Step by step watercolour paintings

This week’s efforts begin just a short distance from where last week’s watercolour left off.

For this view, I’m still on the Mawddach estuary in Snowdonia, Wales, but this time much nearer to the mouth of the estuary. My reference photo for this view was actually taken from the foot and rail bridge that links the south side of the estuary to the seaside town of Barmouth. Again, it’s low tide and what a liked about the view was the dramatic brooding sky and the broad open expanse at the mouth of the estuary. As I had done with last week’s painting, my plan was to develop much of this with layers of wash. Below are some of the work in progress photos that I took along the way.

First wash

So far, so good – so much potential at this stage!

Second wash, mainly building up the sky

Can anyone spot the really horrible run from the sky down across the foreground? I’d put a lot of pigment into the sky area and had then propped the painting up to have a look at it. Just as I did this, I was distracted by some domestic interruption and, when I looked back I was horrified to see this run. I did my best to mop it up but the damage was done!

Working up the foreground areas

I added in the water in the foreground here but did it so evenly that it was hard to tell whether it was water or tarmac!

At this point I went back into the sky with some titanium white watercolour, just to bring in a little more variance and definition to the clouds:

Then there was a little more darkening of the foreground and adding some movement in the surface of the water before calling it day:

The mouth of the Mawddach, Wales

This is one that I actually think looks better in real life than in these photos. bit maybe not that much better! I do quite like the subject – I often feel drawn to these often bleak and brooding views – and may return to it again, but if I do I like to think that I’d to try and tackle it differently and do it better!

I think when a subject is as deceptively pure and simple as this, all of the individual components need to be executed so well, and too many elements in this one feel laboured and overworked.

Time then for a complete change of scenery!  

I don’t even remember taking the photograph that inspired this image but it’s definitely from one of my excursions in France. The original photo was portrait in format but I decided to crop it into a landscape image. I liked the way that composition-ally it made a very definite split on the horizontal third, along which I was able to position the farmhouse and the copse of trees etc. Again, I took some work in progress photos.

The initial sketch

One of the things  I particularly liked about this view was how quick it was to draw it out!

I had a plan to paint the sky in a different way to usual. My plan was to paint in the clouds first, beginning with the most distant clouds then work towards the foreground clouds. I then thought I’d wait for this to dry, and then put in the blue of the sky. That was the plan anyway. I started off by turning the painting upside down and pre-wetting the sky area just along the horizon line. As I started to drop the distant clouds in, I ended up drawing them further and further down the board as I applied more clean water. I decided to change tack and just wet the entire sky area. Once done, I turned the board the right way round again and then added my blue sky at the top of the sheet, allowing it to do pretty much whatever it wanted to do! Meanwhile, I started to add in some shadows beneath the clouds. All of this was done very quickly. Once done, I took a crumpled up sheet of kitchen towel and dabbed away a little of the still damp paint, mainly in the distant clouds, just to create a little more variety and distance.  Although it wasn’t quite what I’d intended, I was quite pleased with the outcome.

First wash applied across the sky and the foreground

Leaving the sky to dry, I moved on to the foreground grasses and laid in a flat pale wash of cadmium yellow. Apologies for the photo and how cockled the paper is. As you can see, it was very wet at this point!

Once both of these areas had dried off a little, I applied a strip of masking tape across the top edge of the yellow. I wanted to maintain as crisp a line as possible as I added in the distant hills and trees. Here’s how it looked after I’d added in these elements and removed the tape.

Adding in the distant hills and mid-distance trees

Next up, I started to work on the farm buildings.

Working on the buildings

When I came to work on the foreground grasses, I repeated the masking, this time applying the tape along the top edge of the field area.  I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to tackle the foreground grass. One thought was to dampen the paper and flick or splatter paint on (but in a more controlled way than this sounds!) to get an interesting texture. Another thought was to drybrush paint over the surface and then perhaps spray it… in the end, I drybrushed some paint over the surface and just left it! As I approached the bottom of the paper, I used a much wetter mix of the same colour across the entire sheet and then, while it dried but still had a sheen to it, I flicked clean water over this area and allowed it to create runs in the paint to try and convey tall grasses at the edge of the field.

The foreground grasses and the masking tape along the top edge of the fields

Once this was done – it was just a case of finishing off a few things here and there, mainly on the farm buildings.

Farmhouse, France.

Even though this wasn’t quite as I’d envisaged it, I was quite pleased with this. If I were to single out any one thing, it would be the clusters of trees, especially the main one to the left of the farm buildings. I haven’t really ranked my ‘ favourite clusters of trees’ but if I were to do so, I think this one would rank quite highly!

Thoughts on Step by step watercolour paintings

19 thoughts on “Step by step watercolour paintings”

  1. Pingback: Stretched watercolour sketches

  2. Incidentally, I think both paintings work well. My problem with the Mawddach is the “tarmac” effect. Maybe add a little more patchiness/streakiness or make the sides slightly more erratic or add a little sand islet??? – just something to make it non-highway. The more distant patch of water works brilliantly. I like the farmhouse, too. Good to see you’re really thinking about how to improve your skies or, at least, to get new effects even though the old ones are pretty good. That impression of grey cloud recession near the horizon is so common in life and yet difficult and rarely seen in paintings. I think the blue/white bit needs a bit more asymmetry or something to give it a bit more oomph. Excellent clumps of trees and, as you know, if that’s your best ever, you need to have a close look and work out exactly what it is about it that works and try for that next time. The foreground has come out well. It’s not the way I would have done it but the detailed effect I put in my foregrounds tend to change the emphasis of the whole composition so it wouldn’t be the same painting at all, would it? Very nice.
    (No response required. A “like” will do unless you want urgently to take me to task)

    1. Hi Rob and thanks for this! I’m not very good at returning to painting once I’ve ‘finished’ it! I’m usually just too keen to move on. I might feel different if I thought I was on the brink of a masterpiece but with the Mawddach painting, I felt I’d learnt enough from it. Reading your comments actually made me want to put some road markings on it rather than trying to make it look more like water! (I’m still undecided what to paint on my beautifully stretched paper!)

  3. I end up with just over 340 x 240 on my quarter sheet boards – and, of course, every square millimetre is of an exceptionally high quality.

    1. Thanks to your prompts I’ve been shaken out of my dotage and have dusted off my Ken Bromley paper stretcher and stretched my first piece of paper since about 2016 I think! I’m already feeling the pressure of painting on it!

    1. Hi Warren and many thanks for this, much appreciated. I use 300gsm / 140lb paper. As you can see, it does cockle a lot when very wet but when it’s completely dried, it usually flattens out fine. I’ve heard that some poeple will also wet the back of the finished painting before putting a board over it and some weights of some sort (heavy books etc) to help flatten paper out but I’ve never really had the need to do this.

        1. I did once try stretching paper with gummed tape but I think it was well over 30 years and I think the whole process left me quite emotionally scarred (suffice to say I probably did it wrong but it definitely didn’t work out for me!) I did try out the Ken Bromley Perfect Paper Stretcher some years ago ( – I did really like this but found it a bit of a faff, plus I didn’t like losing so much of the paper! What I particularly liked about it was the that paper stayed flat even when soaked – which just makes for a much better painting experience all round! I would like to try more often with stretched paper but I think I’m just too impatient!!

      1. To continue your chat with Warren, surely it’s when you’re trying to deal with paper which is trying to imitate the South (and North) Downs before your eyes that you run out of patience. Give me 10 minutes preparation time with a Ken Bromley board and then I can paint calmly on a nice flat sheet and I don’t lose any more than I would with gummed tape or masking tape round the edges. I don’t know how your can stand it! Maybe when I get to your age… or maybe it’s living in the fens.

        1. Haha, yes, I like the idea of my paper becoming as hilly as the South Downs! I can’t deny that quite a few paintings have been spoilt as a result of paint pooling the troughs of my paper – or by trying to do a brushstroke across a painting only to find that it only makes contact with tops of the peaks! Maybe I should dust of the Ken Bromley stretcher!? I’ve only got one size, which is suitable for a quarter sheet but I might give it a whirl again. Maybe I’m stingy with how I apply my masking tape but I did feel that I had to trim off quite a lot of paper using the Ken Bromley stretcher. I know I’m getting ahead of myself but I’d have to completely rethink my mount and frame sizes which, purely for ease, I’ve got nicely standardised!

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