Monthly Archives: July 2020

How I paint – 3. Preparation

Pine trees, Ashdown Forest, Sussex

In my last post I mentioned the materials needed to paint in water colour. Once these are in hand it is then a case of deciding what to paint and how to get started.

Link to Contents page

I found that the best subjects to paint were those that inspired me. I have loved nature, in particular birds, since my childhood, hence my paintings of my feathered friends. However, I also like landscapes. While landscapes tend to be more universally appreciated I have to admit that I have had difficulty in producing a painting that I like. Part of it is due to the (wrong) paper I used and part is, I have to admit, just poor technique.

As with any project, planning helps to ensure a good outcome. My planning process is as follows:

  1. Subject choice. I first decide what I want to paint and then think about how I anticipate it will appear when finished. Looking at reference photos it is very important to eliminate elements that do not help the painting – it is not necessary to include everything that can be seen.
  2. Paper choice. Both the size and type of paper will have a bearing on what the end result will look like. Small (eg A5) will be big enough to frame yet small enough to stay in control. I need to do more smaller paintings rather than labouring over larger formats.
  3. Colour choice. It is always a good idea to minimise the number of colours used. The danger of using too many colours, or variants of a colour, is that they may become distracting.

Composition is always important in painting, drawing or photography. A few moments devoted to planning the composition will yield benefits. Two things to consider: What is the subject, and Keep it Simple.

A watercolour journal (or any paper) can be used to plan the composition. It is also useful for making notes about colour, shadow, light direction and atmosphere. Once the subject has been defined all other elements must add value, usually by helping to draw attention to the subject, or to assist in telling the story ie putting the subject matter in context. If it doesn’t add value, leave it out.

1. Keep it simple

Too much detail makes a scene over-complicated to paint and can create distractions in the final painting. Chose a subject. Use objects or lines to lead the viewers eye to that subject ensuring the subject itself is optimally placed in the picture. Two subjects in a painting will create stress, one has to be the focus of attention while the other is subsidiary.

2. Plan with the journal.

Using a journal allows you to make multiple layouts before committing to painting.

Do several layout versions and select the one you like best. The sketches can be small – I tend to do them at credit card size. The objective is to ensure the subject is immediately obvious and that all other elements are used as support elements and draw attention to the subject. Placement, colour and detail will help this: the main subject can be detailed, all other elements need to be just impressions.

I may also make notes about the atmosphere eg if it was hot and humid, or damp, or windy. Even smells help to evoke the atmosphere. Thinking about these things while painting can actually, subconsciously, enter the painting.

Composition – the Rule of Thirds

One of the most important tools of composition is the Rule of Thirds which uses placement of subject matter in a manner that helps our brains make sense of what our eyes see.

When you look at good paintings or photos your attention is immediately drawn to the subject usually, though not always, seeing the subject in set places within the frame. Artists and photographers will try to place their subject in a key area that permits balance or avoids tension.

Draw or imagine paper divided into three columns and three rows. The critical points of placement will be one of the resulting four intersections. A subject placed outside the intersections will look unbalanced. Leading lines (perspective) will help to bring the viewers attention to the main subject. Therefore ensure the main subject sits on one of the intersections or lines

These two compositions are different in that the top one is balanced by having the horizon line one third up from the bottom, and the bird a third of the way in from the side and one third down from the top. The second has the horizon through the centre and the bird also in the centre – there is empty space all around.

Try variations until one format stands out. I do this in my journal and, if I have enough information, I can make adjustments to the perspective without losing accuracy of detail.

Minute detail in a painting is not necessary, the illusion or impression is important. Knowing the detail helps to create the illusion.

Colour and tone

Water colour painting involves mixing water with paint. When the ratio of water to paint is greater, ie more water in the mix, then the paint will be thin. Conversely less water in the mix makes it richer. So the eye will be drawn to the more vivid colour. In a landscape the background needs to be paler, ie more watery, to give the impression of distance.

Unpainted paper will be the white subjects of a painting, or of heavily sunlit objects ie highlights. The richest colours will be used for objects nearer to the foreground while the paler shades will be in the background.

Some colours are warmer than others so can help with enhancing interest in a picture, especially in differentiating one side from the other.

Practice with these features to give the impression of distance, shade or focus.

Value Study

Many artists will produce a value study before painting. This is , in effect, a monochromatic version of the painting to highlight where the darkest, lightest and mid-tone colours will be. This is good practice though most people, even me, are keen to get to the actual painting!


Spontaneity is key in watercolour painting. Knowing what you want to paint is one thing but if you then labour at it, adding too much detail, the end result will not be pleasing to the eye. It’s a bad habit that I have difficulty getting out of.

Landscape paintings need to be loose and impressionistic rather than done with draughtsman-like detail. Having said that there are some artists that purposely try to paint with realism.

The preparation that is made before starting a painting, prior to becoming a master and knowing what you will do, is essential in my view. Hopefully my process, with more practice, will yield results that I like.

What’s next?

So far I have covered the materials and how I prepare for a painting. In my next post I shall be writing about the act of putting paint on paper.

Comments and questions are welcomed, I usually reply within 24 hours.

Thanks for following.


The Challenges of Narration

Pintail, or Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) – sketch in my journal

It’s hard for me to believe that it was 7 years ago that I did a voice-over narrative for a nature film produced by my son-in-law Scott Reid. I mention this now as I was reminded of the method that I adopted to make the recording by a blogger/podcaster who had to set up a similar way of recording as a result of the coronavirus lockdown.

Video – Winter on the Dee Estuary

I was, in those days, living in Hyderabad, India. The weather at that time was quite warm, peaking at about 40 degrees in the shade, which had an impact on the way I had to record the narrative.

Although I was living in a relatively green area of the city, where I could have daily sights of peacocks and other birds in the wild, it was noisy. The noise of tuc-tucs and other traffic was bad enough but their drivers felt obliged to use their car-horns every 10 milli-seconds.

My first attempt was at my desk but, when listening to the recording, it was obvious that the background noise was much too loud.

I decided on using my duvet. Initially I tried it as a barrier between me and the windows but the noise still came through. The only way was to get under the duvet with my recorder and a torch with which to read the script. Even though the film is less that 20 minutes in length it was unbearably hot under the duvet so I had to record in several sessions, surfacing for cooler air and water whenever the script made that possible.

Well worth the effort, my contribution was a small one, but the film is informative with great footage of the birds of the Dee Estuary (UK). I bet Sir David Attenborough never had such issues!

Acrylic landscape

Riverside house, Belem

My latest acrylic painting on 20cm x 30cm canvas.
The scene is of a typical riverside house, with boat parked in front, on a tributary of the Amazon near Belem, North Brazil.
The trees are acai palms (Euterpe oleracea) the fruit of which is a staple of the folk in the region but is now a popular health food around the world.

I started the painting by putting a gold ochre and cadmium yellow wash over the whole canvas.

Once this was dry I sketched the scene before blocking in some basic colour to see how the picture might look.

I then worked on the trees, followed by the houses and then the boat and foreground.

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Red-breasted Toucan

A pair of Red-breasted Toucans (Ramphastos dicolorus)

As I am running short of water colour paper I have done another acrylic painting. This one is on 60 cm x 45 cm canvas.

I saw these birds on the Graciosa road many years ago, one of a couple of species of toucan in the region.

I quite enjoy painting in acrylics but, on balance, prefer watercolour so cannot wait till my stocks are replenished.

How I paint – 2. Materials

Crested Barbet

This is the second of what will be ten or twelve posts about the way I approach my watercolour painting. In the first one, a week ago, I provided an introduction that covered my own background in the march along the road to dealing with this medium, the materials I use and a hint of what to expect in future posts.

Link to Contents page

This post I will be going a bit deeper into the materials that I use, highlighting some options in respect of the choices available.

In order to get started all we need are the basics: some paint, a brush and watercolour paper, plus a pencil for sketching the subject. If all we want to do is pass time and enjoy the process of painting then the quality of materials is not important. But those who, like me, wanting to reach a higher level (whatever that may be) need to consider the constraints of the materials we use.

The supplies needed will depend on how you want to approach watercolour painting. There is a cost implication. Professional artist quality papers, paints and brushes are not cheap. A sheet of hand-made cotton rag paper can cost £25, brushes can cost £50 each and paints are pretty expensive too. I shall deal with the types of material available in detail but will say now that starting with cheap supplies can yield less than satisfactory results which can be off-putting. That said, working at the outset with top quality products can be a waste of resources though will provide experience on how the materials handle under use.

In this post I shall provide an overview of the supplies I use, starting with the indispensable journal, and will mention supplies that I no longer use.


A typical student quality sketchbook that is capable of being used for watercolour

Prior to buying water colour paper I recommend buying a student grade water colour journal. It’s a good place keep all your notes and sketches in one place. I use mine a lot for making notes, to practice techniques and to prepare studies ahead of painting a piece.

The journal paper quality needs to be good enough to ensure that what you practice in the journal can be readily transferred when painting on quality paper. The journals that I use are made by Canson, Daler-Rowney and a couple of others and are of student grade paper. A good art shop will have a selection to chose from. I prefer A4 sized books though it is also useful to have a pocket-sized book for use when travelling.

A4 art journal used for quick sketches

The use of a journal is important as it makes good use of the available paper (you can practice or do quick sketches in any available white space). In a journal it doesn’t matter if you paint a tree next to a flower, or a person and a bird at different scales. You can even use available space to test colour mixing techniques.

It is always a good idea to test paints in the journal to see how they mix or to see the effects of doings glazes and washes. Don’t worry about terminology at this stage as I will cover all of the important elements.


Block of watercolour paper

The best paper is cotton rag though cellulose-based papers can be used too. The paper comes in a variety of weights – the heaviest (eg 300 gms per m2 / 140 lbs) are better – and are either hot-pressed or cold-pressed. The surface of the paper can be smooth (hot pressed), rough (cold pressed) or somewhere in between (NOT). I have used a rough paper and found it great to paint on but it doesn’t suit all subjects in view of the texture. Hot-pressed is a bit more difficult to work on so I would recommend starting out with cold-pressed smooth (NOT) paper.

Paper can be bought in loose sheets or in pads. Some pads, or blocks, are glued on all four edges which allows you to paint without having to stretch the paper. Single sheets can buckle when water is applied so, if not using pads or blocks of paper it may be necessary to tape the paper to a board before painting. More about stretching paper later.


Brushes, for watercolour, are either synthetic or made of animal hair eg sable, squirrel etc. Modern synthetic brushes are usually of a quality comparable to natural hair – the things to look for are their ability to hold water and to maintain a good point. There are a variety of brushes to deal with a range of brush strokes eg fine lines or broad expanse. The important thing to check, when buying brushes, is to see if the hair forms a good point. The best way to check this is to wet the brush.

The most expensive brush that I own cost about £40 and is made of a mix of sable and synthetic hair. It is a Winsor & Newton Sceptre Gold II brush No 10 size. It is quite a large brush but despite its size it is quite light, maintains an excellent point and holds quite a lot of water which saves the need of going back to the palette to get more.

My favourite brushes, to date, are a couple of ProArte Rennaisance Squirrel mop brushes that are quite versatile, being able to cover paper in washes quite well while also being able to paint small details.

Good quality synthetic brushes are becoming more popular as they are relatively cheaper than real hair but avoid the necessity of using animal hair – so good for vegans. I have to admit that I prefer sable to synthetic, because of their ability to hold water, but the majority of my brushes are synthetic.

A huge range of brushes is unnecessary. Depending on subject matter (I use one set for bird paintings and another for landscapes) just 4 brushes are enough: a 3/4inch flat brush, a number 6 or 8 round brush, a number 4 rigger and perhaps a 1 1/2 inch flat brush for larger scale washes. I often use a mop brush instead of the flat brush.


Cotman is a Winsor & Newton student grade brand

Paints are powdered minerals, eg cobalt, that are mixed with a binder, usually honey, to enable them to be picked up and applied with a brush. Some manufacturers use dyes in place of pigment in order to reduce cost. Student grade paints use a mix of pigment and dye to produce reasonable quality results – in some cases excellent results. The advantage of pro-grade paint is its permanence ie it will not fade over time.

Paints come in tubes or in little pans of solid pigment. I prefer the tubes as the paint is richer in my opinion.

Professional paints in tubes, from Winsor & Newton

When it comes to buying paints it should be noted that, while you can buy in tube or pan (or half pan) form, the price can vary by colour since some minerals are more costly than others. For example, cadmium or cobalt based paints are more expensive than chrome based paints. The key, when selecting, is the quality of permanence which will be indicated in all student/pro grade paints. If you want to see your painting in a gallery in 100 years – buy the best!

There are several manufacturers that produce professional quality paints. I tend to use Winsor & Newton but have other brands in my stock. A simple palette of a dozen student grade pan paints, ideal for travel, cost me £10 on offer at an art shop in Edinburgh. Great for travel sketches.

Whats next?

In my next post I shall describe my process of starting a painting.

Comments and questions are welcomed, I usually reply within 24 hours.

Thanks for following.

King Vulture

King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa)

My supply of watercolour paper has dwindled to just a few sheets. The supplier I used last year no longer carries stock of either good cotton rag paper nor the watercolour paints that I like to use. So, as I have a decent stock of canvas and acrylic paints my focus will, for a short time, be on painting in acrylics.

Having completed a couple of acrylic paintings this year (a landscape beach scene of northeast Brazil and a bird portrait of a Red-necked Tanager) I felt ready to leap into another bird portrait.

The King Vulture is one of the five vulture species resident in Brazil. The most common are the Black Vultures, followed by Yellow-headed and Lesser Yellow-headed vultures, the Turkey Vulture and then the King, which I saw in the Amazon Region.

This was painted on a 60 cm x 45 cm canvas, unfortunately only one more canvas of this size remains in my stock till the covid19 virus restrictions allow me to buy more. I have quite a few smaller canvases but I prefer painting acrylics in larger scale.

More acrylic paintings to follow.

How I paint – 1. Overview

Burnished-buff Tanager

It’s been a couple of years since I began painting in watercolour. Although I had painted in my youth I had only attempted to put brush to paper on an irregular basis when time permitted but never enough to gain proficiency. For a variety of reasons I decided to re-start and to stick with it this time, and I have.

I decided to document my experiences in returning to water colour painting in a series of posts, starting with this introduction. Perhaps the content will resonate with a few people that read it.

Link to the Contents page.

Painting is all about managing illusions. A subject is portrayed on flat paper in a manner that makes it look like a 3D image.

The creativity of man has been visible since the days of hand daubed designs in caves. We may not understand what prompted those drawings or what purpose they serve, but we can appreciate their quality and artistry. Modern painting has become a lot more sophisticated in objective and style, but no less important in providing a snapshot of contemporary life.

I studied art at school as a result of encouragement received from my teachers – the first being in my final year at primary school when I was about 10 years of age. I had drawn the face of a chimpanzee and my teacher gave me a book of animal pictures so I could draw from those reference images. I recall drawing an antelope.

My love of art, though perhaps not competence, developed throughout my school days. It was my second teacher that that inspired me to do more painting, and my third and final teacher that helped me develop my pencil drawing and broadened my view of art.

I became keen on design to the extent that I intended to study architecture. I eventually chose a career in a different direction, but maintained an interest in painting and drawing on and off in the following decades. It was only about two years ago that I decided to do more, which meant first having to regain hand-eye coordination. This meant practice, practice, practice.

Paint giving an impression of a ball with shadow

Making marks using a brush to apply paint on flat paper can give the impression of realism by varying colour and shade while leaving our brains to do the rest. 

The three common ways of painting are to use oil paints, acrylics or watercolour. Other ways exist but I shall ignore those for the present time. The purpose of this series of posts is not necessarily answer the question of “how do I start watercolour painting”, but rather is to document my own approach to watercolour painting which may be of help to anyone starting out. There are plenty of videos on YouTube as well as commercial online courses, eg Domestika, and later I will give a list of those that I personally found of value.

It is said that watercolour is the most difficult painting medium but it is the one I chose and is what I shall be covering in this series. The differences between these media are, quite simply, that watercolour is a transparent medium while oil and acrylic are opaque, so the method of painting is different.

A novice can start watercolour painting either gradually, or in full immersion. Either approach has pros and cons to consider so a bit of thought is required before starting, mainly in respect of cost.


I will go into more detail on some of the materials in due course but for now will cover the main elements of my choice of paper, paints and brushes.


Watercolour paper block of 12 sheets

Having already had some painting experience, and knowing that it was something I wanted to do long-term, I chose a middle road by buying decent papers (Hahnemuhle*, Canson, Daler Rowney and Windsor & Newton) that were cotton based. Although referred to as “paper” the material is actually cotton – known as cotton rag – which is shredded and pressed under heavy weights.

There are three types of good quality watercolour cotton rag paper:

– Hot Pressed (which has a smooth surface, good for subjects that require detail such as botanical painting)

– Cold Pressed Rough (heavily textured paper that is great for landscape painting as depressions in the surface of the paper hold pigment.

– Cold Pressed NOT (a relatively smooth paper that is not hot pressed

The weight also has a bearing on the the paint surface. Other papers to consider are wood pulp (cellulose) based papers which can also be perfectly acceptable, but they tend to have drawbacks. It is also possible to buy cellulose/cotton mix which I suspect is better than wood pulp paper.

The most readily available papers are machine made but the best of these are very good and used by many professional painters. Hand-made cotton rag papers are expensive but I would not recommend experimenting with them unless a high level of proficiency has already been attained.


Professional water colour paints in tubes

The paints I used were generally student quality (Daler Rowney and Windsor & Newton) so that I could get used to the brands, though I selectively bought pro-grade paints and most of my stock now id professional quality. Paints can be bought in tubes (concentrated liquid form) or in pans (small blocks of dried pigment). Half-pans (approx 1.5cm x 1.5 cm) are also an option.

Student quality water colour paints in half-pans

Only 3 colours are needed to start: red, blue and yellow ie the primary colours. These can be mixed together to create other (secondary and tertiary) colours. In landscape painting I use 10 colours. More on this later but for now it’s worth mentioning that colours can be cool or warm so it is common to have two types of blue, or red, or yellow.


My brushes were of lower quality at the outset (synthetic) but I bought the occasional sable or squirrel hair brushes once I got into the swing of painting. The most expensive brush that I own is a number 10 sable/synthetic brush by Winsor and Newton that cost £38! Synthetic can be a good coice over natural hair, and for vegans it is the only choice.

The benefit of starting out on the expensive route is that you get to see how pro-level paints and brushes interact with the paper. The downside is that this is quite an expensive way to make mistakes, though it is from making mistakes that one learns. If the cost of starting out this way is not a deterrent then it is a good way to begin.

What’s next?

Over the next few posts I shall document my own experience of painting, highlighting the mistakes that I made. Included in these watercolour step by step posts will be tips and tricks that I have learnt about the basics of painting, specifically in watercolour but occasionally applicable to other media. Posts will be uploaded each Friday for the next couple of months.

* I use Hahnemuhles’s cotton rag photo paper for my fine art prints.

Comments and questions are welcome, I usually reply within 24 hours.

Thanks for following.

Carnaubinha Beach

Carnaubinha beach, Rio Grande do Norte

The beaches of Rio Grande do Norte in the northeast corner of Brazil were once busy with tourists. In recent years, though, violent crime has has an adverse impact on tourism and while now the dreaded virus keeps everyone locked indoors.

Carnaubinha is a small village next to the town of Touros, where I used to live. There is a small reef just offshore which is visible at low tide.

I painted four views, each on A3 size paper, in watercolour. The one above is a view towards Touros with the lighthouse just visible at the end of the beach.

Bar on the beach, Carnaubinha

The second painting is of a bar where beachgoers are able to quench their thirst

Fishermen’s huts, Carnaubinha

The third painting shows the simple wall-less huts used by the fishermen to store and mend their nets. The view shows the Touros lighthouse in the distance.

Fishing boat and coconut palms

The final painting shows one of the simple boats, barely more than a raft, on its side next to one of the larger fishermen’s huts that is used as a restaurant when the area is not in virus lockdown mode.

More of these scenes planned!

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