Nitty Gritty

This is not only the title I chose for this week’s painting, but also an incentive to discuss a bit something that’s been troubling me since I first started painting in watercolours. The ‘nitty gritty’ of my watercolours if I may say so.

As you know, my particular preference for this medium is due to its nature – which is … well, natural – it flows like a river, it interacts with its environment and it shapes it as it pleases. Therefore, watercolours are the perfect medium for any representation that is natural – human figure, animals, plants, landscapes. Not so well when it comes to ‘artificial’ or better said, man made structures (from the smallest to the largest). Don’t get me wrong – this is just my personal opinion. I saw absolutely amazing watercolour artists that redefined a street scene with their brush better than any other artist. No, this is entirely about MY misgivings. I HAVE the hardest time painting anything that is not organic, natural – a straight line puts me in panic mode and a ‘hard edge’ between two objects hyper-ventilates me.

But I am one of those crazy people in any horror films who always open the basement door even though an entire cinema yells ‘don’t go there!!’ – because I have to do it even if it kills me (well, metaphorically speaking).

So, almost every month I do a street scene or something similar. I am never pleased with it, but every time I learn a bit about my technique what I did and shouldn’t have done or the other way around.

It’s pointless I think to tell you again of how important is perspective drawing in painting a street scene – everything in the street is massively relying on our skills of depicting it correctly.

This time I worked on a 20x40cm Daler-Rowney 300gsm paper (lovely format)


I started as per usual, with a very sketchy, contours only line drawing. Don’t press to hard on the pencil – many times, after I finished a painting, I see those lines and they drive me up the walls. But if I haven’t pressed too hard, I am able to erase them – only when the painting is absolutely dry of course!

I can also recommend you to try using a watercolour pencil instead of a graphite one – no more lines to see through your lovely painting! They dissolve to the lightest contact with water. But you have to be very careful if you want to paint wet on wet, your base sketch might disappear.

I kept with the classics and I used a regular graphite and this is the sketch:



First wash is the base of everything – it settles the mood of the painting – and is of course, the lightest colour you can see. Because, of course, we always work from light to dark – from the almost invisible colour to the darkest dark.


That is not to say we don’t use dark colours at all – in fact, I usually put the lightest colour of an area, no matter how dark or light that area might be.

Again, I haven’t mixed any colours on my palette, everything happened on the paper, wet on dry (first touch), then wet on wet when other colours are added.

I think I will make a new post just for this only – it seems a lot of people are interested in this.

As I tend to get carried away – as one does – I work a bit more in an area that captured my interest. A dark pool of water on the side of the pavement as it receives both natural and artificial light. Again, loaded the brush with the new pigment (think of milk in terms of consistency) and touched a corner of another colour I just added (all wet of course). Here is a detail of the puddle after the first touches



Because nothing is as good as a ‘first time wet’ paper, I tend to preserve it – and this is one of the reasons I let myself getting carried away. Below, I added more first washes and also started to build up some definition to the ones already in place.

You’ll notice that I really didn’t care about ‘going over the lines’ of my sketch – I usually don’t, but that depends a lot of the style you chose for your painting and also if you want to preserve that as white or not. As I said, planning is everything – it would be good for me to put my brush where my mouth, but more times than I care to remember I toss all the planning and just paint instictively.



Building up the contrast and details is essential, especially when you don’t intend to paint all the details of an image – just like me with those many cars. I think I would go mad if I would have to paint every single car (well I would probably go mad if I would have to paint even a single car!!) As I was told I am more of an ‘impressionist’ inclination, I only want to convince you there are cars, not to actually paint them. Let you do the rest of the work. And it’s all a ‘light and shadows’ show – which means, preserving the whites and applying contrasts in the places that matter.

Mostly done on dry (first wash) then wet on wet (second wash over the second and so forth) – and this is the place to discuss another issue that was brought to my attention yesterday and is way too important to pass it over.

The focus of our picture – I would be very curious to tell me where do you think the focus is in the below finished painting.

From what I learned, it’s important to keep the focus just off-centre and to make it very clear that is the focus and nothing else. Also, not to create a composition that would drag the viewers eyes outside the painting. Well, my experience dragged me sideways (it tends to do this) and sometimes my focus is either all over the place or completely impossible to determine. Bad point for me, yet another thing to work on.

But – and this is a bit ‘but’ – as I previously told you, I believe the composition of a painting is something extremely personal and I don’t think following the rules to the letter is good for an artist (as budding as one can be). Focal point in your painting is where you want it to be. If the composition works for you, keep it going.

As for my focal point here – well, is everywhere. I didn’t want you to concentrate your attention in a specific place, I didn’t even want to be a slave of the actual place (hence the lack of details). It’s a feeling I wanted to convey (part of the key is in the title) and if I managed or not… I honestly don’t know.

I do hope you will let me know your thoughts about this and any questions you might have.

Have a happy week and for the lucky ones – happy painting!

Nitty Gritty


Getting acquainted

As this is my first blog entry – on my first blog and my first website (lots of firsts, you must agree) – I thought it will be wise to begin by asking for your patience as I am trying to figure out what is the best way to share with you my thoughts and discoveries.
As a first post, it will be a long one, as I want to introduce you to ‘what makes me tick’.
There will be obviously loads of mishaps and probably even more trials and errors, but I am determined to spread my love of watercolours.
I read and seen a lot about watercolours techniques, not so much about its history (I should really brush up my art history!) and the first thing that occurred to me was that most of the art world consider the watercolours if not a ‘sub-class’ of painting mediums, certainly just a stepping stone towards the ‘real’ painting which is ‘of course’, done in oils.
The majority fails to acknowledge how much more difficult it is as a technique than acrylics or oils, how immediate our reaction as artists has to be in front of the blank page. Watercolours are quick and unforgiving with our dilemmas, we need to make up our mind quick and firm otherwise the paints will do it for us. We don’t have the luxury of coating our mistakes with paint and start fresh. Watercolours are alive, dynamic and have their own say in whatever we are trying to show on paper. And that’s why I love them so much.
This love and understanding of this exquisite medium is something that I just have to share with you and hopefully, will turn a head or two from oils and acrylics.
Don’t get me wrong – I love other mediums too! Just recently I started painting with acrylics and – after a few near misses – I got to a point where I was quite pleased with my results. But I was also shocked of how EASY it felt in comparison with watercolours. Messed up a corner? No worries, cover it and paint over it. These trials of mine with the acrylic paints also led to an epiphany – I needed to mix my colours!!
Which brings us nicely to my – let’s call it – idiosyncrasy. As a watercolourist, I don’t mix my paints! Of course, I didn’t realise it until I saw loads of other artists spending hours getting just the right colour, preparing them nicely on the palette. And not until I had to do the same with my acrylic paints because – guess what! – acrylics don’t ‘move’ like watercolours do! It might seem like a no brainer, but for me it was a revelatiion.
I’m not conscientious about NOT mixing them, I am just painting. I chose the colours by sight and I still haven’t got the slightest idea what is the difference between yellow gamboge and cadmium yellow! For me is a warm yellow. I thought this is one reason which will render me useless as a teacher/tutor to anyone who would like to pick up watercolour painting. But then I realised that you really don’t need to know the fancy names of the colours! One needs to learn how to really see what’s in front of you, to see colours where someone else sees black or white and experiment with your paints.
Because – I have to say it again – this is the beauty of watercolours. Water, as a symbol of life, makes them alive. You don’t NEED to mix your colours on the palette, the paints will do it for you, directly on the paper! Why paint in watercolour if you don’t use their most incredible and characteristic feature – movement!?
A wet/damp piece of paper or a neighbouring drop of water is all they need to make the magic happen!
Oh dear, I did digress a lot. Need to learn to hold on my passion riddled tongue, otherwise none will have the patience to actually read my blog!
So, to finally arrive at the main subject of this entry – being spring (albeit a freezing one), the time for new beginnings when all that is springs (sic) to life – I thought you might want to know how I painted the daffodils. So here it is…


Firstly – and I can’t stress this enough – you must practice your drawing skills. No painting, in any medium, happens without a solid drawing skill. Learn to really see your subject, proportions, gesture (yes, flowers can have gestures), perspective (and yes, I’m afraid perspective knowledge is required for any drawing, from portraits to still life and buildings). But, assuming you already honed your drawing to an acceptable level, let’s get started.

I tried a lot of watercolour paints – well, the brands that were suitable for my ever shrinking pocket – and I got settled to a largely underused brand. I use with great gusto the St. Petersburg ‘White Nights’ full pans – the pans are large enough for a big brush, they’re moist and very pigmented, with a brilliant array of colours. I also use Daler Rowney’s Aquafine tubes – especially the Burnt Sienna (yes, this name I know, because it’s my favourite paint), indigo and some pinks. Both of them are quite cheap by comparison with other artist grade paints.
For this painting, I only used two brushes – again, some underdogs. I have a set of brushes made of pony hair designed for Chinese calligraphy and I used the smallest one, mostly because the hairs are not that long and it offers a great control. This set costs £11. I also have a set of Royal & Langnickel Golden Taklon Detail Round Synthetic Paint Brushes – which set me back a whopping £2.79 – and I used no.3 for details.


Of course, you will also need a 300gsm/ 140 lb watercolour paper (NOT cold pressed is the most versatile) – to avoid stretching it beforehand (something I never do), a board of some sorts, masking tape and a pencil.

My point is – you don’t need expensive materials (although incessant buying can make a painful dent in your wallet) to produce beautiful artwork. And as my wallet is constantly complaining, I believe I managed to achieve a perfect balance between quality materials and costs.


I usually work with photo references and I try as much as possible to use my own. As I just bought a bunch of lovelies, I set up my composition and took a picture. The drawing, as you see, is mostly a contour line that will give me enough indication as to the main features of the flower and its relationship with the rest.

I will not discuss now about composition or other things, as I personally believe a composition is a deeply personal and subjective thing. In other words, whatever works for you!



I don’t remember where I read that a watercolour painting should have a maximum of three washes/ layers/ glazes. Personally, I took this with a pinch of salt (like most of the rules in art) – so I can end up with as much as 6 or 7 washes, if I believe my painting needs more contrast.

In watercolour we always paint from light to dark – which means start with the lightest colours and build up to the darkest. And that is a rule I never break.

Think of the first wash as the one that looks like ‘colour of the light’, so that would be the lightest colour you can see, next to the absolute white which is the highlight. I am never a ‘planner’ as I should be and many times I get carried away and my ‘light’, ‘mid-tone’ and ‘dark’ washes get mixed-up, as I chose to develop one side instead of working on the entire painting at once.

To get highlights in watercolour, you either use masking fluid (if you’re not bothered by a hard edge) or simply avoid painting it. The white of watercolour is always the white of the paper. I start to think I am a purist, as I feel deeply guilty when I use white paint (in pure watercolour painting, white and black are not allowed, as they are not really ‘colours’). In this case, I simply painted around the highlights (the so-called ‘negative painting’)

You’ll see that again, I got carried away – the first wash should always be the lightest colour.



– OR 2ND and 3rd LAYER

There is no rule that would divide clearly where the 2nd wash ends and the 3rd one starts. Or, at least, there isn’t one that I know – or follow.

Rule of thumb though – always, always paint from the back to the front. The background (or objects in the background) are less detailed (less contrast and less pigment) where the front/forward will be much more developed – more detail, more contrast and more pigment. I cannot stress enough how important the contrast/depth it is in any painting. Many people tend to think that watercolours are ‘wishy-washy’, a description made by an artist (yes, I know!!) that I found deeply offensive. Yes, they can be – but they aren’t. To avoid this, contrast is imperative.

Contrast is given by a continuous build-up of layers on specific areas.

Bellow you have the three stages on this painting – as I work left to right, this happens to me quite a lot. The bud on the left for instance, is already as detailed as I want it to be. You can clearly see the petals squished together, the folds of the paper thin, brown thingy (by the way, can anyone tell me what that is and what’s the name for it?) and the clear bulbous shape. Mostly wet on wet, with the minute details done after drying time.

The middle flower is in it’s 2nd stage – where more definition is given by applying another layer of more pigmented paint, but none of the details are in place.

And the third daffy on the right is of course, only after the first wash – although the stem just underneath the flower, where is the darkest spot, is already done (that’s me, carried away)



For me the watercolours are like making my favourite soup – I know all the ingredients, I know the routine by heart and try to follow it by the letter, but I never, ever manage to do it. So the results are always surprising.

The last stage in any watercolour paint should be the details by building up sufficient contrast to allow for these details to be seen. You can easily see the difference from the previous image to the one below.

Watercolours can be instinctive and quick, but you have to slow down to do a quick painting. Seems like a nonsense, but it’s not. It’s something that my life-drawing teacher told me once and hit me like a brick “To do the 5 minutes poses, you have to slow down. Don’t rush. Breathe, calm down and draw”.

Because watercolours are so quick – and one ‘must preserve the water drop’ (can’t remember who said this, one of the two greatest watercolourists in the world, Alvaro Castagnet or Joseph Zbukvick) – is tempting to rush in (which I often do), but actually require a lot of careful planning of each and every one of the steps. One can always come back with a waterspray if the drop died.

So have a lie-in, relax and think about your next masterpiece.

And don’t forget to subscribe and let me know your thoughts!

Happy Saturday!



P.S.: Before I figure out how this blogging really works, just remember that if you don’t see a comments box below, there is a comments link is at the top of the page. Promise to iron out all these kind of inconveniences!