Thinking Outside the Colour Box

There are joys to be found in colour just for colour. Not for creating a finished painting, but for the delights of trying, exploring, feeling, seeing paint colours.

While there’s good reason to use a limited set of colours and getting to know these well, it also becomes a comfort zone. How often do you think outside the (colour) box?

At the weekend as a friend and I were doodling with the colours in my big watercolour set (one I put together from all the tubes of watercolour paint I have) she described them as “very much my colours”. I was taken aback as I thought there are lots of colours in there that aren’t my usual. But then she went on to list the colours she regards as staples that were missing, including Naples yellow, viridian, not to mention the lack of any kind of red (only magentas), and I realised that the colours were indeed subsets of my usuals, that there weren’t so much unexpected colours but more variations on favourites.

So yesterday I sat down with my Daniel Smith watercolour dot chart and tried with every single colour. Today I’m going to have another look at it and see where I might step further away from the box. Then I’m going to make a shopping list for July when I’m at Patchings Art Festival. Then I’m going to shorten the list.

Testing the watercolour dot card from Daniel Smith watercolours

It All Rests on One Finger (when painting clouds in watercolour)

Practising Clouds in Watercolour

I was practising “clouds shapes” and mixing “cloud colours” for tomorrow’s art workshop when I took the photo below. Looking at it I registered how I tend to rest my little finger on the page if I’m using this watercolour brush in my right hand. Add that to the reasons, beyond mere dexterity, as to why I get different results with my left hand.

Practising Clouds in Watercolour
(Don’t ask me what colours are in these clouds, it’s ‘leftovers’ on my palette mixed together.)

I was thinking about ways for getting white in clouds besides leaving the paper white, and have ended up with a contender in the “most useless how-to photo” competition. Top to bottom there’s masking fluid (blue so you can see where you’ve applied it), white oil pastel, and white gouache. Why did I take a photo? Well, I had to do something while it dried.

Whites for Cloud Painting

It looked at little more, urm, interesting after I’d added some watercolour. Though the gouache hadn’t quite all dried (not helped by being it cold and humid, or that’s my excuse for impatience and I’m sticking to it) so the cloud shadow colours mixed in with it. Looks more like a flying saucer. than a cloud. Back to the drawing, I mean painting, board.

If you’ve any cloud-painting tips — besides being more patient and waiting for paint to truly dry — do let me know!

My Top Painting Tips: Head Away From an Edge

My Top Painting Tips: Brush Away From an Edge

If you’re wanting to paint neatly up to an edge, say the side of a vase or tree trunk, painting away from that edge or imaginary line rather than towards it is easier. You position the brush at the exactly the right point when you start, then move the brush away from the edge. If you’re painting towards it, you have to decide when it’s time to stop. Lift the brush too early and there’s a gap; leave it too late and you go over the edge.

This short video demo was done with a flat brush and watercolour, but it applies to all brush shapes:

My Top Painting Tips: Brush Away From an Edge

Controlling Wet-into-Wet Watercolour: It Can Be Done

Wet on wet watercolour with granulating pigments

Mention painting wet into wet with watercolour, and many a person seems to have a vision of a wildly spreading chaos like this: (video link)

Whereas wet-into-wet can be a tightly controlled technique. It all depends on how you wet the paper and how you apply the paint.

If you’re on totally dry paper, carefully wet a specific shape, and then apply paint within this area only, it won’t spread out into the dry paper. As I’m doing here with a shape that’s excessively wet to illustrate the point: (video link)

(My apologies, do not adjust your glasses, the focus does get a little fuzzy at one point in the video.)

It also shows how a good flat brush gives you a very sharp edge or line and control. Note too how I’m using my little finger to steady my hand on occasion; it’s not something I consciously do, though I know I do it only if I’m painting sitting down.

Sketching at the River in Uig Woodland

Spent an inspiring day with an artist from Australia, focused on information gathering on location — aka sketching, but with the focus on looking, creating visual me and making visual notes rather than on creating beautifully finished sketches.

We started at Staffin Beach, then onto the ‘other’ side of Trotternish at that favourite spot of mine, the trees and river in the Uig woodland. The leaves are starting to turn autumnal colours and dropping. There’s a sprinkling of yellow leaves stuck to rocks in the river, little specks of glowing yellow in the shadows, and puddles of them jammed up against rocks in the stream.

The colour of the water was an interesting challenge: how to make it read as water when it’s mostly deep greens and browns, dark in the shadows and crystal clear where it’s still. I think the answer lies in some of the light greys of the overcast sky reflected in the ripples, and texture paste.

Sketching Uig Woodland Skye Autumn Colours
Look closely, there is a stream amidst all the greenery!
Sketching Uig Woodland Skye
Click to enlarge this photo if you want to read my notes on the scene

Reflections in Water, River Rock

Sketching Uig Woodland skye autumn leaves

7 Reasons to Paint in Monochrome

Monochrome Figure Painting

If painting in monochrome seems a strange thing to do given all the paint colours available to us, think for a moment about how beautiful and powerful black-and-white or sepia photographs can be. Likewise paintings done with black ink only. We don’t feel a lack of colour when we look at these, yet when thinking about painting with only one colour our instinct is often to feel that we’re missing out somehow.

Monochrome Figure Painting
Colour: burnt sienna mixed with Prussian blue to create a deep, rich brown.
Here are my seven reasons to painting in monochrome (do add your own thoughts in the comments section below):

  1. Only one colour to deal with, so you really get to know its characteristics and what it does (opacity, transparency, tinting strength).
  2. Helps you focus on tone without the distraction of colour. Reminds you that less is often more: tone is often the solution to a problematic painting rather than colour.
  3. Encourages patience and persistence (because you can’t distract the viewer with colour and have to fix things).
  4. No wasted paint from colour-mixing mistakes.
  5. You’ve only one brush to wash (unless you’ve used various sizes).
  6. You can add the art term “Grisaille” into your vocabulary.
  7. Gives you the chance to pretend you’re Rembrandt, working in dark moody browns.


  • Monochrome doesn’t mean it has to be a tube colour, you can mix a colour.
  • Consider using a coloured ground (in a light tone) rather than working on white.
  • Transparent pigments are more versatile than opaque for this.
  • Using the white of the canvas/paper gives a different result than adding white paint.
  • Zinc white is more transparent than titanium white (which is a very opaque pigment).

Discovering how much can be achieved with only one colour is a step on the journey to discovering the joys of working with a limited palette. Using fewer colours but ones that you know intimately will produce better paintings than using lots of colours. It adds a cohesion as the colours work with one another across the whole composition.

Sunny Summer Skye Sketching

I spent yesterday sketching in the sunshine at various locations on the north of the Trotternish Peninsula. Starting at that favourite of spots, the slipway at Camus Mor, looking westwards, towards the rocky shore and cliffs:
Skye  Sketching: Camus Mor

Then north a bit, to a viewpoint looking towards the ruins of Duntulm Castle. When the tide is out, the distant part of the shore is flat slabs of rock rather than pebbles.Skye  Sketching: Duntulm Castle

Then round to Staffin beach, sitting where I could see the river running into the sea:
Skye  Sketching: Staffin

Watched, as ever, by some munching sheep:
Skye  Sketching: Staffin Sheep

Then over the Quiraing to a viewpoint overlooking Uig/Idigrill, focusing on the sea and distant cliffs(but just look at all those variations of green!):
Skye  Sketching: Overlooking Uig

And for those interested, a photo of what I was using. My palette with Sennelier watercolours (which I love for the saturated colour but are honey-based and in the hot sunshine it’s crucial to keep the palette flat or the paint seeps out of their allocated slots making a sticky mess!), water container, pencil box with black pen, pencil, few watersoluble coloured pencils, and brushes that fit into it. Not shown: bottle with clean water for both me and rinsing my brushes. Also not shown: quite a few less satisfactory resolved sketches!
Sketching art supplies

Transparent Watercolour Doesn’t Mean Colourless Paint

Transparent Paint Colour
Watercolour paint is transparent, what’s underneath shows through; how much depends on the pigment and how thickly or thinly it’s used.

On Saturday someone asked me what gouache was. As I was explaining it’s like watercolour but opaque paint not transparent, they got stuck on “how can paint be transparent when it’s a colour?” It’s not the first time I’ve encountered the misunderstanding that transparent means colourless (like reading glasses) rather than having colour but still allowing what’s beneath or behind it to show through (like sunglasses).

Watercolour is a transparent in that layers of watercolour paint allow what’s beneath it to show through. How much shows varies, depending on the properties of a pigment and how thickly/thinly you’re using it. The more water you’ve added to the paint, the thinner the colour will be and thus the greater the transparency.

Traditional gouache is used with water, like watercolour, but is inherently opaque and matt, covering over what’s been painted underneath. The result has quite a different feel to it: flatter, more solid colours. The exception is what is sold as white watercolour paint, which has opaque properties; it’s often called Chinese white, sometimes titanium white.

It’s the transparent nature of watercolour that enables you to build up rich colours with a sense of depth, layer by layer. To darken tones by applying another layer of the same colour. To ‘mix’ colours on the paper rather than on your palette, such as creating a green by painting blue over yellow or a purple with red over blue. (To put it into artspeak: optical mixing rather than physical mixing.)

The opaque nature of traditional gouache enables you to add detail to a watercolour late in its development, for instance grass in the foreground, or for overworking areas that have gone wrong. Do have a go at a complete painting with gouache alone at least once as it’s a different beast to watercolour. Or “fake it” by adding some white to all your watercolour colours; the colours will be less saturated but it’ll give you a feel for it.