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How to paint a misty coastal scene in watercolour with Colin Steed

Posted on Thu 30 May 2019

Painting project part one from the January 2019 issue of Leisure Painter

In an effort to capture the mood of the day or that fleeting moment of nature I try to paint most of my artwork outdoors. With the British climate so unpredictable, however, sometimes the only option is to paint at home from sketches and a photograph. To paint successfully we should learn the techniques needed before we embark on a full-blown painting. This involves drawing and painting many small studies that will, over time, give you a vocabulary of techniques you can use many times over in a wide range of subjects.

A drawing will help with composition and tonal values and can be produced quickly when out walking with just a pencil and small sketchbook. Painting small watercolour sketches do not take long and can also be painted under the shelter of a tree, large umbrella, a building, porch or even a bus shelter. These painted sketches will help you practise brush techniques and work out the colours needed when capturing that moment in time. They are never a waste of time. In fact, some of my best works are quick sketches and outdoor demonstrations.

The photograph that introduces this month’s project: Burnham Overy Staithe in Norfolk

The subject

The British coastline is always vulnerable to quick changes in weather conditions.

The subject photograph of Burnham Overy Staithe, Norfolk (above) is a typical example. With the forecast set fair, I set out one afternoon to paint this lovely creek. It took just 20 minutes to walk to the coast from my accommodation, but in that short time the mist had rolled in and I could feel damp in the air. It was not ideal for an outdoor watercolour painting, but perhaps a sketch or two would be possible.

I quickly snapped a photo before I started sketching. My chosen composition has a small section of foreground in the bottom left-hand corner and a small sailing boat just off centre to the right. These elements are darker and stronger in tone than any other part of the picture. The beach is also richer in colour and tone.

The middle distance comprises a large building on the left, the portal jetty and a verity of boats on the beach. These have less colour strength and are slightly lighter in tone. The distance appears blurred, out of focus and the colours are weak in strength. I needed to make a sketch or two as preparation for the main painting.

The pencil sketch

You will need:

  • Surface Canson mixedmedia Imagine pad, 81⁄4x151⁄4in. (21x39cm).
  • Derwent water-soluble pencils light, medium and dark wash
  • Brush Pro Arte No. 6 Round

I recommend you make a small pencil sketch before going in with the colour.

I used Derwent water-soluble pencils for sketching this scene. After completing the drawing you can soften and blend shaded areas with a damp brush to achieve a soft watercolour effect. I used a combination of the light, medium and dark wash pencils.

The distance was blurred and out of focus, and quite light so I used the light wash pencil to begin. If the pencil was sharp I shaded an area on a spare piece of paper to create a flat edge to the point. Shading lightly with the flat part of the pencil will give you a soft-looking mark.

As the large building and wood portal to the left was nearer, they had more definition. I used a medium wash pencil with a more rounded point for these areas.

The foreground boat, beach and bank stood out quite sharp and clear against the out-of-focus back drop so the sharpened point of a dark wash pencil was used here.

I only drew a small number of boats to balance the composition. I decided to add the orange mooring buoys and a couple more boats in the final painting.

Tonal sketch of the scene, graphite, (21x29cm)

Analyse your work

The photo, pencil sketch and colour study give us a good idea of composition, colour and tone but, as artists, we have the licence to change any of these elements where appropriate. When you paint, don’t be afraid to add your own stamp on the subject, not only with composition but also by changing colour and tone.

Watercolour study

You will need:

  • Surface Canson Vidalon 140lb watercolour paper 71⁄2x11in. (19x28cm)
  • Brushes Pro Arte Rounds No. 6 and 12
  • Watercolour Winsor &
  • Newton Professional Water Colour tubes: burnt sienna and cobalt blue

Step 1

The mist in the distance was the most difficult part of the painting to achieve so I set about painting a small study of that area. I quickly produced a pencil drawing of the distant land and buildings and the right-hand section of the middle distance building and beach along with reeds in the bottom right-hand corner.

Step 2

The sky and water are very light in tone so I dampened the entire paper with a No. 12 brush, allowing a couple of minutes for the water to absorb into the paper. Then, beginning at the top, I floated in a weak mix of cobalt blue and burnt sienna with the blue dominating the initial mix. Working down I added more water before adding more burnt sienna for the foreground water and beach.

Step 3

Before the wash was dry I used the No. 6 brush to add more cobalt blue to the distant land and buildings. I left some windows unpainted. For the roof areas I added more burnt sienna. I then painted the large building and beach with a strong mix of burnt sienna and a touch of cobalt blue. To add that extra misty look I quickly lifted off some of the colour in the distance. Any medium brush would work, but the brush must be just slightly damp. A wet brush will apply water and flood an area with water. A damp brush will absorb paint and so lift off the colour.

Step 4

Once dry I added another wash to the large building and quite a strong mix to an area to the right side and in front of the building, the jetty and foreground reeds and beach. I used more burnt sienna and a strong mix for this to create the effect of distance that’s so important in this subject.

Mist Study, watercolour, 71⁄2x11in. (19x28cm)

Painting project part two from the February 2019 issue of Leisure Painter

Demonstration Mist on the Coast

You will need:


  • 140lb Vidalon by Canson watercolour paper, 15x22in. (38x56cm)

Artists’ watercolour

  • Raw sienna
  • Cadmium yellow
  • Cobalt blue
  • Burnt sienna
  • Alizarin crimson


  • Squirrel mop No. 4
  • Rounds Nos. 6, 8 & 12
  • ProArte Rigger No. 4


  • 3B pencil
  • Mixing tray and water container

Step 1

1 Working from the photograph (see part one above), and the pencil sketch and watercolour study (see part one above), make an outline drawing using a sharpened 3B pencil. Because the far distant buildings and land will be quite weak in tone and colour, make the lines very light. I added a couple more boats and placed orange mooring buoys to the composition.

2. Using the No. 4 squirrel mop brush, thoroughly dampen the entire paper, except the boats in the foreground. Painting from the top, apply a medium-strength mix of cobalt blue with a little burnt sienna; add a little water near the horizon to lighten the colour.

3. Wash the colour all the way down to the bottom painting, working around the large boats.

4. Changing to a No. 12 Round, make a slightly stronger mix of the same two colours to produce a blue-grey and paint the distant trees and land carefully, working around the building roof lines. You will experience a bleed of colour from the trees into the buildings, but this will enhance the effect of mist.

5. Adding more water and burnt sienna to the mix, paint the roof and some of the beach area in the middle distance.

6. Still working quickly, before it’s completely dry, add more of both colours to produce a fairly strong warm-grey and paint the gable ends and an area in front and to the right of the buildings.

7. After cleaning the brush and removing some of the water on kitchen towel, lift off colour in front of the buildings and distant land. To guard against over working, I walked away from the painting and enjoyed a mid-morning cup of coffee.

Step 2

1. When completely dry, make a start on the more intense middle-distance building and foreground beach. Use the No. 8 brush and the same two colours – with burnt sienna dominating the mix – for the roof and chimney of the left-hand building.

2. Add more blue to turn the mix grey-black for the gable of the dormer roof, windows and lower front wall, leaving the paper untouched just above the harbour wall. Then lightly tint with separate mixes of alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow and cobalt blue in places, giving an impression of figures and boats on the quay.

3. Paint the narrow grass verge on top of the quay with cadmium yellow and cobalt blue.

4. Clean your brush and use burnt sienna with a touch of blue to paint the sloping beach. To achieve the effect use brushstrokes that slope down towards the waterline.

5. As you work forward add more burnt sienna, painting around the boats and making sure the waterline has an uneven edge. With the point of the brush, add the left-hand foreground land.

Step 3

1. At this stage you need to gauge whether any areas need adjustment. Because the large building was too weak in tone and colour, I applied another wash of burnt sienna to the roof and chimney with a No. 6 brush. Using the same mix with more blue added, I added one more grey wash over the gable end, windows and lower building.

2. I now needed to give more tone and colour to the jetty, marsh bank and boats. I used a mix of burnt sienna and cobalt blue and the point of the No. 6 for the jetty. The marsh bank to the right was the same two colours, but with raw sienna added to achieve a yellow-green hue. These two areas give real depth and perspective to the scene.

3. With the adjustments made, paint the boats and mooring buoys using cobalt blue, burnt sienna and alizarin crimson. The rim of the foreground boat is cobalt and the base of the hull is pure alizarin. All other boats are painted with progressively less colour and tone.

Step 4

1. I deepened the colour of the small bank (bottom left corner) and foreground boat using the No. 6 brush then changed to a No. 4 Rigger for the mast and rigging. Burnt sienna, alizarin crimson and cobalt blue are the colours used with burnt sienna dominating the mix.

2. Although the daylight is only subtle there is still a weak shadow under the boats and inside their hulls. Use cobalt blue and burnt sienna, using less colour and tone for the middle and distant boats.

3. Finally add the the reflections with cobalt blue and a touch of burnt sienna, using horizontal brushstrokes and leaving gaps to indicate water movement.

The finished painting

Mist on the Coast, watercolour on Canson Vidalon 140lb watercolour paper, 15x22in. (38x56cm)

Colin Steed

To view all of Colin’s internet platforms search colinsteedart or email for more details of his work, lectures and demonstrations.

If you complete this painting project, please email your images to to be included in the PaintersOnline gallery.

How to paint a misty coastal scene in watercolour with Colin Steed


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