Watercolor Lesson: Paint a Winter Barn


I'm known as a loose, intuitive painter, but I wasn't always that way. I learned watercolour techniques with many years of controlled brushwork and thin glazes of colour over detailed pencil sketches. This process helped me learn how to control watercolour, how to fix mistakes and gradually my confidence grew so that I felt more free to interpret a scene in my own way.

Even now, when I start a new subject it's usually very controlled and detailed in the first version, because I don't know my subject yet. When I get to know my subject, I can paint it more confidently and freely, once the "research phase" is out of the way. My first version will often cause me to feel bored or just dissatisfied, as I start to imagine all the things I could have done with the interpretation, if only I hadn't gotten so focused on the details.

I love using that dissatisfaction as my motivation for a new version, one that tackles some of the things that bother me in the first version. I like to think of it as "knee-jerk painting," reacting to the things I didn't love by doing the opposite in the next variation. Sometimes this means I need several "knee-jerk" versions, as the pendulum swings from controlled to loose and back again, working out what works, and what doesn't for the scene I'm trying to depict.

Every time I paint a subject, I get to know it a little more intimately. What's not to love about this approach? Intimacy builds confidence, safety and freedom, just as it does in personal relationships, my relationship with my painting only gets more fun and interesting for the additional time spent exploring the possibilities.

When I talk about the value of repetition and do-overs in painting, I can't not reference the great Mike (M.E.) Bailey, who has a wonderful talk on this very subject as a free lesson here. Mike is such a gifted teacher and while he's received high honours for his watercolour paintings, he is so humble in explaining his approach as an eternal student of watercolour. In the video he talks about what he learned by painting the same subject over one hundred times! Watch the video by signing up on the site, it will give you a new outlook on the learning process.

I wanted to demonstrate a look at how this repetition process works for me, so on Youtube this week I'm offering two variations on the same reference photo, painting a winter scene with a rustic barn, first detailed and controlled, and then follow it up with a looser version where I get to let go of the detail and really have fun. I have ideas for a third version as well that I hope to pursue in the studio when I get the time. There's always another way to change things up and make a painting even more interesting!

Watch the video series here: How to Paint a Rustic Barn, Winter Scene in watercolour (free video lesson)