Eyes again – watercolour workshop

Thought you might like to see some of the work from a session I ran yesterday on eyes.


I love how if there are 16 people in a room doing exactly the same session, you get 16 different outcomes!

Didn’t they do well? You can see re about our weekly class at www.lizsartclass.co.uk

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Eye, eye! Eyes in watercolour

So, shall I get the awful puns out of the way now? Yes, the eyes have it. I am keeping an eye on you etc etc

Seriously, watercolour is a lovely medium for capturing human or animal eyes. Its transparnecy really lends a sparkle and if there is an eye in your painting, you know it will be the focus of attention.


Getting them right is down to careful observation and a little thought about their shape and how they sit in the skull.

If you can see both eyes, consider making them subtly different, with one slightly more dominant so that we, as the viewer, knows where to look first. Consider placement of the dominant eye on the third line….

BUT – the temptation will be to make the eyes too important in a painting or too large. They may end up looking like caricatures or cartoons if you do so. Again careful observation is the key.


These are often very simple. Retain the highlight as the brightest part and continue the colour of the eye into the surrounding feathers to help bed them in. Look carefully at shape and position (if it is a predator they will be at the front of the skull for binocular vision and if a prey, at the side to spot the predator coming). Look carefully at eyelids and edges; there is often a bright edge to the eye which indicates the wetness of the sphere. Some eyes, such as owls are more complex and should be handled like a mammal’s eye (see below).


These are usually more complex with visible iris, pupil, white, lids and lashes. Again careful observation is the key to shape and colour.


The highlight is going to be the lightest part – but look again, even the highlight might have variation and can tell a whole story. Often it is blue over the pupil and white over the iris. Remember the pupil is a hole. Try and mix a dark from colours used elsewhere in the painting to make it harmonious and interesting. Build in stages: iris retaining the highlight, outside/lids, shadow, bleeding the eye colour into the surrounding fur/feathers, finally the pupil (which will stop it looking like a zombie!).

Cat’s eyes look like marbles, so be careful with transparency and white edges. Pupils can be oval, horizontal, round etc – look, look, look! The white, if it shows, is often not white at all – and is darker than the highlight. It will show the shadow of the brow etc. Younger animals tend to have bigger eyes in comparison to their overall size – it’s why we find them adorable!



Top is a tawny owl without a bright highlight, as their eyes are deep set and below is a cat….


I came across this post on human eyes. It is so comprehensive I certainly can’t better it:I http://www.wetcanvas.com/forums/showthread.php?t=504052



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Two tawny owls in ink and watercolour

Tawnies are lovely to paint – it’s all about those eyes! So, when I was asked to paint a pair on canvas to go live in a barn conversion, I jumped at the chance. Having discussed it with their soon-to-be owner we agreed on ink and watercolour on canvas in a subdued palette. Here’s how it turned out:


If you would like to do something similar, first you will need a canvas (this one was 60x80cm) and it needs to be primed with semi-absorbent ground over the gesso. I used three thin coats of Schminke ground, letting it dry overnight between each coat.


I kicked off with the ink – black Indian ink – having sketched the composition in first. Starting on the left, as I am right handed, cuts out some of the smudge possibilities. I usually work out from the eye, as if you muck them up in the first five minutes at least you haven’t wasted too much time. I painted with the ink and also used a dip pen to vary my marks. I sprinkled salt into the damp ink to get fluffy marks and tried to vary tones and gestures to keep everything lively.

Once owl one was on its way, I repeated with owl two and then put in a few back ground washes. I let it all dry thoroughly before re assessing with fresh eyes. I needed to adjust the highlights on the eyes, as they were ugly. I used Magic Eraser to lift as much as I could and then repainted getting a more pleasing shape to the eye – phew! I also used the Magic Eraser to get rid of any pencil lines.


Now the slightly scary part. If the ink has gone well, I am always a little worried to put on the colour. Each must play its part – I certainly don’t want to colour in the ink. I selected my palette of quin sienna, pyrylene green, diox purple ‘cotswold stone’, Mars violet, DS Moonglow and set about putting in some loose washes, while retaining lots of white.


I added more texture to the background washes and let everything dry. Canvas takes a lot longer than paper. Once dry, it was a case of applying H2O Ghiant matt varnish (three coats) to seal and protect the delicate surface.

And that is that – this is a fun, fast and direct way of working. I think it has a sense of energy.


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Let it snow!

It’s  been freezing here – down to -6 degrees one morning. But no snow. However, snow is such a great subject to paint in watercolour, that I thought a quick blog is in order. Here are a few thoughts:snow1

(I used a YouTube demo for this example and blowed if I can find the name of the artist to give credit to – apologies, will add credits as soon as I find them)

The reflective nature of snow means that despite the weak winter sun, there will be light in the landscape and possible the land will be lighter than the sky. Trees may be skeletal. In fact, a familiar landscape may be turned on its head.

Just because it is cold, it doesn’t mean only cool colours will appear in your painting. Colours bounce around when they hit snow and tend to become exaggerated. You will see colours that don’t really exist. Snow is rarely pure white!


The range of tone is often simplified. Bright white where the snow is in sunlight, middle value shadows and dark trees. But snow is not often white – it will re

flect the colours around it – you will see yellow sunlight reflected, blue or purple shadows and don’t be surprised to spot some pink going on. On a sunny day the yellow sunlight produces shadow which contain its complementary colour blue or blue violet. Warm evening light creates softer highlights often with a yellow or pink tinge and deep blue shadows.

You may wish to use masking fluid for sharp white edges eg along the tops of walls, but generally shadows in the snow will be soft edged and shadows are elongated due to the low sun.  As always aim for a mix of hard and soft edges to create interest in the painting. They will follow the undulations in the snow and often form a really important part of the composition.


Try not to get hung up in the details. There may be lots of bits of grass sticking up through the snow but you don’t need to paint every one. Dry brushing will add texture. Rolling your brush across the paper will break up the paint to form broken winter foliage.

You might wish to use salt texture to create snow flake textures. Do use with caution so that it contributes positively to the painting and does not just become a gimmick.

Today is grey and wet – hope you are warm and well, wherever you are!


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Tui pen and wash

Thought you might like to see the finished Tui, from the idea sketch in my previous post.

Here’s the ink work


And here is the watercolour added


Always with the aim of making 2+2=5 with the pen and wash.

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New subjects

I’ve been asked how I come up with ideas and concepts for paintings, so I thought I would share my process. Though for me it is usually an animal subject, the same goes for landscape, portrait, still life….

So by way of example let’s look at a commission I have been asked to do – a New Zealand Tui bird with flax flowers. This is a member of the honeyeater family and funnily enough, we don’t have them flying round rural Berkshire.

The first thing to do is familiarise yourself. In real life would be good; zoos, parks etc are ideal. What is their character, their environment, their behaviour? What makes them special and why are they loved? If at all possible sketch the subject from life – drawing helps you truly see. We have all sorts of misconceptions about things, but when we draw we see reality. If you can’t do this from life, then Mr Google will have to help out, or (dare I suggest this) the library might be good!

Sid Mosdell – Wikipedia


Don’t just find a picture and copy it – start to try and form an emotional connection with your subject – it will shine through your work. If you understand its character, it will help with context and composition. Is it bold and cheeky, shy and retiring? Even though I don’t tend to paint an animal in its environment, understanding where it might live informs my decisions.

I’ve found out about the tui – used to be called the curate bird because of its white feathers under its chin. It feeds on nectar from the flax flowers so often ends up with pollen all over its beak. It might look black and white, but it is irridescent and have blue, viridian and turquoise in it – a bit like our own magpies. I’m starting to like them already!

I then like to see how other artists approach a subject. The danger is that you can be overwhelmed with other peoples’ brilliance, or you can be bored with everyone taking the same approach. But if you want to say something personal or new, you need to know how other people have approached it. But, if you see something that is stunning, don’t be tempted to copy – analyse what appeals and consider how you might adapt elements into your own work.

This study is by Fiona Clarke


I’ve found some lovely paintings and images. I’m starting to think of one perched head down on a flax branch, with a flash of pollen. I’m wondering in pen and wash might be a good way to capture their energy. I don’t think I’ll do one in flight, as they seem to spend most of their time eating nectar, so that wouldn’t be appropriate.

If I am working from photos, then I research images. If it is from life, I would have my sketch book or own photos. Please respect copyright. Photographers are hugely skilled and spend thousands on their kit, getting up at dawn to capture illusive subjects which I am far too impatient to do. By all means use them as your inspiration, but put your own creative stamp into your work. Change and adapt because if you just copy a photo, why bother? There are fabulous sites such as Paint my Photo, which has copyright free images for artists. Even then, try to make it your own.

So you know lots about your subject and have identified what you want to capture, now it is time for a thumbnail sketch to play with composition, work out tones and consider colours. My tui, has brown feathers on its back but they verge towards the purple. I am thinking that would be good to tie in to the bark of the flax tree and the pollen on its beak could tie in with the red/orange of the flowers. Turquoise, viridian and blue will come through on the black feathers. (And can you see how its gone from ‘the Tui bird’ to ‘my tui’ – I’ve connected)

Feeling good about this! Maybe I’ll do a flock…..

Do you know what comes next? Stop procrastinating and just do it! Don’t write a blog about planning like I am, just pick up your brushes and get paint to paper!! I’ll do a step by step, so you can see how it ends up.


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Using a tinted or toned ground

It is usual in watercolour to work on white – it lets the transparent colours sing, but there is no reason why you shouldn’t use a coloured paper. If that was good enough for Turner, who are we to argue?

Using a coloured or toned ground/paper can create colour harmony. It can establish the mood of the whole painting. It can simplify or cut down on the time taken to complete a piece too. Afterall if you plan to start the painting by doing a background wash, why not just use a piece of paper that colour?


Coloured watercolour papers are available (Bockingford do a range of cream, oatmeal, grey, blue and green) or you can use pastel papers. If you are using pastel paper you will find it is very light weight and will cockle. So you need to stretch it. On the whole, I think life is too short for stretching paper. The alternative is to apply a thin wash of acrylic to watercolour paper. The advantage is you get exactly the colour you want and it is permanent, though it will alter the way watercolours react with your surface. As always, approach it with a spirit of adventure and see what happens!

The colour you choose should refect the mood and atmosphere of what you are painting and should complement the colours you choose.

But what about lights and whites, I hear you cry? You may wish to use gouache, which is opaque to obtain tones lighter than the colour of your paper – if you have white gouache then you can tint it with watercolours to make whatever shade you fancy. Or you can choose to have the tone of the paper as your lightest shade. And what is gouache, I also hear you ask (I am hearing a lot of voices today!)?

Gouache is a more opaque form of watercolour. Gum arabic is used to bind the pigments but instead of the white of the paper providing the light for watercolours, gouache has white pigment such as chalk to enhance the opacity. Gouache forms a layer of paint on the paper surface and does not allow the paper to show through. If you think back to the old Ladybird books, the illustrations were often painted in gouache before acrylics gained wide popularity.

I did the cityscape above to demonstrate watercolour and gouache (with a spot of ink) on a grey ground. I hope you can see how even though I used quite bright colours in the buildings, the overall grey has produced a fairly subdued result. I am definitely a country person, so it’s how I feel about London – nice to visit, a bit grey even in the sunshine.

Do have a play with coloured papers and it may add a new dimension to your painting.

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