Coloured Primers: Dark to Light vs Light to Dark

Another thing I’ve added to my list for this month’s painting project is to have a go at painting from dark to light, rather than from light to dark as I usually do. It necessitates knowing which of your colours are opaque so they’ll show up on top of a dark colour, and presents the challenge of leaving bits of the shadow areas unpainted so the dark base layer shows through.

I was reminded of it when I noticed that “other than white” versions of the non-absorbent primer by Michael Harding are now available at Jackson’s (affiliate link). MH is a UK brand renowned for its quality of his oils paints and range of colours. Lots of traditional pigments in the range, some with prices in the “ouch” category.

I’ve been watching out for MH coloured primers because the range includes a clear primer, which will be less less grabby/rough than the one I have been using (Holbein, medium grain) on wood panel to let the grain of the wood be part of the painting.

I then saw the black and headed into “ooohhh” territory. The other colours don’t tempt me as they’re not colours on my palette and risk ending up with a ground that doesn’t fit well with the painting, and the neutral grey isn’t exciting. Some of the oil paintings I’ve done that I was happiest with I started with a Payne’s grey acrylic ink drawing. So a black gesso would do similar, albeit without gaps. I look forward to finding out.

One thing I do wish though is that the containers the Michael Harding ground comes in were narrower. The lid on the white one I’ve got is too big for me to get a grip across it to unscrew it easily. I wish it came with a narrower lid that had a flip/twist to squeeze some out nozzle and could be screwed off to access with a brush.

Painting Project: The Same But Different

This project is about using different drawing and painting materials to depict a relatively straightforward subject in order to remind ourselves of materials we’ve forgotten, neglected, not yet tried, been too intimidated to attempt, and love the most. To do a series of drawings/paintings either as individual pieces or together on a large piece of paper.

My suggested subject is a piece of fruit, something that will last for a while. Work from observation not memory because looking at it closely, and repeatedly, will reveal how much we don’t typically notice. Position it the right way up, upside down, on its side, cut in half or peeled, with a bite taken out, as just a core or pip or peel.

Do at least seven drawings/paintings, as large or small as you wish, with or without backgrounds. Dig out all your different materials and give each a go. For instance:

  • pencil (line only, tone only, line and tone)
  • pen (permanent and water-soluble)
  • black only (ink or charcoal)
  • black+ (black dominates but using other colours, as in traditional Chinese ink paintings)
  • collage (recycling failed paintings)
  • unrealistic/exaggerated colour (see Matthew Smith: Apples), a chance to use neglected colours
  • dark outlines (Georges Braque: Plate of Apples)
  • high key (limiting the range of tones in a painting to medium to light only, no strong dark tones)
  • low key (using mostly dark to medium tones, as in Van Gogh’s Basket of Apples)
  • palette knife
  • texture paste
  • loose wet into wet with line added afterwards to suggest detail

At the end of the month, email me a photo of your results for inclusion in the photo gallery. If you’re unsure of how to use any material you’ve got, feel free to email me and ask. For feedback on your results, sign up to be a project subscriber on Patreon, where there’s also an option for me helping you one-to-one with any aspect of your art. Happy painting!

MY PROJECT PAINTING: I’ve chosen a green apple because none of the red ones had a stem, the green gets yellower as the apple ages, the shadow areas invite the use of reds and purples (as complementary to green/yellow) and it takes me away from orange/blue that have become such fundamental colours.

I’m doing it in a concertina sketchbook, with each on a new spread (pair of pages) so that the result will be a book you can flip through seeing them sequentially or open out to see them as a row. Painting over the fold of the paper isn’t ideal as the paint tends to gather there and get the paper too wet and it tears, but a single page felt too squashed.

Water-soluble black ink and white pen (the apple has been moved from where it was when I was drawing to fit it in the photo)

December Project: Getting Resolution Before the New Year

This month the challenge is to go through your paintings from the past year (or longer) and sort them into three categories: to keep, to continue, and to destroy. The aim is to remind yourself of what you’ve painted and to give yourself a direction to head in January.

1 Go through the “to keep” pile and make a list (mental or physical) of what you enjoy about these paintings and what you’d like to do more of next year. It could be the medium, size, subject, mark making, colours, style, a lesson learnt or medium tried. Treat yourself by framing up one and hanging it on the wall.

A “to keep” painting doesn’t necessarily mean it’s something someone else would think was your best; why it’s a keeper can be very personal.

2 Gently look through the second pile of paintings-in-progress, abandoned, neglected and unfinished pieces. Write down your thoughts on where you might go with each, what you still want to do or change. If they’re done on paper, write a note on the back, like the next steps in a recipe, so that when you come back to it at a later date you’ve got a plan.

If you’re a Project Subscribers on my Patreon, you’re welcome to email me photos and ask for help with these.

3 On to the pile of duds and frustrations. If they’re on paper, it can be very cathartic to rip these up and throw them in recycling. But first check there isn’t a section that deserves to be in one of the other piles if you cropped it a bit. Or that would make a card, or gift tags, or bits for a future piece with collage. If they’re on canvas, consider overpainting with a transparent dark purple to give a starting point for a painting done from dark to light (rather than overpainting wth white or gesso).

If in doubt, put it in the “to continue” pile. Rather wait and live with a piece for a while longer. And by a while I mean like six months.

Don’t beat yourself up for what you didn’t do, didn’t achieve, didn’t finish. Celebrate what you did, and where you might head next year.

Painting Project Photo Gallery: The Tall Sunflower

It’s clear that the tall sunflower is full of inspiration!

By Bee, watercolour. Modified from the initial stopping point to make bigger centre and some more petals. As usual it is the quick ones that work for me.

From Marion: I love what you’ve done with this! The flower head feels like a glorious sunflower now, and the richness of the colours in the centre and yellows of the petals is glorious. I think it’s one to mount and keep! As for quicker being more successful, the challenge would seem to me to be to figure out what you’re doing differently between quick and more sustained paintings, I wonder if you slow down the pace you’re working at and overthink it?
By Cathi: Had great fun with my sunflowers. I even did a concertina one like yours, which I sent to friends going through a horrible time and it has taken pride of place in their sitting room!

From Marion: Delighted you’ve had such fun with this, and I think your enjoyment is evident in your paintings and that you were inspired to do it with different mediums.
By Cathi: Done entirely in coloured inks. I feel the dark ‘core’ at the base of the sunflower should be extended left and right a little  bit, but I haven’t got round to doing that yet.

From Marion: I agree that it wants extending as it feels like it fades out to the sides at the base rather than being a foundation.. But if you don’t get around to extending it, cropping with a mount might solve it.
By Cathi: Then I did an acrylic close-up version with mica bling (that doesn’t show up very well in the photo)
From Marion: Nevermind the bling, which is so hard to photograph, I’m in love with the textures and layered colour. The leaves work particularly well for me, with such a sense of movement and the scratchiness of their hairy surface.. I do wonder whether the blue behind the flowerhead wants to be stronger, though it’ll be a fiddly job to add it now.
By Cathi: Next was using my fude pen and purple ink for the outline and acrylic to add colour.

From Marion: My first reaction was a bit of an ‘eek’ at the purple, but it’s grown on me and, of course, yellow and purple are complementaries. I wonder if reducing the amount of purple visible in the centre of the flower to just the edges of the area would shift the impact of the purple from in-your-face to serves-to-make-the-yellows-vibrant? Also, there doesn’t seem to be any purple in the grasses at the base, which makes the two parts of the painting feel a little disconnected.
By Cathi: And finally I had fun doing a collage inspired by my decorating in the sitting room – I call it “sunflowers and planets”.

From Marion: I can’t but smile at the thought that sunflowers crossed over with your decorating! The power of art to influence all aspects of our lives…
By Sarah, botanical leaf print on fabric: “I’ve hurt my right hand and don’t think I will be able to do much for a couple of weeks, so will this count as my monthly submission instead of a painting?”

From Marion: Definitely! Not least because it’s a tantalising glimpse into this printing technique.

My sunflower painting has been sitting nearly finished for some weeks now. I still want to tweak the background blue a bit, with some gentle colour and tone variations.

Thanks to Bee, Cathi, and Sarah for sharing your sunflower pieces. The full list of monthly projects and related content can be found here, and remember it’s never too late to give something a go. If you’d like individual help with your painting, sign up either as a project subscriber or for individual mentorship through my Patreon page here.

Painting Project: A Seatown Called Crovie

This painting project has sea blues and landscape greens, patterns and architecture. It’s a view of a tiny village hugging the coast called Crovie, taken from the viewing spot on the hillside above it. You can walk from this village along a path at the edge of the sea to Gardenstown.

It offers quite a few composition choices:

  • Include the road or not, likewise the straight lines of the seawall providing a little shelter for boats, and the bright yellow van
  • Meticulously count and plot out the houses, or convey a sense of these and the pattern of shapes and colours
  • Should the headland tip be in the middle of the composition as in the photo, which theoretically divides a composition in half, or further across either left or right?
  • Is the cloud in the distance a distraction from the foreground, or does it add a sense of distance?
  • Do the few bits of rock emerging from the sea add to the sense of location and story, or look like random dark bits that confuse the eye?

I can see this as a richly coloured painting done in acrylics or oils, or with layers of transparent watercolour, or pastels. But equally done in ink in black and white only, or ink pen with some loosely painted watercolour. The prominent ripples in the sea lend itself to texture paste or collage with some tissue paper. I suggest picking your favourite medium and letting your enjoyment of this feed into your painting. And for a second painting, picking something you work with less often.

As always with my monthly painting projects, do email me a photo to share in the project photo gallery. And if you’d like help with your painting as you’re working on it or feedback when it’s done, this is available to project subscribers via Patreon (details here).

Happy painting!

At sea level in Crovie

Photo Gallery: Arboreal Abstracts Painting Project

Layers and layers of colour … the paintings done in response to August’s painting project show what an array of results can come from the same set of instructions. Thanks to everyone who shared their painting.

By Brenda
Note the contrast of the red stripey bit towards the right and the birch-like quality of the white.
By Cathi: “Brenda and I did these before we watched your video. I missed the bit about trees, so they do look more like colourful barcodes! I quite like this but is a bit heavy-handed.”
By Cathi: “This looked absolutely dreadful until the very end when I added the orange and white “snow” which transformed it into abstract trees! I like the places where the colour applied was quite dry and gave a texture to the ‘trunks’. I did feel it was more contrived than the first attempt because I had trees in mind – the first one was just playing with colour.”
By Sarah: Thoroughly enjoyed the whole process. This brought me back into my painting from my other projects and reminded me of how painting and drawing relax and re-energise me.
By Eddie: “My muse is still MIA and I wasn’t going to do this one but the art room drew(!) me in. It started off as an abstract but the trees just appeared.”

From Marion: Your Muse is clearly determined that you see the trees for the wood… Isn’t is strange yet comforting how our brains lead us back to a familiar place when painting? I think it’s the part of painting that’s like meditation, and we unconsciously head that way unless we actively counter it at intervals.
By Eddie: “I did this one after looking at Rick Stevens site as you suggested. I tried very hard to use light drifts of colour, heeding Karen Margulis’ advice that, for pastel, “a light touch is the right touch”. I have tried this many times but find that using ‘sanded’ paper light drifts will start to slide before they cover the texture enough for my liking, at least in my hands. Sure enough, I got frustrated and reverted to my stab and slash technique to get the marks I wanted. Having said that, I do like the result, especially the colours, compared to my first attempt. Perhaps while my muse is sulking somewhere I should just stay in my comfort zone, waiting to emerge when she re-appears.”

From Marion: It’s not called a comfort zone for nothing, and there’s a lot to be said for seeking out that comfort, for revisiting familiar and enjoyable places real and artistic. I like this result a lot, the little slashes of colour have an energy to them that may have come from frustration but do feel so vibrant.

My finished project painting, acrylic on A4 wood panel
Detail from my painting

October’s Painting Project: The Tall Sunflower

Dig out your yellows and start thinking about all those different greens, you’ll need them for this month’s project (unless you go monochrome or strongly expressionist). The subject is this tall sunflower I encountered in a friend’s garden.

Style and medium are up to you. For me the starting point would be composition: will it be a tall vertical format or more standard proportions, or perhaps square. Will or won’t there be a background? And which way will the sunflower head be facing?


If you’d like help and/or feedback on your painting, this is available to my project subscribers via Patreon. Have fun, and remember to send me a photo of your painting for inclusion in the project gallery for us all to enjoy.

This is my favourite painting of mine this sunflower so far, mixed media on a concertinaed bit of watercolour paper. See The Sunflower Part 1 and Part 2.

Painting Project Photo Gallery: Rain Shower at Thorntonloch Beach

Take yourself back to a long sandy beach with a rain shower on the horizon, to the July’s Painting Project: Rain Shower at Thorntonloch Beach, and enjoy the paintings this inspired:

By Cathi: “First attempt with my new inks and pen (bit of titanium white in there as well because the beach had got too dark!) Quite tricky to blend in! The white strip in the cloud is the shine in the ink where the paper buckled a bit, not the actual colour. It looks OK ‘though.”

From Marion: Far more than merely okay, I’d say! Wonderfully moody and expressive. Only thing I might still do is soften/lighten the black clouds on the right with the thought that clouds typically thin on the edge of a shower.
By Cathi: “Second with my graphite ‘chunks’ — love the different marks you can make just dragging these!”
From Marion: Good choice of paper, with the surface texture. If you want another challenge, try combining this style of drawing with watersoluble graphite or watercolour, to contrast wet/dry mediums in wet/dry parts of the composition.
By Lynn: “My painting went through many changes. I was attracted to the contrast of the dark rocks and light patches of water on the beach in the original photo. It evolved into more green colors and sky. I love color and was especially drawn to the subtle streak of turquoise in the sky. I haven’t painted in a while.. totally enjoying the process. Everything falls away when I’m covered in paint! Thank you for the inspiration.”

From Marion: The gentle touches of blue in the sky really capture that sense of the clearer weather being pushed out by the incoming shower. For me you’ve really captured the sense of the tide having gone out leaving slippery green seaweed amongst the puddles of water and rocks.
By Bee: My first attempt at this.
From Marion: I like the ink work, which feels solid like shore rocks yet simultaneously like water is hiding parts of it as the waves come in.
By Bee: “A further attempt in oil on paper, which I had a fiddle with after your comments, but I am not sure if it is better or worse.”
From Marion: Having a further go with a painting always risks not making things better, but I try to remind myself that it wasn’t working to my satisfaction anyway. I do prefer the colour variation in the sea as you’ve got it now, that it’s less blue, but think the rain shower remains unresolved.
By Eddie: “I did a very stormy sky picture with water-soluble graphite and charcoal then added pastel. I decided it was just too gloomy for me so decided to crop it into a panorama which I like better. But my muse has definitely left the building.”

From Marion: Between the pandemic and Brexit, I think the Muse is hibernating from a lot of us! I like the abstract quality of this painting, how it says so much through the shapes of colour, with the grass in the foreground enticing me up and in, as if I’m about to step over it.
By Eddie: “When the previous painting had been on my easel for two weeks I took it down and, largely from memory, I decided to do a lighter, sunnier version to celebrate the glorious weather we are having.”

From Marion: This painting has a suggestion of a storm that links it to the previous one, but it’s definitely a rain shower blowing away

This was the painting I did from that rainshower, see my blog Fresh off my Easel: Incoming Rain Shower for more photos.

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

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