Image of Head in the Stars painting by Joanna Barnum for her article for DANIEL SMITH

I love the wide selection of colors offered by DANIEL SMITH, including those with unique properties not available elsewhere. It means each artist can choose precisely the palette that works best for them, and find exactly what is called for in any circumstance. The opportunity to try something new, such as DANIEL SMITH’s Luminescent (Shimmering) Watercolors, can renew creativity in the studio and lead to exciting discoveries which I explore with my “Head in the Stars” Portrait with Luminescent Watercolors Step by Step Demonstration.  Below the step by step section in my article is a 4 minute video I made while painting “Head in the Stars”.

Photo of Joanna Barnum's painting Head in the Stars with DANIEL SMITH Luminescent Watercolor Tubes and palette

“Head in the Stars” is based on a photo I took of my friend Krystal Younglove, a circus and traditional sideshow artist based out of York, PA. ( The retro sparkle of her costume was perfect inspiration for a painting done with a palette of DANIEL SMITH Luminescent Watercolors. I wanted to create a painting that felt nostalgic and dreamy.

If you’d like to know more about my fundamental portrait painting process in watercolor, you can also check out my “Watercolor Portrait Step by Step” article and video demo of the painting “Fae” using DANIEL SMITH Watercolors.

Reference photo for Head in the Stars watercolor painting. Joanna Barnum

I like to work with photo reference as the jumping off point for my portraits because of how a photo can capture fleeting expressions and movements, as well as the memories of a particular time and place. Although I also enjoy painting the model from life, and this practice informs all of my other drawing and painting, a live model is more limited in what can be sustained for several hours. I particularly love working with dancers, actors, and all kinds of performers, since they’re very at ease in front of a camera. I might have a particular concept in mind when I start shooting reference, or I might just file the photos away and see what they inspire for me later on.

I look for expressions, gestures, and light that inspire me in photos, but I don’t worry about keeping the original composition of the photo, or painting everything exactly as shown in the photograph.

Preliminary drawing for Head in the Stars watercolor painting. Joanna Barnum

Preliminary Drawing:

I like to work on 300lb cold press or rough paper. In this case, I use 300lb paper on a watercolor block, because I want to be able to move the Luminescent pigments evenly on the page, without them pooling into the ripples formed by the paper buckling as it dries.

I start with a fairly well defined preliminary drawing, which allows me to be looser and more relaxed with the painting process when I know that I already have my likeness nailed down. To avoid overworking the paper before I begin painting, I transfer the basic lines for the image from either a separate preliminary drawing or a draft copy of my photograph, and then I refine and develop the drawing using an HB (#2) mechanical pencil. I try to avoid excessive erasing.

Lamp Black wash. Joanna Barnum

Atmospheric Background:

I begin with Lamp Black as a foundation for this painting. It is the only color in the palette for this piece that is not a Luminescent color. One of the exciting things about DANIEL SMITH Luminescent Watercolors is how their appearance varies when painted over a light background versus a dark background.

To take advantage of that effect, I create a “night sky” atmosphere that will overlap just the top of the model’s head, dark at the top, fading down to the white of the paper. I use a spray bottle with plain water and big soft brushes to help me create this gradation. I also rotate and tilt the watercolor block to help move the wet paint around. I’m not concerned with making things perfectly smooth, I enjoy the unexpected textures that can arise within a wet wash, adding to the overall atmosphere.

DANIEL SMITH offers a variety of black and grey pigments to choose from, but I chose Lamp Black specifically because of its high staining qualities. I want this underpainting to stay as locked into the paper as possible when I build the Luminescent colors on top of it.

Lamp Black under painting for Head in the Stars. Joanna Barnum

Underpainting in Lamp Black:

Continuing with Lamp Black, I paint the portrait in grayscale over the dry atmospheric background. This will add structure beneath the Luminescent colors. It will also lend the painting a vintage, nostalgic feeling, as if the final result is a hand colored photograph; as well as provide grounded, neutral contrast to the shimmer of the Luminescent colors.

Overall, I tend to think in shapes of value, leaving fairly hard edges to my shapes. I might soften the edge of a transition within a face with just a little bit of clear water or with a dry brush texture; or paint certain areas, like the jawline and cheek shadows, as wet into wet for a softer effect. However, “smoothness” is not something I concern myself with too much – I don’t think of it as a fundamental characteristic of watercolor. The major relationships are more fundamental in creating the illusion of realism. And any blooms or organic textures that arise in the course of painting are embraced and appreciated.

Adding light values to Head in the Stars watercolor painting by Joanna Barnum

Light Values in Luminescent Colors:

Once the previous layer is fully dry (I use a hair dryer to speed things up), I begin to build up the largest, lightest areas with the Luminescent colors in my palette. At this stage, I’m using mainly Iridescent Gold and Duochrome Hibiscus, fairly diluted, for the flesh, and Duochrome Violet Pearl for the hair. Areas that I’ve identified as white highlights within my reference photo, I’m leaving blank and unpainted. These areas would normally be the white of the paper, but because of my atmospheric Lamp Black background, in some places, they are actually gray- it’s a bit of a brain twister, but I try to ignore it and pretend as if I’m painting on white paper.

I like my faux squirrel brushes for this stage because their softness is less likely to disturb the black and grey underpainting beneath as I layer the Luminescent colors on top.

Light Values Detail:

Light values detail for Head in the Stars watercolor painting by Joanna Barnum
Adding mid tone for Head in the Stars watercolor painting by Joanna Barnum

Midtones and Details in Luminescent Colors:

Once again, I allow the previous layer to dry fully, using a hair dryer to be sure it is completely dry. Now I am layering my mid tone warm flesh colors on top of the lightest lights, leaving some of those previous light areas unpainted. I’m adding in Duochrome Desert Bronze as a darker flesh color, and adding more concentrated areas of the Iridescent Gold and Duochrome Hibiscus. I also add more detail to the hair with a smaller, stiffer brush.

Adding hightlights for Head in the Stars watercolor painting by Joanna Barnum

Highlights in Luminescent Colors:

Now comes a really fun stage that only happens in my portrait paintings done with Luminescent colors. Normally, the white highlights in my portraits are the white of the paper. Here, because of the atmospheric Lamp Black background, some of my highlight areas are gray or black. The semi-opaque and reflective qualities of the Luminescent colors mean I can use them to reintroduce sparkling highlights in those areas.

I use Iridescent Antique Silver and Pearlescent Shimmer to add the highlight areas in Krystal’s face and eyes, and to create her glittering stars and moon headpiece.

I create a splatter spray of stars in the dark sky by holding a brush loaded with watery paint a few inches above the page and tapping it against the finger of my opposite hand.

Detail photos of Head in the Stars watercolor painting by Joanna Barnum

Definition in Lamp Black:

To give the face more definition and contrast, I return to Lamp Black, and selectively add back in some details and small shadows layered over the dry Luminescent Colors.

I also go back in and selectively soften some highlight areas with a wet brush, such as the stars in the crown, to give them more of a glowing feeling.

Head in the Stars, watercolor painting by Joanna Barnum

“Head in the Stars” by Joanna Barnum, 9” x 12”, 2020


Demonstration video



DANIEL SMITH Watercolors

DANIEL SMITH Luminescent Watercolors Joanna Barnum used for her Luminescent Watercolor portrait, Head in the Stars
DANIEL SMITH Luminescent Watercolors used for “Head in the Stars”.


  • Synthetic sables: #1 round, #4 round, #10 flat, 1” oval wash.
  • Faux squirrel: #10 round, #16 round.

Palette and Paper:

  • For small pieces and travel, I use a plastic palette with individual wells for color and large divisions for mixing. I have a number of these, so I can have several going at once with different color combinations. For large paintings, I use enamel butcher trays and individual ceramic dishes.
  • Paper: 300lb cold press.


I love the DANIEL SMITH Luminescent color Iridescent Gold because it’s so versatile and classic. In “Head in the Stars,” I use it as a warm color within a larger palette made up mostly of Luminescent colors.

I’ve used it as finishing touch and luxurious embellishment in watercolors, the way one might add gold leaf. I’ve also used it to create subtle atmospheric texture within backgrounds and abstract areas of paintings. I used Iridescent Gold as both an accent and to create atmospheric texture in “Natural History: Blue” and “Natural History: Green.”

Watercolor paintings Natural History: Blue and Natural History: Green by Joanna Barnum

“Natural History: Blue” and “Natural History: Green,” 9” x 9”, 2019, DANIEL SMITH watercolor on paper


Tips for Working with DANIEL SMITH Luminescent Watercolors:

Luminescent Watercolor paint test swatches over Lamp Black for the painting Head in the Stars by Joanna Barnum
Luminescent Watercolor paint test swatches over Lamp Black, all used for “Head in the Stars”.
  • Don’t be afraid to try something new in the studio, even if you have a tried and true process. Adding a new element into the mix can spark new discoveries. Remember to make time to play and explore.
  • Try a palette of several Luminescent Colors together, or try adding just one to your standard palette as an accent.
  • Create swatches of your Luminescent Colors over both white paper and a dark wash to get to know their properties.
  • Pearlescent Shimmer makes a great bright “white” highlight. It is one of the brightest, most reflective Luminescent Colors.
  • Try offsetting or grounding the bold, dazzling qualities of Luminescent Colors with non-reflective darks and neutrals.
  • Whatever colors you choose, embrace the fundamental character of watercolor. Allow it to be alive and do what it wants to do, to some degree. Accept blooms, tide lines, and other organic textures that arise naturally during the painting process as a beautiful, natural part of the process rather than fighting them or trying to “correct” them. An organic “accident” is more beautiful than overworking an area trying to force it to behave in a certain way.

About the Artist:

Joanna Barnum head shot by Allison Jessing
(Photo credit: Allison Jessing)

Joanna Barnum uses watercolor to express universal emotional states and the unique spirits of her portrait subjects, balancing experimental, abstract use of the media with sensitive realism and symbolism.

She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2006, and has since made her living as an artist across the realms of fine art, illustration, and teaching. She is a Signature Member of the National Watercolor Society and serves on the board of the Baltimore Watercolor Society. Joanna’s work has been recognized by American Illustration, Illustration West, the “Splash: The Best in Watercolor” series from North Light Books, Infected by Art, and at juried watercolor society exhibitions and plein air painting competitions around the country. She has worked with clients and collaborators including Renegade Game Studios for the game Overlight, NASA, AARP, Cricket, Faerie Magazine, Eating Well, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Her work has recently appeared on Every Day Original online, at Abend Gallery in Denver, CO, and at Rehs Contemporary Galleries in New York, NY. Joanna also teaches her approach to watercolor as a guest workshop instructor for watercolor societies and institutions.

Joanna currently lives in Harford County, Maryland with her husband and their greyhound (and studio manager) Zephyr.