When award-winning illustrator Carolyn Le discovered she was allergic to her medium of choice, oils, she had to explore other options. Read on to learn more about her journey into watercolor, embracing mistakes, and the technique she’s developed along the way.
When I started painting, my medium of choice was oils. I loved the flexibility and luminosity of the medium. And, of course, many of the painters I admired––Llyendecker, Vermeer and Sargent, to name a few––were oil painters. So I set out on a three-year journey at Otis. I loved building up the layers of paint from dark to light, the glazing of colors to achieve richness and glow and the feeling of a loaded brush as I stroked it across a gesso-covered canvas or board. Then, after three years of intense exposure to the chemicals in the paint, I became allergic to the medium. So I explored others: acrylics, pastels and gouache.
Then I tried watercolor. The paint had a mind of its own; it splattered, spread, stained, separated and dried quickly, and I couldn’t fix any of that unless I started a new painting. The difficulty of the medium spoke to my stubborn soul, so I set out on another journey. I learned to celebrate the mistakes, to enjoy and utilize watercolor’s immediacy, to incorporate the glazing techniques (called washes in watercolor), and to paint light to dark.
The painting begins once I have transferred a detailed drawing onto 140lb, smooth-press, Fabriano watercolor paper. (I prefer not to stretch my paper because I like the way the paint lies on top; once it is stretched, some of the sizing is removed and the paper will soak up the paint faster.) I start to develop depth and tone by laying down light washes of paint, allowing the paint to dry between washes while still maintaining the light areas. Using this process, I fill in large areas of the painting, working from background to foreground, leaving the figures or main subject to be painted towards the end.
Once the foreground, middle and background are established, I start to punch up my darks by layering washes of darker and more saturated colors. At this point, I use a variety of watercolor techniques: wet-in-wet, dry-brush, back wash, etc. Each painting is unique and requires me to adapt my technique. To maintain my lights and soften the paint edges, I lift off the paint with a damp cloth. This is also when I start to paint the figures, filling in the large areas first and lifting to maintain my whites. To finish the painting, I work on the details with small round and oval brushes. For the final step, I use a neutral color (graphite, India ink, or neutral gray) watercolor pencil to punch up my details and darken my darks.
My painting technique developed over time, requiring countless hours in front of an easel, and a willingness to explore the medium. And although I have attained some confidence, I still find myself occasionally redoing a painting and discovering surprises like splattering, spreading and staining. I know there is much more I can achieve with the medium, and I am excited about the journey.
Carolyn Le has been published in the Los Angeles Times. She has twice received a first place Illustration Award for her portfolio from SCBWI Editor’s Day, has received a Merit Award from the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles, and has had her work shown in galleries in London and Los Angeles. Her first picture book, Clarence and the Traveling Circus, written by Melissa Northway, was published in 2014. She is currently working on several new projects, including writing and illustrating her own books.