Category Archives: Painting Tips

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!

Loosen up your brushstrokes

Here’s a handy tip for you if you want to loosen up in your painting. I remember many years ago now when I attended evening art classes at Leith School of Art in Edinburgh, being encouraged to tape a piece of charcoal onto the end of a 6 foot bamboo cane, and draw with that. This was supposed to develop hand to eye co-ordination, at the same time as loosening up our student drawings. It certainly did that!

This exercise below is based on that idea, and it really works. I frequently paint in this way now and a new dynamism has come into my paintings. You can watch me do this here:

I wonder how you hold your brush.
Over the years I have seen many of my students (myself included!), hunched over a piece of watercolour paper with noses almost touching the paper, tongue out in concentration, and fingers holding tightly to the tip of the brush to control every brush stroke. Now this approach is fine if you are adding details to the last stages of a painting (which is when they should be added, not before). But if we start off a painting by using this method of controlling our brush strokes and keep doing this all the way through, then the whole painting will end up being tight and possibly lifeless.

Again, there are times when this is the right approach for a detailed painting, but I’m talking here about loosening up. So how do we do that?

 Have a go at this to see for yourself how it works: take a medium sized brush loaded with paint and hold it as you would a pen, that is hold it tightly near the business end. Now write ‘my name is …’ on the paper. See how neatly you can write your name (fig 1).1.1

Next, move your fingers to the very tip of the brush handle, furthest from the hairs, and hold it lightly between your finger tips, a bit like a musical conductor holds a baton. Stand up so that the paper is at arms length from you and paint a few test squiggles and lines on the paper, flicking the brush with your fingers, and see how the lines are hard to control and develop a life of their own (fig 2).


Now try and write, ‘my name is …’ once more, holding the brush in the same way (fig 3). Has your writing ended up loose and scruffy? Is the writing more ‘arty’ and are the brush strokes more varied?


Just by holding the brush in a different way, and stepping back a little from the paper, you have been able to loosen up your painting. The challenge now is to paint a picture using this technique. Don’t worry how it might turn out (it’s only a piece of paper and a bit of paint!), but feel the freedom of painting in a slightly uncontrolled and looser way.

And over everything HAVE FUN!!

Painting a Commission

kathryn's house 1 smallI was recently asked to paint the old Spanish farmhouse where a friend of mine used to live with her family. She took me out to see it on a rather dull overcast day, and I have to say that at first glance I was a bit underwhelmed at the prospect of creating an interesting painting out of what was – to me at least – an uninspiring building. It really wasn’t that interesting, and I wondered how I could come up with a painting that she and the family could enjoy. My friend had asked me to paint it in reds, yellows and oranges as those colours would fit into the colour scheme of the living room where it was to be hung.

I began by doing a pencil sketch to get the tones right and to see if it would work as a painting, and to my surprise it began to look quite promising!

So I then used the sketch (rather than the photo) to work from. I was working in oils on a 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas and began by giving the whole canvas a green-blue undercoat, onto which I sketched the outline in burnt sienna.

Then I painted the shadow areas in a pale purple and the sunlit areas in pale yellow, before adding a dryish mix of off-white on top, making sure that the under colours showed through. this created the effect of the old walls. The roof was painted very simply and I didn’t get too involved in the detail. The foreground was just a rough brushwork of different colours.

The wonderful thing was that the family loved it. Even though the colours were not realistic and the shape of the building had changed a bit, and there was so little detail, they still got really excited about it.

“That’s the window we had to break in through when we lost our keys!”, said one of the daughters. “That was my room!”, said the other. “This will remind us of our house forever”, said mum.

My advice to you in situations like this would be to work from a pencil sketch rather than slavishly trying to copy a photo. You are then much more free to create ART rather than a copy of a bad photo.

How to learn from the Real Thing

I read somewhere recently that banks train their staff to recognise counterfeit banknotes. They do so, not by pointing out defective notes, or letting them study bank notes which contain mistakes, or with lists of how to spot a counterfeit, but by showing them hundreds and hundreds of real notes. The bank employees get so used to seemoneying the real thing, that when a counterfeit note appears it just jumps out at them.

How does this relate to art? Well, I think we can spend too long looking at the wrong sort of painting! We can study our own mistakes and those paintings that haven’t turned out particularly well, we can look at the paintings of others in our evening class who are at our same level and ability, and we can begin to assume that we can then spot a good painting.

However I think it is much better for us to spend our time looking at the Best of the Best in order to understand what a good painting is – immersing ourselves in galleries, looking at books of paintings by famous or professional artists, cutting out and keeping paintings from magazines that we really admire. And as we get used to seeing the ‘real thing’ I believe our own art will improve in leaps and bounds.

Pochade Paintings

Cox castleHere are three of my small pochade paintings in water-soluble oils. They are all just 6″ x 8″ and painted on board.

I’ve used an underpainting in each case – just a mid-toned colour, which gives continuity to the painting in the places where it shows through. Most were painted in under an hour.
The Harbour at TorreviejaCox church towers

Here’s a video of me using the pochade box which is taken from my online oil painting course.