A note to my readers: “Welcome back to my website and another one of my video demonstrations. Today I have a special episode for you. After you watch the video demonstrating my painting process, you can enjoy the commentary/critique of the process and painting by my friend and great artist Russell Black. This should give much different perspective on the process than if I explained it myself. I hope you enjoy this new format. If you do, please consider sharing the article on your favorite social sites and leave a comment down below. Let us know if you’d like to see more critiques like this in the future. Enjoy.” -Daniel Novotny


When it comes to painting in watercolor, there are three fundamental methods. They are, 1) Wash & Silhouette, 2) Wet-into-Wet, and 3) Brush Line or the “calligraphic” approach. With the Wash & Silhouette approach, we can break this down even further to three basic methods, 1A) the “traditional” or layered approach which was pioneered by the English and is still the principle way to paint a watercolor, 1B) the “darks first” method in which the artist reverses the normal, “paint from light to dark” approach and begins by painting the dark values first, and 1C) the “shape-by-shape” approach in which the artist paints each shape individually using the correct color/value (and is the most challenging of them all).

In this video, Daniel has opted to paint in the most challenging method, using the shape-by-shape approach. The reason this method is so difficult is that the artist needs to paint each shape only once (which is preferred), and the shape must be the correct color (hue) and value (light to dark) the first time around. Secondary shapes can be painted on a second (or third), layer if necessary. To add even more difficulty to the procedure, Daniel has chosen to paint without any pencil guidelines on the paper. To most artists, this additional “handicap” would make the procedure nearly impossible, but Daniel has spent a number of years perfecting his technique and can paint directly from his preliminary sketches without the need of the pencil work.

preliminary sketches
preliminary sketches
preliminary sketches

Daniel begins the painting on his quarter sheet (11″ x 15″), by using a large 2″ flat synthetic brush. Even though this is a small painting, the use of a large brush is how one should go about making a painting. The large brush not only simplifies things, but it keeps one from getting nit picky too early on in the process. A simple triad of colors is chosen (more on this in a moment), and the first shapes are laid in. Without the pencil guidelines, the painting becomes a bit more organic and slight variations in the shapes happen naturally. This gives the painting a “lighter” and “looser” feel to it rather than the typical coloring book approach of painting in-between the drawn lines. Shapes are adjusted as the painting develops in order to keep the basic design in place. When painting this way, “accidents” are more likely to happen and the artist needs to get comfortable with certain irregularities. Trying to duplicate your sketch precisely is not the goal, but rather your overall intention is what counts. If things are slightly “off”, that’s actually a good thing as it creates a more “painterly” piece. Shapes are painted in an order determined by the artist, usually from large to small, but in such a way as to make the next shape “obvious” in the sequence. This takes practice.

As the design develops it is natural that shapes might overlap, and in fact this is encouraged. Painting “out of register” creates not only “accidental” shapes, but the optical mixing of two colors to create a new “third” color. For example, a light blue can overlap a yellow to make an optically mixed green. Once the primary, large shapes have been painted, the secondary, smaller shapes can now be added. These darker marks begin to describe more of the design’s intent and subject matter and for these, Daniel switches to a 1″ flat synthetic brush to finish up the painting. A quick signature and the painting is complete.

©2017 Atelier Novotny
Finished Painting

George Post said that every painting should contain, “…a light, a bright, a dull, and a dark.” This painting is a good example of that statement. The “light” in this case is the white of the paper. A light can be the actual paper’s white surface, or a near white (slight tint) that will translate as a light. In most cases, we use the white of our watercolor paper so show off the “lights” in our design. These lights usually have to be created in the design process as they don’t naturally occur in nature.

The “bright” would be a solid Chroma color, like the pure yellow that we have here. Bright color can be any color though, and it should be a solid mix of the tube color, or combination of colors. What we don’t want here is any neutralized color, as that brings us to our next one…

The “dull” would be any neutralized color or a combination of colors that produce a “grayed” color, like the grayed violet in this painting (also the compliment of the yellow). Dull colors are important as they provide a direct contrast and make the “bright” colors seem even more so. Even a bright color that isn’t naturally that intense (take Indian Yellow for example), would seem to glow when placed next to a dull color like this grayed violet. Its one way that we can make colors glow even when we can’t get them any brighter out of the tube.

Finally, the “dark” color gives us both definition and solidity to our work. Darks “describe”, they inform us about the shapes, especially those of form. Placed next to the “lights”, darks serve to provide the ultimate contrast within the painting. Without good quality darks our paintings look weak and insipid.

Another consideration is the color temperature of the painting. Color can be either warm or cool, but a painting should have a dominance of temperature one way or the other. Have your painting either dominantly warm or dominantly cool, never 50-50. An equal mix, either within an individual color or the entire painting as a whole, produces what we call “muddy” work. You can get into this problem rather easily by painting a blue (cool) sky and a yellow (warm) foreground, dividing the picture plane in half. In this case, the painting is neither warm or cool and you now have a problem. Try to avoid the equality of temperature.

If we were to take swatches from several points within this painting, we would see that we have a warm dominance of color, even in the grayed violets. About the only critique that I would give here is that a bit more cool color contrast could have been applied to make the warms seem even hotter. There are currently a few small shapes of the cooler violet and these might have been increased just a tad.

It can be a delicate balancing act to get the ratios just right, but that’s another issue for a later time. In all, this is a great example of how to use color creatively in a design.

Even though this painting looks simple to execute, there is nothing “simple” about it. Its takes practice (and lots of it), in order to get comfortable with painting shapes directly on a blank piece of paper. Even more practice in organizing and assembling those shapes in sequence so that they can be painted quickly and confidently using a large brush full of color. Brevity is not only the “sole of wit”, but also makes for an excellent watercolor painting. The old adage is certainly true – “…keep it simple, students.” Daniel’s painting is an example of what a “loose” watercolor should be, and what we can all strive for in our own work.

-Russell Black

Similar approach to today’s painting can be seen in my previous demonstration. If you’re interested in reading my own thoughts behind the process and complete commentary with images and explanation, please consider visiting my article here. -Daniel Novotny


  1. J.P. Keslensky August 14, 2017 at 16:09

    Daniel and Russell, another wonderful collaboration. Daniel’s brush work and compositions are alway a joy to watch. But so much more is revealed by having it all put into context and perspective by Russell’s explanation of the thought and theory behind the work. There is so much to be learned here. Once again my personal thanks and appreciation to you both for your generosity of sharing.

    1. Daniel Novotny August 14, 2017 at 16:51

      Thank you very much for reading and for your positive feedback. We are glad you enjoyed this article and the video as well.

      However, there was a missing paragraph from the article right after the preliminary sketches. It is now fixed if you’d like to read it.

      1. J.P. Keslensky August 14, 2017 at 19:49

        Thanks for pointing that addition out Daniel, the extra perspective adds to an already excellent post.

  2. Carl August 14, 2017 at 08:25

    Yet another inspirational example of your mastery of the medium Daniel and the comments by Russel are insightful :0) More of these please :0)

    1. Daniel Novotny August 14, 2017 at 10:11

      Thank you kindly Carl for the words of appreciation. I’m glad you enjoyed this.


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