Category Archives: Painting Tips

To granulate or not to granulate?

I have just returned from tutoring on a painting holiday in the beautiful Cotswolds in the UK. The area is full of quaint old villages, the ancient houses constructed from a golden limestone and bordered by village ponds, trees, and lots of Wisteria in full and fragrant bloom. It was a fantastic time of painting and making new friends.

I sketched quite a bit on the various day trips out and about, and on my return I have begun to make small coloured paintings in a sketchbook from some of these pencil drawings. Let me show you two of them and then explain why they look different. They are both similar scenes from different places, and I used the same watercolour paints in both. But the top one has significant granulation and the bottom one has not.

What is granulation? Well, it’s an effect which is caused by some paints, but not all. These paints are less finely ground and have some particles of pigment that are larger and which separate out of the paint and settle into the dimples in the watercolour paper, causing a mottled effect as the paint dries. I have recently started using a Daniel Smith colour called Green Apatite Genuine which is great at doing this. it is a lovely foliage green and when it granulates it becomes mottled with brown. This gives a semi-realistic foliage effect without having to do to much.

I also used an ultramarine blue for the skies in both pictures, and the top one has granulated while the bottom one has not.

So, what is the secret? How can you either make granulation happen, or avoid it, even when using exactly the same paints?

The answer in this case seems to have been the tilt of the paper. I painted the first sketch with the paper flat on the table top. This allowed the granules of pigment to settle down nicely into the hollows in the paper (a Moleskine watercolour sketchbook).

The second sketch was painted with the sketchbook on a slope of about 30 degrees. This resulted in a much smoother and flatter finish and little granulation.

I found this to be an interesting way to control the end result, (and anything that helps us control the temperamental watercolour is a blessing!), and I hope it will help you have a little more control over your painting as well.

Composing with Rabatment

Have you ever heard of Rabatment? I confess that I had never come across this term until I watched a Youtube tutorial last week by the incomparable Diana Mize (her channel is called: In the Studio Art Instruction). She was talking about a way of composing paintings that has been used down the centuries, but was one that I had never seen before. And then when I looked at some of my own paintings I realised that I was automatically using it without knowing!

Take a look at my video and see what I mean :

Have fun!

How to focus on your focal point

Every good painting should be about something. And this something should be communicated to the viewer. Paintings are about communication, and we want our viewers to understand what we are trying to say. So we need a focal point – something that we home in on and that says what the picture is about.

But how can we do this when we are painting a scene from life or from a photo and we are confronted with a mass of details, shapes and colours such as the one below?

I visited an exhibition this week of watercolours by the Spanish painter Alfredo López, and he has found a way to answer this question in a powerful and yet atmospheric way.
Take a look at his handling of a similar New York street scene.

Alfredo López

Can you see what he has done? He has simplified everything right down so that we are forced to look at his mounted police that are the subject of the painting. Everything else is just a background wash. He hasn’t attempted to put any detail whatsoever into the background because it simply isn’t important. However, by carefully creating the silhouette of the buildings, he has still let us see that this is New York. And by painting in monochrome he has avoided any temptation to overcomplicate the background with colours that might distract us.

How we see

This is very similar to the way we see. When we are in a busy scene like this we might feel that we are taking it all in and processing all the information. But in reality we are not counting the windows in the buildings, we are not seeing every person or every car in detail, we are not really seeing much at all. At any one time our focus is on one thing or one small area and that is all. Everything else is a an out of focus blur.

Try it out – look directly at something around you right now and focus your attention on it. Without moving your eye from it, take a look at what is around about. It should all be out of focus, soft edged and a bit more hazy. That is how we see the world! It’s one bit at a time.

When we come to paint the scene however we don’t choose to see in the same way. Suddenly everything is clamouring for our attention and we feel the need to put in all the details. And the result? Our painting loses it’s focus and it’s power and we fail to capture what we intended. We fail to communicate.

Alfredo López

Less is more

So, next time you are painting, decide what your focal point is. What is the message you want to communicate? Where do you want to draw the viewer’s attention? What is your painting about?
Then paint this with more detail, more colour, and harder edges, and leave the background and the supporting elements much looser, suggestive, and soft edged. See how little you need to communicate your point.

Here are a few more watercolour paintings by Alfredo López for you to enjoy. See how he has simplified so much information, and made his paintings really speak!

What makes a good painting?

I don’t know about you, but I am always searching to find out what makes a good painting. I know that some of mine work out just fine and others are, well, destined to be painted over. I guess we all have a mixture of both good and bad paintings. But wouldn’t it be great if we could improve the ratio, and make better and better art?

Composition comes first

I’ve begun to realise that composition always comes first. If I don’t get a good composition in the first place then I have no hope of making a good painting.
Everything else – the brushmarks, the colours, the details, even the value structure, have to serve a good composition. In themselves they cannot create a good painting.

Original photo

Here’s a photo I snapped the other day. The scene caught my eye because it already had a strong composition. Let me show you what I mean.

I sketched it out in pencil in the dimensions of the MDF panel I was going to paint on. Just look at those red lines which create this scene. There are strong diagonals at the edges of the road which lead the eye to the vanishing point, and in my painting I want to enhance these by extending them into the sky as well. Then there are the strong horizontal and vertical lines that strengthen the structure and ground the composition. It seems as though every element in the picture is doing something to add to this grid of lines.
And this is what will give my picture the best chance of being a good one!

Putting it together

First stage

Here’s my first stage in the painting, and you can see how I have marked in those strong lines. Even at this early stage I can see that I think I’m on to a winner.

Finished painting

The finished painting shows how it all came together. I brushed in the sky using directional strokes that pointed towards the focal point at the end of the road and followed the construction lines I had planned earlier. Can you see how a strong construction, like a strong skeleton, has helped to create a strong painting?

I plan to work on more paintings that are based on a strong linear compositional grid like this. Many old master paintings are based on structures like this and they have stood the test of time, so I’m in good company! Why not give it a go yourself?

Get a FREE 40 page guide to Plein Air painting

I am on Instagram ( and last night I was flicking through some of the artists that I follow there and came across a free offer from Lena Rivo. It looked interesting so I signed up for it and got the download. It is so good that I would now like to share it with you!

Here’s what she said about it on Instagram:
“On my recent trip to Northern Portugal, I collected so many small observations and thoughts about plein air painting that I decided to combine them in an E-book. So, upon my return, I created a new free 40-page PDF guide in which I share my approach to plein air painting, as well as my observations and tips that might be helpful for artists who are inspired by nature. On the last page of the guide you will find a link to a short film from the trip that inspired me to write this guide.

You can download the ebook at the link on my website:

This ebook is full of images, so hopefully it will be a fun read for you” 😊❤️

Hope you enjoy it and find it useful. Lena has other free booklets etc. on her website as well.

Make a viewfinder for painting still life.

I made this viewfinder a couple of years ago and it is such a simple way of framing a still life. Take a look at the short video below to see how I did it, and perhaps make one for yourself.

And please add any comments to this post if you have any ideas of your own for an alternative viewfinder 🙂

Six of the best – my favourite Youtubers

I don’t know about you, but I love watching Youtube videos. There are so many great artists out there, putting up videos for free and helping you and I to learn how to paint, or simply to enjoy watching them paint.

There are also some channels that are not so great. I personally don’t like videos that spend the first ten minutes talking about what they had for breakfast, or walking endlessly in search of a spot to paint. I like it when they get straight to the action. Perhaps I am just impatient, but I just want to see someone painting and teaching me something I didn’t know before. I want to get better, faster, as Chris Fornataro says.

Talking of which, he is the first on my list of six. This list is by no means the end of the story, but I want to introduce you to each one of them because they are my go-to favourite channels.  Perhaps I can help you to home in on what I think are the best of the best. They are in no particular order – all of them are good! Some paint in oils, some in gouache, some en plein air, and some are helpful in whatever medium you work in. I hope you find them useful.
Click on their names to go to their YouTube channels.

Chris Fornataro – The Paint Coach

Fast talking oil painter Chris Fornataro covers a multitude of techniques and ideas in these information packed videos. If you want to learn the basics of oil painting then you couldn’t do better than to start here.

Ian Roberts – Mastering Composition

I first came across Ian Roberts when I bought his book Mastering Composition about 7 or 8 years ago. Then last year I found his YouTube channel and immediately subscribed. His insights about composition and structure, tone and colour are so very helpful, and he uploads a video about once a week. These has helped me to rethink the way I paint. He is very easy to listen to and watch, and there is no waffle!

Michael Chamberlain

If you like watching people paint en plein air, then Michael Chamberlain is really worth a go. He lives near San Francisco and often paints the coastline or cityscapes in oils, and he is just easy to watch. You learn without realising you are learning. At times he does throw in a short section of surfing or eating burritos, but his videos are usually pithy and to the point. He makes me want to get the plein air kit and head outside!

Lena Rivo

Lena Rivo paints gorgeous gouache, acrylic and oil paintings, sometimes en plein air and sometimes in the studio. Usually there is no commentary, but I just like watching her paint and I love the end product. She is just very good at what she does.

James Gurney

If you have not yet come across James Gurney, then where have you been? He is the master of plein air gouache and casein painting. His videos are entertaining, informative and he is a master of the sketchbook. He can paint anything and make it look great – even the dullest of scenes become stunning in his hands. Look out for his creative opening title sequences!

Philip Mould – Art in Isolation

This one is just for the fun of it. Philip Mould is an art dealer in London and a presenter on the TV programme Fake or Fortune where they find out if unknown paintings are in fact masterpieces. During lockdown he started to produce a series of YouTube videos about the paintings he has in his house, which may sound dull until you see them and hear his explanations about how they came to be painted and the stories behind them. He understands great art. He understands the why’s and how’s and who’s of painting. A joy to watch, to marvel at, and to be inspired by some of the great artists of the past. Delightful and charming. Relax, sit back and enjoy.

Please use the comments box here to let us know who are your favourite art YouTubers.

Andy Walker

And finally, I have my own YouTube channel. Maybe not as grand as some of these others, but I’d love you to subscribe to it and see what I’m up to!

Alan Reed Paints Launceston Place

A few years ago I interviewed Alan Reed for my online watercolour course. Alan has agreed to another interview sometime soon. Check out Alan’s website.
Watch Alan Reed painting outdoors to see how he sketches in busy London.

British artist Alan Reed, was born in Northumberland, into a family with a history of painting, and fell in love with watercolours at the age of 15.

He trained in art and design at Newcastle College and spent the early part of his career doing artist impressions of new building projects for architects.

Over the last 35 years he has developed his own distinctive painting style that is instantly recognisable. His landscapes and cityscapes painted in his unique, fluid style captures the atmosphere of different settings from the drama of city life to the serenity and beauty of a rural landscape.

Alan has had many successful exhibitions both in the UK and abroad since 1981, including those at the Mall Galleries in London, Malcolm Innes Gallery in Edinburgh, Italy, USA and the Middle East and has been a regular exhibitor of rowing scenes in the Stewards’ Enclosure at the Henley Royal Regatta.

The quality of Alan’s work received national recognition with the selection of a number of his cityscapes in the Sunday Times watercolour competition for three successive years.

Quick and Easy Pen and Wash

pen and wash 1 Here’s a quick and easy way of painting a picture or capturing a moment in a sketch. I saw these paintings hanging in a hotel lobby and snapped them on my camera, so unfortunately I don’t know who the Spanish artist is. However they immediately appealed to me for their simplicity and freshness.

The artist has used waterproof ink and a pen to sketch out his drawing in a very freehand way. He has then used the same ink to create the really dark areas. Then, either with the same ink watered down, or with a watercolour paint, he has loaded a large flat brush and has applied the mid tones.

And so with great simplicity he has created three tones – white of the paper, mid tone and dark.  Why not have a go at this yourself?

pen and wash 2

How to Loosen Up

This guest post is by Annette Raff.

Many students complain that their watercolor paintings are too realistic. “How do I loosen up?” they ask.
I believe watercolor paintings look better with less detail. Too often we try to put in everything we see in an effort to improve our painting. We labour over our paintings adding detail, texture, refining edges and making things more definite in an effort to improve our work. It is as though we ‘cannot see the woods for the trees’! Usually the more we add … the worse it becomes!


First of all, we need to see things in a completely different way. If you wish to paint looser and simpler, you must be prepared to let go of your usual painting habits. What do you have to lose? Why not give it a go?

Simplify right from the beginning

If you wish to improve your painting through the ‘less is best’ approach, then you will need to simplify, right from the very beginning! Even before you put pencil to paper! Yes … strange as it seems, good paintings begin with really looking and seeing ‘as an artist sees’.  Most of us as Artists wish to create a painting, not to create another photograph! This means we can be ‘in charge’ of what we want the viewer to see. We can edit and change and emphasise certain elements within our painting. If we try to do everything in our painting to exactness, then it is often too much for the eye to absorb and enjoy. A strong painting usually focuses on only one or two aspects, leaving the viewer to complete the rest.  A little mystery goes a long way to keeping our audience entranced!