Mountain West Rail

Anatomy of a Watercolor
....from paper to painting....

By Alexander B. Craghead

Watercolor for me is mostly a pursuit of pleasure.  I have never tried to make it a source of income, knowing the difficulties of trying to live off of art, and not wanting to turn my enjoyable pursuit into a stressful one.  On top of that, I have restricted my painting to images based upon my own photography.  Part of that is due to copyright sensibility, part of that is due to the idea that what I paint I saw, and I am expressing.  As a result I don't paint "FSEP" -- "From Someone Else's Photos" -- anymore.

However, when I posted a few scans of my work at an online forum, I shortly afterwards found myself working on a commission, and one from -- you guessed it -- someone else's photo, in this case, an image taken by Wyoming photographer Paul Birkholz.

Before I even had the print of his photo in my hands, I thought that Paul might enjoy a blow-by-blow of how his photograph turned into my watercolor.  The below account is based on a sort of journal I kept along the process.  I hope you enjoy following along with me from paper to finished painting.

Saturday, January 11th -- 4 pm

Received the photo in mail at about 4 pm.  Opened and examined it for about fifteen minutes, studying the various problems I would probably encounter, planning different alterations to the image to improve upon it.  Dug out my table of proportions and planned how the image will be cropped.  It's either too tall or not wide enough, so I will either have to add some scenery to one edge, (either by extrapolating what should be there, or by "lengthening" a segment of scenery between the center and the edge,) or I will have to crop slightly down from the top and bottom.  Suspect latter route as that calls for eliminating about 1/4 inch along top and bottom edges, versus adding one inch to the edge.

Then again if I make the painting larger than the photograph this could all change. Must think about it for a while first.


About 8 pm

A few quick notes might make the above paragraphs more relevant.

First, although I try to make my work follow "reality", I don't feel bound by that reality so far that I need to include, say, roadside litter, or an unfortunately located street sign, etc....  So as I looked at the photo I was making notes to myself of what elements detracted from the composition, or could be left out without harming it.

Second, on proportion.  I like to keep the dimensions of my work within the proportions of the golden section, (aka phi, aka 1:1.618,) a ratio used in art & architecture since ancient times, and found in all natural objects.  To determine the dimensions, I once made up a little table, with even numbers down one side, and their "correct" proportion for the alternate legs going across.

xW xH
2 3.236 1.236
3 4.854 1.854
4 6.472 2.472

It saves me looking for a calculator.


Sunday, January 12th -- 2 am

Decided to keep painting same scale as image, as that simplifies any transfer measurements.  I cut some paper and laid out the "frame" for the image area in pencil. Will begin laying out the drawing tomorrow.


4 pm

I've laid out the drawing on the paper.  Normally I'd cheat and use a slide, projecting it onto the paper and making the drawing that way.  However, since this is a print, I can't do that.  So I've made a few transfers based on measurements, and then freehanded the rest in.  For example, I measured the railhead and put that in with a ruler, as well as the perspective guide lines which 700 sits in. But the detail on 700 is freehand, as are most of the people.

The price I pay?  The people are a little closer to the front of 700 than in the photo.  I had to ask myself, is this a critical, negative thing?  After studying it for a while, I couldn't see any reason why the composition had been set back.  So rather than go back, erase, and re-lay the people, (or adjust 700 to the right,) I left it be as it is.

After making the drawing, I used a gum eraser to lighten it, so the pencil lines don't show too much in the final picture.

I was going to leave it at that for a while, but, as usual, my impatience got the better of me.  So I went and clipped the paper to the giant clipboard I use as a work surface, and then laid in the sky, using Cerulean blue, my favorite for sky tones.  Skies always go in first.  Why?  First, they are behind everything in real life, so they are the furthest back layer in the painting.  Second, they are the easiest thing to screw up, so if they go in wrong, toss the painting and start with a new one, with no other work lost.  And third, the sky is usually the lightest tone in the finished painting, the ground against which all colors must be compared.

Since the biggest wait in watercolors is for drying, I went ahead and put an underpainting of pale yellow to the foreground. The photo's foreground is more or less a pastel green, which isn't quite "right", so I'm warming it up.

Below is a scan of the the drawing, with the sky in and the yellow underpainting done. Note that the edges on each side are cut off.


Monday, January 13th, -- 1 am

Have begun with the darks.  First step was to get 700 in, as that is, after the sky, the next make-or-break, and because she is a major dark in the image.  Started first moves at about 8 then stopped to let it dry, started again at midnight and just finished. 95% done with the 700 now, only a few details left which I can leave to the last.  Disappointments?  The numerals are not readable.  Nor the herald.  But that is simply it for me, they are too small, even for a number one brush and tinted white ink, which I don't think could do the job.  (White paint usually looks false.)

I also have made a first attempt at the large tank at extreme left, which will have to be done over because the color doesn't look right.

Also laid in the railhead, and then started the darkest darks on the people.  First photog's camera & flap of coat; second photog's body, bent over in the grass; shadows of photog 3's jeans; ditto on photog 4, along with shadows on his jacket. They get successively bluer with distance, a happy coincidence with the photo.

Next step?  Background buildings & distant hills, and then the smoke, and then the medium-darks on the people. But now?  Bed.


3 pm

Laid in most of the darks.  Finished the basics of the smoke, did some of the background hills & structures, along with the small trestle the locomotive is crossing.  Laid in more blue tones.  The painting is now at the 1/2 way done stage, and I expect that it will be finished before mid-week.

Latest scan:


7 pm

It's controlled chaos really, a bit like going into battle with the paint.  It's watercolor, it has a mind of it's own.  Or, at least, physics does, and it often ends up taking the paint in places you don't want, and then you throw up your arms in frustration expecting to chuck it all as a failure.

And then you go for a walk and come back and realize that nothing at all is wrong.  It's a painting, not a photo, and that chaotic element is what makes it different.

(I hate the tank at left, and have been fiddling with it obsessively.)

Any ways.  Now most of the darks are finished and the skin tones are in.  I've put in shadows on the guy in the center, finished the distant photog, and pretty much wound up most of the details now. Still have to add some doo-dads to the smokebox on 700, and I have to go back and redo the shadows on the foreground photog's face. I knew they'd be difficult, but that's why I picked this image, the challenge was enticing.

Latest scan:

I estimate the painting will be complete Tuesday evening.


Tuesday, January 14th -- 6 pm

Well it looks like it won't be finished tonight after all, since I got stuck with some other business today.  However, some progress has occurred.  I have laid in some of the greens, and then started to "scratch out" the grass seed heads with the side of a pair of scissors. It may be complete tomorrow afternoon. Just goes to show you my level of patience has increased with age, as most of my earlier paintings were done within an hour or two, with inadequate drying periods between.

Here is the latest scan, showing the half completed scratchwork.


Wednesday, January 15th -- Midnight

Damn.  It's a strange thing now that I really think about it, fighting with the water, and then coaxing it, and then fighting it again.  I just laid in most of the background ground textures, some more detail, finished the hat of the foreground photog and darkened the shadows there too.  Played with the blue hat and the never-quite-right green shirt.  (It's too pastel in reality.)  I went back and laid in more darks in the creek, and in the reeds there, and overall finished most of the details.  Now all that's left is to finish the blue hat. Did some re-work in the first photog's hair, to make it better stand out against the background, played with the shadows near the tank, and then put in the final seed heads.

Most of that should take no more than a few hours tomorrow. And then it is complete!


4 pm

A scan before I start the last work:

We're in the home stretch now!


5 pm

There's a point at which you begin fussing.  Obsessing.  Should I have put that detail in?  Oh, that is all wrong.  How could I have forgotten such and such?  Oh, that needs to be darker.  Like I said, obsessing.  And that is the clear sign that the finish is at hand.  In truth it will never be perfect, and it's when you reach a point of accepting that inherent imperfection that the brush goes down one last time.  Oh, and by-the-way, that is usually after it's been titled and signed.

Anyway. It's done. And this scanner does not do justice to the sienna tones at all.

Here it is: 

I have titled it The Watchers.

As you can see, my method of watercolor is not nearly so precise as it may seem when looking at a finished work.  It is a little like juggling.  But undertaking this commission for Paul was a very enjoyable experience.  Exercise is the only way to broaden skill, and this subject made me stretch myself to accomplish what I wanted out of the image.  And it made me finally crack open the brush-box and paint something again, something that I don't do often enough....

In addition to being a watercolorist, writer, and photographer, Portland area resident Alexander Craghead is also the Editor and Webmaster of The Northwest's Own Railfan, a webzine on Pacific Northwest railroads.  He can be reached at

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