For this project, we will use watercolors and crayons to paint a vibrant animal from observation. Although we'll be looking at a photograph for our reference, the final painting will be a more imaginative and creative interpretation instead of a strictly realistic or traditional pet portrait.
Step 1: Get Inspired
Start by looking at the work of these contemporary artists who make art featuring animals. My favorites are Kiki Smith (animals to tell a story), Alfredo Arreguin (animals with a lot of pattern) and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (animals to express emotion). What details do you notice in each artist’s paintings?
Step 2: Research
Choose an animal you’d like to paint. Search for photographs online or from your own personal photographs. Old animal-themed calendars are also a great resource. I’ll be using an image of my chicken Rhubarb for this painting.
Step 3: Gather Your Supplies
You will need the following: a heavy sheet of watercolor paper or illustration board (I'm using a sheet of 140 lb. cold-pressed watercolor paper), a pencil, an eraser, crayons, a cup of water, a paper towel, masking or painter’s tape, a watercolor brush and watercolors. Basic pan watercolors work great because they are so brightly colored, or you can use more professional grade watercolors in tubes. A hairdryer is also useful.
Step 4: Cartoon Sketching
We’re going to use the cartoon method of drawing to map out the animal’s shape and proportion.
Look closely at your reference photo and use your finger to trace over any basic shapes you can see within the animal’s form. I see a big oval that makes up Rhubarb’s body, a smaller circle for her head, and tapering lines for her neck.
With a light touch, loosely sketch out the circles, ovals and lines on your watercolor paper. Draw big, using your full arm instead of just your wrist. You want to fill up as much of your paper as possible. Make sure that you are drawing lightly because you will erase most of these lines later.
Step 5: Refine the Animal’s Shape
Now use your pencil to draw over your cartoon shapes to get a more accurate rendering of your animal. Look at your reference photo more than you look at your paper and move your pencil slowly. Don’t rush this. Erase lines that are no longer needed as you go. Add in the facial features of your animal, but avoid small details, textures or shading.
When you’re at a stopping point, prop up your artwork and step as far away from it as you can to view it from a new perspective. Does any of the proportion need to be edited or are there any changes you want to make?
Revise, still using a light touch until you are mostly satisfied, but avoid aiming for perfection.
Step 6: Add Crayon Patterns
For this painting, we’re going to use a technique called watercolor resist, which is when the wax of crayon lines resists the watery paint we brush over it.
For this step, you will want to add crayon lines but not color anything in. If you have any pencil lines that are dark, feel free to erase them until you can barely see them. Choose any combination of crayons, keeping in mind we’re aiming for bright, unrealistic color in this painting. White is also fun to try for this technique.
Start by going over your animal outlines and any details you drew. The key to this step is to press really hard with your crayon so that the wax fully covers your paper. You should end up with a totally solid line without any paper showing through.
Then, fill up your animal with basic patterns, remembering to press hard. Do the same (with a different pattern) in the background. I like to choose colors that will contrast my watercolors.
Step 7: Paint the Animal
Now that your artwork is fully outlined and patterned, it’s time to paint! First, tape down your paper to the table so that it doesn’t curl or bubble up.
We are going to use a technique called wet-on-wet to achieve naturally blended colors. Dip your brush in water and lightly cover a medium-sized area of your animal. Then, with a semi wet brush, start with one color and lay it over the wet area of the paper.
Avoid scrubbing your brush back and forth so that the paint can spread out on its own. You want to avoid trying to control the paint and instead trust that it will do the job for you.
Add a second color to the same area and watch as they start to blend on their own. Work with analogous colors that are near each other on the color wheel so that they will blend nicely. Continue this process until you fill the animal with color.
Let dry when finished or speed up the drying time with a hair dryer.
Step 8: Paint the Background
Once your animal is fully dry you can start to paint your background.
Choose a combination of colors that will contrast the animal. If you used light colors in the animal, choose dark colors for the background. If you used warm colors like red and orange, choose cool colors like blue and green.
Use the same wet-on-wet method to paint the background, being careful to avoid scrubbing the brush on the paper so that you can get a bright, transparent effect.
When finished, let dry and then sign your name. Great work on taking the risk to make some art with me! Let’s do it again sometime.