Moonbathing Tutorial
Stephanie Pui-Mun Law


10x15 inches
Strathmore lightweight illustration board
Winsor & Newton pan watercolors: Burnt Umber, Payne’s Gray, Reddish Brown, Lemon Yellow
a few Kremer Pigments: Elderflower Purple, Stinging Nettle Yellow

Step One: Laying in the Background

I start off with the lower background, working from the ground up.

Courtesy of my friend Sophie Klesen, I have in my posession some lovely paints from Kremer Pigments Inc. Their colors are historical pigments, and have a fascinating way of separating and creating unexpected variations of tone, especially when some kind of texturing is applied to the wet paint.

At any rate, I’ve fallen in love with this Elderflower Purple. I’ve been looking for an excuse to use a lot of it.

I painted the the lower area in with many thin glazes, alternating the purple with some mixes of Burnt Umber and Payne’s Grey as well. At one point I realized that the purple lifted exceedingly easy. And I know that Burnt Umber and Payne’s Grey are generally more permanent. So as I started on the left lower corner, I painted the lower layers with the greys and browns and reserved the upper layers for the Elderflower Purple, and I found this made creating a smooth background much easier.

Determining the ordering of layering is something that you figure out as you experiment and actually work with colors, as every pigment has its own qualities and lifts easier or harder or behaves differently when splattered with salt or rubbing alcohol.

Step Two: Background Skies

Moving upwards, continuing the slow layered glazes up into the sky. Now though I’m splattering it as I go with rubbing alcohol to create a starry texture.

I’m using a no 10 round brush for most of this, blending out small patches as I go so that it creates a seamless background. You can notice there’s color shifts in the upper sky of what seems like blue and purple varations. Here’s one of the things I love about these Kremer pigments — that’s all from the one Elderflower Purple color. It just…varies by itself.

And if you look closely at the rubbing alcohol splatters, it looks more like Cerulean Blue in the center, with Magenta outlines. Pretty neat stuff. :) Can’t wait for Sophie to send me more colors from Germany at the end of May.

Anyway, lots of splattering and glazing, and a Lemon Yellow nimbus around the moon, and her head, blending into the white surrounds with water and dabbing with paper towels.

Step Three: Moonbeams

I keep darkening the background with more glazes. This kinda just keeps going until it feels done. Watercolors dry pretty fast, though not instantly. So sometimes after working in a wash say in the upper corner, I’ll want to continue layering there but it’s currently wet. So I’ll switch to another layer at the lower corners instead and then switch back to the top after it has had a chance to dry. I jump all over a painting like this, working wherever is currently convenient. There’s no need to stay locked to one element of the piece at a time.

Now for some more Kremer fun, I pull out the Stinging Nettle yellow, which sometimes surprises me with little bits of crimson in unexpected places. But I use that to fill in the moonbeams, blending it softly into surroundings. Leaving the moon itself with the white of the paper.

Step Four: Need More Moonbeams!

At this point, I sat back and decided that I didn’t like the symmetrical moonbeams just on her outstretched hands. The background was looking too BoringBlue. Considered for a while, then decided to add more moonbeams off to the right side. Sketched in very faint guidelines in pencil, then proceeded to paint those in with more Elderflower Purple and Stinging Nettle.

Step Five: Stars and Shadows

Trusty white gel pen, dotted in the stars. I’m not really a stickler for purist watercoloring. If it works, do it.

Also, shadowy tendrils of hair on her with various mixtures of Payne’s Grey, Burnt Umber, and Elderflower Purple.

So here’s my stopping point for today. Some book layouts are calling to me so for the moment Moonbathing has to be set on the back burner. More will be forthcoming over the next few days!

Step Six: Shadows

I start to fill in the shadows along the tree trunk in the hollow, under the masks, and under her feet with Ultramarine Violet, Payne’s Grey, and Burnt Umber mixtures. In the eye holes of the masks, I try to match the color or the sky behind them.

For the shadows on her body and clothing, I use Elderflower Purple. Keeping the shadows mostly to her core so that the edges can be limned by the moonlight and be more dramatic.

Step Seven: Skintones

I mix Alizarin Crimson and Lemon Yellow for a very diluted wash across her skin I keep this very pale. The colors need to be kept kind of muted to maintain a bleached-by-moonlight appearance. Too much color gives it a natural daylight look and would destroy the effect of the lighting.

I darken the flesh shadows with some more Elderflower Purple.

For her mask, I paint in the details with a size 0 round with Burnt Umber, and Stinging Nettle Yellow.

Step Eight: More Shadows

The shadows on her body aren’t looking quite dark enough, so I revisit that with a swipe of Elderflower Purple down the core of her body, and edge the shadows with some Stinging Nettle Yellow along the left and the to edges of her skirts. Also add some more shadows to her skirts with washes of Burnt Umber, Elderflower Purple, and Stinging Nettle Yellow.

Cleaning up the White Skirts

When painting in the background, it’s sometimes hard to keep from getting a little sloppy. But I prefer to fix this by lifting and blending than to preemptively do something about it like applying masking fluid. First of all, using that much masking fluid to cover up all foreground elements all time time would use up a lot of masking fluid. Secondly, masking fluid leaves hard edges that are harder to resolve than stray brush strokes.

When I first started with watercolors, I hadn’t figured out yet how to do large swathes of background in even gradients, while maintaining clean foreground areas (see Step 1 of the previous post), and I did in fact use up a lot of masking fluid. But learning to paint around areas in the long run is much more effective.

At any rate, when I DO make “oops”‘s and have stray bits of color wander where it’s not wanted, it’s easy enough to fix. If the forground element consists of a bright color, usually this will cover up the strokes. If the foreground element is a light tone (or white as it is here), I do one of two things:

1) Take a stiff bristled brush and wet it with clean water. Then I gently scrub parallel to the edge. This lifts the paint and softens the edge as well.

2) Pull out the trusty white gel pen (or white gouache works too) and dab in a bit to cover up what’s not wanted.

Step Nine: Tree Trunk base layer

I’m still not quite sure what color to make her hair at this point, so rather than agonize over that, I’m switching to the background for a bit.

I use various mixtures of Burnt Umber, Payne’s Gray, and Ultramarine Violet on the tree trunk. I tend to work in small patches at a time, so basically this and the next couple steps is repeated all the way up the tree trunk.

Step 10: Bark Details

I mix Burnt Umber and Prussian Blue and with a size 0 round brush paint in a spiderwebwork of bark texture. Shadowy branches on the right were a bit of a mistake at first. I wanted some loose twigs, and tried to blur those with the background for distance effect, but the background colors proved to be too susceptible to lifting. I ended up dotting in more clumpy leaves there to cover up the botched lifting, using as little water as possible to prevent more unwanted lifting. (See? I do make mistakes, but “mistakes” are just complications you have to work with and turn to your advantage when it comes to watercolors.)

Step 11: Highlight Textures

Lift highlights out from the bark texture by rubbing with clean water and a size 0 round. Neat thing about the layered colors is that when lifting now I sometimes get a more bluish tone in the highlights which is the Prussian Blue, because Prussian Blue is more resistant to lifting than Burnt Umber is.

Step 12 – Continuing Up the Trunk

I start moving up the trunk, basically repeating steps 9-11. Lay in a base coat, texture, lift highlights.

Step 13: Upper Tree Trunk


I finish painting the tree trunk. The upper portions are more exposed to the light source, and so would be more bleached of their “natural daylight” color (i.e. brown). And so basically I’m repeating steps 9-11 in these areas, except limiting my palette to just purple tones, making it more monochromatic with the sky.

Step 14 – Closer to the Moon


For the branches that fade into the ghostly light of the moon, I use Stinging Nettle Yellow to paint those in. I’m careful to maintain those white arcs of “light” I’ve created while laying in the background even now, by avoiding painting directly on them. Essentially I treat them as a hard edge.

Step 15: Masks and Nails


Starting in on the final details now.

For the nails I use a no 0 round and paint them in with Payne’s Grey. I leave the nail heads white, and lift a little around them to just soften the brightness a bit and help them blend in more naturally.

The shadows on the masks are painted in with Ultramarine Violet.

Step 16: Finishing off the Masks


I finish off the details in the masks by adding the last touches of shading and highlights to them. I’m using a mixture of pretty much whatever is on my palette at this point — which is purples, Payne’s Grey, Burnt Umber, bits of random yellows, some of what was left over from the previous painting I worked on…. My palette doesn’t ever really get cleaned out unless I want a really pure or pale color and I don’t want it to be dirty. Then I’ll scrub it clean. Otherwise, I like it to be a mess like this for picking out random neutral tones.

The ribbons on the masks are painted in with a mixture of Reddish Brown and Naples Yellow.

Step 17: Hair


Okay, back to the hair now which I had postponed earlier. After completing the rest of the piece, I can get a better idea of what overall color schemes are and determine what would work best. In this case, white is actually looking pretty good. So just to finish it off, I go back and add a few more shadows with Elderflower Purple, and define some strands with Stinging Nettle Yellow, and on the tips of those little trailing tendrils, clean them up a bit with a white gel pen.

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