Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Maine Pebble Sketch with Step-by-Step Tutorial

One of the things I enjoy most about Maine is the rocky beaches filled with stones of varying sizes, colors, and textures. This year, for the first time, I thought I'd try to capture those colorful pebbles in a sketch. Here's what I came up with....

Ink & watercolor in a 9" x 6" hardcover Stillman & Birn Alpha series sketchbook

Would you like to know how I painted all those interesting textures on the stones or how to do the interesting curvy border ? Read on to find out!

Click the thumbnail for a larger image, if you'd like to see all the details.

Late one afternoon, my friend Wendy and I headed out to Crescent Beach at low tide to do some sketching.

While she sketched me sketching, I focused on the pile of rocks at my feet.

I sketched in the main shapes of the stones quickly with a pencil.

Next, I inked the shapes with a Platinum Carbon Desk Pen filled with Platinum Carbon Black ink, then applied an initial watercolor wash onto each of the rocks.

I tried to achieve variation in tone on many of the rocks by dropping in darker values or contrasting colors...

On some, I waited until the base wash had begun to dry slightly then touched in medium-value paint in the same colorway as the base wash. This created blooms that gave me a nice head start on creating texture on the stone.

That's all I had time for while I was there on location. The sun was going down, and it was time to cook dinner for my students, so I packed up my supplies and headed back to Primrose Cottage.

Back home in my studio after the trip, I resumed work on the sketch, and the texturing process began in earnest. I wet the gray rock in the upper left-hand corner of the sketch with clean water and grabbed a couple of dark earth tone and black Derwent Inktense Watercolor Pencils and my spatter screen. I held the screen over the wet rock and scratched the black pencil lead across the screen to scrape off particles of pigment.

They fell onto the wet rock, creating a granite-like texture. The granules dissolved slightly and adhered to the paper as they dried.

(After the paper dried, excess granules which had fallen onto the surrounding dry paper were easily removed by holding the paper vertically and tapping it over a trash can.)

 I used the same technique on a gray stone in the lower right corner of the sketch,

but this time, I touched the wet granules with the point of a round brush here and there to soften some of the edges and give a different look.

In cases where I wanted a mottled look on a rock, I dabbed on spots of paint with the tip of a round brush like this...

then smudged the paint with my finger to make the marks appear more irregular.

It worked well to create splotchy texture.

As the sketch progressed, I added layers of watercolor on top of the dry base washes to deepen the colors of the pebbles and indicate form shadows. I sprinkled salt into some of the washes.

As the salt dried, it created a distinctive crystalline texture that was perfect for some of the granite stones I was painting.

Here's what the sketch looked like in the early stages of adding texture...

When I wanted to add texture to a stone but was concerned about paint getting onto adjacent pebbles, I used Grafix Frisket Film to isolate the stone I was painting.

To use the frisket film, I cut a piece that measured at least an inch larger than the stone on all sides, peeled away the paper backing, and affixed the clear adhesive-backed plastic film over the area to be painted. Then I used a #11 X-Acto blade to carefully cut around the stone (without slicing into the paper).

I lifted the film that covered the pebble, exposing that section of my sketch.

I laid pieces of paper over the outer edges of the plastic and weighted them down to cover the rest of my sketchbook page.

With the film protecting the surrounding paper, I was free to add texture in any number of ways. Here, I applied paint with a crumpled piece of plastic wrap...

On this stone I spattered paint, blotting some of the spatters to lighten them while leaving others untouched and thus darker.

This stone has frisket film around it.

It was easy to sponge paint with a natural sea sponge onto one small pebble when the edges were masked with frisket film.

When the sponging and spattering were complete, the film was peeled away.

After I was satisfied with the texture and form shadows on the rocks, I added cast shadows all over the sketch. Since the sun was low in the sky when I took my reference photo, the shadows were very pronounced. I used artistic license to turn back the clock and make shorter shadows in the sketch than what I had seen in real life. (Sorry, I forgot to take a picture of the shadow painting step.)

The last step in the painting process was to add cracks and fissures on some of the stones,

Notice the tiny white highlights in the pitted spots on the gray rock

and spatter Titanium White opaque watercolor on this pebble.

I also added white veining to one of the larger rocks using watered-down opaque white. I didn't want the white to stand out too much in the overall look of the painting.

The pebble painting was finished! Now came the hardest part of the sketching process, deciding what to do with the surrounding white space.

What would you do with all this white space?

I decided to add a border to the page using painter's tape. I tore strips of green Frog Tape in half lengthwise, creating an irregular wavy line.

I applied the tape about 1/4" away from my sketch, with the wavy edge facing toward the outside edge of the paper and overlapping at the corners. (Always be sure to stick any masking tape to your clothing a couple of times before applying to your paper. This removes some of the stickiness and prevents the tape from tearing your paper when it's removed.)

The corners were mitered using an X-Acto knife fitted with a #11 blade. First, I carefully cut a 45 degree angle through the top layer of tape.

Then I cut off the underneath tape that was extending out the side.

That left a nice, neat corner.

Now it was time to paint. Since I was going to paint a juicy wet-in-wet border, I slipped some paper towels in behind my page to protect the rest of my sketchbook. After mixing up puddles of paint (the same colors used for the pebbles), I began applying the richly colored paint to the border.

The consistency of the paint was important. It had to mingle and flow, blending softly together without mixing completely. I wanted the individual hues to be discernible so they would echo the colors of the stones, rather than combining to create a big, muddy mess.

After the border had dried, I removed the tape, only to find that some paint had seeped under at the corners. Oops!

Not a problem! I lifted the paint with a damp brush, then brushed on a little Daler-Rowney Pro White to cover what remained.

The next step in constructing the border design was to lay a piece of heavy-duty pet screening over the page, align it with the edge, and use it as a grid to draw pencil lines approximately 1/4" apart, radiating out from the center of the page.

It was a quick way to transfer parallel lines to the border without any tedious measuring.

The only problem with using the pet screening was that my pencil lead broke once in awhile as I dragged it across the ridges of the screen, but it was still quicker than using a ruler to mark all those lines.

I inked each line....

Then I inked another line between each line. Note that I always use a piece of scrap paper underneath the page when working on borders, to protect the other sketchbook pages.

The corners were free-handed with radiating lines.

It looked good, but I decided to take it a step further. Don't I always? :)

I laid down a strip of masking tape about 3/8" from the edge of the paper to use as a guide.

I then drew a line between each of the previously drawn lines, from the tape to the edge of the paper, creating a darker border within the painted border.

The page was finally finished!

Ink & watercolor in a 9" x 6" hardcover Stillman & Birn Alpha series sketchbook

I was tempted to add even more detailing (maybe another thin black line outside the edge of the pebble sketch?) but decided to leave some breathing room for this very detailed sketch . I have to remind myself that white space is good. It's not necessarily crying to be filled.

Looking at this colorful little sketch, I'm transported back to Maine. I remember that happy hour I spent there on the beach, chatting now and then with Wendy, listening to the waves gently lapping against the shore, and feeling perfectly content. Sketching keeps me in the moment while I'm doing it and takes me back to those special times when I look at the sketch later. So many wonderful memories lie nestled between the covers of my journals.


  1. Excellent tutorial, TH🙏🏼NKS‼️♥️🎨♥️‼️

  2. Thank you Leslie. I haven't painted a rocks page in my book yet and this was a great tutorial. Especially getting different textures. Very fun.

    1. Give it a try, Connie, and be sure to share your sketch on our Facebook group. Can't wait to see it!

  3. Fantastic! Great techniques for achieving varied textures, Leslie!

    1. I hope you'll give them a try - it's fun to play around with them.

  4. Great tutorial. Thanks for sharing your process.

    1. You're welcome, Ernie. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. I really like your step by step process! Also, where the seepage occurred, try using a piece of magic eraser dipped in a little water. It takes paint right off the paper with very little damage. Just use a light touch.

    1. Good idea. I guess I could have tried that. The Alpha paper isn't very tough, though, and I'm afraid the Magic Eraser might have damaged the paper. I should test it out on a piece of scrap paper and see how much rubbing the Alpha paper can take before it gets damaged.

  6. This sketch is fantastic! Thank you for such a helpful and detailed tutorial!

    1. And thank you for reading to the end of this mammoth post!

  7. This is so amazingly cool!! Thanks for sharing.

    1. You're welcome, Katherine. I had a lot of fun painting it, and it's not hard if you just take it a step at a time.

  8. This is a wonderful tutorial!! Thank you for sharing!!

    1. Glad you liked it. I hope you'll be able to use some of the texturing techniques in your sketches.

  9. Well, I would certainly call this one Slow Art! You worked so hard!! But it was so worth it. Could not have turned out better!

    1. It definitely took awhile, and even longer than it normally would because I was taking pictures and scanning along the way, but it was fun seeing it come to life. What's the big rush, anyway, right Jessica? :)

  10. Thanks for a wonderfully tutorial, I love all your tutorials. This one speciality, I always look at rocks and find them fantastic. But went you started adding the border I said oh no it’s perfect the way it is. As you finish I was fascinated how can perfect painting become more perfect.

    1. Thanks for your sweet comment, Miriam. It's always a risk to keep adding to a sketch that's going well, and sometimes I really overdo it, but this time I think everything turned out for the best. Having the white space between the sketch and border gives it some breathing room.

  11. This was a wonderful, detailed lesson-as always, my friend. Amazing...You are so, so talented! But the best part is seeing your sketch and being transported back to all that is Maine. I can hear the surf coming in and see you sitting on your stool peering intently at the pebbles at your feet. You are right, it is a visual memory! Thank you for sharing that special place with me! Cant wait for our next adventure!

    1. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that you will come along on one of my European trips next year.....

  12. Thank you for sharing your process - amazing! Love how you achieved all that lovely texture

    1. You're welcome, Rachel. The texturing techniques take time, but the results are well worth it.


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