Wake up and smell the coffee!

Painting a monochrome is such a good thing to do if you haven’t painted for a while. So I often start a new term with one, but let’s be honest, it can be a little boring. So I had a bit of a brain wave. We experimented painting with tea and coffee …and no one spotted I was making them do a Monochrome.

This was my demo piece:


The issue we quickly found is it is hard to get a really dark tones. Even espresso was pretty weak. Adding just one teaspoon of water to one teaspoon of instant coffee, gave a sticky liquid which took ages to dry. It also dried with a sheen. So layering was the way to go. Thinner layers dry with an interesting hard dark edge. Thanks to Barbara, we discovered that roibos tea produces a beautiful warm colour and that seven layers is the limit.


Some people added ink, which worked well, others used a spot of mint tea to add green. What I noticed is that people painted in a looser and freer way than usual. I think because it wasn’t ‘real’ paint, and it was a bit oddly behaved, people were a bit more relaxed. I think their painting benefited- what do you think? The room smelt lovely!

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Pen and wash – a quick way to loosen up

If you are struggling to loosen up your work (and there is nothing wrong with tight work), try pen and wash. The pen or ink gives you the control you crave and acts as a scaffolding to hang loose watercolour washes upon.

You can see a time lapse here: https://youtu.be/bEPJgnV4Tw8


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Any umbrellas?

Today’s class topic was ‘umbrellas’, so I am feeling a little guilty that I may have caused the torrential rain… oh well, I did say it could be a cocktail umbrella, a parasol or a rainy one.

As a reminder, I showed a little demo and it is always worth reiterating the process from subject to end point.

Starting with your reference, whether life or photo, just ask yourself ‘why do I want to paint this?’ Identifying what you want to communicate helps you eliminate any extras, sort out your composition, select colours to reinforce emotion, and helps you know when you are finished.


This street market caught my eye (from Pixabay). I wanted it to be brighter sunlight and to have the feeling it was sketched from life, not from a photo.

Next, do a thumbnail sketch. Not a thing of beauty, but one that helps you see big shapes, areas of light and dark and any tricky spots. I played around with the placement of the people, got to grips with the awning between the two umbrellas and identified where I wanted to mask a few highlights. It’s far better to work this out on rough paper, and not your watercolour paper.


The final step is to paint. Having masked a few of the supports and some of the branches of stuff on the left, I spattered a little into the nearest flower areas. Once dry, I laid in a yellow wash over and around the brollies, leaving the sunlit areas white, I moved to a darker grey blue was behind the seller and green with lots of white gaps at the front. Using richer paint I then worked on the red umbrella, the figures and flowers, finally adding in dark areas after the masking was removed. I reminded myself that I wanted it to look fresh and lively, so stopped too soon, rather than too late.

79F43814-A1CB-4377-ACDD-4B210CB1DF51I reckon the hard work is done up front with watercolour, don’t you?




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All in a circle – alternative formats for watercolour

The trouble with painting in a pad of lovely watercolour paper is that each painting ends up the same format and size. Sure you might paint one landscape and one portrait, but until you finish that book, they are all identical.

Actually some subjects need to be square; some need to be tall and thin, some need to be wide. If you always consider what you want to get across in a painting, then you will naturally consider size and format. Is it the soaring heights of the mountain, or the amazing detail of a feather? Is it awe at the power of an elephant or joy of a first primrose? These emotional reactions might be heightened by picking a different size and proportion to the norm.

These negatively painted autumn leaves worked on a horizontal format:

EMA2 005

This delphinium spire cried out to be tall and thin, didn’t it??

KODAK Digital Still Camera

For this reason, I like to buy my paper in loose sheets which forces me to consider size and format for each and every subject.

I therefore was nasty to my class this week and set them the challenge of painting a circular picture – just to shake them up a little. It could be of a circular subect eg a nest. It could be a normal subject, just painted in a circle. It could be a subject adapted and distorted to make the most of the circular format. I didn’t mind. Just no rectangles!

They rose to the challenge beautifully – from a nest of baby squirrels, to the swirl of the Milky Way:

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Student collage


Today was the second collage session with my students, and they did brilliantly. Some used collage to add texture, some to add pattern, some to work on top of painting and some as backgrounds.

Here are a few close ups:

The centre one is pure watercolour and the others were the before and after of a collaged parrot. It looks like it has striped pyjamas! With thanks to Frank.


These trees were painted on vintage newspaper and watercolour ground by David.

Hilary used a patterned paper and selected news items about weather, primed with watercolour ground before painting the Endeavour, complete with the ill-fated dogs.

Brenda rescued a failed painting of Trafalgar Square:


Val used a tissue paper surface to paint these cockerels:


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More watercolour collage…


Collage can be used to add texture rather than pattern or colour to your work, so I did this naive street scene to demonstrate a possibility.

First I cut out shapes from mountboard and corrugated card and stuck them onto a further piece of board with PVA glue.

Having let them dry, I put on two coats of white watercolour ground and let it dry overnight. Grabbing a fine Uniball pen (make sure the ink is waterproof), I started drawing in the town houses:


And continued along the road, adding in little architectural features:


Then, it is simply a matter of washing over with watercolour and once dry perhaps adding a few more details, such as darkening some windows.


Finally, it will need a fixative once dry, as the paint is pretty vulnerable on the watercolour ground.

It would be fun to do something like this for a local road – flattening and simplifying the perspective of each house, or perhaps fishermen’s cottages in a harbour…. If you like this naive style, take a look at the work of Julie Adlard – she uses clay collage on canvas and acrylic paint: https://julieadlard.co.uk



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Watercolour collage

As you may have spotted, I love watercolour. I want to see how far you can push it as a medium, so I like to explore new ways of using it. I run a weekly class, and thought that watercolour and collage would be an excellent topic to shake all my students out of any comfort zone.

Collage can be used in many ways:

To add texture – eg tissue paper stuck down to provide a wrinkly surface, or mountboard appliqued to the surface to add contour.

To repurpose failed paintings – rip them up (I think a ripped paper edge is nicer than a cut one) and then stick them down to make a new picture.

To add to a painting – collage on top or in addition to a painting.

To introduce pattern or colour to the background – applying papers (or other objects), which might then be coated with a watercolour ground and painted over.

I have enjoyed the latter process most, so here is an example:


First I ripped up some Indian newspaper and pasted it down (using pva glue) onto an off cut of mountboard. In general paste the heaviest weight surface and apply the more delicate. I then found some lovely tissue paper with peacock feathers and applied that. I used white watercolour ground to knock back the busy patterns and to allow watercolour to be absorbed into the surface. This needs to dry for 24 hours if at all possible. The more layers you add, the more absorbent it will be, but the pattern will be obscured. Of course you could use a transparent ground – it goes on white, but dries clear.


Once dry, I used different width pens to draw in the tuk tuk. I did not over finish the drawing, as I want to leave a role for the watercolour. If I have done too little, I can add later. It is harder to get rid of too much.

Then I used washes of watercolour avoiding the temptation to colour in my drawing. I want the paint to add a new dimension. Once dry, any line could be strengthened or a white pen can add highlights if needed.


My final act was to add three tiny pieces of text – on the front tyre, the roof luggage and the side panel.

My students spent the afternoon making interesting backgrounds, so I am excited to see what they will do with them next week. I hope to bring you a myriad of interesting collages next week!

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