Never Leave Brushes Standing Tip Down

Never leave brushes standing tip down in a jar of water or solvent. Within a few minutes the bristles or hairs in the brush will bend and it can be very difficult to straighten them.

But if you do ……..Wash the brush very thoroughly to clean out any residue of paint and squeeze any moisture out of it. While the brush is still damp tear off a strip of kitchen roll, about one centimetre by ten. Roll this tightly round the hairs of the brush and tweak it to give the original brush shape. Leave it to dry and if you are lucky when you unwrap it the brush will be returned to its original shape. If it was very badly bent you may need to do this a couple of times.


The Trouble with Green

I love green in all its variety but I hear time and again from students it is a difficult colour to manage. I think there may be two reasons for this. Surrounded as we are by green it is the colour we see in greatest variety. In spring there are many nuances of the colour obvious to anyone who cares to look and as artists we are presented with the challenge of mixing them all. There are just as many shades of all the other colours but with green we see the whole range around us in the natural environment.

Secondly there is a technical issue in that people try to mix greens from Viridian, Pthalo, Winsor green or even Prussian blue. All of these are wonderful colours but need very careful handling as they are both very blue and incredibly saturated. The minutest touch has a dramatic effect on any amount of yellow and it is difficult to use them to mix the range of warm greens around us in the English landscape.

There are three things that might make a difference, firstly use another green for landscape painting such as sap green, Hooker's green, Terre Verte, they are warmer and much less aggressively intense. And try a range of yellows too, mixing green from ochre or Naples yellow gives much softer colours than using lemon or cadmium. There is also a wonderful range of soft greens to be made by mixing yellows with black. Secondly start with the yellow and add the blue rather than the other way round then you have a much better chance of staying in control. And third is to have red or a red brown on the pallette when mixing greens, you can use them to neutralise the greens (make more grey) if they are too saturated.


In Praise of Indian Yellow

I use a lot of this colour in making browns and blacks. It is said that originally the pigment was made from the urine of cows fed on mango leaves, now it is made synthetically. It is unusual among the yellows because it contains no white. Straight from the tube it is a dark rich golden colour. Add white to it or dilute it with solvent and you produce a clear strong yellow. It is a wonderful colour in its own right but is also very useful used in conjuction with purples and violets. We are told that as yellow is opposite to purple on the colour circle we can use yellow to dull down or darken purple. All the other yellows contain so much white that mixing them with purple produces a grey at best. But add Indian yellow to blue purples and you get a wonderful range of deep rich browns and near blacks. Winsor and Newton produce a particularly good Indian Yellow, some other makes contain white.


Parallel Lines

If you need to draw straight lines parallel to an edge of the page you can use that edge as a guide running a stiffly held little finger down it as you draw the line with the pencil or brush held normally in the other fingers.


Judging Colours

When trying to judge the exact nature of a particular colour in order to mix it, try looking for another colour that is similar and make a comparison between them. Although both colours may be subtle and difficult to pin down it will help that yours is, for example, a neutral grey but slightly greener and darker and less dull and this will help you mix it. This is much easier than trying to pin down the subtleties of the colour in isolation.


Colours on the Palette

Always lay out the colours on your palette in the same order. In time you will not have to think where they are, you will know instinctively.


Cleaning your Palette

After cleaning an oil painting palette with a rag and solvent, finish the job by rubbing a few drops of water over the surface. Any oil left on the palette will be lifted by the film of water leaving it perfectly clean.



Tonking is a method of removing excess paint from the suface of your work without affecting the drawing or colour and tone relationships. It is usefull when making a painting in one sitting. The surface of an oil painting can quickly become sticky and overworked. Tonking can provide a solution by taking off the surface layer of paint without otherwise altering it, making it possible to continue.

Tonking is done by laying a layer of muslin or thin rag on the surface and gently rubbing the back of the cloth to remove the excess paint. Keep the rag still and rub its surface gently. Do not rub the surface with the rag as this will smudge the painting.

It can be made more effective by the use of man size Kleenex tissues! Peel the two layers of a tissue apart and use only one layer for the Tonking. This will be strong and absorbent enough to be effective in removing a layer of paint but you will be able to see through it as you rub and remove very precisely only the areas of paint you need to.


Putting Paint Back in the Tube

You want to save that unused oil paint at the end of a work session? How can you put clean paint back in the tube? Take the cap off the tube and place a small amount of paint onto the opening using a palette knife. Holding the tube upright gently tap the bottom on a table or other hard surface and the paint will disappear into the tube. Repeat until all the unused paint is replaced.


The Colour Circle

Everybody seems to know of it but in my experience few seem to know how to use it. As an art student the colour circle was the most useful piece of information I was given. It can tell you how to mix any colour you need. Most students I teach seem to be aware that the colour circle gives ‘opposite’ or ‘complementary’ pairs of colours, red and green, blue and orange, greeny yellow and reddish purple, etc. It is the case that if you mix any pair of truly complementary colours together they will neutralise each other and mixed in the right proportions will make black. Therefore if you want to darken or dull down any colour add small amounts of its opposite colour. If you want a dark blue for example, add orange to it. If you want a dull but pale red add small amounts of green to adjust the saturation (dullness) of the red then add white to adjust the tone. This principle is simple, the challenge comes in learning which colours are truly opposite and mixing only small amounts of the opposite colour at a time. I always tell students it is like salt in soup - add tiny amounts then stir and try it and add more if necessary. It may seem odd that you would add yellow to darken violet, indeed most yellows have white in them and added to violet will make grey. But Indian Yellow has no white in it and makes wonderful dark violets and blacks. The best way to learn all of this is to always have a colour wheel next to your palette when mixing paint. In my experience students who follow this advice are always the ones who learn to mix colour most quickly and effectively. And don’t expect to get the hang of this overnight, as I said, the principle is simple but it takes a little while to put it into practice.

Click here for a PDF version of my own colour theory worksheet

Black and White

When is black lighter than white? Whenever you like! 

Demonstrate this unlikely phenomenon by placing a table against the wall under a window, put a piece of black paper on the window-sill in full light and a white piece of paper on the floor under the table in the shade. 

Now take two small pieces of paper with 1/2cm. hole in the centre of each. With one eye closed, hold a piece in each hand at arms length so that through one hole you see the white paper and through the other you see the black. If you compare them you will see that the black is actually lighter than the white. Of course this is because there is more light reflected from the black paper, but it is still a surprise to see it demonstrated.


Which colour is more saturated?

The aspect of colour that confuses people most is the term saturation. Saturated colours are bright, clear, radiant. The opposite to saturated is neutralised and these colours are the greys and dull browns. Black and white and pure grey are as neutralised as a colour can be. It may help to think that in any group of colours the more saturated ones are usually the ones that are easiest to name, their colour jumps out at you. The more neutralised ones are the subtle, nuanced colours, dull greys, browns, whites and blacks with just a hint of some colour in them. So if you are trying to decide which colour in a group is the most saturated it is often the one that is easiest to name.



People often tell me that my paintings are very detailed. I am surprised at this as I am aware that I record in paint only a fraction of the visual information that I see. Many artists make an illusion of reality by painstakingly building up layer upon layer of detail. I paint by observing and recording the general visual relationships rather than the details of my subject. I make overall relationships of colour and tone, shape and proportion across the whole canvas rather than focusing upon any one area at a time. It is a constant surprise and delight to find that if this is done with a degree of accuracy then quite quickly an illusion of space and light and form is produced. With only a minimal amount of detail added a convincing realism is achieved. The brain of the viewer fills in much of the detail it thinks it is seeing in the painting.



In still life the circular tops and bottoms of jugs, vases and bottles are seen in perspective and are perceived as ellipses.

They can be tricky to draw. A friend demonstrated a very useful device that helps check the drawing of an ellipse. It is simply a piece of stiff card with a circle cut out of it. If you tilt the card the circular hole appears elliptical, the more you tilt it the thinner the ellipse becomes. With one eye closed hold the card in front of your work so that you can see the ellipse in your drawing through the circle in the card. Move the card backward and forward until the ellipse and card appear the same width. Now tilt the card until the ellipse in the card aligns itself with the ellipse in your drawing. You can now see if you need to make any corrections to you work.


Abuse your Rigger

Rigger brush

Rigger brush

When painting textures such as grass or foliage or twigs on a bare tree  it is possible to use a soft haired brush loaded with paint and splay it out  by pressing it down against a hard surface such as your palette, a rigger brush is particularly suited to this. With the individual hairs separated out in this way you can print fine lines off the side of the brush, building up areas of delicately drawn texture very quickly. You can vary the scale of the texture by varying the fluidity of the paint and with practice create a wide range of textural effects. This technique is as effective in water colour as it is in oils but it ruins the brush! I keep several old synthetic haired riggers specifically for this purpose.


Creating the Illusion of Space

The illusion of space in a two dimensional image relies on just a few basic principles. Most of them are so obvious that people overlook them, but used in conjunction with each other they produce powerful illusions of three dimensional space.


a. Shapes and lines that overlap others give the illusion of being in front of them.

b. Larger shapes tend to be in front of smaller shapes.

c. Visible texture or pattern brings a shape forward, lack of them makes it recede.

d. Tonal contrast comes forward in visual space, lack of tonal contrast recedes.

e. Saturated or strong colours tend to come forward in space, neutralised or dull colours tend to recede.

f. Sharp, crisp edges will appear forward of soft or blurred edges.


It is not always the case that all of these effects operate together in the same image. Provided two or three of them are working together they will create an illusion of three dimensional space. Sometimes there may be something happening visually to contradict the space. For example, it may be that you have a bright red house in the distance in a landscape, this goes against statement 'e'. But the shape of the house is likely to be small, it may be overlapped by other shapes in the foreground, its edges are likely to be less sharp than other edges in the foreground and there may be little tonal contrast between the house shape and other colours around it. All these effects will combine to make the red colour of the house sit easily in the distance in the image.


Colour in Space

I was always told that blue recedes and red comes forward. I think this comes from the fact that distant hills often appear blue. This effect is very weak in comparison to those described above. It is possible to paint a blue shape with crisp edges on a white background to provide tonal contrast, and make it appear visually in front of a red shape if the red is painted onto a grey background of similar tone to itself and with a blurred edge.



A slight change in viewpoint can have a dramatic effect on a composition. The two paintings below were made at Agrigento in Sicily where there is a beautiful limestone ridge with a row of Greek temples set among olive and almond groves. I spent a couple of days scrambling over the rocks of the ruined city wall searching out interesting compositions and eventually found these two. They are virtually the same view featuring the temple of Apollo, you can see the same rocks and boulders in each.