Bayawak, Wildlife Watercolor Illustration Step by Step article by Karen Sioson for DANIEL SMITH

Wildlife Watercolor Illustration Step by Step for “Bayawak” 

I will be sharing my process for “Bayawak.”  It is a watercolor painting of a monitor lizard, one of several types, that can be found in the Philippines.  Increasing loss of habitat and prone to being hunted for their meat, this local wildlife has been suffering a decline in numbers.  My motivation for painting the bayawak is to help raise awareness and appreciation for their unique kind of beauty. 

Probably kismet that while I was planning for how I would paint this monitor lizard, I was given a chance to try the 8 new DANIEL SMITH colors for 2019.  My usual subjects are flowers and the occasional scenery.  My go to palette reflects this inclination towards brighter color.  However, for the monitor lizard, I needed subdued colors. The 8 New Colors for 2019 consisting mostly of neutral colors seemed perfect. 

Colors used, Karen Sioson

DANIEL SMITH Watercolors for this painting8 New Colors 2019 

Other DANIEL SMITH Colors used for painting “Bayawak“:

The painting process 

Drawing for Bayawak watercolor painting by Karen Sioson for an article for DANIEL SMITH
Step 1. Layout and drawing. Please note, line work has been darkened for the article, it was much lighter for the actual painting.

Step 1. Layout and drawing 

I had several options for positioning the subject.  One is stretched out emphasizing the length of the monitor lizard which was over a meter long from snout to tail.  Another perspective possible was from the front with focus on the face and its long tongue. I went for the angled view which showed most of its features and the pose has a certain dignity to it. 

I drew my guides on a 140 lb hot pressed paper very lightly using an F pencil.  The drawing is only detailed enough to show me the outline and general structures within.  I observed patterns instead of drawing each and every scale on the skin. The scales varied in size, shape, color and direction depending on their location on the lizard’s body.  Contour lines will help me with scale placement when I fill in the details later with watercolors.   

Techniques used in rendering skin and form in watercolor, Karen Sioson
Step 2. Techniques used in rendering skin and form.

Step 2. Techniques used in rendering the skin and form  

Details first 

First, I laid in the skin pattern observing the size and shape of the scales and following the contour lines I drew in earlier.  This helped me greatly in suggesting not just the musculature beneath the skin, but also the flabby and loose folds characteristically present on this type monitor lizard.   

Putting in the details first may seem counter intuitive as subsequent layer applications can agitate and lighten them but it is this tendency that I hope to exploit.   

Colors used, Karen Sioson
Step 3. Colors used.

Step 3. Colors used 

The base color for the outlines is Gray Titanium.  This I tweaked with Aussie Red Gold or Lemon Yellow for yellow scales.  Mixed it with Red Jasper Genuine or Quinacridone Red to produce pink tinged scales.  Addition of Alvaro’s Fresco Grey yields a beautiful blue gray.  [See swatch 2, in Step 3 image]   

Wash application to suggest form, Karen Sioson
Step 4. Wash application to suggest form.

Step 4. Wash application to suggest form and emphasize features 

After I finished laying the pattern on the ventral or underside, I applied a wash of darker local color over the areas where there are to be shadows and gradations where there are to be skin folds.  This action serves both to soften the detailing under this new layer while strengthening the illusion of form. 

The last step for an area is dry brush detailing to emphasize or enhance a feature.  More on this later. Meantime, to allow an area I just worked on to dry completely, I moved to other parts. 

The back of the lizard is darker compared to its underside.  For the outlines, I switched to Alvaro’s Fresco Grey which has a bluish suggestion to it and supplemented this with Cobalt Blue.   [See swatch 3, in Step 3 image

Brush suggestion, masking and leave outs, Karen Sioson
Step 5. Brush suggestion, masking and leave outs.

Step 5. Brush recommendation, masking and leave outs  

A number 2 rigger brush made of synthetic sable proved convenient for creating the honeycomb like pattern on the lizard’s skin.  Its longer brush body holds more paint than a round brush of the same size. This allowed me to work longer on outlining with fewer pauses to reload.  Here, I was applying Gray Titanium rings in preparation for rendering the yellow spots on the lizard’s skin.  This light gray lets me define and transition to the adjacent colors (blue and yellow) easily.  [See swatch 5, in Step 3 image]   

Masking fluid can be a good tool for preserving whites or light areas but since I wanted soft edges, I opted for leave outs. 

Modeling with paint, Karen Sioson
Step 6. Modeling with paint.

Step 6. Modeling with paint 

Another example of how the shape and size of scales, observing contour and direction can suggest form and underlying musculature. 

Use of contrast to lead the eye, Karen Sioson
Step 7. Use of contrast to lead the eye.

Step 7. Use of contrast to lead the eye and establishing light source 

Even posed at an angle, the length of the subject was a challenge.  To appreciate the entirety of the lizard, one would have to look at it from head to tail and vise versa.  When both ends (head and tail) are positioned near the edges of the painting, the viewer’s attention might follow this lead and leave the painting.  To counter, I lightened the colors for the tail and snout lessening the contrast between them and the background. The greater contrast I placed towards the central area of the painting.  This should entice the wandering eye back into the frame.   

To help make this change in lightness look logical, I imagined an overhead light source and adjusted the colors on the lizard’s back to reflect this.   

For this area, I used a variation of all the gray neutrals with Cobalt Blue and Lemon Yellow as a base.  [See swatch 1, in Step 3 image

Finalizing with a dry brush, Karen Sioson
Step 8. Finalizing with a dry brush.

Step 8. Finalizing with a dry brush 

I finish areas by dry brushing in some darks to highlight features like this line that transects the body of the lizard.  A bit of Perylene Maroon mixed with Alvaro’s Fresco Grey and applied strategically can bring the feature out.  [See swatch 4, in Step 3 image

The shine on the left is a clear water application to correct a spot.   

The perception of the whole, Karen Sioson
Step 9. The perception of the whole.

Step 9. The perception of the whole 

After completing all the parts, I step back and analyze the overall image.  Even though a tremendous amount of time has been dedicated to detailing the skin pattern, it must be the monitor lizard that registers with the viewer.  The sum before the parts. Fine detail appreciation should be secondary to the integrity of the whole.   

An old synthetic round brush used with clear water can be great for softening areas where the detailing looks too stark.  This only removes some of the surface pigment. Hot pressed paper stains easily. This color stain on the paper can still provide enough definition for the skin pattern to look convincing.   

Step 10. Anchoring the image to the ground 

A shadow painted underneath the monitor lizard helps anchor it onto a surface and completes the 3D look.  

Bayawak, watercolor illustration of a Philippine monitor lizard by Karen Sioson
“Bayawak” by Karen Sioson

“Bayawak”  Monitor Lizard, Philippines 43 x 73 cm 

This painting received an Honorable Award in the Wildlife Realism category at the recently concluded Abu Rawash Price Third International Watercolor Contest.   

Recommended colors

Review for the 8 New Colors for 2019. When I test watercolors,  I try to see how it would be received not just by painters but also by other people who use the medium for rendering like designers and illustrators.  After trying the new colors, I would have to say that providing these as color options is another great move by DANIEL SMITH. Sometimes even with training and experience for mixing colors, some colors can be quite a challenge to create or match.  One can appreciate having colors in the exact shade needed readily available.   

Three DANIEL SMITH Watercolors Alvaro's Fresco Grey, Gray Titanium and Red Jasper Genuine, tubes, paint outs and swatches from Karen Sioson
Three DANIEL SMITH Watercolors, Alvaro’s Fresco Grey, Gray Titanium and Red Jasper Genuine.

3 Favorites from the 8 New DANIEL SMITH Colors from 2019

  • Gray Titanium.  It is a semi-transparent warm light gray that I can picture myself using not just for wildlife illustration but also for botanical studies, and scenery. 
  • Alvaro’s Fresco Grey.  By itself, a beautiful vibrant neutral with blue violet undertone.   I like how it darkens and enhances the other blues.
  • Red Jasper Genuine.  An earthy red with beautiful granulation.   

Why I choose DANIEL SMITH Watercolors 

“The wide selection of colors DANIEL SMITH makes available to watercolorists enable them  to capture nature’s colors more precisely. While artists are trained to mix colors from scratch, having the needed colors readily available provides ease of use as well as accurate and consistent colors. These help greatly with identification.  DANIEL SMITH watercolors are a boon to artists and illustrators working on plant and animal documentation.”  —Karen Sioson

Some of Karen Sioson's collection of DANIEL SMITH Watercolors, her Dot Card, tubes, testing paint outs.
Some of Karen Sioson’s collection of DANIEL SMITH Watercolors, her Artist Dot Card, tubes, testing paint outs.

Karen Sioson’s DANIEL SMITH Watercolor Dot Card 

Read Karen’s blog post about her DANIEL SMITH Dot Card Palette and see her wonderful paint out tests. 

The right Dot Card dots have been brushed out with water to show color.


Portrait photo of Karen Sioson

Karen Sioson is from the province of Bataan in the Philippines. She has been painting in watercolors since the early 1990s after being introduced to the medium in Interior Design rendering classes.  Karen loves how well watercolor is able to capture light and color and how it can be a great medium for expression. She combines her love of gardening, plant collecting and painting in her watercolor florals.

Now exploring botanical art and wildlife illustration, Karen has joined the movement to promote and document Philippine endemic flora and fauna, using her favorite medium. This is another addition to her advocacy to advance watercolor art. She shares many of her watercolor processes, tips, and discoveries on the blog part of her website.



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