Keeping a sketchbook is a great pleasure as well as good practice and although I rarely create finished paintings from any of my sketches, I do use them as a source of inspiration for my colourful designs. Here’s how I do it.

You will need:


  • Seawhite sketchbook
  • RWS 140lb NOT watercolour paper 6x6in. (15x15cm)

Winsor & Newton Professional Water Colour

  • Winsor blue (green shade)
  • Cobalt
  • Cerulean
  • Pale turquoise
  • Indigo
  • Alizarin crimson
  • Cadmium red
  • Cadmium yellow
  • Raw sienna


  • Daler-Rowney Aquafine and Winsor & Newton sable brushes Nos. 6 & 3


  • Tracing paper
  • Unipin waterproof sketching pens (0.2 and 0.3)

Step 1

1. Everything begins in a sketchbook; that’s where ideas are born. Draw and doodle, fill your head with shapes and stock up your brain with new things, looked at from every angle. Regular sketching is like writing or practising music; it keeps the door to ideas wide open and the creative muscle in good shape.

2. Choose a theme based on a place, an event or something you enjoy. I’m going to work on a parade of sail. The shapes are a familiar language to me so I have the vocabulary available to create my story. Whatever your subject, get to know it well then you can play around with it. Even everyday subjects can be used creatively – for example, your garden, food, household objects or a favourite place.

Step 2

Become immersed in your subject. Taking part in a little festival of sail in Cornwall during the summer, I sketched nonstop, capturing boats from all shapes and angles. I didn’t mind that nothing was finished and that sometimes my drawings were just a few lines or not accurate. I was filling the store cupboard! I also took plenty of photographs to add to the memory pot.

Step 3

1. Back in the studio, turning those pages of memories into a cohesive design needs sketching of a different kind – what I call ‘thinking with a pencil’. I begin with a square, as that’s the shape I like to make into greetings cards, coasters and tiles. With sketchbook pages and photographs to hand, I play around with shapes and see what makes a pleasing design. I’m not trying to make a scene in perspective; this is all about playing with shapes.

2. Don’t do just one design – keep playing. I make a series of simple sketches with no detail. I play with overlaps (two boats make a different shape when one goes behind the other) and find ways to link shapes together and create interest in empty spaces, such as a flying seagull, waves or smaller boats. The spaces in between are just as important as the ‘things’ themselves.

Step 4

1. When you have a design that you think might work, pick up your tracing paper. Tracing paper makes it easy to try out different variations of the same theme without having to keep rubbing out and re-drawing. I can lay tracing paper over the design and add bits, moving the shapes around. It’s easy to rub out too, as long as your lines aren’t too heavy. For this stage I work in squares 15x15cm as that’s the size of card I like and it’s good for framed prints, too.

2. Eventually you’ll end up with a clear and more detailed design on tracing paper – it’s coming into focus. Don’t skip this stage, as it’s important not to leave too much unresolved when it comes to drawing on watercolour paper. Too much rubbing out spoils the surface of the paper so unless you are one of those lucky people who can draw accurately the first time, make the design as good as you can before you start.

3. Now transfer the traced design to watercolour paper. I use a light box, but if you don’t have one, transfer the design in the traditional way by drawing on the back of the tracing paper then drawing over again on the front.

4. Strengthen the drawing, adding detail where needed. I keep the pencil lines as clear and as light as possible so they can be removed later without damaging the paper.

Step 5

At last it’s time for the pen lines and there’s no going back now! I go over the pencil design carefully. If there’s a space that looks too empty, I’ll get the tracing paper out again and see what it needs – a seagull perhaps? When I’m happy with the pen work, the pencil lines can be rubbed out very gently and carefully. I use a Derwent art eraser as I find putty rubbers become far too grubby.

Step 6

Now, finally it’s time for the colour, but this stage is not to be rushed. There are decisions to make about which colours to use and what kind of atmosphere to aim for – cheerful and bright or subtle and more monochrome? The main colours in this design will be blue, red and white/cream. I do plenty of patch testing on a spare piece of paper with a range of turquoise blues, Winsor blue green shade and cerulean. It’s important to familiarise yourself with your colours and become as familiar with their characters as you do your friends and family. Make sure you’re happy with your colour choices before diving in; there are no second chances!

I use a plate as a palette, squeezing the paint out around the edge of the plate so, at the end of the session, I just need to wipe the mess in the middle, leaving the unused paint for another day. To mix colours, I’ll make two puddles of paint and scoop up a bit of each on my brush to avoid over-mixing and let the blending happen on the paper. I like bright colours so I use plenty of pigment, but still add enough water to make the paint flow with a light touch. Load the brush with as little or as much paint as you need to fill the space.

Step 7

This style of watercolour is more graphic than my usual looser, sketchier style of pen and wash so it’s your decision whether you keep it neat or let the colours go outside the lines, but whatever you go for, you’ll still need to be careful to wait for adjacent colours to dry to avoid ending up with a muddy mess.

Step 8

Let the first washes dry completely then add further layers where needed. I put a few deeper swirls over the sea, and created more intensity in the red sails. A third layer added final touches of deeper colour, like the shadows on the sails.

Step 9

When is it finished? It’s easy to do too much so stop and put it aside for a while. Alternatively, look at it in a mirror – sometimes you need a fresh view. When I am sure I’m happy with it, I’ll scan it (I don’t have a special scanner, just a cheap Epson scanner/printer) as a high-resolution tiff file before framing the original.


Once I have the scan (see above), I put the design to work. Now I spend time at the computer rather than the drawing board. I’ll crop it, but not too closely, to allow for bleed space all round when having cards printed. I also tweak the colour intensity – turning the brightness down and the contrast up a little seems to help.

Cards are easier than ever to print now and you don’t need to have hundreds done if you want to test small quantities. Your local printer will give you a quotation, or there are plenty of good online print services available (, which I use are helpful on the end of the phone or email if you have problems). If you choose an unusual size or format make sure you can find envelopes to fit.

I also enjoy printing my designs as coasters and tiles. Sublimation printing is not cheap, but it enables you to make a wide range of products and the equipment doesn’t take up too much space in the studio.

Finally, I’m often asked by students how they can develop their own style of painting. It will happen all by itself over time – just like your handwriting did – but only if you keep at it, keep doodling, sketching, playing around with lines and colours, just for the hell of it, without any thought of the result. Do it because you love it and the results will come anyway.

Claudia Myatt

Claudia lives in Suffolk on an elderly tugboat; her studio is a converted farm building near Woodbridge. She runs a wide range of art courses locally and further afield, afloat and ashore. Visit her website for details and

Claudia leads workshops for Art Safari. Visit for details.

This feature is taken from the February 2019 issue of Leisure Painter

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