Photo of Sanjay Desai's watercolor painting Lazy Afternoon in Indian Summer, for an article for DANIEL SMITH

The stages of the demonstration here are not my standard approach for every painting. Mostly there are no stages. Being impatient, I work continuously on areas of paper where I find appropriate wetness. I like it when viewers identify with the subject, the atmosphere, the location, noise, smell and the textures rather than wondering how I have achieved this effect or that.  I don’t stick to any particular style. I let the subject decide the style. I try something different in almost every painting to the point that I feel uncomfortable when 3 or 4 paintings come out good in a row. I have tried to master the accidents in watercolor in a structured manner, but I gave up. I just let them happen.

Sanjay Desai painting a watercolor urban landscape called Lazy Afternoon in Indian Summer in his studio
Sanjay Desai painting “Lazy Afternoon in Indian Summer” in his studio.

The subject of my painting is a locality in the city of Pune close to Mumbai which lies in western India. This is a traditional milkmen’s colony established more than a 100 years ago in Colonial days to supply milk to the military barracks nearby. It was a hot summer day in the month of May. I was riding my motorbike and noticed the scene as I sped by. Instantaneously my eyes made a note to come back. I liked the typical Indian forms within the clutter, the sharp shadows, the blinding sunlit areas and a wonderful story that lay in the location.

Photo of Sanjay Desai's sketch for the watercolor painting Lazy Afternoon in Indian Summer
Stage 1 – The Sketch

Stage 1 – The Sketch

Usually my sketches don’t have so much definition, but I thought this was a complex subject. For a complex subject, a sketch needs to be pretty accurate in terms of perspective, proportions and respective positions of various elements. My painting sketch is usually a blend of several pencil sketches, photo references and a few failed attempts with the same subject. I take artistic freedom to move things around, eliminate or add a few things but I never change anything to harm the basic atmosphere of the subject. The location is only incidental, atmosphere is the subject. I like to leave a few things partially out of frame to force the viewer’s imagination beyond the border of the painting. I will be lying if I say, I have sorted out all potential niggling issues in my mind. But I am confident that I can cross those bridges when they arrive. Without those potential niggles there is no fun. Painting is not like a mundane daily drive to the office. Watercolor artists need the confidence of a rally car driver. More often than not, it is a disaster.

Photo of Sanjay Desai's stage 2 for the watercolor painting Lazy Afternoon in Indian Summer
Stage 2 – Light Tones

Stage 2 – Light Tones

In this stage I covered areas with light tones with just a hint of cool and warm areas. Borders are not very important at this stage. Arrangement of shapes and their interrelations are more important and need more attention. The shapes need to be across the elements, otherwise I am worried the painting will start looking like a collage of different colored shapes stuck on a piece of paper. I let this stage dry. This stage also takes care of setting the tonal reference. Judging tones looking at a blank white paper is difficult. I would say, this stage is the proverbial jump in the water knowing very well it is cold.

Photo of Sanjay Desai's stage 3 for the watercolor painting Lazy Afternoon in Indian Summer
Stage 3 – Establishing Major Shapes.

Stage 3 – Establishing Major Shapes

The purpose of the next stage is to establish major shapes. So, I worked on the middle tones. This is the stage at which, I usually start to get an inkling if the painting is working or there is struggle ahead. And believe me, that feeling can be terribly wrong on both sides. But I cannot stop getting that feeling.  I hold back on going dark. Here I find it very useful to creatively work on moist or wet surface using techniques like loading, mixing paint on paper, spraying water on the paper, lifting to create glow, etc. The combination of stage 2 and stage 3 is the most visible part of the finished painting. It is very important to make these two stages work for me. Extreme care is required here to ensure that large surfaces don’t go dead. Surfaces don’t go dead when they are wet. They suddenly start looking dead when they are dry. And then it is over. So good judgement is required here. I didn’t let the surface dry till I was sure. Mixing colors on paper works especially wonderfully in middle tones to reduce the possibility of surfaces going dead. Important edges which I had decided to keep sharp, got defined here. I decide to keep the middle tones a bit lighter than final. Because sometimes I like to integrate the painting with washes after the darks are established.

Photo of Sanjay Desai's stage 4 for the watercolor painting Lazy Afternoon in Indian Summer
Stage 4 – Establishing the Darks & Edges.

Stage 4 – Establishing the Darks & Edges

It was now time to establish the darks and the edges. I carefully choose where I need to ‘dry brush’ and where I need to work on wet surfaces. Overdoing anything can make the painting look tacky and contrived. I like to paint solid dark areas on a slightly moist surface – exactly 3 puffs of spray from 12 inches in normal weather! One of the OCD issues I have, I guess, every artist has at least one. That leaves nice soft edges and I can also load the surface with cooler or warmer tones within the dark to make the solid darks more interesting. Sometimes I just drop water at the edges after I have painted darks. This creates a wonderful glowing edge. The whole idea is to avoid making solid darks looking too neat or dead. There should be some areas where stage 2 washes, stage 3 middle tones and the darks interact with each other and create a vibration. As an example, the clothing hanging on the wire, and the corner of the building against the sunlit wall and roof have that vibration. This stage is almost irreversible. Careful attention is necessary to establish places which I want to pop out. I tried as much as possible to either implicitly or explicitly connect the darks.

Photo of Sanjay Desai's stage 5 for the watercolor painting Lazy Afternoon in Indian Summer
Stage 5 – Detailing.

Stage 5 – Detailing 

I would call this the stage 1 of detailing. I did the cows carefully avoiding too much detailing. I didn’t want the viewer to look at the painting and say, “look at the wonderful cows!”.  I applied overwashes, mostly to various shadow areas to integrate them into a homogeneous painting. I did this with a synthetic hair flat brush using a light hand. This overwash creates some very interesting subtle edges on bright areas and also softens the edges of solid darks in the shadows. I was careful not to touch the bright areas too much. Like the darks, it is also a good idea to keep the sunlit areas connected. I did some flat brush detailing on the roof, and some brickwork by dirtying the edges of the wall close to the ground.  Adding some detailing on the edges of shadows with a dry brush followed. I darkened small specific areas to allow things to pop out like shadows around the clothes, and the window behind the cow. To integrate the cows into the painting, I applied a connecting pattern behind the cows on the background wall.

Detail photos of the clothesline and cow in Sanjay Desai's watercolor painting Lazy Afternoon in Indian Summer
Clothesline and cow detail photos.

Stage 6 – Final Stage

I find this to be a critical stage. It is also a very satisfying stage, if I am happy with the effort till now. It is very easy to overwork and diffuse the focal point of attention. It is also very easy to underwork and make the painting look unfinished and ordinary. I added the sky. I used a rigger brush to add lines in some places to accentuate the perspective and draw the attention of the viewer towards a desired area. I sparingly used pure white (Titanium White) and Naples Yellow to add sparkle to areas on the border of light and shadow. I added poles and some vertical elements to add to the drama. Then I sprinkled pure water and sprayed colour using an oil painting brush avoiding overdoing it. (Some things are very addictive) And that’s it.

Photo of Lazy Afternoon in Indian Summer, watercolor painting by Sanjay Desai
“Lazy Afternoon in Indian Summer” by Sanjay Desai

Then I went away from the painting for a few minutes, came back, sat down and looked at the painting. May be the background of the building at the back could have been better. Does the painting have too much contrast? The Location had lots of contrast. It was summer. Shadows are sharp and dark in India. But still…. Could I have made painting yellow rather than red? Could I have lowered the horizon and stretched the perspective to make the buildings and the cows more imposing. Maybe…. The only way to find out is to try all these things another day.

Photo of Sanjay Desai's watercolor palette with DANIEL SMITH Watercolors
Sanjay Desai’s watercolor palette.

Why I choose DANIEL SMITH Watercolors

DANIEL SMITH has a very high focus on quality and consistency during color production. It is a fascinating experience to listen to John Cogley talk about the length to which he goes to maintain that superior quality. I am quite amazed at how involved he is every time he explains all the technical stuff to an audience. All this care and attention results in wonderful, pure colors. One more thing I appreciate is the information they provide about each color, transparency, lightfastness, staining, and granulation. I know exactly what I am getting when I choose a color. As we all know, watercolors lighten when they dry. I need to know how much, and that difference has to be consistent.  This is where the DANIEL SMITH quality and consistency comes in.

My colors for the painting (amongst others)

My favorite 4 DS colors (may not have been used in this painting)

These are the exotic ones I like. But I feel, it is more important to have top quality the basic staples like Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Yellow Deep Hue, Burnt Sienna and that is where DANIEL SMITH scores very high.

My DANIEL SMITH Watercolor Dot Card Colors 

Photo of Sanjay Desai's DANIEL SMITH Watercolor Dot Card



Photo of Sanjay Desai

My name is Sanjay Desai. I live in Pune, India. I am a self-taught watercolor artist. I became interested in painting at a very young age. Pune has a wonderful watercolor culture. I was lucky to meet and closely interact with some wonderful & famous artists of those days. I could walk into their studios freely and watch them as long as I wanted. I could talk to them, ask them stupid questions and nag them with whys & hows (even when a few of them were my father’s age). It was fascinating and inspirational. I have handled oil color & acrylic as a medium in the past but for the past 6 years I am purely working with watercolors. I was lucky to travel to many wonderful countries and within India. That gave me an eye for spotting great subjects. I have exhibited my paintings in group shows and in solo exhibitions. My paintings have been selected in a few international watercolor shows. I have done a few workshops. I take great care never to forget that to be able to paint is a great privilege. Exhibitions, festivals and workshops are necessary and these wonderful interactions with fellow artists are fun and a great learning experience. But I limit those activities because I love it most when I am alone and painting. That is what I automatically get back to.


Photo of A quiet hot afternoon on Ventotene island Italy, a watercolor painting by Sanjay Desai
“A quiet hot afternoon on Ventotene island Italy” by Sanjay Desai
Photo of Mulshi - Green Times, a watercolor painting by Sanjay Desai
“Mulshi – Green Times” by Sanjay Desai
Photo of Terribly Hot but Worth It, a watercolor painting by Sanjay Desai
“Terribly Hot but Worth It” by Sanjay Desai
Photo of Morning Light Tulshibaug, a watercolor painting by Sanjay Desai
“Morning Light Tulshibaug” by Sanjay Desai
Photo of Wet Afternoon in Miraj-3, a watercolor painting by Sanjay Desai
“Wet Afternoon in Miraj-3” by Sanjay Desai
Photo of Fish Market, a watercolor painting by Sanjay Desai
“Fish Market” by Sanjay Desai
Photo of Pune Mandai, a watercolor painting by Sanjay Desai
“Pune Mandai” by Sanjay Desai