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Painting my neighborhood on a new paper

shades crest rdDSC_0223_312                                                     Shades Crest Road                 Hand made Ruscombe paper                                   9″ x 14″

Paint what you know:

I know that seems to be my common theme.  However, I don’t think it can be said enough nor often enough.  My point is simple.  You are unique. Even if you have an identical twin no one sees like you do. No one thinks like you do. No one reacts in the same way to those things that happen around you. In short, your greatest asset is your unique individuality. To be certain all of us have shared feelings and shared viewpoints.  In spite of that; your reactions are largely personal. While some may not see it our individual traits are our strongest asset.  I am reminded of two very powerful events in my life that support my belief. When I was very young, about 14, I was admitted into the Famous  Artist School, in Westport, Connecticut. It was my first experience with distance learning. I was absolutely amazed at the ability of the faculty. I recall submitting a project that was heavily influenced by one of my idols of the time. When my critique was delivered it was a sharp rebuke.  It read something like this,  ” I see you were heavily influenced by a particular artist, etc.,etc.,…in short why in the hell do you want to copy someone’s mistakes?”   Mind you this piece was influenced by a very famous, extremely talented  painter!

Many years later I had the privilege of training for 25 years with Saiko Shihan Oyama of World Oyama Karate.  Over a period of years one fact was replayed over and over again as young and old students would be demonstrating their knowledge of kata.  Students would get nervous before and during promotion and they would glance to see what movements their neighbors were making.  Almost always the neighbor would be doing it wrong! What is my point? Be yourself. To quote Shihan, ” If you make a mistake make it DYNAMIC!”  Have the courage to stand on your own two feet and follow your heart. Sheeple get led around and never break out of the herd.


While I stress individuality I do not stress it at the risk of producing quality.  Learn the basics first.  At the same time feel free to break out and explore.  In the realm of exploring this small piece was produced on a French handmade paper that is well worth your time and effort. This watercolor was painted on a paper from Ruscombe Mills in France. I love the quality of the paper and the color hold out.  I really have no complaints. You can find it by doing a search for Ruscombe Mills.

However, I will give you a caution. READ the instructions that come with the paper. It will tell you to soak the paper and then mount it in order for the paper to smooth out. After all, this is handmade and it comes out with some ripples.  At first you may think the paper is a bit thin or at least thinner than a number of commercially produced papers. Don’t let that fool you. This paper is strong. My first attempt at stretching resulted in disaster. I drew in pencil upon the paper and put the sheet in a tub of cold  water.  Since the paper felt lighter than other papers I placed the staples fairly close to the edge of the paper. While the paper was still very wet I washed in some Winsor and Newton Rose Dior and some random swatches of ultramarine blue. The very wet paper allowed the color to cascade down the sheet as it sat at an angle on my board.  I left the room in anticipation of painting the next morning.  That would give the paper time to dry and I would resume the process again.


The next morning arrived and as I walked into the studio I could see that what I had judged to be a thinner than usual  watercolor paper had the strength of a Goliath!  The wire staples had pulled loose from the plywood mounting board, while some had ripped through the paper. The result was a wrinkled mess. I was fresh and relaxed and realized that I had misjudged the strength of the paper. I removed all staples and plunged the paper back into the a cold bath. After it soaked for about 10-15 minutes I placed on my mounting board. This time I positioned the staples at least 1/4″ from the edge of the paper. The sheet dried with a beautiful taut flat surface.

Working Qualities:

This paper doesn’t disappoint.  I’m glad that I bought several sheets. The washes in this painting are all transparent colors. I very rarely use opaque color and when I do it is for special effects only. The glazing techniques I employ do not produce vibrant color if you use opaque paints or body color. Those approaches block the light and kill the vibrancy of the washes. The surface of the Ruscombe paper I am using produces clean sparkling color. It takes dry brushing and seems to be open to washing back or lifting color if you desire.  The paper holds a wide range of values with ease.  The surface is tough enough to allow for scraping. I can say that this will be one of my favorite papers.  Try it .  I think you will like it.   As I sit here and write this I am already making plans to visit a nearby orchard. More about that later.

Coming in May at Artists on the Bluff,  Bluff Park,  Alabama 

raven tableDSC_0189_298                                                    Raven        oil                                                                     David Rankin

While this is a watercolor site I want to share a first with you. Coming in May at Artists on the Bluff, in Bluff Park, Alabama  my son, David, and I will be having our first joint father and son show.  The art center was once an elementary school that has been refurbished as an art center hosting individual studios as well as new class rooms for teaching artists. One of those new studios will be for my watercolor students.

Want to know more about watercolor glazing techniques?  You can purchase Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor , Volume I by Dr. Don Rankin  at

Learn from a DVD entitled The Antique Shop that features Don’s approach to painting on the scene at

Study with Don Rankin On-line.  Approximately 2.5 hours of watercolor instruction that allows you to work at your own pace in the convenience of your home.

Study watercolor with Don Rankin.  For more information contact Ms. Linda Williams at Artists on the Bluff, Bluff Park, Alabama 205-532-2769

More Plein Aire


Watercolor on site demonstration.  9″ x 12″ on 140lb. cold press.  Blue Ridge Farm

There is a lot to be said for painting on location, especially when there is an abundance of magnificent subject matter.  Wonderful views can be breath taking but even more importantly one should seek out the subjects that excite YOUR passion.  In this series I will be exhibiting on-site watercolors that were done in the Blue Ridge Parkway area in North Carolina.

Blue Ridge Farm

This piece was done fairly quickly and has a spontaneous feeling to it. It was accomplished in under an hour, more like about 40 minutes.  While there was no rush, the sunlight and the breeze speeded up the drying time.  The palette was simple.  I used thalo blue for the sky, Indian yellow and thalo blue for the green and a hint of violet for the distant mountain and the house. The stand of pine trees was added after the paper was dry.  The initial wash for the sky was applied over a wet surface, taking care to avoid wetting the house. With a bit of practice you can paint right up to the edge of an area with a great deal of precision. The trick is that the watercolor wash will migrate freely over the dampened area but with care it will not venture onto the dried sheet.

When I use the word care I mean to say it is best to allow the wash to migrate on its own. If you have too much water it may be difficult to keep it from wandering into a dry portion of the paper.  With a little practice you can take advantage of the dampened sheet without diluting the color too much.

Materials / Travel Light  

I prefer to travel light leaving non-essentials at home. What is essential? Water, watercolor paper, pencils, brushes and paint.  For paper I prefer to use a 140lb. coldpress watercolor block because it is convenient.  In the studio I often staple my paper to a 5/8″ thick sheet of plywood.  I have several that I have sealed with varnish and have been using them for years.  Today a lot of my students choose Gator board.   Since I still have good plywood boards I see no reason to change. However, this is a matter of preference.  In the field the block lightens my load and allows me to work without having to worry about buckled paper. I always find a log , rock or some other support to rest the block without an easel.

I have a beautiful French easel but it is added weight.  I started out using one outside but found the weight was a restriction in many of the places I was visiting.  Try rappeling down the face of a cliff with a lot of added  weight or jumping from rock to rock to get to the right vantage point.  I do use an Army surplus ammunition can for my water storage and for a painting bucket. Yes, it is heavy but a good tight, no leak, water source is vital. That is why I suggest that you consider what you REALLY need and what you can do without.

Painting Procedure

I’m old school. When  I paint on-site,  I sketch and paint on-site.  At times I will take photographs for later reference but my primary focus is the subject I am painting. This is why I believe PASSION is vital. If you are not aching to paint it, why bother? I don’t use Photoshop or other manipulations on photos. To each his own but I prefer to get caught up in a dialogue with the object that has sparked my desire. Later in the studio if I desire to delve deeper I will drag out the photos, if I have any, to take me back to the moment. I like to use photos like a sort of time machine. I hear the sounds, smell the smells and am transported back to the spot.

mountain farm_56 24.5x 14DSC_0694                                                Mountain Pasture,  Blue Ridge. 20″ x 14″ , 140lb. cold press watercolor paper.

Mountain Pasture, Blue Ridge

Another simple on-site attempt.  The palette is very limited.  Indian Yellow, Thalo blue and Winsor Red. I quickly drew in a simple horizon line and roughly positioned the buildings before dampening the sky down to the horizon line taking care to avoid getting any water on the buildings. I took a moment to carefully introduce water around each of the building shapes.  This is a critical moment, so be careful.   A pale wash of dilute Thalo blue was washed into the sky and allowed to descend to the horizon line.  While the paper was barely damp I put in another wash of pale blue with a touch of Indian Yellow to create the distant mountain range. If you consider the edge you can see that some dry areas produced a crisp edge while a couple of damp spots blurred, creating a hazy effect.

Horizon line 

A careful examination of the horizon line will reveal a very thin white line. While the sky and distant range was drying completely I took my large 3″ brush and dampened the foreground. I was VERY careful to keep the area above the horizon line from bleeding into the damp foreground. While this is not quite like brain surgery you do want to be careful to keep the two damp areas from intermingling. That way you can prevent an uncontrolled bleed between the two areas from occurring.  While the foreground was damp I brushed in a wash of Indian Yellow. I brushed it in a varying degrees of intensity but it was not a totally flat tone wash.

When the yellow was completely dry; a second wash of Thalo blue was washed over the area. After ti was dry a mixture of Thalo blue,  Indian Yellow and Winsor Red was applied using a large 3″ flat brush.  Some areas were dry brushed.

Final Touches

Once the major tone was set I began to develop the barns with dry brush strokes, using a mixture of Thalo Blue and Winsor Red.  The white of the paper was allowed to shine through in critical areas to denote highlights. The darker detail  lines, doors, etc. are merely  stronger mixtures of Thalo Blue and Winsor Red. You will find it to be a very versatile mix. It can range from pale weathered grey to deep optical black. The cedar tree is dry brush Thalo Blue ans Winsor red as well.

blueridge farm_57 24.5x 14DSC_0693                                                 North on the Blue Ridge Trail,  20″ x 14″ 140 lb. cold press watercolor paper.

North on the Blue Ridge Trail

A beautiful vista.  I think the thing that really captured my attention was the sense of freedom. It was almost like one could just fly off toward the horizon. The wind was blowing gently with an occasional gust moving the grasses around in circular patterns. The distant haze of the mountains added to the power of the view.  The palette is identical to the last painting, only the proportions are changed.

As you look you can see that almost the entire sheet was flooded with varying degrees of Indian Yellow.  Once again the basic shape of the house and barn were avoided with the initial water wash. The entire sheet , except for the two buildings, was dampened.  The yellow was not introduced into the sky.  Look closely and you can see the effect. Due to the weather, the wash dried rapidly.  After it was dry another clear water wash was applied down to the horizon line.  Once again the buildings were avoided and left dry.  A wash of Thalo blue was applied creating a misty effect. As the paper neared drying the darker portion of blue mountain on the right was put in.


A very pale wash of Indian Yellow was washed over the entire foreground that had just been dampened with clear water. Once the area was dry a pale wash of Thalo Blue was flooded over the same area creating a delicate green.  As the large expanse began to dry I washed in a dry brush mode several washes of Thalo Blue, a bit of Indian Yellow and Winsor Red to create the shadow areas.  The darker trees are Thalo Blue.

Next Session

The language of the brush and a painting that was started outdoors and finished in the studio.

More Tips

For more tips on watercolor technique you can purchase Don Rankin’s revised, updated edition  of Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor, Volume I . Purchase direct at 

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