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Using Watercolor and Charcoal Together

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Exploring Watercolor and Charcoal Together

I was sorting scanned image files in my archives, and I forgot about this watercolor and charcoal painting of an imagined scene. Eve is riding with her friend, a juvenile crow, exploring the garden, when a serpent in an apple tree beckons her to come closer. At the time, I had just discovered the amazing illustrators Jessie Willcox Smith [1863-1935], and Elizabeth Shippen Green [1871-1954], who both used watercolor and charcoal together.

In a used book store, I found The Red Rose Girls, a chronicle of the unconventional life of three women artists – Smith, Green and Violet Oakley [1874-1961] A trio of female, full time illustrators shared a home and studio in the early 1900′s, when women in the field were scarce. At the time, woman were prohibited from taking life drawing classes at most art schools. Smith, Oakley and Green photographed each other, their friends and their family members as models for their work. The book propagated my exploration of watercolor and charcoal together in paintings and drawings.

“Aletha was not afraid of the old graveyard” Elizabeth Shippen Green Charcoal on board. Published in Harper’s Weekly, December 11, 1909

Artistic Influence and Inspiration

Reading about these artists – who I admire so much – has me pondering the way artistic influence and inspiration works on us. Look closely at the way another artist makes their art, and you collect little ideas here and there to fold into your own paintings. It’s like trying on a hat, and looking in the mirror to see if you like the way it frames your own face.

I’m not referring to copying another artist’s work stroke for stroke, or copying masterworks as a practice. That would be more akin to climbing inside a Chewbacca costume and looking in the mirror. There’s none of you in the image, but the experience of painting exactly like someone else may inform your future paintings.

Using a paper towel to gently buff the charcoal into the paper before adding watercolor

Influenced by Printmaking

When I discovered Jessie Willcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green’s work, I was intrigued by their use of watercolor and charcoal together. I was already enamored with Japanese woodcuts, and watercolor used with pen and ink. I really enjoy layering color on the black ink of my monotype prints and woodcuts and linocuts.

Discovering Smith and Green launched all sorts of studio experiments with different papers, and layering watercolor and charcoal together, but without a muddy mess. It’s do-able, and simpler than you might think, but it takes a soft touch.

A dark field monotype with watercolor and colored pencil, inspired by the illustrations of Elizabeth Shippen Green and Jessie Willcox Smith.

Inspiration from Words

The illustration below recounts Green, with her housemates Jessie Willcox Smith and Violet Oakley, and other friends, enjoying a garden party on the grounds of the Red Rose, the home the three artists shared. The zig-zag composition is anchored beautifully by the children playing with the dog in the foreground.

Her charcoal under-drawing acts as a grisaille for the watercolor. Elizabeth chose the title from a line of Henry Van Dyke’s poem Inscriptions for a Friend’s House, (below). It’s easy to imagine the close friendship between these women artists.

Life was Made for Love and Cheer ca. 1903 – 31 x 18 inch Watercolor and Charcoal illustration, Elizabeth Shippen Green

~Henry Van Dyke – Inscriptions for a Friend’s House


The cornerstone in Truth is laid,
The guardian walls of Honour made,
The roof of Faith is built above,
The fire upon the hearth is Love:
Though rains descend and loud winds call,
This happy house shall never fall.


The lintel low enough to keep out pomp and pride:
The threshold high enough to turn deceit aside:
The doorband strong enough from robbers to defend:
This door will open at a touch to welcome every friend.


When the logs are burning free,
Then the fire is full of glee:
When each heart gives out its best,
Then the talk is full of zest:
Light your fire and never fear,
Life was made for love and cheer.


Time can never take
What Time did not give;
When my shadows have all passed,
You shall live.

Working on The Serpent Beckons Eve, with a print by Elizabeth Shippen Green on the left for inspiration

Illustration Process in 1900

There isn’t a lot of information about the process Smith and Green used to make their illustrations. I read that Smith did drawings in charcoal, and then layered them with fixative before adding watercolor. She sometimes applied thin layers of oil paint, and then finished with more charcoal, and additional fixative.

What artists used to fix charcoal in 1902 is a question for an archivist. (I’ve read that some artists soaked their charcoal sticks in linseed, or olive oil, to help tack the particles to their support.) But with modern fixatives, I remember an experience with watercolor beading on fixed paper, during an experiment with a large figurative charcoal drawing in college. So, no fixative for me.

To avoid that frustration while painting the girl and the crow and the snake, I worked on plate finish bristol, and buffed the charcoal into the paper with paper towel. When nothing fluttered off the drawing while I flicked the back of the support board, I started adding watercolor.

Jessie Willcox Smith’s Fairy Tales – art distributed by L. Prang & Co in the early 1900′s

Mixing Dry and Wet Pigments

Adding watercolor to a charcoal drawing can be done without fixative, if you follow a few caveats. If the charcoal is gently buffed into the paper with a blending stump, or a twist of paper towel, the powdery particles affix themselves more securely to the paper’s surface.

Layering the watercolor on top of the charcoal in single-strokes of transparent glazes also flattens the charcoal’s particles. The same gum arabic binder that binds watercolor pigments together also collects and settles the charcoal pigments. You can add a few drops of the gum arabic to your rinse water to help with that. The trick is to use a light touch, and an economy of brush strokes, letting each layer dry before moving onto the next.

The prints I had in my studio for inspiration while drawing and painting The Serpent Beckons Eve
Left: “Girl eating Grapes”, 1905 Sarah Stillwell ~ Right: “Miguela, kneeling still, put it to her lip”, Elizabeth Shippen Green for Harper’s Magazine, 1906

Ivory Soap Ad (1901) by Jessie Wilcox Smith

The Staying Power of Influences

Years later, I still swoon for each artist’s design, color choices and drawing skills. And the pop of black line under or around colored pigments always steals my attention in woodcuts, monotypes and vintage illustration.

I haven’t made any new art with a deliberate lean towards Smith and Green’s portrait style, but maybe I should work on a little charcoal and watercolor something this summer? Perhaps I’ll re-read the Red Rose Girls too. Now that I think of it, I have a mother and child linocut influenced by these fine artists, but it’s just a drawing on the block, so far. Nothing carved yet.

What should I work on next? A charcoal and watercolor painting, or a linocut?

Thanks for stopping by today, and I’ll see you in the next post -


Hearing, by Jessie Willcox Smith, from the book The Five Senses by Angela Marie Keyes (1911)

The Serpent Beckons Eve 7 x 5.5 Charcoal and Watercolor on paper

Art Quote

[Elizabeth Shippen] Green’s [1871-1954] use of photographs to compose and inform her drawings was advanced – most illustrators did not make common use of photography till many years later. By wisely using the many resources available to her – photography, clipping files, above all, her training and facility in many different media – Elizabeth Shippen Green developed a complex method of drawing that enabled her to produce a wonderfully varied body of work during a long and fruitful career.

Richard Kelly

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