Figures in watercolour landscapes

For those of you of a certain age (and brought up in the UK), you will remember the song about Lowry ‘match stick men’. Well you have to hum it while you read this post, but instead of match stick, you need to sing ‘He painted carrot men and carrot cats and dogs….’ If you are reading this from anywhere else in the world you may think I have lost the plot; sorry have a look here:   .

I decided we would cover figures in landscape in our class yesterday, afterall they help tell a story, can add movement, they create a mood and can provide focus. Yet people are worried about putting them in – they think they will look childish or ‘not right’. As with many things, the less you think you are painting a specific object and only worry about shape, pattern and tone, the better they will turn out. Small figures in a landscape are basically carrots (a vertical stripe, wider at the top and narrower at the bottom) with a dot on top. A big of shadow can anchor them to the ground. On the left is a basic carrot, on the right we have carrot with a bit of garnish:

people6         people4

But don’t include them as an afterthought or they are likely to be stiff and lifeless. You are going to have the best results if you have figures that just walk, stand still, stoop or have conversation with each other. You may find doing them from your imagination far more spontaneous than trying to copy an exact pose – trust yourself!

You need to relate the size of the figure to its surroundings eg doors, windows. You can dress them up, but generally clothing needs to be brighter than other area of the painting. You need to vary the size, shape, position and tone – try to avoid repetition.

Avoid rendering features unless you are doing an illustration or portrait.

Give or take the head to body proportion is 1:7 or 8. We tend to make heads too big as they are so important to us. Shoulders are about 3 heads width across. people7

The above is from (with thanks):

As people get further away, if the viewer is at eye level, their heads are roughly at the same level but they obviously get smaller. The secret is that their feet vary (move up) far more, while the head stays roughly on the same level. Have a look at this photo:


Hands and feet are bigger than we imagine, but if you paint feet correctly they can look too big. A shadow anchors the person and if the feet disappear into the shadows under each figure it is a good compromise.

If possible, group your figures and let them merge into each other wet in wet, but trap light in between them. You do not need features, but can indicate which way they are moving or looking by where you place a darker portion to indicate hair.

people1             people5

The closer the figure is to you, the darker the colour, whereas a distant figure will be more subdued or greyed. This is important because you do not want the tiny figures to overtake the painting. By painting different length legs, it will look like the figure is moving. In this case make sure the shadow does not connect with the lifted leg.

It’s worth doing loads of them so you have them as reference next time you need a person or two (and look how the first one looks like a sign for the bathroom, while they start to get more life as I go along and get more ‘carrotty’).


Demonstrations and more info:



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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

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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



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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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