Tips and Techniques

Capture Inspiration with a Sketchbook Journal

The common rule of thumb is to draw as often as possible to improve your abilities, so it makes sense to carry a sketchbook around with you which you can pick up at a moment’s notice. When you find that special something that you just “MUST” record or you have too much time on your hands, such as waiting in the Doctor’s office, a sketch book can be just the answer!

Sketch journals can contain passages of text describing the weather and the happenings of the day that led up to your moment of inspiration as well as sketches of things one found interesting along the way. Color notations may be added along the edges, your feelings of the moment, the sounds of your surroundings, or smells, anything that will help you recreate the moment. Even snapshots can be glued into your journal if sketching time is short. Creating paintings from a sketch journal is much easier than from a regular sketchbook, which records only images.

Looking back through a sketch journal years later allows you to relive each moment. Keep all of your inspirational thoughts and sketches in your journal, from brief notes on cloud formations, to the sketches for your latest masterpiece. Include thumbnails, notes on lighting, shadows, values, and how you envision the painting to appear when completed.

A Sketch Journal does not need to come in any preconceived form, except that it should not be lined and it should be of good quality paper that will stand up to the test of time so that you can look back and be inspired once again. It can be any size or format, book bound or coil depending on preference. I enjoy coiled because the pages fold back out of the way, but bound is good for durability, or for extending a picture onto two pages when “one just isn’t enough!”

Tips to Help Improve Your Artwork

Learn as much about the various techniques as you can from the many books and magazines available and/or by taking as many classes as you can afford. Paint daily if possible. It all makes a difference!

Often it is hard to judge how much time you actually spend at the easel, but if you keep a log of each time you stop and start and how long you take for breaks, you can find out an actual total.

Good quality materials are important to good quality results.

Join an art guild or take classes so that you schedule a specific time to work at your art. Guilds can help you grow as an artist by offering workshops and opportunities to display your work. You have the chance to learn from other artists as some individuals are a wealth of information, some have good organizational skills, while others are good at dealing with people or have been in art circles for some time and provide contacts and experience. Many hands mean less work for the individual and shows are much easier to organize and are more affordable as a group than if you are trying to do it all yourself.

Enter as many competitions as possible, especially juried ones, to get feedback on how your work is progressing. In artistic circles, everyone has an opinion, and though much of it is biased to their way of working, or their preferences, you can pick up tidbits of information along the way and end up learning a great deal. Some jurors are a wealth of knowledge. Usually they have been in art circles a long time and have gained lots of experience in their travels.

Layers of color placed one on the other so that portions of the ones below are peaking out can add a sparkling look to the finished work. Be sure to dry each layer before adding the next to avoid muddying colors.

Objects in the foreground and center of interest should be portrayed with more sharp edges and strong contrasts than objects in the background or away from the center of interest so that the focal point of the painting can be distinguished from the less important parts of the painting. The farther into the distance one gets the less distinct edges become and the lighter values become. Often the distance is portrayed with a bluish cast. This is called aerial perspective.

Related Link – How to Use Watercolor (YouTube)

Making an Easy Scratchboard

Materials List

  • Matboard or other sturdy surface
  • India Ink
  • Crayons
  • Soft-bristled brush
  • Sharp tool for scratching

Start with a sturdy surface. Matboard, for framing watercolors, works well.

Apply a thick layer of crayon right to the edges, leaving no holes in the design. The crayon layer can be either a solid color or it can be multicolored in random patterns (which children love).

Then coat with two to three layers of India Ink, applied with a soft bristled brush. Watercolor brushes work well and the ink washes out easily with soap and water. Allow the ink to dry completely between coats. Be sure to brush off any lumps of extra crayon to create a nicer surface after the inking. Apply enough ink to completely cover the crayon below.

To scratch into the surface you can use any sharp tool, even a nail will do, though, there are scratchboard or carving tools available which are much easier to hold.

With practice the colors of crayon can be patterned to coincide, in general, with the finished drawing above. Just be sure to mark on the back which direction is the “Top”.

Painting Details with Watercolor

When unsure of how to add details, such as figures, buildings, or animals to a painting try sketching the objects on a separate piece of paper, cut them out, then arrange them on the painting surface until you arrive at a pleasing design. You can then do thumbnail sketches to determine values and color placement.

To add a figure or detail to a painting after the background has been painted, draw the object lightly on the paper, then scrub away the unwanted paint with an old brush (gently so as not to damage the surface) and repaint. If you have used non-staining colors, (which sit on the paper’s surface instead of soaking into the fibers), or hot-pressed watercolor paper the paint can be removed quite easily. If staining colors have been used it is unlikely the colors will lift. Trying to scrub out the area will likely damage the surface of the paper and therefore the painting.

Test the colors you have been using on a separate piece of the same type of paper and let them dry completely. Try removing a portion of the painted area to see how much of the color can be removed safely, then repaint the area to see how it will look.

How to Stretch Watercolor Paper

By stretching your watercolor paper you create a flat surface which is enjoyable, rather than frustrating, to paint on. It eliminates the ripples normally caused by wetting the paper.

Materials List

  • Watercolor Paper
  • Board
  • Butcher’s Tape
  • Staple Gun
  • Towel

Watercolor Paper

I find 300lb paper to be a beautiful paper to work on, as it is so easy to use. 140lb paper is less expensive, also works well, but is more prone to wrinkling. I tend to strike a compromise and use the 140lb paper for works up to 22″ x 15″. I avoid paper lighter than 140lbs as I find it very hard to work with and tends to rip when stapled. If you do use very lightweight paper, place your staples closer together and at least 1/2″ from the edge of the paper. (This is explained in more detail in the technique section)

Butcher’s Tape

I prefer white butcher’s tape, as it works well for testing colors. However, it is thinner and requires 2 layers to avoid ripping. Brown tape tends to be thicker and requires only one layer. You can find both at your local butcher’s shop.

Staple Gun

I find a medium weight tacker with 1/4″ staples works well. A heavier staple gun can be used, but the staples are harder to remove.


This should be at least 1″ larger on all sides than the paper to be stretched. 3/8″ plywood works well for smaller sheets of paper, but I recommend using 1/2″ for larger works. The board should have at least one good side and the edges should be sanded to prevent slivers. If the board is too large to carry comfortably, handles can be cut in the board to aid in carrying.

There are two styles to choose from. The 1st is easier to cut but the 2nd eliminates extra weight.

Normal StyleLighter Style


Stretching Technique:

Cut paper to size. Tear off strips of the butchers tape so that each strip is slightly longer than each side of the paper. Have your board, tape, staple gun and a small rolled up towel ready before you soak your paper. Soak the paper for 3-5 minutes, depending on the weight of the paper. (Lighter paper requires less soaking). A sink works well for small pieces but a bathtub or large basin will be needed for larger sheets.

When the paper is adequately soaked, pick it up by one corner so that the water runs off the opposite corner. Once it stops dripping, place it face down on your board, and roll the towel along the back surface of the paper to absorb any excess water (do not rub the surface as it can damage the paper). Turn the paper over and roll the towel over the front, working quickly before the paper starts to wrinkle. Next, wet the tape strips by dipping them into the water, then place the tape between your index and middle fingers, and squeeze the water off the tape by running your fingers from the top to the bottom. Immediately place the strip onto the edge of the paper, covering about 1/2″ of the paper’s edge. The edge of the paper forms a ridge under the tape so this is quite easy to see. Continue with the other sides, overlapping the edges for strength. Dry the tape with the towel. Add another layer of tape if it is light weight, then dry again.

If the paper is small in size (up to approximately 14″ x 18″), brown butcher’s tape will likely be strong enough to hold by itself. Paper larger than this should also be stapled to avoid the tape ripping or pulling away when it dries and shrinks again.

Staple about 1/8″ from the inside edge of the tape, starting at the corners, then around the sides, placing staples about 2″ apart. Lay on a flat surface to dry. If you intend to do washes or wet techniques, you may start right away, but if you wish to sketch first, either draw on the paper before stretching, or let it dry completely before starting as it is very easy to damage the paper when it is wet.

Paper is completely dry when it is no longer cool to the touch. A blow dryer may be used to speed up the process.

Diagram1/2″of the paper under tapestaples 2″ apart

staples angled at corners

Tip: Removing staples from the board

Wedge a screw driver (or better yet a tack puller) under one side of the staple. With a twisting motion lift up one side of the staple, then pull out the staple with needlenose pliers (or similar).

Tip: Removing tape from the painting and board

Cut along the outside edge of the paper with an X-acto knife, where the edge forms a ridge under the tape. Peel back the tape from the paper, being careful not to rip the paper along the deckle edge. Tear off the excess tape from the board. Wet the excess tape on the board and let it sit a minute. Rewet the tape and scrape at it with a pallet knife. You may have to rewet it several times to get it all off.