A limited palette for winter and, hopefully, for summer

So far we’ve been having a milder winter than usual in Montreal. When I walk in the woods, the colours seem warmer than they usually are in January, and that is reflected in the pigments I choose when I paint. For this scene in Angell Woods, near my house, I used a limited palette of colours that includes — for the first time in one of my winter scenes — Lemon Yellow. That’s usually a colour I reserve for spring and summer landscapes, but there was so much warmth in the trees that Ochre or Raw Sienna just seemed too tame.

Introducing a new colour into my winter palette yielded some surprises. The brand of Lemon Yellow I was using (Van Gogh) is quite opaque, so when I combined it with Carbazole Violet, the result was a milky brownish grey that was perfect for the bare trees. The deeply purple Carbazole Violet is a strong colour, but it’s in just about everything here: in the snow shadows (along with Cerulean Blue) and in the deepest darks beneath the fallen logs (along with Burnt Sienna). And although there are no obvious areas of purple in my painting, it acts as a unifier for the entire scene. Below are the swatches for this painting: Lemon Yellow, Cerulean Blue, Burnt Sienna and Carbazole Violet.

I love to teach the use of limited palettes during my in-person watercolour workshops. This coming August, provided we can safely travel again (I am an optimist!), and the Canada/US border is once again open, I will be teaching with my friends (and amazing artists) Uma Kelkar, Paul Heaston and James Richards at Madeline Island School of the Arts. The Urban Sketching Summer Retreat has been rescheduled from last year, and the new dates are August 16-20, 2021. Madeline Island is a superb setting for both landscape and waterfront scenes, and I’m sure I’m in good company when I say I’m truly looking forward to painting with others in a visually stunning environment. Have a look here for more info about the event. And if you want to get started with limited palettes, have a look at my recent online course release “Sketching Boats: Simple Solutions for a Complex Scene”.

Repetition is good, right?

For the month of January I’m giving classes on Zoom. I resisted at the start of the pandemic, but I miss interacting with students so I’m giving a class called “Sketching the Everyday, Every Day”. It’s as much fun as I hoped it would be, but the preparation and teaching take up a lot of time and that means I haven’t been painting that much for myself. Today I had a bit of time to sketch my wheelbarrow before class, and even though I’ve drawn this in ink so often recently, it never gets old for me. The drawing process, even though it was quite brief, was a perfect way to warm up my hand before class. And for those of you who are interested in my experiments with my Ackerman Manga G pen, it is still my favourite. More experiments with other nibs for this pen coming soon.

Sketching Winter: a new online course

I’ve been painting the little patch of woods near my house for years. It’s not much to look at in summer — just some trees and rocks sandwiched between a schoolyard and a park, and bordered by suburban houses. But in winter I take my dog Alice for a walk through there every morning and afternoon, and I’m often greeted by fascinating shadow patterns on the snow and the rocks, especially after a fresh snowfall. I often take a reference photo and paint it when I get back home.

Students have been asking me to do a snow demo for a long time, so my first online class for 2021 is called “Sketching Winter: Capturing the Colours of Snow“. In this class, I take you for a walk through my woods in winter, and then back to the studio to paint.

You won’t need a full palette of colours to paint this scene — especially as it can appear nearly monochrome. That’s why I use a limited palette for my winter landscapes. I’ll show you which colours I use, and share my favourite mix for painting shadows on snow.

At first, this might seem like a complex scene because the woods are a bit overgrown. But I always find ways to simplify what I see, and break up the scene into manageable parts that you can paint in several steps.

Even if you live in a warm climate, you might still enjoy the challenge and fun of painting a wintery scene. For a preview of “Sketching Winter” have a look at the trailer.

Mysterious blue

I love surprises. Here is another one from my paint drawer: a squat bottle of ink with no label on it. When I dipped my brush into it, and painted out a swatch, it was a deep purple. With a little water added to it, it became a periwinkle blue. I showed the ink bottle to students in today’s Zoom class (this was a class demo) and someone else had a bottle of ink with the same shape. We both thought that Jacques Herbin might be the manufacturer but the colour still remains a mystery. The bottle shape looks like this and I think the colour is probably éclat de saphir, which would make sense considering how brilliant a colour it is.

Big news day

I was intending to do a small watercolour this afternoon. A pretty snow scene from the Morgan Arboretum. But this afternoon I was riveted to the tv. There was news from here, and news from the US, so I sketched that instead. In Quebec we are going into “shock therapy” as our Premier describes it. Even more of a lockdown, four more weeks with the added bonus of a curfew, our first in this pandemic. And then there was Washington, DC. A curfew there too. What can I say? It wasn’t about the pretty pictures today.

Test drive

Happy New Year! I hope this is a better one for all of us!

I’m happy that my first post of the year is an urban sketch, one done from my car studio, while parked near the lake in Pointe Claire Village. We’ve been waiting for a good snowfall which finally happened on Saturday, so urban scenes are looking a little nicer than a few weeks ago when the landscape was varying shades of grey and brown.

I took my favourite pen out for a test drive to see how it worked on location. Today it’s filled with Platinum Carbon ink which dries quicker than the Noodler’s Black that it was filled with last week (thanks Kate B. for that tip!), and that’s important because I went out with the intention of trying an ink/wash combo.

Something I am trying to get used to with a pen that releases a lot of ink is to keep my drawing hand elevated from the paper so I don’t smudge it. The thing I liked best today is that after I did my initial ink drawing (no pencil on this) and then added wash, I was able to go back to the ink drawing to accentuate some of the lines. The pen goes easily over the damp paper without clogging, and in fact the thicker lines are quite dark and rich. It may be hard to see because the sketch is a double-page spread, but below is a detail of the evergreens with the pen lines on top of dampish watercolour washes.

A new pen I love

Just before the holidays I received a few new pens in the mail, sent to me by Ackerman Pens in California. I’ve been experimenting with one of them for the past week, and I have to say I love how it feels. It’s a Manga G Zebra Fountain Pen with an ink reservoir that I filled with Noodler’s Bulletproof black ink.

For years my favourite pen was a Platinum Carbon Desk pen because of the flexible nib, but this pen is even better because of the variety of line thicknesses I can get. It has all the properties I love in a dip pen without having to constantly dip into an ink bottle.

Here are the lines I’ve made with the pen: very thick, very fine, and the ones I like the best that go from thick to thin and back again.

I’ve been using the pen all week. After filling it, I drew cards for my family, and did a bunch more drawings in my sketchbook, and still have not filled it again. It hasn’t leaked or blobbed except for once when I shook it by mistake. The ink flow is very even, the nib is precise yet flexible, and the weight and balance of the pen is perfect in my hand. There’s another pen in the box that I haven’t filled yet that has a pump that releases extra ink when you need it. I’ll write about that one after I use if for a while. I may fill that one with Platinum Carbon ink just to compare the two inks and how they both work when I add a watercolour wash to them.


A few weeks ago, I took photos of and subsequently painted a view of the wetlands at the Technoparc Oiseaux. Perhaps I made it seem like a rural wilderness area in my watercolour, but the reality of the location is that it’s a series of wetland areas and a huge bird sanctuary bordered by Montreal’s main airport and an industrial park. When I was there, I also took some reference photos of another view of the same marsh area with the industrial complex behind it. Google maps tells me that the buildings in that complex include an aircraft maintenance company on the right, but there’s also some new construction and I’m not sure what the buildings on the left are.

At first I was reticent to paint this view with the buildings in the distance, but the more that I looked at my photos, the more the juxtaposition of the wilderness landscape and the built landscape intrigued me. The buildings, lit by the afternoon sun, were indeed just as beautiful as the marsh with its wild grasses, tree stumps and floating logs in the shallow water. Plus there was a similarity of colours that easily unified the background and foreground. I painted with a limited palette of blues, siennas and ochres, with just a touch of Cobalt Green for the industrial glass. Painted on a quarter sheet of Arches paper.

Best wishes for the holiday season

2020 has been a challenging year, to say the least. As urban sketchers, we have all had to find new ways to connect and new subjects to draw. It hasn’t been easy getting used to this new reality — of not being able to wander freely with our sketchbooks, and not being able to draw with friends. I know I’m not the only one who misses both. Remember just a few months ago when zoom was something you did with a camera? These days, not a week goes by without some sort of Zoom event, either with friends or for work. It’s not the same, but I’m happy to have at least this way of staying connected.

As I pause during the holiday season to reflect on all the dramatic changes in our lives, I also want to thank you so much for stopping in to say hello on the blog, and also for encouraging me to create courses that keep us sketching. It has been such a pleasure to connect with so many of you. And, since I won’t be traveling again until a vaccine becomes widely available and in-person workshops are safe, I plan to continue posting often in 2021. And there will be a few new courses coming up too.

I hope you have a wonderful and safe holiday, wherever you live. I wish you and your loved ones health and happiness for the new year, and I have my fingers crossed that one day soon we will be sketching together in person.

Happy sketching in 2021!

Morgan Arboretum

A walk on the trails of the Morgan Arboretum during a snowfall yesterday was a good opportunity to gather some reference images for painting. Although the arboretum is situated quite close to where I live, I’ve never had time to take advantage of the many walking and skiing trails. But as we all know, this is the year to appreciate what is close to home, so I’m now a member and will certainly be exploring this place in all seasons, both on cross country skis and with my sketchbook.

On a snowy day, the landscape in the woods is monochrome, so I have to admit I did take some liberties with colour, using lots of Burnt Sienna plus greens, reds and blues to enliven the scene. I painted on a sheet of handmade watercolour paper from Two Rivers paper in the UK. This is great paper if you are painting a subject that has a lot of texture in it like this or this.