Saturday, June 30, 2012


"PHL Sulfur Pile"    SOLD
watercolor on illus board, 2012
18" x 27" (45.72cm 68.58x cm)
National Watercolor Society

Here is my painting recently juried into the National Watercolor Society's 2012 Annual Exhibition here in San Pedro.

This painting was a challenge for many reasons... I had an idea of what I wanted but the design of all the elements meant I was faced with all sorts of decisions.

Since it is about the role of the Pacific Harbor Line in the Los Angeles Harbor all these decisions would be guided by this idea, especially how the little black locomotives usually operate alone.

Also, this technique of watercolor is more about achieving the same visual look or depth and richness of an oil painting as opposed to the more traditional approach of transparent (only) watercolor. But at this size larger areas were particularly tough. There were a lot of shapes, values and colors to manage and I did not want it to get too busy and spotty, which is a by-product of this technique on this surface. Although smaller, two others in this technique on illustration board, are here and here.

I used reference for the technical information but the design, palette or color scheme, value pattern etc are my own invention.
One of my design decisions was throwing spot lights down to exaggerate the effects of a cloudy stormy day with sunlight breaking through. This allowed me control the values and specifically, the shapes of the values, molding the design to suit my goals and to edit out what was not needed from a panoramic view.

That also gave it a dark, moody, unearthly look and a psychological impact but with a quality of light and pops of color that keep it from being too oppressive, a characteristic present in much of the mid century California Watercolor Style and the work of...  Art Riley, Hardie Gramatky, Millard SheetsEmil Kosa Jr.Jack Laycox,Frederic Whitaker, Watson Cross Jr., Crandall Norton, Mary Blair,  Joseph De Mers among others, which I have been looking at recently.
Realism does not always have to be naturalistic...sometimes another quality better supports an idea than a more naturalistic depiction does.

I liked the idea of the locomotive in the background with the middle ground having the visually larger double-stack intermodal rail cars. The locomotive is visually prominent by placing it against the bright yellow sulfur pile for stark contrast, no need to have a spotlight on it. And even though small with-in the composition it is still the star and easily recognizable showing only hints of its characteristic diagonal white stripes without further modeling of form.

So I spot-lighted the rail cars and silhouetted the black locomotive against bright yellow for high contrast in color and value. Drawing attention to both but making the locomotive a little bit more significant. It speaks of the role and dominion of the Pacific Harbor Line in the harbor.

Below is a value comp I did beforehand (top) and thought I had it worked out but halfway through the painting I realized some of the values were not working. So I stopped and did 2 more smaller ones based on the first to work it out. These midstream snags sometimes happen when the painting is large scale. Going from thumbnails to full size without an intermediate sized value and maybe a color comp doesn't always go as planned and would have been a good idea.

The problem was primarily with the middle ground, the area just beyond the string of containers and below the sulfur. The middle range values were not working, making for a confusing array in an unimportant area.
I first tried a lighter value setting up an elliptical shape of light and although I liked the idea it still was not right. I did not like the light bringing too much attention to the lower left corner.
The final thumb (lower right) resolved these problems. Dropping everything down in value, including the upper right light-valued refinery tanks, and eliminating unimportant areas.
This simplified the value distribution and strengthened the design.

The immediate foreground is where I fought most of my battles, even having done the thumbnails. It was more an issue of paint handling, edges and degree of finish rather than value. I finally decided it should be treated more like the other corners and remain loose and organic.

Previously it garnered too much attention, competed too much with the rest of the painting and incidentally was defeating the spot lighting idea, which I somehow missed until it's change. Happily the compositional zig-zag line remained.184

Click on images to enlarge
Click 'WATERCOLOR' label below to see other watercolors

Update: I fixed the above links which go to (since they have a new site) showing the mid-century artists who have inspired me lately.


  1. David,
    It is such a pleasure and a thrill to be the first to comment on this wonderful piece. There is so much I love about this painting. Like any great great work of art this painting speaks for itself and it says volumes. I am afraid that anything I write about it would do it an injustice.
    "Wow! and "Bravo!" come to mind!
    Thank you posting for all the world to enjoy.
    (Again, thanks for visiting my blog!)
    Take care.

  2. Michael,
    Thank you, you are always so generous with your comments. And I appreciate the audience, otherwise we are making our art only for our own enjoyment.

  3. Sorry for taking in the comment. I saw the watercolor days ago. I was impressed. The yellow of the sulfur is indescribable. It is precisely the kind of work I like. I seek in my work and that of other artists. I search and search my way. We all help in our work. Thank you.

    1. ricardo,
      No sorry necessary, I also get too busy sometimes to comment.
      Thank you, and like you, I seek the work of other artists for inspiration, your's among them.
      We all are constantly searching. Searching is a good thing, it is what keeps us moving forward. The day we arrive, we are done.

      Keep painting...

      No lo siento necesario, también tengo a veces, demasiado ocupado en publicar un comentario.
      Gracias, y como tú, yo busco el trabajo de otros artistas en busca de inspiración, su es entre ellos.
      Todos estamos en constante búsqueda. La búsqueda es una buena cosa, es lo que nos mantiene en movimiento hacia adelante. El día que llegamos, hemos terminado.

      Mantenga la pintura ...

  4. This was really helpful for me. I really like where you said, "quality of light and pops of color that keep it from being too oppressive, a characteristic present in much of the mid century California Watercolor Style and the work of... Art Riley, Hardie Gramatky, Millard Sheets, Emil Kosa Jr., Jack Laycox,Frederic Whitaker, Watson Cross Jr., Crandall Norton, Mary Blair, Joseph De Mers among others, which I have been looking at recently.
    Realism does not always have to be naturalistic...sometimes another quality better supports an idea than a more naturalistic depiction does." That makes a lot of good sense to me! Also, thanks for sharing your thumbnails with the different patterns of light... that's REALLY helpful to see how it makes such a difference to the whole piece. I usually think about those things in my head, but I should play with them more as studies before I begin my color pencil version. Your painting is really wonderful!

    1. I appreciate your visit and comments. I do love the mid-century California Watercolorists for the above reasons. It's good to have a wide variety of inspirations then draw the qualities from them you like while maintaining your own vision or style.
      Yes on the thumbnails. I do the same, think about those things in my head when I should have worked it out beforehand. Then I have to stop to work it out. Fortunately it wasn't too late here.
      Ironically thumbnails like these don't take long to do. But we humans rush into or forget sometimes don't we?
      Now... what was I just saying? Oh well...

      Keep painting...