How to Avoid Cauliflower (the watercolour variety, not the vegetable)

Blooms, washbacks, backflow, cauliflowers … whatever you call it when you’re painting wet-into-wet watercolour and the colour you just applied pushes out the one already down, rather than making friends and sitting with it. There’s one rule to avoiding it (or to use if you deliberately want to get this result, much as watercolour purists might shudder at the thought). In the words of that skilled Australian watercolourist John Lovett:

If you are painting a soft edge into a wet wash, make sure there is more pigment in the color you are applying than is in the underlying wash or obvious blooms will be created.”
Source: John Lovett, Watercolour Edges


So how do you know whether you’ve got more pigment or not? Like everything, practice. It starts by deliberately considering it, and eventually it becomes ingrained knowledge, instinctive. If in doubt, add more pigment (“thick paint”). Or pull some of the water from the brush hairs by holding a piece of paper towel to the ferrule end of the hairs, a tip the artist Katie Lee taught me.

Updated Advice on Acrylic Paint to Water Ratio

Paint Brushes
Artist Marion Boddy-Evans in her studio

There’s now one less thing to worry about when painting, and it’s how much water you can or should mix with acrylic paint without ruining its adhesion. Golden Artist Colors (a USA employee-owned company renowned for its artist’s quality paint and techical info) have updated their advice:

“For years our standard advice was that a 1:1 ratio was very safe for most of our paints and mediums; plus, it had the advantage of being easy to remember while greatly erring on the side of caution. However, our current testing shows you can go a lot further than that before encountering significant issues. Just how far? We think you will be surprised.”

The article gets into the specifics, but for me this is the takeaway:

“We got no adhesion failure of any of our paints, no matter how thinned down with water, when applied on top of acrylic gesso.”

In the FAQ on thinning acrylics I wrote for in 2006 (my original version, as here, not the current surreal rewritten-by-who-knows-who version) I’d said this:

“When it comes to thinning acrylics, the only ‘rule’ is to not mix acrylic paint with more than 50 per cent water. Any more than this and it may loose its adhesive qualities and peel off at some stage. You can mix in as much acrylic medium (glazing, texture paste, etc) as you like because it’s got the acrylic resin in it that acts as the ‘glue’ that makes the paint ‘stick’. (Golden describe their mediums as ‘colorless paint’! )”

If painting on a large canvas, I tend to use glazing medium as well as water to thin paint because in addition to adding “glue” it also increases working time (slows drying). Mostly I simply don’t think about it, and merrily spray paint with water to make it drip and run.

Where I have encountered adhesion issues is with water-thinned acrylic ink lifting as I brush over it, despite being touch dry. Leaving it overnight helps, presumably as the paint binder then cures. I sometimes then also apply a layer of glazing medium with a soft brush, leaving this overnight again, before continuing on top. But mostly if I find it’s lifting — you see the colour appearing on the brush — I just keep going and deal with it.

Minch Seascape painting horizon

March 2019 Painting Project: Instructions

Reference photo for March 2019 painting prohect

This month I’ve selected a photo that offers the option of going wide with a broad landscape view or zooming in on a detail. Plus an extra photo with some other elements you might add into your painting, or all if you prefer it. There is one requirement for this month — your painting must include a passing places sign, however small. The road in this photos is single-track, and where you get such roads, there you find passing places signs. The older signs have a diamond shape, which is easy to identify at a distance; the newer signs are boringly square.

Here’s the wide view, with mountains disappearing into the distance, a road to lead your eye into the middle distance, and a couple of sheep alongside a passing places sign to give a focal point.

Reference photo for March 2019 painting prohect

I would edit out the electricity poles and wires, and the raindrops on the camera lens. The grass in the foreground is quite blue to my eye (blue-green rather than yellow-green) and with the aerial perspective (that distant things get lighter in tone and bluer in colour the further away they are) it could be interesting to paint this with a warmer blue-green in the foreground and cooler, paler blues in the distance. (Have a look at Michael Chelsea Johnson’s paintings for this warm/cool near/far colour shift, he does it beautifully.)

Alternately, exaggerate and emphasise colours, be playful and emotional. Turn a hint of something into a rich version of that colour. For instance the browns in the tufts to sienna-golds, the grass greens to sunlit yellows. What about starting with brighter-than-you-think colour and subdue it with subsequent layers, rather than mixing restrained colours.

Another option would be to focus on a smaller section of the painting. What catches your attention or interest? Might you change these sheep into ones with horns inspired from February’s project?

Reference photo for March 2019 painting prohect

How about adding some other elements into your composition? This photo was taken further down the same road, giving you a passing place sign, post box, red phone box, wheelie bin, gate, and a croft house (plus multiple electricity poles and wires). You might prefer this stretch of road, curving around the corner.

Reference photo for March 2019 painting prohect

The video below (click here if you don’t see it) was taken while I was working on one of my paintings inspired by the photos I chose for March’s project. It’s about 20 minutes of real-time painting (I know this because of the playtime of the original video not because I keep track whilst I’m painting) sped up to two. A couple of things I noticed when watching it was how the board wobbles, something I’m not aware of when painting, and how I shifted the position of the brush in my fingers when I started using the rigger to do the letter, to how I would hold a pen for writing, with the control in my fingers rather than wrist.

I’ll post a photo gallery of February’s project paintings on Sunday, so do send me yours if you haven’t already. Also any from January. Happy painting!

My thanks to all the Project Patrons who help keep my blog advert free and enable me to spend the time on the monthly projects. Project Patrons get access to exclusive extra content on my Patreon page, as well as the option of a critique of their project paintings. It works like a monthly subscription, find out more here.

My Little Secret About Painting Ram Horns

Sheep painting with seven sheep against yellow background

I’ve had a few comments from February’s project participants about not being able to paint horns like I do. Let me let you into a little secret: in my studio I have a pencil drawing of a horn the in-house art critic did for me several years ago as a ‘cheatsheet’ for the shading because I kept getting myself muddled and stressed.

Ram Horn Drawing Diagram

It’s a bit cryptic, reduced to four elements — outline line, white highlight, shaded shadow, and twisted-form zigzag . It reminds me of the essentials, without the distraction of colour, pattern, or ridges, or position of ears. It’s been in the corner, within view though not consciously seen every day. Encouragement and reassurance, a reminder and incentive. It’s taken me ages to feel I can do horns to a level that consistently pleases me, but I feel I’ve got there now, probably.

drawing ram horns in ink

If you scroll through my sheep paintings you’ll see how horns pop up now and again, but not often. That’s changed over the last few months, even going to this extreme:

Sheep painting with seven sheep against yellow background
“The Seven Ram-ewe-rai”. Diptych, 100x50m (two panels of 50x50cm). In my studio. £645 . (Title is derived from the film The Seven Samurai)
Ram painting
Prize Ram. Acrylic on watercolour paper A2 size (approx 42x59cm). In my studio.
Sheep Painting "Down Off the Hills" by Marion Boddy-Evans
“Down off the Hills”. 100x100cm. £795. In my studio
“Two Ply”. 70x60cm. £595, Contact Skyeworks Gallery on

Become a Project Patron and get access to exclusive extra content, including step-by-step demos. Find out more here…

Scratching an Inky Itch

Black ink and a big coarse brush

It started with something familiar, using Payne’s grey acrylic ink to do the line drawing that’s the basis of the composition. My next step usually would be to spray the ink and let it run, or to wet a brush and turn the still-wet ink into wash, or to leave the line to dry entirely (the latter being the least-chosen option). But this time, as I picked up the brush to dip it into some water, I found myself looking at the dry, scratchy hairs and wondering what result I’d get if I drybrushed the still-wet areas of ink. Only one way to find out, of course, and that’s to give into the impulse and see what happens.

Black ink and a big coarse brush
I did wipe the brush a few times to ensure it stayed “drybrush”, but most of the ink had dried already.

This is what the ink lines looked like before I starting drybrushing them; that awkward vertical in the middle is supposed to be a single-track roadsign:

Black ink line drawing for composition

After I’d drybrushed, I dipped the brush into water (the tip, I didn’t want to wash out the ink in the brush) and added some light-grey watery wash.

Black ink line drawing with wash for composition

It’s the beginning of my first attempt using the reference photo I’ve selected for next month’s painting project. So far so good.

I’ll end with the redaction poem I did as the morning’s warm-up exercise:

This is interesting for many reasons.
I feel that not too much has changed.
The time had come.
We shall not fail.
Fear. Flinch.
So be it then.
A sleepless night.

Redaction Blackout Poem
Looking at this now, I’m wanting to take out the words “not too”, making that line “I feel that much has changed”.

The Wrong Side of the Paper?

“Does a sheet of paper have a right and a wrong side” is one of those questions that I think gets answered with that frustrating “it depends”.

It depends whether there’s any texture to the surface and whether it’s primed painting paper or not. The latter is the easy: it will be primed on one side only, so that’s the “right side” (not that you can’t use the other side too). The former depends on which texture you like the best., you can use either.

The watercolour paper I’m using (350gsm Seawhite of Brighton NOT) has a gridded texture on one side and slight bumps on the other. I mostly prefer the latter, because I find the grid can tell a contradictory story if I end up highlighting it with, for example, wet paint catching on the ridges as it dries vertically, by dry brushing, or using oil pastel run across the surface lightly.

In the photo below you see the difference between the two sides (click on the photo to enlarge it). I was working on two A3 sheets side by side, and inadvertently had one the wrong way around.

Is it a difference most other people would notice? Probably not. Would someone else prefer the side I think is the “wrong” side? Probably. Does it matter. No. The right side is the side you like, and if anyone says otherwise they’re on the wrong side.

What are your thoughts? Post a comment below.

PS: A big thank you to Christine M; you know why.

Photos: January Project’s Paintings of Talisker Bay

Here’s a photo gallery of paintings done in response to January’s project photo. I suggest you scroll through to enjoy each individually, then back and forth to compare composition decisions, the mark making, the results in similar and different mediums, what you might try yourself and what you wouldn’t.

My thanks to everyone who’s shared their paintings, by email and in the Community Section on my Patreon page. It’s so interesting and inspiring to see what the same starting point inspires in different people, and there are bits in every painting that make me think “what if I…?” (including your gold bling Cathi!).

I’m also pleased to see that my “do several versions” approach seems to be rubbing off, and not only on those people who’ve done face to face workshops with me. Which gives me an excuse for slipping in a mention that my next workshop in the Lake District at Higham Hall is at the beginning of April, and on Skye on 11 & 12 April, info here. Bayberry and I worked together from this reference photo last September in the warmth of Skyeworks Gallery in Portree, when the weather was wild and stormy rather than the more usual mild autumnal.

Last but not least, a reminder that Project Patrons not only get access to exclusive extra material supporting the monthly painting project, plus a short critique of your project painting if you wish. Sign up here. Your support helps keep the studio cats warm and fed, thank you.

February 2019 Painting Project: Instructions

Reference photo ram horns

For February’s painting project, I’ve chosen a photo that’s been the foundation of quite a few of my recent paintings. It’s part of a squence of photos I took one evening when local crofters were running a large group of rams with magnificent horns down the road.

Reference photo ram horns

The photo is intended to be a starting point, deliberately chosen to encourage you to focus on the ram and its magnificent horns, with the context cropped off. It’s intended to open the question of composition, to possibilities, rather than being a photo that presents you with a perfect composition, lighting, etc. Will it be more of a portrait, or will you put in the body and a suggestion of location? What about against an area of solid colour? Make a note of your first thoughts or impulses, then push the ideas a bit further with thumbnails to see it leads.

The style, medium, and size of painting are up to you. Click on the photo to get the largest version of it or go here.

Here’s a closer-up view, in black and white to make the tones clearer.

Reference photo ram horns

In the past few weeks I’ve done a version using a black fineliner pen and several painted versions, using a rigger brush for the horns. My starting point was spending some time looking at the twist in the horns, to understand what I’m seeing, tracking the curve of different edges/sides of the horns, using pencil and then coloured pencil. That I subsequently simplified the horns in my paintings was a stylistic choice.

Ram horns structure for drawing

It’s a photo I’ve also included in one of my photo reference booklets, which is what you see lying next to my sketchbook.

drawing ram horns in ink

Of course there’s no reason why your painting should have one ram only. The photo is a starting point, intended to jump-start ideas.

Sheep painting with seven sheep against yellow background
“The Seven Ram-ewe-rai”. Diptych, 100x50m (two panels of 50x50cm). In my studio. £645

When you’ve finished your painting(s), email me a photo on
for inclusion in a photo gallery at the end of the month, ideally with a few sentences about it (think: things you might say when talking to a friend about the painting). I’ll post photos with first names only, unless you ask me otherwise. Seeing what different people have done from the starting point is interesting, intriguing and inspiring.


You can become a Project Patron and view the exclusive project content when it’s published here. It also includes the option of a short critique of your painting if you wish.

Getting Ready for February’s Painting Project

studio cat helper Ghost

February’s project details (available to everyone who reads my blog) will be published on Friday (when it’s February, unless the snow takes out the internet). I will also be creating a photo gallery of January project paintings (a little way into February, not on Friday), so do email yours if you haven’t already

Studio cat Ghost has been helping me take photos for next month’s project demo which I’ll be doing as a slideshow video and step-by-step with explanations of what I was doing, using and thinking as one of the pieces of exclusive content created for Project Patrons, join here). I can more or less manage the paintbrush in one hand, cat on the other arm juggle, but opening a tube of paint is trickier.

studio cat helper Ghost
detail of painted ram's horn
detail of painted sheep wool using drips

How I Do It : Splattering Paint

So having discovered my phone has a slow-motion option on its videos, I’ve been playing with it a bit. This short clip shows how I splatter paint, a technique I use a lot for my sheep and seascape paintings.

It’s a “happy accident” technique you learn to control through practice. The consistency of the paint is crucial, and that you learn through trial-and-error.

If you don’t see the video above, click on this link.

The quality of the video isn’t brilliant because it was done late afternoon in low winter light. And imagine my phone balance precariously on my tripod, held by various bulldogclips. Perhaps I ought to set a Patreon goal that relates to better video equipment?