Posted on 17 Comments

Watercolour painting

Watercolour painting by Emma Cownie

Watercolours are not usually my thing but circumstances have changed that, for the time being. When I came out of the hospital after my operation to fix my broken left leg, I knew that I going to off my feet for at least 6 weeks. I also knew that it would probably take another 2 to 3 weeks to be fully mobile again. I had all sorts of vague ideas about oil painting again but when I got home I realised that they were hopelessly impractical. My house is full of steep and narrow stairs, so that meant I was going to pretty much confined to my bedroom.

My husband, Séamas, went to a lot of effort to set up the bedroom ready for me. He dismantled the round kitchen table and reassembled it in the bedroom. He also brought up an armchair and two dining chairs for me to sit on and rest my recovering leg on. The table is not very big so that means that the only sort of paint I can hope to use in this limited space are watercolours.

Emma Cownie at her temporary workplace
Organised chaos on the ex-kitchen table

I have a love-hate relationship with watercolours. They are portable and come in cute little boxes but they are the least forgiving of all mediums. If you make a mistake it shows. I used to dabble in them many years ago but I always prefered to use acrylics, oil pastels and oil paints, because with all of those mediums you can scrape back or paint over mistakes. Not so with watercolours. They show you up are the second-rate artist you fear you are!

Cloughcor Cottage Arranmore
Cloughcor Cottage Arranmore


In my first efforts with the watercolours I used them in pretty much the same way I always had done.

Whilst I was reasonably happy with the foliage and grass in the picture, I thought the sky was too muddy.


Crug Hywel, Brecon Beacons
Crug Hywel, Brecon Beacons


I decided I needed some technical help. So I got Séamas to go up to the attic and dig out my tiny Collins Gem book on Watercolour Tips by Ian King. What a marvel this book is!

It has many excellent pointers on mixing watercolour paint, making washes, the translucent nature of some colours, as well as the importance of simplifying the composition.



Four sketches of Table Moutain
Four sketches of Table Moutain

So I took these points on board, in particular the importance of simplifying the image. I realised that less is more. It changed what I painted. I was much happier to edit my compositions in a way that I don’t usually in my oil paintings. So I decided to simplify my compositions as much as possible and paint a series of studies of the houses on Gola Island.

I was cautious, however, of unintentionally taking on another artist’s style of painting. I wanted the skills but not the style. I didn’t want to paint like these watercolourists, I wanted to paint my way, but in watercolours. I also wanted to keep the paint as “light” possible to keep the painting looking fresh and airy.

It might sound odd, but I wasn’t familiar with the properties of the colours in my paint-box. Blue watercolour paints act differently to blue oil paints. I needed to experiment and learn how they were different.

In the end, to help me understand what each colour could do I painted each one on a piece of paper so I could look at it when deciding which color to use. This helped me enormously.

93600310_1434552650064840_7917932287902089216_o (1)
My watercolours

I also struggled with how to paint a “simple” wash for some time. One online artist recommended mixing up a lot of paint so that it was “like tea”.  This did not do the trick for me. I was reassured by another artist that washes were actually pretty tricky and some colours were harder to use than others. I found this reassuring. I helped me keep perservering. There’s nothing like someone saying “Oh, but it’s easy” to make you want to give up when it’s not easy!

Eventually,  after a conversation with my mother (who was a keen water colourist), I tried a different brush and also several pots of water. One to rinse my brush in, the others to dip my brush into before I put it in the watery paint mix. That seemed to work for me. I felt slightly more in control of the process and my skies were less lumpy.

I have a long way to go but I am lot happier with my paintings and I hope that I can use these skills to paint “en plein air” when my leg is better it is safe to go outside again, whenever that will be. Until then, I will keep practicing!

I would like to thank Séan Ó Domnhaill for the use of his photographs of the red-roofed Post Office on the Outer Hebrides and the Isle of Lewis.

See my oil paintings here 

For some of the tips on watercolour paintings that I looked at :-Olly Pyle’s

I particularly liked Anthony’s site:-

I collect lots of tips on my pinterest page here:-
As well as examples of watercolourists whose work I admire here:-




17 thoughts on “Watercolour painting

  1. It’s interesting to get a glimpse behind the scenes. Thanks.

  2. Wow, you did learn fast. 🙂 I lopve them. And I know how difficult it is to do watercolouring.

    1. Thank you, Cecile. There is a lot to learn and I find that when I get tired, or lose concentration I mess them up! I think I will try some birds next.

    2. Hi Emma, I hope you have a fast and complete recovery. How wonderful of your husband to set that up for you! I was just reading a post by one of my favourite watercolour artist Marc Taro-Holmes. He was commenting on how he prefers not to do a lot of colour mixing in watercolour, rather he nudges the colour one way or another. Here is the post I am referring to , it strikes me that his colour approach may serve you well. All the best, Leonie

      1. Thank you, Leonie. His paintings are gorgeous. I have been painting some birds today and that “slightly out of control” paint thing works well for them. I have so far to go!

  3. It seems you are staying busy playing with your paints and creating wonderful landscapes. I think you could paint with mud and end up with a beautiful scene.

    1. That’s so sweet of you. I’d have to practice with mud, first! Lol!!

  4. You did all the right things! When I switch from oils to watercolors I always have to reset my work habits to accommodate watercolor’s intricacies. I get the feel of your oil painting style in your watercolors, so to me that represents absolute success without sacrificing anything from either medium.

    If you want to try an experimental watercolor substrate which has the handy feature of being able to wipe off color down to the original white surface, you might want to buy a couple of Ampersand’s Aquabord product and fool around with it just to see what happens. It’s a learning curve, and it won’t be anything like your current watercolor on paper technique, but I’ve used it a lot and I think it’s pretty neat. I think you can order it from London, here:

    Be sure to read the tutorial on Ampersand’s website to get tips and tricks (and also all the advantages) of using this substrate:

    1. Thank you Alli. I have so much to learn and I have to hold myself back from ordering everything in sight at the best of times. I just had some Bockingford paper and brushes from Jacksons (took a week longer than usual) and I need to play with that first!

  5. expanding your artist horizons Emma is a excellent idea! Especially during your recuperation and this virus!

    1. Thank you Wayne. It’s been interesting and its probably been good for me too.

  6. I’m glad you’re using the time for something useful, and satisfying in the long run. My favorites are the Isle of Lewis ones. the third in the 1st gallery and the first in the second. And the post office is very cheery 🙂 🙂

    1. The post office is very cute, isn’t it?

  7. I think your watercolours are lovely – beautifully simple and effective. Well done for achieving this in your recovery. I use watercolour for ‘ sketching ‘ when I’m out and about . But my real love is acrylics – like you said , so forgiving !

    1. Thank you, Margaret. I look forward to being ut and about one day in the future!!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.