What I’m Reading: Colour A Visual History

Marion reading Tate Colour Book

An illustrated tome on the history of colour theory that also follows the development of printing is my kind of coffee-table book! I’ve been reading Colour: A Visual History, published by the Tate gallery, in what I think of as “National Geographic reading”: first you look at the images, then you read the captions, and then you start absorbing the text. (Buy book , affiliate link)

The American edition is published by the Smithsonian and has a longer, mouthful of a title: Color: A Visual History from Newton to Modern Color Matching Guides.

It’s packed with reproductions of colour charts and theories, with well-written, accessible explanations of the who, what, when of each.

I’ve stared at this music-colour chart for ages, with do-re-me running through my head. Here’s the contents list:

September’s Painting Project: The Instructions

Portree Harbour, Isle of Skye

This month I’ve chosen a subject that’s got bright colour and lots of architecture, the harbour in Portree. It’s a wide scene with a lot going on: buildings, boats, sea, shore, trees, a bit of reflected colour in the sea. I took the photo from the roadside on the other side of the bay, which looks down at the scene; the distant view is hidden by cloud.

Portree Harbour, Isle of Skye

The building with a point at the back is a church, as you probably suspected. The long brown building in front of this to the left is the Skye Gathering Hall. The left-most section of the pier is full of the less aesthetic elements of a working seafront such as fuel storage, which I’d probably leave out.

You could look at all this detail and start panicking about getting it all right, or you could relax and think that with all this variation in real life, some more variation in your painting or drawing will fit just fine. For me it’s foremost about getting the feel of the location, the poetry of the place, not about accurate perspective, which we can all do if we spend enough time learning and practising.

Emotion first, analytical second. Have a go, then compare and analyse, then go over it, perhaps with another medium, or have another attempt. Remove the unrealistic expectation of getting it all ‘right’ the first time, and instead treat it as a painting in which things may move or be repositioned as it develops.

When you’re looking at the row of colourful buildings, notice that:

  • The green building’s roof windows have flat tops rather than pointed and the central one isn’t aligned with the windows on the floor below.
  • The right-most blue/yellow building has roof windows that have tile below them and there are two shades of yellow/orange.
  • The left-most pink building has two roof windows but three windows on the floor below, as does the white building next to it.
  • The left-most white building has a gable end and chimney over the two central windows.
  • Some windows are single, others are double.
  • Some buildings have chimneys, others don’t.

The first decision is how much to include, and how much to leave out. Part of that decision lies in the format of your composition, whether it’s landscape, portrait, square. For me if you’re going to include the whole row of buildings, then landscape. I’d crop off the buildings on the right and the left.


You might decide to focus on a small part of this scene. After I painted the whole scene, I found myself entranced by the chimneys on the right hand side. This became the subject of my second painting:

Buildings at Portree Harbour with multiple chimneys

As always, medium, size and format are up to you. I look forward to seeing what this inspires. If you’ve done a painting in response to a project, whether the current month or any earlier one (see list of painting projects), do email me a photo to put in the photo gallery so we can all enjoy it. Happy painting!


Studio cat Ghost enjoyed helping me with my first attempt at painting this. He also features in the video of this painting (which I will post later this week) and the one of my doing composition thumbnails (which will be available to project subscribers).

Monday Motivator: Talent vs Sparked Interest

Monday motivator art quotes

“A lot of what we recognize as natural born talent is simply an interest sparked at a young age that isn’t lost.”

Bishop O’Connell, The Myth of Natural Born Talent

Subtract the thoughts about it being too late for you now; rather ask yourself what you can do to keep your spark of interest aflame and boost it.

Add all the motivational quotes you’ve ever heard about drawing with the spontaneity of a child. It boils down to eliminating all the second-guessing, erasing and redoing. You start and keep going. You care more about the doing than the outcome.

Take a look at A Year of Drawing by the younger of Austin Kleon’s children, and note his words in the last paragraph: “…at this point … drawing for him still has nothing to do with the results. He does not care what you do with his drawings after he’s done making them.”

(Edited to add: oops, make this a Sunday Motivator as I set it to publish a day early!)


Read next: Paint with a Beginner’s Mind

Trio of Tree Paintings

I have been wanting to try a tall trees painting (see this month’s painting project) using acrylic ink on canvas rather than paper, and have ended up with three in quite different colours. I’m unsure whether to move them closer to one another (that would involve choosing a favourite, which I think is the middle one) or let them be individuals.

Two were painted over unresolved paintings (one a waterfall, the other a seascape). The leftmost canvas is covered with black lava paste and the middle with my favourite light texture paste. I did this because reusing a canvas ‘permits’ experimentation with less worry about ‘wasting’ the canvas. Also because I thought the texture could work well and didn’t have to wait for it to dry. The rightmost canvas I covered with light turquoise first, which it wasn’t quite dry when I started on the trees.

I mostly used acrylic inks but also a few fluid colours which are more opaque and spread less wet into wet, such as the orange in the central painting. Iridescent yellow and gold too. Canvas size 20x50cm (8×20″). Brushes were a rigger and smallish flat, both with long handles. I painted flat on my table rather than vertical at my easel so that gravity wouldn’t pull the paint.

The paintings weren’t totally dry when I took the photos, and I will look at them afresh tomorrow and decide if tweaks are needed.

Monday Motivator: The Secret to Green

Monday motivator art quotes

“…the secret of green is orange and the friend of green is violet. Natural light represents all color, so a little orange introduced into green (which is a combination of yellow and blue) subtly introduces the color family of red and completes the color wheel spectrum.”

Richard McKinley, Painting Greens in the Landscape

Given, in my world, the secret to vibrant blue in a seascape is also orange, maybe the answer is always orange? What’s your go-to colour?


Monday Motivator: To a Timid Student

Monday motivator art quotes

“To a timid student I would say, don’t be frightened of your paint — there is nothing so deadly as a thinly-painted tree. Put out plenty of colour on your palette and don’t compromise with the remains of your yellow ochre when another fresh colour is obviously needed.

“Don’t strive to accomplish everything in one painting. Sunlight and shade, colour, movement of leaves and texture of bark are all excellent things, but all are not necessarily incorporable at one attempt.”

Adrian Hill, “Drawing and Painting Trees”, page 128

I haven’t yet come across where Hill explains why yellow ochre will be the colour you’d have left on your palette, but you get the drift I’m sure.

Trying (and failing) to Rescue a Painting

This is the story of my second attempt at July’s project. Plot spoiler: It does not have a happy ending.

I wanted to create a painting with more interesting mark making on the huts than than my first attempt at this scene, which was this:

A3 watercolour paper. Acrylic paint.

Sometimes it feels like a painting goes from a promising start to bad to worse to give-up-now. I try to remind myself it’s also an opportunity to push it past the usual point of stopping, to attempt things and see what happens. It’s already not working, so it’s not as if I will ruin it; at worst I just won’t succeed in rescuing it and use up some time and materials.

First I tried adding some oil pastel. Helped a bit, but felt I was just faffing at it not resolving things. So, frustrated and irritated, I put the painting flat on the floor and poured some acrylic ink over it. (Payne’s grey, though it looks black in the photo.)

Splat! Take that you troublesome painting!
Spreading the ink around with a piece of paper towel. The oil pastel of course repels the water-based ink.
All a bit dark now, and the oil pastel lines too basic. So I put it back up on my easel and started adding more acrylic paint.

This video is a sequence of photos taken as I painted this, except for the bit where I worked on the floor adding the ink.

I’ve since had a third go, and although it lost the plot in terms of perspective and shadow direction, it has an energy I like. I might still add some coloured pencil or thin acrylic over the too-dark shadows. Or I more likely I’ll leave the painting to fester in the pile of also-rans and focus on sorting out August’s project instead.

A3 watercolour paper. Acrylic paint and ink plus oil pastel.

If you’ve still to have a go at this project, here’s a ‘starting point’ for the beach huts courtesy of Cathi and Sarah, done as we painted together recently. Note the horizon for the sea will be below the top of the huts.

Sketching at Cullen & Gardenstown (On the North Sea Coast Part 3)

Boats and architecture are not something I sketch. All that perspective and stuff … which I can do it if I spend a lot of time but for me that’s not a recipe for relaxed drawing at the seaside. But I so want to pull the ideas that include these subjects out of my head and onto paper, and sketching would be the starting point. So I didn’t bother trying to get it right, but focused instead on enjoying the patterns of walls, roofs, chimneys and, at Cullen, the viaduct. I consider these as fear-conquering sketches, first steps on a journey.

The two sketchbooks I used were an A4 size with 350gsm watercolour paper from Seawhite, and A3-width Derwent panoramic with 160gsm smooth drawing paper that didn’t like rain drops at all but does has a useful elastic to hold down pages.

Photos: On the North Sea Coast (Part 1)
Sketching at Bow Fiddle Rock (On the North Sea Coast Part 2)