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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Getting your whites right

Whites are hugely important in watercolour, as they add life and sparkle to a painting. Once lost they are difficult to recover, as we do not have white paint at our disposal and with watercolour being transparent (more or less), it is difficult to lighten areas.

I did a session with my class today and the thing I emphasised was five minutes planning, would save hours of heart ache. A quick thumbnail sketch, using a photo as inspiration – the kicking off point – could identify the best composition, where the lights and darks should go and help plan the order of work.

We looked at the Golden Mean or rule of thirds and how we could use it to simplify a piece and obtain a harmonious result.Give or take, it suggests that key elements of your composition should lie on the third lines – perhaps the horizon on a horizontal or a dominant tree on a vertical. Your focal point, or centre of interest should lie at an intersection. This is a huge simplification, but it’s a good starting point as you develop your ideas:



If you get an area of greatest contrast (light to dark) at your centre of interest it helps draw the eye. Once you have planned your painting, of course you can deviate from it, but at least it gives you a starting point.

We also talked about the order of work, traditionally it is light to dark – back to front (I have written front to back on the sheet – that is wrong), but I think it is good to:

  1. Paint large shapes and get in midtones, saving white paper especially around the focal point 2. Add some of your darkest tones – this sets the fullstop 3. Glaze selectively over some of your white areas to get your light tones 4. Add final touches, adjust and detail, without overworking.

If you have a chance to look at any videos or books by Sterling Edwards he demonstrates this so clearly!

We then went on to look at ways of retaining whites as shown here:


  1. Painting around the area – the paint won’t go onto dry paper, so before reaching for the masking fluid consider if you can just paint round it.
  2. Using masking fluid – but watch out, it can look ‘clunky’
  3. Wax resist – great for texture, but if you put it in the wrong place, you are stuffed!
  4. Lifting out – either while damp to get soft white eg clouds, or once dry. The effect will depend on whether the pigment is staining or non-staining
  5. Scratching out – use a scalpel (great for grasses) or sandpaper on bone dry paper. Once done, there is no turning back
  6. Stencil – use objects or make a stencil
  7. Gouache – a spot of opaque gouache can do wonders for the sparkle of an eye or add in fine detail
  8. Dry brush – such a simple way to get a sparkle on water or texture on bark, just drag a dryish brush over rough paper

So it’s time to make sure you really get your whites right!

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Kestrel step by step

The lead up to Christmas was hectic, so sorry this blog has been so quiet. I was lucky enough to have loads of commissions including one for a kestrel. So I thought a step-by-step might be in order.

I don’t know about you, but I do a lot of thinking ahead of a painting and always have a bit of a look at how other artists have approached a subject. I was really surprised how few people seem to paint the ‘hover’. For me, the sight of the kestrel hovering above the hedge with its eye on some rodent-snack is the key to this bird and that’s what I set out to capture. I wanted the wind under its wings, so making it a portrait shaped painting was obvious. I sketched out the basic outline from a number of photographic references and decided on a palette of quin sienna, light red, aurolean, neutral tint, moonglow (a Daniel Smiths premix – sort of a dirty purple) and indigo. I also put out a mix called Cotswold Stone, but didn’t end up using it.kestrel1

kestrel2I reckon starting with the eye is always best, so if you muck it up you have only lost a few minutes. If you wait until the end and then muck up the eye, you have lost an hour or two, haven’t you? I also think it makes sure the eye doesn’t look like it has been sewed on, but is fully embedded in the skull.


While the eye was drying, I started on the wing, using a size 16 round and confident strokes to get the flight-feather’s shape, before moving to a wet-in-wet treatment to get the softer feathers and then worked back towards the head.


And then on the body, which I wanted to keep quite simple so that the focus was on that wing.


When the wing tips were almost dry, I lightly sprayed them with clean water from a spritzer, just to give a slight blur of movement and then it was on to the tail. I used bold brush marks with a flat brush to get the shape and markings and again a light spritz to infer a hover.kestrel7

The further wing was simpler and more blurred and then I started on the eye markings and beak, along with the feet. They are very yellow in the kestrel and yellow is a blooming tricky pigment – it gets dirty so easily, so being aware of how wet/dry your paper is, is important at this stage.kestrel9

Now is the fun wet-in-wet bit to build up the background and get the air under those wings. By wetting the paper and dropping colour in before tilting it, I got the flow of transparent colour I was after and defined the white edges of the feathers. I really wanted a feeling of height, so the dribbles helped a lot.kestrel10

I turned the paper upside down to do the background above the bird and encourage a few blooms by adding clean water to the drying wash. I also did a light sprinkle of salt to add a little textural interest to the background. And then a few splatters to help the eye travel around the painting. I held my nerve when a rather huge bloom developed under the tail in the centre of the painting, hoping that when it dried it would fade back a bit. If something unexpected or unwanted happens with your painting, the worst thing to do is to fiddle when it is damp, as you simply transform it into a muddy-splot.


Once it was dry, I took another look and adjusted a few things, such as lifting out the top of the head to lose the edge and adding a few fine marks with white gouache on the legs and a few white splatters to break up a dark patch. And here is the finished painting – it’s about 35×45 cm and I used a 200lb Bockingford paper with a Not/Cold pressed surface.kestrel3

I was happy I’d achieved the feeling of air I was after and I’ve had a lovely message from the person whose present it was. It is always nice to know people like what you have done!

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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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