What is artistic style? Do I have one? Should I care?

As a new freelance artist and illustrator, it is very hard to resist getting sucked into worrying about “artistic style”.

There’s no denying that creators with a distinctive and cohesive “look” to their pieces have a certain edge in selling their work – viewers who are attracted to one of their pieces will likely enjoy all of them.  The repetition of showing visually cohesive work tells a story and creates a brand.  People will recognize an artist with a distinctive style by their work, even without seeing a signature.  Customers will feel like they are purchasing a true insight into the artist when they buy a piece that is part of a larger visual narrative.

But what is artistic style, and can it be cultivated?

Continue reading

Gift Guide: Well designed gifts for watercolour artists

The holiday season is gearing up.  Every year, around this time, people start asking me what they should gift to the artists in their lives. in particular to loved ones interested in watercolour.  I always find this such an awkward question, because art materials (and budgets!) are so individual!

I’m going to be blunt for a moment.  If your artist is a professional watercolour artist who has been working in the medium for a while, I would stear clear of gifting paints/brushes/paper unless they have requested a specific item or you are VERY familiar with their practice and favourite/coveted materials. Artists can develop very specific preferences and each artist is unique

However, here are a few products that caught my eye as good quality giftables for artists of all levels:

For the art student:  St. Petersburg White Nights set of 12 – Price £15.60(~$21 USD, $26 CAD incl. VAT)

St Petersburg White Nights : Watercolour Paint : 12 Pan Set

This is set of 12 watercolour (whole pans !) in a plastic carrying case, made by St. Petersburg White Nights.  White Nights is marketed as a professional grade paint, and have a bit of a cult following among students and other deal-seekers, who value their very low price point (below most student brands) and easy-to-rewet, saturated colour.

I would hesitate to classify White Nights alongside other artist grade paints, primarily because the brand (and this set) feature quite a large number of pigments that have been phased out by other watercolour brands for poor lightfastness.

However, the paints are a pleasure to use, very easy to rewet, and are bright, strong colours.  For a university student who is using watercolour primarily for sketching and non-archival class work, White Nights definitely offers a great product at an amazing price.

This set of 12 whole pans packs a whole lot of paint (including some expensive cadmium pigments) into a portable, affordable package, perfect for the student on the go.  It is a great first palette for a new artist, or a great stocking-stuffer upgrade for someone who has been painting with student-grade/craft paints.

For the bookworm (or artist of any kind): James Gurney Art Books $17-25 CAD ($12-$17USD)

My two favourite art instructional books, hands down, are both by James Gurney.  Gurney is the illustrator behind the Dinotopia series, a well-respected urban sketcher/plein air painter, and has also done work as an illustrator for large publications such as National Geographic.

Colour and Light: A guide for the Realist Painter

My most referenced art book of his, Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter is absolutely packed with information.  It is an extremely useful reference book for even the most advanced, professional painters, but is also clear and understandable enough, with lots of illustrations, to be useful and inspirational for even complete beginners.

The first part of this book deals with different kinds of light sources and lighting conditions, from sunny days, to indoor candlelight, moonlight and luminescence. For each type of lighting, Gurney gives illustrated examples, and tips about how to visualize and represent this kind of light in a painting.

Imaginative Realism : How to draw what doesn’t exist by James Gurney

The second section of the book deals with colour choices in painting, from choosing pigments, to gamut mapping, effects of colour on the mood of a scene, contrasts, etc. The final section of this book deals with special lighting effects – dappled sunlight through leaves, reflections, shiny surfaces etc.  Again, the whole thing is thoroughly illustrated with great examples.



The second book of Gurney’s, Imaginative Realism: How to draw what doesn’t exist is equally good, but less relevant to me personally because I mostly draw what is directly in front of me.  It is a great reference for any fantasy artist or paleoartist looking to bring realism to their work with useful advice on finding and altering references, building models, lighting conditions, blending reality with inventions, etc.  It is also useful for botanical and other realist artists as a reference for how to work with imperfect references (painting subjects out of season, building compositions, etc)

For the avid sketcher:  Stillman & Birn Beta Multimedia Sketchbook

Stillman & Birn : Beta Papers : 270 gsm Natural White Cold Pressed

Watercolour is a great medium for sketching with, because it is so compact and portable.  However, most sketchbooks contain lighter weigh paper which will warp and buckle when painted on.

If you know someone who sketches regularly and recently started watercolour, consider gifting them a sketchbook in their preferred size from Stillman and Birn

The Beta series has a lightly textured surface between a standard cold press and hot press watercolour paper.  It is a beautiful, heavyweight paper which takes watercolour well but is smooth enough to draw pen/pencil details on and write on easily as well.


For the minimalist artist on the go:  Schmincke Horadam 8-colour set Price £69.00 (~$90 USD, 115 CAD incl. VAT)

Schmincke : Horadam Watercolour Paint : Metal Set : 8 Half Pans

This 8-colour mini travel-palette can actually fit up to 12 regular half-pans, and it comes with a built in water flask and clip-on water cup, all in a quarter the volume of the two 12 pan sets above.

The Schmincke branded palette I linked is a good option for an artist who is just starting out with plein air/urban sketching in watercolour, and doesn’t yet have an artist quality travel set.

If your giftee is a serious hobbyist or artist who has been sketching outdoors for a while, they may already have paints they prefer to use. However, most urban sketchers would still appreciate the small form factor of this box.


In this case, it may make more sense to buy a cheaper empty version of this palette.  The same palette is available as an empty tin with and without the built in water flask at Cornellisen’s

I own the version without the flask, and it is my everyday carry palette.  I love how compact this palette is, and how all kinds of different brands of half-pans (which are all subtly different sizes) are held neatly and securely by the simple fastening system.


For the professional artist who hunches over their work:  Tabletop Painting Surface Price: $44 USD

This may not be the cutest or most glamourous gift, but it can make the biggest difference in an artist’s life.

When I became a full-time illustrator,  within a couple of months I was experiencing chronic tightness in my shoulders and shooting pains in my spine from hunching over large, detailed watercolour pieces for long hours at a time.

My tabletop easel/drawing surface was a belated birthday gift, and now I can’t imagine life without it.  I am looking at buying 2 more – one for my secondary desk at the studio and one for home.

A large size and adjustable angle are key to a good desk easel but the brand is not important – due to the large size of these, you may find a cheaper alternative locally than Amazon shipping outside of the US and Canada.

For the enthusiastic new botanical artist and vivid colour lover:  Billy Showell set of Sennelier Watercolour Paints -£60.00 ($80 USD, $100 CAD)

Billy Showell : Sennelier Watercolour Paint Set : 12 10ml : Tubes In Case

Botanical artists tend to share slightly different paint preferences than other watercolour painters such as landscape or portrait painters.

Botanical painting tends to involve lot of bright, vibrant colours to render the full range of colours seen in flowers, leaves and fruit, as well as a high focus on transparent colours with excellent glazing properties.

This selection by Billy Showell contains a great range of vibrant and transparent colours selected for painting botanical subjects.

Although my own colour selection is quite different from this set, when I was just starting out in botanical art, these colours would have been much more satisfying and fun to work with than the generic starter set I had.  The colours in this are mostly single pigment paints, mostly transparent with a good range of hues, and no white/black/blackened neutrals.

Sennelier is a good, artist quality brand – their honey-based paints are known for rewetting easily and glazing beautifully,  perfect for many botanical art techniques.The paints in this set would all fit neatly in 12 half pans in the itty bitty Cornellison tin linked above, for a really indulgent gift for the ambitious beginner!

For the very spoiled pigment magpie: 48 Half Pan Watercolour Set in Wood box with Ceramic Palette- £239.00 ($315 USD, $400 CAD incl. VAT)

Schmincke : Horadam Watercolour : Wooden Box Set : 48 Half Pans

Remember when I said “you shouldn’t buy paints/paper/brushes for an artist, we mostly already have specific preferences”?

This is true, but the exception is over-the-top giant sets full of pretty artist-grade colours.  Luxurious wood boxes with perfectly fitted ceramic palettes also help. I know very, very few artists who wouldn’t look at a set like this one and be delighted.

I already have all the colours any regular human needs. My studio palette is larger than this one and contains a personalized selection of colours from many different brands. This set contains lots of colours I have no intention of buying, or have tried and don’t use much. It is not remotely a sensible purchase, and yet it makes me drool.

Sennelier Set of 48 Paints

In a similar (and slightly less indulgently priced) vein, Sennelier also makes a lovely set of 48 half pans.  Theirs is presented  in a tin palette.

One design element I really love about Sennelier sets is that they all come with a laminated colour chart showing all of the colours in the set.  Given my preference for swapping out paints and mixing and matching, it isn’t a particularly useful feature.  However, I really appreciate this attention to detail and it is a neat design element, particularly in a gift set


The Bad Vegetarian Artist: Animal Products in Watercolour Supplies

I’ve been vegetarian for over 20 years, nominally for ethical reasons. I eat some dairy and eggs, but the majority of my meals are mostly vegan.  I am bothered by the idea of raising and slaughtering animals, particularly in modern factory farms.  I am also concerned about the larger land and carbon footprint of eating higher up on the foodchain.

My ethical views are somewhat nuanced – while the scale of animal consumption and cruelty bothers me, I am also aware that a purely vegan lifestyle up here in the great white north isn’t exactly sustainable either.  Being vegan where I live would be nearly impossible without the heavy use of fossil fuels for transporting fresh vegetables and producing synthetic insulating fabrics.  I’m not going to delve too far into it here, but I’ve made a conscious choice to wear (mostly, but not exclusively second hand) wool and leather, I don’t fuss about by-products, I’ve definitely ingested fish-sauce and lard at restaurants, and I am comfortable with that.

However, if I’m truly honest, my ethics are pretty flimsy.  Nowhere is my ethical ambivalence more obvious than in my art supplies.  Every part of my art “kit” contains some kind of animal products, and none of them are truly necessary, they’re just convenient indulgences.  I don’t really feel guilty about it, but I also recognize and admire that others may be more interested in making cruelty-free choices.

In the following sections, I’ll describe all the common hidden animal products in a regular watercolour kit, what they’re used for, and some possible alternatives.


My “nice” brushes, which I use most frequently in my watercolour work, are nearly all made with animal hair.

My “best” brushes which I use for most of my detail work, are Kolinsky sable brushes, made from the tail hairs of male the Kolinsky weasel (not actually a sable at all).  These have great liquid retention, and a very soft but super-springy point, which allows me to paint long lines, fine details and larger areas with only one brush.  The weasels, which are prevalent in northern Eurasia, are trapped for their pelts.

I also have a couple of large “mop” brushes for large areas, made with squirrel hair.  They are incredibly soft and hold a huge volume of water and dispense it smoothly, ideal for making large, even washes. Squirrels are farmed or trapped, and killed for their pelts.

Other watercolour brushes may include various other animal hairs such as red sable, badger, etc.

Synthetic brushes, made using nylon or acrylic hairs, are widely available and often cheaper.  Synthetic brushes tend to be a bit harder/rougher than the sable or squirrel brushes traditionally used for watercolour.  This can be a useful quality for lifting/scrubbing away dry pigment, but can often lead to a streakier look when painting wet in wet or large washes.  They also almost invariably have a lower water capacity, which can be a little bit easier for beginners to manage, but makes it more difficult to paint a large area or long line in a single stroke.

Comparison of Detail Brushes : Midrange Synthetic vs. "High End" Kolinsky Sable
Comparison of Detail Brushes : Midrange Synthetic vs. “High End” Kolinsky Sable. From left to right : Size 5/0 Synthetic (3 Years old), Size 3/0 Synthetic (2 Years old), Size 0 Kolinsky Sable (4 Years Old), Size 2 Kolinsky Sable (2 Years old). The sables get much more use and abuse and are older and larger sizes, yet have a much finer point.

Finally, synthetic brushes tend to lose their point and splay out more quickly than good natural hair brushes, which use the natural tapered and curved point of the animal hair to craft a point which springs back time after time.  For this reason, synthetic brushes may need to be replaced more frequently than animal hair ones.

Some companies have recently put a great deal of effort into creating very high quality synthetic brushes.  Silver Black Velvet brushes, for instance, are rumoured to rival the water retention of natural squirrel hair and deliver a soft brush point.  Escoda Versatil brushes are what I use as travel brushes – they are quite durable and have good water retention, although they lack the soft-springiness of my best Kolinsky brushes.


Watercolour paints are often formulated with ox gall and/or honey, and some pigments are made with animal products

Ox Gall is a wetting agent, which increases the rewettability and flow of watercolour.  It is made from, you guessed it, the gall bladder of an ox (or more frequently, a cow).  Ox gall is a common ingredient which many watercolour paint brands mix right into their prepared tubes and pans.  It can also be purchased as a watercolour medium to add to your paints.

Schmincke produces a synthetic ox gall product, which I believe they use as a wetting agent in their paints as well.  Holbein advertises that they use no ox gall in their paints.

Honey is used as a binding agent and to keep watercolours semi-moist and easy to rewet.  A few brands, notably M. Graham, Yarka St. Petersburg and Sennelier, use a very honey rich formula in their paints, which results in a semi-moist consistency in the pans.

I personally think that the beekeeping industry is a great advocate for the environment and have no ethical problems whatsoever with honey.  I also love the consistency of honey-based paints, so I specifically seek them out.  However, most large brands (excluding the three listed) do not use honey, if thjs is something you wish to avoid.

Luckily for those with ethical concerns, most animal-based pigments have been discontinued as most were not very lightfast.  Ivory Black(PBk9) is made with charred animal bones – watch out for it in some mixed pigments such as Neutral tint or Indigo. In general black pigments are easy to avoid in watercolour, and there are other non-animal blacks. Some companies still produce Genuine Carmine (NR4) – I would rank it’s terrible lightfastness as a greater concern than the fact that it’s made with ground up beetles 😉  Just use quinacridones.

A few indie brands have popped up that formulate exclusively cruelty-free paints which do not contain ox gall, honey, animal pigments or any other animal by-products.  One of my favourites is Eventually, Everything, Mixes – the paintmaker, Amé, also seeks out unique and environmentally friendly pigments for her beautiful, unique paints.


What, even my paper contains animal products?  That’s right, watercolour paper is treated, or “sized”. The sizing is what keeps the pigments sitting on the surface of the paper, rather than sinking and feathering across all of the paper fibres  Sizing is traditionally made with animal gelatin, although some papers are made with starch or synthetic gelatin rather than an animal product.

Bockingford, Canson Moulin du Roy, and Fabriano Artistico papers are sized without animal products

It goes without saying that vellum, another traditional surface for watercolour, is also not cruelty-free, being made from stretched calf or goat skin.

EDIT: Further clarifications about vellum, as I’ve drawn the attention of a few great artists who use vellum as their primary surface 😉

Vellum (and other skins) are considered a by-product, like gelatin or ox-gall.  No calves or goats are directly raised or slaughtered for their skins.  Skins are a waste by-product of the meat industry, and many skins end up in landfill as the demand for meat far outstrips the demand for vellum and other leathers.  However, like other by-products, the purchase of vellum supports the primary meat industry.

Vellum has several unique qualities – in addition to a mostly impermeable surface it also has a unique semi-transparent finish and shows the skin texture and patterning of the animal.  Each piece of vellum is a unique item.

The impermeable surface of vellum can be mimicked, to some degree, with synthetic alternatives.  One interesting alternative is Terraskin, a paper alternative made of rock in a plastic binder.  It has many of the same handling properties as vellum, with a smooth, non-absorbent surface that allows the paints to sit on top and glow rather than sinking into the surface,  It is much cheaper, available in larger sizes than vellum, and of course, cruelty free.  However it lacks the variable translucency and unique character of vellum.


My “personal palette” – Gouache Experiments

Grackle Nest
Grackle nest with three eggs:  Gouache on Paper

A couple of months ago, I finally took the plunge and bought myself some gouache paints. Although in general I love the delicacy and glazing properties of transparent watercolour, there are some subjects where the opacity and flatter finish of gouache (opaque watercolour)  are preferable.    I decided to use this opportunity of starting in a new medium to apply what I have learned about colour theory and gamut mapping as well as my own preferences to select only a relatively limited “personal palette”  of colours. Continue reading

Watercolour Myths (Part 1) – Watercolours have poor lightfastness

Working as a primarily watercolour artist, I have heard some frequently repeated myths from customers as well as other artists, which I would like to dispell.

The first myth I hear very frequently is “Doesn’t watercolour fade?”.

The short answer is no, my watercolour paintings will not fade.  In fact, most watercolour paintings you buy from professional artists should be just as durable as other media, especially if framed behind conservation glass.

Paint Composition

Watercolour, like most other artistic paint media such as acrylic paint, oil paint, etc, is composed of pigments held together with a binder. For oil paint, this is a drying oil such as linseed oil or walnut oil, for acrylic this is an acrylic emulsion (a synthetic plastic product that hardens in contact with air).

The primary binder in watercolour is gum arabic, a resin made from acacia sap, and sometimes honey.  Gum arabic and honey are no more prone to discolouration or other long term effects than other binders.  In fact, oil-based binders have a tendency to yellow over time, as do acrylics (which as a newer media, have not yet stood the test of time).

Pigments are naturally occuring and synthetic colourful chemical compounds, which paint manufacturers mix with binders to create paint.  In modern days, we are spoiled with a wide variety of stable pigments, thanks to global shipping and modern chemistry.   With a little bit of care, artists in all media can use a palette of extremely lightfast, durable colours which will not fade or change colour under any circumstances.

In the past, artists had very limited choices in some parts of the colour spectrum.  For instance, before modern lightfast synthetic rose colours such as Quinacridone Rose (PV19) became available, artists had no choice but to use less reliable pigments such as Alizarin Crimson (PR83 ) or extremely fugitive genuine carmine (NR4).

Lightfastness is a problem across all media, not just watercolour

Portrait of Charles Churchill, by Joshua Reynolds. National Gallery of Canada

Poor lightfastness is by no means unique to watercolours.  Oil or acrylic paintings made using carmine or other fugitive pigments will also eventually fade.  To the left is a portrait of Charles Churchill.  It now looks ghostly, but when it was originally painted, the subject’s cheeks were likely rosy, and the coat a deep red, through the extensive use of carmine and other fugitive pigments, long since gone.

However, in oil paint, the thicker paint film provides a small amount of UV protection, so an oil painting using fugitive paints may last a little longer than an unprotected watercolour framed behind clear glass.

Modern artist-grade paints are generally not made with highly fugitive pigments such as carmine anymore.  However, some specialty paints (such as neon paints and some common brands of liquid watercolours) as well as cheap scholastic grade paints, are made with fugitive dyes instead of traditional pigments (again, this is equally true in non-watercolour media).  In addition, some pigments with limited lightfastness are still used in artist paint lines (for example, alizarin crimson is still a common pigment which many artists use.   While more durable than carmine, alizarin still has a significantly lower lightfastness than similar quinacridone-based pigments)

How much do you really care about lightfastness?

Dining room Art
Cote-des-Neiges Oil Landscape by Carly Leyburne

Some artists prefer to use impermanent materials for immediate impact, rather than creating artwork that will last centuries.  Most popular mixed-media, collages including newspaper clipping or plant matter, resin etc are prime examples of this.  Similarly, some painters use neon paints, which are virtually all fugitive.

There’s nothing wrong with buying and displaying art for your enjoyment that won’t last forever.  For example, I purchased the beautiful oil painting shown on the right (by my studio mate Carly Leyburne) as a statement piece for my dining room.  The hot pink trees are painted with an oil paint that includes a rhodamine dye, which will eventually fade.  I am not concerned.  It looks fantastic right now.  We’ll cross the fading bridge when we get to it.  I may be old and senile by then anyway 😉

If you are unsure of the pigments used in your watercolour paintings, and would like to ensure they stay looking bright for years to come, framing your art behind conservation glass (which offers significant UV protection) and not hanging it in direct sunlight can dramatically slow any fading in both watercolour and other media.

How to ensure you are creating lightfast art

I am happy to buy any art that catches my eye, with little concern for archival qualities.  However, as a seller, I do feel compelled to stay one step ahead, and ensure that my artwork will continue to look bright and fresh, regardless of how my customers choose to frame or display it.

If you are an artist looking to produce artwork that will last for centuries, you can ensure the durability of your pieces by eliminating pigments from your palette which do not have an “excellent” or “very good” lightfastness rating.

The most durable pigments should last centuries without discernable change, given proper framing and protection.  Below, I’ve listed a few common paints to watch out for, as well as alternatives.  This list is by no means exhaustive – do your homework and research the specific paints that you use if lightfastness is a concern for you

“Opera Rose” and other paints containing rhodamine dye (BV10):  Probably the least lightfast paint in most modern paint lines, “Opera Rose” is a  hot pink, popular with botanical artists looking for the brightest colour.  Usually formulated with PR122 (Quinacridone Magenta) and rhodamine B dye.  The rhodamine is highly fugitive, if exposed to sunlight, this will lose brightness, fading back to the (still fairly bright, but not neon) PR122.  A safer alternative is to just stick with Purple Magenta (PR122) to begin with.

Alizarin Crimson (PR83):  An early synthetic and once the most stable “cool” red,  Alizarin Crimson is a relatively dull, deep rosy red.  It is now considered relatively fugitive compared to the many available permanent red pigments. Many modern paint manufacturers still offer Alizarin Crimson, and it is favoured by portrait artists and traditionalists over the brighter, modern quinacridone rose (PV19) for mixing skintones and rosy lips because it is slightly muted. However, it isn’t very permanent.  Many brands offer a “permanent alizarin crimson” formulated with quinacridone red (PR206) or redder shades of quinacridone violet (PV19).  I use Quinacridone Rose (PV19)  or Purple Magenta (PR122) for most mixing, and Perylene

Hansa Yellow Lemon (PY3 and PY1):  The moderately lightfast Hansa Yellow Lemon (PY3) is one of the most common lemon yellow pigments available.  It is much more transparent and highly tinting than other pigments in this range.  PY3’s close cousin PY1 (also a Hansa Yellow Lemon) is even less lightfast, yet is still available in some paint lines.  An increasing number of paint brands have started offering Lemon Yellow paints made with PY175 , an azo lemon yellow with a “very good”lightfastness rating.

Dioxazine Violet(PV23): Present in nearly every watercolour line, dioxazine violet varies in lightfastness depending on manufacturing. It is a deep, saturated, transparent and non-granulating bright cool violet colour, in a portion of the colour wheel with relatively few pigment alternatives.  It is also a relatively inexpensive pigment, whcih no doubt contributes to it’s enduring popularity.  There is no single pigment replacement for dioxazine violet, however, hues can easily be mixed from a warmer violet shade such as quinacridone purple (PV55) and a splash of a blue.

Rose Madder Genuine:  Most brands have discontinued this pigment, but Winsor Newton have made it their flagship colour.  The Winsor Newton paint is scented with bergamot – originally to please Queen Victoria.  It is a slightly muted, liftable colour similar in hue to Quinacridone Rose (PV19) but lighter and more muted.  Just use quinacridones. For a muted pink with some granulation, try Potter’s Pink (PR233)









Coloured Pencil Colour Swatching – Faber Castell Polychromos Full Collection (120)

On this blog I have mostly focused on my experiences with watercolour, which is my primary medium, but I also do some of my work (about 15-20% of my illustrations) using coloured pencils or combining both.

As with watercolours, I am not strictly brand loyal, however, coloured pencil does lend itself a bit better to keeping full sets from a brand.  Although coloured pencils are mixable, they are easier to work with with less mixing and a larger colour selection than watercolours.There are also fewer brands of artist-quality coloured pencils, and each brand has a very unique and different formulation to their lead.

The pencils I use the most are Polychromos, which have a smooth yet relatively hard, oil-based formula, ideal for drawing details and layering without a waxy buildup.  Continue reading


This month, I am participating in Inktober.

I am a big fan of month-long challenges. A month is just about long enough to create a lasting habit (such as creating art every day, or keeping my kitchen clean). Last year, I did a “30 Pieces in 30 days” watercolour art challenge in September, where I created 30 6×6 watercolour pieces based on natural science subjects I collected on my way to the studio, all of which were made available for sale.

This was a great challenge for me, as I wanted to practice a variety of watercolour skills and techniques, and I had a strong tendency to get caught up in details and take a very long time finishing work.  Having to create a “finished”, sellable piece every single day while working a dayjob and renovating my home, I learned to speed up, and really developed my watercolour skills over the course of the month.  The challenge also generated a large body of work, and specifically small, affordable pieces, which have been a big hit at studio tour events.

30 Pieces in 30 Days – September 2016 Natural Science Watercolour Challenge Pieces

I’ve been eager to do another month-long challenge.  Last month was a little crazy with deadlines and travel, so I decided to participate in Inktober instead this year.

Inktober was started by Jake Parker, a character designer/comic illustrator, who wanted to develop his inking skills using brushes and brush pens.   Other artists have adapted the challenge to suit their own priorities, doing everything from sketching in ballpoint pen to painting in coloured inks to digital “inking”.  I am drawn to the initial concept behind the challenge, but being in a very different branch of illustration from Jake Parker, I’ve come up with my own set of goals and guidelines for my Inktober entries this year:

My Inktober Goals:

  1. Create 31 finished, sellable ink pieces by the end of the month, in addition to other scheduled illustration work
  2. Develop a better understanding and intuition of tonal values
  3. Develop my skills in monochromatic shading techniques such as cross-hatching, stippling and simplified shapes
  4. Experiment with textures in ink washes
  5. Improve my brush handling skills (useful for watercolour as well as ink) by using brush techniques with ink.

    Inktober 2017:  Linden Pods (Day 3)
  6. BONUS: Start bridging the gap between my detailed natural science illustration work and my interest in urban sketching, see if I can start to discern a cohesive “look” across both.

My Inktober Rules:

  1. All pieces must incorporate some form of liquid, black ink (technical pens, brush pens, ink and brush, etc)
  2. Pieces may be rendered on white or toned paper.  White ink and white pencil may be used to develop tonal range on toned paper.
  3. Pencil or ballpoint pen may be used for initial sketch, but the finished lines and shading should be primarily in liquid ink.
  4. No coloured drawing media (coloured inks, watercolors, coloured pencils other than white, markers, etc)
  5. Subjects should be drawn from life/own reference, but no limits on subject matter (natural science, architecture, life drawing, still life, etc)


Inktober 2017:  Spiders are the Providers (Day 1)
Inktober 2017: Divided Pinecone (Day 2)









I’ve done a few pieces for Inktober 2017 already and I’m pretty pleased with the results so far.  I will post the complete collection on this site when I am done the challenge, and all pieces will be available for sale.  If you would like to see each piece as I complete it, I will be posting them on my Instagram and Facebook Page




Clumping of non-granulating watercolours – A clue from indian ink!

Apparently I just can’t let this subject go.  I am becoming the crazy water hardness and watercolour clumping  lady.    Recently I was reminded of this problem/puzzle while planning for participating in Inktober.

A few months ago, I saw a really cool demonstration by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law on Youtube.

Artwork by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law demonstrating textural ink techniques

In this video she demonstrates how she creates dramatic, organic-looking textural effects using Winsor & Newton Indian Ink diluted in water.  When mixed with tap water the ink clumps up, and deposits in a granulating texture on the paper.

Being a water-resistant ink, this can then be worked over with transparent watercolour without destroying the granulation pattern.  I thought this might be useful for some spotting effects I commonly see on dry grasses and

Drawing Ink by Winsor & Newton (Image property of Winsor & Newton)

seed pods in winter, and stashed the tip away for possible future use.

I’ve been thinking about what to do for Inktober. I would like to try in

king with liquid ink and a brush for some of my pieces.  While thinking about what to do with liquid ink,  I saw some other recommendations to thin it out for grey washes.  I was reminded of the Stephanie Law video, and decided to look up Winsor & Newton ink specifically.

On the Jackson’s art listing for Winsor & Newton’s waterproof ink, I found something very interesting:


Jackson's India Ink Screenshop
Jackson’s Art Page for Winsor Newton’s India Ink

See that yellow highlighted paragraph.  Here’s what it says:

The colours can be easily diluted with water to reduce the strength of the colour or to increase it’s transparency. Distilled water must be used as tap water causes the dye to separate from the binder.

Yep, that’s right.  Winsor & Newton drawing inks are watersoluble, but only in distilled water.  Even small amounts of dissolved minerals in tap water cause the ink particles to clump and curdle out of solution, causing the textural effects that Stephanie Pui-Mun Law uses to such great effect in her pieces.  This behaviour is similar to what I experienced in M. Graham watercolor paints.

I wonder whether there is a similarity between the binder(s) used in the Winsor & Newton inks and the M. Graham paints.  Very intriguing.




2017 Palette Tour – “Greatest Hits” Full-Pan Palette


After my latest post (a tour of my huge studio palette), I received several requests to post a similar “palette tour” blog entry for what I call my “Greatest Hits” palette, a collection of full pans of my 14 most commonly used colours.

Full Pan Watercolour Box
My Greatest Hits Palette – A well-loved collection of 14 full pans of watercolour

The idea behind this palette was to curate a selection of paints that I could take out of the studio for travel or home use which would allow me to paint a large range of botanical and plein-air urban sketching subjects in a relatively portable way (although this palette is still relatively bulky), as well as facilitating my work in the studio and out by enabling me to load larger quantities of my frequently used colours easily.

I’ve been delaying writing this post for a few weeks, because although I have been using this palette regularly for several months, as both a travel palette and in the studio, over time I’ve come up with several changes I intended to make to it as I used up the paints currently inside it.  I couldn’t decide whether I should profile the palette as I’ve been using it, or my current (and ever-evolving) lineup of “ideal” colours.

However, last week I decided to order an all-new full-pan palette from Ebay.  The new palette is thinner and more compact than the current palette, yet holds up to 24 full pans. The picture below shows the half-pan version of the same palette, which I ordered to use as a studio palette in my home studio.

Compact Half-Pan Studio Palette
New Palette Format size comparison with Studio Palette

The practical upshot is that sometime in the next few months, my “greatest hits” palette in it’s current format will cease to exist, being replaced with a much larger selection of paints.  However, I still think it is useful to keep track of my paints in terms of smaller curated collections.

Therefore, I will give you a tour of what is currently in my “greatest hits” 14-colour palette, and discuss what I would change, or which paints I could eliminate in even smaller palettes.


The image below is the swatch sheet I made of the colours in my current “Greatest Hits” Palette.  The template I used was designed by the amazing Sade of “Sadie Saves the Day”, who sells the templates as digital downloads in her shop :

Full Pan Palette.png
Swatches of Watercolours from my “Greatest Hits” palette

In the listings below, I’ve included (affiliate) links to my favourite paints.  As always, I’m trying to find the best prices for most of my viewers.  American brands have Dick Blick/Utrecht links, European brands are listed with Jackson’s links.  All have reasonable shipping fees around the world. However, if you are in Canada, the Daniel Smith/M.Graham paints are available more affordably at Deserres and Curry’s, respectively.  The colours contained in this palette are:

PY150 – Nickel Azo Yellow – M. Graham : My favourite yellow, hands down.  Truly transparent, no milkiness and a beautiful middle yellow in tints.  Mixes beautiful greens and subtle oranges.  Lovely in glazes.  Forever in my faves.

PO49 – Quinacridone Gold – Daniel Smith:  Recently discontinued by Daniel Smith, the last remaining manufacturer, this is a good transparent alternative to Raw Sienna or Yellow Ochre, and works beautifully as a glazing colour.  I have a few backup tubes stockpiled, but a good convenience mix is available from most brands (usually made with PY150 and PO48, the two neighbouring pans).  In a smaller set, or if I run out of the single pigment, I would simply mix PY150 and PO48

PO48 – Quinacridone Rust – M. GrahamA beautiful earthy orange hue, this particular formulation of this pigment has given me no end of grief .  Although I love the saturation of this paint, I’ve decided I just can’t deal with the weird curdling behaviour for my formal paintings.  I’ve already replaced it in my studio palette with the similar Da Vinci paint, which is a slightly browner tone.  It will be years before I run out of the Da Vinci, but I’m also curious to try the Daniel Smith Quinacridone Burnt Orange, which is apparently slightly more orangey.

PO71- Translucent Orange – Schmincke:  A beautiful, transparent fiery orange. I like this paint a lot, but I like the QOR version of the same pigment slightly more, I think.  It has less of a drying shift, which also makes it a more vibrant orange.  It will be replaced when I run out.

PV19- Quinacridone Rose – M. Graham: Another M. Graham colour with weird curdling behaviour , this one is available from basically every other manufacturer.  However, I tend to prefer using PR122 for most applications, so I could leave it out altogether, or replace it with another colour, such as a deeper red, or my current crush PR242 Geranium Red by Schmincke

PR122 – Purple Magenta – Schmincke: My choice for a primary magenta colour,  a really pretty transparent clear magenta, very slightly on the violet side.

PB60 – Indanthrone Blue – Daniel Smith:  Darker and moodier than the more common ultramarine, this is my choice for a red-biased blue.  Mixes vibrant purples with PR122, neutral greys with PO48, and interesting greens with PY150 and PO49

PB27 – Prussian Blue – M. Graham: Another dark and moody blue with great mixing properties, this one slightly on the green biased side.  Has a challenging drying shift but is very useful nonetheless.

PB16 – Phthalo Turquoise – Winsor Newton:  Another clear favourite, the final part of my “primary triad” of PY150, PR122 and PB16.  Oh so pretty, deep and transparent.

N/A – Amazonite Genuine – Daniel Smith: A slightly more turquoisey version of Phthalo Green or Viridian, not as aggressively staining or pigmented as the former, much easier to rewet than the latter.  I originally thought this was a silly vanity purchase, but I find this paint finds it’s way into nearly every painting.

N/A – Serpentine Genuine-Daniel SmithAn interesting sap green colour with tiny, nearly imperceptible purplish/brown flecks ground from natural serpentine.  Kinda goofy convenience colour which could be left out of a smaller palette. I love it and get a lot of use out of it rendering foliage and lichen.   I have the stick format, which is much better value for money than the tubes.

PG7 + PV19 – Neutral Tint – M. Graham: Another otherwise great M. Graham colour that curdles unexpectedly with my water/climate.  This is a genius convenience mix.  Nearly black and slightly purplish in masstone, it mixes beautifully with rose and red colours to make deep plummy shadows, works as a complimentary shadow colour for yellows, and deepens greens well too.  I’m working on mixing my own dupe with non-curdling colours.

PBr7 – Raw Umber – Daniel SmithThis is my go-to dark earth colour.  Nice granulation, plays nicely in mixes and glazes to make all kinds of earth, stone and treebark colours/textures.

PBr7 – Burnt Sienna – M.  Graham Chosen for it’s granulation and because so many artists seem to favour this pigment.  It’s nice, but I don’t consider it essential with PO48 and Raw Umber in the palette.  Would likely replace it with PW6 Titanium Buff, which seems like an oddball choice but I find really useful for mixing glaucous/hazy textures on leaves, fruit and lichen, particularly with Amazonite.  Or leave it out altogether, in a smaller palette.

So that’s it – a useful mixing collection of 14 colours.  I know I have some unusual picks in there, but they work well for me.  What are your favourite mixing colours?  Favourite unusual pigments?