Skies and clouds in watercolour

Skies, or should we really say clouds, are rather addictive in watercolour! They can add drama, or be a soft backdrop to your landscape.

Here are a few of my top tips:

  • Take care not to make clear blue skies dominate landscapes – they can be flat and boring.
  • Use clouds to balance compositions.
  • Think about where your horizon is – remember the rule of thirds. A central horizon is static and boring, so consider whether sky is important – therefore calling for a low horizon, or less important, possibly calling for a high horizon. This will also help you place your subject where the lines intersect (choose one!)


  • Clouds and sky obey the laws of perspective. Colours get paler the further away they are. Clouds will appear smaller and less distinct near the horizon.
  • The ground colour can be reflected in the sky. The mood and colour of the landscape is directly influenced by the sky above.
  • Clouds are in three dimensions – they have light and shadow.
  • Cloud edges are generally soft.
  • Clouds are not grey and white! They may contain a hint of pink, yellow and blue and the grey area may be purplish or brownish.
  • Highlights depend on the position of the sun. In early evening when the sun is low, highlights may be underneath and tinged pink or yellow. When the sun is high highlights are on top and may be yellow with the shadows having a bluish tinge.
  • A blue sky is always tonally lighter than the landscape below.
  • If you need a bright hard edge, consider judicious use of white gouache.
  • You can lift rays out with a rubber or a damp brush or a sponge when the painting is bone dry. Use masking tape to get straight edges and make sure they come from one point ie the sun.
  • You may want to paint your sky first to continue behind your subject. You may want to put it in last to unify and balance your painting. Either is right, but just think which will work best for you!


  • Blue – remember ultramarine granulates – great for storms, but not for clear blue skies. Cerulean and cobalt blue might be better bets (or a mix of them)
  • There is often a lot of yellow in clouds – raw sienna might be a good choice
  • The shadows – Payne’s grey, or ultramarine with burnt sienna or burnt umber might be more interesting
  • Yellow ochre or raw sienna may be good for yellow and reflected sunlight
  • Think about complementaries to produce lively clouds

And a few examples:

Traditional lifting out, having painted on wet paper:


Chinese white applied first, blue dropped in after:


Background wash of raw sienna and alizarin applied first and dried, before wet in wet and lifting out as in the first example. The background wash went down into the sea to unify both elements:


A sky can add drama to a very simple scene (after Painting Nature by Ferdinand Petrie)



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When I said we would do glazing today a look of terror passed across the collective class’ face. But glazing is just a layer of thin colour that goes over the top of whatever you have already painted, and because watercolour is transparent the other layers should still shine through.

Nothing tricky or scary!

Why might you want to glaze? Well it can be more controllable than mixing wet-on-wet and it can be more exciting than just mixing the colour on your palette and painting it on. It can be very good for adding warmth to an area or knocking back a colour that is dominant in an otherwise nicely balanced painting. Or if you haven’t got your tones punchy enough it can add some well-needed dark. Done well it should give luminous colour; done badly it can end up flat and muddy…

In other words, it’s another good tool to have in your watercolour box of tricks.

But to glaze well you have to know your paint. All watercolours are transparent, but some are more transparent than other. Test your pigments over a black line. If it shows on the black (cadmium yellow for example) it is opaque. If not, it is transparent. If it shows a little, it is semi opaque. And beware – brands vary. A maker’s colour chart will tell you whether your colour is transparent or not and often it is written on the tube. If you need to use an opaque colour, it makes sense to use it first, with transparent over the top.


Now consider whether it is easy to lift – test your dry paint by rubbing a clean wet brush through it. Do you get back to white paper or not? Browns usually lift easily, so trying to glaze over the top of a colour like that will lead to a muddy mess. If you need to use a lifting colour, use it last….

We tested our pigments and also looked at some lino prints, as the way screen and lino prints are built up is a great way to understand full on glazing.

Swans by Sybil Andrews – lino cut


Glazed watercolour in two colours


Other top tips for glazing:

  • Start with lightest colours (usually yellows)
  • Use transparent / staining colours if possible
  • Start with the most opaque
  • Each layer must be dry before the next (use the back of your hand to feel the paper. If it is cool, then it is still damp).
  • Beware that blasting with a hairdryer can flatten colours – patience!
  • Use a soft brush and a light hand for glazing
  • A light wash of an intense colour is most effective
  • A light wash of a complimentary colour will subdue it without making it muddy (eg red over a strident green)

And take a look at this website, for some great examples. He does up to 50 layers! Now there’s a patient man…


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Whites and lights in watercolour

So today I did a class and the focus was on whites and lights in watercolour. Flashes of white really add a sparkle to your watercolour painting, but of course we don’t have white paint at our disposal being a transparent medium. It is therefore vital to plan where the lightest passage is going to be. Though you can recover whites or add gouache at the end, it is better and fresher to not lose them in the first place!

I suggested to the students that a thumbnail sketch would help with composition, tones and identifying where the whites would be. Then, as a general rule, to work light to dark and from the background to the foreground. Every rule is there to be broken, but when you break it you should do it deliberately not just because you didn’t know otherwise! I also suggested that the area of highest tone contrast  pulls your attention so is a good way of making a centre of interest really draw your eye.

So how might you preserve the white paper or get it back? Each method has its pros and cons:



Simply paint round the white – you can leave really fine areas of dry paper as long as you have a steady hand.

Masking fluid / frisket– apply with a colour shaper, old brush or dip pen – not your best brush. Don’t shake the bottle as that makes it congeal. Don’t dry with a hair dryer as it will be hard to remove. Let it dry thoroughly before painting. It leaves hard edges as the paint pools around it, so once you have removed think about softening them off with a damp brush. You can use clear or coloured masking, but if it is coloured try to not adjust the rest of your painting to that colour!!

Wax resist – use a candle or crayon like you did at junior school for magic writing. It’s great for texture, but once it’s on your paper you are stuck!

Lifting out – using a towel or tissue in a wet or damp wash to create soft marks – perfect for clouds.

Lifting out from a dry wash – either use a stiff damp brush or Magic Eraser (Doktor Power – used for cleaning sinks!). You can mask off areas with tape for straight edges – great to create sunbeams, or make a little stencil – super if you have forgotten to put in a distant white shape like a boat sail. It will rarely go back to a true white, but it is often good enough.


Scratching out – use a sharp knife or sandpaper. Make this the last thing you do, as it damages the paper surface so you cannot paint on it again. However by scratching the surface you can get back to the white underneath, as long as your paper is not too thin.

Dry brush – if you want a broken texture, just drag a brush with not much paint on it across your paper – great for sparkle of light on water for example.

Stencilling – using a patterned object like a doily and spraying or stippling through it, can create interesting patterns.

Gouache – a rigger and white gouache for tiny details may be perfect – think whiskers and bristles. Just don’t overdo it!

We then put it all into practise and you can find their artwork on  They were brilliant!

What do you do to keep the sparkle?





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Top tips for painting loose in watercolour

Sorry it’s been quiet. Having the children around does not make for having a clear head to get painting. However, I have been busy planning my new weekly classes (which start tomorrow – very exciting) and thought I would put together some top tips (using *top* in a very broad way) for loosening up in watercolour. Nothing here is rocket science and other people have produced lists (Richard Stephens, Andrew Pitt) and they go on a bit – but honestly, they will really help you if you find your work is too tight and lacking in freshness and energy:


What is loose to you? It does not mean slapdash or careless (or necessarily fast). Fresh, spontaneous, full of energy perhaps?

Before you begin work out what it is that attracts you to the subject – aim to capture that – everything else is unnecessary detail.

Paint for fun and with a spirit of adventure.

Simplify – visualise your subject as a simplified painted image. Do a thumbnail sketch so you know your lightest and darkest areas. This is your plan, though you can deviate of course.

Paint shapes not things. Try and see what is really there, not what your conscious mind thinks should be there. Start with big shapes and work to smaller ones.

Explore negative painting – can be great for regaining a bit of control.

Consider pen and wash. If you have controlled pen work, you can get looser with your washes without losing the plot totally. Can be a good half way house.

Use a limited palette (6/7 colours) – strong and clean colours and let them be watercolours ie let the water do the work for you. Think about complementary colours too, warm/cold combinations. Get to know your pigments – transparent/opaque, staining etc

Lots of clean water (two jars, one to clean one to mix) – get a spray bottle – change your water frequently. Water is what brings the paint to life.

Let colours mix on the paper as much as possible, rather than pre mixing in the palette.

Try to get the finished result in one go – don’t rely on glazing and over painting. Be direct. Go for the darks first time. Aim for 85% done first time. Let it dry, walk away. 5+% adjusting and a few % detail at the end. Doesn’t add up to 100% as leaving it a bit under done is better than over done!

Paint generally from light to dark, but get a few darks in early on in your focus area (an animal this is likely to be the head or eye). This helps set your range from lightest (white paper) to the darkest. Think about tone (ie light and dark) and not just colour.

Paint from back to front – background to foreground.

Use big pieces of paper (you can cut it down later and this gives you more freedom) and the biggest brush you are comfortable with and big pots of clean water. Only use a small rigger or detail brush for the last few per cent.

Aim for soft, hard, lost and found edges – ie a variety. Don’t be afraid to leave some bits up to the viewers imagination. Aim for variety within areas too.

Don’t be worried by mistakes – try and work with what the medium gives you. Drips, blooms, variation – accidents are often the best bits.

Avoid dabbing/prodding with your brush. Use full strokes and the belly of the brush (or use the point with purpose).

Less is more. Stop too soon, not too late. Give yourself a rest if you start to fiddle – walk away and come back with fresh eyes. If you are repainting areas, stop. Can you leave anything unfinished, so the viewer has to do some of the work?

Paint standing up if you can – use your whole body, or at least your whole arm. Hold your brush nearer to the end.

If you wear glasses, take them off and paint in a blur!

Use colours that express your feelings, not just the colours you see – purple cows are fine!!

Explore textures, but only use techniques where they add something, rather than throwing everything you know at one piece of paper. Splatter, drips, salt and cling film may just be inappropriate to your subject.

If you are not sure about something, look at it upside down or in a mirror or prop it up around the house and do something else, so you see what is really there and not what you think is there.

Enjoy paintings – it is only a piece of paper, so if it goes wrong, work out what you like about it and what you don’t, then turn over and use the back.

Use the best materials you can afford – artist quality paints and decent paper will give better and more rewarding results.

Don’t be afraid to cut your painting up or use a mount to cover up a bit you don’t like. It is your painting. Even if a portion isn’t working, some will be and you can make a smaller pic or a card or a book mark….

Use small amounts of white gouache right at the end if you need to for fine detail (cat’s whiskers or a highlight in the eye). It’s good if you don’t need to, but not the end of the world if you do.


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…and so it continues…. World watercolour month (strictly without the U) is well over half way through. I am on holiday and trying to keep going. So on day 16 I did a panicky 5 minute rose after arriving in our cottage:



day 17 was another fox:


day 18 was a sketch of our row of cottages:


day 19 is a few rooks from the extremely noisy rookery across the valley:





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Watercolour conundrum

It may be easy to assume that with practise you will master watercolour. Nah! Think again. Yesterday I could paint and today I couldn’t.


Because it is watercolour’s way of stopping you getting proud – pride really does come before a fall.

Ooh, I thought, I’m on a roll, I’ll just knock out a lovely fox I’ve been meaning to do for ages….

No you won’t, said watercolour. You will paint something that a four year old would be ashamed of…

I apologised to watercolour for taking it for granted and started again. It is not be best, but at least I am not too ashamed to post it here.

The moral of this story is that we are all beginners as far as watercolour is concerned and it likes to make sure we don’t forget it.


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My 15 year old son is desperate for a dog – not any dog, he wants a Corgi. On many, many grounds we are not getting one: university in 3 years’ time – who would be looking after it? It would chase my chickens. I’m a republican, so the last breed I would consider is a Corgi – etc, etc.

Anyway, he is worried about his exam results which he gets today, so in a ‘good-mummy-moment’ I have painted him a Corgi for his bedroom. This is rather a bright one because 1) he is 15 and having your mum paint a pic for you is probably not cool and 2) I had all the paint left in my palette from painting pheasants and I don’t like to waste.

I have used it as my day 14 post for #worldwatercolormonth. I should have been painting a fox, which is on my commission list, but decided my son is way more important. Hope he likes it!


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