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Watercolor Silhouettes : Puzzling out a Painting

May 5, 2017

Here’s a couple of simple silhouettes, captured on a spectacular day of sun in a month of spring rain.

The great thing about painting – you’re always evolving. No matter what your level as an artist – you can (should?) always have an inspirational goal. Some skill or philosophy on the horizon.

This season, I want to double down on the use of silhouettes.

My painting has always been a bit ‘unfinished’ – (intentionally :) – with a lot of negative space, and places that show the drawing. I like it that way. I’m not after an overly polished look.

But as well, it’s an artifact of the way I draw – sketching contours in line, then looking for the shapes of cast shadows.

One way to counter any tendency towards jumpy/patchy/uneven structures – is to look for back-lit situations.

What the Plein-Air painters call Contra Jour – or Against the Day.

Position yourself with the sun behind the subject – and the silhouette is spelled out for you, clearly visible against the sky.

In a more complicated scene, you can have fun welding one silhouette to the next, making an entire street into a fused shape. I tend to march across the painting working left to right with light values, then sweeping back over top with darks.

I want to occasionally touch wet edges, so some shapes leak into their neighbor. Making linkages to avoid any isolated objects floating in space.

If it’s a dry day (or you’re in the full sun), it helps to work briskly – keeping up with the wet paint – but not so fast you can’t control your brushwork.

At the end of the sketch, I’m trying for the feeling of a single silhouette that’s built out of colored blocks – fit tightly together like a puzzle.

Someday soon I’ll have some video for you, so you can see the shape welding step-by-step. But it’s not that hard – remember: Larger-to-Smaller, Lighter-to-Darker and you won’t go far wrong.


17 Comments leave one →
  1. Malinda Anderson permalink
    May 5, 2017 1:46 PM

    Thank you so much. This solves a lot of problems for me. Malinda Anderson

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. May 5, 2017 2:25 PM

    Very interesting. As always, your work is amazing. I have 2 questions. What size are these paintings? And-if the sun is behind the subject, isn’t it also in your eyes? As you can tell, I have not had much experience working outside.what I have done has not been very rewarding. My fault, I know.

    • May 5, 2017 2:49 PM

      These are small, 9×12″ sheets, with the two towers on one page. And yes, the sun is in your eyes! But it’s ok :) When you can’t see it perfectly, it helps see just shapes, not small details :)

      • May 6, 2017 4:11 PM

        Marc, it is funny that you consider 9X12 small. That size is large enough for me. In my past, tho, I have painted much larger, but not in watercolor. Thanks for your quick replies.

  3. Lieve Claes permalink
    May 5, 2017 2:47 PM

    Thank you for all this very interesting information! I learn a lot from you!

  4. May 5, 2017 4:04 PM

    Beautiful work and I imagine squinting into the sun helps simplify the shapes, too, as long as your eyes don’t start watering too much :)

  5. May 5, 2017 7:14 PM

    The cupola up-top: so well captured!

  6. May 5, 2017 10:46 PM

    You always have a way of opening my eyes to possibilities. I’ll be trying this if the rain ever stops :-) Thanks, Marc.

  7. Babs Jennings permalink
    May 6, 2017 3:14 AM

    Great sketches, Marc. If the structures are back-lit, isn’t the whole thing in shade? Are you inventing extra shadows then? Or is the sun back-lit but left or right of the structure?

    • May 6, 2017 9:06 AM

      Well, the taller spire was completely silhouetted – then it’s true the others were a bit more off-side :) I try to aim for the solid shape, while still having the front and side plane.

  8. May 6, 2017 7:24 AM

    Well said!

  9. margaret permalink
    May 7, 2017 12:39 AM

    My thoughts regarding the sun in one’s eyes (photography experiences particularly come to mind) and the size of your paintings have been answered. Thank you for a great post Marc.

  10. May 10, 2017 12:50 PM

    Thank you! I am very much impressed by your technical skills, convincing way to explain your Intention and elegant appearence of your works!

  11. May 14, 2017 6:52 PM

    these are great…It gives me inspiration to try watercolours, thanks

  12. August 29, 2017 6:09 PM

    Nice works!

  13. darylashby1 permalink
    July 6, 2018 12:37 PM

    Did my first direct watercolor statue yesterday. Marc, I have to say, it was fun to do. I am going to do more today. Haven’t gotten out to do plein air yet but I am sure it will help me when I do. Great way to learn how to see. Your paintings are lovely Marc and as someone else has said, you are amazing at explaining your technique. I wish you all the best Marc. :)

  14. darylashby1 permalink
    July 6, 2018 12:39 PM

    Sorry, I am using my husbands wordpress so it has come up in his name. I am Wendy and reside in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, BC. Cheers.

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