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Loch Ness
Loch Ness

Paint a Highland Scene in watercolour


Ros Rowell - Posted on 02 Dec 2010

Snowy mountains are inspiring to paint, and here in the Highlands we have stunning views and ever-changing light conditions. This photograph is taken from the top of the hill above the village of Dores, looking west across Loch Ness. The challenge here is to capture atmosphere. Using wet-in-wet watercolour makes it possible to paint a lovely atmospheric sky, which becomes a backdrop to the spectacular mountains. I plan to preserve the white of the paper with masking fluid, which will separate the hills from the sky, allowing the hill shadows to be painted once the mask is removed. No white paint will be used.


Choosing a view

Which part of the scene would make the best view to paint?

Take a homemade viewfinder or ready-made picture mount, and move it around in front of the view or over the photograph. This helps you to choose a suitable view. The view selected from this photograph could be vertical, panoramic or horizontal.

Focal point
I want the prominent rounded hill as my focal point so it will be positioned to the left of centre, and I want to emphasise the sky and hills rather than the foreground and loch so place the horizon line below the middle of the painting. This is not the only composition to paint. Try a different view, but keep your focal point away from the middle of the painting, and design the painting so the eye is led to the main feature.

Editing the photograph

Supplement your photograph with composition sketches.

The sheep in the foreground could lead the eye away from the focal point and, unless you are careful, they tend to look like maggots. I chose to edit them out. When drawing the hills, you could accentuate the shapes of the mountains, as the camera tends to flatten them. I usually supplement photographs with sketches made outside, which may exaggerate shapes and alter the angle of the view to give the painting more impact.

When painting wet in wet, choose a suitable thickness and surface of paper to suit the size of the painting. The larger the chosen size, the thicker the paper. I choose 400lb Arches Aquarelle with a Rough surface when painting full sheet size, 22x30in. (56x76cm), and 200lb or 140lb paper when painting on anything smaller than 11x15in. (28x38cm). It’s easier to use a thicker paper than go through the fiddly stretching process. This painting could be produced on any size and still look good. A Rough surface makes it much easier to give texture to the foreground.


To help you start the painting, here are some hints on painting a wet-in-wet sky:

1 Tape the paper down all around with masking tape or Sellotape.
2 Make any drawing you need and plan ahead where you will place the light, medium and dark tones in the sky.
3 Mask the edge of the hills and allow to dry thoroughly.
4 Before you wet the paper, mix a good quantity of paint in a strong enough tone – it will dry lighter.
5 Wet the paper evenly with a soft mop brush. Always use clean water and keep a separate jar for this. Tilt the paper towards the light to see how much water is on the paper.
6 Do not allow the water to form pools. This is too much and could make the paper buckle. Do not apply the paint too soon or it will form a blob and feather. But don’t wait too long to start painting or your paper will be too dry. If it is, wet it again.
7 Start painting, making the sky a dark tone behind the hills. Your paint should not be too weak and runny.

The top patch on the right shows what happens when paint is added to overly wet paper and forms blots and run backs. The lower patch shows paint that has not been mixed properly before painting wet in wet.

The sky on the left shows a detail from a well painted wet-in-wet sky where the colours are blended before painting and where the white of the paper is left to shine through translucent paint to give the clouds.


Limiting your palette helps to give atmosphere to a painting. You can mix all the colours you need from one blue, one red and one yellow. Be flexible though and add an earth colour, such as burnt umber or a ready-mixed colour, such as cadmium orange, if necessary.
For this painting, you could produce a completely different effect by choosing Prussian blue, indigo or French ultramarine for your blue, and either cadmium red or alizarin crimson for red. Use subtle Indian yellow in a winter scene such as this, rather than the more summery cadmium yellow. Make enough of the washes before you start to paint. Tube colours in Artists’ quality are much easier to use than pans for larger paintings.

Paint in sequence

Here are a few pointers to help you with the painting:

1 Start by drawing and masking the hills and, once the masking fluid is dry, begin painting the sky. While you have the sky colours, paint them into the water area, too. Add the hill shadows with stronger tones nearer the focal point – the main hill top.
2 Move on to the lower hills, medium tones and middle distance, before you paint the trees, and finish with the foreground. Keep warmer colours – reds, yellows and brighter purples – for the foreground.
3 Finish with foreground detail.
4 Avoid too much detail in the closer trees, as this could act as a barrier to the rest of the picture. If you include the sheep, don’t make them too detailed; rather let them be part of the overall design.

In next month’s issue, I will show you how I painted this subject, but be creative yourself and have a go using some of the suggestions I have made. Don’t worry if the wet-in-wet skies don’t turn out as expected; it’s all part of the fun of painting with watercolour!


  1. Try turning your painting upside down before painting the dark tones behind the hills. This will ensure a dark enough tone where you want it.
  2. Once you have started painting wet in wet, don’t go back over it as it begins to dry, as this will cause blotches and run backs.
  3. Adding wet, runny paint to a drying area will create a cauliflower effect.
  4. Try out your colours on a piece of scrap paper before painting wet in wet; it helps you achieve the correct colour and tone.
  5. Sit your Perspex or glass palette on a piece of white paper so you can see the colours you are mixing accurately


This is part one of January's painting project. In part two Ros will show how she completed her painting of this Highland scene. If you have a go at following this project send us a digital photograph of your work for inclusion in the Leisure Painter painting project portfolio in the gallery. Click here to see readers work based on previous painting projects, and read the comments left by the artists setting the projects as well as other users of Painters-Online.


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