Evolution of a Self-Portrait from Watercolor to Type by Julia Kay

I first met Julia Kay through an introduction from Don Lee, President and owner of Nomad Brush. Julia was kind enough to be a guest blogger and introduce us to her digital drawing techniques.

Evolution of a Self-Portrait

When I first started drawing on my iPod Touch in 2009, I fell in love with how quick and easy it was. There was no set-up, no clean-up, and I had an entire full-color, virtual studio in my pocket at all times. I could draw on the train, while waiting on line, whenever I came across something interesting in the world. The pieces I made on my Touch tended to be quick sketches, which took a lot less time than the work I was doing with traditional materials such as charcoal and acrylic paint.

Since then my use of mobile digital media has expanded to include drawing on my iPad, and the type of work I create has expanded to include quite detailed and time-consuming pieces, some of which now take much longer to create than my average traditionally-made piece. I do continue to go back and forth between ‘mobile digital’ (drawing on a mobile device such as phone, iPod or tablet) and traditional media, and I draw or paint, one way or another, every day.

In December of last year, I dug out my old watercolor pencils and crayons, because I’d been seeing some interesting work made with them by other artists on flickr. It had been at least a decade since I used them, so they were pretty much a new medium for me. As when starting to work with any new materials, I returned to a subject that was quite familiar to me – myself. Self-portraiture has been a recurring theme in my work, and for three years, from 3/15/2007 – 3/15/2010, I made a self-portrait every day.

Since I’m so familiar with the subject, I felt very comfortable exploring and experimenting with the media, and seeing what it could do. Watercolor pencils and crayons are water-soluble – you can draw with them and then add water to pull out washes. Depending on the mark you make, the paper you use, and the brand of pencil or crayon, you can have washes over your drawn marks, pull color from the drawn lines or from the crayon to create traditional washes, or draw more into the wet for very bold marks.

To learn the range of what they could do, I made a series of self-portraits on different papers, each taking only about 15 minutes.

Working back and forth as I do between digital and traditional media, I think alot about the similarities and differences both in results and in process. It’s hard to rework a watercolor once it’s dry (and even when it’s wet!), but of course digital media is infinitely malleable. I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see if I could resolve one of the watercolor self-portraits that I wasn’t satisfied with by transforming it to digital and re-working it. I also thought this would be quick, since I was going to base the digital piece on the already completed watercolor, and use digital methods to trace the watercolor and select colors from it.

Boy, was I wrong about that! The 15 minute watercolor turned into a digital piece that took more than 20 hours to complete. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the beginning!

I decided to go for a different look for the iPad version, and instead of using one of the Apps that tries to simulate watercolor, (such as Artrage or Auryn Ink), I chose the Typedrawing App. Typedrawing is an App that lets you draw, well, with type. You choose the letters, words, or phrases that constitute the marks you make while drawing.

Unexpectedly, drawing with type is rather like drawing with pastels. When you layer one color over another, you see the first color through the holes in the shapes of the type, much as you see one color below another when you draw on rough-textured paper with pastels.

In addition to choosing what words to draw with, you can set the font and size of the type. Or you can allow it to change fonts randomly as you draw, and have size change with the speed of your stroke, which is how I use it. With the latter option selected, you almost never have to go to a slider to change the size of the mark you are making. For small, detailed areas, you work slowly and it uses small type. When you’re filling in a large area, make quick strokes for larger type. Of all the apps I’ve tried, I have found this to be the best work around for the lack of pressure-sensitivity on the iPad. In fact, the range of stroke size from this method far surpasses what I used to get using a Wacom tablet and stylus with my desktop computer.

Although there are now some Apps that simulate mixing paint (Artrage, Wasabi immediately come to mind) or allow you to overlay colors to ‘mix’ via transparency (Brushes, Sketchbook Mobile, Art Studio and many others), one frustration for me drawing digitally has been the need to go to a color picker and try to find the color you need every time you want to change colors. It definitely interrupts the flow of drawing or painting more than reaching for a different pencil, or pulling some paint into a mix on your palette.

So another thing I really like about Typedrawing is that while you can draw in the usual way with a single color, you can also choose to draw with a range of colors. You can set sliders, for instance, to choose a range of dark, moderately saturated, blue-greens, and when you draw each letter will be a random color in that range.

This allows you to get alot of color in your image without having to go back and forth to the color wheel each time to select another color. I thought I would be using the range feature alot for this piece, but I ended up using a third method for choosing color – sampling directly from the imported image.

Sampling directly is sort of like using tracing paper in a traditional studio, but in addition to tracing the shape of the underlying image, you can also select the color from the original. When you are finished, you take away the original and have only the new image. I almost never work this way from photos, but I was willing to use this method to work from my own original artwork. So what could be quicker and easier? Select the color from the watercolor and trace over it.

The problem turned out to be that in the watercolor original, I generated alot of different colors by running washes into each other. And of course the color changes aren’t discrete areas, but continuous ranges from one color to another. There were very few areas that were one solid color. That meant I was constantly having to resample for every micro-stroke, to keep the colors as rich in the digital piece as in the original. To simulate the blends, I was also layering one sampled color over the other, and where the first color showed through the spaces in the letters of the second color, a sort of pointillist blending effect was created.

This process was definitely tedious, and I was glad I was working on it with my new Nomad Paintbrush Stylus. The Nomad Brush looks like a regular brush but has electronics in its bristles. This allows the iPad’s touchscreen to recognize and respond to it. I’ve tried a lot of styluses and always preferred drawing with my finger. However, the Nomad Brush was the first stylus to glide over the surface more smoothly than my finger, and to allow me to cover a larger area of the surface with less movement of my whole arm. Since this turned out to be a long piece, I was glad for anything that made it easier on my body to work on it.

Some areas of the painting were redrawn without major changes. However, the whole reason I was doing this was my dissatisfaction with the original, so I didn’t just want to copy it, but improve it. Therefore certain areas were completely redrawn. In those cases, I had to resist a lazy habit of digital to stick with the color I had selected, and continue to constantly change between alot of different, related colors, so the new areas would match the existing ones. Mostly, I continued to sample colors from the underlying image, but sometimes I used the color wheel to select adjacent colors.

Using the color wheel to select adjacent colors, colors which were similar but different enough to add richness to the image, got me looking at where the colors in my original were on the color wheel. I realized that if I were drawing from scratch on the iPad, without sampling, and wanted to choose some of the colors from my watercolor, I wouldn’t actually know where to find them on the color wheel. Of course I knew that where yellow and blue came together in a wash, I should look between them on the color wheel for green. But how about when mixing colors that weren’t adjacent? When mixing purple and orange, for instance, you get a very muted color which is… where exactly on the color wheel?

In all the color wheel examples shown, my eye thought the hue was different than it turned out to be. I also would not have predicted quite how unsaturated / close to grey all of these colors were. Although you could say I ‘cheated’ by selecting them out of the original instead of finding them manually, I used the opportunity to learn more about what I was seeing so that I could pick out such colors manually in the future.

How do you know when something is finished? Artists struggle with this question all the time. Some pieces reach a natural completion point, especially if the media is something like watercolor, where it can be tricky to re-work. Other media are more malleable. A piece reaches a stage you like – should you stop? If you continue you might overwork it or ruin it in some other way. Or you might greatly improve it. Deciding when to stop is an art you develop over time.

Digital media are the most malleable of all. Not only do you have the ability to cleanly undo and redo, but you can save stages of a piece as separate files so if you ‘ruin’ it, you can always go back to a previously saved version. Some think this flexibility prevents you from developing a sense of when to stop. I prefer, again, to take it as a learning experience. Since I don’t have to worry about ruining a piece, I can keep going and see what happens. This gives me information I can use in making decisions about pieces that aren’t as malleable. And I can decide after the fact which stage of the piece actually was final.

In this case, the watercolor came to a natural stop, but I did not feel the piece was complete; that’s why I started the Typedrawing version. It was my plan to redraw the entire face, but it seemed very strong to me about three quarters of the way through. I put that file aside and continued on for many more hours until the face was ‘complete’.

I used the ‘completed’ face to submit to the Nomad Brush contest as a portrait of myself as ‘Siri’, the voice that answers your questions on the latest iPhones. But I continued to look at both versions. Finally, I decided the ‘incomplete’ version was stronger, and that is the version I will exhibit in the future.

Artist Julia Kay works in traditional and digital media on a daily basis. Recurring themes in her work include the plant and animal kingdoms, portraiture and self-portraiture. To celebrate the completion of a three-year project in which she drew herself every day, she started Julia Kay’s Portrait Party (JKPP). JKPP is an international collaboration of more than 650 artists from more than 50 countries who have made more than 20,000 portraits of each other in less than two year


  1. Very cool. Thanks for sharing your work and the journey you took.

  2. I’m curious as to what programs you use on your Ipad to create different pieces of art.

  3. Janet Vanderhoof says:

    Hi Sarah, I will get Julia to respond to your question. The image represented in the blog was created with the Typedrawing app. I enjoy, Brushes, and ArtRage.

  4. Janet Vanderhoof says:

    Thanks Cheryl!

  5. Thanks Janet!

  6. Thanks everyone!
    Here is information about Apps I use when drawing on my iPod Touch: http://www.flickr.com/photos/juliakay/sets/72157620441068839/

    Here is information about Apps I use when drawing on my iPad:

    If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ll be giving a presentation on making art on my iPad at the flagship San Francisco Apple Store on March 31st at 3 PM. Address and details ( in their calendar as the date approaches):
    Hope to see you there!

  7. very interesting!


  1. […] other great thing about Julia is that she is experimenting with moving from traditional media to digital media.  She wrote this ‘how to’ article on how she’s transforming her approach to […]

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