A Few Thoughts on Sketching and Inspiration

You wouldn’t expect an athlete or a footballer to give of their best without exercising and preparing for their game or run, well it’s the same with art — you cannot expect to develop as an artist without “warming up”. Sketching is the way to do it!

Sketching makes you look at the world around you whilst refining your skills with pencil,or the brush, or the pen, in fact with whatever you decide to use to sketch.

One of the hardest things about art as a hobby is finding that next subject, getting the enthusiasm to depict something that has taken your interest, or waiting for inspiration to strike.That moment of inspiration can strike at almost any time but I find sitting sketching and the quiet moments of thought that go with it often trigger inspiration .

A passing boat, an old gnarled tree, an industrial horizon, the simple observation of a passing event, all offer possibilities, a chance to sketch and maybe take the drawing further as a full blown painting.

Regard everything as potential subject matter and you will never be short of inspiration and ideas for paintings.

It’s not always about the subject matter itself…sometimes it might be the light, the interesting shadow cast by a building , colours, reflections in fact anything that motivates you and makes you want to record what you see.

And it’s not just when you are on holiday in some balmy tropical hideaway, the urban environment seethes with potential subjects just waiting for you to spot them.

If you haven’t sketched or painted outside before, you may need to pluck up courage to begin, but do not let a fear of what others may think prevent you from enjoying the bounty of the subjects the “great outdoors” presents! In fact never worry about what other people think, enjoy the relaxation and sense of achievement that comes from such an engrossing pastime.

To get started all you need is a small pad (A5 size is ideal) and pencil and ensure you always have them with you when you are out and about. You can sketch in the airport, waiting for a train, in the park watching the dog run round… in fact sketch the dog! There is ALWAYS something to draw – a tree, your shoe, your garden gate, cars, clouds……

With every sketch you learn a little more about; how to look, how to record, how to refine your drawing technique.

It will become a visual diary, (always pop a date on the drawing) you will be able to look back and see how you have progressed…and you will!





Examples from my sketchbooks


↓ Download Sketching: Some Thoughts for Mac (.pages)

↓ Download Sketching: Some Thoughts  for Windows (.docx)


Sketching: Some Dos….and Don’ts

Dont  be too ambitious with what you are about to sketch.

Dont  think that every time you put pen to paper you will produce a masterpiece, because you won’t. Remember sketches are for practice, for memories, for enjoyment.

Dont  worry about what others may think of your drawing.

Don just use a pencil, try out other things, for example pens, brushed lines, felt tips.

Don draw something you are not interested in.

Dont  compare your work to others when you are working in a group. Other people’s sketches are not better or worse than your own – they’re different!  – and it doesn’t  matter anyway you are doing this to enjoy yourself!

Don sit in full sunlight, on an uncomfortable rock, or in a draughty spot, (that’s just daft!)

Do  Let others see your work if they ask. Passing strangers will ALWAYS be complimentary about your work, fellow sketchers will ALWAYS be encouraging.

Do  make lots of sketches of the same thing if it interests you. The more sketches of a subject you make the more you will learn about it and the clearer the forms will become.

Do  make yourself comfortable, you are doing this for pleasure.

Do  leave things out if they are boring, really tricky to draw, or you just don’t like them in your picture. It’s called “having an artistic licence” and its well worth the money you paid for it.

Do  sketch people, pictures look so much more convincing with people in them (J.M.W.Turner drew rubbish people but that didn’t stop him from putting them into his pictures)

Do  spend that little bit more money on a nice sketch pad or some nice paints, this is after all your hobby and you’re worth it!






↓ Download Sketching: Some Dos and Don’ts for Mac (.pages)

↓ Download Sketching: Some Dos and Don’ts for Windows (.docx)


Watercolour basics

Suggestions for a Basic Kit to get you Started.

The Paint Box.

Watercolours come in little tablets called “pans” and “half-pans”and also in tubes. I would suggest a box of 12 or 16 half-pans to start with. As you progress you will find that you favour some colours more than others as you begin to develop your own style. Naturally as you use the favourite colours more often, the pans will need replacing – better still you can then buy tubes of these colours and squeeze the colour into the empty pan. This topping up works well and means you only buy colours as you need them. Some online stores will sell empty boxes (they’re not cheap!) this means you can buy a box and choose your own colours. Alternatively buy a ready made up box and replace some of the colours you don’t like or will never use. I always wonder why the manufacturers always include a white which any self-respecting watercolour artist would never use and a black which again is very rarely used by watercolour painters

I would suggest buying the better quality paints these are called “artists’ quality” they mix better, have stronger pigments and are more light-fast. The alternative are known as “student colours” (or sometimes “Cotman colours”) it is false economy to begin with these and harder to learn the techniques of say, laying -in a wash or mixing wet-into-wet.

The Colours.

There is no right and wrong about which colours to use, but like the best parties good mixers are essential! After considerable soul-searching, research, and changes of mind over the years, I settled on the following selection of “warm” and “cool” colours;

My favoured warm colours are: Cobalt Blue, French Ultramarine*,Sap Green*, Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre*, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Red and Permanent Magenta.

My favoured cool colours are: Indian Red*, Alizarin Crimson*, Aureolin, Burnt Umber*, Sepia, Cerulean Blue, Indigo.

The ones with an * are the six starter colours I should choose if pressed!

Every Artist favours different colours and I have yet to find two art books where the artists have chosen exactly the same starter colours. At the end of the day it is trial and error, experience, and personal choice – but you wouldn’t go far wrong with the above selection!


Brushes come in many sizes and makes and you can spend a fortune on them! Again the better the brush the better the service you will get from it, and the better the variety of line you will produce. Brushes are the most important tools in your box so buy a reasonable quality  and always look after them by cleaning them when you have finished and storing them so the bristles don’t get bent.

Sable brushes are the best for watercolour, sizes range from 00 to 12 in most ranges and you will be able to tackle most pictures with a size 10 round, 8 round, & 5 round. Be careful you don’t go for small brushes too early as these are really for detail only, the bigger the brush the more colour it will hold and the easier it will be to  produce good and even washes. Proline brushes are the next level down but don’t hold anything like the same amount of water/pigment.

Other Equipment

H.B. and  2B pencils. use a knife ideally to sharpen your pencils as you can achieve a better quality of shape for the drawing edge. A pencil sharpener is the obvious (but not as satisfactory) alternative.

A putty rubber (this is a special eraser for watercolour paper as it doesn’t affect the surface of the paper ).

Masking tape. for fixing your paper to the board and creating sharp edges to your work if you wish.

A mixing palette buy a ceramic palette as the plastic ones do not help colours to mix evenly or pool as well. One with 5 to 6 colour holders is fine.

If you are working at home a plywood board about 50cm x 75cm is ideal propped up on a couple of books. Easels are very rarely used in watercolour painting as you want your colours to run at a gradual pace  and not vertically down the moment you apply them!

If you are working outside just use your sketchbook on your lap at first.

A Sketchbook  A5 Size, nothing too ambitious at first! Not Cartridge paper though it is too thin. Sketchbooks come in many sizes and shapes, but choose one which calls itself a watercolour sketchbook as the paper in it will be a heavier weight and therefore take watercolour without cockling (cockling is a term for when a piece of paper absorbs water and starts to bubble up and buckle losing its flat shape).


Clearly you will need more paper than just a sketchbook for when you start to work on larger pictures… however such is the variety and detail of information needed concerning the selection of paper I am not addressing it here other than to say pick the size you want and choose a Cold Pressed (sometimes called “NOT” paper at least 300gsm/140lb in weight. this is an ideal paper to start with.

And a bag to carry it all in….and you are ready to go and make a name for yourself in the world of watercolour painting.

Just a last thought.

Do not buy one of the boxed watercolour painters’ kits, invariably they contain inferior materials that manufacturers just want to offload onto an unsuspecting public!






↓ Download Watercolour Basics for Mac (.pages)

↓ Download Watercolour Basics for Windows (.docx)


Brushes for Watercolour painting

A few thoughts on the types and choices

The best brushes for watercolour painting are generally agreed to be Kolinsky Sable….and are unsurprisingly the most expensive (be prepared to take out a bank loan for the larger sizes). The reason they are so expensive is that they hold a great deal of colour whilst giving you perfect control of the transition of that colour onto the paper. If you treat yourself to one look after it (or better still contact Securicor).

Alternative brushes are made from Red Sable, Squirrel hair, and other hair mixes, they are cheaper and whilst you lose a little of the control they are every bit as good for general watercolour painting. There are also some good synthetic alternatives “Dalon” and “Proloene” which will also give you good service for a while but tend to thicken up quickly and become unworkable far quicker than quality brushes.

Try using a synthetic brush and a sable of the same size, you will quickly see the difference,

the sable holds more liquid.

Why is this important I hear you ask…. Well I’m glad you asked that… if a brush holds more water/colour it means the delivery of the colour will be more consistent, the colour will look the same on the paper. If you are doing a large wash this will help in achieving the consistency you desire without having to go back to your reservoir of colour as regularly as you would with a cheaper brush.

If you look after your brushes, sable and squirrel mixes will give you better long term service than synthetics. (They should always be washed/rinsed in clean water and stood vertically after use, occasionally a clean with a little touch of washing-up liquid will help but not too often.)

The basic types of brush: A Round , a Flat, A Mop, and a Rigger are seen here in that order.



The flat is used mainly for applying washes , large areas of consistent colour or specialist detail for instance bricks in a wall.The round is for everyday use a general purpose brush which will produce a thin line or a wider line dependant on how much pressure you exert on it. Round brushes are graded in general use in sizes from 00 (very small) to size 12. Use the largest brush you are comfortable with, a general mistake of the amateur artist is to use too small brushes, the work becomes streaked,inconsistant and fiddly.Unless you intend producing miniatures or high quality botanical work your smallest brush should be a 3, use an 8 or 10 for most of the picture and a 6 or 7 for some detail work.

The mop is a cheaper alternative to large rounds and will deliver large amounts of colour onto the paper favoured by those who use wet on wet techniques (the merging of coloured washes on the paper rather than mixing off the paper and then applying the mixed colour)

The rigger is a long thin brush and is used for delivering thin lines onto the paper for instance twigs of a tree, telegraph wires and ships’ rigging ( which incidentally is where it got its name from, maritime artists first used it for precisely that purpose)



These are not the only brushes available and you can try out others as you progress with your journey into the world of watercolour. Basically other brushes are just aids for specific applications for instance a Fan brush will produce foliage in a specific way or bushes in a distant landscape. Other brushes are a luxury and not necessary for day-to-day watercolour painting but can be fun on the odd occasion.



Some artists can never have too many brushes or other equipment above: my window sill!


↓ Download Brushes for Watercolour Painting for Windows (.docx)

↓ Download Brushes for Watercolour Painting for Mac (.pages)


Paper for Watercolour painting

A Few Thoughts on the types and choices

You can use any paper for painting, but, it’s far better to use a paper especially made for watercolour painting……because:

  • They have unique surface textures which respond to a brush.
  • They have absorbency characteristics which hold paint and respond well to the water content.

There are many types, makers, weights,sizes but they all have TWO things in common:

They are all finished with one of three types of surface texture,

  • Rough, Not (sometimes called cold-pressed) , and Hot Pressed.
  • They are all graded by weight.


Rough: Has a pronounced texture, a coarse surface (known as “tooth”). it is ideal for strong broadly painted washes, textured lines and dry brush work. It is NOT suitable for detailed work, pen and ink or soft pencil.

Not (cold pressed): Has less tooth, a semi-rough surface for medium grain which accepts washes without too much absorption. It is the paper most commonly used by amateurs and professionals alike.

Hot Pressed: Is very smooth (but don’t confuse it with cartridge paper) It has very little tooth and is ideal for very detailed work, pencil and wash, botanical work and fine brush work.

Paint runs very quickly on this paper so you have to know what you are doing!


Until relatively recently the weight of a paper came from how much a ream (480sheets) of it weighed (useful trivia fact!). But now it’s the weight of a square metre of a single sheet of paper given in grammes (gsm) So that’s just confusing isn’t it!

What you need to know is that the heaviest paper in common use is 330lb (or 638gsm).

The average for watercolour pads in use is 140lb (or 300gsm).

The advantage of heavier weighted paper is that you probably don’t need to stretch them which avoids hassle if you like your watercolour wet!

You can use the paper straight out of the pack or pad and it won’t cockle as much as a thin paper. If you are doing something really special it’s probably best to stretch it anyway.

So what’s this stretching I hear you say….


Paper cockles as it gets wet and the thinner the paper the greater the buckling caused by the absorption of the water you apply. The pigment in the paint pools on the paper and it all gets really horrible. Stretching avoids this.

METHOD: Take your piece of paper, find a wooden board (ply is best) larger than your paper, some brown gummed paper (not parcel tape, not masking tape not sellotape) and fill a large sink or bath with water (cold).

Soak your paper in the bath/sink until it goes a bit transparent at the edges (about 5 minutes) and take it out holding it up to let the excess surface water drain away.

Lay it on your wooden board    Whilst the paper was soaking you had cut 4 lengths of the brown gummed paper into 4 lengths greater than the sides of the paper.

Now lay the paper flat on the board , damp it down with an old towel and fix each edge of it to the board with the damped gummed paper. The gummed paper should be for the whole of each edge and a bit longer, and half on the paper and half on the board. If you try to economise and do say only a third of the gummed strip on the paper and two thirds on the board, the paper will pull away from the strip and make all your efforts pointless!

Leave the board on its edge to dry naturally overnight. Next day the paper will be as flat as a pancake and an absolute dream to paint on. The bonus being It will not cockle when you apply your washed colour.

Back to the Paper:

Papers can be bought loose, in pads or in blocks.

Blocks come in various sizes and are fixed on all four sides which means they do not cockle and are easy to use if you are on your travels and painting en plain air which is painter-speak for outdoors. You do however pay a premium for this.

Loose paper is best used in the studio and will work out cheaper than the equivalent paper made up into pads or blocks.

Finest quality and hand-made papers are usually loose but are the Rolls Royce of papers and it is best to know what you are doing with them before you make the investment.

Experiment with papers, coloured paper, heavyweights, cotton rich, handmade….etc etc.

As with paints you will settle eventually on a paper that suits you and your style, and as with paints and brushes the better you know the inherent qualities  the more fun you will have in pursuing your hobby and will begin to produce the results you are happy with.






↓ Download Paper for Watercolour Painting for Mac (.pages)

↓ Download Paper for Watercolour Painting for Windows (.docx)


~ Graham Thew