The Making of 'All That I Am' (and How It Barely Survived)

28 March, 2021 9 comments Leave a comment

Shown above is an extra-large painting titled All That I Am (varnished watercolour on 24 x 36" panel). Don't let that smooth, untroubled lake surface fool you; this was an enormously difficult piece of artwork to complete. (More about that later.)

There is something special about a calm northern lake, especially when it features a stunning island. Every tree and rock is perfectly reflected on the water's surface. It is as if Nature is saying "See how wondrous I am." I feel a kinship with quiet, wild places like this.

All That I Am marks a milestone because it is twice the surface area of my previous maximum-size painting (which was 18 x 24"). Since I create my paintings on watercolour paper and mount them to cradled wood panels, I am limited by the size of paper and panels I can procure.

A few months ago, I discovered that Arches (the company in France that manufactures the watercolour paper I prefer) makes an oversized paper. I searched all over Canada without success for a supplier that stocks this large paper and eventually had to import it from an American art materials company. I also found an Ontario supplier of 24 x 36" cradled wood panels which are made in Quebec.

Next, I bought a selection of 2" flat watercolour brushes, since my existing arsenal of brushes is comprised of smaller sizes, and I knew I would need to work with bigger tools and generous amounts of paint.

Once I had all the materials in the studio, I searched for a subject suitable for a large painting. I wanted to start with a simple composition to evaluate my new materials, in case the experiment was a flop. A few months ago, I met Randy Whitbread through Facebook. He is an outdoor enthusiast and photographer who lives in Flin Flon, Manitoba. His photos of the northern wilderness near his home are breathtaking.

Photo by Randy Whitbread

Randy gave me permission to use his lovely photograph shown above as a painting reference. It was taken on Millikan Lake near Flin Flon in late fall. I have seen countless islands in pristine northern lakes similar to this. The mist and the dramatic island just spoke to me. 

I thought this simple scene would work up relatively easily on my large paper, because the composition is mostly plain gray sky and water. Boy, was I wrong.

The biggest challenge in painting an evenly-coloured sky and water background in watercolour is speed: getting the paint onto the paper quickly, taking a few more seconds to move the darker colours to where you want them, and then stepping away before any section of the painting starts to dry. An even drying rate is the key to a smooth, flawless background. It also helps to build up colour in multiple layers, allowing a full day's drying time in between each layer. This repetitive process produces deep, even colours.

Shown below is my work in progress after three sky and water layers and one land layer have been completed.

All That I Am (watercolour in progress) by Karen Richardson

The first issue I ran into on day one was the speed issue. Paint dries just as quickly on an area of six square feet as it does on three square feet. This meant I had to paint twice as fast as I am used to. The new 2" brushes helped, but I probably should have invested in a 4" brush as well.

Another problem I had to deal with the first day was buckling of the paper. This is a normal occurrence for me, and usually taping my 300 lb paper to a firm surface before I start keeps buckling to a minimum. (I can hear you artists out there asking why I don't pre-stretch the paper. I prefer the way paint behaves on virgin paper that has all its surface sizing intact.)

My usual taping strategy didn't work because the differential expansion of the wet centre of the oversized paper compared to the taped edges, caused the centre to heave up in large ripples. These undulations cause pooling of wet paint in the troughs, which would make those areas darker if the paint was to dry on rippled paper. I quickly solved this issue by removing the tape, wetting the edges so the paper could expand evenly, and then redistributing the wet paint with my brush.

Having the edges of the paper unfastened caused a third difficulty, which I discovered on day two. While drying overnight, the short sides of the painting had curled upward significantly. I taped them down to my drafting table so I could apply the next layer of colour. This new moisture allowed the paper to relax and flatten, and I removed the tape so the paper could expand and not buckle while I painted. After a few hours of drying, I re-taped the edges to my drafting table to avoid the overnight curling. Problems solved.

I continued with this layer painting for four days and on the fifth day was able to start the easier process of painting the big island on dry paper. Shown below are the steps as I gradually built up colours, shadows, and details, layer by layer.

Layer 1 started:

All That I Am (detail of watercolour in progress) by Karen Richardson

Layer 1 finished:

All That I Am (detail of watercolour in progress) by Karen Richardson

Layer 2 finished and masking removed:

All That I Am (detail of watercolour in progress) by Karen Richardson

Layer 3 finished:

All That I Am (detail of watercolour in progress) by Karen Richardson

Once the main island was completed, I built up the smaller island using three layers of paint:

All That I Am (detail of watercolour in progress) by Karen Richardson

Shown below is the completed painting.

If it weren't for my 35 years of practice and experience dealing with technical issues in watercolour, this painting would not have survived the battle. That is one reason I titled the painting 'All That I Am'. I certainly gave it my all.

The second reason is that I grew up near Algonquin Park in northern Ontario, where lakes and landscapes like this were the backdrop to my formative years and help define who I am and where I feel at home.

You can see the scale of this piece, pictured beside me in the photo below.

All That I Am, watercolour by Karen Richardson, with the artist

The completed painting is mounted on an archival wood panel, trimmed, varnished, and presented in a black wood floater frame. There is no glass to get in the way of enjoying the details of 'All That I Am'. I consider it to be one of my master works because of its size and level of difficulty. And it has a really cool island in it!

Click here to see more details about this painting.

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  1. Sharon December 20, 2021

    Your work is awesome and impeccable. A labour of love,skill and patience. Thanks.

  2. Dianne Nielsen October 15, 2021

    Your explanation of the challenges faced with really large watercolours is spot on!
    Perhaps I will try again! Thanks.

  3. Karen Richardson April 14, 2021

    Hi Dianne
    I have done a bit of acrylic work in the past but I focus on watercolour now.

  4. Dianne C April 14, 2021

    Do you paint with acrylics ss well?

  5. Namaji April 02, 2021

    Bravo Karen. Stunning outcome!

  6. Catherine Miranda March 31, 2021

    You paint such beautiful detailed paintings Karen and you’ve captured the stunning Canadian wilderness down to every detail!

    Can’t wait to see what comes next :-)

  7. gary norman polonsky March 30, 2021

    How can someone who looks 35 have painted for 35 years?

  8. Mike Newman March 30, 2021

    I’m an artist & there’s nothing I appreciate more than an artist who takes chances…..Kick on…Kick on…….Thank God I’ve got a different style & don’t have to compete against you….you’re real good……Some day I want to take one of your courses….just gotta make the time…..

  9. Lesa Robertson March 30, 2021

    Wow what a gorgeous painting and I really enjoyed reading about the challenges of painting large. Thanks for sharing.