A Must-Try Technique for Creating Texture

“The Monastery” (watercolor, 21 x 26 in.)

“Traveling to Petra, Jordan, was one of the peak experiences in my life,” says Mary Elle. “As we climbed the 800 steps to the Monastery, we had no idea what awaited us at the top. Rounding the corner at the top of the stairs revealed the largest tomb in the entire park, much larger than the better-known Treasury. This incredible experience inspired me to capture the moment in watercolor. I wanted to illustrate the beauty of this hot, arid desert environment, and the effort we expended to reach the top.

“The desert landscape is the true focus of this painting. The beautiful colors of the sandstone cliffs glow in the sunlight. Because of the method used to paint the striations, however, the process began with painting and masking the hikers and the sky. I painted the clothing of the lower climbers in neutral colors, and the upper figures in complementary colors in order to draw the eye of the viewer up the hill toward the distant summit. Because it was my intention to paint around the figures, and I would have little control over where the edges of the wet paint would stop, I fully covered them with artist’s masking tape.

“Sandstone is laid down in layers as particles drift down through water and settle to the bottom. These colorful layers emerge as the rock is eroded away. For me, the easiest way to portray these layers is to use Saran Wrap laid across the wet paint. I first mixed a diluted mixture of quinacridone gold and dioxazine purple and applied it to the intended area, charging in a bit of cadmium orange here and there. I was careful to leave a little space for the wet paint to spread. Holding the previously cut piece of Saran Wrap and stretching it over the wet paint so that the plastic wrinkled with horizontal folds between my fingers, I dropped it onto the wet paint. Where the plastic wrap touches the paint, it floats on the surface, and the air trapped in the folds dries the paint more quickly under the folds. The exposed areas dry lighter than the areas touched by the plastic. As the paint dries, tiny air bubbles become visible under the plastic. I removed the plastic wrap when about 50 percent of it is covered with bubbles. Allowing the paint to fully dry while covered in plastic reduces the amount of rough texture that shows in the painting.

“Next, I painted a more concentrated, second layer of color over the first, leaving some of the lightest layer uncovered. The plastic is folded in the direction of the layers, so each section is painted separately to allow for the differences in layer orientation.

“Even the rocks in the bottom right corner were painted with the Saran Wrap technique. The desert foliage was painted negatively. The tiny leaves were covered with liquid mask, and the shadows were added over the mask in multiple layers.

“The third layer on the rocks is the shadow layer. This layer was brushed on over the previously textured Saran Wrap layers, leaving some of the first and second layers uncovered. I charged in the glow within the shadows with quinacridone gold and cadmium orange. When the glowing passages dried, I used a dark mix of dioxazine purple and quinacridone gold to paint the dark values in the shadows.

“800 Steps” (watercolor, 26 x 30 in.)

“Finally, I removed the masking tape from the figures and intensified the color of the orange shirt, even adding a bit of red at the bottom in order to draw the viewer’s eye toward the top of the stairs.”

Mary Elle has lived her entire life in Oregon and currently resides in Oregon City. Her paintings have been juried into many Watercolor Society of Oregon shows, as well as the Western Federation of Watercolor Societies (Western Fed) show, where her painting, Ladies in Red, won the SAWG 50th Anniversary Award. Her painting, Waiting in Line, appears in Splash 20, the most recent edition. Mary paints for the love of painting. She shares her art with others because it gives her great pleasure to see someone else enjoy the work she has created.


  1. I love how you captured the stone texture with Saran Wrap. Great idea of showing the hikers’ effort too. Excellent combination of the two. Thanks for sharing. I had attempted a work from Arches National Park. It was amateurish and a while ago. I may have to revisit that idea and try it with this technique.

  2. I’ve never really seen the plastic wrap used so successfully as texture before this. Brilliant! Climate was so arid, I swear I could smell the rocks. And I was out of breath at the top. Really loved this piece.


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