Interview with Anne McCartney

by Paint Tube June 16, 2022 7 Minutes

Essentially self taught, watercolorist Anne McCartney began seriously painting in 2005. Encouraged by the Alberta art community, where she calls home, she has since created a substantial body of work and exhibited in many shows. Her love of the landscape and her constant travels have been a source of never-ending inspiration for her work.

What does an image need to have for you to want to paint it?

I usually look for some kind of narrative in an image. If the image can take me somewhere or make me wonder, I hope that, if painted, it would do the same for the viewer. That might mean that the image needs an element in it that makes a strong focal point, or an area that holds particular interest as a focal area. Or maybe the light is just right and highlights something interesting.

I will sometimes start off looking at my huge reference library of photos and think I know the exact image I am looking for, only to get distracted by another, which is the one I end up painting. Maybe if I can get distracted by it, others will as well.

Could you walk us through your process? What is the goal of each stage?

My process is a long one with many repeat stages. In total I usually spend between 150-200 hours working on one of my pieces.

Once I have an image that is ready to paint, I do an underpainting. I like to tone my paper, as it makes it less intimidating than a white sheet of paper. The underpainting is really just to give texture and underlying unity to the piece. With the underpainting, I usually create a sort of bullseye with a yellow in the focal area, next a red, and then blues at the outside.

After the initial wash, I start my process of drawing, masking, and then painting. This is repeated until all the values have been met. I work light to dark as most watercolorists do, building my values with each layer. I usually leave an hour before painting over masking and 24 hours to mask over paint.

Once all the layers are created, usually ranging from 6 to 12, I remove all the masking and hope that all the values are accurate, so that the painting has depth and coherent details. If the masking has lifted any pigment, I will need to do touch ups.

How do you work through the planning? What do you need to have decided / figured out before you can transfer the drawing to the paper and get started? Where and how do you make those choices?

Almost all the planning is done on my computer before I start to paint. I might remove elements from the photo, change the horizon line or adjust the lighting, any number of things, just to make the image interesting enough to paint. I need to make sure there are areas that will engage the viewer and if there is too much detail it is removed.

This might take hours of sitting at the computer deciding on compositional elements such as contrasts, focal areas, cropping.


How has your process changed over the years? What does your current way of working give you that the previous way hadn’t?

I have been painting with watercolour for almost twenty years now, so my style and techniques have changed quite a bit over the years.

When I first started, I would work with thumbnail value sketches in my sketchbook. I would draw the image onto the paper and then paint it area by area. I never used masking in the past; I would save my whites by painting around them. This would mean I would have to paint very conscientiously and slowly. The use of masking has allowed me to paint large washes without the worry of saving my whites. I love the freedom of applying the paint wet on wet and watching the colours blend together on a large expanse of paper.

When you crop your photos, what questions are you asking yourself? Why not just paint the photo as you’ve taken it? What does cropping give you?

Cropping a photo is an important tool to making sure the image you are about to paint is all that it can be and not more than it needs to be. I consider what is needed to tell the narrative and also what the format needs to be, then I crop accordingly.

My primary question when I am starting to crop is “what do I find interesting about this photo?” If it is a landscape, do I want to include the sweeping expanse or to zoom in on an aspect of it? Would a panoramic format suit better than a standard 1:2 ratio? If it’s a figurative piece, how much of the surrounding area is necessary to convey the story? I really don’t want/need to paint elements that are not necessary, so getting rid of them by cropping seems logical.


How do you challenge yourself during the process? Why is that important to you as an artist? 

Challenging yourself is always important for growth and to keep the experience of painting exciting. One of the things I do to challenge myself is to change my palette with each new piece. Playing with colour and experimenting with the properties of a tube of paint is always a learning experience.

Each tube of paint is unique. Before I start a piece, I will introduce myself to the properties of the chosen pigments by doing colour swatches to make sure the colours I want to work with blend and mingle together and are pleasing to the eye.

I might want to have an area where a sedimentary paint would work well. Once, I even added a paint with metallic properties to a piece just because I had never used it before, and I thought it might enhance that particular piece.

Pigments: Do you use transparent, semi-transparent or opaque paints? Why?

Yes, yes, and yes!

When I started painting in the style I do, I tried to find the paints that were either transparent or semi-transparent. When you layer as much as I do, the more transparent the pigment, the fresher and cleaner the work appears as the transparent paints don’t contain the chalky fillers that are in the opaque colours. Also, one of the characteristics I love so much about watercolor is its transparency, so using transparent colors made me feel I was being truer to the medium.

In the last couple of years, I have introduced some opaques. I now love to use them at the final stages of my work. Because they sit on the surface well, they are great for splattering which is something I enjoy adding to a piece, especially if it needs some element of movement.


How do you plan the colors in a piece?

When considering my palette at the beginning of each piece I might go about it in two ways.

I usually pull out my trusty old colour wheel, which reminds me of different combinations like a triad or monochromatic schemes, etc. Then I look at some of the local colors in my focal area and decide if I want to stick closely with these, in which case I dial my color wheel to include these colors and see my options, or I decide to use the warm and cool colours to design the piece.

If I choose local colours, it is usually because those colours are important as identifiers to an object that helps tell the story. Such as a flower that is more easily identified because of its colour. If I am doing a piece where the values are more important than the actual colours, I will place my yellows and reds at the focal areas and save my blues and purples for the surroundings.

How do you make sure you hit your values accurately? How important is that to the way you work? Why?

I always work from a black and white copy of the image I am painting. This helps me see the values much more clearly than a coloured image. My goal with each layer is to darken my values by at least 10%.

I do paint with a value scale close at hand, most of the time I can just eyeball it, but sometimes when I am doing a piece that requires ten or so layers, I will check with my value scale, to make sure it is accurate. Making sure the values are correct at each layer is top priority because once I get the value right, I cover it with masking, then proceed to the next layer.

When the layer is covered, I cannot go back and redo it. Occasionally, I have needed to do touch ups once all the masking has been removed, mostly because the masking itself has lifted more pigment than I thought it would. This is done very carefully as I don’t want to risk losing the sharp edges which the masking has helped me create.


In a process as complex as yours, how do you not get lost in where you are and what you’re doing? Planning I assume is important but during the 150-200 hours of the painting itself, how do you remember which layer you’re on or your goals for the piece?
I have a few tricks that serve as reminders to help me keep on track with where I am on a piece. I use an 8.5x11 black and white printed copy of the image I am working on and I keep this close to the piece. I’ll use this print out to write notes on. When I have finished a layer, I mark on the printed version which value I will start next. I also note things like paint choices for this particular painting (hue and brand). Or what I had decided on as a focal area.

Most of the time it’s not hard to keep in mind where I am with a piece but I do find that jotting down a reminder on a sticky note and attaching it to the painting has been very helpful in the past…the brighter the better!

Learn more about watercolorist Anne McCartney at her website and on Instagram and Facebook.