Tuesday, 17 April 2012


I have been watching the progress of a painting on the Wetcanvas website  where the contributor has provided a series of photos, showing the working method.

I am aware that no two people work in the same way, and that there are no rights or wrongs.  However…there are dangers to some ways of working.

The image I have been watching was begun in the top left hand corner of the support.  Gradually, small sections are being developed, TO A CONCLUSION, leaving the rest  of the canvas or paper untouched.  When one small area is complete, the artist begins to work on the next area.

I suppose, if you are copying a photograph, this approach might work, since you will be copying each shape,  colour and tone accurately. (If that is what floats your boat!)  But if you are working from life, or from a notan/thumbnail sketch, made with colour notes to give you a guide, or if you are developing a pic from a series of photos and sketches, using a bit of artists’ licence along the way,  then this piece-by-piece approach is fraught with potential problems. 

Perhaps the most important problem you may encounter, is that you may well find that as the image develops, tones are strangely out of whack and colours don’t look quite right;  what you THOUGHT was fine for colour and tone in one area, in fact, looks totally different in another part of the picture This is because a colour can actually be changed visually by what surrounds it.  A lovely cool green, surrounded by warm colours, may look icy cool, just perfect;  in another part of the picture, the same colour, surrounded by cooler colours, suddenly looks much warmer!!!  It is hard to believe how some colours can look so different, when the same stick of pastel, or mix of paint, is used.   

  Tones too – what looks bright and light in one area, particularly when surrounded by strong contrasts of tone,  might look quite subdued in another, where it is sitting alongside similar tones.    

This shows the issue well

It is hard to believe that the central strip is the same in each case, isn't it.

here's an animation that is interesting to watch:

  Suddenly, as you make progress with the picture, you may find that you have to go back to adjust areas that you had completed – and HERE IS AN IMPORTANT THING TO APPRECIATE..and another problem to deal with.... the reluctance to change work you have “finished” is enormous.  And emotionally costly.  And, I have noticed, with myself admittedly as well as my students,  is often avoided at all costs…even to the cost of the image…..but I promise you will never be satisfied with your picture if you KNOW you should have made adjustments – and didn’t, for fear of messing up finished work.

To minimise this potential for heartache for myself, I work with what I call “layers”. I begin with an overall sketchy loose start, making sure that the tonal pattern of the whole image is established right from the beginning.  I often show my lightest lights, and darkest darks – even just small touches helps, I find, because it gives me a scale within which to work.  Then, over the whole image again, I begin to work in medium tones - working in layers over the whole support, gradually adjusting tones, colours, and shapes.  Later, I finally establish highlights, and darkest darks, to add punch and to bring the image to a conclusion.  I find this method works for both drawings, and paintings.

I am not trying to suggest that my method is “best” or even “necessary”….I just wanted to point out the pitfalls of working in small sections from top to bottom, finishing each section separately.  If you still prefer to work that way, so be it…but don’t say you weren’t warned!

Here is a work in progress.  First, there is the sketchy early stage. I have not put in my lightest lights in this image;  I simply left the board blank where I knew those lights would be.  I had previously done a thumbnail sketch, so I felt confident to do this.  There is a reasonably careful underlying drawing...because given the subject, I felt it was important to get the perspective right, and the steps drawn properly.  The foliage, however, is left undrawn and I simply added a variety of dark blues and turquoises in the general shape of the overhanging foliage.

In the next image, quite a few more layers have been added, now we can see the light areas, and we can see that more variety of tones have been worked into the shadow areas.

And finally, here is the finished image, with yet more layers added, and the darkest darks, and lightest lights, stated firmly, defining the shapes positively at the same time:



Before I go – I just wanted to mention, to those of you who like to read or see books on an ipad, my book of 130 paintings and sketches is now available, from Blurb, as an e-book for Ipad or Ipod Touch.  It is very  inexpensive to buy, and the pictures look very good on the Ipad screen.  As you know, you can enlarge them to the full size of the screen– it’s fun!  And gives you the chance to really study the picture, see the technique used and find all my mistakes…  :)  …..BLURB BOOKSTORE - CLICK HERE


  1. I bought your book for iPad and am loving it. I also appreciate this step by step explanation.


  2. You are so very right! it's not well known that a whole lot of Impressionist paintings were unfinished, because they could not be finished! Renoir used to comment on this, IIRC, since as you say, each new touch of color changes all that went before. It's all relative!

    for many years I taught drawing to adults, usually in grayscale, and often pointed out to them that what they were worried about in a drawing wasn't the problem -- it was the part next to it that needed attention. Same with juxtaposition of color, except that you can present yourself with an insoluble problem unless you take steps as you explain, to avoid that awful fate.

  3. Very interesting, Jackie. I am lost without my tones mapped in from the start! Beautiful, luminous painting!

  4. I was fortunate to have a teacher (like you) who insisted that we constantly move around the page, that we use unifying washes, that each color used must appear more than once on the page or canvas to bring the painting together. This is particularly important with watercolor, which can otherwise look like a paint-by-numbers endeavour when you isolate colors and areas. Thanks for the clear and illuminating lecture!

  5. I also have noticed that many of the posters on WetCanvas seem to work corner to corner, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out how they could do that. Even if I am working from photographs I have to have a sense of the whole while I am working, esp if I am working with watercolor or pencil. Ink is a bit different but even there I tend to move around, working on different areas and even going back to do some rework (usually darkening). Glad to read there are good reasons for not working corner to corner.

  6. Wow! Finally I got a weblog from where I know how
    to genuinely obtain valuable data concerning
    my study and knowledge.

    Also visit my blog post - Learn how to use your IPad

  7. Hi Jackie,
    I stumbled upon your site I know not from where. From then on I have been having a very informative read and now I have seen this post where you mention about your book with 100 paintings for Ipad. I HAVE to buy this wonderful book but being an owner of an Andriod-based surfpad(ASUS TFT300) I am not able to confidently buy it. I am like the kid on Christmas eve who stands outside the best lolly shop but cannot buy them. Any suggestions on how to relieve me off my pain and get to the lollies? :)


please feel free to leave me a message