Watercolor process. Young Elk painting step-by-step

Young Elk, watercolor by Sandy Haight

I decided it was time for me to record my painting process from reference photo to finish when one of my students, Rodney Hill, documented the different stages of completing his class watercolor painting.  His printouts were of great value to future students explaining the steps they would use to paint realistically using photo references.  Watch how my watercolor painting of a young elk evolved. The reference photo is at the end of this post.

1. Once the paper is stretched by stapling soaked watercolor paper to gator board, dried, and outlines of the shapes transferred to the paper, a mask is applied to the foreground subject to preserve the white of the paper.  Some of the flowers and lighter grasses are also masked to allow a free and loose underpainting. The mask has a yellow tint in order to see where it has been applied.  (This 1st  photo is not lit correctly).

1. Mask and 1st Underpainting


2. More background is added including the mountains and the dark forested hillside.  More washes are layered onto the underpainting of the field.

2. Background added


3. Not being a landscape painter, I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle all the texture of the field but was eager to paint the subject. I procrastinated dealing with that dilemma and I removed the mask a bit early.  Usually I build up the background to a near finished state before removing the mask. Now all the whites are available for adding in pure color or lighter tints.

3. Masking is removed


4. At this point, the elk is painted (my favorite part) and the background herd, rocks and bushes are added as well as more foreground layers of washes and textures to make all the masked grasses blend better into the field.  Now that the animal is developed, though, I realize that the dark background hillside is demanding way too much attention, distracting the viewer from the beauty of the elk by advancing with its strong values.  Do you agree? I need to tone that down. My other concern was that having applied mask to details in the field I was stuck with the task of defining the grasses and wildflowers more clearly than I might have liked. Since this started out as a demo painting, it worked well for teaching purposes by showing various ways of using and applying masking fluid.

4. Elk & more grass textures painted in


5. Yes, it is possible to fix watercolor errors, to a point.  I scrubbed away at that dark hillside to force it to take its proper, more subtle place in the back of the picture.  I tried to straighten the horizon line a bit which was at an awkward downhill slant.  This was as light as I could get it, and it still has some room to create a sense of the trees by adding more glazes of color.

5. Background hill scrubbed lighter


6. I masked the yellow flowers again so that I could intensify the foreground with further washes and grass detail while preserving the color of the flowers. It’s hard to see the little blobs of mask over the flowers.

6. Flowers masked again


7. Here’s the finished painting again from top of the post, with trees suggested in the hillside, grasses more defined and yellows enhanced. Another layer of sky was added and more layers of washes in the mountains to finish it.

7. Young Elk, final watercolor by Sandy Haight


8. Below is the photo I used for reference.  Driving out of Rocky Mountain National Park we passed this brave young elk, grazing right by the roadside.  I’m not sure I’ll ever be a landscape painter…it’s hard to improve on Nature, but I loved painting this beautiful animal who let me get quite close for a photo.

8. Rocky Mountain Elk photo by Sandy Haight


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