Storing watercolour paints: a studio hack

If you’ve been painting for any length of time, you may have accumulated a collection of tubes of paint and storing watercolour paints becomes an issue.

We all know that, in theory we only need a dozen colours. We know it, but those darned colours are so seductive. I don’t know a single artist who can resist the lure of an art materials shop. And there are a number I’ve been gifted by people who have decided not to paint any more, or didn’t like a particular colour. It all adds up to a lot of tubes.

A couple of months ago, at a workshop, I realised I was running low on a couple of my favourite colours. Sadly, I didn’t make a note of just which ones. When I next had a chance to go to the art shop, I dashed into the studio to check.  I rummaged through my plastic tub of paints to find the tubes that had been squeezed down to a stub. Only once I got back did I realise that in my haste, I had missed one of those I use the most.  I’ve tried various methods of storing watercolour paints. Most recently I’ve used three plastic trays: one each for transparent, semi-transparent and opaque tubes.  I lean towards the transparent colours so it helps to have them sorted.

Storing watercolour paints: my new solution
All laid out. You can see which colours I use the most.

My new solution to storing watercolour paints

I’ve seen various versions of branded pre-made boards with clips or the home-made nails in walls or boards.  My problem was that I didn’t really want to be putting nails in my studio wall.  I wanted something affordable and flexible. I was starting to think it would need to be screws in an MDF board.

While I was debating this, I saw a great post on the Making a Mark page about an artist who was using an Ikea board with clip-in trays to store his materials and I realised this could solve my paint problem too. I just needed a few amendments. So, board acquired, I looked for some appropriate hooks. The Ikea ones that go with the board come at £2 for 5 which doesn’t sound like much until you realise that to hang as many as I needed would cost almost £50. Added to the £18 for the largest of the three Ikea boards, that seemed a bit steep in terms of overall cost for this application.  They’re also quite long so they use up more board space than I wanted.

So, I scoured the web and eventually found packs of stainless steel hooks on a shop fitting website. The size is perfect and they cost me a mere £10 for the number I needed. Bulldog clips applied and paints sorted –  I can now see exactly which colours I have duplicated, which I use the most, and which are like those holiday outfits hanging in the wardrobe: seemed like a good idea at the time, but didn’t quite live up to expectations.

Storing watercolour paints by transparency factor.

The geek in me still wanted a way of easily sorting the tubes by transparency factor. I came up with an easy visual code: yellow dot for transparent, green dot for semi-transparent and blue dot for opaque. With the tubes sorted in a colour range, I can now easily pick the colour I want and know the transparency without having to check. Now I just need a solution for granulating and staining factors.

Studio Stories

I’m painting in Australia at the moment and I’ll be putting together a newsletter with some stories from my travels. Here’s my last newsletter if you fancy a read. Please share the love by sharing the link if you know someone who might like to follow my studio stories

Abstract Watercolours: part 2

Last week I committed to sharing both the good and the less so good on my journey towards abstract watercolours – and so I am doing just that. Which means there are pieces of work on this website now that I wouldn’t normally be sharing.

Given the purpose of the project: to break down my creative block and (as always) to learn I’ve made a couple of adjustments to my process. I’m working with only three brushes for the moment: a flat brush, a dagger brush and a sword brush. These may change in time, but for the moment, I’m keeping things simple and using this as an opportunity to master these brushes.

Secondly, I’m limiting the time spent on each painting, as far as possible, to 15 minutes. This stops me from overthinking a piece of work, and its probably the only way I could manage anything close to a daily painting, no matter how small.

Is it working? I’ve certainly produced little abstract watercolours with a wide range of styles, subjects and moods. Its getting me back into the painting groove again and making me experiment more again. The process is definitely loosening up my painting.

This Batch of Abstract Watercolours:

There’s a question about where the line is between abstract and representational artworks. For me, the line is fairly close to representational. I don’t have a problem with images that are reminiscent of real things – a semi-abstract is still an abstract if it evokes a feeling, or expresses the characteristics of a situation.

abstract watercolours 2016.02.12 Friday morning shopping

On Friday I had the frustrating experience of having to run some errands. I discovered that Friday morning is a bad time to be anywhere near the shops. There’s a sense of frantic business and at the same time, people randomly wandering and getting in the way. It felt a bit like an obstacle course.

2016.02.13 e-Luminate Abstract watercolours

















This is not my favourite work of the week. I recently got hold of a new luminescent ink which I wanted to try out. Our visit to e-Luminate Cambridge seemed to be an ideal subject for the inks. Working fast meant far too little control using materials and tools I’m not accustomed to, and the results were messing and not inspiring at all. It did make me start working on controlling inks for future works.

abstract watercolours 2016.02.14 Fading Glory

We had a bunch of tulips on the kitchen table. The pod-like shapes of the blossoms called me. I also started working on paper I’ve not tried before: Fabriano HP.

abstract watercolours 2016.02.15 beginnings

My favourite of this bunch was inspired by the snowdrops I notices on my walk through the churchyard. They are delicate and chaotic. Pristine and tangled. Hopeful and transient.

abstract watercolours 2016.02.16 life landscape

A streak of darkness entered our day on Tuesday when we were forced to contemplate the possibility of losing Horatio who has been ill for a week. Remarkably, he’s still hanging in and somedays bring possibilities of a healthier future for our very special feline.

The trail of abstract watercolours will continue.

Creative images of artwork

Not much studio time this week, partly because I’ve been spending time on making creative images in a new way.

Inspired by a newsletter from the fabulous marketing department at Artfinder, I took some detailed photographs of a recent mixed media painting of Borgo di Santa Giuliana.

Creative images 1The painting itself has an element of expressionism to it, not least in the alternative colours used to convey the wonderful warm light in the Italian hills. So it seemed a fitting one to choose to play with perspective using my phone camera.

Creative images 1I am particularly pleased with the emphasis this perspective gives to the wonderful old walls of the buildings in this medieval settlement. The textures in this painting stand out really well when its photographed at an oblique angle. It’s not something I would have considered doing before, but now I have done it, I really love the way this sort of creative image gives the viewer a really close look at the painting’s detail.

Creative images 1Even the relatively un-textured hillsides in this painting come to life more when viewed really close up. And the light effect shining through the gap in the hills becomes even more apparent too.

Now that I’ve started to explore the idea of making more creative images of my artwork, I’ll start thinking about showing them differently in future.

More creative images

In other news, I’ve been experimenting with a new bit of kit over the weekend. It was high time our office printer was replaced. We’ve been operating with one small printer/scanner/copier for years now and it’s getting long in the tooth.

PrinterSo when our new whizzy A2 printer with an accompanying high resolution scanner arrived, I couldn’t resist playing a bit. This is the result of my working my way through an entire sample pack of fine art paper: Artist proofs all over the place. The scanner works a charm too – great colour resolution and wonderful detail.

I’ve now found the paper I really like, have ordered two pack (different sizes) and will be able to do my own giclée prints from here on.

This has been a real creative image week for me – and for once, it was not my brush doing the work, but technology.

Tim Minion, Sketching Companion

Meet Tim Minion. He arrived unexpectedly. On the way to a fancy dress ball last week, we stopped to pick up pirate costume accessories. Tim was hanging out near the tills and I fell head over heels for him. At the time I acquired him, I had no real clue about exactly what use I would have for him. But within a few days, he’s become indispensable.

Tim Minion looking plump and smug
Timinion looking plump and smug

Tim Minion is now my sketching companion.

He faithfully transports my sketchbooks, coloured pencils, pens, and brushes. It’s quite amazing how much he can carry without getting bent out of shape.

There’s something quite liberating about having a Minion as a sketching companion. Tim Minion stops me from taking my sketching too seriously. There’s a temptation to strive for perfection in every piece of work. As a general rule, constantly aiming for excellence is a good thing. But with sketching, that’s almost guaranteed to negate the primary purpose of the exercise.

Tim Minion spills his guts
Timinion spills his guts

Once you’ve dug into Tim Minion’s insides to haul out sketch book and pens, it’s very difficult to be anything but playful. That state of playfulness immediately creates a looser piece of work. Capturing some of the essence of the subject in a few minutes is the goal. Working fast and being relaxed about the results are key factors for success.

Having all my sketching kit in one place (even if it is the innards of a Minion) means I can produce a quick image when taking a break. Often sketching time happens when I’m just sitting on a park bench, or a patch of grass under a tree. In that respect, its also great practice for plein air painting.

Recent sketches

These little images were the results of Tim’s portering labours last week in France. Done over two short sessions, this is more sketching than I generally do in a month. I’m really pleased with the output. Long may this last – hopefully having a Minion will keep the work flowing.

Sketch. Green chair conversation
Green chair conversation

One more sketch from last week provides a perfect example of the value of my sketchbook. The Tuilleries Gardens are full of lovely ponds and statues, with ducks, pigeons and finches strutting and waddling around, and people sitting in green metal chairs chatting, dozing, reading, eating, and relaxing in their own way. A cluster of five empty chairs caught my eye. They were grouped very close together in a way that made it look as if the chairs were themselves having a friendly conversation. This little sketch isn’t by any means even close to a finished work. It never will be. But it will remind me of the day, the idea I had when I saw the chairs, and the interaction between a group of inanimate items that made them seem almost human.

I’m going to enjoy Tim Minion’s company as we sketch our way through my travels.

Just the coolest gift

I am going to have to play catch up on my 30 paintings in 30 days. I’m travelling at the moment with an intense schedule and there has just been no time for my brushes.

My trip has brought me to South Africa and I have managed to visit my family for the weekend on the way to my final destination. It’s always great to get some unexpected family time, and this time my sister managed to surprise me with an amazing gift.

Having designed the fabulous Running With Brushes logo in the first place, she managed to top that by producing a leather bag with the logo and my name engraved on it. It’s a drawing board bad and is perfect for transporting palettes and paper (as well as a fair amount of other art materials). Now I have no excuse to get my plein air painting up to scratch

Running with Brushes leather bag
My Running With Brushes leather bag

She couldn’t reproduce the colours in the RWB banner so she used words to represent it. In case you can’t read it on my phone-generated photo, it says: “Running with brushes and paper and pencils and pencils and paints and palettes and colour and inspiration and laughter and connection and fun” – which just encapsulates the project perfectly.

Bag pocket detail
Bag pocket detail

I feel so incredibly spoiled to have received such an awesome gift. It’s going to make me smile every time I use it.

Finally, a use for my elephant dung paper

I’ve just finished day one of Georgia Mansur‘s Seductive Surfaces workshop and my brain is buzzing! Georgia has so much knowledge to share and so many techniques to teach, I found myself making a list of new materials to buy, and my head so full of new ideas I don’t know where to start.

I intended to take lots of photographs, but I’m afraid I was so busy having fun with new materials that I kept forgetting to take pictures. So there are a few, but perhaps not as many as there could have been.

The day kicked off with a discussion about creativity. Georgia shared her tips for loosening up and building creativity. The tone was set for the day, allowing everyone to create our first abstract paintings without judgement. So often, we are our own greatest critics. We beat ourselves up when we don’t think we have done well enough. Today was about suspending all that negative self-talk and just playing with new materials.

A tiny selection of Georgia's texture samples.
A tiny selection of Georgia’s texture samples.

Georgia comes well prepared with plenty of examples and samples for everyone to look at. Given how much information she has to share, these form a fantastic resource. Samples of different watercolour and acrylic paint effects were in constant demand during the day as we all wanted more and more ideas.

The start of Georgia's demonstration. Work instinctively with interesting materials
The start of Georgia’s demonstration. Work instinctively with interesting materials

The real work started with a rummage through Georgia’s treasure trove of paper, twine, lace, fabric, pictures and much, much more. Her demonstration started with a period of intuitive composition with a selection of texture-creating materials. Once the composition feels ready, the individual items get stuck down with gesso and the painting is left to dry. Things to remember: non-porous materials won’t hold paint as well (or at all, if they’re not coated with gesso), and organic materials must be completely sealed to ensure they remain intact over time (and to stop your painting being attached by insects). On an impulse I added the contents to one of a teabag to my painting, so this was valuable knowledge.

elephant poo paper.
Yes, it is elephant poo paper.

In a moment of curiosity, I bought some sheets of elephant dung paper in South Africa last year. I wanted to try it for watercolour painting. As you can see from the photo above, it wasn’t a successful experiment. The paper is just too soft and absorbent. There’s not enough structure to hold the pigment well enough so I wrote it off to experience and left the paper in a drawer, thinking I wouldn’t ever find a use for it. I had a flash of inspiration when I was collecting the materials for this workshop and fished it out of the drawer to bring along. It’s got a great texture for this sort of work: at last I have a use for it.

Seductive surfaces workshop - stage one
Seductive surfaces workshop – stage one

At the end of stage one (composition and gesso application) my painting included fabric, fruit bags, rafia, tea leaves, leather shapes, plastic bag, (and indeed, a smattering of elephant poo!)

After lunch, once all the gesso was thoroughly dried, we started applying colour washes with acrylic paints, and watercolour pencils.

Seductive surfaces workshop - abstract painting work in progress
Seductive surfaces workshop – abstract work in progress

There’s more work to be done – detail to be added and textures to be emphasised. That’s tomorrow’s job.

We’re also due to work on a new more structured painting tomorrow and I’m looking forward to trying out some of the textured  gels and pastes.

What’s your defining word?

Pushing personal boundaries - again
Pushing personal boundaries – again

About a year ago, Donna Zagotta challenged her readers to describe their life as an artist in only six words. The picture on this post was my response.

I realise that a year on, this is still true.

If you’ve not organised your own exhibition before, it can be a daunting prospect. I’ve managed events for charity and business before so I do know how much work is involved. Somehow, in between events, I always manage to forget. No change this time either.

We’re now one day away from our preview evening and the last minute list of things to be done seems a bit overwhelming. I have meant to write a series of posts about staging an exhibition, but time has eluded me and they haven’t been done. Perhaps that was a bit too ambitious for now. I will write them, but I suspect a retrospective ‘how to’ series may be more useful.

In the meantime, I challenge all my readers to select one word (only one!) that describes what art means to you in 2013. (There may be a new word next year).


My word is ‘Stretch’.

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Taking risks

watercolour painting. The last tree?
Fly Away Tree (watercolour 29 x 39 cm)


Sometimes it feels right to push a few boundaries with my paintings. I’ve been working on a pair of paintings for the last few weeks which are almost ready to write about. They’re rather different from my usual work and I know that some people just won’t get the concept.

But that’s OK, because it’s taking my work in a different direction which keeps my brain active, and stretches me as an artist. This painting was done a couple of years ago, and at the time, it was pushing boundaries for me. Quite often, the common thread in the paintings that go to new places, is the fact that they are expressing an idea, often quite intangible.

The Flyaway Tree painting emerged when I started thinking about what the last tree on earth would look like.

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Pay it Forward

Watercolour bookmarks

One of my Facebook friends put up a status which proposed a Pay It Forward commitment. I thought it rather fun so I decided to take part. The person putting up the status agrees to send a gift to each of the first five people to comment.

Watercolour bookmarks
Watercolour bookmarks

In line with my themes of New Perspectives and Growth for this year, I though some special bookmarks would fit the bill. Each one of these is hand painted which makes them unique.  Although I wouldn’t normally do this to a watercolour, as I want them to last and stay looking good, I put each one through a heat laminator.  Many happy books to be read by  the recipients of my Facebook Pay It Forward gifts.

Thanks must go to Rhonda for her post about bookmarks which made me go “Hmmmm. Good Idea!”

We had snow days on the weekend. One week earlier and we would have been in real trouble:  Our boiler was out of commission so we had no heating for the best part of a week, at the same time as having a large hole in the roof where the builders were adding in a section for our stairs – and the weather turned bitterly cold. Thankfully, by the time the snow arrived, the boiler had been replaced and the roof was back on (almost).

But cold aside – the snow made my studio look so inviting, I thought I should share this photo so you can see where I go to paint and recharge my batteries each weekend.

Studio in the snow
Studio in the snow

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Apps for Artists: Evernote

Continuing on the notebook theme – while I love my paper notebook and will always have one for the ideas that have to be captured in real ink, pencil and paint, Evernote an electronic version, has also become part an integral part of my kit.

I use Evernote for all sorts of notes – not just for my painting references. From business notes to shopping lists, it’s a useful way of gathering and organising the information I need in my life.  Notes are grouped into virtual notebooks so I can make individual notes within books about specific work projects, or general categories (like ‘painting ideas’, family history research, information for an upcoming trip).

There are some specific features that make it great as an app for artists. In Evernote I can:

  • type in text notes, add audio, or video to my notes,
  • add a plug in to my web browser which makes it easy to copy entire sections of a web page, just the URL, or clip an small part of that page,
  • attach a file from my computer to any note,
  • take a photograph directly from the Evernote app which automatically goes into the notebook I allocate it to,
  • synchonise Evernote on my phone, my laptop and my iPad so I can use it on the go.
It’s not just a text or sketch repository – it can be filled with visual references too. That flexibility is the key. I find my work notes tend to be predominantly text, tables and web links, while my painting reminders are filled with photographs and sections of web pages which include images.

I’m using it to build my own reference library for my painting. I have lists of artists whose work I’d like to spend more time viewing. I have images and ideas I’m considering using as subjects for paintings one day. I’ve started a section on colour notes based around Maggie Latham‘s series of blog posts on exploring colours. 

So often in the past I’ve found myself reading a blog post or a website and thinking, “I must remember to go back to this” only to find that when I do need it, I can’t find it.  Either its lost in an endless list of bookmarks, or if I can find the page, I spend ages trawling through it to find the specific nugget of information I wanted. As long as I remember to clip it to Evernote, I don’t need to do that any more.

I had Evernote downloaded on my computer for ages and just didn’t get into it. Finally, the need to collect images for a commission persuaded me to try again – and this time I really found it useful and I’m using it more and more.

Oh, and one more thing – it’s free, which means its not going to bite into the paint budget.