The technique begins with a layer of zinc white gouache that is allowed to thoroughly dry. I'm working with a small Canson 5" x 7" Cachet spiral-bound sketchbook. The binding allows the sketchbook to lay flat as I work. I can also work with the used pages flipped to the back of the sketchbook if I need a more compact setup. I am left-handed, so I usually work with the binding on the right side of the page. The paper has just enough tooth and weight to accomodate a variety of techniques and some experiementation. It also has a warm, cream color that gives my watercolor and water-soluble graphite studies a subtle "antique" feel that is harder to achieve with stark white paper.
Choosing a subject is always a challenge in a familiar place. The creek is low this time of year, revealing small rocks and debris, pebbles, roots, sand and mud. Sometimes, I choose a simple subject to study when my surroundings aren't inspiring.
It was a cool, still and overcast morning with the sound of mostly birds and squirrels above and the barely discernible trickle of the creek which flows from a spring high in the hills. I decided to make the light reflected from the horizontal planes my subject. The morning overcast is a bit of a chameleon. It appeared white overall, but when I stared at it long enough, I saw hints of blue from the sky and yellow from the rising sun scattered by the water vapor. A tinting of the sky blue dominated the swirling mass overhead.
I then turned my attention to the creek and its surroundings. Every damp, horizontal surface reflected the light blue I had just observed. Some of the angled surfaces also picked up a bit of the sky. The debris, mud and foliage also created their own "passes" of color that would later help me to plan the steps of my watercolor study.
Recently, my favorite subject has been clusters of leaves or blossoms that form elegant and asymmetrical compositions. This partially chewed and isolated bit of ivy had a waxy surface that reflected the sky, a rich range of values and details, and just enough dry debris and earth beneath it for an inspiring and textured background.
My Winsor & Newton watercolor set includes viridian, cerulean blue, raw umber, cadmium orange, sap green, pthalo blue, alizarin crimson.
I prepared a page in my sketchbook with a thin layer of zinc white gouache and let it dry thoroughly. I used an HB graphite pencil to lay in the basic contours of the shapes I wanted to study. While I am capable of drawing every last bit of detail, including the dirt and debris, I didn't want to spend more than an hour on the sketch. So, I chose to concentrate only the ivy, its vine and a few brightly colored leaves embedded in the dirt. The rest would be indicated with broad strokes and minimal detail.
Dirt and mud always has a base color that peeks through the intricate form and cast shadow shapes. I saw a warm, earthy yellow with violet shadows, and started with a loose wash.
In order to give the first wash time to dry, I turned my attention to the shadows on the leaves. I do my best to "draw" the important shapes with my brush and leave the white of the paper open for highlights and veins. I also noticed a few patches of red-orange intermingled within the greens of the leaf. I was also hoping that allowing some warm colors from the into the leaves would help to unify the sketch in terms of hue.
At this stage, I had mixed a deep violet and started applying it to the soil/background. My thinking here was that the lighter colors from the initial wash will keep the ground from ever reaching the pure white of the gouache. After the green for the leaf shadows dried, I worked strokes of sap green and cerulean blue, still being careful to avoid the white shapes reflecting the sky. This process, at least when I use it, does reconstitute the white gouache, causing some of it to mix with the watercolor.
Physical discomfort should always be considered as a potential influence when sketching outdoors. I can handle extended periods of discomfort, much like an experienced model holding a pose for 20-30 minutes. Sometimes it's necessary to stay in place in order to avoid losing a certain vantage point. Insects, head butts from neighborhood cats, wind and the sun can all sneak up and affect a sketch session. During this one, I sat with the sketchbook resting on my knees as I sat on a slight incline facing into the creek. There was a point after maybe 40 minutes where a combination of pain and running out of things to paint made it necessary to wrap things up.