Inspiration (noun)

1. stimulation to do creative work

2. somebody or something that inspires

3. creativeness

4. good idea

5. divine influence

Synonyms: stimulus, spur, motivation, encouragement, muse

Everything about the word “inspiration” is beautiful to me. Recently, I had the revelation that in my quest to inspire – I have been inspired!

It turned out, that in my quest to inspire others – I had found my own inspiration. Now I could bring the dried fruit to life!

About two months ago, I joined a Facebook watercolor group. Since I’m a professional artist and the site had many beginners, I felt concerned that sharing my hyper-realistic artwork might discourage them. Several times I found myself writing, “I want to inspire, not intimidate.”

Because so many people viewed my illustrations as photographs, I shared attachments such as tracings and reference photos. I learned that I had to label my reference photo clearly, as sometimes it was mistakenly viewed as another painting.

The place where I currently live is small, so I have stored boxes of my old art files in a storage unit. It was quite an adventure to pull out several of those boxes that I hadn’t looked in for years. In my quest to find old attachments, I came across a folder filled with photos of dried fruit. Many years ago, I had intended to create a portfolio painting of them.

I put my boxes back in storage, but saved the folder of dried fruit on my desk. I also saved some slide pages that held other possibilities.

Those dried fruit photos were almost 30 years old, and I was still intrigued by their beauty. I probably didn’t paint them all those years ago because I was too busy with paid assignments. Back then, last thing I wanted to do when I wasn’t illustrating was to paint something for myself.

It turned out that in my quest to inspire others, I had found my own inspiration. Now I could bring those dried fruit to life!

The reflections on the dates carried subtle blue, red and yellow tones, which I loved.

Many people have asked whether I have tutorials or online classes available. In the mid 1980’s I was a part-time college art instructor. I very much enjoyed teaching illustration techniques and I’ve written about it on this blog. (#17 TEACHING AND LEARNING)

Explaining my process is something I would love to do, but “performing” for a camera is challenging. The editing and production would be time consuming and a huge distraction from my other creative pursuits. This blog has been an easier way for me to share. Eventually, I do plan to add some videos.

For this post, I am going to explain how I work with much more detail.

My first step was to create my layout. I scanned my photo choices and corrected a few things using Photoshop. I had to decide between an aerial or three quarter view. I preferred the detail of the aerial view and went with that.

My photo reference was a dream. Rarely is there a photo that I don’t significantly improve upon. I struggled trying to decide whether to make my painting 8×10 or 8×12. Since most of my work was usually 8×10, I cropped off two inches of lovely fruit and it wasn’t an easy decision.

I ended up making one correction. There was a single date that wasn’t attractive enough for me. I replaced it with another one (copied from a different photo.)

Once my layout was decided, I made a print to look while I worked. It was exactly the same size as my painting. Then I printed a whisper of my layout onto my watercolor paper. I always work on 140 lb. hot-press watercolor paper. My current brand is TH Saunders.

I mounted the paper onto a drafting board by first wetting  the back with a damp sponge. Then I stapled gummed brown paper tape around the edges to hold it taut once it dried.

For years, it was tricky to position an entire sheet of frisket film over my watercolor paper. If the frisket wavered and stuck to itself, it became a useless mess. About a year ago, I discovered an easy trick to laying it down. I peeled back only one corner and cut off the backing. Then I laid the frisket down in position, with the sticky area holding it in place.

I peeled off the remaining backing with a sliding motion while pressing it down at the same time. This was so much easier!

Once the frisket film covered my artwork, I took a #2 pencil and outlined all the areas I planned to cut. With a brand new blade in my #11 exacto knife, I gently cut the film.

I painted the darkest areas first. They would delineate the lighter areas. Since dyes stain the paper, the paint wouldn’t bleed much if touched with a wet brush. A little bleeding was actually more realistic and created a softer edge.

I began my painting by painting the darkest areas first.

I loved watching it unfold. I saved a lot of apricots for the end and that was a bit tiring because of all the delicate brushwork on them.

In this example, I painted details on the apricot first; most of them were washed away when color was added. I went back to add the details again and continually smoothed them with a damp brush.

I always keep a tissue handy to dab up paint if it looks too dark. Wetting an area can lift off some color, but not much. I used a typewriter eraser to help lighten many areas on this painting.

In some cases, I will re-mask an area. This allows me to paint without focusing on the edges. (I did not want the orange to get into the green above). After positioning and cutting the frisket, I gently peeled the film off with tweezers. Next, I burnished (pressed down) the edges. I share my burnishing tools below. A sharp pair of tweezers is very important.

Since the fig was darker than the walnut, I painted it first and left the nut inside masked. Like the apricot, I added details first and then washed over them. Then I added them back. I did this many times. I sure looked forward to painting the nut inside!

I share a look at my colorful palette. Gouache is visible on the top left. For velvety black areas, it worked really well.

In this image, I am nearing home stretch. I saved the pineapple for last, and didn’t closely follow my reference. I decided to eyeball a pineapple on a different photo that didn’t have as much harsh detail. I wished I had explored other choices ahead of time on my layout. I loved everything about this painting except for how the pineapple came out.

I have been called a perfectionist quite often. A perfect painting is not really possible or even preferable. I always hope to learn something from every painting of mine.

What did I learn from this painting? I will share it with you now.

I have always been aware that there is a difference between the front and back of my watercolor paper. Even though I use hot-press, it is not perfectly smooth. The front is more random and pebbly. The back has more of a screen-like texture.

When I looked at close-ups of my painting, I was puzzled as to why it had such a prominent texture. It almost looked like I had worked on canvas.

Then it dawned on me. I had painted on the back of my watercolor paper. With my eyesight issues, it was harder for me to notice the difference. I also didn’t think it mattered.

Sigh. Well I definitely learned something important from this painting!

Coming soon – Judy Unger Puzzle Shop!

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This is my newest painting named “Cool Leaves.” I’m still “feeling blue” in a good way with my newest painting.

Here is the nectarine leaf that inspired my painting. I was glad I could get a serrated edge on it. The spots on the blue leaf were also beautiful to me.

I clearly remember a crisp autumn day when my eyes were drawn to the spectacular nectarine leaves dangling from a tree in my friend’s backyard. I debated. If I picked even a few, it meant I was on a full-scale hunt for more leaves to paint. I found this to be funny, because Los Angeles was certainly not considered an autumn leaf destination.

I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a painting with so many colors.

These are my prior autumn leaf paintings from 2021 and 2022.

That week, I passed on picking leaves off my friend’s tree. I already had two autumn leaf paintings – why do another? And then a thought came to me. What if I did a unique autumn leaf painting every year? I could create a series of them!

I returned to my friend’s backyard the following week with a scissor and bag. The nectarine leaves were scarcer, but still vivid. After that, I drove around the neighborhood and made a dozen stops until my bag was stuffed. I had plenty of reference for my painting now.

I photographed the leaves over two days. With each session, I gingerly arranged my composition. I put the larger leaves underneath and carefully intertwined the other leaves on top. I saved the prettiest ones for last. I didn’t mind if any were mottled; it made them more interesting to paint.

There were some tiny brown seedpods clinging to a stem and I decided their delicacy could add to my painting. Another leaf sprig had tiny berries attached. I added them in, too.

These two photos carried most of the leaves I wanted to depict.

I took around 120 photos. There were so many stunning images that it was difficult to choose. But I was really intrigued by the abundance of coolness scattered throughout the composition. My other two leaf paintings did not have the variety of colors these leaves had. I narrowed my photos down to two favorites and then I took a break that lasted several months.

It was well past autumn when I finally decided to start my painting. Up until I began, I was still waffling on the composition. With Photoshop, I combined several photos and it wasn’t easy or convincing. I shared my A-D layouts with friends to see which one was their favorite. Everyone chose a different idea. I ultimately made the final decision because I was so tired of moving leaves around!

I began my painting by placing frisket film over the entire paper. With a #2 pencil, I outlined all the leaves I would paint (I could lightly see their contours under the frisket). It took me a day to delicately cut out each area with an exacto knife #11. I used my sharp set of tweezers to peel off the areas I chose to work on. I usually painted the darkest areas first.

When I began painting the next day, right away there were problems. The paper fibers easily dissolved and rubbed away. The frisket didn’t hold – in some areas the paint had leaked underneath. Darn! I had a defective sheet of paper.

I fixed every problem I encountered; I am expert at that. But it sure wasn’t fun. Finally, after four days of work (fixing as I went along) I decided to quit. It would be better to start over.

I ordered some sheets of brand new watercolor paper and switched from Fabriano to TH Saunders. I discarded all of my older paper.

Although I was pretty bummed, I’d learned my lesson. I tested an area on the new paper first. I didn’t spend time cutting frisket for the entire painting. Instead, I would do a few leaves at a time as I went along.

Once I was painting again, I felt better. I started on the opposite side and worked over to the area that I had painted earlier. Once that was done, I was sailing. What a difference it made to have paper that cooperated! I had made the right decision.

My abandoned painting looked okay, but it was so much harder and slow to work on. I was glad I started over.

Making progress on my painting…

When I started, there was so much to fill in. But as I progressed, it became easier and easier – like a jigsaw puzzle!

I really enjoyed my painting sessions because there were so many interesting colors for me to mix. I have about 3 dozen bottles of Dr. PH Martin’s dyes and for the very first time I used almost every one. I continually ran out of room on my palette because I was mixing so many colors.

I was intrigued by the interplay of warm and cool colors. The dark solid purple leaf was actually ornamental, and not related to autumn. Hence, I didn’t describe my painting with the word autumn.

While I was working on my “Cool Leaves,” I shared a painting named “Lemon Tree” with a Facebook watercolor group. My photorealism usually drew a strong response.

Initially, I almost didn’t create my painting named “Lemon Tree,” because the reference photos seemed so dull. But when I culled the best areas from many photos into one layout – it began to have a lot more potential. I loved the branch texture. Just like “Cool Leaves,” spending time creating an interesting composition made all the difference to me.

I rely on my painting layout to solve the compositional issues. To me, there’s a huge difference between the original photo and my final painting. I even added blossoms in there. But many people tell me they cannot see the difference.

And then came a comment about my photorealism that was actually a bit snarky.

No way. That’s a photo. Even then, why make an artwork that looks so much like a photo. What’s the point?

I responded:

For me, there is a point. I was hired to create realistic paintings for decades, because there was a purpose to having food that looked appealing.

I believe the point of art is that we create what we find beautiful. I enjoy painting in this style and it is not pointless to me.

Things got even more interesting when some other people in the group chimed in.

If one is a true artist, especially, one should not sit in judgment of another’s accomplishment or art style. We all have personal likes and dislikes, however, that doesn’t call for an opinionated public judgement. We should all be here in this group to be supportive.

This response was a gut puncher!

Just because she can and you don’t have the ability….every human on this planet was born with different skill levels. We are all different which makes us unique. What do you think the world would be like if we only painted what you approved of ????

And then along came my hero! His name was Jason. Jason understood exactly what I was doing!

This is a great example of improving reality. One thing people often miss when painting a still life is the opportunity to employ artistic license to make the subject look more interesting.

As we see, the reference photo is just that – context for the artwork. She is not attempting to duplicate the photo, but to interpret the photo into an interesting painting.

The more you understand your subject, the better this can be done. Look at the lemon in the painting, versus the one in the photograph. It is clear that Judy has studied the form of the lemon, how light behaves upon its rind, how water collects and reflects on its surface, and what makes an “ideal” shape for presentation.

She has angled it, shaped it, lit it, etc, all with presentation over replication in mind. Note as well that she has made sure that the only “ripe” lemon is the “subject” lemon, whereas in the reference there is a second yellow lemon.

This is such a good example for anyone seeking to understand the ideal way to utilize reference imagery. Always as a foundation, but never let your references take the place of your artistic eye.

I let Jason know that he was my hero, and that this was one of the nicest comments I’d ever received.

These tiny berries were wonderful to paint!

This tiny seedpod was adorable! I loved putting blue into it.

The finished seedpod. The color from scanning, versus my iPhone shot above in progress, is apparent.

It has been a joy to share my cool leaves with you!

Because so many people have been asking me whether I have tutorials, I shot a brief video while working on a leaf. I demonstrated scratching tiny veins with a crow-quill pen. Sorry it’s a bit blurry!

This is the finished area from the video above.

Crow quills have been very useful to me. In addition to scratching the darker veins in the video, I also use them to add lighter veins. One way is to use liquid frisket with the quill before putting down color. But I have found that to be imprecise. I prefer to use the Badger Air Opaque acrylic with a crowquill first. It also acts as a mask. I can erase it later using an Admarker blender marker. If more delineation is needed, I can always draw over them again with white acrylic later on.

I recently added more items to my post #16 A MATERIAL LIST.

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My latest painting “Cool Leaves” was a joy to paint. My palette ran out of room with so many interesting colors!

From the very start of this illustration blog, I have been transparent – and not just with watercolors. I celebrate my honesty, though I realize that sharing invoices, backstories and unusual career shortcuts might be a bit cringe-worthy.

An example of one of my earliest shortcuts was when I sent off finished assignments that were completed with markers. I’m sure my clients might not have been thrilled to hear that, but when deadlines were tight – it was an efficient way to create finished art quickly.

Recently, I joined a watercolor group on Facebook and shared some of my old paintings. My illustrations were very different from the other paintings on that site. Aside from the intense photorealism, my use of vivid dye colors intrigued many other artists.

The downside of using dyes was discussed immediately. Brilliant dye colors are fugitive and will fade when exposed to UV light. But as a commercial artist, my paintings were for reproduction and I never displayed them. It’s been decades and my paintings in storage are still as bright.

I’ve been painting new imagery over the past few years, and have wondered whether I might be able to sell my original dye paintings. The benefit from joining this group was that I learned about some new and interesting ways to seal my paintings and protect them.

Most comments I received were very positive. But one comment was puzzling.

Tracing is cheating a little but so many artists trace from photos it seems. Your painting skill is amazing though.

 I replied:

Thank you for your compliment on my painting skill. I don’t agree that tracing is cheating. If you’re looking for immediacy, then it’s just not the same technique. Even Renaissance artists used tools. It’s the end result that’s the beauty of art.

This is a moody old watercolor of mine.

I don’t consider myself to be a traditional watercolorist. But when I was learning, I loved dropping paint into wet areas to see where it would go. I even painted a few watercolors on the beach. But I far preferred painting watercolors that were very tight. I like to call myself an “inch by inch” artist.

I shared some of my old paintings with this group, replete with tracing paper, reference photos and even an abandoned “painting in progress.” Many people thought my paintings were photographs, so it was important for me to share those attachments.

I worked with tracing and graphite paper for over 30 years. If the person who wrote “tracing is cheating” read what I’m about to share, I would definitely be disqualified as an artist. I’m a little nervous that if I share this with the watercolor group, my art will be dismissed.

For the last 15 years, I have painted over lightly printed layouts, rather than trace and transfer.

Fifteen years ago, I had a clever idea while working on a rushed assignment. I inserted watercolor paper into my inkjet printer and printed out a faint under-painting for my job. It worked very well!

My job layout for the Arbor Mist wine cooler label.

My first time using my “paint over light print” technique.

Creating a “light layout” definitely involves thoughtfulness on my part. Of course, the main layout is my baby. It can involve countless photos and reconstructions of them with Photoshop.

The light layout has to be just right. If it is too dark, it interferes with my ability to build up transparent layers. It must be so light, that it is almost imperceptible.

Once I am satisfied with my light print, I wet the back and cover the edges with gummed paper tape. Then I staple it onto a wooden drafting board. When it’s dry, I cover the entire image with a sheet of Graphix high-tack frisket film. I use a #2 pencil to draw onto the frisket all of the lines I plan to cut.

With sharp tweezers I peel away the areas I will paint. Sometimes, I will cover an area again with masking film once it has already been painted (my camellias, for example). Even with the risk of leaking, it is usually easier.

My Epson Stylus Photo R800 printer is very old. The reason that my shortcut works is that the printer ink for this model is not water soluble. I tried on two occasions to replace my printer with a newer Epson model. But as soon as I wet the area with my brush, the ink dissolved into a muddy mess. Unfortunately, my printer isn’t working well and the inks aren’t easily available anymore. I wonder what I’ll come up with once my R800 dies.

My faint print gives me adequate contour information and painting over it works perfectly for me. I’ve been spoiled, because I’ve been spared countless hours of tracing and transferring. Cutting frisket is tedious enough.

Because I solve all of the compositional, contrast and color issues ahead of time on my computer, I am eager to start painting. I delight in creating beautiful colors and textures. With the time I’ve saved, I am able to create more paintings that I love!

I’m glad I could honestly share. I appreciate what my friend and former art professor Nancy told me when I shared my trepidation about sharing this unconventional shortcut. She said, “Well, if people think it’s easy, let them try it and see what they come up with. Your work will always be unique!”

My trusty Epson Stylus Photo R800 Printer.

Am I a mixed media artist? Or perhaps because photos are so integral to my work, am I a digital artist? Whatever artist I am, I would say that creating beautiful imagery is my entire objective.

Even though I work primarily with watercolor, my “whatever works” motto translates to using many other mediums that go along with it. I carefully choose my subject matter and set up my painting using digital tools.

What a pleasure that is! In the past, I would make photocopies and cut them up with an exacto knife before taping things back together. I have folders of photocopied line drawings that helped me compose many illustrations.

I faithfully follow my motto of “whatever works” as I go along. It can involve a crowquill with liquid frisket or a tiny drop of Badger Acrylic to add tiny details. I use Prismacolor pencils to add texture, over and under my watercolors. I will score the paper lightly with an exacto to indicate tiny veins on leaves or to create a tree bark texture. An eraser (typewriter or electric) is a wonderful tool to rough up and lighten an area. When I’m looking for a stipple effect, toothbrushes are very handy. Sometimes I’ll splatter liquid frisket, other times Badger acrylics or dyes.

I view texture as a puzzle to solve and I hope to inspire others to find out what works for them. Experiment, explore, and have fun taking chances!

Working on one of my paintings usually takes about two weeks. I’m thrilled to be freed from deadlines, because I feel like I am creating something special.

Even though my finished product looks like a photo, I’m always hoping it is better than a photo. A lot of time and energy goes into every painting. The sheer joy of mixing transparent dyes to create brilliant colors gives me pleasure.

Simply creating my art is enough for me. 

Recently, I had good quality art prints made of my work.

 I believe that what I’ve described with words, can best be understood by my sharing some of my favorite projects. (Clicking on the final art image is a link to other posts about that subject.)

My photo reference for Apple Medley.

A medley of apples that I painted just for fun.

My painting named “Camellias in Bloom.”

An example of my photo reference for the above painting. I combined different flowers and backgrounds for my layout.

I painted the camellia flowers first. Every petal was masked with frisket film.

When the flowers were finished, I covered and re-masked them before painting the background.

An in progress look as I painted my “Pomegranate Medley.”

My final painting named “Pomegranate Medley.”

A close up of my pomegranate wedge and arils.

One of my autumn leaf medleys named “Autumn Hope,” which was completed in 2021


My photo reference for the painting “Autumn Hope.” I first corrected all the problems digitally, before beginning my painting.

At this point, my painting was finished and I was able to add details with colored pencils.


My painting named “Camellias in the Rain.”

Just like my other camellia painting, I painted the flowers first. Then I covered them with frisket film and painted the background.


I photographed some peach blossoms to add to a new peach painting. Initially, I wasn’t at all inspired by this photo, but I’m glad I changed my mind. I definitely had to improve the leaves.

My “Peach Blossom Branch” painting in progress. I am drawn to water droplets.

My painting named “Peach Blossom Branch.”

I had to really improve my photo for my “Hummingbird & Hydrangea” painting.

What a difference photo editing made!


I painted the hummingbird first. In this photo, the bird is masked with frisket film.


My painting named “Hummingbird & Hydrangea.”

Orig Photo

My reference photo.


My painting for my friend to memorialize her beloved cat that was killed by a coyote when it slipped out a window.

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My finished painting named “Lily Pads and Lotus.”

My last few posts were related to drawing mazes. Although I found them intriguing, I did miss working with color.

My reference photo.

When a good friend on vacation in Georgia sent me a photo of lily pads – well, I thought the photo was a painting. It was so painterly, well composed and quite beautiful. This would be easy for me to work from, because there was little I needed to change.

Painting the lily pads felt impressionistic. The most important part of my painting was the “hero,” which was the lotus flower. My painting was perfect for a meditation track with its soothing colors.

Clicking on this image leads to my free meditation track on Insight Timer

My favorite parts of the finished painting were the areas of water puddles against the lily pads. They really had dimension!

My Lily Pad and Lotus was painted quickly. In contrast, my “Hummingbird & Hydrangea” was an exercise in patience. I spent more time on the preliminary planning than I had on my last painting.

It all began when an acquaintance asked me if I’d ever illustrated a hummingbird (I hadn’t). Subsequently, he offered to share an original photo with me. At first I wasn’t inspired; the photo was dark and the hummingbird colors muted. However, once I lightened it up it had incredible potential.

What a difference photo editing made!

My next step was to insert the hummingbird into a more beautiful background. I searched through many garden photos and was excited to be able to use them. They weren’t worthy of an illustration on their own, but in combination with a hummingbird – it would be perfect combination. I created dozens of digital layouts as an overview. I began to get discouraged, because nothing seemed to hit me. The hummingbird got lost in every composition. I couldn’t decide if it should rest upon a branch. I preferred having it hover, so I edited the bird’s tiny feet.

I ended up going with a white background. My next step was to isolate a flower for it.

Both the pink and blue hydrangeas mirrored colors in the hummingbird’s wings. But I was drawn to the purple/blue color, though my reference photo wasn’t exceptional. With Photoshop editing, it came to life. There was one area with a dark hole, and I replaced it with another flower blossom.

I had to really improve my photo for this painting.

The greenish gray tinged petals held interesting colors, but didn’t signify a healthy plant. I made sure to keep all the petals a combination of colorful cyan and purple. Here I was working with a lot of blues, right after painting the predominantly blue lily pads!

My painting in progress is masked with overlaying frisket film. The vivid hummingbird is covered, so it is muted.

Patience was needed with all the water droplets – there were literally hundreds of them. Instead of jewels, I was painting glitter with tiny dots.

I painted the hummingbird first and that was the easy part. Next, I masked the entire hydrangea flower and cut out each petal. Once I peeled back the frisket film to reveal an area to paint – I dotted liquid frisket with a toothpick for each droplet.

This painting did take considerable time, but once it was finished the feeling of satisfaction was indescribable! Once again, my image lent itself as an album cover for my music. Below is the cover for a recent instrumental album named “You Are My Wings Instrumentals.”

Clicking on this image is a link to my album.

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