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Bonus Features May 2018

Bonus features from some of our talented PaintersOnline gallery artists, plus extracts from new titles from Search Press by Katie Essam and Stephen Coates

Alan Bickley   Diane Griffiths   Ian Murray   Stephen Kelly 

Essex Bridge, Shugborough - 17th Century Grade 1 listed Packhorse Bridge.

Painting Alla Prima from Photographs with Alan Bickley


Why paint alla prima, and why paint from photographs? Two common questions that I will try and answer in a few short paragraphs. I’m generally referring to landscape painting primarily in this article, but the same principles can apply to figure and portrait painting.

Alla prima, or direct wet on wet painting is great for rapid oil sketches, either plein-air or in your studio; the process involves working in a bold and expressive style which I love, using spontaneous brush strokes. You apply layers of wet paint onto previous wet layers. Where possible, I like to finish a painting in one session, perhaps no longer than say a couple of hours, but that isn’t absolutely necessary. However, the painting should be completed whilst still wet to be alla prima. I sometimes find it necessary to work quickly, particularly outdoors where the weather can change in an instant, or the more obvious reason being the light, which will change considerably after a few hours. No issues like that in the studio of course.

Using photographs is often looked upon as copying. I don’t like copying, but if they are used as a reference for the basis of a painting, they can be an invaluable source of inspiration. My preference, and always has been since I started painting years before going to art college, is to get outside and paint or draw en-plein-air. Nothing beats sitting or standing in front of your easel looking out at the view directly in front of you.

However, this isn’t always possible for many of us. Bad weather, poor mobility, no transport, fear of working outdoors amongst the public, the list is endless. So, if your preference is to work in the studio, try and use your own reference material if possible, or that of a friend or relative; resorting to images from Google should be your last resort, and do remember that there are strict copyright laws on many of these images.

What I am trying to show you, as simply as possible in my basic demonstration, is how to use a photograph as a reference point, but making the painting your own, not sitting there slavishly copying it in detail as I see so very often. I will be using a limited palette which makes things a lot easier for some of you, and will encourage you to mix your colours, not use them directly from the tube. This choice of colours will vary, depending on the scene itself - five colours plus white should be sufficient, but you can always introduce a couple more if you are struggling.

Also, I will be moving the position of some objects. That could be a tree, or a telegraph pole for instance, or an unwanted waste bin. We are in charge, and we all have the benefit of being able to use ‘artist’s licence’, but use it only if it improves the compositional value of our painting.

Reference photo taken by the artist

Stage 1

This magnificent packhorse bridge has to be the prime focal point of the painting. Rather than having it squashed tightly into a standard landscape format, I have opted to work on an elongated or panoramic canvas board to give the bridge a bit of breathing space if you like. This is a Gerstaecker canvas board 25 x 60cm which I cut down from a 50 x 60 board, so I am left with another of the same size for a later work. I often opt for non-standard sizes, by cutting the board down to suit the composition.

I generally prefer to work on a mid-grey background, but for this demonstration I’ve left the board untouched so it’s pristine white. I used a very turpsy Cobalt blue wash to outline the main structure of the bridge, and quickly indicated some of the foliage, looking for an overall balance, good composition and pleasing to the eye.

Looking at my photo, the main issue with it is that the bridge is not leading the viewers eye into the painting, this needed moving so as you can now see, we are led directly into the painting and across the bridge, exactly as I wanted.

The large ivy-covered tree is positioned almost plumb centre; contrary to what you may have been taught, this is quite acceptable in modern times, and it can work rather well in this elongated format. However, I have, on this occasion, opted to move it just a touch to the right.

There is a mass of foliage virtually obliterating those lovely spans across the bridge. These are an interesting feature and I want them to be shown to their full advantage, so I will be leaving most of this foliage out.

Whilst I was taking the photo, I took the opportunity to make some pencil sketches of the spans and a few other bits of detail that I found interesting, not that I will be adding much detail in this work, but I like to have some reference just in case. I also made a quick en-plein-air oil sketch, a different format and you can see this version later on.

So, that’s the initial frame work in place. You can of course use a soft pencil or charcoal, but my preference is to plunge strait in with a loaded brush. This blue turpsy wash will dry in less than a couple of minutes. I’ve allocated around 60 minutes to complete this demonstration, plus the time it takes to break off and take the photographs. I prefer to take these outside in daylight, but never sunlight. My aim will be to complete it in one session but that’s not necessary if you can’t manage it, but do try and have it all completed whilst still wet, that’s alla prima.

Stage 2

Now that the basic framework is in place, it’s time to start adding a few strong value colours. It’s always better to work from dark to light, so I’ve mixed together Indigo and Phthalo Green to block in a few of the darkest areas. A dark but warm grey was mixed for the bridge.

Note that I’m not accurately ‘colouring in’ these areas, but using lively confident bold strokes. I don’t want a copy of the photograph, I already have a photo. What I am aiming to achieve is a loose and vibrant oil sketch that is MY version of the scene. This now sets the tone for the rest of the painting, I am always looking for a degree of tonal balance which is so important, contrast in any painting is vital – I think that I have achieved that.

Stage 3

Time now to start blocking in some of the lighter areas. The path over the bridge will eventually be my lightest area, as I want this to be my lead into the composition and main focal point. I’m not interested in any detail, what little detail I decide to add will be at the final stage.

The last area to block in was the sky; this needed to be kept fairly light and simple. There is enough going on throughout the rest of the painting, and I don’t want it to compete and detract in any way.

Stage 4

I’ve worked some warmer colours into the bridge, tidied up the distant foliage and dropped in a few of the taller trees, remembering to keep these lighter in tone. A quick brush over the sky with a light blue mix was needed to warm it up a little.

A variation of a warm mixture of grey and beige was also loosely added to the pathway in the foreground and leading over the bridge, this mix being kept quite dry and dragged in places.

The final stage is now imminent. The pair of large ivy-covered trees need to be established and will be quite a prominent feature in the composition. Then the whole thing needs a bit of tidying up in places, but only slightly, I don’t want to lose the spontaneous feel to the piece. Some original working lines will still be visible in places, I’m happy to leave those. Remember, we are not trying to reproduce a photograph, we already have that!

Stage 5

The two ivy covered trees have been completed, adding a few branches to break into the sky and bridge. I’ve flicked in just a couple of lighter branches with my rigger to break up the mass, being cautious not to add too many and become fussy. Also, a brighter mix of the green was dotted on to the lighter side of these two trees.

A bit of small brush work was needed to define the top of the bridge, and some highlights were added to the footpath. I had always intended to make the footpath my main focal point leading into the composition. This I feel has been achieved, and I decided that to add figures on the bridge would rather spoil that effect.  I quickly dotted in the lone fisherman on the bank to give a balance to the piece and to add that all important scale.

I suppose that in actual painting time, this has taken around 70 minutes to complete. I could easily carry on and spend the same time again, but I’ve achieved the loose and spontaneous effect that I had set out to achieve, so to continue would have been pointless. This is one of the failings of many newcomers to painting, the question of when to stop.

To sum up then, my intention was never to painstakingly copy my photograph, that is pointless and you do need to avoid doing this at all costs – the result will be a tight, static painting devoid of expression and emotion. I did set out to improve on the general composition though, and this involved moving a few main structures that didn’t sit well within the photograph.

I do hope that this demonstration has been of some help and guidance to a few of you. Always remember that we are artists and our aim should always be to create original work that shows not only our talent, but also our enthusiasm.

See more of Alan's work in the PaintersOnline gallery by clicking here

My artistic search for more by Diane Griffiths

In school I learned about line, form, light and shadow, I learned these skills carefully and aimed to recreate what I saw on the page. We used acrylic paint and I was good at this; able to create an accurate representation of what I was copying.

This was praised at first, then criticised. After being taught how to capture what I saw accurately I was then encouraged to be inaccurate. Students around me were being applauded for originality, intention and concept – more than skill and technique.

Overall people thought I was good, but I distinctly got the impression that 'good' wasn't really enough, and I didn’t  understand why. I spent some time looking at my landscapes, they were very pleasing – but they didn’t blow me away.

Life took over for a while and it wasn’t until many years later that I returned to art and I’ll be honest, a bit of a struggle began. It began with a lack of confidence; I needed to prove to myself that I was a good artist. For a while I played about with different methods of using acrylic and created what I thought were some really nice paintings. I exhibited a little, sold a few, it was going pretty well.

However I felt like there was nothing really distinctive about these paintings, they were nice, and don’t get me wrong, I was proud of them – but they didn’t jump out at me. I needed more out of my art.

In the pursuit of more I often feel like I’m stuck in a paradox between freedom of expression versus accurately capturing what I see. But my inner dialogue was wrong; I was looking at the landscape and trying to free it. The end result was usually a binned canvas. I needed to discover the landscape not free it.

I turned my attention back to the media that I was using. There are several benefits to acrylics; they are affordable, they dry quickly and you have control over the paint in order to create nice crisp edges. However as my quest to discover rather than copy a landscape developed, I started to get frustrated; the bright juicy colour that you get when the acrylic is wet, darkens and dulls when dry. I would finish some paintings in a flourish of excitement only to be a bit disappointed when I went back to look at it after it had dried.

At this point I knew I needed to expand my use of media somehow. Oils have always been on my list to try and I do also paint in oil now, but it was the decision to try out enamel, which really opened my eyes.

To start with it was exciting but chaotic. I went from total control to a complete lack of control which created patterns and textures that expanded my imagination. But now I struggled to connect the painting with a landscape – I tipped over into abstract.

You’ll often hear about artists creating happy accidents and incorporating them into their work. I’m experimenting with ways to created educated accidents in order to make unique and unusual marks on my paintings which I can mould slowly and thoughtfully into my landscape.

Below are a couple of my latest experiments:

Gannel Sunset

This landscape is essentially a dark landscape as night kicks in but splashed with the sunset. For me the term ‘splash’ was apt for what I wanted to create with this painting. Using a combination of a dark layered background you can get some stunning sunset effects with a combination of water, watered down acrylic and enamel sprayed over the top. It’s not a realistic effect – that’s not what I’m after – but gives you something special which gives you a sense of the landscape. You can see the lines created by the edge of the water as it dries on the canvas alongside the blend effects of the enamel as it dries over the water. The texture of the water splashes falls down onto the land and into the Gannel. By contrast, I’ve used acrylics to form some of the detail, including a boat, on the right-hand side.

Misty Tintagel

However in this painting you can’t really tell the difference between the mediums- I’ve actually used the acrylics and enamel to create an almost watercolour effect as the magical castle dips into an out of focus in the painting. The iconic structure at the front was finished off in acrylic.

Newquay Skyline from Watergate

Here you can see the striking turbulent sky created with that mix of acrylic and enamel, but underneath the less turbulent and more familiar coastline of Newquay stretches out in front of you detailed in acrylic. I’ve also used a bit of oil in the foreground to give you that thick juicy texture which protrudes from the page to help suggest how close the foreground is.

Fistral view over towards Pentire

The final painting I want to show isn’t a sunset or turbulent sky, here there is an intricate development of a sunny blue sky with subtle colours dipping in and out. It’s a tapestry of blend and contrast which entertains the eye; I slowly built up the layers using a similar technique – but only working on small areas at a time.

In summary a well-executed drawing is still key for me; but the right balance between technical and creative is challenging, and most frustratingly, it cannot be taught! What’s a great painting and what’s just a mess? As the artist and ultimately, the judge, of what I’m proud to call one of my paintings, this is the crux of the matter. I have to promise myself not to be quick to critique and to open my mind. How can I grow if I can’t see things in different ways?

My desire of bringing together both concept and craft is starting to come together. I want to create landscapes that invite exploration and contemplation.

I wish I could show you a step-by-step process of how I do something, but it genuinely changes quite a lot for me. I relish experimenting. Sometimes I’ll discover something that has worked really well and then have to try to remember exactly how I did it so I can do it again! Of course I do also have certain approaches to certain subjects, but I do try to regularly challenge myself to try a new approach.

I think that’s what keeps me excited and coming back for more!

As an artist I want to capture your interest within seconds. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words; I like to talk to my readers in a glance. And perhaps, in that glance, a piece of art can move you in an inexplicable way; it can suggest, evoke and enthral. Perhaps art can't change or save the world, but I believe it can help to change or save the individual. It certainly did for me.

See more work by Diane in the PaintersOnline gallery by clicking here or by visiting her website,

Fun with Fauvism by Ian Murray

My conversion to Fauvism happened accidently. It started in January when I uploaded a painting loosely styled on the Camden School, using purples, pinks and yellows. The photographed image was slightly brighter than my original and when viewed online it was even brighter. The resulting web traffic viewing this image is currently 1500 and rising. I began to wonder why this particular painting was attracting so much attention, especially since I hadn’t given it much thought after it was finished. It prompted me to paint another, this time with more of a Fauvist style. What a revelation! I found painting with vivid colours, almost straight out of the tube, was huge fun.

The freedom to use my own colour palette instead of slaving to match those found in nature was joyful. And because of this, it was probably one of the quickest paintings I have produced as well as the most satisfying.

I thoroughly recommend trying out Fauvism as I believe it will change your mind on colour.

For this demonstration I chose a landscape. Living in Somerset,as I do, it’s hard to escape the wonderful views.

I used a quick wash painting (see below) I did a couple of years ago as a reference. I really liked the way the road dissects the square format and, although it is a winter scene, I will demonstrate the use of a fauvism palette to create a bright summer painting using acrylic.

Step 1

My palette is based on the colour wheel above, with one darker purple to add contrast. I find it helps to limit the colour range as this keeps the painting fresh.

Step 2

I began by covering the white canvas with cadmium orange and, for the sky, magenta mixed with white.

Step 3

I then drew in the landscape and started applying paint to the horizon and distant and fields.

Step 4

The advantage of painting a background wash is that the over painting gives you an immediate sense as to whether the painting is working or not.

Step 5

I then added blue to the sky, reduced the strength of the horizon hills and changed the foreground to orange in order to link with the far hills.

Step 6

The next stage was to paint in the shadows and add some detail in the foreground to aid the perspective.

Step 7

I find the final stages of a painting fraught with dangers; too much detail or over working will kill the essence of the painting.

Step 8

Before forcing myself to stop, I applied a light white wash on the horizon, lightened the pink clouds, softened the foreground furrows and finally added some foliage to the foreground tree and hedges as this adds more depth.

The finished painting now adds a splash of colour to our kitchen. I hope you will give fauvism a try, just for the fun of it.

Ian Murray

Key Fauvism Dates: 1905-1908

The first of the major avant-garde movements in European 20th century art, Fauvism was characterised by paintings that used intensely vivid, non-naturalistic and exuberant colours. The style was essentially expressionist, and generally featured landscapes in which forms were distorted. The Fauves first exhibited together in 1905 in Paris. They found their name when a critic pointed to a renaissance-like sculpture in the middle of the same gallery as the exhibition and exclaimed derisively ‘Donatello au milieu des fauves!’ (‘Donatello among the wild beasts!’). The name caught on, and was gleefully accepted by the artists themselves. The movement was subjected to more mockery and abuse as it developed, but began to gain respect when major art buyers, such as Gertrude Stein, took an interest. The leading artists involved were Matisse, Rouault, Derain, Vlaminck, Braque and Dufy. Although short-lived (1905-8), Fauvism was extremely influential in the evolution of 20th century art.

The paintings Derain and Matisse exhibited were the result of a summer spent working together in Collioure in the South of France and were made using bold, non-naturalistic colours (often applied directly from the tube), and wild loose dabs of paint. The forms of the subjects were also simplified making their work appear quite abstract.

Other like-minded artists associated with fauvism included Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy, Georges Rouault, and Maurice de Vlaminck.

See more of Ian's work in the PaintersOnline gallery by clicking here.

Robin on Robin Lane by Stephen Kelly

This scene is a combination of a few different places and of seeing robins in the garden. It seemed like a good idea to paint a robin in Robin Lane - and this is the result.

I try to paint using a limited palette as, for one thing, it saves on making decisions. I also use very few brushes, namely a 2” flat, a No. 4, a No. 2 fine sable and an old brush for applying masking fluid. A 3B pencil, an eraser, a bit of permanent white and that’s about it for equipment.

Stage one

This sketch is, to a degree, imagined, and the robin was from a reference photo. I like to place an object close to the front of the picture as it gives impact and depth – not guaranteed of course but I feel it makes for a more interesting design. Working light against dark and dark against light always provides drama and depth.

Using a limited palette with muted colours unifies the overall look of the painting. A strong light source is also important and I try to frame the painting with a dark shadow in the foreground and I darken the corners slightly too. Sometimes, using a vibrant colour sparingly across the painting and within the washes helps unify the piece too.

I find that using the side of the brushes gives a realistic look when painting grass and provides a looser impression. When painting skies I dampen the background and roughly shape the clouds, allowing the watercolour to merge as it produces interesting shapes and designs.

Stage two

I started by drawing the design on to watercolour paper, taped to a board. I then masked the highlights – odd pieces of grass and, of course, the robin. I use masking fluid as I find you get a much cleaner look when using watercolour washes. I used four washes of ultramarine with a touch of burnt sienna.

Stage three

Now is the time to add detail to the grass, bracken, walls and trees. Using the 2” flat brush, stroke upwards using a darker mix of the green to form the impression of blades of grass. For the walls, form the stones with different shades of grey, ensuring they are darker in the niches. Add various shades of green to the trees, Paynes grey, burnt sienna and even ultramarine on the shaded side to give the impression of reflected light.

Stage four

Remove the masking fluid carefully and start to work up the details of all the elements of the painting. Try to be free with the brushes, using the sides as well as the point. Drop random spots of colour into the damp areas to create a more interesting feel. Mix up Paynes grey with a little light red for the shadows in the foreground to create the impression of unseen trees. This will help frame the picture.

Stage five

Add light red and Paynes grey to the bracken on the left. Continue by adding detail the track – stones and shadows. Paint a few autumn leaves to the trees and a branch for the robin to perch on. An odd twig or some ivy dotted about will help bind the picture together.

Final stage

The final stage is to paint the robin using the reference photo and making sure you take note of the direction of light. Using permanent white with a touch of raw sienna add a highlight to the twig and the odd pebble. This is the stage where I find myself starting to fiddle and this is a big mistake! Try to stop and take a look again the next morning with a fresh eye. It often looks better than you thought!

I hope you give this a go and that you enjoy painting your own Robin on Robin Lane.

See more of Stephen's work in the PaintersOnline gallery by clicking here.

Layered and Stitched Pictures with Katie Essam

Blue Tit

This project introduces paint alongside your free machine embroidery. Using paint as a base instead of appliqué within your textile art can be a lovely way of achieving a different and more subtle effect to your work. You can use fabric paints for this, but personally I find watercolour and acrylic paints easier to come by, cheaper and with a much wider variety of colours available.

Before diving right in and painting with paints on fabrics within this project, I recommend having a ‘play’ on a piece of calico to experiment and familiarize yourself with how the medium behaves when used on fabric, and how much water in relation to pigment will be needed.

When ironing a painted piece of fabric you may wish to use a piece of scrap fabric to protect the paint work from the iron, especially when you iron on the front (i.e. the painted side) of the fabric.

Remounting is another technique used within this project. This can be used to build layers very effectively, and is a particularly good way to add a relief effect to artwork. In turn, this allows your subject matter to stand out even more from the background fabric.



  • Sewing machine, embroidery foot, needle, bobbin
  • Iron and ironing board
  • Ballpoint pen
  • Large and small fabric and paper
  • Scissors
  • Sticky tape
  • Pins
  • Angled and small paintbrushes
  • Water pot
  • Palette (a white plate is perfect)
  • Kitchen paper


  • Medium weight calico or a similar weight piece of fabric for backing, 34 x 42cm (13¼ x 16½in)
  • Neutral-coloured linen or similar fabric, 20 x 29cm (8 x 11½in)
  • Teal cotton or similar coloured fabric, 28 x 37cm (11 x 14½in)
  • Iron-on interfacing
  • Fusible webbing
  • Watercolour paint in green-blue, purple, yellow, pink, white and brown
  • Machine threads

Preparing the fabric and painting

The backing fabric you use is important; it needs to be thin enough that you can see the lines of the design through the fabric. I have used a medium weight calico.

In this example I have used watercolour paints, but acrylic paint could be used instead.

1. Cut a piece of calico larger than the blue tit design, with a margin of about 8cm (3in) all around. Place the calico centred over the blue tit design and hold in place with a small piece of sticky tape. With a black ballpoint pen, start to trace through the design, just as though using pattern paper.

2. Continue until you have traced the entire design. Work carefully, making sure you get all the subtle lines. If you are having any difficulty seeing the design’s lines to trace, try holding the design page up to a window or using a light box.

3. Prepare paint mixes on your palette for the blue tit, branch and flower.

4. Paint the base colours – the first layer of paint – by carefully massaging the watered-down paint into the fabric. Start with the wing, as this is a relatively large, smooth area in which you can practise blending the light and dark tones.

5. There is no particular order in which to work beyond starting with the lighter colours and working towards the darker. Continue until the whole piece is painted with a varied first layer as shown.

6. After the first layer of paint has dried, use a small brush to paint in the second layer, adding in the details: feathers, highlights, shadows, bark texture and flower flecks.

Free machine stitching

Pick some complementary-coloured threads to stitch your piece in. Pick ones dark or light enough to stand out on your paint work, but that still blend and work nicely within your colour palette – avoid any that are too overbearing. When combined with paintwork, the stitching works well if it’s a little more subtle, as this leads to a more natural look. Choose a range of coloured threads, some for the outlines and a mix of lighter and darker colours for the details.

7. Cut a piece of iron-on interfacing just a bit smaller than the piece of calico, but larger than the blue tit design. Make sure all the paint has dried and you have added in all the details in paint you wish before laying it over the image.

8. Use an iron to secure the iron-on interfacing onto the back of the calico.

9. Stitch around the outline of the image in a complementary colour, one that will show up, but also blend into the piece.

10. Change the colour thread when you need to; for example, I have used blue around the blue areas, and yellow around the yellow and so forth.

11. Stitch in the details such as feathers, bark lines and flower petal veins – stitch over all the pen lines you have drawn and feel free to add in any extra stitched detail you wish. You can experiment with shading and stitching freely in this project, adding in highlights and lowlights as you wish to complement the paint.


We now cut out the design and remount it on a piece of fabric. Be aware that the more fabric layers you are ironing through, the longer you will need to iron the piece to get the fusible webbing glue to adhere. You may also wish to iron the piece from the rear side too.

12. Iron a layer of fusible webbing on the back side of the piece, covering the whole design. Because you are going to cut out the image, there’s no need to use a single large piece; you can use a ‘patchwork’ of webbing offcuts, so long as the whole design is covered.

13. Carefully cut the design away from the rest of the background fabric. Go as near as you can to the stitched lines without cutting them. A pair of small, sharp fabric scissors will help a lot.

14. For each of the raw ends of the branch, where the paint fades to nothing, cut an organic, wiggly shape, rather than a straight line.

15. Cut rectangles of your neutral linen and teal cotton fabrics – the linen should be just a little smaller than the cut-out blue tit on the branch, with a slight overlap on each side. The cotton should be larger, with a 3–4cm (1–1½in) margin round the edge of the linen.

16. Fray the linen by pulling loose threads until you end up with an 8mm (3⁄8in) fringed border.

17. From the back of the painted and stitched blue tit, remove the fusible webbing paper backing and position in the centre of the linen fabric. Place a piece of scrap fabric or tea towel over your design and iron in place.

18. Iron a layer of fusible webbing on the back of the linen. When cool, remove the fusible webbing’s paper backing and place the piece in the centre of the cotton. Protect your design with a piece of scrap fabric or tea towel and iron it in place. Flip it over and iron the back side of the piece (again with fabric to protect the paint) to ensure the fusible webbing has completely adhered.

Finished piece

This demonstration is taken from the new book from Search Press - Layered and Stitched Pictures by Katie Essam

The Watercolour Enigma A Complete Painting Course Revealing the Secrets and Science of Watercolour Painting with Stephen Coates

Pebbles on the Sand – Working from Light to Dark

Having examined the properties of watercolours and discovered that the paint pigments are not permanent, means that it isn’t possible to paint light colours over the top of dark ones.

There are actually two reasons why this is the case. Firstly, because the pigments are in suspension they are not particularly dense. This means the dark paint underneath will show through, much like if you were putting a light-coloured emulsion paint over a darker colour on a wall in your home – you know it will take several coats to cover the darker paint, depending on its quality or thickness. Secondly, because watercolour pigments are permanently soluble, the moment you stroke a wet paint brush containing a light colour over a dark section, the water activates the dark paint particles underneath and the two colours will start to mix together. The result will be a murky version of the light colour you were trying to paint over the top. When you work the other way round, painting dark colours over light ones, the same thing happens; however, the light colour underneath will not be strong enough to show through.

This situation is unique to watercolours, and it means that you always start with the lighter tones and work towards the darker ones as you progress with your picture. This often dictates that you will have to paint ‘in reverse’ or negative.

You will need:

  • Watercolour paper, 300gsm (140lbs)


  • 2.5cm (1in) hake
  • Rigger
  • Two round paint brushes, size 5 and size 8

Watercolour paint

  • Raw sienna
  • Payne’s gray
  • Burnt umber


  • Water bowl
  • Mixing tray
  • Cloth/rag
  • Drawing board
  • Masking tape
  • Kitchen paper
  • Pencil
  • Toothbrush
  • Small ruler
  • Hair dryer

Making a plan

Although most people just want to get on and paint a picture, it is important to understand that time spent planning ahead is invaluable. It involves examining the panels that make up the composition, and deciding in which order they should be painted. There will be many occasions when you become stumped during a painting, and realise you have painted panels in the wrong order. This can ultimately ruin your chances of a successful painting, therefore planning ahead will prevent such moments occurring.

This exercise has been specifically selected to give you an early lesson in the importance of planning. I advise that you go through this process before starting any watercolour painting.

Planning ‘Pebbles on the Sand’

The first question to ask is: what comes first, the sand or the pebbles? If the pebbles are painted first, the sand would then have to be painted around them. The time you would take to paint carefully around the pebbles would result in a patchy finish, with dry brush strokes around the edges. It would also be impossible to add paint speckles onto the sand without getting them all over the pebbles. The sand must therefore be painted first, with a continuous wash which covers the pebbles. Likewise, the speckles are created by spraying directly onto the whole area of the sand. Once this is dry, the paint (including the speckles) can be carefully removed from the pebbles with a wet paint brush and some kitchen paper. The pebbles, shadows and detailed features can then be added.

The successful execution of this plan is dependent on the quality of the paper. There are some brands of budget-priced paper which are not well coated and are over-absorbent. The paint will penetrate so far into the paper that it will be impossible to lift it off again without damaging the surface. I would advise you to run a test on the paper you are using first, to make sure the paint will lift off successfully, before attempting to paint the picture.

Assembling your equipment

For this study you will need a few extra items. Use a size 8 round brush to paint the graduated blends on the pebbles and a size 5 for painting the shadows. A rigger is used for the detailed features on the pebbles. You will need a 2.5cm (1in) hake to paint a wash for the sand and then any old cheap toothbrush will do for creating the grains of sand. A small ruler, or something with a straight edge, will be required to assist with the flicking process to get a fi ne spray out of the toothbrush.

The rigger

This is a small round brush, with much longer bristles and a much sharper tip than the standard round variety. These long bristles act like a reservoir and enable the artist to deliver longer, continuous strokes without returning to the palette for more paint – providing the paint contains plenty of water. If the paint is thick or semi-dry, the rigger will not work. The brush literally gets its name from its use in painting ship rigging, and is typically used for super-fine lines.

The hair dryer

A hair dryer is another essential piece of equipment. When you have completed a large wash like the one you will make or ‘lay’ in this exercise, any moving water on the surface may continue to drift. If you leave it to dry naturally, the paint can end up moving further than you want. It may be that the wash is perfect at a certain point and you don’t require any further movement. Also, the slightly distorted paper might hold semi-dry puddles of water which will gradually soak across into the dry areas and leave undesirable watermarks. A good blast with the hair dryer will quickly ‘fix’ the wash and it also means you can get on with the next panel much sooner. If you are a little impatient like me, that’s a really good thing!

The hake

The hake is an incredibly important watercolour brush. As you can see from the picture, it looks oriental in design and not at all like a traditional fine art brush, and they do in fact originate in the Far East. What is important is that the brush is made of goat hair. These bristles are fine and soft, which gives the brush an incredible capacity to hold and deliver lots of water quickly. Another advantage with the softness of the bristle is that it can be used to produce extremely delicate blends with feathery edges.

Given that you have a maximum of two minutes to complete a wash, it is obvious that a small brush is not practical for panels like skies or large background areas. It is therefore essential to use a larger brush in order to complete these panels quickly. This is where the hake comes in. You can deliver huge quantities of paint and water onto the paper in a very short space of time, thus allowing you to conform to the two-minute rule.

The profile of the hake is another bonus. The whole bristle head is shaped like a chisel. This enables the artist to paint wide, parallel strokes and use the full width of the brush. Varying the angle of the brush head will help to produce brush strokes of different widths: turning it often within the same brush stroke helps produce tapered lines, and using it sideways creates sharp, narrow lines. When the hake is wet, the whole brush head can be flattened by squeezing the bristles between the fingers until it is like a knife edge. When it is a little drier, the bristles will open up and become a bit spiky. This is no good for washes, but in this state it can be used to paint foliage, grasses and reeds.

In my view, the hake is the most versatile brush a watercolour artist can own. If you don’t have one, I would advise you to buy one immediately. They are not expensive and will last for years if you look after them. There are several brands of hake on the market and they are available in different sizes. I would recommend that you have two brushes, 2.5 and 5cm (1 and 2in) in width. Avoid hakes which are very bushy: they will not allow you to produce thin, chisel-like edges because there is an excess of goat hair packed into the head of the brush.


The hake is a delicate brush and should be used as gently as possible. You do not need to press on the brush and only the first two or three millimetres of the tip should be in contact with the paper throughout the whole brush stroke. As you sweep the brush across the surface the water will flow downwards and out onto the paper. If the brush is too dry, the water will not flow and you will not be able to create a large variegated wash.


Hold the hake softly between thumb and fingers as shown and allow your wrist to rotate. This will allow you to create shorter brush strokes when necessary.

For a larger wash, move the hake back and forth in long sweeps using your whole arm, remembering to keep the touch very light.

When creating smaller features, such as individual clouds, the hake should move in a series of short flicks in the same direction, lifting the brush away each time. For broad areas, keep the hake square to the paper but when you want to taper off, change the angle of the brush so that only the trailing corner of the bristles touches the paper.

The Exercise

Stage 1: Initial drawing

1. Tape a piece of A5 (148 x 210mm or 5¾ x 8¼in) size watercolour paper to the board all the way round in portrait format. Now draw the outline of three pebbles, as shown in the picture in Step 2. You can also draw the lines which define the position of the shadows.

Stage 2: Creating a wash

2. You are now going to create a wash. Squeeze a pea size blob of raw sienna, Payne’s gray and burnt umber onto the palette, leaving plenty of space between them. Soak the hake in the water bowl and make sure it is wet all the way through the bristle head. If the central part is dry, the hake will not deliver enough water. Using the hake, wet the paper with clear water in wide gentle sweeping strokes. You want an even covering of ‘shiny’ water without any running down in little streams. If you see the water running, just keep passing the hake across the paper until the water stabilises. Once you have the right amount of water on the paper, do not return to the water for the remainder of the entire wash – including the application of the paint.

3. Now, without returning to the water bowl, take the hake and pick up some raw sienna onto the tip of the bristles, using a swift side-to-side motion. Turn the brush over and repeat until the paint is evenly distributed across the width of the bristles. You don’t want any lumps of thick paint anywhere on the tip.

4. Hold the hake sideways on and gently sweep it from one side to the other across the whole paper, working from top to bottom. Make sure the brush strokes go over the masking tape. If you stop short of the edge it will leave flat brush marks within the wash. If the paint is patchy, whip the hake across the paper a few times from side to side, travelling up to the top and down again. So long as you do this quickly, and there is still plenty of water on the paper, any uneven lines will soften.

5. Do not wash the brush. Go directly to the palette and, in the same way as before in Step 3, pick up a little burnt umber onto the tip of the hake. Not too much to start with!

6. Use exactly the same motion as you did with the raw sienna, and drift the burnt umber across the whole area. Repeatedly, but very softly, sweep the hake across and even out the brush strokes. Don’t overdo it otherwise the whole panel will end up one colour. The idea is to create a blended, variegated wash which will suggest different textures and slight undulations in the sand. Providing you still have enough water on the surface, any strong lines should ease off and soften after you have taken your brush away. You have now finished with the hake.

7. Now give the whole thing a thorough dry with a hair dryer, taking care not to shoot excess water around the edge and back into the wash.

Technique – using a toothbrush

At this stage, the speckles on the wash that simulate grains of sand are made by spraying tiny paint droplets onto the surface using a toothbrush.

Loading the toothbrush with paint and then pulling the bristles back sharply in the direction of the arrow, as pictured, will release the m so that each bristle throws a tiny droplet of paint onto the paper.

The toothbrush needs to be held at an angle of about thirty degrees in order to hit the target area. You will need a hard-edged instrument to pull back the bristles – a small plastic ruler or a credit card is ideal for this purpose.

Some artists use their thumb or fingernail but, in my view, you don’t get the required amount of accuracy or control that way.

Please practise this first. Use any old bit of paper to test your technique. It does take a few attempts to get the hang of it, so please don’t spoil your painting with the first try.

Stage 3: Creating the grains of sand

8. Now you are going to create the grains of sand on the beach. Dip the bristles of your toothbrush into the water and then drag out some burnt umber from the paint on the palette, swirling it round until the bristles are full of wet paint. Then, hold the toothbrush at an angle of about thirty degrees and pull the ruler back sharply. The resulting spray should flick down towards the paper, and you should be able to guide it to the desired area. You will only get a small amount of spray each time, so you will have to be patient and keep returning to the palette for more paint. If the paint is too wet you will get big blobs on the paper, so be careful. Equally, if it is too dry it won’t come out of the bristles at all.

9. Lightly cover the surface with speckles and then dry it with a hair dryer. Add another layer of speckles, and dry this with the hair dryer. Continue to add speckles in this way, getting a bit darker with each one. You could add a little Payne’s gray for the last layer to add contrast. Sand is made up of different coloured grains so the variation in intensity and colour will help make you painting look more realistic.

Stage 4: Lifting the paint off the pebbles

The pebbles are now completely covered with paint from both the wash and the speckles. It is necessary to remove this paint in order to create white or light-coloured pebbles. Providing you are using a good quality paper, the paint should lift out. The principle behind this is that watercolour paint particles are not permanent and, if you introduce water to the pebble panels, the particles will re-suspend and can be removed with kitchen paper. Make sure you have dried the whole picture before you start this.

10. Take the size 8 round brush, fill it with clear water and stroke it across one of the pebbles with a slight scrubbing action.

11. Immediately, hit the wet area with a single dab of scrunched-up kitchen paper. The paint should have re-suspended in the water and the kitchen paper should take out the whole lot.

12. Repeat this action until all the paint has been removed. You should now have exposed the white paper underneath in the shape of the pebble.

13. When you have removed all the paint from the pebbles, you will likely see the pencil lines from the initial drawing. Make sure the paper is dry before using an eraser to remove these lines. What you should have now is a speckled wash looking like sand with three white holes in it, rather like some jigsaw pieces are missing. You may wish to re-draw the lines for the shadows if they have disappeared under the paint.

Stage 5: Painting the pebbles

14. Continue with a size 8 round brush. Start by dragging some burnt umber out onto the palette and adding water until it is pale. Fill the small pebble with this, creating an overall creamy colour. Do not wash the brush.

15. Immediately pick up some thicker burnt umber in the tip of the brush and introduce it to one side of the pebble. Drag it across into the paler paint. Do not wash the brush.

16. Go straight to the palette and pick up a little Payne’s gray, and brush the shade into the far left-hand side of the pebble.

17. You now need to give each colour blend a hand and smooth them all out. The whole pebble should still be wet. Having neutralised the brush with a wash and dab, gently sweep the very tip of the brush along each intersection point of the paints to encourage a soft blend across the pebble. Don’t fiddle with the painting once you have blended in each intersection: the pebble will be drying and you don’t want dry brush marks. Take the brush off the paper and let the water do its job.

18. You can now repeat this process using different colours for the other pebbles. The central pebble needs to be painted first with weak Payne’s gray and then blended with a stronger grey. The largest pebble should be painted with clear water and then blended with Payne’s gray from the left. Even though this pebble will have a lot of Payne’s gray in it, providing you leave the far right clear it will still look white! Hopefully, you will now have three shapes that look reasonably spherical. Ensure the whole painting is dry before the next step.

Stage 6: Painting shadows

The shadows need to be dark, so should be painted with a strong Payne’s gray. The paint should be fluid but rich in colour, and there needs to be enough ready on the palette to complete the job. Please use a piece of paper first to test the intensity of the grey before committing it to the painting.

19. Pick up the size 5 round brush. The panels are a little smaller, and there are some sharp corners to paint which will be more manageable with the sharper tip. Fill the brush with paint and start at one end of the shadow. Carefully work your way along, filling the area as you go. Do not let your brush dry up. Keep returning to the palette for more paint and carry on where you left off. The paint you applied already will be drying quickly so don’t go back or it will go streaky.

Stage 7: Painting feature lines with a rigger

Once the shadows are complete, it is just a matter of painting a few finishing touches. For super-fine feature lines you will need a tiny brush. Size 0 or 1 standard brushes will give you a fine, sharp point to work with but they don’t hold much paint because the bristles are so short. It is preferable to paint long, fine feature lines in one brush stroke so that they are unbroken. This is where the rigger comes in.

20. Refresh the Payne’s gray on the palette by adding water to it using one of your larger round brushes. Mix it round until you have a nice large puddle of dark grey. Now swirl the rigger round in the puddle of paint and have a little try on some test paper first, to make sure you have the correct shade and thickness.

21. Use the rigger to paint fine feature lines on the pebbles. If you try and produce gentle curves especially at the ends, it will look like the lines go all the way round and will help sell the illusion that the pebbles are three-dimensional spherical shapes.

Finished piece

This extract is taken from the new book from Search Press by Stephen Coates - The Watercolour Enigma A Complete Painting Course Revealing the Secrets and Science of Watercolour Painting