Monday, 4 March 2013


View to the Salute, watercolour and gouache on grey tinted paper
I had to smile when I read this in a book by one of my favourite painters, Jane Corsellis.  I hope she will forgive me for using it as a blog title.

The comment was given to her one day when she asked a painter friend how she should go about painting with watercolours.  The implication behind the words is that he was inviting her to just TRY IT,  learn from her own mistakes, and glory in the discoveries she might make.

I decided to use this blog post to encourage you to think a little differently, perhaps, about how you work, in order to learn from your own mistakes and glory in some new discoveries.

Although I tend to lean towards pastels as my favourite medium, I do enjoy the look of watercolours.   However, they are not always an easy medium to use;  it takes time to become familiar with the technical issues of working with them. They have a reputation for being technically demanding, requiring careful washes and clever brushstrokes that seemingly once in place, cannot be changed ...but I have found that if I make up my mind to be a a bit more relaxed about working with them, using them in a sketchbook for example,  being a bit less precious about techniques, then some of these problems are minimised.  

Rather than produce careful finished paintings with my watercolours, I use them for location work, and since I am off to Sri Lanka next weekend, it is the medium I will most likely use while I am there.  Much as I might love, and in fact prefer my pastels, it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to carry heavy kit around, and on location these days, I mostly use sketchbook and watercolours for convenience and ease of transportation.  ALSO I do feel that the sketchbook is just for me to look at, I don't feel I have to show it to anyone, so super-careful technique and meticulous finish goes out of the window, I stop dithering, and just get on with it.

I begin often with a light pencil sketch but sometimes, this can become a crutch - something to "fill in", so I try to use as little pencil as possible - I just put the main shapes in place to be sure that I can fit my desired image on the page.  Then, I begin laying in washes, worrying not at all about "going over the lines", washes are applied quite freely - and quickly, no fiddling.  From then on, I develop the painting wash over wash, sometimes working wet-into-wet (worth practising separately, to get the hang of the amount of water on brush and water on paper), sometimes working on dry areas. 

The Italian hilltop image below was drawn initially rather more in pencil, since I felt the need to get the proportions and perspective of the buildings right.  So, having begun with pencil, I took this pencil sketch further, adding tone in various places with the pencil, you can see quite a lot of scribbles particularly under the foliage to the left!  I was not the least bit "precious" about it, it is in a sketchbook, so it did not matter what I did.    THAT's the beauty of working in a sketchbook, you can give yourself permission to work with any implements you fancy.  In this instance, rather than carefully put in twiddly foliage shapes, I  put in some long sweeping vertical strokes of colour with a big square-ended brush, to see if I liked the look.  I did. The vertical strokes echoed the long vertical shapes on some of the buildings.  Nice.

Italian Hilltop.  Pencil and watercolour in heavy cartridge paper sketchbook with off-white, creamy paper

Sometimes I will "draw" with the brush instead of using the safety net of a pencil... ..the figures in the image below were not drawn at all in pencil

country lane, Rhajastan in good quality watercolour sketchbook
Flags and rain, Venice.
Watercolour and gouache on tinted pastel paper
 I sometimes work on a tinted paper, this is fun, since I can then use some opaque white (as Turner did).  This turns the image into something more like a gouache piece.  Using opaque white  removes some of the anxiety of "reserving" the white paper for brightest lights.  Chinese White watercolour is more subtle than Gouache white, which is more opaque - do try both.

All of these images here today were worked on location.  As you can see, they are a long way from being "finished watercolour paintings" but they were SUCH fun to create, and I seriously did just get on with it.   Making lots of small studies gets the adrenalin going, and the adrenalin makes you much less tense and fearful, so your work will have a liveliness that often disappears when you are trying so very hard to get things "right". 

So, I can hear you asking.........what kind of sketchbook, or paper?
Obviously, given that you are working with water, the paper needs to be THICK.  I sometimes use good quality watercolour books;  sometimes tinted pastel paper in a spiral bound sketchbook;  sometimes I use a sketchbook with heavy cartridge paper.   Moleskin sketchbooks work quite well, if you dont mind their yellowy colour pages. I am not sure I do like them.  I prefer something greyer if I can find it. Turner produced some gorgeous images, using "body colour" and watercolours on a greenish grey tinted paper.

You can also use paper taped to a board;  for lightness, you can use Foam Core board;  tape two panels together like a sketchbook, and tape your watercolour paper (minimum 140lb, heavier better if you slosh about a lot) to both sides, then you have a very lightweight, improvised sketchbook.  The only problem with Foam Core is that sometimes it is difficult to get sticky tape off it.  So I generally prefer a very lightweight, thin plywood board.

An interesting addition to your watercolour box, could be a few watersoluble pencils.  The sketch below was done with a watersoluble graphite pencil, to give me a rather nice monochrome image. If you look carefully you can see that I worked across a double-page spread.  I often do that, then there is no way I can tear the image out to frame it!

Wool sellers, Morocco market.  Done with watersoluble pencil, washed  with water to create tonal sketch. Done in a watercolour sketchbook.

One little bit of important "technical" advice I would like to offer if you work with watercolours:  Do not muck about with an area of your picture which is DAMP.  Adding more colour means adding more water....and any area which is damp will likely be spoiled.  Always leave damp areas to dry thoroughly;  then you can add more washes without any worries.  Wet-into-wet is different....while there is a sheen on the paper, which means water on the surface, you can (carefully) add more pigment  (this does take practice to know what will happen)...but once the sheen disappears, the water sinks in and the paper becomes technically "damp", you MUST leave it to further fiddling allowed!

The "stop dithering and get on with it" advice sounds flippant, but honestly, it works.  When you throw caution to the winds, and just have a go without being too precious, or super-careful,  or most importantly,  worrying about what others might say or think, you can often surprise yourself with some enjoyable results.  I will not be able to frame any of my sketchbook work, but years later, looking at these pictures takes me right back to their moment of creation. I remember the chill of the wind and rain in Venice, the musty smell of the wool market, the heat and dust in India... even the discomfort of the car seat in Italy, where I sat to paint.... these images are better memory-joggers than any photo could ever be.


  1. Good advice Jackie,often it is the quick brush sketches that are more full of life.

  2. My goodness, Jackie, your beautiful sketches inspire me to give watercolors a try again. Dithering and getting fiddly always ruined my previous attempts and adding paint to damp areas is disastrous! Have a safe, healthy and wonderful trip!!!

  3. Delightful sketches Jackie. I particularly like the toned paper one - will have to give that another try. I must admit I usually prefer my on-site sketches to any "proper" painting that might be attempted later.

  4. Jackie, as always, you inspire me to try something I fear. I have always said I don't do watercolors, though I will use it as an underpainting for pastels, etc. So, thank you for this post, and your wonderful thoughts on stop dithering! I also will post this one to my Facebook page ... as usual ... because you do give such wonderful advice.

    1. Excellent advice, thanks so much Jackie for the reminder. I tend to dither..... instead of paint..... I need a good kick in the you know what sometimes! I have so many sketchbooks just waiting for me to get on with it, thick paper and all..... you are so inspiring, thank you :)!

  5. Sometimes I think sketches can be nice enough to be considered a painting. Perhaps these just look like sketches to you but I really like the freshness and sketchy look and would frame any of these.

    I do need to learn both your points though. I tend to dither even in a sketchbook and I keep making the mistake of going back in while the paper is wet. I agree both are bad habits.


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