Morning class, this week we’re going to look at how to paint this beautiful moonlit harbour scene using acrylics in this two-part painting study. It’s of Smeaton’s Pier in St Ives, Cornwall, and the reference is a photo taken on a full strawberry moon.
This tutorial is all about colour perception.
Painting landscapes in low light, dusk or evening, makes judging colours tricky. The value range is much more compressed, and we have to overcome our perceived ‘memory’ of an object which can be very strong.
Instead of painting the sand ‘yellow’, we have to paint it a dull purple. And what we know as a bright white sail is now a mid-dusky blue in the evening light. It’s a bit more challenging to focus on what the colours actually are, rather than what you think they should be. It can result in paintings that are too light, too contrasting and not subdued enough.
3 things you’ll learn
Importance of value relationships in your composition
Balancing warms and colour complementary colours
Using glazes and glazing medium to enhance the glow
To try and counteract this perception, I use a tonal viewfinder to try and perceive colour on its own, in isolation, rather than trying to judge it from the whole scene.
So grab a brew, a couple of biscuits, and you can download a reference image below to follow along with the video!
Step-by-step Moonlit Painting Tutorial
Part One – Drawing out and judging value relationships
Morning Class, this week, I’ve enjoyed making my morning brew in my Moka Pot and thought it would work well as a weekend acrylic study.
The Moka pot was invented by Italian engineer Alfonso Bialetti in 1933 and is a fantastic shape for observing changes in surface planes.
Working with angular flat shapes is a great way to learn how light behaves on an object. Because this pot has a flat matte white surface, it is easier to see the transitions. It allows us to concentrate on the values more easily without the extra complications of colours.
You can download a reference image below to follow along with the lesson, hope you enjoy it!
For the coloured ground, I’m using a Burnt Sienna from Winsor & Newton; I find this a fantastic colour. It’s so nice in transparency for thin glazing layers and great for working on warm and cool paintings.
This is diluted with roughly an equal mix of water and Airbrush Thinner (from Golden paints) to create a thinnish consistency, giving a nice stain. As the subject is neutral, I liked the idea of the warmth and glow from the burnt-rich orange underneath, adding more interest to the painting.
Burnt Sienna, Winsor & Newton Professional Acrylic
Step #2: Drawing out
I’ve used a neutral grey acrylic marker (with a chisel tip) from Liquitex, to draw out the Moka pot. It’s quite subtle because I want to leave some of the orange ground showing through around the silhouette, so I didn’t want the underlying drawing to be too heavy to distract.
Grey acrylic marker ontop of the Burnt Sienna ground
I’ve grouped the form shadow and the cast shadow as one solid shape (you can learn more about this technique in the still life project e-book)
Step #3: Blocking in the background
I start by painting in the background using a premixed neutral grey from Golden paints and a flat brush. I’m using an Isabey Isacryl, Size 6 Flat.
Using a dry brush, I start with a value N7 Neutral Grey at the top of the painting, I’m not really diluting the paint much with water, just using the paint that comes out of the tube. Also, I’m using the surface texture of the canvas, which creates a lovely broken effect. I don’t want to completely cover that nice warm ground colour. I want to keep that to add character to the painting.
Golden Neutral Grey Acrylic N7, N5 & N3
What’s great about these neutral paints is they come as pre-mixed different values. So it can be an effective way of panting different tonal steps, knowing there’s a distinct jump in the value you’re using.
Step #4: Colour block-in
Then, as the painting moves down, there’s more of a shadow area at the bottom, closest to the edge of the table, so I can darken that down progressively.
So next, I take Neutral N5 Grey, still in the neutral greys and mix and blend that with the first laid down Value N7 working my way down the painting. Finally, I apply value N3 and use that on the darkest areas, the central band and handle shadow.
I introduce Yellow Iron Oxide onto my Palette. This is a lovely muted yellow. It’s got a little more Chroma, (more saturated) than Yellow Ochre, but you could also use Yellow Ochre if you’ve got some.
I mix it in with a little light grey to block in the muted yellow/wood hues on the pot’s top, handle, and wooden surface on the front.
Step #5: Painting the lightest plane
I then move on to the lightest values on the front of the Moka Pot.
I’ve added Titanium White to my palette and lightened up the value 7.
The key thing to remember is that I don’t want to have pure white at this stage. I still want to allow some ‘value space’ for the final highlights. So even though it looks white on this image, it is still off-white. I can move down the values as the light changes around the pot’s surface, and see how the value (lightness or darkness) drops as it moves away from the light.
At this stage, I’ve got a really basic block-in of all the major elements, so it’s a good time to step back from your painting. Walk back across your room to see how it reads from a distance. Are there any value steps you could make closer together? Does the cast shadow need to go darker?
Once I’ve got these neutral values down and I’m happy, I can start introducing some of the reflected light and colours from the yellow on the wooden worktop into the shadow side.
I then swap to a softer, smaller flat brush (Rosemary & Co, Series 302 Golden Synthetic Flat.) This allows me to work over the surface, refining the details.
I continued refining the values.
I introduced a Raw Umber and a tiny touch of black, so I could go a little bit darker behind the handle and the central band on the pot, using a smaller round brush to paint the details.
If you look at the dark edge where the lid sits on the pot and also on the bottom of the pot, these dark areas are really helpful to give it that sense of form.
Once these were in for the finishing touches, I could go back with just pure Titanium White and put fine lines onto the edges of the panels using the flat brush, and it’s amazing how these thin white highlights really brought the coffee pot to life!
And finally, I felt that the yellow colour on the tabletop was a little too intense, so I added a bit more light grey to mute it down.
This is the third project in my series of short courses inspired by morning paintings. All are easy to follow and completed in just a few 1hr painting sessions.
Each one follows the same approach.
A single painting from start to finish.
A limited colour palette.
A handful of brushes.
A small canvas.
A simple subject.
4 x short lessons (under 45-minutes each)
Simple Impressionistic Brushstrokes
I recently came home from the local market with these amazing-tasting peaches and just dropped them in a bowl on the kitchen table, and they looked good enough to paint. The placement felt more casual, like a snapshot of everyday life, which inspired this painting.
In this third short course, I’ve taken all the principles of a traditional still life but kept the composition informal.
This subject has expanded from the first simple modern still-life painting course of a jug and three pears; we’re now introducing folded fabric, adding glass, a vase of flowers and a bowl.
We’ll cover the preparation of your surface & drawing out, mixing colour strings and blocking in.
So although we are expanding our horizons a little bit, the course has been designed with simple learning blocks—clear step-by-step instructions to keep you on track.
We’ll only use six colours, including white, and if you’ve been following some of my other courses, you will already have most, if not all, of the colours.
The focus of this piece is those beautiful colourful peaches, but I’ve designed the lessons so you approach them last.
We start with just two colours, looking at the subtle shifts between the cools and warms, building up the shadows and shapes so that when we get to the peaches, and you extend your palette, all of a sudden they’ll come together so real because you’ve spent the time doing all the supporting work up to that stage. (The counterintuitive approach for this painting is to spend more time with the first stages to balance our form and tones.)
So find a comfy seat, grab a brew and a biscuit and let’s get painting!
What’s in the Course?
1 x Market Day Peaches Still Life from start to finish, based in the studio working from a reference image.
4 x downloadable video lessons, split into separate chapters that follow sequentially. Step-by-step instructional videos so that you can follow along at your own pace.
Each stage is a detailed yet easy-to-follow process.
You have lifetime access, downloadable on separate devices.
Downloadable jpeg reference images & reference line drawings.
Printable Class materials list
Over 2.5+ hrs of detailed video instruction.
(You will need a printer or print shop for the reference image)
After all the concentration and effort it takes to create a work, you’d have thought the final signature would come easy; we sign our names all the time, right?
But there can be so many choices, full name or first name? Initials or motifs? Month or Year? Paint or Pen? Filled with hesitation, we’re left wondering if our final mark on the canvas will ruin the piece.
Here’s a guide to help you decide, practice and sign your work confidently.
Blame it on the Renaissance
Craftspeople have been signing their artworks for thousands of years. In Italy, the most dramatic shift in the use of signatures for painters was during the Renaissance; previously, they had worked within a group guild system.
Guilds (Arti) In most of Europe, crafts and professions had been governed by guilds for centuries, ever since the expansion of towns and cities in the early Middle Ages. These sworn associations controlled trade, limited outside competition, established standards of quality, and set rules for the training of apprentices. Membership was usually compulsory—only guild members could practice their trades within a city and its territory. Italian Renasissance Resources
Artists wanted to be known for their creations, so the signature began to be used more frequently.
It allowed Patrons and collectors to show ‘who’ painted the piece, a chance for work to be seen and admired. The signature became as important as the artwork itself, and in Italy, this change began to elevate painters from craftspeople to artists. So much so, Dürer commented on how he was perceived whilst travelling there.
“Here I am a gentleman, at home a sponger [dauber – a crude or inartistic painter].” Albrecht Dürer
1. Signing your work, overcoming the tipping point
When you’re first learning to paint, there can be apprehension about whether to sign your early pieces or not. If you’re not super proud of your painting, it can feel a little presumptuous to sign ‘like an artist’.
The first decision is a balance between embarrassment and pride. I feel it’s on a sliding scale…
Monet had a real dedication to gardening as well as an obsession with colour. He designed both his flower garden and water garden at Giverny, France, which became his greatest source of inspiration. He painted his water lilies over 250 times, capturing light and texture with effortless ease.
“I perhaps owe it to flowers that I have become a painter.” Claude Monet
Flowers are always a fascinating subject to paint. I got chatting to a beginner painter at a recent visit to Arley Hall, who was expressing their frustration because they couldn’t seem to recreate a realistic study of the rose garden in paint.
They had gone out in the midday sun because they wanted to capture the garden in its best light.
The colours of the rose heads in front of them seemed impossible to match with their paints. Their pigments didn’t seem to have a high enough chroma, and they couldn’t see the detail in the petals because the sun had blown the highlights out.
They had come back the following day at more or less the same time to take more photos to capture it because they were disappointed with their previous efforts with paint. This is when we struck up a conversation about how the photos on their phone just didn’t capture the range they could see with their eyes.
So we had a beautiful subject, brilliant sunshine, but not necessarily perfect conditions for painting a realistic rendering.
After years of painting trips, holidays and a rollercoaster of a property search, we’ve finally found our dream studio in Cornwall.
Leaking roofs, copious amounts of whitewashing, numerous skips, and an epic space once the working studio of Royal Academy artist Sandra Blow, in glorious St Ives.
I’ve been taking lots of photographs and Vanessa has been writing a monthly journal following our highs and lows of creating a studio and new life by the sea (with 12 short videos of the progress). The Renovation Diaries, 12-months in 12 minutes
Phase 1, The Garden Room, (formerly the Annexe) completed
There’s a special exhibition of over twenty works by artists including Antony Gormley, Tracey Emin, Isamu Noguchi, Cerith Wyn Evans and Danh Vo. Sculptures dotted around the historical grounds, in ponds and deep in the woodland groves, courtesy of the White Cube Gallery and it was fabulous to see the contemporary works within this setting.
Play sculpture by Isamu Noguchi. I love how striking the red feels next to its complementary colour green here, it has almost a reverberation to it.
“I like to think of playgrounds as a primer of shapes and functions; simple, mysterious, and evocative: thus educational. The child’s world would be a beginning world, fresh and clear.”
Painting large scale is not just a matter of having the right size canvas and paint. It’s also about adopting slightly different working methods and brushstrokes than when you work with a small canvas, and it’s one of the best ways to stretch your skills as a painter, even if you predominately paint small.
After months of renovation, I have recently regained the use of our new studio space. For the last 6 months, it had become the perfect place for storing multiple power tools and timber that needed acclimatising. It has been uplifting emptying the space of leftover building materials back to an empty room.
So last week with great relish, energy and anticipation, I propped up a large-scale 2m square canvas against a newly cleared wall and got to it.
I had a loose plan of the final image.
I’d sketched a pen and ink thumbnail of the view and had a palette of colours in mind but if I’m 100% honest I was super excited by the freedom of painting in a big space and seeing how the new studio felt.
Here are five things I learned.
#1. A little colour change is a big colour change.
Mixing the right colours for a large scale is not easy.
On smaller-scale pieces, your reference image is often close in size to the final piece, so you can translate the effect of the colour quite easily, but when you scale up an image everything becomes exaggerated.
As soon as you scale up the surface area that a colour covers, it has more of an intensity to it. The same colour ratio I would normally go for in a smaller piece looked more colourful once it was painted onto such a vast area.
#2. Scale up your brush to match your canvas size.
Just as you have to be aware of scaling down your colour choices and scaling up the volume of paint, you have to use larger tools to apply the paint too.
I rapidly went from a 1/2-inch brush to a 3-inch brush to a mini-roller!
Morning class, last week I was struck by this image of these beautiful colourful cast shadows.
Spring sunshine was pouring through the wrought iron railings on the balcony and casting all these amazing shapes of the plant leaves onto the studio wall. I really, really liked the way they framed the rubber plant and I also liked how flat the shadows were in contrast to all the textures that I saw on the front of the aged terracotta pot.
You can be put off by painting shadows or tackling greens because they seem too complicated.
So for this lesson, I want you to think about the drawing first—a tonal underpainting and then a minimal painting on top. Spend more time on the shadows and the lights to create a painting that captures the feeling of sunlight.
I’ve put together a detailed photo step-by-step (with a few video time-lapses as well), so you can approach painting shadows and greens with ease.
‘People say that it is difficult to know oneself but it’s not easy to paint oneself either’ Excerpt from a letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo, September 1889
My first introduction to the Dutch painter Vincent Willem van Gogh was at school. A tortured artist who cut off his ear and painted thick, brightly coloured swirly paintings.
He felt dramatic, passionate and extreme.
12-year-olds tend to want to produce art that looks more realistic, so I think at the time, I wanted to try and paint like Cezanne. Cezanne’s still life’s hit the dizzy heights of being recognisable yet achievable, with a nice painterly style.
But thinking back, I probably felt I was being sophisticated and different; copying Van Gogh as a young painter seemed too obvious.
I’ve started this series because sometimes you can find yourself overthinking the end result of a painting, and the pressure of having to make it a masterpiece can keep you from even starting!
I find setting aside 1hr every morning really helps overcome this feeling of being overwhelmed; in this second short course, we’re tackling a glittering seascape from the south coast of Cornwall.
This course has been designed with small, bite-sized lessons; you’ll be building your knowledge and your painting without the task becoming too much. I’m keeping it very simple with just a handful of materials, but we’ll still get a good range of mixes even using a minimal palette.
In this seascape, the two sailboats give us a great focal point; they also provide a real sense of scale. Having a contrasting focal point against a smooth blend of a sky and cooler softer tones of the far hills sends your eye into the distance. Framed by contrasting values of dark rocks, set against the gradation of the depth of tones within the sea creates realism.
We’ll cover the preparation of your surface & drawing out, mixing colour strings and blocking-in. Starting with just two colours, showing how important it can be to get a grounding in your painting, establishing a tonal range so you can start to judge everything from that initial set-up.
Release the Pressure of Perfection
We build thin layers of watery washes followed by thick impasto marks using simple impressionistic brushstrokes. This course will help you to ‘loosen up’ whilst the step-by-step instruction will keep you on track.
It’s been kept to be really, really simple, so when we come to add that punch a vibrancy of colour, later on, all of a sudden your painting comes together in an instant, from all the work we’ve done up to that stage.
And in the final lesson, we will introduce the perfect pigment for turquoise seas; we then introduce dappled light. By having these dashes of reflections, it evokes that memory of a glimmering sea.
So find a comfy seat, a strong cup of coffee or a pot of tea, and see what you can achieve in a 1-hour painting slot.
Gain confidence, and embrace the process of practice!
You could make a big step forward in the painting every day, and after three days, or even over a weekend, I think you will be amazed at how far your painting has progressed!
What’s in the Course?
1 x Impressionistic Seascape from start to finish, based in the studio working from a reference image.
3 x downloadable video lessons, split into separate chapters that follow on sequentially. Step-by-step instructional videos so that you can follow along at your own pace.
Each stage is a detailed yet easy-to-follow process.
Lifetime access, downloadable on separate devices.
Downloadable jpeg reference images and reference line drawings.
Printable Class materials list.
2 hrs of detailed video instruction.
(You will need a printer or print shop for the reference image)
I had an email from a student recently with a great question,
I’m wondering how to start painting this picture. There are so many colours, trees and bushes so I think it gets so messy. Do I start with the sky in the background and work my way forward and finally paint the trees? – Ulrikke
The photo that accompanied the email was a scene crowded with trees. Lots of layers all on top of each other, overlapping leaves and foliage coming towards the viewer with almost no visual sky.