Interview with Watercolorist Michael Reardon

by Paint Tube 7 Minutes

Interview with Watercolorist Michael Reardon

Michael Reardon is an award-winning architectural illustrator. For over 30 years he worked in his career and painted. As an avid traveler, Reardon uses his watercolor to record his observations, convey a sense of place and light, and communicate his impressions of the built, natural, and imagined worlds. His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and he is a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, the National Watercolor Society, Watercolor West, and the California Watercolor Association.


Walk us through your process? What do you need to have figured out at each stage?

Generally I have a 4-part process.

1.First, and perhaps most importantly, I do a pencil value study. These are usually very small and loose. I use them to determine compositional elements such as the focal point and the planar components of foreground, middle ground, and background. Sometimes I do several of these to determine the best approach. This is the part of the process where almost all of the painting decisions are made. I sometimes also do a notan study to more completely evaluate the composition, distilling it into three values: white, gray, and black.

2. I then transfer the essential elements of the composition to the watercolor paper with a soft 2B pencil. I put in enough information so that I don’t have to think about the content while painting but not so much that the drawing becomes too precious.

3. After taping the watercolor paper to a board, I do an underpainting, usually with one large wash with blends of blue and orange. The underpainting is fairly light and serves to establish all of the lightest values, such as the sky. The entire painting is covered except for the areas where I want to preserve the white of the paper.

4. I do the rest of the painting all in one go. Generally I work from the top down. When I reach the bottom the painting I consider it done. I usually don’t touch it again, but occasionally a few touch ups need to be made.


How do you use a reference photo in your work? What information do you take from it? What do you know you’ll translate? How do you keep yourself from copying from it?

Photographs are a great tool to use to record your observations when there isn’t enough time to do a sketch. But you have to be careful in using them because they have an insidious ability to determine your compositions, colors and content. For many years I eschewed the use of photos because I felt they were too confining.

However, I figured out a way to use them without letting them determine too much of my compositional and color decisions. I first convert them to black and white, eliminating color references. I then start a sketch, using the information in the photos to glean most of the important elements, such as architectural information and general landscape characteristics. I then put the photo away and begin the final sketch. I only look at the photos again if I need a bit more information, such as an architectural detail I didn’t include in my first sketch. This approach frees me to make my own choices of lighting, content, and mood.

How important is drawing? What does being able to draw give you as an artist? 

There is no doubt that good drawing skills make you a better painter. All landscapes and cityscapes require some elements, such as trees, people, cars, and buildings, to be presented fairly faithfully in order to be believable. If something is wrong, the viewer will always notice if the perspective is skewed or cars and people are drawn incorrectly or out of scale.
I find that drawing ability permits me to relatively easily sketch anything I want or accurately represent a scene while painting plein air. Since much of my work starts with sketching, this ability is invaluable.


What do you ask yourself about your subject when you’re working on the value sketch?

I ask myself several questions while working on a value sketch:

1. Can I improve the quality of light? Few photos or scenes have a perfect sense of light or shadow pattern so I usually have to enhance them.

2. What is my focal point and what is the intent or story I am trying to tell? Not only is a focal point important for compositional reasons, but choosing it also forces me to make a decision on what is important in a scene and helps to set the stage for the narrative in the painting.

3. Which elements are important and which can be eliminated? I often think of paintings as short stories. You don’t have room for a lot of subplots, so it is important to focus on the main story, and not include extraneous information. This also includes moving elements around to enhance the story.

4. Is there a foreground, middle ground, and background? These planar elements are what give depth to a painting. They also help to organize the narrative since the most critical elements are usually found in the middle ground.

5. Is each corner different? One subtle way to make compositions more dynamic is to have something different in each corner. I strive to do this each time.

6. Is the arrangement of shapes pleasing and can they be linked? This is very subjective but ultimately very important. I have found that a notan sketch shows this most effectively, since it breaks down a painting into its most basic shapes. The strongest compositions usually have a small number of shapes. Linking shapes lowers the number of shapes.



How do you use value to invoke a sense of light? Why is value important to your work? How do you use value?

More than color, values and how they are arranged creates the quality of light in a painting. Shade and shadow turn on the light in a painting. Arranging them and getting their value correct is paramount.

Correct values are the bones of any representational painting. This is most apparent if you convert a photo to grayscale and see the range of values that define a scene. In painting it is critical to establish these values for the image to read. If you get the values right you can use any color you choose, as long as the values are correct.

What do you figure out beforehand and what do you respond to in the painting itself? Why?

My value sketch provides a road map for a painting. While painting I almost never change the basic elements of the sketch, such as focal point, light direction, and general shapes. I am however very responsive to how the paint, paper and pigments are working with each other. I feel free to use some liberties to make subtle color and temperature changes while painting and take chances with paint application, especially while working wet-in-wet.

Most importantly, since I don’t use a color photo and rely on a black and white sketch, I am completely free to choose colors while painting. Even while painting plein air, I mostly work from my value sketch and use the colors in a scene warily.

This approach allows the watercolor to be watercolor, allowing it to flow and create unusual effects. However it can also produce results that don’t match my vision for the painting. Watercolor sometimes has a mind of its own and you have to work with it and accept it. This can produce some wonderful results and can also result in occasional disappointment with the results. I have learned however to put the painting away for a few hours or a few days and then reevaluate it on its merits as opposed to my intention.



Why is planning important? What does it give you in the painting process that you wouldn’t have without it?

Since watercolor is difficult to change, it is very important to have a map to guide you while painting. In my value sketch the most fundamental questions are answered. As long as I follow it fairly faithfully, I know the painting will mostly meet my expectations. While it is sometimes possible to change watercolors, such alterations can lead to a loss of luminosity or muddiness. Planning well allows the colors to be put down once and not reworked when dry, allowing the special glow of watercolor to work to full effect.

Composition can seem like an overwhelming concept. Where does someone start learning composition?

When I was learning watercolor I was quite perplexed about what made a good composition. While there are many books about composition, I have found that the rules presented are often facile, such as the rule of threes. It is important to know these rules, but ultimately it comes down to a very subjective analysis of shapes.

In my workshops I emphasize composition, even though I don’t advertise it. We spend a lot of time, using value studies, strengthening compositions. It usually involves a lot of simplification and a focus on the true intent of a painting, in tandem with a choice of focal point and the planar elements, foreground, middle ground, and background.

Short of taking one of my workshops, I would look into some books on composition and design. One place to start is “Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting.” But I would stress that you should be wary of formulas and that the artist uses some skepticism about hard and fast rules.


When you’re finished with a painting, how do you assess it? What questions do you ask yourself?

I find it important to put the painting away for a few hours or even days and then look at it with fresh eyes. Usually, when a painting is just finished, your attention is focused on areas that you aren’t happy with. After a bit of time away from a painting you can judge the work on its own merits, as opposed to what you were trying to do. I do have a few standard questions though:

Is the mood satisfying?
Is there a good sense of light?
Is there a clear story?
Does the watercolor have a sense of freshness and luminosity?

When I finish a painting, I usually think that it is the worst work I have ever done. No exaggeration. The painting rarely matches the image I had in my head and I focus on the areas that didn’t work or were a struggle to paint. I have found though that with a few days out of sight I can reevaluate the painting with fresh eyes. Usually they are just fine. The contrary is also true. If I feel that I have really nailed a painting, I find it quite lacking when I reexamine it a few days later. It’s difficult to judge the quality of a painting upon completion.

You can learn more about Michael Reardon at his website, on Facebook and on Instagram.