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Learning to paint in watercolour? Should you copy the masters and what can it teach you?

Updated: Feb 19

I retired from business three years ago and decided to follow my goal of converting my home office into an art studio. I had promised myself that I would learn to paint and not just sit around wondering what to do with myself. My business career was wide and varied resulting in me travelling around the world visiting some wonderful countries but, on reflection, I spent many hours in hotels, airports and meeting rooms. Life is never as glamorous as it seems to others and, looking back, whilst I visited nearly every country in Europe, South Africa, Australia, Singapore, the Middle East and USA I never really had the time to sit and appreciate the things I do today. So the first objective I set myself was to revisit many of these countries and paint them. The first problem.... I hadn't painted a thing since junior school.

Apparently art comes from a different side of the brain than science and having spent most of my time being commercial and scientific, I ended up as a business consultant working in corporate business continuity and crisis management and the general consensus from my colleagues was that scientists, in the main, cannot produce art!!

So I had a few hurdles to overcome. Now I have always considered myself to be pretty handy, having installed central heating in several of our marital homes. Like Winston Churchill, one of my heroes, I can brick lay and many of our former houses have been blessed with walls, barbecues and extensions. So if Churchill could paint, why couldn't I?

Yes, I know, arrogance and self confidence are not nice traits. Having said that, the one thing you learn when working for yourself from the age of 40 is that if you don't have self confidence in your ability and the get up and go to get things done, you will very quickly come a cropper.

So I needed a plan.

  1. Do I go to night school art classes? (I was already going to night school learning Spanish so that was a no).

  2. Do I join an on-line art group and go away on a teaching holiday?

  3. Do I teach myself by using Google, YouTube and art books?

In the end I did a bit of both 2 and mostly 3.

Unfortunately the art group I joined, whilst really enjoyable and enlightening, ended up not being for me. To those from that group who remember me and might possibly read this at some time in the future, I wish you all well. I'm sorry I couldn't agree with some of the policies of the site and I do miss your company. I learned a lot and developed much of my watercolour style from your suggestions and comments.

Indeed this post was inspired by some of the many discussions we had about whether it was useful to copy artworks of the old masters and learn from their approach and techniques. For my part, I fall very much on the side of doing just that. Watercolour has a reputation of being one of the most difficult mediums to learn and do well. In some part it is, but, just like any skill it needs practice, practice, practice. The importance of understanding basic techniques should, however, not be underestimated. For my part I've been learning about composition, creating depth and colour palettes for nearly three years and only now do I feel that I have reached a standard where I can offer my work for sale. was launched on the 1st January 2024.

Back to the question though. Should you copy the masters? I firmly believe you should.

One particular painting I admired whist building my library of books on art and artists was "A Shady Lane" by John Middleton. I found this work in a book called The Great Age of British Watercolours by Andrew Wilton. I will return to John Middleton shortly but I think it is worth mentioning the artists who have inspired me and, by either reading their books or watching them demonstrate their approach and techniques, I have developed my own. For those of you considering learning to paint in watercolour I would recommend you look for inspiration and help from past artists like Bob Ross, Adrian Hill and Ron Ranson. Present day artists who I have studied include Oliver Pyle, Geoff Kersey, Terry Harrison, Hazel Soan, David Bellamy and Thomas W Schaller to name but a few. It was Bob Ross who got me started and whilst I quickly outgrew his approach and techniques, his enthusiasm and passion for his subject is, even today, undeniable. Oliver Pyle set me on the right path with his work but it was actually the artists registered in his art community who were more helpful than Olly himself. His self help videos though are some of the best and can be found on YouTube or on his web site.

A Shady Lane by John Middleton

It's important to consider that this was painted around 1847 where pigments and paper were nothing like the quality or variety that we have available today. Even so Middleton manages to create incredible depth and his play with light and shade continues to inspire me.

Learning to paint is without questions the place to start
A shady lane by Art-Marco

A shady lane in the style of John Middleton

A shady lane modifies to
A shady lane in the style of John Middleton

Learning how to shop. This is my version. What did I learn from my study?

Depth, light and shade, the use of a limited palette and perspective. Middleton's composition with the path winding around the back of the hillside, through the shade takes you on a journey into the distant hills shown top right. Was it worth copying him? Absolutely.

I would welcome your thoughts and comments.


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