September’s Painting Project: Circles of My Mind

This month’s painting project is similar to last month’s Arboreal Abstract Project, but working with rounded shapes rather than stripes. Trust the process (i.e. follow the steps in the instructions), don’t try to tightly control the outcome from the start but meander along towards a finishing point, and remind yourself that no single mark is critical.


  • A sheet of watercolour paper (I suggest A3 in size)
  • Scissors or a knife, something that will scratch a line into the surface of the paper not merely indent it
  • Paint (I suggest watercolour, granulating colours if you have them, or ink or watery acrylics)
  • A white gel pen or rigger brush and white acrylic/gouache or white oil pastel


  • STEP 1: Scratch 15 roundish shapes of different sizes into the surface of the paper. Try to avoid sharp corners or points on the shapes. Yes it’s quite hard to see what you’re doing, but don’t skip this step. Do it decisively and don’t stress or second-guess it. I found it easiest to do it in two halves, like brackets ( ).

  • STEP 2: Mix up a brownish or greyish off-white (a “dirty water” or pale sandy colour) and cover the entire sheet with it. Don’t worry about getting it as an even colour, and vary the direction any visible brushmarks. Dampening the sheet with water before you start will make it easier. Allow to dry before moving on to the next step. (What the paint does where the scratched marks are will reveal why step 1 exists.)

  • STEP 3: Mix a midtone blue/purple-grey (mid-tone = not especially dark and not pale). Paint five rounded shapes somewhere on the sheet, in various sizes. Splatter a bit of this colour around the sheet too.

  • STEP 4: Mix three different earthy browns/yellow/oranges colours. With the first colour, add five rounded shapes, in various sizes. Splatter a little of this colour around too. Allow to dry. With the second colour, add seven rounded shapes. Allow to dry. With the third colour, add seven rounded shapes. Allow to dry. (I would mix a colour, use it, then add something to the leftovers to shift the colour, rather than mixing three separately.)

  • STEP 5: Using a dark pen or pencil, draw an outline around the shapes you see as the top-most layer. Then, on the shapes underneath these, draw an outline on those parts that are beyond these top shapes, that is stopping and restarting the outlines rather than going all the way around.

  • STEP 6: Using a white pen (or brush and paint, or an oil pastel if it gives a thin enough line), draw 25 rounded shapes as the final layer. Don’t outline existing shapes.


  • Allow some painted shapes to go off the edges. It gives the composition a sense of continuing beyond the edges of the paper rather than being constrained by the edges.
  • Overlap shapes, both within a layer and between layers.
  • Tape the edges of the sheet of paper before you start, then when you’ve finished peel it off and you’ve a white border to the painting.


  • Do versions with only transparent colours (except for the final white), with mixed opaque/transparent, and with only opaque.
  • Work without letting shapes dry before adding the next.
  • Use colours other than white for the final layer.
Holding the sheet at an angle in strong light will help you see where you’ve scratched into the surface
Paint will accumulate where the paper has been scratched. Let it!
Mixing leftover bits of colour on a watercolour palette is an easy way to create desaturated colours.
Step 5: Adding pen outlines

Like the circles that you find
in the windmills of your mind

Noel Harrison, The Windmills of Your Mind

The Colour Theory Triangle

My favourite starting point for colour mixing is the colour triangle rather than the more familiar colour circle. I think it’s easier to understand and makes remembering complementary colours simple.

(If you don’t see the video above, click here to see it on my Vimeo channel.)

The fundamental rule of colour theory for painting is that there are three primary colours: red, blue and yellow. The second rule of colour theory is that mixing two primary colours togethe creates secondary colours, that is purples, oranges, and greens. On a colour triangle, the three primary colours are at the points, and the three secondary are on the “flat bits”. All you need remember initially are the three primaries, because you can always mix two to remind yourself what they create.

The other reason I like the colour triangle so much as it makes it easy to remember complementary colours. These are colours that make one another look brighter, and also desaturate each other (make them less intense in colour). On the colour triangle, complementaries are the colour opposite, so Blue + Orange, Red + Green, Yellow + Purple..

The first color triangle is attributed to the 19th century French painter Delacroix. A notebook of his dating from around 1834 has drawing of a triangle with the three primaries written in as rouge (red) at the top, jaune (yellow) on the left, and bleu (blue) on the right, plus added the three secondaries as orange, violet, and vert (green). Delacroix adapted the triangle from a color wheel in an oil painting handbook by J.F.L. Mérimée, a painter he knew.
(Source: “Colour and Culture” by John Gage. Thames and Hudson, London, 1993. Page 173.)

Colour Theory Triangle

August’s Painting Project: Arboreal Abstracts (aka colourful barcodes)

This month’s project is about rediscovering the joys of “happy accidents”, of playing with colour, layering and more layering, responding to what’s happened, not working with a predefined outcome in mind but painting your way towards an arboreal abstract . That is, an abstract that’s got strong verticals which you may or may not make look like tree trunks, or stick to it being a colourful barcode.

The starting point for this project isn’t a reference photo, but the colour that reflects your mood today. No one layer or mark is crucial, trust the process (i.e. follow the steps), don’t try to dictate the outcome from the start but meander along towards a finishing point.

You will need:

  • Masking tape
  • A canvas or painting board or sheet of paper that has been gessoed (so the masking tape doesn’t tear it)
  • Any fast-drying paint (watercolours, acrylics, ink)
  • A palette knife or bit of stiff card
  • A spray bottle of water
  • Paper towel
  • Optional: texture paste

(You can do this without masking tape, using strips of card or paper instead to mask off areas, but you have to work more carefully so as not to move these thus counteracting the aim to paint loosely with colour without worrying about what’s already painted.)

What to Do

Step 1: On the back of the canvas or sheet, draw an arrow from the top edge to the bottom. This is simply to remind you which direction to paint the stripes and to put down the masking tape. If you’re gessoing the surface, do it in in the direction of this arrow, from top to bottom.

Step 2: Pick a colour that reflects your present mood. Any colour, bright or muted, light or dark; there’s no right or wrong choice. Paint seven stripes from top to bottom edge — do it freehand, eyeballing it, no measuring or taping. Any width, any distance apart. Do it fast, don’t overthink it’ there’s no right or wrong, and then quickly move onto the next step.

Step 3: Take the palette knife, or bit of card, and pull it across the paint horizontally, spreading out sections that are still wet. You might spray some water onto the surface to encourage it to spread a bit. Stamp up and down with the palette knife too, to ‘print’ random shapes of colour. Don’t stress if it looks a chaotic mess; it’s allowed to, and probably should.

Step 4: Pick another colour, a transparent one not opaque (for transparent: think “stained glass”) and do the same again (steps 2 and 3). Don’t worry about whether the colour already down is dry or not.

Step 5: Pick another transparent colour and, using a thinner brush, paint 11 narrow stripes from top to bottom edge. Mix in some opaque colour or white into this colour, and paint another set of narrow stripes.

Step 6: If you still have any areas that are blank canvas or paper, paint over these with any transparent colour. I suggest a yellow or light blue.

Step 7: Wait for paint to be dry to touch.

Step 8: Place masking tape from the top to bottom edges, leaving at least five stripes to paint. Try to ensure they are not evenly spaced like fence posts; overlapping pieces of tape helps avoid this.

Step 9: Pick a dark transparent or semi-opaque colour, and paint in the sections between the masking tape. Brushing from top edge to bottom rather than sideways helps prevent paint from seeping in beneath the tape. Though it doesn’t matter if it does; don’t bother to ‘tidy it up’. If you can’t decide what colour to use, I suggest a purple. Don’t obsess about getting the paint even across the length of the stripe, variation adds visual interest.

Step 10: Move the strips of masking tape to create another series of stripes, and paint these with a different transparent colour.

Step 11: Move the strips of masking tape again, but this time we’ll use an opaque colour. If this is all testing your patience and you want this to be the last set of stripes you do, pick white. Paint along the stripes.

Step 12: Dilute another colour (some black or Payne’s grey if your stripes are white) so it’s fairly fluid and flick it along the stripes to create random dots. Maybe do it with another colour too. Work fast as you next want to take a rigger brush or the palette knife and pull this horizontally across the painted stripes — where the dots are still wet they’ll become little horizontal lines.

Step 13: Do steps 11 and 12 with white as the base colour of the stripe if you didn’t use it last time.

Step 14: Lift all the tape and ponder the result. Decide which is the right way up.

It might all be working very well already, it might need a few more rounds. Think about whether you might use some transparent colour to darken any sections, as well as opaque colour to lighten sections or hide parts. I usually leave it overnight and then do another round of stripes the next day because I find it “wants more”. Don’t stop too early, the more transparent layers you do, the richer the colour becomes.

TIP: If it feels too bitty or has all gone awry, paint over the whole thing with a transparent dark — I like a purple — which will unify it as well as darken everything slightly (rather err on the side of having your transparent dark too dilute and do another coat than go too dark, you just want it to subdue everything a little not obscrue it). Wait for this to dry and then add a layer of opaque stripes on top.


  • Use texture paste on some of your stripes. I would apply it with a brush working horizontally so the paste has lines across echoing tree bark.
  • Use iridescent colours — gold, silver — in the background or on the stripes.
  • Pick only “ugly colours” or your least favourites.
  • Unexpected colours, especially in in the lowest layers.
  • Flick or brush colours onto the stripes at every step.
  • Use the pipette from an acrylic ink bottle to draw lines, then spray with water to get the paint to spread.
  • Brush a transparent dark down one side of the stripes will give a suggestion of the curvature of a tree trunk (form shadow as the trunk curves away from the light).
  • Work on more than one painting at the same time, using ‘leftover colour’ from the one on the next and a unique colour in each. This helps being impatient waiting for paint to dry so you can reposition the masking tape.
30x30cm, acrylic on wood panel: Autumn, Summer, Winter

July’s Painting Project: Rain Shower at Thorntonloch Beach

I took the photo that is the starting point for this month’s project on the beach at Thorntonloch on the southern east coast of Scotland, near Dunbar. I think the contrast between the clear blue sky on the right and the incoming rain from the left holds all sorts of possibilities for a painting.

The original photo, with the rain blowing in from the north.

Whilst it’s the edge of the rain that is the most appealing to me, you could create a composition that doesn’t have any rain at all, or one that’s mainly sky or all about the greens in the foreground. It could be a moody Turner-influenced skyscape with layers of transparent glazes, or a wildly expressive drawing in the style of Joan Eardley (see “Approaching Storm” and “Stormy Sky“) or with strong opaque colours in the skye as in her paintings (“Boats on the Shore“).

I think it could be a wonderfully moody black-and-white painting — I’d be tempted to try it with black ink, working wet into wet — or one with minimal colour, say a touch of Prussian blue and a splash of green in the foreground.

The photo converted to black and white, and shadows increased to emphasise the drama in th sky
The photo edited to increase the light, showing more of the colours in the foreground. The reflected blue-greys of the sky in the puddles of water could be a way to lead the eye through a composition from the foreground to the sky.

For me the starting point would be deciding what appeals most to you in the photo, followed by deciding on format (square, horizontal/landscape or vertical/portrait) and then thumbnailing compositions to ensure that you’re not being distracted away from what you decided was the focus or key element. Happy painting!

As always, you’re invited to share a photo of your painting(s) for inclusion in the next project photo gallery. And if you’d like help with your painting and/or feedback, sign up as a project subscriber on my Patreon page here.

The Tale of Two Allium Paintings

Sitting in friends’ garden in southern Scotland, I kept coming back to the purples in one border, particularly the alliums, which are one of my favourites. These were about twice the size of the ones in my garden.

So I moved a table a little closer and got out some paper and my watercolours.

A blank sheet of paper hold such possibilities and dreams, with the potential to go right or awry from the start, for things to flow or require persistence.

I started with mixing colours that I thought would give me “allium purples”. The darker swirly marks in the photo above are where I indented the paper with the brush handle while the paint was still wet; the paint accumulates in the dents and thus is darker.

For the foliage I used some of the greens that dry as a varied colour from Daniel Smith — Undersea Green and Serpentine Green — and again scratchd into the still-wet paint, this time to create a sense of the stems. Overall it wasn’t working for me, so I introduced some pen and then coloured pencil.

The photo below is where I stopped.

I decided to have another attempt, aiming for the sense of delicateness of alliums and the space within them. I thought splattering paint might do this, so tore a stencil in a piece of watercolour paper, hoping the rough edges would give an organic or softer edge.

I tried to avoid inadvertent pattern repositioning the stencil and not worrying about paint that flicked off the sides.

I then torn a strip to use for the edge of the stem, running the brush in a series of short sideways strokes off it.

I also flicked a little of the green within the purples, as you do see it in the flowers.

I am very happy with this second attempt, with the colour variation, the feeling of openess and movement, and even the unintended bits of purples (middle towards the bottom) don’t bother me (being watercolour I could probably remove it). It’s an approach I will try again at some point.

May’s Painting Project Gallery: Stormy Camus Mor

Moody clouds, showers darkening the sky, and determined waves marching onto the shore, that’s what May’s painting project has inspired. Thank you to everyone who’s shared their paintings and shown me a favourite part of my world through different eyes. Enjoy!

By Lynn: First one that I’ve sent. I was encouraged by your last couple of posts on being more free and don’t worry about the results. I started great, then hated it… then added too much color, then not enough and finally ended up with the final scene, which I like. There are lots of layers on this canvas! I found myself more caught up in the feelings of the sky and the feeling of the water. Thank you for all the encouragement. I updated my sky with patch of blue in top left corner, and love my painting as it is.

From Marion: Thanks for sharing your painting, and I hope it’ll be the first of many. For me it’s very much got the moodiness of the location on the day the reference photo was taken, and the layers of paint enhance the sense of the heaviness of the weather. Focusing on the enjoyment of the process and the materials I’m using is how I like to paint, heading towards an idea but not being entirely sure of the route by which I will (might) get there.
By Eddie: “I have tried to make the corrections you suggested and think they have improved the picture. I added some rain as I have heard it sometimes happens in the west of Scotland.”

From Marion: I think it’s working beautifully now, the sense of a passing shower, the movement on the water, and the houses giving a sense of scale.
By Bee: Acrylic on cardboard, I think I have got the sky a bit dark.

From Marion:I don’t think the sky is too dark, it’s stormy weather after all. What I think it wants is to come down further, to feel connected to the landscape rather than floating above it. I’d join the two semi-circles on the leftmost section of the sky, and bring a rainshower down out of the rightmost bit, angling it to the right (not vertical). Although this risks taking the viewer’s eye off the composition, it’ll git with the direction of movement in the forground vegetation and the waves coming onto the shore.
From Bee: “Here is another go at this month’s picture, ink ,and a bit of water colour, very loose or abstract.”

From Marion: Your pulling out of the essence of the scene — the colours and movement — has created a painting that I find absorbing, that encourages my brain to fill in details and anticipate the movement of the water onto the shore. The curves i.e. top right in the land, echoed by the sea and strong line of black, give a sense of the shape of the landscape, saying a lot with little. A seemingly simple painting that’s hard to do!
By Bee: I have tried this month’s picture in watercolour as well. I think It is a bit weak.

From Marion: If I look at it with the reference photo in mind, then I’d agree that it doesn’t feel stormy enough. But if I look at it as a painting on its own, and ultimately that’s how paintings are considered, then it feels like a mild autumn day at Camus Mor and not weak at all.

I had two goes at this painting project. The first was mixed media, starting with acrylics and ending with oil pastel (see this step-by-step blog).

My second painting I did because looking at the photos I took during the painting of my first I realised how much I enjoyed it at the Payne’s grey and yellow stage. It’s a long way from the stormy scene in the project’s reference photo, but would never have happened if I hadn’t done the first painting.

Acrylic ink on watercolour paper, size 60x84cm (A1)

June 2021 Painting Project: Palette of a Place

This painting project is about the colours of a specific place, whether it’s a landscape or an interior, a favourite stretch of beach, path, or corner of a city or room. It’s about observation and recording what we’ve noticed, using this to create a “Palette of a Place”.

Think of it as creating a visual dictionary or colours swatches for a place, which might be large or small. Building a palette of colours that could be used for a studio painting at a later date, but the focus right now is about slowing down and paying attention to individual elements in a place, colour mixing and note-taking rather than painting ‘the big picture’.

What to include: The colours you see, with information of what they’re found in and the paint colours you used to create a match, then anything else you feel led to include. Start with the most obvious, and work your way in to as narrowly specific as you feel inclined. For instance, I’d start with a warm yellow for a dandelion flower when viewed at arm’s length, but then looking closer I could start depicting the differences between the top and bottom of a petal. You might do it entirely as painted colour, or you might stick in ‘bits, or you might see if something will give you a colour or mark (eg ‘draw’ with a stone or soil).

There’s no set or “right” way to do this. Depending on your personality, you might draw a grid on a sheet of paper or in a sketchbook and fill in each, or you might do it scattered across the page letting each element or thing dictate its own size. You might do a little on multiple days or spend a day at it.

If you’re stuck for where to start, you might choose a photo from one of the previous painting projects, but ideally do it from life. It was an Instagram post of Weymouth-based artist Frances Hatch that got me started on this; she describes herself as a “site responsive plein air artist”. So the aim is to respond to a place by more than picking up pebbles.

As always, you’re invited to share your results with me for inclusion in the project’s photo gallery and a reminder that Project Subscribers via Patreon get 1:1 feedback. Don’t forget to include a few sentences about why you chose what you did, and how you feel about the results.

My Place Palette: I’ve made a start on the colours of the walk from my studio to the post box down the road. There are multiple yellows, including a dandelion and gorse (and the inside of the little daisy), the textures of a bit of sheep wool and the feather. There’ll also be the dark greys of the tar road and the bright red of the post box.

This is what I had in my hand when I got back from walking to the post box.
Here I’d arranged them by colour and texture, and started to draw/paint.

My Stormy Camus Mor Painting

I took these painting-in-progress photos whilst having a go at this month’s painting project: Stormy Camus Mor. It’s on a sheet of A1 watercolour paper, 350gsm, using acrylic inks, tube acrylics, and oil pastel. I have been thinking about this painting since I wrote up the project, it’s just taken me a while to settle down to do it.

Starting point: Payne’s grey acrylic ink. It was hot in my studio so the ink was drying quite quickly — on the right-hand side you can see some dried lines beneath the ink that I’ve spread with a wet brush. It becomes a fun juggle with speed of painting and speed of drying.
Enter some lemon yellow, using the same brush. It’s not really that big a brush if you consider how large the sheet of paper is.
Looking back through my photos, part of me wishes I’d stuck with using only the grey and yellow. Being able to see a photo of it at this point and ponder it is a good reason to take quick snaps as I paint. While I was doing it, I didn’t think about stopping at this point at all as I was already adding the other colours in my head.
Some of the paint is applied by brush, some by splattering. The latter technique means I can add colour to the surface without disturbing what’s already there, whereas applying it with a brush will mix the new and existing together. As I’m painting vertically, gravity gets involved too, pulling down fluid paint and mixing things as it happens. Spraying with some water encourages this, as you can see bottom right in the next photo.
Adding transparent orange
Adding blue to the sea, and then the sky
A bit of magenta added to the sky, to mix with the blues and create purples. Then I mixed what was on the brush with the leftovers on my palette and added this “murky dark” to the shore. Sprayed with water to encourage it to run and drip, propping the board the paper is taped to up at an angle so the drips happen at an angle. Yes, that is the tub of magenta paint that I’m using for this.
Looking at a painting from the side so it catches the light shows me where areas are still wet. Sometimes it’s really obvious, other times less so.
Sometimes it’ll only be a small area, or single drip, that’s still wet. Dabbing a finger into the paint will, of course, also tell me, but it does irreparable damage to a drip.
After everything had dried for a bit, I added some white to the sea. I’m using Schmincke’s SupaWhite acrylic ink, which is fabulously opaque.
If you’re thinking “that’s not a Schmincke dropper”, you’re be right, it’s a Daler-Rowney FW one, which I prefer as it’s got a sharper point
I’ve sprayed some of the white acrylic with water to encourage it to spread.
Need to keep an eye out for unwanted drips and effects; it’s a dance with the unpredictable, unwanted and desired, chaos and control.
Letting colours run together on the painting can create beautiful “happy accidents” with an organic feel. Painting water by literally letting the water run.
Too much can be a bad thing though! Here drips from the sky have run into the sea contradicting the direction of movement in that area. Something to be fixed before it’s dried. Responding to what’s happening is all part of the excitement of this approach to the painting.
It’s time for a two-jar propping of the board, with pthalo turquoise joining the magenta.
One thing about this approach to painting is that I can’t be too protective of any area, no matter how much I love it. If I am desperate to preserve it, then it’s time to swap to more controllable technique.
To change the direction of the drips of paint in the sea, I turned the board 90 degrees, then sprayed it with some water.
In the bottom left corner of the painting (when it’s vertical!), the drips weren’t co-operating, so I intervened with a brush to get them to go in the direction I wanted.
This is the painting vertical again, left for a bit to ensure the paint dried. When I came back to it, I decided it wasn’t where I wanted it to be yet and that I would add some oil pastel to it. Swapping mediums is a change of pace, as well as type of mark.
Detail showing how the oil pastel catches on the ‘bumpy’ texture of the watercolour paper.
I had started questioning the half sky to half land/sea composition, so only added oil pastel to the lower part of the sky, to where I thought I would crop the painting.
This is the stage the painting was at when I took it to show the in-house art critic.
At Alistair’s suggestion, I brought the rain down further, using white oil pastel. I may still work on the rain a bit more, possibly seeing if some acrylic paint will stick between the streaks of oil pastel, or maybe with some oil paint. I have cut off the top of the sheet just above the masking tape in this photo, so that composition change is decided.

Seaweed Painting Project Gallery

As was my hope, a closer consideration of seaweed for April’s painting project has led to some joyful discoveries and delightful paintings.

By Bee: “Watercolour and water soluble pen. I enjoyed this more than I expected.”

From Marion: The water-soluble ink works so well for this subject, giving that sense of dampness and water.
By Bee: “Acrylic on a piece of cardboard, just the thing to do on a cold day.”

From Marion: Such a contrast to your first with its more opaque colours. I love that it’s on that tipping point between realism and abstract, that with the word “seaweed” in mind, I instantly read it as such, but someone looking at it without this keyword might see it as grasses, twigs.
By Bee: “I have had a third go at the seaweed , this time combining our art club challenge which is a painting using only 3 colours and only mixing on the paper, I used cobalt blue , vermillion and golden yellow.”

From Marion: Only three colours? Shows how much potential there is with a limited palette, and how harmonious colour can be across a composition with this. I am enjoying the transparency and layering, the sense of one piece of seaweed lying on another and over rocks, of seeing it with softened edges as though viewed through shallow water.
By Eddie: “I decided to try taking some of the seaweed forms and try to make an abstract with this result. It’s approximately 9×13” in soft pastels on black velour paper. I don’t love it but, after working on it for a while, don’t absolutely hate it either.”

From Marion: I’m enjoying the limited, gentle range of colours that’s calm and harmonious, whilst having an energy and vibrance from the wide tonal from extreme dark to white. I find my eye tracing the strong lines, and adding faces to the three “wigs” of long hair at the bottom as imagination overtakes what I’m actually seeing.
By Sarah: “I am enjoying working on Vellum, calf skin, with watercolour for this project. I am only partway through, it is my first time and it is a slow process.”

From Marion: I’ve seen this “in real life” and it’s even more beautiful than in the photo. The colour of the piece of vellum chosen adds a beautiful “background”, and the layers of watercolour you’ve built up are rich and luminous.

Also this month, paintings inspired by the shoreline and pebbles projects:

By Helen: A mixed media “Dark Beach”
By Erika: This was an interesting exercise: rather than painting the items ON to a canvas, I extracted them by using a not very successful painting of earlier days. It reminded me of focusing on “negative spaces” which I haven’t done very often. I can almost watch my mind trying real hard to switch to that mode of looking at things differently, from the “other” side, from inside-out.

From Marion: You’ve made my fingers itch to try this approach, which I’d forgotten about.

I haven’t yet managed to get my seaweed on wood painting working to my satisfaction, and it hasn’t moved on much from where it is in this video. Of my attempts at this month’s painting project, this is the one I like best.

Acrylic ink on A3 watercolour paper

My thanks to everyone who’s shared their project paintings, here and on the Community section of my Patreon page. It’s so intriguing and inspiring to see what comes from the same starting point. I look forward to seeing what’ll be done with the Stormy Bay project.