From Watercolour to Oil

Join Geoff Kersey as he takes a fond look back at his first tentative steps into the world of painting in oils…

I decided to start with water-soluble oil paints, which I thought might feel more familiar. There was also a definite appeal to being able to reduce the paint and clean the brushes with water as opposed to using thinners or turps.

I chose a sheet of Saunders Waterford, rough, 300lb (640gsm) paper to give me a thick, sturdy support (again, I might turn out to be mistaken, but by using paper I was keeping one foot at least, on familiar territory). I decided the rough texture might break up the thick paint too much, so I used the reverse which is similar to a “not” surface.

I bought a set of Artisan brushes specifically designed for water-soluble oils, but I also had quite a collection of brushes of all sorts of type and size standing by.

I have been tackling quite a few subjects recently where the scene is viewed looking into the light, also known as contré jour. I like the way this enables me to limit the palette and use strong tonal contrasts to maximise the highlights.

I thought this would lend itself well to oils as I could use white to create the highlights rather than have to meticulously plan them at the outset with masking fluid.

For the subject I chose the above photo that I took on a bright clear Autumn Sunday morning, walking towards the light on Hunstanton beach in Norfolk.

The palette I chose was Raw Sienna, Magenta, Burnt Umber, Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine Blue and Titanium White (all colours I have become familiar with in watercolour).

1I sketched in the main details of the subject including the figures, with a 2B pencil making stronger marks than I would have normally as I would be using more opaque paint and didn’t want to obliterate the guidelines too early.

You can see by comparing the photo with the finished painting that I have simplified the scene, not putting in every rock and pebble or every figure.

This interpretation of a photo rather than slavishly copying it is equally important whatever your chosen media.

I decided to use the paint very thinly at first, thinning it with water to get that initial glow across the sky and in the middle distance. I used a 1” flat brush with a mixture of Raw Sienna and Magenta for the lower part of the sky, using a mixture of Cobalt Blue and Magenta for the top of the sky and the foreground, finally brushing in a touch of thinned Burnt Umber in the left-hand foreground to suggest the colour of the damp sand.

2I then painted in the base of the cliff and the sea wall with a stronger mixture of Cobalt Blue and Magenta, gradually introducing stronger values with a mixture of Burnt Umber and Cobalt Blue and just a hint of green on the cliff, with a touch of Raw Sienna and Cobalt Blue.

I then softened the colour at the base of the sea wall with a thin glaze of Raw Sienna, thus warming the middle distance to create a pool of bright light. Finally I put in a touch of Cobalt Blue, greyed with a hint of Burnt Umber to portray the horizon line where the sky meets the sea.

All of this stage was done with a half-inch flat and an Artisan no2 flat.

3I then carried on detailing the sea wall and the groyne, putting in the ice cream kiosk, ensuring it had a light and a shadowed side to give it a three dimensional appearance – this was a bit easier with oil as I could just add a hint of white to the paint to render the light side.

The next step was to put the figures in with some quite thick dark grey paint, made with Cobalt Blue and Burnt Umber. I added a touch more blue to the coat of the far right figure to add a bit of variety, but as the figures are silhouetted it was important that the colours were muted.

The same grey and blue mixtures were then used to suggest the mass of rocks on the left, adding highlights to the rock, the figures, the foam, the top of the sea-wall and the steps and railings, with a fine detailer brush and some neat white paint.

The final step in this stage was to dampen the foreground with clean water, before putting in a thin wash of Burnt Umber over the left hand area, Cobalt Blue over the right and Magenta over the whole foreground, thus uniting this area with the colour at the top of the sky, put in during stage one.

4The next step was to put in the foreground figures. The main mixture for this was Ultramarine and Burnt Umber. For the jacket of the right hand figure I added some Raw Sienna to vary the colour. This was now more like traditional oil painting, using thick opaque colour.

The addition of highlights to these figures was vital so I was very careful to place these in carefully with white, softening this into the dark with a touch of Raw Sienna.

I did not get this right the first time but the advantage of oil painting is that I could go over it with dark and try again until I got it right. It is for this reason that there is a commonly held opinion that oil is easier; although I think to master any medium is not easy and requires practice and effort.

Finally I put in the shadows using a thin mix of Cobalt Blue, again greyed with Burnt Umber, making sure there was a consistency to the angles of the shadows and keeping the paint thin enough to see the beach colour underneath it.

5The final stage was really all about finishing touches. The foreground rocks were put in with a thick mix of Ultramarine and Burnt Umber, rendering the highlights with Raw Sienna and white.

This particular beach is covered in pebbles, shells and stones, so I suggested these with various mixtures of grey and dark brown, placing shadows where appropriate with a thin mixture of Cobalt Blue and Burnt Umber.

The small areas of distant detail, like figures sat on the sea-wall, masts and street lamps were suggested with a pale grey mix, quite blue in shade as cooler colours recede.

Then finally with some neat white I put in more distant rocks and pebbles, plus some suggestions of foam, leading from the foreground to the middle distance. (See figure 1)

I am not sure I got the highlights on the rocks correct, as it is a fine line between achieving a highlight and giving the appearance of a dusting of snow. Perhaps because I am used to leaving highlights rather than painting them, I need more practice to make them convincing.

Figure 1

Summing up…
I really enjoyed this exercise, but realise that the years of working light to dark in watercolour influenced my methods, creating a bit of a hybrid. This does not worry me as I am quite pleased with the finished painting and have always believed that the result is all that matters.

It may interest readers however to learn that I also have painted the same scene in pure watercolour (figure 2). As to which is the more successful I’ll leave that to you to decide.

Figure 2 ‘Mediterranean Blue’ 

Geoff runs regular painting breaks and one day workshops across Derbyshire.

For further details, visit:


SAA Large Banner:Layout 1