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  • Jenny Davis

Portrait of Adelaide

I originally contemplated this painting as an experiment. I wanted to try applying gold leaf to the background (I would’ve invested in 24K white gold). Normally I tear my paper to size so that all four edges are deckled, then paint to the edge, and use a float style frame that displays the deckled edges. But since I was planning on using metal leaf and matting right to the edge, I cut the paper to size with scissors and marked a 5"x5" image area.

But while I was testing out imitation gold leaf on cold press watercolor paper, I couldn’t work out a technique that I liked. The texture of the paper came through every time, which could be interesting (it makes the metal leaf look like hammered metal). But I wasn’t sure I’d like the outcome and didn’t want to take that risk on this tiny portrait that I had fallen in love with.

I had been hoping that leveling gel, since it is... self-leveling... would fill sort of fill in the dimples in the paper, creating a level surface. It didn't. Womp womp.

I painted loosely around the borders because I had planned to cover up the border with a mat anyway, regardless of metal leaf or not. But I’ve fallen in love with the painterly watercolor edges, so now, instead of matting over the entire border, I am planning to leave the border showing. Here is the painting from start (upper left) to finish (bottom right).

In sequence, you can see that I paint light to dark and generally move from warm tones to cool to warm again. Portraiture is an interesting challenge because if you lean too cool, you could easily make someone look bruised or lifeless. But you need the cool tones to achieve realism. Layers of skin are transparent, so you'll see hints of blues and greens from veins running just under the surface, and of course skin - like any object - will reflect the colors around it.

Working from light to dark serves a specific purpose. Unlike acrylic and oils, there is very little you can do to alter a watercolor painting. You can lift color, but you can't achieve significant changes without damaging the sizing on the paper. (Sizing is the treatment of paper to effect its absorptiveness and other characteristics. Damage the sizing on watercolor paper, and pigment will not settle into the paper the way you intend.) So it is generally advised to paint light to dark in watercolor, because it is always easier to go darker than to revert to a lighter value.

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