Tag Archives: sketch book

Painting in Italy

In 2006 I was commissioned to do a watercolour of Casa Panfili, an Umbrian farmhouse with wonderful views over the Niccone Valley. The owners, Al and Betty Stuart wanted a painting that captured something of the beauty of the valley and the way Casa Panfili is very much a part of the rural landscape. It is a delightful area for walkers, artists, wildlife enthusiasts, photographers and those who want to explore an area rich in history, food and wine.

By the time we arrived in the early evening, having flown in to Pisa through Jet2, it was too dark to do any painting. I arose early the next morning to do a small sketch book watercolour of the sun rising above the autumn mist that hung gently below in the valley.

Once I was back in the studio, using the sketch and photographs, I did a 12” x 9” preparation watercolour for Al and Betty to approve before commencing on the final painting, a 21” x 14” watercolour which we also had printed into postcards for the guests at Casa Panfili.

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Venetian Light

A few days ago I was watching the film “The Tourist” starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie on an plane travelling back from one of my overseas work trips. Most of the film was set in Venice which made it very watchable and it triggered off many memories of our visits to Venice. When I got home, I started to thumb my my way through some of the sketch book studies I made on our last couple of stays there in September 2006 and May 2007. The sketchbook itself was actually bought in Venice.

In 2006, Susan and I spent a week in the Dolomites at our friend Nai’s holiday home, then went to Venice to stay with her for a few days at her home there. It was September, so we were able to take in the colour and spectacle of the Venetian Regatta.

One of my favourite spots in Venice is around St Marks Square.  I rattled off a very quick sketchbook watercolour of figures set against a backdrop of  low evening sunlight. Using a couple of reference photographs and the sketch, I was able to do this 12″ x 9″  studio watercolour titled Venetian Light.

After watching the speedboat sequences in “The Tourist” I couldn’t resist putting in this photograph of me driving Nai’s son’s boat from a day out in the lagoon.

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Top Sketchbook Tips


A new sheet of clean white paper can ofter appear intimidating to a beginner, even to someone experienced. to overcome any fears of making a mistake, it can be helpful to lay a pale wash of color (for example Yellow Ochre or Raw Sienna) over the whole sheet of paper, whether it’s on your drawing board or a page in your sketchbook.

First wash of colour

First wash of colour

This first wash does two very important things. First it takes away the stark white of the paper, thus making it less intimidating. Secondly, it helps to set the mood and tone of the painting and brings the rest of the colours together. It can also be a help to do a variety of different coloured washes on various pages in your sketch book to save time when painting on location. You can match the scene you are painting with the appropriate coloured page in your sketchbook.

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The Needle’s Eye Painting

A few weeks ago I was asked by one of my clients to paint a specific view of the Needle’s Eye which is situated at the south part of the beach at Newbiggen by the Sea on the Northumbrian coast. He provided me with several photographs of the view he had in mind, however they were taken on a dull day and were not really suitable to paint from. In any case, I much prefer to paint on location and use my own photographs if necessary.

I went to find the spot that the client had in mind of the Needle’s Eye but I’d didn’t check the tides before setting off. It was high tide when I arrived, so it was not possible to paint from the view which the client had in mind. I decided to take advantage of the good weather and after exploring the area, I did a sketch book study from some rocks on the other side. I had to finish the study in my studio as waves were starting to land on my paint box!

Two days later, the weather was perfect, so after checking when low tide was, I arrived at 1:30 pm and found a suitable rock from which to paint from which gave me a great composition of the Needle’s Eye with foreground rocks and water. In typical fashion, I did two studies, one in my leather bound sketch book, the other on a 12″ x 9″ Arches watercolour block of rough paper.

The tide was starting to come in and the paint was taking too long to dry, so I had to finish the larger painting from the warmth of my studio, however I did manage to complete the sketch book study in situ. I showed the client the finished study and he was delighted. I’m going to frame it to match the other paintings he has purchased from me.

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Arthur Melville

Arthur Melville by Iain Gale

Arthur Melville by Iain Gale

TIP 3 Be Inspired! If I’m ever feeling dry, I will spend a couple of hours browsing through my reference books of paintings by some of the great exponents of watercolour like Winslow Homer, Sir William Russell Flint, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Arthur Melville and Edward Seago.

Better still, visit an exhibition with your sketch book and do some simple studies of some of the works on display. I had the recent pleasure of seeing the exhibition titled “The Glasgow Boys” held at the Royal Academy of Arts. On show were 4 watercolours by Arthur Melville, one of which was the outstanding original featured on the cover of the book by Iain Gale seen above. There really is no substitute for seeing the original paintings rather than reproductions.

The Glasgow Boys

The Glasgow Boys

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Top Sketch Book Tips

Whether you are a keen painter or simply a beginner who has been given a box of watercolour paints for Christmas, here are my top 10 Sketch Book Tips to help improve your sketch book work.

1. Carry a sketch book and biro at all times so that if you have time to kill, you can quickly draw whatever is around you. Drawing from life sharpens one’s technical ability in terms of being able to draw and will increase one’s visual awareness.

I find the moleskine brand of sketch books very handy. They are small, discreet, have a decent paper inside that can even take paint and have a useful inside pocket for tucking things away. The advantage of using a biro instead of a pencil is that you can’t rub out mistakes. It forces you to think more about the lines you are making before putting pen to paper.

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Painting on Location

One of the most satisfying and rewarding disciplines I do as a painter is getting up early to capture the early morning light in watercolour. Over the last couple of years I’ve been fortunate to spend a week in Norfolk over the summer with my family, following in the footsteps of some of my watercolour heros, particularly Edward Seago.
Alan Reed

12″ x 9″ Original Watercolour of Burnham Overy Staithe

Burnham Overy Staithe is a painters paradise. The low lying land means you get the extremes of either low or high tide and of course the dramatic big skies which are always a challenge to paint. This particular scene was commenced about 6am at low tide with the sun attempting to break through the grey clouds which were scurrying across the sky.
As usual, I tackled two paintings, one in my sketch book, the other on a 12″ x 9″ Arches watercolour block of rough paper. The advantage of doing this is that whilst one is drying, you can crack on recording the ever changing scene with the other painting. One can keep alternating between the two, so the whole process is a very intense painting period. The sketch book study is always the more simple study, mainly because it is smaller, therefore one does not have as much space to fit in detail. There is no pencil work in either study as I prefer to “draw” with the brush directly on to the paper. This means you get a very expressive free brush stroke which brings a freshness to the work.
What I have ended up with is two, quite different renditions of the same scene which I hope to work up into a much larger painting at some point in the future. The photograph provides some valuable topographical information to supplement the watercolour studies. The challenge with the studio painting will be to retain the spontaneity of the location paintings.
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