California artist Michael Reardon finds that he can best capture the effects of light by applying white paint

over the brilliant white of watercolor paper. | by Bob Bahr

Shades ofWatercolor White in
may seem counter-intuitive, but the range of subtle shades of white makes the pure white of the paper seem even whiter. Putting your darkest value next to the white creates the greatest contrast, which very effectively draws the eye to that part of a painting. But putting number-two values next to the number-one value of the paper makes the white seem even whiter.” “The beauty of painting shades of white goes to the heart of my approach to painting in watercolor, capturing the fleeting qualities of light,” Reardon continues. “Light bouncing off a white object is the clearest example. Keen observation discerns the subtle tints of blue reflected from


Lamayuru Chorten, Ladakh
2010, watercolor, 22 x 11. All artwork this article collection the artist.

side from water, there is no more defining trait in watercolor painting than the white paper the pigment sits upon. Its light tone illuminates the transparent paint from beneath. Its texture shapes the overall feel of the piece. Its more fragile nature (compared to canvas) suggests transience, delicacy, tradition, and handcraft. Michael Reardon, of Oakland, California, loves painting shades of white in watercolor. The decision is partly pragmatic—it’s easier to tint the white of the paper than try to build up paint to the right color in a darker value—but it’s also an issue of subtlety and beauty. One of Reardon’s greatest pleasures is painting while traveling, and when he finds an inspiring scene he is quick to note where he can use the pure white of unpainted paper to draw the viewer’s eye. “The thoughtful use of white paper is a fundamental element of any watercolor composition,” says the artist. “It
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“I try to keep the sky restful, not busy. My skies are generally a place for the eye to rest, and for setting a mood.”

the sky, warm tones from the ground, greens from adjacent vegetation, or the myriad other colors that reflect from the object and affect its ‘whiteness.’” Other artists are starting to notice Reardon’s ability to depict shades of white using transparent watercolor washes. His painting Lamayuru Chorten, Ladakh, which presents a white sunlit monastery in India, recently won Best of Show at the 2010 Statewide Watercolor Competition and Exhibition at the Triton Museum of Art, in Santa Clara, California. When it comes to capturing such subtle effects, Reardon’s approach is one of controlled experimentation. He makes his living as an architectural illustrator, which requires a precise and decisive hand. In his fine art, he takes this method and stirs things up. Reardon is a dedicated plein air painter, and as any artist will tell you, anything can happen when one is painting outdoors, and something usually does. Reardon takes it in stride. His success in this, perhaps, lies mostly in his powers of

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Pont NôtreDame, Paris
2010, watercolor, 18 x 11.



Hemis Monastery, Ladakh
2006, watercolor, 10 x 5.

Mountain View Monument
2008, watercolor, 9 x 6.

concentration. “When I’m painting en plein air, I concentrate so hard that I don’t even notice what is going on behind me,” he notes. “One time in Turkey I turned around and there were about 30 men watching me paint, and I had no idea they were there.” The demonstration painting shown here was not painted plein air—in fact, it was the first painting Reardon had done from a reference photograph in years—but it was a necessary experiment. The artist sought to create a painting using only two colors, cobalt blue and permanent orange. “I was playing a little bit of a game, using
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mostly just those two colors—my workhorse colors,” Reardon explains. “I added just a few other colors near the base, but mostly it was pure color.” He chooses cobalt because it’s a relatively neutral blue and “it doesn’t granulate the way ultramarine does.” He opts for permanent orange because it’s very yellow and much warmer than any of his reds—and also very transparent. The artists says he can emulate ultramarine blue by adding some quinacridone rose to the cobalt. He can strengthen the permanent orange by mixing in a bit of quinacridone burnt scarlet. When he works in his studio, Reardon

tilts the paper to a 45-degree angle. In the field, he holds his watercolor pad in one hand, tilting and rotating it as needed to move the water and pigment around the surface. Whether he’s outdoors or in his studio, a painting session usually lasts between 90 minutes and two hours. “For the most part I know what’s going to happen, but I also know there will be accidents,” he says. “I don’t go back in and change them. I work with them. Often, I will put a painting away for a few days, and when I come back to look at it, I will decide that it works.” Reardon uses two wells for water, one for warm
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Reardon’s Tips for Getting the Most out of Your Painting Sessions
l l

North Anchorage, Golden Gate Bridge
2010, watercolor, 22 x 11.

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Don’t try to paint everything in front of you. Keep it simple. Look for light areas or white areas in your scene. This will take advantage of the white of your paper and make your task easier. Keep your water clean. Watercolor can be a challenging medium, and whenever you think you have it mastered, it will surprise you. Learn to live with your surprises. Play with the paint, and have fun.



Leh Palace, Ladakh

San Marco, Venice
2007, watercolor, 61⁄2 x 41⁄2.

pigments and one for cool, and he changes the water often to keep it reasonably clean. Given his unofficial time restraint, Reardon works fast. “It takes a lot of adrenaline—I think many watercolorists are adrenaline junkies,” he observes. Reardon painted Blue Mosque Istanbul for two reasons. First, the photograph was taken from the middle of the street, a vantage point that would have been impossible—and illegal—to paint from. Second, Reardon found himself in his studio with the rare problem of not having an idea of what to paint. He came across the reference photograph and decided it would be a fun exercise—especially because it required him to create the foreground from his imagination. (An unattractive billboard dominated that actual scene.) In general, Reardon opposes the idea of working from photos. “You can usually tell when people work from a photograph because too much detail is included,” he says. “When I used this photo, I printed a small black-and-white copy, traced the major elements, then put the photo away and did graphite sketches to work out the composition. After two or three iterations, I found
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2010, watercolor, 22 x 11.

Reardon’s Palette
The artist uses Daniel Smith watercolors in the following colors: l cobalt blue l ultramarine blue l cerulean blue l phthalo blue l carmine l quinacridone rose l cadmium red l permanent orange l perinone orange l new gamboge l phthalo green yellow shade l viridian l amazonite genuine l quinacridone burnt scarlet l quinacridone burnt orange l quinacridone gold

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Raphael sable rounds, sizes 7–12 Daniel Smith synthetic round, size 42 Arches sable round, size 6
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Canale Grande, Venice
2010, watercolor, 25 x 14.

D e m o n s t r at i o n : B l u e m o s q u e , i s ta n B u l
it does on contemporary buildings. In general, I like putting buildings in the landscape and seeing how they integrate or contrast.” Despite his preferences and background, Reardon is branching. “In the last few years I have done a series of paintings without buildings just to break out a little bit,” he reports. “I’m currently focusing on the interplay of the manmade and natural worlds. My paintings of Ladakh and the Golden Gate Bridge anchorage illustrate this very well. I find that the duality of structure and environment tells a story that is compelling. Just as the interaction of dark and light values in a painting attracts the eye, the tension or integration of these two facets attracts my imagination.” n

one that worked. This way I allow my imagination to determine the content of the final painting.” This value study is crucial for Reardon’s process. “At the very beginning I always do a graphite value study, which also serves as a thumbnail for the composition,” he says. “It’s my roadmap through the whole painting process. After all, it’s the correct relationship of values that makes a successful painting. The colors help to suggest the mood.” When Reardon assesses a scene he looks for contrast, and it’s what he seeks to capture in his value study. In many watercolor outdoor scenes, the sky is the lightest part, but this rule doesn’t apply in a Reardon watercolor, given his penchant for finding and using white objects in his work. The white area will draw the eye, so he uses that to direct viewers to the most important subject in the composition. Skies serve a different role. “I try to
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keep the sky restful, not busy,” the artist explains. “My skies are generally a place for the eye to rest, and for setting a mood.” Once again, Reardon relies on his “workhorse” colors. His sky will often consist of diluted cobalt and a bit of permanent orange. The sky in the demonstration painting used those two colors plus quinacridone rose. The silhouette of the minarets against the sunset sky are striking, but Blue Mosque, Istanbul primarily showcases the various shades that a backlit white building can take on. Particularly striking is the permanent orange on the underplanes of the minarets. One usually thinks of shaded areas as blue, because they receive the bounce light from the blue sky, but in this sunset scene, the bounce light reflects the warm light from the ground. “I started at the top of the minaret,” explains Reardon. “I usually put down a fairly light wash of pure pigment and then work wet-in-wet, dropping in denser washes of pigment, allowing the colors to flow into one another by themselves to mix the colors on the paper until I get the effect I want. I don’t often premix colors, although sometimes I’ll premix a green.” Reardon did add a bit of ultramarine to very top of the minaret, as well as the top of the dome, because he wanted a strong value with minimal strokes. The mosque depicted is 400 years old, and this was no surprise—the artchitect in Reardon gravitates toward older buildings. “Older buildings have a whole patina from age and time that makes them more interesting,” he says. “The play of light on older buildings catches my eye more than




Reference Photograph
“I quickly took this shot in Istanbul a couple of years ago,” Reardon said. “I was struck by the silhouette of the mosque. I had to stand in a very busy street to get the view I wanted, which precluded me from doing a sketch.”





About the Artist
Michael Reardon’s work has been accepted in numerous national and international exhibitions, including those hosted by the American Watercolor Society, the National Watercolor Society, and Watercolor West. He was the recipient of the Hugh Ferriss Memorial Prize, given by the American Society of Architectural Illustrators for excellence in the graphic representation of architecture. Reardon is a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, the National Watercolor Society, Watercolor West, the California Watercolor Association, and an Artist member of the California Art Club. He recently won Best of Show at the 2010 Statewide Watercolor Competition and Exhibition at the Triton Museum of Art, in Santa Clara, California. For more information, visit www.
tHe CoMPleteD PaINtING:

Blue Mosque, Istanbul
2010, watercolor, 22 x 11.

Step 1
The artist first transferred the rough sketch to watercolor paper. “I only put in the information that I think will be helpful for the final painting,” he explained. Once this sketch was complete, Reardon stretched the paper and stapled it to a board. After the paper dried, he masked the edges and began painting.

the minaret on the right. “I’m left handed,” Reardon explained, “so I work from the top right so that I don’t put my hand in the wet paint.” He also notes that he paints directly, saying, “I put down the correct value wash immediately and don’t go back over it later.” For this step he used cobalt blue, permanent orange, and a bit of ultramarine blue.

want this area of the painting to be a bit darker in value,” he said.

Step 6
Careful not to let the wash edge dry too much, the artist began laying in the tre es, using the aforementioned colors and a bit of viridian. To suggest foliage, he aimed to create variations in the wash.

Step 2
“I do a light base wash,” Reardon says. “This wash doubles as the sky color, which I wanted to be a light value, something like a morning sky. I started with manganese blue at the top, switching to quinacridone rose, permanent orange, and cobalt blue as I went down the page.”

Step 4
Working wet-in-wet, the artist moved down the page, mostly using cobalt blue and permanent orange. “I am attempting to ‘trick’ the brain into melding the two colors together,” he said. “It creates more visual interest.”

Step 7
Reardon then moved to the foreground building using a darker mixture of perinone orange and quinacridone burnt scarlet.

Step 8
Using a mixture of carmine, phthalocyanine green, and ultramarine blue, he created the final darks and dropped them into the damp wash. “I try not to overdo it,” he says. “I just put them in a few places, including the dark cypress on the right.” Spring 2011 69

Step 5
On the lower half of the page Reardon began to introduce perinone orange and quinacridone burnt scarlet. “They have a greater value range than permanent orange, and I

Step 3
After letting the first wash dry thoroughly, the artist started with a medium-value wash at the top of