Monthly Archives: September 2020

How I Paint – 7. Loose versus detail

Pencil sketch from my school days many years ago (Red-flowering Currant – Ribes sanguineum)

It has been a couple of weeks since my last post. In that one I described how tone and colour are used to create the impression of depth in a painting. In this post I share my experience of trying to paint in a loose manner.

Link to Contents page

When I began studying art seriously I started with pencil work, a medium in which I became reasonably proficient. Pencil drawing requires a strong degree of detail working and provides a great way to develop skills in tonal value.

In my non-art career I became focused on detail to such an extent that now I find, in my art work, great difficulty in doing loose sketches and paintings. While there are a few great artists who can produce great realistic and detailed work in watercolour I find it hard to do the same (owing in part to an issue with my eyesight) so I prefer the idea of loose painting. Yet I have difficulty in painting loosely as I naturally aim for details. This frustrates me.

The thing for me to do, to remedy this, is to take time out with a sketch book and to paint a series of subjects against the clock. The more I practice the greater the chance I will have of breaking old habits. In theory at least.

In a recent pen, ink and wash painting (published this week) I managed to achieve an acceptable level of looseness. I may build on this experience but my fear is that I will fail in producing an impressionistic effect with paint only, as opposed to pen and wash, and merely switch the way in which I handle looseness ie badly.

Time will tell, and the coronavirus lockdown provides the time!

Part of a painting that I did in school. Each brick was individually painted.
A recent sketch in oil pastel on canvas board

In the oil pastel sketch (above) I achieved the sort of looseness that I would like to see in my water colour painting. It was, I think, the first or second oil pastel that I have drawn, so not very good, but at least it provides me with a compass for my watercolour landscapes.

The following is a watercolour painting of the same scene (painted while I was in Trapani (Sicily) last year. Sketched in ink (uni Pin Fineline) then painted with water colours.

Tramontana and duomo, Trapani

The school where I studied art (plus Maths and Physics at A-Level) was next to a canal (the Shropshire Union canal) so I would often paint canal scenes. My art teacher had painted many scenes of the canal but I never got close to his style and quality of brushwork. The painting below is one I did last year.

Cross Keys pub on the Shropshire Union canal

This effort is definitely looser but still not where I want to be. I may use this as a subject for 5 minutes timed watercolour sketches.

And finally, a section of a painting of Bassano del Grappa (heart of the grappa liqueur region of Veneto, Italy). The last time I visited Bassano was in 2008 when I took my mother, who lived near Venice at that time, to take part in the annual Alpini gathering. The Alpini were a regiment that are a specialist unit of the Italian Infantry. The veterans and serving soldiers hold a reunion each year in different cities. The subject of the painting was the bridge, but I just want to illustrate the background in this post (the bridge that I painted was horrible!).

Bassano del Grappa, Veneto

So, lots of rapid painting to do … hopefully getting techniques in order … to achieve a loose style.

What’s Next

My next post will describe what I do when preparing to paint a subject.

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

Thanks for following, I hope the posts have been interesting and useful.


Sicilian ceramic tiles

Having spent a significant part of my life in the Mediterranean region I have always been fascinated by the design of ceramic tiles. The majority of Arabian / Moorish influenced designs tend to utilise more precise patterns whereas I prefer the looser, floral tiles that can be found in Sicily where I was for a few months last year.

As part of a project I decided to paint some. I completed 9 last week and incorporated 7 of them into the above composite design.

Each was painted in acrylics on paper (I would really like to make the actual tiles but do not have the materials nor skills – the latter being limited to some experimental work while I was in school) and deliberately loose in style.

It was a fun project that I plan to continue, though I would like to research the significance of the components of the images. I can guess at some of them, eg the flowers (but what flower?), and know that lemons and olives feature in some traditional designs, so I need to plough through the internet to see what I can find (surprisingly little so far!).


  1. Acrylic paints (I chose just a few to try to emulate the ceramic pigments)
  2. Ordinary writing paper

The tiles

After painting each design I took a photo that was then uploaded into Photoshop so that I could re-size and compose them into a single tile.

Good fun and a pleasant change from my normal painting.

The Stay-wet Palette

A quick post-script re my home made stay wet palette: The paints managed to stay usable for 4 weeks, with regular checks and top-ups of water to maintain dampness in the sponge layer. Until yesterday!

Unfortunately I left the lid off last night and the paints had dried out by morning. If I am painting on a standard palette the paints would dry out within an hour or so.

So, project for today is to wash out the sponge and replace the paints and paper layer.

When I get the chance I may buy a pro model.

Pen, ink and wash

Edificio Metropolis, Madrid

In her student days one of my daughters studied languages in France and Spain so I had an opportunity, while she was in Madrid, to visit her with another of my other daughters.

While there I took photos around the city including this impressive building. Although I have made a few attempts to paint it I never managed to produce something that I was happy with.

This version, that I painted at the end of August, is what I regard as acceptable.

It is a pen and watercolour wash painting using Mitsubishi Uni Pin fine line waterproof pens (0.1, 0.2 and 0.5). On A4 paper.

I have tried doing these pen and wash sketches before but usually overworked them. It takes a bit of thought and effort to keep things simple but practice pays dividends.

There are three ways, in my experience, to do these:

– pencil, then pen and finally paint;

– pencil, paint and then pen; or

– pen outline, paint and pen for the details and shadows.

It is well worth experimenting to find which approach works best. I also found that a watery wash provides the best results.

The coronavirus situation has caused me to run short of materials but I plan to do a series of paintings in this style when I get the chance.

Floral versus Botanical

Bird of Paradise flower

A little over a year ago I wrote about my thoughts on the difference between “botanical” art and floral painting.

A couple of days ago I painted this Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia) flower, an interesting bloom but one much loved in flower arranging. I saw quite a few, seemingly wild though also in many gardens, in the south of Brazil when I lived there though the plant actually originates from South Africa.

The painting is a watercolour on a slightly rough cold pressed A4 paper.

I classify this a a floral painting rather than botanical as the colours, composition and fine details do not, in my humble opinion, make the grade for botanical quality. I was more interested in getting the painting done, as part of a project, and dispensed with the need to pre-mix and test colours. Having said that they came pretty close to the actual colours.

As soon as I can get my hands on some decent paper I plan to paint one of these in large scale ie 1 metre or so square (depending on what I can find). My stock of paper is down to about 3 sheets of A3. Until the coronavirus is under control I use this paper sparingly. I do have canvases in stock so will focus on acrylics for a while.

How I paint – 6. Tone and colour

Tonal range map

In last week’s post I described, in simple terms, the importance of perspective in a composition. The use of tone and colour is another means of giving the impression of distance in a painting.

Link to Contents page

When I looked through some of my earlier paintings from my school days (decades ago) I noticed that while I seemed to use colour quite well there was little variation in tone. After I decided to focus my attention on watercolour painting a couple of years ago one of the elements that seemed obvious to me, from my career in photography, was tonal value.

In the world of photography Amsel Adams established a “zone system” to help produce black and white photographs with a range of tones from black to white and ten shades of grey in between. There is little doubt that Adams’ photography became world famous as a direct result of his zone system.

In watercolour painting, where tones equate to the level of dilution of pigment, it is also common to have a range of tonal values though usually limited to just 5. Any more than 5 may result in a painting looking overworked. The five tones, in monochrome, are pure black, three varying shades of grey, and no pigment ie the white of the paper.


Draw five small boxes on a piece of paper on in your journal. Paint the first box black with paint straight from the tube (or using as little water as possible with pan paint). Leave the last box unpainted (this will be “white” ie the white of the paper). Mix black paint with water till a solid gray will result in the middle box. Add water and paint the 4th box so that it is a gray tone seemingly midway between the solid gray and the white. Add more paint to create a gray that is midway between the solid gray and the black and place this in the second box. There should now be a range of gray’s from black to white. These 5 shades are all the ones needed in any painting. Repeat using red instead of black to create a range from full red to white. Do similar exercises with other colours.

Using tones

It is normal practice (though not necessary to adhere to) to start painting the lightest colours first and finally the dark ones. Because watercolour is a transparent medium once a dark tone has been painted it is difficult to lighten it, whereas once a light tone has been painted it can be darkened by adding layers. This prompts us to start painting the background first, then the middle ground, then the foreground and details. In some subjects we start with the lightest tones, then establish the darkest tones to set the contrast, and then to fill in the mid-tones. It depends on the subject.

Tonal value and value studies

Intensity of colour helps to define the illusion of depth: subjects painted bright solid colours appear close while paler more transparent colours imply distance. This effect is easier to illustrate in shades of grey. Just 5 tones will be enough for most paintings: from black to white, a medium 50% grey, and a shade between the medium and each of the extreme shades. It also applies to colours.

Artists quite often paint a tonal value painting before embarking on a landscape so they can determine what colours and concentrations of colour are required. Essentially this is just a monochrome painting using one colour only eg black or blue. Although I have a tube of black paint in stock I never use it when painting either landscapes or birds. Black tends to be lifeless and can beaded a colour when mixed with it. I mix my own “blacks” that are really very dark browns, greens or blues.

Some artists will start with the lightest colours, then add the darkest before working on the mid-tones in order to establish the level of contrast in the image.

The image at the top of this post shows the 5 tones in greyscale. Pure black at the first position and pure white at the fifth position. It is possible to do the same with red, blue or any other colour. I treat the fourth position as the lightest shade of the colour in the tone map. The fifth I always treat as white and thus is unpainted paper.


Only three colours are needed to produce acceptably good paintings: they are the three primary colours – red, yellow and blue. Anyone starting out needs these three colours as a minimum. Black and white are not required (I rarely use them for reasons that I shall explain later.

With these three it is possible to create other colours – the secondary colours ie orange, green and purple – or other colours and shades by varying the mix. Beware of mixing too many as the result is just muddy!

I do not use white paint (the whole point of watercolour is that the white paper is allowed to show through, so white pigment is generally unnecessary (and regarded with disdain by water colour purists). Because watercolours are transparent in nature placing white on top of another colour will have little effect. I have used it only once to create a specific effect. I use black rarely, preferring instead to make black or grey by mixing other colours. Black paint tends to make the painting dull and real black is quite rare to find in nature. The three primary colours, mixed together in equal measure, will make black (or seemingly black).

The colours opposite each other in the wheel, when mixed, will produce a grey colour. Experimenting with these combination will provide a range of greys to suit a subject.


Start with light colours before painting the darker tones. Use paler tones in the background and richer tones in the foreground to give the illusion of depth and distance.

What’s next

In my next post I will focus on looseness in painting. It’s a style that I struggle with, failure to get the effect I want usually results in torn up paintings in various stages of completion!

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

Thanks for following.

How I paint – 5. Perspective

San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice

Last week I wrote about the magic that happens when a loaded brush hits watercolour paper. This week covers an element of composition.

Link to Contents page

We are used to seeing things in a certain way. If something is wrong we can generally notice that it is not right before we pinpoint where the error is. In landscape painting we see, as a result if our binocular vision, converging lines – these lines converge on a level with our eyes at a point somewhere off to the left and right of our point of view.

The process of translating what we see to a flat sheet of paper requires the application of perspective. There are several methods.

Depending on the subject of a painting we may apply 2-point perspective or 3-point perspective. Sometimes even a 4-point perspective is applicable as I found with a subject that caused me some difficulty in my school days.

2-point Perspective

2-point perspective

Looking towards the corner of a building it can be seen that the horizontal lines on one side appear to converge in the distance on the same side and that the same applies on the other side. In reality the lines are parallel but if we painted them that way the painting would look very odd. The vertical lines remain vertical. So there are two points of convergence: one on each side of the picture. These are known as vanishing points as the anything along the perspective lines will imperceptible at those points.

No perspective

3-point Perspecive

In 3-point perspective there is the additional element of vertical convergence where the vertical lines seem to converge on point high up … this is most noticeable when one is standing under a skyscraper. In this case there are three vanishing points: one on each side and one above.

In photography it is common to make “corrections” to the verticals, removing the conversion, either with specialist lenses or in post-production using specialist software. In paintings, however, we often (though not always) want the vertical lines to converge to add atmosphere or a degree of realism.

4-point Perspective

Imagine being on the side of a hill, about half way up, looking at a building opposite you. The base of the building may be a significant distance below, while the top of the building is a significant distance above you. There will therefore be a fourth point of convergence, below. This is what had me scratching my head while I was at school – looking at a group of trees whose perspective went in multiple directions from my position. Although this sort of scene may not be common it mat arise when dealing with images reflected in water – any perspective adjustments above the ground will need to be replicated in the reflection, thus I creating 4-point perspective.

4-point perspective

It is good practise to do preparatory sketches of a subject, especially to ensure the composition will work well. If the pre-painting sketch looks ok, and the chosen perspective works, then one can proceed with painting.

In the painting I did of San Giorgio Maggiore (above) I applied two-point perspective with a vanishing point on either side. As I was far enough away from the subject it wasn’t necessary to make adjustments to the vertical lines.

What’s next?

In my next post I will cover tone and colour and how important important they are in a composition.

A quick reminder that these posts about how I paint are little more than a documentation of where I am on my path to better painting. By no means am I proficient painter but I love the art, I want to improve and if my notes of value to any beginners that follow my posts then that is a bonus.

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

Thanks for following.


African elephant

I started using Procreate on my iPad over a year ago but haven’t used it in the past 9 months. That’s because I was working on other projects and not because I didn’t like using Procreate.

Anyone interested in digital art should try Procreate. I love the fact that you can start a project with a simple sketch on one layer and then build on it using additional layers until the thing is complete.

I have no idea how much time I had spent on the elephant picture as I did it on and off in my spare time. Lapsed time was probably less that a day.

Although I have a stylus (not an Apple stylus but a Bamboo that doesn’t have all of the Apple features) I prefer to draw with my finger (literally digital art!) and find that a great deal of accuracy can be achieved despite fat fingers!

I intend to do more work using Procreate though unfortunately I dropped my iPad last week and it now has a cracked screen. That shouldn’t stop me but I need to be careful with the iPad till I can afford to replace it.