Watercolor Portraits on DANIEL SMITH
Iridescent Gold Watercolor Ground
By Molly Murrah (continued)
A painting of my son, this was my first attempt on the gold ground. I was tentative at first, learning how the pigments, paint consistency and brush strokes interacted with the gold
background. Done on 140# Cold Press, I was happily surprised with the outcome.
For my first portrait, I stretched 140# Cold Press paper on ½” gator board (I usually stretch my paintings because I really don’t like buckles!) and for the second painting, I applied the ground to 140# Rough block paper. For the third I used 140# Cold Press block paper. All worked fine, although the block papers buckled quite a bit while the ground was wet, which impeded smooth application. However, once dry, all the papers lay perfectly flat. The ground adds weight to your paper, making it feel a bit like heavy fabric. I love the feel of it.
I had worked my drawings out ahead of time then transferred them to the coated paper using graphite wax-free transfer paper, but you can create your own transfer paper by rubbing
graphite pencil on the back of tracing paper. You can also draw directly on the ground, as well… it erases just fine.
Painting on the gold is a bit of a challenge at first. Your brush strokes apply the paint differently, and the water to pigment ratio is important. If the paint is too thin, it doesn’t take well,
but if you get close to the consistency of cream, it’s fine.
The pigments I use for skin tones are light and pretty opaque when not diluted with much water. (You can create the colors you want for your portraits using DANIEL SMITH Watercolors
mixed with Titanium White Watercolor.) As opposed to painting with thin, transparent pigments, this more opaque style is especially suitable for the gold ground. Also, you can actually paint the ground on your work with a brush, if you want to add gold finishing touches.
The start of my second painting on the gold ground, this one was painted on 140# Rough block because I wanted to see how the texture affected the ground (made it somewhat
smoother). Note the light, opaque highlights I applied right from the start.
Do realize that with a gold background, you are starting out with a value already darker than plain white paper, so you need to adjust your values and technique accordingly.
The fascinating aspect of the gold ground is what happens when you turn your painting at different angles to the light. At one angle, light reflects off the unpainted gold areas creating
bright, iridescent highlights, but at another angle the light seems completely absorbed. I find this play of light fascinating! Under glass, the effect is diminished somewhat, which makes me want to learn something else new… how to mount my paintings on board and eliminate glass altogether!
I like to see “personality” show up in my paintings as soon as possible, so I usually paint faces first. At this stage, I wanted to get an idea of how the lights and darks on the face played with each other.
At my demo one of the attendees said he loved the gold ground effect because it brought a “Renaissance look and feel” to the work. I understand his comment — the light reflecting
off the iridescent gold adds great warmth, dimension and a new, exciting look to your work. Try it… you’ll like it!
Here I started laying in the darker values in the hair. I had already put in most of the facial features and was beginning to get an idea of where the iridescent gold would peek through the gaps in the overlaying pigments.
This is the final painting. I reinforced the highlights where I wanted them, added strokes of blue grey to the face and hair for extra punch, and even brushed in additional gold ground for highlights in the hair.
Molly Murrah discovered her love for art when she took her first art classes in middle school. In college, she first majored in math, but eventually graduated with a degree in fine art. After
college, Molly became a graphic designer, which helped hone her skills in color and especially composition – something she feels is extremely important for creating successful paintings.
Needing a creative outlet beyond her graphic design business, in 2001 Molly seriously began her studies in watercolor.
“Painting in watercolor is a difficult process to master – ‘mistakes’ and problem areas can often be easily detected. However, contrary to common belief, a high degree of control
can be maintained and, in my opinion, no other art form can create the unique images you are able to achieve in the medium. Water media techniques produce works that can be
luminous, fluid and mysterious, and “accidents” – if you capitalize on them to support your vision and emotional intent – often end up being the most surprisingly brilliant aspects of
With the luminosity of the paint and paper, the myriad of textures you can create, the infinite gradations of color, the ability to paint realistically, abstractly and in every style in
between, painting in watercolor can keep an artist fascinated and engaged for many years of joyful painting.”
Molly Murrah is a Signature member of Northwest Watercolor Society (NWWS) and served as President in 2013-2014. NWWS is one of the top watercolor societies in the United States. Molly also teaches watercolor painting at all levels.
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