Charcoal & Watercolor: The Serpent Beckons Eve

This is an experiment with a style of illustration I love, based on the work of Jessie Willcox Smith [1863-1935] (do a google search to see her beautiful art). The drawing was done with charcoal first, which was a fun way to lay in the shading and line work. I dipped a brush into water with gum arabic added, and gently coated all the charcoal lines, so it wouldn’t bleed into my watercolors. According to the technical help at Golden, the manufacturer of most of the fixatives I’ve tried, there isn’t an interior fixative that won’t repel/bead watercolor washes on top of the spray. The gum arabic was a midnight brainstorm idea. (It worked relatively well, but not perfect.)

Some of the charcoal still “muddied” my lighter washes, and the gum arabic added to my rinse water made it easier to lift-out muddy pigments if I wanted to lighten an area. I used the same glazing method I’ve described in previous watercolor posts here, and I layed the colors in deliberately sharp-edged, in keeping with turn of the century magazine illustrations.

A group of my artist-friends paint to a theme once in awhile – to encourage artistic productivity, and a little stretching past our usual subject matter/style. The theme this month was “Eve”, and I imagined her (with a lot of creative license) in the Garden of Eden, on a sunny day, riding around on a juvenile crow, being watched by the serpent from the branches of the Tree of Knowledge. This scene depicts the moment she hears the Serpent calling her to come closer. The crow knows something bad is about to happen.

The Serpent Beckons to Eve, Charcoal & Watercolor on paper, 7.5 x 9 (sold)

11 Responses to Charcoal & Watercolor: The Serpent Beckons Eve

  1. Anonymous 02/05/2007 at 4:55 pm #

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  2. Zeke 03/29/2006 at 2:15 pm #


    I always look forward to your new posts! You do such marvelous works of art! I really appreciate your sharing the art making process with us. I, being a beginner at everything, really find it helpful in understanding different art processes. Thank you for the beautiful art.


  3. bdelpesco 03/21/2006 at 9:50 pm #

    Hi Karen, thanks for the comments… this one is on Arches hot pressed WC paper (140lb). I’m not sure about Gum Arabic in your Niji. I don’t use good brushes when I add it to the rinse water, because they turn into hard little spears. I can soak them for a minute to soften the bristles again, but they tend to dry hard and stiff for a few days regardless.

  4. Karen 03/21/2006 at 7:10 pm #

    Wonderful, Belinda, and thanks for sharing the process, as always.
    Is this in BFK Rives or watercolor paper or ???

    Re: the gum arabic. When I’m painting at home (not on location) that’s what I use on my Moleskine, too, when I want to defeat the beading-up effect. It creates a shine on the paper, but it solves the problem.
    I’m wondering if I could use a drop of it inside a Niji waterbrush without gumming up the hairs too much. …

  5. Sheri Burhoe 03/20/2006 at 3:53 pm #

    This is a very pretty piece. Love the deep colors you use.

  6. Linda 03/19/2006 at 4:58 am #

    Belinda — I love the unusual perspective of the snake in this piece! What fun it must have been to imagine it. Great information about the gum arabic sealing charcoal — I wonder about pastel, etc? And I wonder if there’s a way to use fixitive to deliberately repel WC in areas — you’ve given me a lot to think about! 🙂

  7. bdelpesco 03/18/2006 at 8:39 pm #

    Hi All, Thanks for your warm responses to this piece… I had great fun creating it.
    Jim, the gum arabic does the opposite of what you’ve guessed; it fixes the charcoal in place.
    If you touch a wet brush with watercolor to an unsealed charcoal drawing, the particles in the charcoal “travel” and blend with the watercolor pigment, making mud. I wanted to keep the integrity of my charcoal lines and shading, but I also wanted to add separate layers of sheer color on top of the drawing. Getting the charcoal to stay adhered to the paper so I could paint over it was a mystery, since most spray fixitives would not only seal the charcoal, they would also repel the watercolor, and leave me with arbitrary beads & pools of pigment, much like painting in a moleskin or on a manila folder. Since watercolors are made from crushed pigment – bound with gum arabic, I thought the same binder might help stick the charcoal to the paper, so I just followed all the line work with a wet brush dipped in water, with about 4 drops of gum arabic added. It’s not perfect, but it worked. 🙂

  8. Jim 03/18/2006 at 7:11 pm #

    I love the creativity in design and composition of this piece and I think I learned something of gum arabic from what you report. Do I understand correctly that gum arabic, dissolved in rinse water, will remove the charcoal used to lay the original image down?

    Beautiful image!

  9. janey 03/18/2006 at 5:24 am #

    Yes, this is beautiful. Great images and I really like snakes viewpoint. And the color of course. And it’s a real inspiration to see other artist’s process.

  10. Lin 03/16/2006 at 4:19 pm #

    WHAT AN ABSOLUTE JOY your work!!!! Love the images, the color and the generous way you share the process!! BEAUTIFUL!!!!

  11. Lindsay 03/16/2006 at 2:51 pm #

    Ingenious solution! I’ll have to try the gum arabic. But I do have to say that watercolor over charcoal unfixed is a mysterious looking entity too. But for this illio I can see how you needed to have clean crisp edges. Thanks for the tip.

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