'The prospect of painting and sketching in desert lands in endless sunshine is appealing, although the reality can be somewhat different. Intense heat dries watercolour washes quickly, which can force errors; bright sunlight on your watercolour paper can create a blinding glare with consequent strain on the eyes, as well as making it difficult to assess tonal values accurately,' says David Bellamy.

'Here we look at how I tackle some of my subjects, and include some tips for those who wish to paint these fascinating places.'

Keep a sketchbook handy


Dining room at the Old Cataract Hotel

I always keep a sketchbook handy when travelling by train, bus, camel, donkey, or when dining as in this case, otherwise valuable images can easily be missed.

Here I used an A5 cartridge book and a pencil, working quickly to establish the main features.

The ceiling in this enormous and spellbinding place goes up much higher than shown. It seemed to stretch up to the clouds.

I coloured in the sketch later in my room, using the colour notes I’d written.

Content continues after advertisements

Sketching and painting kit for hot places

  • Box of watercolour half-pan paints – I add an extra red and yellow to my normal set
  • Reserve of a few important colours, such as French ultramarine, in tubes
  • Sketchbooks of varying sizes, mainly cartridge paper
  • Homemade folder of watercolour paper with a variety of surface textures
  • A variety of brushes, pens and pencils
  • Water pot, eraser, and a set-square for complicated architecture
  • A wide-brimmed hat is essential
  • Sunglasses without coloured tints
  • An umbrella or parasol is useful for keeping the sun off your work when you can't find any shade

I keep all these items in a rucksack, as well as an additional A6 format sketchbook and pencil stubs in my pockets.

Keeping watercolours wet

For lengthy work you need to seek shade, which is not always available.

The first time I added glycerine to the painting water to slow the rate of drying, I applied far too much and the watercolour painting didn’t dry for two weeks.

Additionally, when you sit down to sketch or paint you become something of an interesting object for the local kids. While this can provide some fascinating insights into local life, it can often become extremely distracting when you need to concentrate wholly on the subject you are painting.

Yet despite all these distractions and discomforts I nevertheless find sketching and painting in the eastern lands rewarding in so many ways.

Al Qasr, Bawiti

I enjoy creating a narrative which in this case shows the donkey patiently waiting for his master to finish his natter with the locals.

Top tip

When applying large washes of colour I flood the surface with clean water first and then lay on the colour, to produce a more even wash.

Light and distance

Strong sunlight, of course does not ensure that everything in the scene is clearly visible.

Most of the time you can see well into the distance in the desert and desert mountain regions, and this can be a problem where you wish to create atmosphere or reduce overwhelming detail in a scene, or to emphasize a feature by subduing adjacent elements.

There have been times when a rain squall has blotted out desert peaks and clouds covered summits, but these situations are extremely rare, except in places like Lebanon.

My usual answer is to introduce haze to soften off strong features of crags, cliffs and mountainsides, losing large areas of detail at times.

In some cases the haze was actually present as shown, but in others I have deliberately introduced it to throw emphasis on to other parts of the scene.

Goats in Wadi Khishkaseh, Rum

Bringing some form of life into a landscape is often essential so I take every opportunity to record figures, animals and birds (such as below) so that even if they are not present in a scene I am painting, I can introduce them to enhance the composition.

Saeed, Ashraf and Dolly the goat

These are typical quick pencil sketches of people in action, drafted mainly in outline with the shading filled in after the moment has passed.

I look more for movement and gestures rather than detail such as faces, and sometimes it’s the humour shown briefly that I wish to capture. In this scene from the Gilf Kebir expedition Saeed was making a point to Ashraf, while Dolly just fitted onto the page because she happened to be the next thing I saw.

Time of day

Sketching outside in front of the subject has always been my favourite way of working, using a variety of media, then producing the final painting in the studio from the sketches and photographs.

In the Middle East one of the joys of painting is the constant and reliable light.

Qasr al Din, Dakhla Oasis

One technique I relish imposing on a composition is to restrict my palette to a few harmonious colours as I have done in this scene in the Western Desert.

This imparts a pleasing sense of unity on the subject, although in this case there was little colour variation.

Here I have mainly applied burnt umber, plus some light red (mainly in the foreground), and a few touches of French ultramarine for the darkest tones.

For the sky and one or two other places I used yellow ochre. In all this I have tried to keep the few colours within the warmer spectrum of the colour wheel to achieve a feeling of unity.

To capture the brightness of the light on paper involves painting fairly strong contrasts of tonal values. Painting in the middle of the day presents difficulties with the sun directly overhead, but at different times when the subject is back-lit, often with a halo effect, one can achieve a more dramatic result.

Much of the subject’s detail becomes lost in dark shadow tones, almost like a silhouette while adding a sense of mystery, and this strong contrast with the sunlit areas produces a powerful suggestion of strong light.

Léon Belly (1827–1877), the French Orientalist, often employed this technique in his desert scenes. He took a methodical approach, and for his monumental Pilgrims Going to Mecca he is reputed to have done hundreds of preliminary studies in preparation for that particular painting.

Painting people

Art can cross language barriers without effort and before you know it you are enjoying interaction with the locals.

I’ve found the people across the Arabian Peninsula always kind and helpful, and often ebullient and entertaining.

I’ve never been asked for money to sketch someone here, as I have, for example, in the Himalayas, where an old woman insisted on payment to sketch her beautiful walnut-crinkled face. When I made the mistake of showing her the result, she was so offended that she demanded compensation.

On meeting a nomad group in the desert on one occasion I began to draw one of their camels. A number of little boys watched in great fascination and were quick to point out the rude parts of the bull camel, urging me to emphasize these features.

I have included more figures in these paintings than in any previous body of work, mainly because of the colour and life they introduce. It seems to me that in the West these days I don’t see so many characterful individuals as I used to, but wonderfully distinctive folk pop up regularly in the Middle East.

Also, while in more developed countries people might simply press a button or use a mechanical means to achieve a task, the Arabs generally carry these out with physical exertion, such as loading donkeys, riding camels, women carrying pitchers of water or perhaps car spare parts on their heads (yes, it could be anything!), and so on.

Even smoking a narghile has far more picturesque content than having a drag on a half-smoked fag.

Mr Niff

This pen sketch, done while standing in the street, was accompanied by the usual Egyptian banter from the adjoining store-holders and the odd passer-by. They related how Mr Niff the draper acquired his nickname because of the extraordinary way in which he blew his nose, and that his real name was Abu Ruhman. Mr Niff seemed quite happy for me to draw him, but declined to offer a nose-blowing demonstration.

As with many sketches that need colour, I carried out this one using a fine pen, and added notes on the main colours directly on the sketch as can be seen here.

Later in the day I then apply the colours, aided by the notes and any photographs I have taken – and not least, my memory of the scene.

Mutrah Harbour

Tonal values are normally more important to me than colour and in this sketch, carried out only in pencil on the spot, I needed to record the most important tonal relationships in the scene.

For this I hatched with mainly vertical pencil lines as can be seen on the shadow sides of the white buildings.

By drawing pencil lines in this way the subsequent watercolour when applied back in the hotel, would take to the paper better than if I had scrawled the pencil tone over the paper and created a resistant sheen.

The reason I was unable to paint on the spot was because darkness fell quickly.

This extract is taken from David's book Arabian Light


David also has a range of instructional DVDs available