Let’s Talk SHOP: John C. Kelty

Abby Leon, Paradigm Gallery Director

Artist John C. Kelty has given many demonstrations and talks on watercolors; in fact, his most recent was for our July Second Thursday event at the Paradigm Gallery! In case you missed it (sorry if you did…he’s quite the entertainer) or just can’t get enough, we are sharing his talents and expertise in yet another outlet through this week’s blog post!


A photograph of the artist in front of a store shop working on a watercolor. He wears a gray sweatshirt, khaki pants, and a blue baseball cap backwards.
A photo of the artist at work. Photo courtesy of John C. Kelty.

I am a regional artist who resides in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I was born and raised in New Haven, Indiana as one of thirteen children. I attended University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, graduated with a degree in commercial art, and went on to work in the printing industry for the next twenty years. Now, I work exclusively in watercolor. I have exhibited work in many shows and participated in many en plein air events. I am president of the Fort Wayne Artists Guild and a member of the Indiana Plein Air Painters Association, the Hoosier Salon, the Watercolor Society of Indiana, the American Impressionist Society, and the American Watercolor Society.



In the Beginning….

I often hear the statement: “I don’t know what to paint”. Well, the answer is ….ANYTHING. I have painted four lanes of traffic during a rainstorm, and it turned out quite nice. Paintings are everywhere; it is the job of the artist to find them.

For this piece, I decided to do kayaks. I like both of the photos so, as I often do, I have decided to combine the photos into one painting.

Start with the Pencil.

I know painting is fun…. or it is supposed to be. The best way to make sure it goes well is to take the time to do a value sketch before you pick up a brush. This is done to make you look at the darks and lights, concentrate on the shapes, and to construct the composition. It should not be large; it should not be detailed; but you should use it to solve the problems of the painting before the brush hits the paper. That is the goal anyway. I generally grid the sketch to help with composition and enlarge it to the painting. I am asked often if I ALWAYS do a value sketch before every painting……and I answer, “Just the good ones!”

The value sketch shows light and dark areas as well as grid sqaures to assist with scaling up the work from pencil to watercolor.
The value sketch, with a grid to assist the artist in scale.

The most important tool…. The Surface.

Art supplies are expensive. It does not take long to run up quite a bill when purchasing them. If your budget is limited, spend your money on good paper. I use Arches 140 rough paper. I have tried them all and this one works for me. There are several very good watercolor papers that you can choose from, but I tell you do not to skimp on the paper.

On this painting, I am using paper adhered to gatorboard using acrylic gel medium. It is something I have been doing quite a bit of lately and the painting surface behaves much the same. I lightly draw out the piece on the paper, paying close attention to the shapes and not the objects. I leave much, if not all, the detail to be painted in.

The first step is to draw the work in pencil on paper.

The First Layer

Finally…. some paint. I use a primary color scheme of red, yellow, and blue when I paint. The exact colors in this layer are yellow ochre, alizarin crimson/diox violet and cobalt/cerulean blue. The paint to water ratio is about the consistency of tea. I let the colors mix on the paper and pay attention to the value sketch as to where the lightest areas should be. Now the most important instruction in watercolor painting…. LET IT DRY.

The first layer of color--the work is two kayakers on a river surrounded by trees.

The Second Layer

Use the value sketch start to start putting in the mid-tones next, starting with the same primary scheme mix as much as possible on the paper. The paint will flow to where the paper is wet and will not flow to where it is dry. The colors used at the stage are vandyke brown/burnt sienna, alizarin crimson/diox violet, and cobalt blue. You may choose to use a sap green at this point too – but always use green sparingly. The paint consistence of this layer is about like milk.

The artist continues to add colors--pink, purple, blue, and light greens.

The Figures

I hear during demos all the time, “I can only draw stick people”. Well…me too. The fact of the matter is that all the figures I put in my work are just glorified stick people. I mainly concentrate on proportion and shape. I keep it simple -there is no need to paint the eyelashes. For the skin tones I use cadmium red light in different degrees of intensity. Continue the colors of the figures and boats into the reflections in the water.

The artist colors in the figures with browns and yellows.

Third Layer

Continuing with the primary scheme I use vandyke brown, diox violet, and indigo/ultramarine blue. I mix these in various combinations of warm and cool darks. Following the value sketch, I add the darks of the tree trunks, the banks, and the figures. Using calligraphic brush strokes I add the textures, sticks, and branches. Using wet in wet techniques to add the dark reflections in the water.

Now is the question that we all ask – Is it done? The best way to know a painting is done is somebody writes you a check; but other than that, I find that I am done about 10 minutes before I realize its done and I am just fiddling with it. So, if you are looking for a tiny paint brush, you are done and ready to go on to another painting.

The finished work is a watercolor of two kayakers on a river surrounded by trees.
The Pigeon River, $800

Visit us at the Paradigm Gallery to see the finished painting and more of John C. Kelty’s work: Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6pm; Thursday 10am-8pm; Sunday 12pm-5pm!

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