How to Create an Outline from a Photo Reference

We are not all gifted with the ability to draw what we see even though we are good watercolour artists, however this should not stop us from being able to get a reasonable sketch from a photo reference onto our watercolour paper ready to begin the painting process.

One of the simplest ways of transferring a photo image to our paper is to use the Frisk Tracedown product. This is like carbon paper but it is coated with graphic powder on the back so that any pressure on the front transfers the graphite powder to the watercolour paper. Sometimes though using a photograph makes it hard to see which are the important lines to transfer to the your painting paper and I have discovered a method that I would like to share with that makes the process even easier to do.


I have discovered a fairly simple sequence of actions to follow using the free GIMP graphics application that runs on MS Windows to create a clear outline from a detailed photo image. Once you have this clear outline from your photograph you can then decide which elements you need to trace so that the important features get transferred in the correct proportions and perspective – two areas that cause most of us the biggest problems when we are sketching out our initial drawing.

This is the reference image I used for this demonstration which is a photo I took of the Bombay Distillery near Basingstoke:

This is the sequence of steps to follow:

  1. Having loaded in your photo reference image Select Menu Filters – Edge Detect – Edge and that will produce this effect:
  2. Now you need to invert this image so select Colours from the menu and then Invert and you will get this effect:
  3. Finally I have found it best to convert this image to a more black and white version for clarity by choosing Colourize from the Colour menu option and then in the popup dialog move the slider across to the left and position it half way down so that you end up with this:
  4. This is now a good clear outline to work with and makes it easy to pick out the important lines to transfer to your watercolour paper.

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Alternative to Gator Board

Gator Board Alternative

I have been investigating the availability of Gator Board, which is readily available in the US but not here in the UK. This board is very handy for stretching watercolour paper using the stapling method. The only outlet I can find that supply Gator Board is Jackson’s Art Supplies!

I decided to see if I could find an alternative board that was readily available, inexpensive to purchase and that would allow wet paper to be stapled to it for stretching without the board warping during the drying process.

Firstly I tried a couple of the so called “Foam Boards” but as they are not coated top and bottom with a wood veneer they weren’t successful at all and they were very expensive options.

Next I turned my attention to a board that is made from used newspaper and cellulose called “Sundeala Pinboard”. This is primarily produced to be used as pin boards on the wall which is what attracted me to it. In the US they call this board “Homasote Baord” however it is a slightly different construction to Sundeala Board. Although this board worked well, is readily available and held the staples during the paper drying time, unfortunately it isn’t rigid enough to stop the paper warping the board! It is also a very expensive option to use, a small piece measuring 60cm x 30cm costs around £20.00.

However I have now experimented with Oriented Strand Board (OSB). It is a type of engineered wood similar to particle board, formed by adding adhesives and then compressing layers of wood strands in specific orientations. This board is quite dense and I was able to find an off-cut at my local hardware store that I purchased for £2.00 to try it out! I think that this board is probably the answer as it ticks all of the boxes as far as requirements go and most importantly it is much cheaper to buy. B&Q sell it in 810mm x 410mm x 9mm for just over £7.00 and this is large enough to make two 1/4 imperial sized stretching boards.

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Watercolour Paintings created in May 2018

After Geoff Kersey

Another of the new Geoff Kersey tutorials inspired me to complete this interpretation of the “Bosham Church” tutorial. It came together very well and I think that I am starting to really get into the process of these more complex and richer watercolour paintings thanks to the guidance from Geoff.




A painting completed in under 2 hours at an art group meeting!


This painting showing a sunset with sailing ship and foreground in silhouette was completed in just two hours at one of my art groups evening sessions. The theme for the session was “Sky” so it fulfilled that requirement quite spectacularly. The sun melting into the distant sea on the right came out well, as did the whole piece. This was fun to do especially in one evening!



The SAA (Society for All Artists), provided a fascinating online tutorial the other week presented by Graham Berry. I have been inspired by his work for some time so jumped at the chance to be able to “sit in” via the web on a 4 hour session. It was fantastic to watch how he went about creating one of his colourful “people on  a bench” paintings, so much so in fact that I just had to give it a go – I am so pleased with how this painting turned out.

After Graham Berry

I have never tried anything like this before where the main focal point is people and not the place they are occupying.
The setting is simple but the subject is complex because of the shadows both on clothing and around the people themselves making them actually sit on the bench and become part of the scene. I had a great time creating this painting over a two day period and I am so pleased and proud with how it turned out.



After Geoff Kersey

Yet another Geoff Kersey inspired painting, this time an American landscape from within the Yosemite National Park.

This through up many challenges with distant mountains, complex reflections and creating depth of field. Thoroughly enjoyed creating this painting and once again I am very proud of how it finished up even though at one point I was tearing my hair out trying to get the mountain on the right correct. In the end I had to sponge out the colour and do that mountain again – that’s watercolour for you!


For my final painting in May 2018 I would like to thank Shareen Downe from the Facebook group, Art and Photography in Support of Mental Wellbeing, for allowing me to use her superb photo of the “Moon Gate” in the gardens of West Green House, Hartley Wintney in Hampshire as my reference image for this painting.

Saunders Waterford 1/4 Imperial 140lb paper.


This watercolour was painted on Saunders Waterford Rough 1/4 Imperial sized paper and took two fun days to complete. I found it challenging as flowers are not really my thing but I used some artistic license and it came together great in the end. It is now framed and adorns the wall of my dining room!


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I am running out of wall space!

I am really enjoying the tutorial projects that Geoff Kersey is producing. He has committed to 2 a month and so far all of them have been challenging in many different ways and included many different levels of complexity.

Grange in Barrowdale – After Geoff Kersey – Saunders Waterford 140lb paper

I found the “Grange in Barrowdale” very challenging, in fact I had to wash out my first attempt at the mountains and have another go at them. The second attempt turned out much better and produced a fairly balanced painting.





Having completed this one I felt a surge of creativity and decided to really challenge myself using a photo reference from a friend, Simon Smith, who belongs to our local camera group. His photo of Bosham, pronounced “Bozam” by the locals, really caught my eye.
I have to say that putting in the vehicles was a real challenge for me!

As you can see it is a very complex and busy subject with a pleasing balance of houses, water and boats.

This is now framed and hanging on my landing and I have to say looks really great behind glass.

Bosham, Chichester. Saunders Waterford
from a reference photo by Simon Smith, Yateley

Geoff Keresey’s next tutorial, “Mallorca  Street” was a chance to create some sunshine in what has proved to be a very wet and dismal start to the year here in Hampshire, UK.

Saunders Waterford 140lb block – after Geoff Kersey

This was a fun painting to do with all of the textures on the walls, the flowers, shadows and of course the all important Mediterranean light.

Again it turned out really nicely so I framed this one too and hung it on the last available space on my landing wall.





After Geoff Kersey – Saunders Waterford 140lb paper

This months tutorial is different again! Geoff managed to come up with a photo reference for a man fishing in the Grand Union Canal at Islington. It is hard to believe that about 20 yards away behind that bridge is Islington high street with all of the hustle and bustle of everyday life and yet here is a scene of absolute tranquillity on a lovely summers day!
I am very pleased with the light in this one along with the reflections and the tranquil nature of the painting itself.

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Another Geoff Kersey Watercolour Landscape Project

Just completed another Watercolour painting after Geoff Kersey.

This one is a view looking back from Boggle Hole towards Robin Hoods Bay on the Yorkshire coast. The reference photo for this painting is a very good composition that takes in a lot of foreground and middle distance reducing the size of the skyline in the far distance.

Painted on Arches 300lb NOT surface block watercolour paper

The challenges with this painting were getting the aerial perspective right and keeping the tonal values balanced with the other colours in the painting from the sky and the sea. It was interesting have the foreground rocks as the point of interest.

I have received excellent feedback on various social media groups and received my highest numbers “likes” for this painting so I hope that you all like it as much as I and all of my friends seem to do!

This is painted on Arches 300lb block paper using White Night professional watercolours. This is my first painting using this particular weight of paper and I have to say that it is wonderful to work with, takes plenty of water without reacting, allows lifting out very nicely and also takes a lot punishment along the way without showing any signs of a problem.

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