In this post we will take a look at how to paint and Art Nouveau style watercolor. Art Nouveau is a style that that began in Europe in 1890 and was popular until around 1910. Art Nouveau is famous for it’s flowing organic lines and shapes and had a huge influence on illustration, jewellery design and architecture.
Alphonse Mucha (24 July 1860 – 14 July 1939) is probably the artist who is most closely associated with the Art Nouveau style. His illustrations often featured idealized depictions of beautiful women. Mucha’s theatrical posters, commissioned by the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt are probably his best known works. They caused a sensation at the time and are still very popular today.
The Art Nouveau style has never completely gone away, it has undergone several revivals over the years. Most notably, it was a huge influence on the music poster artists of the hippy era in the late sixties and the style is often referenced by modern day comic book artists..
It’s difficult to find details about Mucha’s exact illustration techniques. His posters were lithographs. In Mucha’s time, Lithography was a well established but complex printing process which involves drawing and etching artwork directly onto flat slabs of limestone.
Art Nouveau Painting Process
Fortunately, we don’t need a Lithographic printing press to capture the essence of the Art Nouveau aesthetic. My process of creating an Art Nouveau style watercolor is as follows. Create a rough design in pencil. Transfer it to watercolor paper either by tracing or printing. Ink over the light pencil lines with Indian ink using a dip pen and then finally, color over the inks with transparent glazes of watercolor. If like me, you decide to ink first and paint afterwards, you’ll need to use a waterproof ink. If you prefer to paint first and ink over the top of your dry watercolors then it’s fine to use a water soluble ink.
Dip Pens Vs Marker Pens
You can use a dip pen or a marker pen for the linework. I prefer a dip pen for a variety of reasons but mainly because you can vary the line width by varying how hard you press down on the paper with it. This gives your work a much more expressive quality. I also love the traditional behind them and the way it feels to draw with one on the paper.
Marker pens have the advantage of not needing to be constantly dipped in ink every 30 seconds or so, they are also much less messy. Brush pens are another option but personally I would prefer to just use an actual brush. So it’s really just down to your own personal preference.
How To Paint An Art Nouveau Style Watercolor
Total Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Step 1 Creating A Design
My first step was to start collecting some reference photos and star sketching some design ideas. A classic Alphonse Mucha illustration piece will often have the combination of a pretty girl with hair that forms sinuous lines reminiscent of Celtic knotwork, juxtaposed with floral elements and geometrical motifs. For convenience my design was drawn digitally in Clip Studio Paint but it could have been drawn directly on to paper.
Step 2: Transferring The Design To Watercolor Paper
I used Bockingford 300gsm cold pressed paper for my design. A change from my usual Arches paper. The texture of Bockingford paper is a little smoother than Arches, especially if you draw on the back but not as smooth as Hot Pressed paper. This smoother paper made for a slightly easier surface for my drawing pen. Hot pressed paper which is completely smooth would also be an obvious choice.
I cut my paper down to A4 size and printed directly on to it from my digital file. The printer ink will run and dissolve when wet so it’s best to reduce the opacity and print the image as lightly as possible. It’s also important to use your printer’s rear tray rather than the cassette so that the thick watercolor paper doesn’t end up jamming up the printer as it bends around the rollers. You can of course just draw your design directly on to the paper. The advantage of being able to print a sketch from a computer is that it saves you time if you mess up.
If you want to transfer a sketch on to watercolor paper the old school way. You can use a sheet of carbon paper and or scribble on the back of your sketch with a 4B pencil effectively turning it into a sheet of carbon paper.
Step 3: The Inking Process
I used two pen different nibs for a thick and thin line. Alphonse often put a very thick “Outside” line around his main subject and used much thinner “Inside” lines for the details such as the eyes, lips and strands of hair. My “Thick” lines are nowhere near as thick as Mucha’s though.
To draw smooth flowing lines with a pen takes some practice. It’s worth spending some time making lines on scrap paper until you get the hang of it. In general, you should find that it helps to fix the position of your wrist and draw from your elbow.
You will have more control over your lines if you rotate the drawing so that you are always pulling the pen down and towards yourself in a smooth curve. Use the natural arc of your wrist to make tighter tighter smaller curves such as the flower petals and eyes. I keep a piece of tissue under my hand to help avoid smudging the wet ink. ( Although I still managed to do that in one spot!).
Step 4: Painting The Initial Watercolor Wash
Using a No.8 round brush, I began by laying in a base flesh tone for the girl’s face. This was Burnt Umber mixed with a little Rose Madder in a very pale thin consistency. I quickly lifted out some highlights on the neck, cheek and forehead, with the same clean damp brush. Use a cloth or paper towel to wipe off the excess paint.
For the flowers in the girls hair I switched to a No. 4 round. I painted I thin wash of Rose Madder for the flowers in the hair, a thin wash of Turquoise for the flowers surrounding her head and Lemon Yellow for the stems. I could have used any colors actually but I liked the warm/cool contrast of using pink next to blue. Allow everything to dry completely.
Step 5: Glazing The Shadow Tones
In this style of illustration, the black outlines are really doing most of the work, so I’m keeping the painting relatively simple. With my initial washes in place, all that’s needed now is to glaze some shadows over the top.
Watercolor is transparent, so there’s very little need to strengthen your colors as each added layer will get progressively darker with the previous layers showing through. For the shadow on the face, I added a little bit of Ultramarine to cool it slightly. For the flowers and lips, I simply added some more thinly diluted Rose Madder.
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