Tag Archives: painting tips

Painting what you feel not what you see

Painting outdoors en plein air can be complicated, frustrating and difficult, as well as fun and exhilarating. One of the things I have learned is to paint fast! Too often the light changes, the wind gets up and tries to blow your easel over, or a van parks right in front of your view. So you have to paint fast.

Now the problem with painting fast is that you cannot capture the detail of what is in front of you. There is usually so much going on and so many tiny details that catch your eye and the impulse is to try and record it all. This usually fails for one of two reasons (or both) – firstly, you don’t need that much detail anyway in your painting (too much detail kills a painting in my view), and secondly, you can’t paint it all in the time allotted. It’s just impossible and completely unnecessary to try and do it.

So how do we get around this? What can we do instead? How do we cope with all that visual information in front of us? My suggestion is that we paint what you feel, not what we see. I believe that if we can learn to do this we will become better artists – not just recording what is in front of us but interpreting it and putting something of ourselves into the image. After all, a camera can record what is in front of us. As artists we need to do something more.

Take a look at my photo and paintings below.

I was painting on this beach last week and in my view were a bunch of complicated rocks, sand strewn with seaweed, cliffs with a myriad of ravines and folds, the waves on the sea. I even had a drone settle above me for a while as someone watched me paint!
How was I to capture all this in a half hour or so? And was it important to get the exact shape of every rock? The temptation was to count them, to draw them all exactly, to try and replicate exactly the scene in front of me. So I took some photos to do just that, and then settled down to record my feelings about the place!

My final paintings were loose, painterly, and I hope captured the essence of the place. No, they didn’t have all the rocks, nor did they have all the correct shapes of the cliffs. But they captured the feel of it all. And that is what is important. In the end I just went for it and painted quickly and simply – from the heart more than from the head.

So, next time you are painting outdoors, don’t allow the details to get in the way of how you feel. Paint from your heart. Go with it. And I’m sure you will be surprised at the result.

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?

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!

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.