St Mark’s basilica in Venice is one of my favourite buildings which I have sketched many times.  The building is a wonderful mix of Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance influences which have been brought together over the centuries to create a harmonious and richly varied design.  This example is a typical two hour demonstration in watercolour carried out for an art society.  Demonstrations and courses cover the following aspects:

1. Making Marks.  The basics; tools and materials, methodology and approach.

2. Basic Skills.  Drawing, sketching, watercolour washes, mixed media.

3. Making it look right.  Perspective, proportion and relationships.

4. Making a telling statement. Tone, contrast, balance and composition.

5. Colour.  Colour theory, palette, mood, mixing and application.

6. Putting it all together.  The finished picture, presentation and exhibition.

Demonstration – Comano

Stage One

Comano is a small village in the south of Switzerland nestling in the foothills of the Alps.  From a small car park to the north of the village there is a striking view of the houses clustered together on a hog’s back with the mountains in the background.  I was attracted by the silhouette and the way the buildings cascaded down the hill.  The foeground held no interest so I decided to leave it in the abstract.  Using a 140 lb paper from an A3 pad with a Not finish, I sketched the village in ink and applied some masking fluid for highlights.  One of the advantages of painting on the spot is that you can move around to avoid obstructions.

Stage Two

I then mixed four large quantities of Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Cerulean Blue and French Ultramarine for the first under-painting.  As the point of interest was the village itself I wanted to keep the sky and background fairly simple.  First, I wet the paper around the edges and in places in the centre so that the paint would run in some places and have hard edges in others.  Then with a large No. 16 round brush fully loaded with Raw Sienna I dragged the brush swifly across the centre of the paper to cover the lower sky and village.  Then, with horizontal strokes I added some Cerulean Blue and French Ultramarine for the sky.  Using the same colours I then applied them with vertical strokes for the area of the mountains, the village and the foreground. I then tilted the pad around while the paint was still wet to allow it to merge.  I lifted some of the paint off with a tissue for the white walls of the houses.

Stage 3

Now I blocked in the main elements, starting with the hills in the background.  For these I used mainly Burnt Sienna and darkened the top edges of the hills against the sky with French Ultramarine.  The further away the hills, the fainter and cooler they should be.  I wet the paper again around the edges and in places below the moutains and applied some stronger Cerulean Blue and French Ultramarine.  I also applied some stronger Raw Sienna to the houses with touches of French Ultramarine to darken them in places and again lifted out the paint with a tissue where I wanted white to appear.  Painting wet into wet and mixing the colours on the paper often results in some ‘happy accidents’.

Stage Four

I now developed the detail, concentrating first on the houses.  With a mix of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna I darkened the roofs and also the spaces between the buildings.  I then added French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna to the window areas.  Because there was nothing of interest in the foreground I wanted to keep it simple and non-commital.  I wet the whole area again and dropped in some Burned Sienna, French Ultramarine and a touch of Cadmium Red to pick up the Cadmium Red used in two or three of the roofs.  I moved the paper around a little to let the paint mix and produce some granulation.  Once it was thoroughly dry I lifted out some of the hard edges with a brush and clean water.

Stage 5

Having used a round No. 16 brush throughout I now changed to a rigger to add some fine lines of emphasis with French Ultramarine or Burnt Sienna.  First I strengthened the ridges to the roofs and added some shadow under the eaves.  All the time I made sure that throughout there was some contrast between light and dark areas to bring out the forms.  I then wet the foreground in a random fashion and dropped in Burnt Sienna and French Ultramarine, letting the paint run together.  It is the French Ultramarine that produces the granulation.  I also dropped in some more Cadmium Red.  When everything was bone dry I rubbed away the masking fluid to reveal some highlights.  Throughout the exercise I used only five colours: French Ultramarine, Cerulean Blue, Cadmium Red, Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna.


Don’t get hung up about it, it’s only paint and paper and you’re just making marks.

Don’t bother too much about a faithful reproduction of a scene.  If you want accuracy, take a photograph.

Use plenty of water, as that is the medium for transferring paint from your paint box to the paper.  How you handle water determines how well your painting turns out.

If you make a mistake let it dry thoroughly, then wash it out with a brush and water.  If you try to fiddle while it’s still wet you’ll turn it to mud.  If you make a hash of the whole thing, put it in the bath and scrub it out, then start again.

Use a large brush that will hold plenty of water and paint.  Prepare plenty of paint in your palette as you don’t want to run out half way through a wash.  If you use a small brush, that will simply encourage the tendency to fiddle, a process guaranteed to produce mud.

Experiment with your brush to make different marks.  As well as using the point, squeeze it into the paper and twist, use the side to roll it, drag it or flick it.  You can even use the other end of the handle (or a matchstick) to drag a pool of paint.

Use a limited palette of colour and concentrate on tonal contrast.  Tone has a more telling effect than colour.  Mixing more than two colours together will also tend to produce mud.

Use two containers of water, one for mixing paint and cleaning brushes, the other for wetting the paper before applying the paint or for removing paint.

What you take off can be just as important as what you put on.

Think hard about what you are going to do, then do it quickly.  Think twice, paint once.

Work over the whole painting and bring it all up to the same stage together.  That way, at every stage you can see the balance.

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