Experimenting and Moon Boats

If you’ve been following my Facebook or Instagram feed, you’ll know I’ve been experimenting for a while now. Trying new media, trying new styles, trying to re-find myself I suppose.

A lot of my artworks these days start from nothing. No idea, no inspiration. Just me and a blank canvas and a pencil-brush-marker-whatever drawing tool I feel like at the time. And I just start drawing and see what happens. Or just start painting. Sometimes it doesn’t work and gets left behind to maybe come back to later (I’ve had a couple of “resurrections” of such pieces that then turned into something lovely). Every one has been a lesson in some way.

I’ve been trying to document the process a bit more, but I’ve never been a very methodical person. So basically I sometimes remember to snap photos. I wanted to share the series of photos from my recent painting, Moon Boat.

Stage One


I was excited to score some 12×16 inch cradled wooden panels at a local craft store which is nigh unheard of here in Australia. Even a lot of the big art stores don’t stock them. So yay! I decided I wanted to try mixing a whole bunch of mediums on it, so I primed the board with Daniel Smith’s watercolor ground. Then I splashed a bunch of watercolour paint on it. Then some salt to try and draw out some texture. The paint didn’t hold very well to the ground. I’ve used it a bunch of times and never been very happy with the results, but I know others who love it… Maybe I’m not using it right, or got a dodgy batch? I was hoping to have more texture than this to start with, that could be the backdrop for whatever I painted over the top, but oh well, moving on.

Stage Two


I’ve decided on a Moon Boat concept for the panel, and do a blue wash to head down a more purpley colour range. I mark out a sphere then roughly apply gold leaf sizing in the shape of a crescent moon and water, then apply pure silver leaf to it. I’ve been enjoying adding some gold and silver leaf to my works. Because shiny.

I realise afterwards I really should have sketched in my figure first and I’ve made some problems for myself, but that’s what you get with this rather unplanned and impromptu method. There is something to be said for careful planning!

Stage Three


I sketch out the figure, based on a reference photo. I only have the top half of a body to reference, so drawing the feet is hard and I spend a long time twisting my own feet at weird angles to try and see how they should look. The watercolor ground continues to annoy me. A tiny drop of water got on her shoulder and lifted the paint right off it. I also have to sketch so softly or it digs into the ground. But I’m happy with the look of the figure at this stage. Still don’t know what else I’m doing with other details yet. Working unplanned like this is a process of Take Action – Ask “What next?” – Take Action – Ask what next, etc etc.

Stage Four


I add a string of bells and some flowers because I’m now sure what else to add. I like bells and flowers. They’re my go to.

I want to finish this artwork in oils, so I make a grayish-purplish-brownish glaze and apply it all over, then sponge some bits back off with tissue for texture. I use the same colour I mixed for the glaze and some white to start adding form to the figure. The oil paint is taking well to the board, except where the silver leaf is.

Stage Five


I continue building form for the figure, her hair, and dress. I’m working mostly in greys, then start to add some warmth to her skin with reds. I have a very limited palette of oil paints so far, just two yellows (warm and cool), two blues (likewise), two reds (you get the picture), black, white, paynes grey (which is just a must have for me always), raw sienna, and burnt umber. I’ve done all my oil paintings thus far with just these. I’m using Liquin as my main medium for mixing.

Stage Six


I continue to apply layers to the painting. By this stage it’s probably had 5 layers/work sessions on it with drying between. I’m still learning oils, and tend to make areas too dark, and then make them too light when trying to adjust that, and then make them too dark again, spending more time than I need to. But I’m starting to get used to them and enjoy the feel of them as I paint. Still trying to work out how to get other mediums working with it. How lovely would this look if the original watercolor wash had held to the background and showed through around the figure?

I decide to call the artwork done at this point. The ground I used initially is still feeling a bit fragile and I don’t want to poke it too much. I also quite like the raw look it still has at this stage. Sometimes so much freshness and energy is lost from the sketch stage the refining process.

Stage Seven


The raw scan, straight from the scanner without any cleaning or color adjustment. It’s a lot more pale and purple than my photos from my smart phone, which is a bit more true to how it appears in real life, but it still needs some adjusting. The scan won’t be able to capture the way the silver flashes in the light either.

Stage Eight


I’ve been wanting to try and include words into my artworks, and this moon boat image seemed like a great one to experiment with. I came up with a phrase for it, and decided to try a hand written approach rather than just adding text digitally (great idea, from someone with terrible handwriting and no calligraphy training!). I wasn’t quite game to write directly on the original so I sketched it out on a sketchbook page with a copic marker pen. I didn’t rule lines or anything, which is a great indicator of the “not being very methodical” thing I was talking about before, but I kind of wanted that more rustic feel. If I wanted perfect calligraphy, well, I’d just use a font. I scan the words in and apply them over the artwork in photoshop while I clean and color correct the image. I also apply a splatter of starts digitally, because I’m too chicken to do it to the original.

Stage Nine- Final

(Click for larger)

And here is the final artwork. She was a bit of a crazy experiment from start to finish, but I do like how she ended up.

I learned lots during the process about all the different mediums I tried and how I could have done things better that I can apply to future works, so that’s the most valuable part for me.

The “Moon Boat” original painting (sans words and stars) is up for auction now.

Sold for: US$360.00

Digital Painting Walkthrough- Finishing up


Like my mermaids? My next art collection book is ALL mermaids! It was due for release in late October, but if my ebook of Memory’s Wake reaches a bestseller rank of under #5000 on Amazon, I’ll release the art book early! Every sale counts! See more information about my ebook promotion goals here- https://selinafenech.com/2012/free-ebook-weekend-plus-the-ride-and-the-results/

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Don’t have an ereader device? The Kindle App is free and works on almost all computers, smart phones or tablets- http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?ie=UTF8&docId=1000493771

It’s time for me to finish this mermaid painting off. I let it sit for a while, pondering where it was at and how to proceed, and got back to work on it this week. I finished it off over two full days (including lots of breaks for baby play and maintenance!).

See the starting stages of this painting at my previous post https://selinafenech.com/2012/developing-a-concept-with-digital-painting/

You can click on most of these images to see much larger versions!

The first on the left in this set is where I finished off last time. Not a bad beginning, but I’m not loving it. I start playing around, see if I can improve on the composition now I’ve looking at it fresh again. In the middle image I’ve darkened the background, and then in the third from left I’ve repositioned the man’s arm. I mostly did this to save myself from what I like to call the Nipple Dilemma. I have nothing against nipples in art myself, but as this is is for mass publication in the oracle deck I’m avoiding any body parts that might cause an issue. 🙂 Sure she could have been wearing something, but I didn’t feel a bikini (of whatever sort) suited this mermaid.

Next it’s time to start getting rid of those bulky black sketch lines. Using my favourite all-purpose painting brush, I start painting over the sketch lines, or erasing them if they go outside the figures. I use the same brush shape for my eraser when painting as well. The brush I use the most looks like this, and if memory serves my correctly I got it from a pack shared by Melanie Delon on her website.

My favourite brush shape for all purpose painting and blending.

After I’ve painted out the sketch lines with the standard paint brush, I use Photoshop’s new Mixer Brush tool (new in version CS5, or possibly CS4? I can’t remember…) to blend the brush strokes a bit. I use the same brush shape again, set on Moist, Light Mix, and work as if I were blending wet oils or acrylics on paper. I try not to blend too much, I still want a bit of a painterly feel to the image.

Here’s the zoomed out view of the image at this stage, sketch lines painted out and some blending done. I haven’t blended all areas (mermaids tail for example), because some areas will require a different treatment later.

Time to zoom in there again and fix those faces up a bit! The mermaid’s face is a bit wonky. It’s a tough angle and I don’t have a model reference photo for this one, so I’m just muddling through as I go. I do the mirror image flip a few times while painting the features in to get a bit closer to what I want. I decide that I also want the man’s eyes showing, even if they are closed, so I paint over his hair and add a visible eye.

That’s where I finished that day…

So I open up the file the next day, and like my usual indecisive self, I decide I’m not happy with it and start playing around with the composition and colours again. I decide I want a bit more of an angle to the poses rather than the mermaid being so vertical. Free Transform in Photoshop, which lets you rotate and transform an object in just about anyway, is one of my most indispensable tools! The mermaid and the man are on their own layer together, above the background, which makes it easy for me to keep moving them around. I also change the colour scheme, shifting towards more of a cobalt blue than the teal it was before. I use the Hue and Saturation adjuster for this, selecting just the Cyan range of colours and shifting them further into the blue/purple range.

Time to stop messing around and do the hard work of refining the painting. I’ll work on the background first, then move to the figures. I use a rough, painterly brush on the spines in the fourground so that they look jagged and nasty. In the image above, you can see the two zoom scales next to each other. This is how I normally work in photoshop, with two windows of the same file open side by side, one zoomed out so I can get a sense of the overal image while I work zoomed in on the window beside it. You can open extra windows for an artwork in Window>Arrange>New Window For (filename)

I fix up the little background cages, but decide not to touch the rest of the background too much. I like the painterly splotches it has going. All I do is add some sparkles to the waters surface, and brush in some light rays. To get the light ray look, it’s a process of switching to and from brush and eraser- painting lines down, erasing back into it, painting streaks, erasing streaks, until you get a nice soft but streaky look.

More refining work. I add some rim-lighting to the figures to make them pop a bit more. Again, I’m working with no reference so it’s all a bit like trial and error. Light sources are hard to get right, and I’m imagining that, realistically, the man’s body would be casting that shadow on the mermaid’s face. But that’s a bit unfortunate because it makes her face dark and bleh. So adding a little rim lighting helps bring it back into focus. I’ve worked on the man’s hair in this one as well, adding some wavy strands.

Lots of painting, painting, painting. I finally get to work on the mermaid’s tale, and do use the Mixer brush a little, then the normal brush over the top again to bring up a few highlighted scales. Because the figures are relatively small compared to the overall scene, I don’t refine them quite as much as I might if they were larger. I paint in details of the mermaids hair and fins, and stop to ponder again.

Final touches and I call it finished. I decide there needs to be a little more texture in the background, so add a texture layer to simulate bubbles/debris in the water to give a bit more depth. I also paint in some bubbles streaming down from the man- yes bubbles will float up, but I want to give the impression that the mermaid is pushing him upwards, leaving the bubbles behind as they go (which will float up after them later). I also shift the colours one last time, taking it back slightly towards the teal range again. What can I say? I’m fickle.

I’m not in love with this artwork, but I’m pretty happy with it for one where I had no models to work from. Models make so much of a difference! While I can try and use my 20+ years of drawing experience to figure out how a nose might look if tilted to that angle, while underwater, with light hitting it from this angle and reflections from that angle… there’s no way I’m going to be able to get it as true as real life.

Did you enjoy seeing my painting process? Or learn something new? If you did, please consider buying a copy of my ebook “Memory’s Wake, a fantasy novel for young adults. It also has a bunch of my artwork in it! I’m trying to break into an Amazon top 100 list, and every sale counts. Consider it a donation 🙂 http://www.amazon.com/Memorys-Wake-ebook/dp/B005502KA8/

Developing a Concept with Digital Painting

I’m working up a new mermaid concept for one of the cards in my upcoming Mermaids Oracle deck with Lucy Cavendish. I’m attempting to save work in progress shots as I go to show how I paint digitally. I don’t work exactly the same every time I paint, but here is an example of one way I work. I’ll describe what I’m doing at each stage under the image. Click the images for a larger version.

First I lay in some colour and rough background, just to get myself grounded. I love this aqua and light peach combination of colours, hinting at a sunset or sunrise above the water surface. I use a really large brush size and scribble the colour on.

For this artwork, I want to paint a mermaid lifting a man up to the water’s surface, away from ominous claw-like shapes in the bottom of the image. The concept provided by the deck author is for “Soul Cages” from which mermaids sometimes rescue men.

Once I have that rough background in place, I start roughing in the figures. And I do mean rough! I’m not working with any reference photos for this artwork, because I had a specific pose in mind and couldn’t find anything close enough. Reference photos make things so much faster and easier, especially for complex poses like this but we’ll see how I go… You can see the man has legs sketched in more than one position, still testing pose details.

More sketching, mostly on the man’s leg positions. Again, he’s got a “double” foot sketched in, me playing with positions.

Time to start cleaning up my mess. I solidify the lines I’m happy with and erase out the one’s that I’m not. The mermaid’s hand on the man gets the chop, it was wrong. The man’s face (bottom half only) comes into focus. I’m not sure about the idea of not showing the man’s eyes, but I like how his hair is falling. Eyes are important in artworks, one of the main things a viewer connects with, and this artwork (with the angle of the mermaids head as well) hasn’t got much in the way of visible eyes. It might change. I’ve also used the free transform tool to rotate and reduce the overall size of the figures. Free transform is to one tool I miss most between digital painting and traditional painting!

Time for a change up! I need a new perspective to get these figures right, so it’s Mirror Image trick time. Switching to the mirror image of your sketch can give you a new view on things and help get a better drawing.  I sketch in a hand for the mermaid I’m much happier with, and a little shading on the man, who’s shoulder gets cut down to a better size. I decide I’m not happy with the mermaid’s body at all, it’s got to get redone from scratch (but keeping that hand I like!).

Lots of construction and mess around the mermaid while I’m trying to get her body sorted out. Getting a bit better, but still not right.

I’ve been looking at the figures for too long again, time for another switch to refresh my eyes. Mermaid’s body is coming up better now, so I start cleaning things up again.

I add in some more shading to the mermaid to get a better idea of her 3D presence, and give her some rough hair.

Fins! I wanted to do some really soft, wavy, feather fins for this mermaid. I also darken the bottom of the image a bit more with a simple gradient layer set to Multiply in the blending options.

About time for some colour, right? The card description talks about red-haired irish mermaids, so we’ll go with that. Red is a great colour for mermaids anyway, lovely contrasting colours for water settings! I add a little of the rusty red to the mermaids tail as well, and do some subtle skin colouring for skin that looks like it’s underwater. Dark grey/purples and greeny browns make up the skin palette, with a touch of the same peachy colour as the water surface for highlights. While adding colour to the hair, I’ve given it some more shape- digital painting for me is just slowly working each piece of the image from rough to refined. I’ve also done another free transform, reducing the size of the figures in the image again.

I go back to the background to finish up this concept. I add a couple of murky “cages” in the background, occupants included. A few hints of fish and bubbles, and add some more detail to the water surface. The man also finally gets some pants.

There’s still a lot more to do on this artwork, but this is the stage where I’ll normally stop and leave an image alone for a while, so I’m looking at it fresh when I go back again. I also want to contact the author and see if this artwork is working for the card description, and this is a good time to do so. While most of the image elements are now in place, I haven’t spent any of the hard hours of detailed refinement work still to go. It probably took me an hour and a half to get to this stage (between getting up every few minutes to drag my exploro-baby back to her approved play area).

This sketch actually went fairly smoothly for me, considering the lack of reference. Only a few complete limb rearrangements. I try to keep different elements on individual layers in photoshop to make painting easier as I go (background, figures, hair normally gets it’s own layer, foreground details like the bubbles).

I’ll try and remember when I get back to this artwork to keep saving stages and continue this walkthrough, or at least post the completed artwork so that you can see how much it changes in some ways, and doesn’t in others, from this stage. 

Finding Inspiration

Trivia- What is the number one most frequently asked question of artists, that most artists dislike being asked?

“Where do you get your inspiration?”

It’s so common, it’s like being asked, “Where did you get that dress?”, as though we’re expected to have some store address we can direct people to to stop in and pick up their inspiration.

When I’m busy, or not in the mood for a long conversation, my answer is normally “My imagination”.  Which is true, but also rather simplified.

Sometimes I’ll waffle on about nature or books or fairytales. Sometimes I’ll mention other artists. Sometime I’ll say I have to plan out an artwork and decide on each element in it as a conscious effort. Sometimes I say I just start working and the ideas come. Sometimes I say I get inspiration from my dreams.

And in reality, all of these things are true.

The question of where I get my inspiration baffles me. I mean, do we all not have ideas? Dreams? Do we all not have preferences and dislikes that form our personalities? That is really all inspiration is. A collection of our likes, dislikes, experiencing these things, saturating our subconscious with content and letting it work on ideas and dreams based on that content, and/or, making conscious decisions based on our likes and dislikes.

Many artists and authors will say that inspiration is highly overrated, and that one must simply do the work, which is also true. Getting the work done is the most important thing because it is continuing to exercise the part of your brain that churns through your likes, dislikes, and experiences and turns it into ideas for you.

There’s a certain narrow mindedness that comes with me and my career. I love fantasy stuff. If I read a book it will be a fantasy book. If I watch a movie it will be a fantasy movie. I only really look at other fantasy art. I play fantasy role playing games with friends. I surround myself with visual and mental stimulation on themes of fantasy ALL THE TIME because I love it. It all feeds into my brain, and that’s where I get my ideas from.

My husband chides me often for the other main thing that is always on my mind- food. I love food and I love cooking. I do all the cooking for us almost every day. Sometimes this seems daunting, thinking into the future- almost every day, ever meal for the rest of my life I have to create something. Well, no wonder I think about food so much. I need to keep my “food inspiration” thriving by exercising it, thinking about food, learning new recipes, trying new foods to keep excited about the whole process of cooking and feeding ourselves. There is that same sort of single-mindedness involved. To keep excited, keep working and keep inspired on any job or pastime it’s a necessity.

So how do you exercise your inspiration?

It is important to keep a  journal of some kind.

Our minds are reflection of our experiences and surroundings. But memory isn’t perfect of course, and to help along my imagination, I keep a journal of ideas. It’s certainly not pretty, in fact, it’s a dis-used accounts book with half of the cover ripped off, but it serves it’s purpose. In it, I scribble down tiny thumbnail designs that have come to mind, or titles and words that inspire me. I write things such as “Pirate Mermaid”, “Riddle Fishing”, “Dragonflies Skimming Water”. These are simply things to spark my memory and imagination again when I have time to paint them. Even if I don’t remember the exact idea, they can spark new ideas. I also keep another part of the journal where I scribble down single word ideas for elements of an artwork, or designs for jewellery or clothing. It’s a jumble of scribbles and what appear to be irrelevant words like “Stripes, Lockets, Waterfalls, Berries, Keys, Tatters”. These are simply things I like, that I can read over and inspire me, or if I’m stuck for some element or costume design for an artwork I skim through to find something good, that I might otherwise have forgotten. Keeping a journal like this, or a journal of any kind, purely sketches only, purely writing, personal or purely art, is I think very important in developing your ideas and keeping your inspiration alive.

What sort of things do you do to keep inspired? Are you single minded like me on a certain genre?

Or do you believe that inspiration comes from somewhere else, from a divine power or being granting it to us mortals?

Tips for Realistic Figures and Faces

There is a saying in the digital movie effects industry when a computer generated character sort of gives you the creeps- it’s “The uncanny valley”. The “gap” where our mind says to us that it sort of looks human, but not quite right, and that leaves us with an odd, disturbed feeling! This is because there is pretty much nothing else in the world that we as people are more used to looking at than other people. We know what people are meant to look like, and if they don’t look right… creep factor. The problem is, the closer you get to it looking real, the more in danger you are of having this problem. Stylised, cartoon and simplified people are, for some reason, easier for our mind to accept as “people” than a picture of a person that is almost real but not quite right.

Below are some general tips for drawing people and faces which I’ve found helpful in trying to create attractive figures and faces.

Using References:

A lot of people ask me questions about making faces look real, or comment on how hard hands or feet are to draw. These are both very difficult parts of the body to draw properly, however, having a reference to look at and refer to makes the process SO much easier. Using a reference means looking at a photo, picture or even live model of your subject so you can look at exactly how a face or hand, or any object will look in the position you are drawing, meaning there is less guess work. Because while in our head we know what a hand may look like, the actual exact measurements, lengths, curves and shapes are something you don’t know. Even the most experienced artists use references, experience only means you get better at filling in the gaps and remembering those exact shapes and proportions, but that can never truely replace real life models.
When I started out drawing as a kid, I was always running back and forth to a mirror in a house to see how my arm would look if I held it out like that, or how my eyes were placed when I turned my head just so, so I could get it right in the drawing I was doing. With cheap digital cameras available now, taking your own reference photos of yourself or friends is a great idea to get just the right pose you want. There are also lots of great resources on the internet for stock photos of models to use as art reference. Try www.deviantart.com, or www.artmorgue.com although you must remember photos at these sites are under copyright and should be used according to the photographers and models wishes and terms of use. You can also buy books full of reference photos at art stores, or sign up to a life drawing class.

Using references- Advanced:

We all have an idea in our head of how an item should look. In reality though, this is only a very simple representation of the item. This is why when asked to draw a person or a face, most people will draw a stick figure or a smiley face… they are just simple representations. This can be a problem when working from reference, because how your mind THINKS an object should look, can overtake how it REALLY should look. You think eyes should be the same size as each other on a face, so if you let your mind take over too much, it will draw the eyes the same size… even if one should be smaller than the other because the face is turned to the side. A good technique to avoid this is to try not to look at your page to much as you sketch from the reference. Draw the subject as you see it, not as you think it should look. You can also draw your person or object upside down, looking at the reference photo also upsidedown, to trick your mind out of following it’s simplified misconceptions.
Once you’ve got a sketch down, try looking at it in the mirror as well, so you see a reversed image. This can help you see faults and errors you’ve missed looking at it normally as well.

Skin Tones:

Real skin is transparent, showing blood vessels, veins and more in layers under the surface, or lighting up bright red when lit from behind (think of how fingers look when you shine a light through them). Skin is also a wide range of colours depending on the area. Places with more transparency, or rougher use, like fingers, elbows, ears and knees are much pinker, almost red. Highlighted areas, and pale areas like wrists can be pale yellow or almost milky green.

Obviously, the colours you select for your figure’s skin will have to reflect both the colour scheme of the rest of the artwork, and the skin tone of your figure (pale, olive, tanned, brown, black).

When working in watercolour, it’s important to layer colours to create nice variation in skin tone. Here is just an example, for a fairly purply/blue colour scheme and pale skinned figure.
The one colour I almost always use no matter what, is Rose Dore (the colour names are from the Windsor and Newton colour range). With rose dore, I create the rosey areas of the skin, using it as a dark outline for fingers and toes, nose and lips, where you don’t want any dark muddy colours. Generally, I do a lot of the shading in a blue or purple, followed by the rose dore, and then followed by washes of a warm yellow. You might think that blue, red and yellow would make for an odd skin tone, but because you are layering the colours, and the watercolour layers are transparent, the rose over the blue becomes purple, and the yellow over the top of that tones it down to a more neutral brown, that is so much more glowy and beautiful than using a brown colour from the start.

Here’s a video example of painting skin tones in layers-

Using redder colours for areas such as nostrils, ears, fingers and toes that you might consider should be darker shadows brings a lot of life to the figure. Because these finer body parts are small, and skin is translucent, light shines through it, giving it a reddish golden glow. So while these areas need to be darker and defined, using blacks, greys or browns will make them look muddy and lifeless. I read that for skin tones, shadowed areas should be warm colours, and highlights should be cool colours (while the reverse is generally accepted for other shading). I wish I’d learned this earlier, because it makes a huge difference to creating life like skin tones. By “warm”, it does not have to mean read, but perhaps a warm brown, or warm blue or purple (yes, blues can be warm!). Same with the highlights, the cool colours could be a cool yellow.

Avoiding Scary Face Syndrome:

Ever seen painted faces that were just a little creepy? Here are some tips to avoid that.

The gap between the lips, or any inside of the mouth or teeth area should never be black. Try a medium red/brown instead. Never outline all the teeth, certainly not in a dark black or grey at least. Teeth are best left not clearly outlined. Try more pinks and reds and lighter colours there as well for a more natural, less “scary toothy” look.

This also goes for eyes- leaving the whites of the eye actually white will make your faces look a bit scary. Eyes are generally quite shadowed, and should be shaded as the 3 dimensional spheres they are. There will often be a strong shadow coming from the top lashes over the top half of the eyeball, and pure white should be reserved for just the finest of highlights.

Graphite Pencil Drawing Tips

Graphite pencil was one of the first mediums I really extensively developed for my art. When I was starting out, I was paint-shy. Paint was just so intimidating and hard to control! So I stuck with trusty graphite (“lead”) pencils, and discovered just how much this simple tool can achieve. Some of my all time favourite works, and most popular artworks, are my graphite artworks from this time. Below you’ll find some tips for getting great results with graphite.

But what is Graphite?

Growing up, we always called them “lead” pencils. That’s a name that has stuck since earlier times when the pigment encased in the wood in the pencils actually WAS lead! Obviously for health reasons, this doesn’t happen any more, but generally we still call them “lead” pencils, even though the pigment inside them is now Graphite. It’s technically correct to call them graphite pencils, and understand what they are because most art supplies brands and stores will also refer to them as Graphite. Still, the actual pigment section of a pencil which is encased in wood, is generally referred to as “the lead”.

A range of pencils:

When drawing in graphite, I like to have a wide range of pencils available. Each pencil type has it’s own uses- you don’t want to be shading large areas with a fine mechanical pencil, nor do you want to be doing precision work with a stumpy, thick lead. I tend to use the following for most work-

Mechanical pencils: these are for precision work, all the finest details. I have them in sizes from 0.3 t0 0.9mm widths, and keep some in 2h leads, HB leads, and 2b. Great for drawing strands of hair as well!

Wood pencils: Just your standard, wood encased pencils. I have these in just about all darkness ranges, but generally use from 4H through to 9B, with 2B’s and 2H’s being the most commonly used. I particularly love my Conte graphite pencils, they are smooth as silk and have slightly thicker leads. Always keep your wood pencils sharpened, preferably with a stanley knife rather than a pencil sharpener, so you can get a good end and less breakage (also a good tip for colour pencils!)

Progressos: These are the “lead” without any casing- just pure sticks of graphite. I use these for “special effects” mostly, but they are also great for some fun sketching, to help inspire and loosen up. By special effects, I mean creating interesting textures such as wood, or for example the background of the artwork below. The rough, spotty texture was done by lying a progresso flat on the paper on it’s longest side and rubbing it gently on the paper so it’s pigment caught just on a few points.


Erasers are as much of a painting tool with graphite as the pencils themselves. I use a range of different erasers for each artwork, which include: A putty eraser, a standard plastic rubber (of a quality that doesn’t smudge, I like Maped), and a couple of mechanical erasers (the kind with a tube of plastic eraser within a plastic dispenser pen). I also have an electric eraser, which has a small plastic eraser point which spins, efficiently lifting graphics from the paper. The artwork below is an example of erasers put to use. The sharp white edges of the fully clouds was erased out with an electric eraser. The streaks of light were done by softly dragging the putty eraser over the graphite shading. Even on the rocks, I made the putty eraser into a chunky, random shape and pressed it against the rock shading to lift some random shapes back out of the shading.

Smoothing the graphite:

Getting smooth shading is generally an important goal to most artists when it comes to pencil artworks, particularly to achieve smooth texture for things like skin. In the past, I would use items such as cotton bud, cotton balls, tissues, and “tortillons” (rolled pieces of paper for smudging) to smooth out my shading. Sometimes even my fingers (almost always a bad idea, oils from your skin can do nasty things and you end up with dirty fingers that will smudge everywhere). Using these tools both lifts and spreads the graphite particles around on the paper, lightning your darkest strokes and spreading the pigment onto clean areas, evening out the shading. However, doing this kind of blending can create very “muddy” looking shading, that then requires a lot of erasing to lift some graphite back off the lighter areas and re-darken the darker areas.

I’ve found lately that instead of using smudging at all, using graphite pencils from the “hard” range, eg, 2h, 3h, 4h etc (or for coloured pencils, harder, lighter colours) can be very good at creating smooth and delicate shading. It is important to shade very carefully and softly with them, because the graphite is quite hard and can scratch the paper if used with too much pressure. But delicate yet firm shading with hard pencils can create wonderfully soft and smooth shading with a much larger range of values. Use it over darker graphite shading to smooth it out and add a richer dimension to is as the hard lead pushes the darker lead into the paper surface more smoothly.

How not to smudge:

Lots of people ask this, and it’s a major issue when there is so much graphite pigment sitting on the paper surface! How do you stop from smudging when your hand is resting on the shaded areas? I used to use fixative as I drew, but don’t any more. I found it annoying if I fix an area then decided I wanted to work on it some more. Also, I just hate the smell of the stuff! As artists, we’re exposed to enough chemicals already, thank you very much. So I save fixative just for the very end now. To avoid smudging in the meantime, I keep my hands clean (wash with soap and water before starting to remove some of the oils from your skin is a good idea, and whenever your hand starts getting dirty again), and I keep a piece of scrap paper between my hand and the artwork it’s resting on. This barrier prevents a lot of smudging. Otherwise, don’t stress too much. A small amount of smudging can easily be cleaned off later with gently application of a putty eraser.

Painting Tips and Tricks

A selection of tips for traditional painting. Most apply to all painting mediums (watercolor, acrylic, oils, etc) and some are more specific.

Brush care:
When painting, I use lots of different size and shape brushes that I keep altogether in a pot. When I use them, I leave them out on the table next to me, because I often will reuse the same brush a lot for each painting. This also means that once I’ve finished painting, it’s easy to grab up all the brushes I’ve used, take them to the bathroom, and give them a good clean. You can get specialist brush cleaning soaps and liquids, but some warm water and just a little shampoo work just as well.  Washing brushes carefully and thoroughly after each use is a great way to look after your brushes and keep them lasting just a bit longer, by both conditioning the hairs, and removing more bits of paint than a rinse with plain water will.

Know your pigments:
Not all watercolour paints are made equal. Many people know there is a difference between opaque and transparent watercolours, but there are also staining, non-staining and granulating colours. Knowing which kind of pigment you are using really helps control your painting when layering, lifting colour, using washes, and all aspects of painting. If you use a staining colour, you’re going to have a lot of trouble lifting that colour back off the paper if you want to. Most watercolour brands will have a colour chart available which notes the different aspects of each colour, many downloadable from their websites.
It’s handy for almost all kinds of paints, watercolours as well as acrylics or others to have a chart, and also for ease of memory, sort and keep your colours in seperate groups for opaque and translucent, or even make up your own quick colour chart with notes as to each colours properties for quick reference.

Different brush types: 
Get annoyed when you just can’t avoid brush strokes in your washes or textures? Normal sable or synthetic brushes are great for watercolours, you need that firmness/springiness in them for fine details and precision, however, for large washes and free painting areas, try some soft chinese brushes. I use wide chinese style brush with super soft fibres for flat washes of colour, and a large pointed mop brush for painting in smaller areas where I need a little more precision, but still a smooth wash of paint. Bristle brushes are seldom used for watercolour painting, and personally I find for any painting medium they are only good for special textures, dry brushing, or scrubbing paint back off an area.

Smooth gradients without a brush:
For  watercolour washes, you can pour a wash of the paint onto the paper for a super smooth gradient. Control the area the wash will go by brushing in the area with clean water and a soft brush first. This creates a sort of mask- paint will move freely within the water, but if you’re careful it won’t flow onto the dry paper beyond. Pour the paint wash into the wet area from a small cup, or medicine dropper, and tilt the painting and steer the paint through the wash area until it’s all covered. Medicine droppers are also great for wet in wet textures or dropping drops of clean water into coloured washes, to create interesting backwash textures.

Tissues and painting:
This is a tip which made my life infinitely easier when painting. It’s simple, and yet works so very well! When painting, particularly watercolour, the amount of water on the brush is crucial in how the paint will react with it and the paper when the brush is loaded.
To maintain the right level of moisture in your brush, it works really well to keep a tissue in your other hand when painting. That way, you can dab your brush on it to remove excess water after you wash the brush, or dip it in your waterpot to wet it. You can dab a little, or dry it quite a lot, depending on the next stroke you want to make. You can dab off excess paint too, and you can even use the tissue as a blotter for lifting accidents off your page as well! Once you get used to using a tissue like this, you feel naked painting without something in your other hand.
Generally, you want your first strokes to lay down colour to be a medium to heavy load of paint/water. Once you’ve layed down some colour, you might want to soften and blend the edges of the paint stroke, in which case you will want a clean brush with a low to medium amount of water in it. With watercolour, if your brush has too much water on it at this stage, the water will backrun into the previous stroke and can ruin the smoothness of the stroke. Using the tissue means you can soak off much of the water from the clean brush after dipping it in your water pot, and avoid backruns.

Salting Watercolor:
One technique I see people always curious about, is salting. It’s a quite old technique, but a great one that can acheive wonderful results. A nice clear example of it’s effect can be seen in the background of this artwork-

That star like, dappled texture is created when salt is sprinkled onto a watercolour wash while it is still wet. The salt then sucks the moisture out of the water where it lands, leaving the starbust effects. For those wanting to try it, experimentation and practice are needed, but once you understand the process it’s really quite simple.

Ways to get the best result-
1. Sprinkle the salt on when the wash is still wet, but not soaking. The paper should still have a slight shine of water, but no “puddles”.
2. If possible, you want salt that hasn’t already absorbed much moisture from the air. Salt is highly absorbent like that. I once left a small plate with salt out on a humid day and came back to find a puddle of water. You could try storing your salt with some plain rice (like they do in salt shakers at restaurants), or packets of moisture absorbers.
3.  The type of watercolour paint quality and pigment type can also affect the outcome. I always recommend quality paints (artist grade over student grade) anyway, and these will get a better result for this technique as well. Granulating pigments will get a different look to non-granulating, and staining pigments may not work as well in general.
4. You can use many different types of salt, from large rock salt to fine table salt, to achieve different effects. Try a few different types to see which works best for you. When using large rock salt however, you may want to dip each piece in water immediately before placing it onto the watercolour paint, because they need the extra contact to the paper the water gives it to suck more water from the painting. Some artists use tweezers to place individual pieces of rock salt just where they want.

General Painting & Drawing Tips

A few of my best bits of advice for creating art in general.

Cool colours and Contrasting colours for lively shadows:

To make your pictures look more vibrant and real, and avoid boring, muddly browns and greys, using cool colours and contrasting colours is the key. Any time you draw or paint shadows, or things that are supposed to be white or black, try using a blue, cool purple or green instead of black or grey and it will look better. The colour you choose should match the rest of your colour scheme, and it helps for it to be a contrasting colour (eg, purple is the opposite of yellow, blue is the opposite of orange, red is the opposite of green). Using black or greys will make your image look flat and lifeless as these colours rarely occur in real life.

The right canvas:

Something I tell people a lot, because no one ever told me and it’s something I’ve found indespensible now I know, is to always use the right paper for the right job. For mediums such as paint (acrylic to watercolour), pastels, coloured pencils, they will never look good on the wrong paper. These are high demand mediums, and need the paper to match. Coloured pencil needs a thick paper with what is called “tooth”. This means the surface is slightly rough, to take the colour well. Otherwise the waxy pencils will just slide over the top, not leaving a smooth shading of colour. It doesn’t have to be textured as such, but some tooth is generally needed. Water colours generally use a LOT of water while painting. If the paper is too thin or weak, it will tear apart, buckle and become a mess. Using a proper watercolour paper, particularly a 100% cotton paper of a heavy GSM (thickness) will greatly improve the potential of the watercolour, allowing you to use more water, more layers and more interesting techniques. Think of it this way- have you ever tried to wash a stain out of cotton? Works ok right? How about out of a sheet of paper? It will fall to bits. When you use cotton paper the watercolour is much easier to manipulate. It blends effortlessly, and you can even lift paint back off by gently scrubbing the paper with a brush if you accidently get it wrong without worrying about damaging the paper too much, unlike normal papers.

The paper I use, which I think is a great multi-purpose paper, is Arches 300gsm smooth cotton watercolour paper.

Practice, practice, PRACTICE:

Some people think that art appears magically, because they only see the finished product. They don’t see the hours and hours of painting and drawing involved. And more importantly, the YEARS of practice that have come before. It is like the story that talks about a lady that sees Picasso in a coffee shop. She asks him for a portrait of her, and he quickly draws a portrait of her in five minutes and hands it to her, and demands $5000 for it. She complains, “But it only took you five minutes”. He replies, “No, it took me 40 years.”.
A lot of younger artists get frustrated with their skill level, and think they will never reach the level of the artists who are their idols. But consider that many of these artists have been painting for decades. And not just a painting every few months, but practicing every single day.
The point of this is that excellent artists ARE excellent because they work hard at it. They draw and paint all the time. They read books and take classes. They push their boundaries and paint things that will challenge them to learn more. Maybe there is a little talent there to start with, but like anything else it’s the time and effort you put in that counts. If you want to draw and paint well, practice, practice, practice! If you think you can’t draw faces, then just keep drawing them until they are right! Don’t give up or avoid doing something because you think you can’t. You will probably suprise yourself when you try. You will find that if you spend some time every day, or at least every week, your art will improve so quickly right in front of your eyes!

Mixing Mediums:

Every different art medium (a medium is what you paint or draw with, like watercolour, pencil, charcoal, etc) has it’s own special properties, abilities and downfalls. Using just one pure medium per artwork can create amazing results when you work with the mediums own special potential, however, sometimes, you want the best of all worlds. And using mixed mediums is a great way to get interesting results using two, three, or more mediums in the one artwork.
For example, watercolours beauty lies in it’s spontenaety. How you can use the way it moves almost of it’s own design through the water and the paper, creating interesting textures and effects. Many techniques like salting only work best with watercolour. However, it has some downfalls as well, such as it is difficult to create more darker, richer colours, and you can easily overwork the paint making it muddy and ruining smooth washes.
Acrylic paints, on the other hand, can be used to create very dark, rich, detailed paintings. But it doesn’t work as well for washes or special textures and effects that watercolour does. So why not get the best of both worlds and use both mediums in the same artwork? For example, you could create a background wash with salting effects in watercolour, but paint the figure or object of the painting in acrylics. When used in certain ways, you can paint acrylic over watercolour or watercolour over acrylic (more difficult). You may then want to go further, and use coloured pencils to do more detailed work over that, or an opaque gouche paint. Sometimes I use a little pastel over the top of my paintings and smudge it in for smooth glows or mists.
What mediums you use and how you use them depends on the result you want to get, and also how the mediums interact with each other. Much of this takes practice in the different mediums to understand their properties well before putting them together. My best advice is to just experiment and go with it!

Fear of losing your wonderful sketch:

I’ve been there. You’ve sketched up a stunning concept and you love it. But you’re terrified to paint it in case you stuff it up and that’s it, gone for good! But why does it have to be that way? We should be free to experiment and have a go at our painting without that fear. If we stuff up, we should be able to just have another go, and if you prepare well, you can.

For almost all my paintings now, I scan my sketch in before painting it. Often, I’ll sketch in my sketch book, which I couldn’t paint in anyway because the paper quality isn’t right for it, then scan the sketch into my computer from there. After that, I have the sketch available for as many tries as I need to get the painting right. I will then print the sketch out lightly onto my painting paper using my large format, waterfast printer. I’m lucky I have that available. If you don’t, you can stick to painting at letter size and use a home inkjet (just be aware if the ink isn’t water fast, you may need to use a fixative of something else to stop the sketch washing away). Otherwise, and this is a bit more work, you can print the sketch out on a few pieces of plain letter paper to be stuck together into a larger sheet and trace the sketch onto your painting surface. It’s not as ideal as printing the sketch directly, but still saves your original sketch and lets you have as many goes as needed to get the painting right.

Video- Digital speed painting animation

I took a few snapshots of this digital sketch as I was painting to show the way I paint digitally by roughing in shapes then refining. This sketch was done for Sketch Fest in about 45 mins.

(If the animation doesn’t play for you, open the direct image here- https://selinafenech.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/moonlitpathanim.gif )

Art Books You Should Have

I’m always buying art technique books, always on the look out for some new gem of information hidden within their pages. Even if I get one really solid new tip from each book I consider them a success.

I’ve build up quite a collection by now, but there are just a few that I found the most useful, showing me things in a whole new way, teaching me something I never knew before. I highly recommend these books for any traditional painters, and some for any artists.

Watercolor Made Simple with Claudia Nice


This is a great starting place for any new artist who wants to work in watercolours or any traditional painting medium, but even as a more experienced artist I found this book very useful. It covers all the bases, all the standard tips and tricks (salting, dry brushing, wet in wet etc) plus a few new ones. I found her section on colour theory to be excellent, very practical and understandable.

How to make Watercolor Paint Itself by Nita Engle


This is a brilliant book, which shows an entirely different approach to painting with watercolors. I regularly use techniques from this book, and if it teaches you nothing else, it will help you be more comfortable and experimental with the paint, allowing its natural flow and behaviour work for you rather than against you.

The Simple Secret to Better Painting by Greg Albert


This is an art book that applies to pretty much all schools and mediums of art, because it’s just about composition. As it says “How to Immediately Improve Your Work with the One Rule of Composition”. Here, I’m going to spoil the surprise- the rule is variation, to “Never have two intervals the same”. Of course, that’s the simplified version, and this book delves into how to use spacing, detail and texture, value, hue, and all other elements of a painting to improve your compositions by following this rule. A very interesting and helpful read on an area of art that a lot of artists overlook, or follow instinctively without ever really understanding.

Anatomy for Fantasy Artists by Glen Fabry


A fairly basic but well explained book on anatomy and figure drawing, but all within the fantasy genre- what more could you ask? Since basic anatomy and figure drawing books don’t deal with action poses and more heroic figure proportions as much, this is great for anyone in the fantasy art genre.

Paint Radiant Realism in Watercolour, Ink and Colored Pencil by Sueellen Ross


While I wasn’t particularly keen on the exact methods and style shown in this book, it did lead me to experiment more with other mixed media myself (using watercolour and acrylics together more) and improved my artwork in that way.

Art: A World History


I don’t actually have this book, but it’s the closest I could find on Amazon to the MUCH older book of a similar style I have. I think it’s important as an artist of any kind to have at least a surface knowledge of the eras, fads, and styles of art that have come before, and the artists who’ve made the biggest impacts on art and culture throughout history.