Following a ‘What If I…?’ Impulse When Painting

Often when I am painting I follow an impulse to do something and then respond to what happens. I don’t have the route for creating the painting planned out before I start, but I do know what sorts of things the materials I’m using will give me so there are some parameters, it’s not a total “anything might happen”.

I don’t try to predict what kind of “what if I…?” impulse it might be, though the materials I’m using or have close to hand do influence it. Sometimes it’s a big shift (eg generously spraying water onto wet ink), sometimes small (eg adding a little bit of purple oil pastel to make a shadow area more colourful). Some paintings it never happens, and the result isn’t better or worse for it.

The video below shows such a moment. I had two small wood panels and intended to paint pebbles on both. Instead of painting on both simultaneously as I sometimes do, I ended up with one panel still blank and the other covered in paint (acrylic ink). Seeing how much was still wet, I had an impulse to place the blank board in top of the wet paint to transfer some if the ink.

It’s something I have done before, so I’m doing it with the knowledge of previous results, which range from minimal transfer (the paint was drier than I thought) to a smudged mess (very wet paint on paper that spread and mixed because I pressed down too hard). The worst that could happen was that I’d have a chaotic colourful mess, but that could easily be washed off or overpainted. The best would be an interesting starting point for a second pebble painting.

The photo below is what I ended up with. You can see how the colours make them a pair of paintings that sit together, and how the shapes in the colours on the left suggest pebbles.

I let the left-hand panel to dry a bit whilst I used a rigger brush to define some stronger pebbles in the right-hand one.

The light reflecting in the paint shows you how wet the paint is. It’s crucial to have the panel flat at this stage to avoid the paint inadvertently running and dripping.
As the ink starts to dry, the brush strokes of the rigger brush start to hold their edges rather than melt and blend
The dried painting is a mixture of wet-into-wet colour mixing and visible brushmarks. I enjoy this mixture and how the closer you look the more you see.

This is where the two paintings ended up:

The question now is, “Which way up do I hang them?”

Trees Don’t Have Leaves on One Side Only

Painting with a friend in the sunshine, with coffee and munchies, makes it possible to forget about the hassles of life for a bit. In our view was a magnificent old oak tree, with fresh spring leaves and branches spreading upwards and outwards in a twisty tangle.

I started with water-soluble ink in my fude pen (the fountain pen with the bent nib), then used Serpentine green watercolour, lemon yellow and iridescent green acrylic ink.

The first painting (above on the right) I got the sense of the branches peeking out through the leaves, but on the second (above left) I got carried away with my enjoyment of the ink dissolving as I added water. It ended up with very dominant branches and trunks, and a feeling of there being any leaves on the back only, none on this front. I tried using coloured pencil to change this, and some opaque paint (by mixing in white) but it didn’t help.

When I said it looked like a dead tree standing in front of other trees, my painting companion said I was being a bit too harsh. But when we swapped paintings, she chose the other one! I picked one where she’d used water-soluble graphite for the trunk and branches, which on the rough watercolour paper she used gave a strong sense of bark texture.

Our other companion was four-legged, and I couldn’t resist trying to draw her even though she’d move when I was about half way with every attempt.

Water-soluble ink pen

Spring-Green Trees

Newly emerged leaves in spring have a bright, cheerful yellowness to them that seems to celebrate the beginning of a new growing season. I was sitting in a friend’s garden in the Scottish Borders looking at the red and yellow tulips thinking they lent themselves to a painting, but kept being pulled back to a couple of trees where the leaves were catching the sun whilst casting shadow on the stems.

I started with coloured pencil, trying to get the sense of the layers of leaves and small branches, sunny and shade sides.

I added watercolour and acrylic ink in various colours, including an iridescent green.

Mixed media on A3 watercolour paper

To stop myself fiddling with this painting while I was waiting for it to dry, I started another which I did wet-into-wet (and forgot to take progress photos).

Mixed media on A3 watercolour paper

I put the iridescent ink as a lower layer in the second painting, rather than top layer as in the first painting, so it shimmers through the other layers. The final layer was a deliberately opaque choice of cadmium yellow mixed with titanium white, so it would obscure what was beneath it.

Concertina Sketchbook at the Yellow Breakwater

It was perfect picnic, I mean sketching, weather today. I popped into the post office with a letter, and came out with picnic supplies, then headed up to the slipway at Camus Mor and that joyous yellow lichen slice.

I had brought a small concertina sketchbook, my watercolours, ink pen and coloured pencils. I found myself thinking about how both the breakwater wall and slipway are hard-edged slashes through the pattern of the shore, and pondering how abstracted this might be if I excluded the sea which connects them and gives them context. Whether I could make the parts feel connected across the pages of the concertina sketchbook or whether it feels like a jump.

I started with watercolour, then did a layer of black water soluble ink using a fude pen (the nib of which gives a variable width of line depending on the angle at which you hold the pen). First the yellow section, then the bit to the slipway wall.

Overall my sketching was a bit wild and woolly, fragmented and distracted, a bit like how I feel, but I think there’s potential in this composition, something to explore further, to refine and grasp hold of. It’s certainly not resolved with this attempt, but I am intrigued by the challenge of making it read across the length whilst pushing the focus on shape and pattern rather than on seashore. What will be added to the blank pages is currently an unknown. The “here be dragons” part of the map.

The Sunflower Part 2

I’ve had another round of painting that tall sunflower (see The Sunflower). This time I painted indoors using my previous drawings, memory, and photos as reference rather than being outdoors with the flower itself, because I needed a gentle day, not one squirrelling on the ground to paint.

First attempt was with the tallest piece of paper I have with me, a piece I’d previously concertina-ed. I started with Payne’s grey acrylic ink, which isn’t a surprise, but used a stick to apply it rather than the dropper, which produced a scratchy line. Then used watercolour and acrylic paint.

I had a go at reworking one of Sunday’s paintings. I don’t feel like I entirely resolved it, but like it better than it was.

I then tore a sheet of A2 watercolour paper in half, taped the edges, and got rid of the white by mixing up all the leftover paint and adding water so it became a lightish background colour. As I intended to use the same colours again in the sunflowers I was going to paint on these sheets, I knew the background colour would sit harmoniously.

I like parts of all the paintings. If I were to choose only one, I think it’d be the concertina one with its brighter colours.

Pondering Whilst Painting: Underworked vs Overworked

How little is too little to convey the essence of a location, when have I stopped too early and where does it tip into being overworked? These are questions I found myself pondering on as I sat painting in the sunshine on the beach at Thorntonloch.

First attempt was with Payne’s grey ink.

I was tempted to add some colour to this, as it felt too uniform in tone, and I lost the white on the wave edges, but decided to let it dry, and then look at it again later. I suspect a little pale watercolour may be what it wants, and/or some coloured pencil lines, and/or white acrylic ink. I’ll decide when I look at it with fresh eyes.

Second attempt started with phthalo turquoise and Payne’s grey.

I stopped here because I liked it, but do wonder if it would benefit from a little colour in the sand in the foreground. Maybe a granulating watercolour like hematite genuine. The lack of drips and runs are because my spray water bottle stopped working, so I didn’t have to resist using it.

Third attempt I decided to use colour from the start. All was going well until I got too heavy handed with the rocks in the middle, (with tone and indenting the paper with the stick I was using to draw). I was using transparent colours and didn’t want to add white just yet

I decided to see if using more colours and making it a band of rocks would resolve it. So out came some purple (in addition to phthalo turquoise, Payne’s grey, and transparent orange).

I stopped here to let it dry, with the thought that I would have another round with some coloured pencil on the foreground and rock band. But that’s easier done on a table than sand.

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.

Studio Painting From a Location Study

At Staffin there’s no shortage of boulders, but there’s one that’s become a particular favourite, sitting on an eroded slab with a gap beneath it that you can see the sea through. If the tide is in, it’s surrounded by water; at low tide the bigger rock slab emerges. I first painted it on a gloriously sunny day in May 2019 while my Ma plein-air knitted (see My Pebbles Got Bigger). On that occasion I used ink and watercolour on paper; this time (a sunny day in April) I used oil paint on wood panel.

The tide was going out when I arrived, and I knew from previous visits here that the water closest to me disappeared fairly quickly. In anticipation of it doing so, I took the photo below as a reminder, once I’d decided where I was going to position myself to paint.

I found a convenient rock to sit on to paint, because I know standing on loose pebbles can be hazardous if I get too absorbed with painting.

This painting had a different starting point for me, with a darkish ground (some Payne’s grey acrylic ink over the white non-absorbent primer of Michael Harding), and my initial lines plotting the elements done in orange. A lot of my previous seascapes have started with an orange ground (orange and blue being complementary colours).

The lack of inbetween photos is because I got absorbed in what I was doing and forgot to take any!

9×12″ oil on wood panel

I was pleased with the result: the colours, the mark making getting looser to the foreground to move the painting into a slightly more expressive feeling, leaving some of the ground to show through.

A few days later the location was still bouncing around my brain, and I decided to have a go at painting a larger version in my studio, which was also something new for me as I don’t usually do direct studio versions of on-location pieces. I used the same colours except for black, which I felt had muddied the colours somewhat. Instead I started with Payne’s grey acrylic ink, thinking this might give me the darks I was after. I sprayed it with some water when it was partially dry and held it vertical to let the ink run.

And once again there’s a lack of photos between it at this stage and where I stopped.

“Balance”, 59x84cm (A1 size, approx 23×33″), oils on wood panel
The studio painting and the plein-air

From Location to Studio Painting: “On Edge”

The connection between the sketching and painting I do on location (and the sitting just looking) and the painting I do in my studio isn’t always direct, but sometimes the dots that need to be joined are fairly evident, as with this studio painting finished a few days ago:

“On Edge”. 30x30cm, acrylic on wood panel.

Its path started last week when I painted at Duntulm (northwestern tip of the Trotternish Peninsula on Skye) at low tide on consecutive days, ending up with two watercolours and two studies in oil paint.

If you’ve looked up Duntulm on a map and seen the word “castle”, don’t get overly excited as there’s not much left.

The first day it was misty, clearing as the morning progressed. I started sitting on the grass, looking down over a stretch of rocky shore (there’s quite a drop where the grass ends in the photo below), painting with watercolour. The mist slowed the speed with which the watercolour dried, making wet-into-wet easy and an interesting change of pace with the paint.

I had my big set of pan watercolours, along with bottles of fluid watercolour and my beloved Payne’s grey acrylic ink (which I didn’t use for once). The red fabric is the corner of my raincoat which I was sitting on.

Then I moved along and down a bit, to a grassy bank, and got out my oil paints.

I stopped painting on this because I got tired, so it’s more of a loose study or sketch rather than a finished plein-air painting. Closer-up photo further below.
Sea, mist, winding road, sheep, and wild yellow irises

These two photos give a wider view of the location, and how the colours of the sea change with the light conditions of the two days.


Back in my studio, I put the watercolours and two oil paintings up on my easel as I painted at my table on a wood panel (with a layer of clear gesso on it).

Texture paste was applied with a palette knife, both Lava Black, which is a coarse-grained texture perfect for sandy shores, and Golden’s Light Modelling Paste which dries to an absorbent surface on which watery acrylic behaves a bit like watercolour.

The latter can also be scratched into with a sharp edge fairly easily when it’s relatively newly dried. If you look at the lowest band of rock in the next three work-in-progress photos, you’ll see how I abandoned having a band of rounded slabs of rock and scratched into it with the point of a palette knife so this section looks more like the others.

Painting-in-progress photo 1
Painting-in-progress photo 1
Painting-in-progress photo 3

Here’s the final painting, plus several detail photos:


Where next? I’ve already started another studio painting based on this location, again using texture paste and acrylic but this time on an unprimed wooden board. Without gesso on the board, thin acrylic sinks in and the woodgrain is revealed, as you can see below:

It having dried overnight, I’ve started adding some colour to the rocky shore. Trying not to lose the woodgrain on the right-hand “sea section” is inhibiting me as I’m painting, as are my favourite bits of my just-finished painting because I keep comparing the two. The “sea area” surface is very absorbent any any stray paint will soak in and dry almost instantly, so I’m second-guessing what I’m doing before I do it, rather than responding to what’s happening as I paint. It’s what I mentally label as “trying too hard”. The photo below is where I stopped struggling with it and left it to dry again; I will give it a break for a couple of days.

Still Smelling the Roses

Some 20-odd days since I popped them into my beloved yellow jug, the bunch of roses in my studio has now dried out and is looking decidedly Miss Havisham-ish. I’ve been using them as the starting point for some small 15x15cm paintings, with varying degrees of completion.

There are two paintings I consider finished, and like (and have added to my #ArtistSupportPledge paintings here):  

The turning point with these two was when I put down my brushes and starting working on with oil pastel. The slight texture of the paper means that if I don’t press too hard with the oil pastel it gives a broken line (rather than a continuous), allowing some of the colour beneath to show through.

Whether the result looks like roses or peonies or something else is up to whoever is looking at the painting.

There two paintings I started before these two that are nearly there, but not quite. I put them on my Facebook timeline with the question “Left or right” (see answers here or on Instagram): 

The responses were varied, but consolidated what I’d thought which was to brighten the greens on the one of the left and add some darks to the one on the right. Once I’ve done that, I will then will decide if anything else is needed.

There are three more, which I left to dry last night looking like this (apologies, the photo isn’t the sharpest): 

These three all have watery acrylic on top of oil pastel, and I anticipate doing at least one more layer on each with light or dark, possibly both.

These seven paintings may seem connected only by subject, but it’s a case of “one thing led to another, and to another”. The roses I bought when I went to the supermarket because I felt like a splash of colour. They’ve sat on the corner of my studio table, watching and waiting, until, inevitably, I painted them and then put a photo of two together on social media. This led to a comment from a friend about wanting to see a version with ink line work (thanks for the prompt Tina!) which led to me painting the roses again, this time starting with acrylic ink (Payne’s grey) and adding it again after some colour, finishing the paintings with oil pastel. The oil pastel led me to wanting to see what resulted if I started with oil pastel and then added watery acrylic paint and/or acrylic ink, which led to the last three paintings.

This photo shows all the paintings together, the top two are where they were after one round with them (initial magenta and ink, which was sprayed with water while still wet and lifted with paper towel), the middle row is where they were before I added oil pastel, and the lower row are as they’ve been for some days now (I still haven’t done the tweaks). 


In terms of process, I’m following an idea to see what happens, letting the materials dictate the route and allowing myself to give in to an impulse. I try not to worry about whether something will work or not, though inevitably there are moments when I hesitate. Working on several pieces at once allows me to then put that one aside until I am either sure about what I want to do, know I don’t want to do any more (yet or ever), or am able to roll with whatever results. Usually I don’t share the ones that don’t work out, or all the ones that are about halfway there (the ones I think of as “just add sheep”). I rarely tear something up on the day it was created but go through the pile every once in a while and sort out duds when I’m more dispassionate.


My thanks to all my readers and friends for your encouragement and enthusiasm in these strange times of lockdown and the cancellation of so many things I was looking forward to through winter, with particular mention to my Patreon supporters and subscribers who enable me to keep my blog and videos advert free and the studio cats fed. Also to everyone who’s bought one of my little #SupportArtistPledge paintings, taking me nearly half way to my goal.