Step by Step: A Painting in Progress

THIS IS THE PROCESS I typically use for illustration and watercolor, especially if the project is a little complex. The advantage of this method is that because the drawing is done on the computer, I can tweak, update, rearrange and re-do at any point short of the “real-world” painting itself. I do basically the same process, even on spot illustrations.

I’m using a painting I did for Half Moon Bay Winery as the example. Click on any image to see it larger.


^ This is the original photo of Cunha’s Country Grocery in Half Moon Bay, California.
Cunha's - composed for painting

^ Composed in Photoshop. Here I’ve bastardized the original photo to make the building more picturesque. Note the tower, windows and awning have been enlarged. (If I drew the building as it really is, you’d be overwhelmed by all that wall.) I’ve also added people from other photos, sized them appropriately, and removed some figures who were the original photo. Things exist here, like the cars, that will not be in the final art. In fact, note that one guy w/the hat is in there twice! (As you’ll see in the next step, he will magically turn into another person and the dude next to him will magically turn into a woman … no surgery necessary!) Anyway, no way am I going to go to the trouble of making this composition perfect. It’s is more of a guide than anything else.

Cunha's-initial drawing

^ The composition has been imported into Illustrator. (This could also be done on a separate layer in Photoshop, but as you’ll see, there’s method to my madness). I’ve drawn in yellow so I can see the lines against the photograph (Wacom tablet, natch). The yellow lines are on a layer above the photo so I can toggle off the photo and see the drawing by itself.

Because I’m lazy, I even cheated a little: See how the sign on the left side of the building is the same as the sign on the front of the building? I only had to draw it once – then I copied, scaled and sheared to create the sign on the left.

Note how I’ve drawn items that weren’t in the photo — merchandise in the store windows, the doorway, curtains in the upstairs windows, etc. , and ignored stuff I didn’t want.

^ The yellow lines have now been converted to light gray and areas I don’t want to attempt with a paintbrush later have been drawn or “painted” in their final colors. In some paintings, I’ll make the lines black, as they will be part of the final painting. In others, I leave the drawing gray and come in after the painting is done and hand-ink. Depends on the look I want in the end. The gray lines will remain in the final product and usually don’t show — but if they do, they look like pencil, which is very common to see in watercolor because of the paint’s transparency.

Now, here’s where that advantage of drawing in Illustrator comes in: Say a client decides he doesn’t like something in the drawing. He didn’t want a truck, he really had pictured his uncle’s Pontiac GTO with red flames on the side. Easy-peasy. I can delete the truck, put in the GTO, and reprint the drawing. (I once had a guy who didn’t like a Vespa scooter I’d put in the scene; he decided he wanted a bicycle. I simply deleted the Vespa and drew a bike.) And because it’s drawn in a vector-oriented program — and here’s the primary method to my madness — I can grab the whole Vespa in one go, move it, delete it, or plug it into another drawing.

Once the drawing is approved (or I’m happy with it), the watercolor is a go.
From here the drawing is output on Arches 9×12″ 140-lb. Cold Pressed watercolor paper. Since my Epson 2200 uses waterproof archival inks, I can paint right over the ink without the ink smearing.

The other nice part of this process, besides being able to move things around and being able to paint over the ink, is that if I happen to spill my Pepsi on it, or I mistakenly paint something the wrong color (remember, there’s limited correction in watercolors!), or any number of other hair-pulling mishaps, I can print it out again and repaint—without having to draw the whole frickin’ thing all over again.

Rest assured, I only offer one original watercolor for sale. Mistakes are torn up into little pieces and fed to my pet iguana.

^ I’ve now painted over the gray line drawing with watercolor. This was then scanned into Photoshop…

^ …and incorporated into the final product, a 3″x4″ wine label.


A few years after these wine labels were printed, I came across the original painting and just couldn’t keep my hands off of it. It needed ink. This is how it came out:

Nice, eh? You can get your very own Giclée print of Cunha’s Country Store here.

—D.S.Thornton; Temecula, CA


All content (c) Diane S. Thornton. All Rights Reserved.