One ‘how to watercolour’ – and one ‘how not to watercolour’

This is by no means a definitive ‘how to’ and ‘how not to’ paint in watercolour, but it just so happens that I painted these two paintings on consecutive days. Despite there being so little time between the two paintings, they are nevertheless worlds apart.

I deliberated long and hard about whether to share the ‘how not to’ painting. Partly because I was just so utterly frustrated by it – when I say ‘it’, I obviously mean myself! – and partly because I could barely bring myself to look at it, let alone share it with others and have to write about it.

All of this however does go to show just how fickle it can be. I expect this isn’t just about watercolour painting, but about all creative endeavour. One minute you have it, you’ve got it cracked and can do no wrong! The next you’ve totally lost it and you’re the one that’s cracked!

This is certainly how it often feels for me, so I thought I should at least have the courage to share my downs with you as well as my ups.

How to watercolour

Disclaimer: A lot of ‘what works’ is all down to taste. It just so happens that my taste is for the more loose approach, trying to portray a feeling of a place, a sense of time, a quality of light, where the evocation of a mood or atmosphere is far more important than any topographical accuracy. These preferences influence what I think works in watercolour and what I seek to achieve in my painting.

For me, this painting works really well:

My kind of light, time and place

But what makes it work?

First and foremost for me is the light. I can really feel this light, it has a warmth to it, I can imagine myself in this painting, in fact I would really like to sit at this exact spot, at this exact time of day and experience everything I see in this painting!

Secondly, is how it’s painted. It doesn’t feel laboured. It’s not been overworked, the way the paint has been applied has a confident immediacy and energy to it, with colours mixed on the paper rather than just in the palette. Each passage and brushstroke has been painted once and then left alone, even when it’s not quite right!

There are clear areas of contrast and counterpoint and a wide variety of edges – some soft, some lost, some well defined – that work together to suggest what’s going on, different elements in the scene, without explicitly spelling anything out. There are places for the eye to wander and wonder, as well as to stop and linger.

How not to watercolour

Next up on the easel, was this painting. On the one hand, you could argue that it’s unfair to compare the ‘finished’ effort above with this ‘unfinished’ second one. I would argue however that this painting was finished a long time before I actually stopped painting it!

Decidedly disappointing

First off. Where’s the light!?

This is entirely my fault, and here’s how it happened! In the original source material for this, the interior is quite brightly lit from a wide range of electric light sources. They hang from the ceiling, there are lights in the bar on the right hand side and they run along the wall next to the tables down the left hand side. There isn’t one light source, there are lots of them. Where I think I went wrong was to omit these light sources (mainly because I thought the lights themselves were unattractive / a nightmare to paint!) without replacing them with any other discernible light source. This meant that creating any sense of atmosphere or drama through the use of shadows was really challenging.

From this point on, I think I was just painting without a clear sense of direction, all the while painting and repainting areas leading to muddy passages of overpainting colours and laboured brushwork.

Where the first painting had a feeling of being light and fresh (even in the darker areas), this painting feels leaden in colour and application.

Furthermore, it’s not clear what I was trying to say in this painting, what my own vision for it was. I think this lack of really pinning down what I wanted the final painting to look like, to be able to see it in my mind’s eye and to have a plan for all the elements meant that this painting was flawed from the outset!

I was really surprised by how I could do one painting one day that left me feeling uplifted and bouyant, and then the very next day paint something that left me feeling so utterly dejected and despondent!


These are more notes to self – a little eavesdropping on my internal monologue!

  • It’s only some paint, paper and a little bit of time! Really, there’s no harm done!
  • Yes, the second painting is disappointing. Yes, it gets me down. But remember how good I felt after the first painting!
  • You can’t have the highs without the lows
  • One poor painting doesn’t make you a poor painter
  • There’s nothing wrong with producing a bad or disappointing painting, it’s to be expected. The important thing is to try to learn from every painting
  • Try to be clear with yourself about what it is that attracts you to the view or scene and what you want your painting to look like.
  • Trust your instincts about when it’s worth carrying on with a painting (there’s a moment in just about every painting when I want to stop!) but sometimes it’s better to just let a painting go!

These aren’t in anyway encyclopaedic – but these are the ones that have been running through my mind over the past couple of days!

Do you have similar thoughts running through your mind? Do you think I might find any of them helpful? I’d love to hear them!

Thoughts on One ‘how to watercolour’ – and one ‘how not to watercolour’

7 thoughts on “One ‘how to watercolour’ – and one ‘how not to watercolour’”

    1. Thanks David and yes, it’s not one constant linear upward trend is it! much more of a two steps forwards, then one back, then maybe another step off to one side before eventually getting back to where you left off!

  1. Where’s the light is a wonderful compass! Similar thoughts, yes, I have many paintings that don’t quite shine, and a few that do… all are my valuable friends and teachers. Works for me! 😊 great post, enjoyed it very much!

    1. Thanks so much Liza and I really like your description of your paintings ‘being valuable friends and teachers’ – that’s really helpful and, with your permission, I’m going to hold onto that one. I’ve got another painting that I’ve started and I already fee like it’s going to be more of a teacher to me than a friend!

        1. Haha, well that’d be lovely! In these socially distanced times I do find myself talking to my paintings in a way that – under normal circumstances – might be a cause for concern!

  2. Pingback: Sketching – Siena Blue

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