Layering and Masking

Layering and Masking. Letting go of the need for certainty. Working on something knowing it can and will change, as it emerges over a period of time. We rarely make time for this kind of thing, yet it often helps us think and do things differently.

During a recent two day art meets organisational development workshop in Berlin, we carried out a number of experiments. One of them involved layering and masking, building up and changing a piece of work over several iterations. Each person in the room was given a blank canvas, and encouraged to develop their work in layers over the course of the time we were together.

I chose to be quite orderly in my attempt – first masking out three lines across the canvas, then applying the first layers of paint. I used different tools to get different paint effects, and each time I returned to the artwork, I re-obscured most of the lines, and added more paint. Here are some photos of the work emerging over a 48 hour period.

Stephanie Barnes was a member of this group, and she produced a completely different work using a variety of different tools, including scrapers, bubble wrap, and a rubber comb to apply paint. I love how this artwork changes throughout the process – barely any traces of the original layer remain.

This was a really enjoyable process, I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to experience something emerging and changing over time in an improvisational way.


Learning To Paint – With Matt Forster

This post doesn’t contain any of my art. It is a write up of a watercolour class I attended in London run by the very talented Matt Forster. This is only the second time I’ve featured someone else’s art on here, the first being a guest appearance by Robert Ordever.


Matt usually works with just five Winsor and Newton artist quality watercolour paints. Alazarin Crimson, Cadmium Yellow, Cobalt Blue, Cerulean Blue and Ultramarine Blue. He can mix any other colour he needs from these basic colours. The paint is mixed in wine glasses so as to allow sufficient quantity to be made up to finish a piece of work, and a syringe is used to add water to dilute.

Mixing The Paint

Matt uses synthetic brushes, and large sheets of heavy weight paper, 450 gsm. He soaks the paper for at least an hour then sticks it to a thick mdf board using PVA glue and gumstrip before letting it dry for at least 24 hours. He then has a stretched, flat surface ready to paint on. The board with the paper attached then goes onto an old industrial easel – heavy and adjustable. This piece of kit reminded me of the drawing boards we used to use in school and in my first job as a draughtsman.

Tone and Contrast

We started looking at tone and contrast. Matt said that tone beats colour, and a good water colour should work well in black and white (you can check your own work by photographing then editing it on the computer). Matt took a large sheet of dry paper and on the left hand side he applied a blue wash to which he gradually added red, as he came down the paper. On the right side, he took the purple from the end of the previous wash (blue mixed with red) and diluted it as he came down the paper (leaving a small triangle of white paper on the way). On both sides, Matt worked down the page along straight horizontal lines because it’s the simplest, quickest way to create a wash over a whole/half page. He also made sure he moved quickly enough to ensure the paint didn’t dry on the page until the wash was finished. This ensures a smooth change of tone. Once the left hand side had dried, Matt added a darker shade of blue to create a mountain scape on the page. I didn’t photograph the picture before the mountains were added, but the gradation from blue to purple flowed nicely down the page.

Colour Washes

Dry Brush Work

Matt then showed us some dry brush work techniques – useful for adding more detail. He suggested that three things are important when working this way. The pressure applied, the volume of paint and the speed of the brush. A quick movement can leave useful dragged brush strokes. as seen in the lower part of this photograph, and a mix of dabbles and lines reveals a tree.

Dry Brush Work

Some dry brush work was added to both images, each layer a darker tone than the one before. The occasional white highlight is picked out afterwards using a scalpel and tweezers to score and carefully remove the top layer of paper.

Building the Images

Here are two close ups of the finished images.

Wet on Wet

Next Matt showed us painting onto a wet surface. He took a large stretched sheet of dry paper and applied clean water to it using a syringe and a large brush. Moving really quickly he then added colours and we watched them blend and move through each other on the wet paper. Colours are lighter using this technique as the water on the paper dilutes the paint. You can get a sense of how the colours interact and flow into each other from this close up. Matt left some of the paper towards the top of the image dry, and these dry white areas became sunlight striking the clouds as the picture developed.

Wet on Wet Close Up

Matt worked at pace to finish the background before drying the paint using a hairdryer and carrying on – this time using some dry brush work to add the house and some foreground detail. The drifting, flowing nature of the wet paint on wet paper contrasts wonderfully with the later addition of dryer strokes.

Wet on Wet Landscape

What amazed me was how quickly this big landscape appeared – from start to finish in around fifteen/twenty minutes. I included my pencil case in this photo to give you an indication of the scale of this work.

This was an excellent opportunity to see an artist at work and to learn from him, thanks Matt.

Art for Work’s Sake

This post is some slides and thoughts from a recent workshop I facilitated where people were invited to use basic artistic methods to think differently about work and leadership. It was a free flowing session which people said they enjoyed and got a lot from.

Here is a review of the session put together using Slideshare.

I hope you find this approach interesting and useful and if you would like me to help you do things differently at work – please drop me a line at – let’s talk.