Greg Howard is a professional fine artist specialising in atmospheric, dramatic landscapes in watercolour & soft pastel. His work can be found in collections worldwide and he is a sought after tutor due to his easy going, informative no nonsense approach to the medium.

Those of you who have been painting for any length of time will know that our paint brushes don’t always do what we want them to do and the apparently simple act of getting an image form our head onto the paper in front of us can be fraught with disappointment. There are however a few things that you can do to help ensure that the number of successful paintings you produce increases a little faster.


I as you know am not a great fan of rules however there are a couple of guidelines that I follow religiously in my own painting and it is these that help to ensure that nine times out of ten a painting is successful.


Look, Look Again….Then, Look Again!


90% of all bad painting is down to bad observation skills.


As artists you must learn to look at things properly otherwise how can you expect to be able to paint them convincingly. The reason primary school kids paintings do not look real is because they have not learned to observe properly they instead paint what they are told i.e. the sky is blue, the grass is green, mountains are triangular and all trees look like green lollipops.


Open your eyes and teach yourself to observe properly – you may be surprised what you see that you never even noticed before.


You also will find very quickly (as will your spouse) that you will start to look at everything with a view to painting it i.e. is that sky cobalt blue or ultramarine, is there a tinge of purple in the grass, oh look at that sunset its quinacridone gold with streaks of magenta and burnt sienna through it and so on.


It can actually get quite annoying but if you intend to paint to a great standard it is very important. So look and look again, then look again and only then do you pick up a pencil or a brush. Oh and just for good measure……have another look!


Have a Clear Reason for Painting The Scene…


Don’t just paint something because it’s nice or worse because someone else wants you too!


Be aware that if you are not 100% invested in your subject that this will come across in the finished painting.


Decide why you want to paint a particular scene and stick with that vision all the way through unless the painting takes you somewhere really exciting – which it will do sometimes. In these cases you should learn when to follow and when to pull it back to the original concept.


Make sure you are in the right mood for the subject in hand. Showing a painting is like giving someone access to your soul. Have you ever been in a bad mood when you have been painting – notice how different that painting looks to the one you painted when you were in a good mood! Strangely enough being in a bad mood can give you the perfect reason to paint and some of my best paintings have materialised from fits of dark depression.


Make Sure Every Element of Your Painting Directs Attention to Your Focal Point…


Don’t just put stuff in a painting for the sake of it. Yes, I know there are three trees there and that one of them is in front of that row of cottages but you are an artist. An artist’s job is to portray their impression of the landscape in front of them and if that means lopping down a few trees or moving a few mountains then do that!


Every artist of any merit has done so numerous times even when they have painted the same subject numerous times you will notice that each painting can be sometimes dramatically different compositionally depending on what the artist was trying to convey on that particular day


What I am driving at here is that if something is not contributing to the overall concept behind the painting leave it out!


Everything in your painting whether it is through its shape, position, colour or tone should in some way contribute to the overall vision you had before you picked up the paint brush and should direct attention to your focal point



Composition is Not Complicated!


Sounds a strange thing to say considering how many text books have been written about the subject. But composition is not complicated or at least it shouldn’t be.


Composition very simply is the act of re-arranging the elements of your painting so that they balance and do not distract you from, yep you guessed it - The focal point! Otherwise known as your main point of interest.


That is basically all you need to know about composition. Look at your initial tonal sketch or your work in progress and ask yourself the following questions:


  • Does anything pull your eye out of the painting? If it does change it! Or add something to the edge to stop your eye from going out like a tree or a darker colour. You also want to ensure that you do not have any lines heading out of your painting because these act like arrows for your viewer which head right out of your painting and on to the next one in the display, which probably isn’t yours!
  • Does anything look unbalanced compared to the rest of the painting i.e., does it attract to much attention because of its tone or size? If so, lighten it or darken it or another element of the painting or repaint it either smaller or larger to help balance the scene.
  • Is your focal point in the centre of your painting? If so, move it even if this means cropping the painting! You want to be aiming to have your focal point (main point of interest) in either the left or right third of the picture.
  • Is anything attracting undue attention because of its colour? If it is then change that colour or echo that same colour somewhere else in the painting.
  • Have you repeated shapes anywhere in the painting? Unless it is intentional you should not repeat a shape by this I mean if you have two mountains next to each other make one a different size or change its shape otherwise those two elements will compete for attention.
  • Can your eye travel round the painting easily? Take a mental walk round your landscape and if anything gets in your way move it. So for example if you have a wall at the front of your painting you are creating a visual block for your viewer. This is easily remedied by adding a gate or rather an opening in the wall for a gate.


This list is not exhaustive but it will set you on the right road.


A lot of good painting is just a case of applying your common sense.


If something doesn’t feel quite right to you in the painting the chances are that it isn’t so listen to your inner arty alarm system and change it!  Much better to do this before someone else picks up on it.




By its very nature painting (especially in watercolour) is not perfect, it is messy & unpredictable. So, no matter how hard you try you are not going to get it right every time – no matter how good you get!


As I always say the only difference between a professional artist and a beginner or hobby painter is that the professional has a much, much bigger rejects cupboard. They just don’t make a point of telling everyone about it lol!


So, give yourself a break, stop trying to produce the perfect masterpiece every time you pick up a brush and have fun. Concentrate on enjoying the journey (of getting better at what you do) instead of always being so hung up on the destination (artistic perfection – which I might add is only relative anyway!)


If you do this, I guarantee you that regardless of how much you think to the contrary you will improve and get better and your successes will become more frequent.

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