Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Two Birds in Watercolour


A while back, I posted a step-by-step pen and ink drawing of a Northern Mockingbird. The post may be viewed here. Occasionally, I paint birds in watercolour, as well. I’ve done a few recently and I thought I’d show you a bit of my process.

Several years ago, I was teaching an en plein air watercolour class on the Toronto waterfront. It was during the month of June and the trees were alive with busy local nesting birds. At one point, I reached for my binoculars to check out the source of some particularly harsh squalling. It was a fledgling, a young bird that had only very recently left the nest. It was one of the ugliest creatures I’d ever seen and I didn’t know what species it was until a parent dropped by with a beakfull of nourishment for the hungry youngster. I won’t reveal the species right away. Let’s talk about my process.

I worked from my own photo back in the studio. I print both a colour and a black and white version. The black and white version helps me see and understand the values. I grid the colour version and then draw a rectangle of the exact same proportion on my paper. I used a small block of Arches, Hot Press, 140lb., watercolour paper. Using the grid, I draw the bird with a very light touch of a soft 2B pencil. The pencil lines are quite faint and hard to see but easy to clean up with an eraser. For the sake of this post, I strengthened the drawing so that it would be clearer.

Step One of Fledgling

So far, the first step is identical to what I did with my pen and ink drawing of the Northern Mockingbird. This is a watercolour, however. Step Two means it’s time to paint. I mix Burnt Sienna with Cobalt Blue in order to create a cool/neutral grey. In Step Two I painted a narrow range of values to show the darker areas of the bird and also to suggest texture.

Step Two of Fledgling

Local colour is introduced with Step Three. Our fledging is a fairly colourful creature. I ‘glaze’ thin washes of colour where needed.

Step Three of Fledgling

Step Four is really a series of steps as I continue to develop colour and value. I step back a lot and take short breaks. The stepbacks and breaks are just as important as touching the brush to the paper. Eventually, the painting is finished.

Step Four of Fledgling

By the way, I don’t use opaque white paint. I reserve the white of the paper. It’s challenging, especially when there are white areas on the bird. Can you guess the species? It’s a young Red-winged Blackbird.

I’ll show you one more bird painting while I have your attention. It’s another common urban bird and this time I’ll just show two steps. Here is the ‘monochromatic’ stage of this study of a House Sparrow. Again, I’ve used a few values at this point.

Study of House Sparrow

The House Sparrow is not a colourful bird, at all. I stuck with the combination of Burnt Sienna and Cobalt Blue for the entire painting. Also, I gradually darken these paintings as the ‘light to dark’ process is very forgiving. These paintings are quite small, only 4 by 5 inches or so. The image on your screen is probably larger than the actual watercolour study. I hope you find this approach useful for working from your own photographs. It’s just one way to do it as, of course, there are likely as many ways to paint birds as there are artists. If you’d like to view more of my bird studies, click here.


Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick 2018!


July 29 – August 3, 2018

Grand Manan Island is the jewel of the Bay of Fundy and a long-time destination for artists. Lighthouses, fishing villages and rugged coastal scenery provide stimulating subjects for sketching and painting.

Barry Coombs has been leading workshops on Grand Manan Island since 1991. A graduate of the Ontario College of Art, he has led workshops in Quebec and Maritime Canada for twenty years as well as many international workshops in England, Italy, France, Greece, USA and Mexico. He is noted for his positive and constructive attitude and ability to work with students of all levels of skill and experience. Barry exhibits his work locally and internationally and represented Canada at the G20 World Artist Festival in Seoul, South Korea in 2010.

Our workshop focuses on watercolour painting, pen and ink sketching and pen drawing with wash. Participants working in other media are very welcome, as are non-painting partners and friends. Demonstrations, individual attention and constructive critiques are essential elements of this creative learning experience. This workshop is for participants with some previous experience in their chosen medium.

WHAT WILL YOU LEARN? Barry has extensive teaching experience and is able to bring out the best in painters of different levels of skill and experience. He will introduce participants to new ideas and approaches to plein air painting and is very well-known for his insightful critiques. His solid grounding in the traditional fundamentals of drawing, watercolour technique, colour and composition benefits all participants. His own watercolours, featured in the April 2013 issue of the UK’s Leisure Painter magazine, are colourful and playful and loosely inspired by Cubism. At some point in every workshop, he will discuss his recent work and is quite happy to provide guidance to anyone interested in trying this fascinating creative process.

View photos of past Grand Manan painting holidays.

• Welcome Dinner and Orientation Get-together following arrival on Sunday
• Tuition for five painting days; Monday to Friday from approx. 9am – 4pm
• Use of studio in the event of inclement weather
• Farewell Dinner and Final Critique on Friday evening

• Sunday, July 29: Arrival Day and Welcome Dinner
• Monday, July 30 – Friday, August 3: Painting Days
• Friday, August 3: Farewell Dinner and Final Critique
• Saturday, August 4 – Sunday, August 5: Our workshop is over but many participants stay until Sunday and explore the island on Saturday. Whale-watching, sea-kayaking and hiking are a few of many popular activities.

Grand Manan offers a variety of places to stay, including B&B’s, inns, cottages, campgrounds and a motel. Contact Barry Coombs using the form below for a list of recommended accommodations. Don’t delay! Most places book up fast for the summer season.

Many participants drive to Grand Manan. The car ferry leaves from Black’s Harbour, which is one hour south of Saint John, every two hours. Some fly to Saint John and rent a car for the week. Contact Barry for assistance with planning your trip.

It may be possible to arrange carpooling but relying on carpooling is not recommended. Contact Barry for more information.

Contact Barry Coombs at or use the contact form below. Registration will be confirmed when a non-refundable deposit of $100 is received. The balance of $450 is due no later than June 30, 2018.

After July 20, 2018 the workshop fee is non-refundable. In the event of insufficient enrollment, a full refund will be made.

Spring Sustained Saturday Watercolour Class – May 2



Sustained Saturdays run from 10am – 4:30pm. We stop painting at 4pm and take half an hour to look at the work together. In other words, there’s lots of painting time. I don’t rush my morning demonstration and I strongly suggest that the students devote ample time to preliminary studies.

My demonstration focused on basics; value and colour. Some of the objects in the still life were more challenging to draw than others. An orange may not test the limits of a student with decent drawing skills but the handle on the big jar is a different story. I painted the handle (left side of sheet) in four values. Actually, I only painted three values. The lightest value (1) is the paper white itself; no paint necessary. There are two middle tones (2 & 3) and a strong dark (4).

Watercolour demonstration sheet by Barry Coombs

The warm colours of the oranges and grapefruit really glow against the blue objects and fabric. It’s not always easy to capture that essence in a painting. You could hear a pin drop in the last few hours as the students were absorbed in their work. I spend most of my time in the later afternoon reminding them to step back from their paintings and view them in an upright position. Better decisions are made from a distance and one has to keep a fresh eye. Time stepping back is never time wasted, especially on a Sustained Saturday!

Sustained Saturday Critique

Sustained Saturday Critique

Lucca 2014 – Trips around Tuscany



I probably don’t need to tell you where this photo was taken. We visited Pisa last Wednesday. It’s not far from Lucca and we had our own bus for the day. We met a local guide, Francesca, who gave us an informative tour and then we sketched for an hour or so before lunch. After the usual lengthy and tasty lunch, we had free time for sketching and exploring before our departure.


On our way back to Lucca, our driver Giuseppe detoured to Torre del Lago. Puccini wrote many of his operas in an old watch tower converted into a villa.

Thursday was a painting and sketching day in Lucca and we spent it at Villa Bottini, a peaceful walled park. There was plenty of subject matter inside and outside the wall and it was a very productive day.



It was back to the Hotel Rex for our critique at the end of the day. Most of the work was from Villa Bottini but you may recognize a few images from Pisa, as well.






Yesterday was Friday and our destination was Montecatini Alto, a gorgeous hilltop village not far from Lucca. Our first day of bad weather was looming and it fulfilled it’s nasty promise. After a few hours, our artists sought shelter in cafes as strong winds and heavy rain swept through Tuscany. The restaurant that hosted our group lunch opened it’s doors to us and many sketched from inside the historic old building. We had to cut our day a little bit short when the tempest returned in the afternoon but it was a comfort to hop onto our own bus which waited nearby.







Saturday and Sunday are free days. Most of the group are off on day trips to Siena, Barga and even Bologna. Plans to take the train to Florence have been compromised by a rail strike. In typical Italian fashion, the strike is scheduled to last only twenty four hours or so but the timing is terrible for those who had booked visits to the Uffizi and the Accademia.

Cinqueterre, Italy 1981-2


Riomaggiore by Barry Coombs

A long time ago, I had the good fortune to study in Florence for an academic year. After my return to Canada, it took years to pay off my student loans but it was worth it. During the Christmas break, a friend and I followed the sage advice of Sandro at Zecchi’s, the famous art supply store in Florence, and visited the coastal villages known as Cinqueterre. We had intended to stay overnight but dragged out the trip for several days, hiking the entire trail system and sketching everything that caught our eye.

I thought it would be timely to share a few of my Cinqueterre sketches as I’ll be heading off to Lucca with an eager and talented group next month. One of our day trips will take us to Cinqueterre.

The sketch above is of Riomaggiore. All of these sketches were done in a 9 1/2 x 13 1/2″ hardcover sketchbook. My typical practice was to lay in the drawing with pencil and then complete it with ink. I (carefully) carried around bottles of ink and ‘crow quill’ nibs and holders. Black and Raw Sienna inks were used in the Riomaggiore sketch.

Corniglia by Barry Coombs

The next sheet gives a sense of the dramatic topography of this beautiful area. I settled on my sketching stool and looked down over Corniglia. I completed the sketch in Sepia ink, turned my stool around and looked way up at San Bernardino. If you’ve been to the region, you’re probably wondering about San Bernardino. It’s not one of the five villages. Actually, it’s a hilltop hamlet and is considered to be a part of Corniglia.

Vernazza by Barry Coombs

The third and final sketch that I’ll share today is of Vernazza; Sepia ink over pencil. I loved working with a ‘dipping’ pen and I still do but, these days, I use them exclusively in the studio. Outdoors, I use various pigment ink disposable sketching pens and I’ve strongly recommended that my students bring a compact sketching kit to Lucca.

I drew and painted outdoors as much as possible while studying in Florence. However, the occasional rainy weather gave me the opportunity to sketch in the museums and galleries, including the Uffizi! I learned a lot by studying the masters through drawing whether it was figures from paintings or sculptures. I’ll show you a few of those in my next post. Ciao!


Plein Air Toronto – Last Two Days of a Great Week!


Lilies - PleinAirTO2014  Chapel - PleinAirTO2014

We enjoyed beautiful sunny weather for the last two days of our Plein Air Toronto week of sketching and painting. Our site for Thursday was Riverdale Farm and the adjacent Toronto Necropolis.

Several of our participants were working outdoors for the first time this week. The monuments and stones in the cemetery are good practice for combining architectural forms with foliage. I chose a few stones for the subject of my demonstration and threw a small wrench into the works, using a flat angled brush and a ‘swatch-like’ approach to the study.

Watercolour demonstration by Barry Coombs - PleinAirTO2014

I also presented a short illustrated talk about creating a focal point in a painting. We discussed three key elements; colour, contrast and structure. We looked at two paintings from the Renaissance. The first was the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci and the second was the Wedding Feast by Pieter Breughel the Elder.

Between the Necropolis and the Farm we had all kinds of subject matter from which to choose. Everyone loves to see the critters on the Farm but not everyone goes down the hill to the lower ponds. Part of it is a wildlife sanctuary and is home to amazing creatures like this Black-crowned Night Heron.

Black-crowned Night Heron - PleinAirTO2014

Horse - PleinAirTO2014  Flowers - PleinAirTO2014

Farmhouse - PleinAirTO2014

Kim at Work - PleinAirTO2014

Jane at Work - PleinAirTO2014  Debbie at Work - PleinAirTO2014

We found a quiet spot for our critique and were able to look at all of the work at once.

Thursday Critique - PleinAirTO2014

The painting spot for Friday was Edward’s Gardens and the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Edward's Gardens - PleinAirTO2014

I brought along a few books to show before I demonstrated at my easel. We looked at the watercolours of three very different artists; Paul Cezanne, John Singer Sargent and Charles Burchfield. In particular, we studied the way they each approached foliage.

My demonstration was painted with a 1″ flat angled brush. I used a ‘light to dark’ and ‘big to small’ approach as I attempted to convey ideas about simplifying foliage.

Me at Easel - PleinAirTO2014

Willow - PleinAirTO2014

Watercolour demonstration by Barry Coombs  - PleinAirTO2014

I don’t restrict the artists to a small area for the painting day. I define my ‘patrol area’, and let them search for their inspiration within those broader boundaries. The ‘patrol area’ is usually fairly large so there are lots of potential subjects. Edward’s Gardens has flower beds, groomed parkland and a ravine with the Don River running through it.

Elizabeth at Work - PleinAirTO2014

FriLaura  Fountain - PleinAirTO2014

From the ravine - PleinAirTO2014  Gardens - PleinAirTO2014

Peggy and Debbie at Work - PleinAirTO2014

A few of our artists weren’t able to attend on Friday but here’s a selection of the work from those who did. Not all are finished and several of them are studies, as opposed to sustained works. Some may be destined to be ‘worked up’ in the studio.

Peggy - PleinAirTO2014  Judy - PleinAirTO2014

Evelyn - PleinAirTO2014  Pat - PleinAirTO2014


Laura - PleinAirTO2014

Debbie - PleinAirTO2014

Jane - PleinAirTO2014

Elizabeth - PleinAirTO2014

Thanks go out to all of the participants and I’m grateful to those of you who follow and comment. Over the years, I’ve had many comments on this blog from Lois B. I don’t know Lois personally but she’s been a loyal follower for a long time. She said that she’s never been to Toronto and probably won’t get the opportunity so she’s enjoyed the travelogue. Lois, this final photo is your postcard from beautiful Toronto, Ontario!

Toronto - PleinAirTO2014

Jurying the 15th Annual DVSA Student Exhibition


DVSA-JurorI met Timothy Smith on Wednesday as we were co-jurors for the 15th Annual Student Exhibition at the Dundas Valley School of Art.

Timothy is a potter from Wiarton, Ontario, where he operates his Gleason Brook Pottery. He’s known for his beautifully crafted, functional stoneware.

We got along very well and had a lot of fun selecting the work for the exhibition. We chose 28 pieces in many different media. Several prizes, donated by local businesses and supporters, were awarded.

If you’re in the neighbourhood, drop by to see an excellent show.

The Dundas Valley School of Art is located at 21 Ogilvie Street in Dundas, Ontario. It can be reached at 905-628-6357 and

Tuesday Watercolour Class – Week Nine – Apples!


Still Life - WinterTuesWk9/2013

March didn’t exactly come in like a lion but it’s still been fairly cold and gray. Our colourful apples look very cheerful but, as simple as they seem, the students often find them to be a challenge.

The usual comment is that they are so smooth and perfect that there is no margin for error. Every wash has to be immaculate. Well. One way to get over that is to use a flat angled brush and a swatch-like approach to the watercolour painting.

I used yellow and the white of the paper for the lightest areas in my demonstration. Cobalt Blue was used as a light middle tone. I made, and added, a slightly darker middle tone by adding a bit of Rose Madder Quinacridone to the Cobalt Blue. I’ve created a kind of value study in cool and warm colours.

Watercolour Demonstration by Barry Coombs - WinterTuesWk9/2013

Most of the students followed, more or less, the same process. Once, the values had been developed in blue and yellow, local colour (such as green in a green apple) was introduced.

It’s a demanding exercise. Almost everyone was surprised at how quickly the images developed and many of the students completed two, or even three, studies in our three hour classes.

Tuesday AM Critique

Tuesday AM Critique

Tuesday PM Critique

Tuesday PM Critique


Tuesday Watercolour Class – Week Five – Veggie Stew!


Still Life - WinterTuesWk5

We’re halfway through winter term and just past Groundhog Day. Apparently, the groundhogs have decided that we’re getting six more weeks of cold weather but isn’t that what they always say?

Everybody knows what I’m making for dinner tomorrow night. I wanted familiar shapes, colour and a strong range of value in our still-life. These veggies fit the bill with the almost white of the turnips and the dark squash and jalapenos.

We’ve spent a lot of time on soft edge techniques and related brush-handling skills. It’s time for some new ideas and I’m going to concentrate on two in particular for the next several weeks. I’ll focus on a crisp-edge approach and I’ll be using flat and flat angled brushes.

Watercolour demonstration by Barry Coombs - WinterTuesWk5I stuck with a traditional round watercolour brush for this week’s Tuesday classes. I did some preliminary pencil drawing but it was very general and broad, barely indicating where the objects would be placed.

It’s difficult to describe every step of the two demonstrations to the left. The most obvious characteristic of these paintings is the crisp or sharp delineation between the shapes, even shapes on the same object. Generally, I worked light to dark. I painted light areas first and allowed them to dry before adding the darker shapes. I left more paper white than I usually do.

Many watercolour artists rely on crisp edges in their work but, if you’re doing it for the first time, it can be quite a challenge. Especially, if you’ve become more comfortable and fluent with the gentle transitions of soft edges. The strong, distinct changes of a crisp edge process are very powerful. Your eye needs to adjust to the new look.  A few simple things can help. Standing up to paint gets your eye farther away from the image and makes the crisp edges seem less daunting. Stepping back frequently to assess your work from a distance of six to eight feet is essential.

Many of the students gave it a shot. We’ll try it again next week with the flat and flat angled brushes. Eventually, each individual will find a balance between crisp and soft edge that suits their artistic temperament. That’s it for now. I have to look for an onion.

Tuesday AM Critique

Tuesday AM Critique

Tuesday PM Critique

Tuesday PM Critique


Student Days!


This is a sheet of studies in watercolour. I completed it several decades ago while a student in Fine Arts at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University). I’d been using watercolour, very cautiously, as a teenager but hadn’t had any formal training in the medium. Art College didn’t prove to be much different. There were only a few watercolour instructors and it wasn’t always easy to fit them into my timetable.

I definitely couldn’t find anyone who taught this type of illustrative rendering in watercolour so I had only one option. I sat down and stared at various objects (the ceramic figurine and the ink bottle) and photographs (the Bald Eagle). My ignorance of watercolour technique was a virtue. It forced me to analyze and experiment with the medium. I worked light to dark and I was very careful to preserve the white of the paper as my lightest light. I’d been working hard at my drawing and that was a major plus.

Never resist a challenge. Not all of my efforts proved to be as successful as this sheet but I learned something from each attempt. The things you teach yourself will always stay with you.