Step by step painting – White Nights Watercolours (tubes)

White Nights Tube Paints:
Yellow Ochre
Emerald Green
Lemon Yellow
Red Ochre
Neutral Black

SAA Silver brushes:
Large Worker
All Rounder

Saunders Waterford 140lb High White paper
6B Kohinoor pencil
Daler Rowney firm putty rubber
Frisk Pink masking fluid

1. Choosing the photo

I had been meaning to paint the Roman theatre I visited last year on my Alps painting holiday for some time. It was my favourite location, and of course I couldn’t paint it at the time as I was teaching my students. I love patterns and shapes and knew I would enjoy the contrast of the stonework and the sky showing through. The photo is just a small section of a huge and impressive monument.

1 - Source photograph

2. Drawing

Working on a board of stretched Saunders Waterford 140lb High White paper with a 6B Kohinoor pencil and Daler Rowney firm putty rubber I drew the outline and main features of the building, picking out some of the brick patterns. I used a big T Square to help make guidelines and plot the four point perspective. This means that as well as the usual perspective the building is so far above the eye line that the sides appear to slope inwards. I did not initially do all of the drawing, I often leave more complex areas until later and do them in between painting, this stops things getting too complicated early on.

2. Drawing

3. Sky

I am working with a set of White Night Watercolour Paints and my two go-to brushes SAA Silver Large Worker and All Rounder. Mixing a large puddle of the two blues together (Ultramarine and a colour just called Blue but which appears to be a Phthalo) I put the sky in. I changed the cloud to make it meet the building; this was so I could divide the flat wash of the sky into two parts making it easier to paint. Wetting the cloud shape I worked up to it on both sides, I then filled in the other areas of blue, diluting the paint more whilst working down the paper and using the same method of clean water for wispy clouds. It is important in (most) landscapes to lighten the sky as you come down the page to give an impression of softness towards the horizon, this is called aerial perspective. Next I added a little Scarlet to the blue, to give a soft purple. Carefully wetting the cloud areas I dropped a little shadow colour in. Finally, whilst the sky was drying I returned to the drawing filling in more details like the view through the bottom arches.

Sky Detail work in progress3. Sky

4. Building under-wash

For most of the stonework I used mixed greys rather than relying on Black as it can look cold and muddy if used too much. For the under-wash I mostly used a big puddle of watery Umber, dropping a little Yellow Ochre in here and there as I didn’t want flat colour. It is really important with watercolour to vary the colour as much as possible.

4. Building under-wash

5. Brickwork details

It’s really important that I leave the shadows to last and that all the detail I want is on the building before I put them in. Making a few different versions of the under-wash colour by adding Yellow, Ochre, Blue and Scarlet I picked out random bricks in yellows, lilac greys and blue greys. At this stage I also used some of the grey in my palette to paint a wash over the foreground and painted the wooden boardwalk in Sepia.

5 - Brickwork details

6. Foreground texture

I wanted to create a textured, gravel feeling to the foreground so masked the whole painting with torn newspaper and splattered Frisk Pink masking fluid over the (dry) foreground paint. Once dry I added a darker mix of Umber and Yellow Ochre so that when the masking fluid was removed I had little specs of the lighter wash showing through.

6. Foreground texture

7. View through the archways

Next I turned my attention to the view of the landscape and houses through the two bottom archways. Whilst at first glance it appears that the blue at the top is sky, in actual fact it is hills, softened by aerial perspective. For this reason I picked Blue alone in order to give a different, cooler blue than the sky colour. I also made use of Emerald Green and Green (which tends towards yellow) adjusting them with Lemon Yellow in places where I wanted them lighter. Red Ochre was very useful for the light pinkish houses. At this stage I also painted a darker line of Sepia along the front of the boardwalk to give an ‘edge’ to the blanks.

7. View through the archways

8. Strong shadows

Finally it was time to paint in the strong shadows overlaying the building. I used a mixed colour which included Ultramarine, Yellow, Scarlet and a little Neutral Black for added depth. Any three primary colours will make a brown (or grey if the mix mainly contains blue). It is very rare in a painting that you can get away with strong, hard edged shadows; they are usually only seen in bright midday sun. However, considering the subject and the fact that it was indeed a sweltering day they were necessary. It is vitally important to mix enough shadow colour to get through the whole painting and to get nice flat washes so that drying lines do not distract from the effect. The colour should be just light enough that the underneath colours can be seen, but strong enough to give good tonal contrast. In places I layered the colour more than once to show variations in the architecture. I was careful not to be too neat or fully outline the bricks on the pillars, to retain the rustic, uneven feel. Lastly I added the shadows to the boardwalk plank edges in strong Sepia. I am pleased with the effect of sunlight and the strength of colour achieved in the sky. Most of all I am pleased to have painted a memory of a hot day at a stunning piece of Roman history.

8. Strong Shadows Finished Painting Roman Theatre, Aosta, Italy

For a selection of other really useful tips, advice and tuition from Michele, visit She has created a brilliant website with a wealth of invaluable information!