Interview with Artist Richard Stephens

by Paint Tube 7 Minutes

Interview with Artist Richard Stephens

After discovering watercolor in college, Richard Stephens always knew the medium was his real "calling." But a career was his primary focus for many years. After serving in the Army as an illustrator, Richard began his commercial art career in 1971 with a design studio in Little Rock. Eventually, in 1992, he found his way back to watercolor and has painting seriously in the medium ever since.

Could you give us a quick overview of your process? 

A quick overview of my painting process would be:
(1) Select subject to paint.
(2) Do Value Sketch.
(3) Do quick contour drawing on watercolor paper.
(4) Do painting.
(5) Critique the painting…as I feel every painting is just practice for the next one!

These are basically the steps I go through with every painting I do. I will “flesh out” a couple of these steps in future questions.

How is having a repeatable process helpful to artists?

I have found that having a consistent process gives me confidence that, at least some time; I can create a successful painting. Or, at worst, have fun trying.

I pretty much know what to do next, what has worked in the past and the price I pay if I get lazy and skip a step.

Let me say at this time, I am all for experimenting, trying a new approach and materials. But my basic “process” has stayed consistent over the years.


When you’re looking at a scene, how do you decide what colors you’ll use both from a hue standpoint and an intensity standpoint? How much of that do you have planned before you begin painting?

I consider myself a “value” painter. If I get the values right, whatever I determine “right” to be, then the colors will work.

I seldom strive to match local color, though I might stay in that family of hues. I am more interested in creating an atmosphere than in an accurate rendering of the subject and I recognize color is a major element in creating atmosphere.

I almost always have some thoughts about color before I began a painting. But after the first wash, instinct takes over…light dark light, warm cool warm…shapes not things.

You do value studies: What is the purpose of a value study? Why do you use it? What problems are you trying to solve with it?

One very important thing I try to impress on my students is that a value sketch is not just an attempt to accurately draw the subject. If that is all you are doing, then you are simply practicing your drawing skills…which is a not a bad thing. But the purpose of a value sketch is to design your painting in terms of placement of elements, composition and indication of the value relationships.

A value sketch should be about thinking…not drawing! At this stage we simplify, eliminate, move things around and sometime even add elements in our quest for the best design.

Over the years I have used various materials to do my sketches including Magic Markers, Charcoal and Soft Leaded Pencils. I have tried everything that would give me a good range of values from the white of the paper to a strong dark.

I have evolved to using Payne’s Gray, obviously applied with a brush, to do my value studies. This is not unique to me as many other artists use this technique also. The fact that I am “painting” the value sketch is a great warm up and I am experiencing, at some levels, the process I will go through in the final painting. Pardon the pun, but I think that gives added “value” to the this very important stage.


What do you take from your reference and what do you not take from your reference?

I think most experienced artists will agree, your reference material, be it a photograph or Plein Air situation, is just a starting point. My job is to interpret, not to render. Elements that I take note of from my reference would be value and shape. Exerting my role as the “Art Director” of my painting, I most often enhance values and simplify shapes. I also frequently “crop” the image to find the most successful and interesting overall design. Actual local color is one thing I seldom take from my reference.


How do you use your sketchbooks? What is their purpose? How important are they? Why?

Full disclosure here…I don’t work in my sketchbooks as much as many of my artist friends. I have 2 or 3 in my car at all times, certainly travel with a sketchbook and often carry them into restaurants and other locations as I travel to new cities with my workshops.

So, obviously, I do draw in them a lot. I fact I draw more than I paint. I feel drawing skills are the skeleton of any painting…especially watercolors.

But to answer the question…I use my sketchbooks for recording images, for practice, but mainly, for fun! I do everything from fairly serious studies to caricatures and cartoons (my first love).

I also try to keep in mind that my sketchbooks are for ME, not anyone else. Thus, I don’t worry about the quality of the drawings and sketches or if they are good enough for the public to see. I often will sit in a parking lot and practice drawing cars (sketched a large backhoe the other day) or in an airport capturing people as they walk by with their rolling suitcases and harried expressions.

In conclusion, I urge my students to draw, draw and draw some more. I adamantly believe the better you draw the better you will paint!



Where in your process do you do the bulk of your design work? What does that work look like? Thumbnails? Value studies? What problems are you solving at that stage?

There are actually two important design stages for me.

The first stage, after I determined my subject, is to spend a couple of minutes just looking at my subject, studying it and starting to determine in my mind what I want to say and how I want to say it.

At this stage I am not drawing…rather just studying the subject and starting to visualize the possible finished painting. I may actually talk to myself or make some written notes.

It is only then that I start my value sketch. This stage is where I literally design the painting…simplifying, eliminating, moving elements and establishing my value pattern. I am always aware that often this may change and morph in the final painting process. I actually might do 2 or 3 value sketches at this stage, perhaps dramatically different.

My goal is to have the issues of composition and values worked out before I began the actual painting.


Edges: How much planning beforehand do you do around your edges? How do you approach edges in your work?

Edges are the second most important element I consider in my planning stage (value sketches) and final painting. Edges are so important in directing the viewer through the painting.

I discuss three types of edges in my workshops and almost always have all of them in any of my paintings. Hard, soft and lost edges each have their place in most works.

In watercolor they almost happen automatically, but we, as the artist (Art Director), must use them thoughtfully and wisely. Hard edges draw attention and help define a center of interest, soft edges demand less attention but are just so beautiful. Lost edges allow us to combine and join elements within our painting, yet letting each maintain their own identity. Values, then edges…number one and two in my design process!


Artists have different struggles at each stage of their development: What were you working on as a beginner and intermediate? What did you finally master that allowed you to become an advanced artist?

I think, early on, all artists are striving to master the technical aspects of their medium and to find their own style. We are inevitably influenced by artists we admire. I call them my “Watercolor Heroes.”

As we “put miles on our brushes” our use of the materials may mature into something totally different from where we started.

I have a simplified description of the stages I think an artist goes through: First we become proficient in the use of the tools of our trade. Secondly, we are able to produce a competent painting using those tools. And lastly, we are, on occasion, able to go beyond a pretty picture and create something that makes a statement, has a narrative and reaches out and touches the viewer.

Tony Couch shared these stages in the first workshop I took when I started painting again over 30 years ago. I spend most of my time in the second stage. Watercolor is the master, I am the student. I think my breakthrough happened when I accepted that fact. My mantra is…”Don’t try to make it happen, let it happen.”


When you’re finished, how do you assess your painting? What questions do you ask yourself?

Good question. When I finish a painting (which is often a few minutes later than I should have stopped), I compare it to my original vision and see if I have allowed my value sketch to be my guide.

Fortunately, there are those rare paintings where the final product exceeds my expectation and vision. This is almost always the result of my “letting it happen rather than trying to make it happen”. Where I have let the water, pigment, brush and paper do what they do naturally and organically. Of course, I take total credit for the success!! One of my favorite saying about watercolor is, “I had rather be lucky than good!”

I also compare the painting to other works I may have done of the same subject. I think it is a good practice to do a series of a subject. No two are ever alike and often the first one is the best. I then decide which “stack” it goes on…the one for possible matting and framing or the one for turning it over and painting on the back! I faithfully photograph each painting for possible reproduction needs and inventory documentation.

You can learn more about watercolorist Richard Stephens at his website and on Facebook.