December’s Painting Project: A Dark Foreground

This month’s reference photo was taken in southern Scotland on a crisp November morning with the sun relatively low in the sky, backlighting and silhouettting a scattering of autumnal leaves and branches. It’s is an excuse to get out yellow, orange, sienna, as well as explore strong darks. The challenge lies in the dark foreground: having it dark enough to have dramatic impact but still pull you into the painting.

In the dark foreground there’s a stream, path, bench, and autumnal leaves covering the ground. If you click on the photo to get the full-size version you’ll see these more clearly.

You might choose to mix a chromatic black (the darkest mix you can create, typically a blue/green/red) rather than use a tube black because it’s a richer dark. It’s also easy to create gentle variations in it by varying the proportions of the colour in the mix and/or by not mixing the colours completely before you use it.

I’d be telling myself to not go too dark too early but to also not be afraid of the dark. Better to need to glaze or add another layer of dark later on in the painting’s development, than to have a black hole. But not to be half-hearted about committing to having a dark foreground.


  • The tree isn’t right in the centre of the composition. The base of its trunk is to the right of centre and then stretches across the centre. Its branches lead your eye up and across. The tree on the right echoes this whilst providing a dark ‘frame’ on the right to keep your eye in the composition.
  • Use branches to lead the eye across the composition, not worrying to replicate them exactly as they are in the photo but for the photo to be a starting point.
  • Notice in the top left corner all the small branches going off the side and top edges in an open, lacey pattern. It’s not a single branch going into the corner, which would lead your eye in and off the edge.
  • The green hill runs down in an improbably straight line, creating a very hard edge that’s distracting. I would change it to a more irregular line, putting a curve into it. Just because it’s in the photo and like that in real life doesn’t mean it should be like that in the photo if it doesn’t work for the painting.
  • Put the houses in the distance or not? They give a sense of scale, and add to the story, but are they a distraction?
  • Consider the format: might you crop it to a square or a vertical rectangle rather than horizontal? The photo is a result of compositional choices I made when taking it,and I like the horizontal format with space for the branches to stretch out into, but that doesn’t mean it has to be this.

If you’d like to see your painting included in the project gallery, simply email it to me. And remember, it’s never too late to do any of the monthly painting projects or share your paintings of any of these. For some extra project-related content and one-to-one help, become a project subscriber on my Patreon here.

Happy painting!

Painting Project Photo Gallery: The Little Mouse

It’s clear the little mouse from October’s painting project generated great inspiration! Enjoy!

By Mark
By Mark

From Marion: A lovely sense of fur texture without over-describing it, and of it being the same mouse from two angles (essential to book illustration). A tweak I’d consider making is to add a few more whiskers to the side with four only.
By Eddie: my take on the mouse. Scraperboard 9×6”.

From Marion: The scraperboard works ever so well, the white pops from the dark background.
By Eddie, pen and ink.
By Karen: “I painted it using acrylic paint and ink using just my new 0 rigger. It’s painted on a sample of flooring. I loved doing this; as you know I like intricate detail.”

From Marion: “Brilliant idea to paint on a flooring sample! Very beautifully and delicately painted. Positioning of it in relation to the knot in the wood is perfect.”
By Karen: Mouse number two.
By Erika: “The little mouse…. taking it out of context…. this one had bigger ‘fish to fry’, not just morsels in a cat bowl! It looks a bit sinister with the cheese knife which I didn’t want to. And maybe it wants to express a certain love/hate relationship with those rodents: on one side they are very cute – but when they attack your flour and oats in a time or place when you depend on it, that changes the nature of things. 12×9″, acrylic on canvas/collage, mouse fur is real fur.”

From Marion: I do love that reference photo has taken you to this imaginative place, even as the splatter of red makes me wonder is that another mouse which has met it’s demise, or from the person wielding the knife? It left me with “Three Blind Mice” playing in my head.
By Cathi
By Cathi
By Cathi

From Marion: Really enjoying this combination of loose and expressive (the drips) with the detail, as well as the use of black negative space at the top vs the white in the bottom.

Marion’s paintings: I had great fun with this project, trying it in pencil, watercolour, and acrylic on watercolour paint. A friend sent me a concertina album book she made, which by happenstance was the perfect size. I also did a couple in acrylics on wood panel with a gold ground, which make me smile when I look at them as they’re so different from what I mostly paint.

Little Mouse paintings

Project instructions can be found here, and the list with all the projects and related content here. Remember, it’s never too late to do a project, nor submit a painting to share. Happy painting!

November’s Painting Project: The Orange Buoy

Painting Project Orange Buoy

The reference photo for this month’s project is one I took at Findochty harbour on the east coast (see blog). It’s a juxtaposition of an attention-demanding orange sphere against a jumble of rope and pattern on the creel net, with the orange rope leading your eye along and back.

There are subtle colours in the concrete that could be mixed from the orange and blue of the ropes (plus white), along with the challenge of getting the sense of texture on the harbour wall. There’s an echo of parallel lines between the broken white stripe and the line at the base of the harbour wall. And then there are the cast shadows, creating a second layer of pattern with the creel net and another strong shape alongside the buoy. Not to forget the pattern and texture of the rope.

So a lot going on in a deceptively simple photo. It’s worth taking your time to make a list (in your mind or written down in a sketchbook) of the elements and considerations. If I were painting this in acrylics, I would start with the colours of the concrete, getting this working, and letting it dry, before tackling the rope, creel and buoy. And probably try some sgraffito (scratching into wet paint) with the rope. Maybe get out some texture paste too…

COMPOSITION: The orange buoy is a strong focal point, so watch out for positioning this right in the centre of your composition. But also don’t put it too far to the right as you need space for some rope. And not too far to the left because you need space for the shadow.

If you use the Rule of Thirds on the photo, you’ll see the creel net is in the centre, but because the orange buoy pulls your eye down and the shadow pulls your eye left, this doesn’t matter. With the composition as it is in my photo, the viewer’s eye doesn’t get pulled into the middle and stuck; other elements encourage your eye to wander around the composition.

This isn’t to say you couldn’t crop the image to another format, say square. This composition is just what I decided on after considering options when I was taking the photo (and looking through the photos I took later).

If you’d like to see your painting included in the project gallery, simply email it to me. And remember, it’s never too late to do any of the monthly painting projects or share your paintings of any of these. For some extra project-related content and one-to-one help, become a project subscriber on my Patreon here.

Painting Project Photo Gallery: Big Waves

I’m sure you’re going to enjoy looking at these “big wave” paintings from September’s painting project as much as I have. Such energy, such beautiful sea colours.

By Cathi: “I could hear you saying “Stop fiddling!” so here is is before I really spoil it. Acrylic on A3 paper. Just two colours plus white. No prizes for guessing which two.”

From Marion: Such movement and energy to the water!
By Eddie: “This is my attempt in oil 24.5×16.5”. I had no phthalocyanine turquoise and tried one with phthalo blue and cobalt turquoise light but didn’t like it. For this I have used sap green, Payne’s grey and white. I looked at Marion’s suggested tweaks and thought they seemed easy so I went at it with gusto. The painting had other ideas and I’m sure I heard it chuckle. My brushes were wilfully disobedient so I got the palette knife out to quell their rebellion. I applied thicker and thicker paint as the wave morphed from a fringe to a waterfall then to an avalanche in rocky terrain. I scraped it down and, in desperation, decided to look at the photo. The result is probably the best I can do for now.”

From Marion: Some paintings do have too much of a mind of their own, but your result belies your struggle. It’s beautifully painted, with an energy and sense of movement, distance, and that you’ll feel the sea spray on your skin.
By Eddie: “I thought I would try this in pastel as well.13×9.5”.”

From Marion: This gprgeous Eddie! The movement, the light, the colours… I found myself thinking about whether this has worked so well because pastels are so your medium, or because it builds on the work of your previous painting, and ultimately think it’s both.
By Karen: “I used a matte texture paste for the dark sea and the foam and a glossy less stiff paste for the wave. I only used the three colours you suggested — white , phthalo turquoise and Prussian blue — and think they might be my new favourites. I’m really pleased with how it’s turned out. 12×8 inches. Acrylic”

From Marion: I think you should indeed be pleased! The use of texture paste enhances the sense of movement and energy to the water.
By Bee, watercolour.

From Marion: It’s that combination of abstract rooted in realism that I love so much: my mind jumps joyfully between “it’s a wave” to “it’s a pattern of blues”. There’s an energy to it, enhanced by the splatter of white gouache, which also encourages my eye to move around.
By Bee: “Thanks for your crit, Marion I had already tweaked it before I read it and I think I have improved it. This is the great thing about oils you can keep changing although you can never go back.”

From Marion: Such movement and energy; feeling of sun on the crest of the wave and it casting a shadow. A fabulous painting!

My painting, done a few years ago now (my step-by-step photos are here):

120.x160cm. Acrylic on canvas

I also had a go using watercolour and masking fluid:

Using masking fluid to preserve white in a watercolour painting of a wave

Painting Project: The Little Mouse

A chance encounter is the source of this month’s painting project. I opened the back door and there was a tiny mouse eating the crumbs in the catbowl that’s outside for Fluffy McStranger Cat. It reminded me of a series of children’s books by Monique Felix, which feature a mouse and don’t have any words. The mouse chews its way through the pages in various scenarios; in “The Boat” it uses the piece of paper it’s chewed off to fold an origami boat to sail off into the scene revealed. Now I’ve got some of my own reference photos, my fingers are itching to have a go at painting “the little mouse” , and I hope you’ll join me.

I think it’s a subject that lends itself to all mediums, and it could be rewarding to try it in several: pencil, pen, watercolour acrylic, oil. Perhaps add some background or context, or let it be a portrait against white (or maybe gold?). Lifesize or bigger? Detailed realism or impressionist or stylised? If it were for an illustrated book, you’ll want to be able to repeat it.

Click on a photo for a larger version. There’s a black-and-white version too, eliminating the distraction of colour. This photo from above is the one I’d start with as it eliminates the complications of arms/legs/hands/feet for now.

As always, size and medium are up to you. Email me a photo and I’ll include it in the project gallery. If you want 1:1 help with your painting, this is available via Patreon (details here).

Photo Gallery: Duntulm Bay Painting Project

Here’s the photo gallery for August’s painting project featuring Duntulm Bay. Definitely lots of fun being had with the various textures and greys in the scene, in mediums from ink to oils. Enjoy!

By Bayberry: ” I kept it to only watercolor and ink, which is harder for me.  I always want to fix it with acrylic.”

From Marion: It’s not easy to resist reaching for acrylics, and not easy to do without, when you’re accustomed to what opaque acrylics do! Overall I think you’ve captured the location, the various textures of the elements and the gentle colours of the day the reference photo was taken beautifully.
By Karen: “I really enjoyed doing it after a first attempt when I wasn’t captured by the subject and gave up. It’s not a scene I would choose to paint but once I got into the flow I really enjoyed it. It is a little darker than I would have liked, although this photo shows it darker than it is.

From Marion: This has depth, the sense of location, the 3D on the slabs of rock, the little gate subtly waiting to be noticed, different textures in the various areas, it’s fabulous! Acrylics do dry darker (watercolours dry lighter), so a painting can easily be darker than we intend. It’s something you learn to compensate for: some people do it as they colour mix (by using colours a bit lighter in tone) others by adjusting afterwards (what I tend to do).
By Katherine: “Usually when I attempt any painting it somehow ends up looking quite grey, so I thought this challenge would suit me perfectly. But I’ve used a new medium for me – Faber-Castell gelato crayons which feel a bit like wax crayons but are in fact watercolour so dissolve if water added. My 12 crayons we’re all bright colours and I’ve ended up with this. Worked into it a little afterwards with watercolour pencils.”

From Marion: Well, this certainly isn’t “quite grey” but a rich tapestry of intriguing colour! I like the different areas of tone and mark making, pulling my eye up into the blues of the sea and calm sky. Definitely a medium you should use again!
By Eddie: “I have strengthened the blue in the sky and muted the sea in response to your comments. The hard edge on the hill was because I wet the graphite and it was difficult to cover completely but I have tried. There was some green in the stones but it didn’t show well against the dark so I have strengthened it. Overall the tweaks have made the painting stronger.

Details from Eddie’s painting.

By Bee. Pastel.

From Marion: The combination of drawing (line) and painting (blocks of colour and blended colour) not only creates visual interest that intrigues and lures me in, but also an energy. Like different tempos in a piece of music, speeding up and slowing down. Lovely use of the texture of the paper as part of this.
By Bee, in oils: “This is my final version of Dutulm Shore, I like it but it is not really the same place , tho’ I guess it was the starting point.”

From Marion: A photo is always just a starting point never the end point. The gentle greys and browns pull me in for a closer look, into the smaller and smaller pebbles. Like the use of line drawing into the wet paint to give texture and form to the rocks.
By Mark: “I enjoyed this month’s challenge, and did three attempts.

From Marion: They’ve got an energy and freshness to them, and I’m hard pressed to pick a favourite.
By Mark
By Mark

Remember, it’s never too late to do any of the projects, there’s no closing date to them. Simply email me a photo of your painting and I’ll add it to the next photo gallery. All the painting projects are listed here. Individual help from me with your paintings is available to project subscribers through my Patreon page and it also has a community section for easy sharing and commenting on fellow subscribers’ paintings.

My paintings inspired by this month’s location:

By Marion Boddy-Evans. Mixed media (watercolour, acrylic, acrylic ink, oil pastel) on watercolour paper, A2 size
By Marion Boddy-Evans. Acrylic on wood panels. Diptych 30x15cm. SOLD.
Video of my creating this painting
By Marion Boddy-Evans. Oils. 30x30cm.
Video of this on my Patreon page for project subscribers here

September’s Painting Project: Breaking Wave

This month’s painting project is about a moment, a wave starting to break as it reaches the shore, and working with a limited palette.

I took this photo at Tsitsikamma (Storm’s River) in South Africa in 2007, and still have the painting I did in acrylics from this on the wall. Thinking about this month’s project, I felt like a “dramatic wave” and looking through all my “big wave” photos, kept coming back to this one. That the photo is over a dozen years old is belied by the timelessness of the movement of the sea.

As always, the style, medium, size, and format are up to you. Think about it a bit, but also allow yourself to be led by impulse to see where it takes you.

I would reach for Prussian blue, pthalo turquoise and titanium white, and work with this limited palette. A chance to really get to know the personalities of these two blues, their transparency and what happens when mixed with white and with one another.

I would leave out the sliver of rocky shore (the rocks are angular and dark), and probably any suggestion of sky, to take the painting away from a wider landscape into a composition about the act of a wave breaking. Leaving out the lower band of crashing foam is another possibility, making the foreground all about the water stretching up into the crest of the wave.

Realism, but with the composition being about pattern and colour rather than location.
Expressive, with large gestural brushmarks and splatters.
Line and colour, using line to convey the movement and broad washes of colour across these.

Notice that there’s shadow cast by the wave on itself, and that as there’s less water in the wave (towards the top), it’s lighter as the light starts to shine through.

If you’d like to have your painting included in the project photo gallery, simply email me a photo with a few words about it by the end of the month (if it’s later, I’ll include it in the next project gallery I create). If you’d like to have feedback on your painting, or help whilst you’re working on it, this is available to project subscribers (link).

Happy painting! I look forward to seeing what you’re inspired to paint.

Taking a Long, Slow Look at a Reference Photo Before Painting

You’ve got your reference photo, so you stick it up next to your canvas and start painting away enthusiastically. But, really, like doing thumbnails before we start, taking a long slow look at the photo to think about what’s in it, and what we might include in a painting, is time well spent.

The photo below is a page in my sketchbook where I made notes as I looked at the reference photo for this month’s painting project. (Click on the photo to see a larger version.)

I started writing from the right-hand side of the page (I’ve no idea why), considering one aspect at a time of what I see and what I might use in a painting. So: elements I could include, colours in the photo, paint colours I might use, mark making possibilities, format, position of horizon, things to emphasise. (Elements to leave out could be another.)

Working through a photo with one aspect in mind narrows your focus, concentrates your attention, and can pull you in deeper and deeper with that one thing. If you made a spreadsheet with multiple headings and tried to consider them all together, it may seem faster, but it’s multi-tasking which means it’s harder to do to the same depth.

It’s not something you need to spend hours doing, nor do your notes need to be detailed. It’s about encouraging yourself to slow down for a bit, to look a little longer. Photos are taken in no time at all. What we decide to include or leave out needs a little longer consideration.

Certainly, I don’t always do it, and I don’t always move thoughts about a photo from my head onto paper. I justifying not doing it to myself by saying I use my own photos anyway, so I’ve already seen the scene with my own eyes and have visual memories. Ideally it’s something I’ll have done on location, but second best is to do it from a photo. The more I look, the more I see.

Photo Gallery: July Painting Project (Daisies)

Daisy, daisy, give me your answer do… and what beautiful and interesting answers we have had for this painting project too! Enjoy!

By Katherine: This was just supposed to be a test piece and was done on a 30cm x 60cm piece of wallpaper lining. I used acrylics and watercolours. A bit of a mess really!

From Marion: It’s not a mess, it’s captured the sense of enthusiasm that daisies have, growing where and how they will (unless you’ve a formal garden with rigid planting) and dancing about under the sun.
By Mark: I enjoyed this one. It’s about 5 inches by 5 inches, acrylic on 360 gsm paper.
From Marion: Beautiful rich greens, with sense of depth, movement, and the cheerfulness that I associate with daisies.
By Cathi: My first effort was done really quickly. I used water colour and masking fluid to keep the flowers whiter-than-white!

From Marion: I’m looking at this and wondering why I’ve never thought to combine pencil and masking fluid, because it totally resolves the hard-edged look of masking fluid white areas that I don’t really like. I do, however, keep wanting to straighten up your painting!
By Cathi: I did enjoy this month’s subject and had fun doing something a bit different with it!

From Marion: Do I detect the influence of the “cut up” from May’s project…? After a bit of pondering I’ve realised that I keep wanting these flowers to be water lilies rather than daisies, but can’t decide whether it’s because the cutout shapes feel like waterlily leaves or it’s the sense of pond in the background.
By Bee: A first quick daisy picture done with Sharpies.
From Marion: I’m intrigued by how the blue background at the top could feel so airy whilst the green and the bottom feels like I’m looking down at the ground, yet both are merely a single colour; how my brain adds and interprets.
By Bee.
From Marion: I like the energy, colours, variety of angles. Looking at the lower left, there’s yellow peaking out beind the green, giving a sense of sunshine and depth. I know layering is one of my enthusiasms, but it’s tiny bits like this that show how effective it can be.
By Eddie: “These daisies get into your head. I was scribbling with a biro while watching TV and this popped up. Promise it’s the last for this month.”
From Marion: That your fingers are leading you to daisies is making me smile! There’s a lovely looseness to this, interesting mark making with an energy and freshness. You might try this approach using an acrylic marker pen and then watery acrylics around it.
By Eddie: “The one on the left was drawn with the dropper of Payne’s grey acrylic ink and on the right with Indian ink and a brush. I then added gouache until I felt I had done enough to make them interesting and, hopefully, avoid overworking.”

From Marion: “I did a little happy dance seeing these, that joyful feeling that comes from nudging someone in a direction and seeing them run with the idea. Both have a lot I like about them: the looseness, the balance of suggestion and representation, the feel of the ‘hand of the artist’.
By Eddie: “I did a tonalist version in oils.” From Marion: I like it for being so different to your other daisies, that you’ve taken a now-familiar subject and tried a different approach.
By Eddie: “As soon as I saw your concertina book I grabbed the sketchbook, pen and watercolours which sit beside me and played while watching t.v. I enjoyed the looseness and freedom from anxiety a sketchbook gives. I tried but failed to keep this feeling with this larger acrylic.

From Marion: Theoretically we should be able to do a larger painting with the vitality of a sketchbook pieces, because the evidence is right there that we can work in this style. The key is to somehow break the “this is now a serious painting” mindset that overrides the looseness. One thing that may help is to do the bigger version on paper still, not canvas.
From Claire: This is my attempt in watercolour, looking at your photo and my windswept flowers in the garden. I decided not to add other media to tidy up the loose petals and vegetation because I would have been fiddling. At the start, I intended to do four small practice pieces but these two on the left were too fiddly so I did the two on the right as one picture ignoring the tape.

From Marion: The white where the tape was makes it feel like I’m looking through a window (I’ve a whole book of paintings by Matisse with just his views through windows). You’re absolutely right to leave it loose like this, it’s got such sense of movement, of swaying in the breeze.
By Sarah: “In the middle of the night I realised I had not preplanned any firm of composition for my painting and ended up making the one painting into two. I even put an intial signature on the bottom, being happy with my process and result.

From Marion: When you showed me the photo of your painting whilst it was still a work-in-progress, I’d wondered what you might do with the ‘gap’ between the two sections, but didn’t point it out as I wanted to see if you’d resolve it. This is the perfect solution.

And one from June’s bluebells project:

By Claire: Tried a watercolour to get back into painting. It.was such a cold miserable day that I looked back to the glorious heatwave and dug out my yellows to suggest sunshine through the trees , mixed on the paper and added oil pastel, trying to keep very loose. I wasn’t happy with lots of foreground trees I had, so cropped it.

I’ve had fun with daisies myself this month, starting with my concertina book daisies (see this blog post for a video):

Which led to this painting on canvas:

SOLD “Ailsa’s Daisies”. 50x20cm, acrylic on canvas

And this mixed media painting on paper:

Foxgloves and Daisies painting
SOLD “Foxgloves and Daisies”. A2 size paper, mixed media

As always with painting projects, if you’d like to share a photo of your painting(s), please email it to me, send it via social media, or post to the community section of my Patreon. There’s no deadline on any of the projects, I will simply include it in the next photo gallery.

Happy painting!

August’s Painting Project: Duntulm

This month’s inspiration is a bit of rocky coast of Score Bay near the ruins of Duntulm Castle. If you know what you’re looking for, there are fossilized dinosaur footprints hereabouts. The reference photo was taken on an overcast day as the tide was going out. I see it as an opportunity to paint with “interesting greys”, with pops of bright colour.

The dark blip on the horizon is a small cluster of islands

Below is a version of the photo which I’ve edited to increase the saturation of the colours, to give you some ideas for colours to emphasise or exaggerate, to use as undercolours, or use as the ‘bias’ in greys. Notice also that not all the smaller pebbles are grey, there’s a scattering of lighter ones.

Photo with colour exaggerated

And in the version of the photo below I’ve edited it to increase the dark, enabling us to see the shapes of the clouds better. You might even choose to ignore most of the shore and have a composition that’s focuses on the sky.

Photo with dark enhanced

Size and medium are up to you. I think it’s a subject that lends itself to everything and anything, from simple pencil line to layered mixed media.

COMPOSITION: The photo as I took it is but one option, a composition with roughly a third rocky shore, sea (if you count the little bit of shallow water amongst the green on the left), and sky. You might keep these proportions but change the shape to square or a tall vertical format.

Another option would be to reduce the amount of sky and make it all about what’s happening on the shore, with or without the cliff on the right-hand side (and if with, then with or without the fence/gate at the top which gives a sense of scale). Or make it all about the clouds, with this taking up most of the composition.

COLOURS: There’s a lot of grey in this photo, giving the opportunity to explore colour mixing greys. By “interesting greys” I mean greys that have a touch of colour to them, not neutral greys. So blue-grey, green-grey, yellow-grey, etc. My favourite mix is blue + orange + white (a lot of white!), but explore mixing the other complementaries too (red + green, purple + yellow).

Your painting might be done with a limited palette, a narrow range of colours and tones, with subtle contrasts for a gentle mood. Or you might have little pops of colour, whether colours not entirely mixed or bits of brighter lower layers shining through or little touches added. Or you might decide to go full-on expressionist, embracing exaggerated versions of the colours that there are.

Another thought that occured to me was to use swathes of flat, opaque greys in the sky in the style of Joan Eardley. To make the sky area one of flat colour, perhaps with a little variation, then the sea have a bit more going on (in terms of colour and/or mark making), and the foreground being “busy”, full of colour and mark making.

If you’d like to have your painting included in the project photo gallery, simply email me a photo with a few words about it by the end of the month (if it’s later, I’ll include it in the next project gallery I create). If you’d like to have feedback on your painting, or help whilst you’re working on it, this is available to project subscribers (link).

Happy painting! I look forward to seeing what you’re inspired to paint.

I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise that my first painting of this was a layered mixed media piece. Here’s a detail from it:

Detail. Mixed media on watercolour paper, A2 size.