruining too much paper while I learn about the composition before I try to paint it for real. Maybe one day I’ll be good enough that I can start right with a full-sized painting, but right now, I’m not there. So, I save money by experimenting with small paintings before ruining larger pieces of paper. And, we all know good watercolor paper is expensive.

  • On the palette, mix puddles of ultramarine blue, potters pink (or any red), and yellow ochre to the consistency of tea.

This is something I forget to do, almost all the time. But the more disciplined I get about mixing puddles of color before I start painting, the better my results tend to be. There are a few reasons for this.

First, if you mix your pigments on the palette before you begin painting, you take a moment to think about the pigments you are going to use. With watercolor, the choice of pigment can have a dramatic impact on the finished product. Some pigments granulate more than others. Some colors are single pigments, some are multiple pigments. Colors that use a single pigment tend to result in cleaner washes, and colors that use multiple pigments can result in more interesting, unintended effects as the multiple pigments diffuse in a very watery wash.

Second, the thickness of the pigment is of absolute importance when painting with watercolor. The most common terms I have found to describe the different concentrations of pigment to water are: Clean, Tea, Coffee, Milk, Cream, and Butter. Clean has no pigment. Tea is mostly water, with a small amount of pigment. Coffee, Milk, and Cream are all just more pigment. Butter is pigment straight from the tube. With watercolor, we tend to paint from light to dark, so it’s important to start with clean/tea and move up to cream/butter (I almost never use pigment straight from the tube.) If you start with Milk, you’ll get a darker value than you might intend, and once you have gone dark, it’s very hard (if not impossible) to lighten. The easiest way to avoid this is to mix your pigments on the palette before you start painting.

For these reasons, I really like having a porcelain palette. You don’t really need a big fancy palette (though I don’t regret investing in mine one single bit) you can get the same results from a dinner plate. The important thing is to have a mixing surface that is porcelain, and white. Water tends to bead up on metal and plastic, but it flows evenly on porcelain. This gives you a surface that doesn’t stain, and gives you a really good feel for how the pigment will look BEFORE you put the brush on the paper.

When I say “tea” this is what I mean.
  • Paint a stripe of blue at the top of the paper, and a stripe of clean water beneath it. Then alternating stripes of red (use tons of water, the red is barely there) and yellow ochre until half way down the page, then let gravity bring it the rest of the way down, and finish with a stripe of red at the bottom.

Here you can see the wash when it’s wet. These values are very light. One of the biggest mistakes I tend to make is to paint the sky too dark. Because I planned my painting by mixing puddles of pigment before I started painting, I was able to avoid that mistake here. And keep in mind, this will dry 30% lighter.

  • Let it dry – BONE dry.

Here you can see the same wash, after it has dried completely. One thing to mention here: I try to avoid using a hair dryer as much as I can. I find that when I use a hair dryer, the force of the air coming from the hair dryer tends to push the pigments around. Instead of settling gently in the fibers of the paper, the hair dryer tends to shove the pigment into nooks and crannies, and can result in something that feels muddier. I don’t KNOW if this is true, but I have a general feeling about it. This would be something good for me to test in the future.

  • Use clean water, and paint the background cliffs with the clean water. You are just getting the paper wet.

Here you can see the clean water that I have used to wet the cliffs. As you can see, the paper is fully saturated at this point. If I paint right now, the pigment will run quickly and evenly cover the wet paper. I don’t want that for this effect, so instead I’ll wait for that to dry a bit before I paint the golden tops of the cliffs.

  • Let that absorb until the paper doesn’t shimmer any more.

Joseph Zbukvic talks about the “Watercolor Clock” in his book “Mastering Atmosphere and Mood in Watercolor.” Getting a feel for this clock is easily the hardest thing for me about painting with watercolor. The amount of water in the paper has a dramatic effect on how the pigment will settle on the paper, so knowing how saturated the paper should be in order to get the desired effect is as important as knowing how thick the pigment should be.

In this case, I want the golden tops of the cliffs to be sharp edged at the top, and soft at the bottom. So, I need to paint the top of the cliff on dry paper, and touch it to slightly damp paper. This will result in a sharp top edge, and a soft bottom edge. Above you can see the paper a few seconds after applying the water. If I paint now, the cliffs will run down the page too quickly, so I need to wait a bit more.

The paper has now dried for about forty seconds, but it is still too wet. I want that golden color to be very concentrated at the top. The wetter the paper is, the more pigment will run down into the hills. It’s still too wet, evidenced by the shimmer on the paper.

After about two minutes, the paper has absorbed enough of the water. Now the shimmer is gone, but the paper is not fully dry. This is what I was waiting for.

  • Mix yellow ochre to the consistency of milk on the palette. (Tea = little pigment, coffee = more pigment, milk = even more pigment, cream = lots of pigment, but still more water than pigment.)
  • Mix a puddle of coffee-thick neutral grey (Yellow ochre, raw umber, and ultramarine blue) on the palette.

Here you can see “coffee” thick grey, and “milk” thick yellow ochre. The difference is subtle, but it’s important in order to get the effect I’m after.

  • Clean the brush with water, and tap it on a rag so it’s only slightly damp.

There are three vehicles for water when painting with watercolor, the pigment, the paper, and the brush. I talked about the pigment, (clean, tea, coffee, milk, cream, butter), and I talked about the paper (puddled, wet, shimmering, damp, and dry.) Now, I need to make sure I have the right amount of water on the brush. If I pull the brush out of the water and try to charge it with pigment, I’ll end up depositing more water on the palette than gets absorbed into the brush. Instead, I tap the brush on a small rag that I keep next to the water in order to dry the brush a bit. The more I do this, the drier my brush becomes, and the more saturated the pigment will be.

I wrote a full post about saturation, and the saturation notation I use sometimes. You can find that here.

  • Charge the slightly damp brush with coffee-think yellow ochre, and paint a single line of pigment just ABOVE the wet paper, touching the wet patch of paper every now and then.

Here I’ve painted that stripe of yellow ochre. The top of the stripe was painted on dry paper. So it doesn’t move upward at all. The bottom of the stripe touched the damp paper, so I get a crisp upper edge, and a soft bottom edge.

  • Clean the brush, and tap it on a rag so it’s just damp.
  • Charge the brush with the coffee-thick neutral grey.
  • Wait a minute or so for the yellow ochre line to dry a bit, but not completely.

Once again, the watercolor clock comes into play. I need that stripe of yellow ochre to dry a bit. If i paint too quickly, the grey will absorb up into the stripe of yellow completely. I want some of the yellow to remain visible, but I also don’t want a very sharp edge to the grey. So, at just the right time, I need to add the grey to the yellow. Above you can see that the yellow stripe is still too wet.

The shimmer is gone, now the paper is ready for the grey.

  • Paint the grey beneath the line of yellow ochre, making sure to touch the bottom of the line of yellow ochre.

The grey is working just like I had hoped. It’s migrating up into the yellow, but not all the way. This gives me that soft upper edge I’m after. Next’ I’ll use clean water to pull the grey down the page to complete the hills.

  • Let the grey fall down the page on its own.

I was wrong here. I needed to pull the grey down the page with clean water, instead of just letting the grey fall on it’s own. This is because the paper was too dry by the time I painted the grey.

One thing to note is that when I did this, I made sure to suggest some tree trunks by painting the grey sharp lines at the bottom of the cliffs.

  • Swear a lot because that didn’t work.

It’s definitely not perfect, but I’m actually pretty happy with the results so far. Instead of swearing, I decided to keep going to see if I could recreate the rest of the painting. One thing I noticed is the upward swipe in the original painting that suggests light hitting a foggy blast of snow. I tried to achieve this by swiping toilet paper up into the cliffs. It didn’t really work, I should try this when the grey pigment is wetter than it was when I tried here.

Next, I used greys and blues to suggest some of the shadows in the foreground, and midground. I varied the values a bit by using more water on the brush at some times, and less water at other times. More water makes lighter greys and blues. Less water makes darker greys and blues.

This highlights that a darker value is “more of the same color, not a different, darker color.” When I think value, I tend to think “black” vs “white.” This is sort of right, but with watercolor, it might be better to think of “more paper” vs. “less paper.” The more paper that you can see through the pigment, the lighter will be the value of that patch of pigment. More water means more diluted pigment, which means you’ll see more paper.

Here I have painted some greys, yellow ochre, and raw umber for the fence. I used darker values on the shadowed side of the fence, and the fence posts. This darker value is on the left-hand side of the left-hand posts, and on the right-hand side of the right-hand posts, because the sun is in the middle of the painting.

Next I painted the yellow/golden highlights on the tree with yellow ochre. The result is a little more yellow than the source image, but that’s ok.

Next, I painted the rest of the tree with raw umber and the grey I had mixed earlier. When this was complete, but not yet dry, I used a clean brush to scrub a small dot where the sun would end up.

A bit more brush work, and the first test image is complete.

I’ll try the same image again in the other three spaces. I won’t do a full write up on each one, because this is already too long. Once I’m finished with those four, I’ll try the image on a quarter sheet, to see how I do after the studies.

For now, here is the source image, followed by my attempt to recreate it.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.