Patience – Part 1

Over the past three months, I have been working on just one painting. My daughter took a great photograph of Chinatown, in San Francisco, last summer. The image shows the intersection of California Street and Sacramento Street, looking down many blocks to the ocean. Tons of color and details create this cool image. She challenged me to paint it in watercolors. It was quite a daunting task and I was well out of my comfort zone. But I always like a challenge and I think during the past 3 months I have learned quite a lot. The creation of this painting has improved my technique. With all the tiny details I had to paint, I completely destroyed my 00 brush and had to go buy a new one mid-way through the painting. With a project like this one, patience was my biggest hurtle. I knew this would take me a long time to paint. I decided to take photos of the painting while in progress. Over the next few blogs, I will post my painting’s progression.

Here is the photo that I was working from:


First part of any painting is the sketch. Working from my daughter’s photo, I drew an outline drawing of the scene. Already I had to make decisions on what to include. As you know, I love details and constraining myself is always a challenge when my instinct is to include everything I see. My sketch shows the basic outline of shapes and how I want the composition to lay out. The image has a natural X right through the center of it. In a complicated image such as this one, I wanted my center of interest to literally be the center of the painting. The sky and the road lead you right to the heart of the painting. Once I had my sketch, I carefully transferred it to tracing paper, then to watercolor paper. This process alone took me 4 hours of drawing to complete the transfer.


I almost always work on my paintings, top to bottom, left to right. There is nothing worse when painting, then having your hand or arm brush through the wet paint, smearing it along your painting. I began by painting a gradated wash for the sky. The sky has 4 washes on it, moving from an intense bright blue to a soft, pale, almost white horizon. I then painted all the lanterns. They seemed one of the most important parts of the painting and I wanted to make sure they claimed their space, especially in the far background.


Next, I laid down broad light washes of color. I always work from light to dark, gradually building up color. As you can see, I worked on one section at a time, building up color and adding more and more detail. I continued to move from left to right across the paper. First with washes, then details. A few objects I reserved for later, such as the green light posts. I knew I wanted to match the greens, so I saved them until I got to the large light post on the right side many weeks later.

The colors in this scene are very intense. The yellows, reds and greens on the buildings are very vibrant and I tried to mimic the colors as best as I could to convene the startling contrast.


As I reached the far distance of the painting, I had to make more and more decisions about what to include, what to ignore, and what to blur. I wanted the far distance to be hazy and out of focus. The signage in this painting was truly one of the biggest challenges. Some of the signs, such as the “Far East” sign were hand painted, so it was easier to replicate them. Others, such as the “Bank of America” sign and later the “Canton Bazaar” signage, were not, making them much more difficult to reproduce.


To be continued…

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