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Featured Artist: Ali Cavanaugh

Poetic Spaces: Watercolors on Aquabord

I discovered Ampersand’s Aquabord™ with the 2˝ Deep Cradle about a year ago and it has been such a wonderful surface for my watercolors. Previously, I worked on paper, but always struggled with its limitations in presentation. The flawless pebbly surface of Aquabord takes layers and layers of pigment without wearing down. The paint is amazingly workable and removable on this surface. Also, it is so nice that I am able to display my watercolors without glass and that they are already framed when done.

My process starts with a very light pencil sketch to map out my composition. I use a variety of flat brushes sizes #2 to #8 to lay in basic values. Then, I use synthetic round brushes ranging from sizes as small as #.2 to as large as #2 to build up my surface.

My palette consists of ceramic tiles set up with clusters of color; one for skin, one for hair and one for fabric. I prefer the Daniel Smith watercolors because of their absolute purity and intensity. I begin by lightly spraying my palette with water to keep it wet. I mix lots of water with the pigment and apply diluted, wet layers of color to achieve depth. All of the colors are mixed first on the palette before applying them to the surface. Working with thinner washes and allowing each layer to dry prevents the paint from lifting when applying subsequent layers.

Ali Cavanaugh painting

My paint application process is very labor intensive and can sometimes consist of close to 50 layers of pigment. I would say that the process most closely resembles that of egg tempera because of how I build up the paint layers by using tiny overlapping brush strokes.

For skin tones, I pull from Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red Light, Cadmium Red Medium, various Purples, Sap Green, Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, and Van Dyck Brown. I don’t have a set formula for skin tones, because skin color is so relative. I have to be somewhat flexible with the flesh colors in order to capture harmony and balance within the fabrics for each individual painting.

Ali Cavanaugh painting

When painting fabrics, I use minimal color in order to draw attention to the colors in the subject. I layer complementary colors to build up depth; orange over blue or red over green for example. For fabrics in grayscale, I use a combination of Lamp Black, Payne’s Gray, Indigo, and Cerulean Blue.

Ali Cavanaugh painting

I seal my paintings in groups by lining them up and applying about 3 or 4 good coats of an acrylic matte spray. Once the surface is sealed, I use about three coats of Minwax Polycrylic® on the plywood sides. The smaller pieces are hung with simple hardware; a saw tooth hanger on the back of the cradle and rubber bumpers at the bottom so that the painting hangs perfectly flat against the wall. Larger pieces, I attach D rings to the back of the cradle and add wire for hanging.

My daughter is my muse and my source of inspiration, but my paintings are not necessarily portraits of her. In short, they are more accurately self-portraits of me as a child. Patterned fabrics, textures and color are essential elements that breathe life into my portraits. The white negative space serves a multipurpose. It not only emphasizes the composition of the figure, but also creates silence, and this silence gives room for contemplation.


About the Artist

Ali Cavanaugh is a Santa Fe based artist who is represented in the US and Portugal. She earned her BFA from Kendall College of Art and Design, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For a complete list of galleries or to see more of Ali’s work please visit www.alicavanaugh.com.

Materials List

  • Ampersand Aquabord™ with 2˝ Deep Cradle
  • Daniel Smith Platinum Series
  • 40 White Taklon brushes (Brights)
  • Daniel Smith Extra Fine™ Watercolors
  • Daniel Smith Autograph Series Sable mix Watermedia Brushes (Rounds)