My 3 day workshop with Iain Stewart

“Learn from your mistakes, you will make a lot of them!” ~ Iain Stewart

I traveled to Hunstville, Alabama for a 3-day watercolor workshop with Iain Stewart.  It was a nice break from work to get out and paint again.  The workshop was hosted by the Huntsville Art League and held at the Lowe Mills Arts and Entertainment building.

This iconic building in the heart of Huntsville is a historic factory building (the city made Army boots there in the 50’s).  It is now the largest privately owned arts facility in the United States.  The building has been redeveloped into 148 working art studios.  It even hosts 2 food courts.

The class was filled by some wonderful people including the president of the Watercolor Society of Alabama.

So a little about our teacher, Iain Stewart.

Iain Stewart is an award winning watercolor artist and a signature member of the National Watercolor Society.

His work has received numerous awards in international competition. Most recently his watercolor “Thurlow Dam, Tallassee Alabama” was honored with a Purchase Award from the National Watercolor Society, his work “5th Avenue in Rain” was selected for inclusion in the Shanghai Zhujiajiao International Watercolour Biennial Exhibition, and his watercolor Grace Church was on exhibition at the Salmagundi Club in New York for the American Watercolor Society’s 146th Annual International Exhibition.

His paintings have been published in Southern Living, Cottage Living, Better Homes and Gardens, The Robb Report, Watercolor Artist Magazine and the French publication Pratique des Arts in addition to numerous regional and local publications.  Iain has a feature article in The Art of Watercolor, the world’s premier water media publication, in the March 2013 issue and he is also featured in Watercolor Artist’s July 2013 issue.

Iain maintains a studio in Opelika, Alabama, and in addition to gallery work, is an Architectural Illustrator with an international clientele and is an Adjunct Professor at Auburn University.

Iain teaches watercolor workshops both nationally and abroad. He has traveled internationally to many countries including Italy, France, London, Turkey, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scotland. (Facebook)

I’m still new to workshops, but this workshop will undoubtedly be marked as one of the funniest and entertaining workshop I have ever attended !  I think Iain missed his calling as a stand-up.  No really, he is very funny and has a habit of talking, joking and painting (all in that order).  I can assure you, it is no easy task to crack a few jokes and talk while painting.  He seems to have a lot of practice doing it!  It was such a joy to listen to him speak.

One of the biggest things I will take away from this workshop is his insistence of drawing, and practice.  He really couldn’t stress enough how important and enjoyable drawing is when it comes to improving your watercolors and overall technique.

He stressed the real need to practice a tonal sketch before each watercolor drawing.  He likened it to a pianist practicing his scales.  It’s not necessary to just draw on watercolor paper cold turkey.  It is much better to do a tonal sketch and get to know your subject before diving in.  It’s a necessary exercise if you want to improve your watercolor painting.

Iain has a no-nonsense approach to painting.

“Learn from your mistakes, you will make a lot of them!”   On that first day, we touch a lot on drawing, focal point and simplifying a subject. We briefly touched on composition and even writing down simple steps to painting. “Take a focal point and decide on what is important to you in a painting or subject.”

He also touched on the artistic side of composition and painting by moving around things in a scene. It’s not always necessary to draw every detail that you see. It’s simple and easy to move around landmarks and other objects to give the work more character and to make it more pleasing to the eye.

He touched on breaking down a subject into shapes and not necessarily the distinct architectural details.

“Draw lines and shapes first such as the landmarks”. He called these the ‘architectural lines’. Oh, by the way, Iain is an architect, so he knows what he is talking about when it comes to drawing! However, in abstract watercolor, he stresses to just make an impression in your drawing and don’t over work it.

This really helped me think in terms of large shapes like rectangles and squares in composing a work and also keeping the proportions detailed enough to make it believable.

After taking some time on drawing and composing, we dove right into a painting, well, not really. He started his demo of a scene in France, a famous hill top village in Provence France (the Gordes in the Vaucluse ) .

During the demo, while watching in the mirror, one of the classmates noticed a number “57” etched like a stencil in the painting. This was completely unintentional in the painting, but stuck out when you looked at it backwards with a mirror. Of course, we couldn’t see it without the mirror, so it made for some fun during the demo. It was also a little significant.

We found out that Iain is quite the Auburns football fan. We joked that the 57 referred to 1957. In 1957, the Auburn Tigers, led by coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan, finished with a perfect 10–0 record, marking the school’s first ever SEC championship. I think this demo was a keeper for Iain. It was also a great demo on how to wash and then glaze over the work.  It introduced us to a systematic way to paint and also introduced us to some techniques in lifting and other washes. It was a productive first day.

On our second day, we began with some drawing exercises and taking on 2 subjects: 1) the London Tower Bridge and 2) a scene of sheep in Scotland. He often joked about sheep and how after his article and painting of sheep, he is now known as the “painter of sheep”.

This demo was a simple glazing exercise and was also a valuable exercise in values, when to lay down paint and again, keep the shapes as simple as possible. I learned how to leave some white paper and lines while painting. It was a good day. We ended the day with a start into a complex subject, the Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois.

Thursday night, after our second day in the workshop, I headed out to see the town of Huntsville and went to the famous US Space & Rocket Center.  In the Saturn V Hall Davidson Center for Space Exploration I was entertained by a German band and the German Biergarten, featuring authentic German cuisine.  It was a wonderful dinner and I indulged in a glass of German beer.

Iain stressed the need for a tonal sketch before embarking on a full blown watercolor painting. And don’t forget to practice in your sketchbook!

On our last day, we tackled the Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois.  The day before, most of us worked on the tonal sketch and study.  The exercise here is to take a complex subject and break it down into its most simplest form.  Starting with the skyline and the shapes and then adding the detail.  The last morning, we all finished our sketches and then sat down to watch Iain start the demo.  Because of the back lit sky, he decided to address the work with a shaped background and some light along the left of the buildings.  The middle ground included the trees and people.  Yes, we got a lesson in drawing figures.  This is also something to practice.  Figures are not as simple as they look.

Iain gave everyone a sheet of sketch paper, in the form of Sillman & Birn Beta series sketch paper.

The work was not easy, but the entire class managed to get through the work.  Iain said that this was a complicated work and if we could get through this, we could just about tackle any street scene.

I was quite pleased with my effort, although I know with a few more passes and practice, the principals that Iain discussed will get easier and help everyone to take their paintings to that next level.

My rendering of the Saint-Germain in Paris France.

I got a lot out of the workshop, it being my second time in a class environment.  In my first workshop, Frank Eber helped stress tonal importance in a work and the fundamentals of composition.  Iain helped to stress sketching, lifting, basic washes, composition and a few other helpful areas in watercolor painting.

At this point, I’ll keep on painting and sketching on a daily basis to keep my skills up.  I’m beginning to realize that workshops are great for meeting new people and reinforcing good painting habits.  As a beginner, it’s important to lay down that good foundation.  But, like anything in life, there is no substitute for continued practice and work.

I want to thank Heike Covell for hosting this workshop and providing such a nice venue.

I look forward to my next and last workshop of the year, open air painting in Sarasota Florida with Vladislav Yeliseyev.

Happy painting everyone!


  1. Thanks for the great review, these are so helpful. I just had a workshop with one of the worst teacher, although I was the only one to walk out others felt the same way. Some people are great artists but not great teachers. I wish there had been more reviews of her workshops instead of the “wow she’s great” type of reviews from her fans.


    1. Wow, do you mind if I ask who the artist was? That’s really a bummer. I’ve been lucky so far to attend a wonderful workshop with Frank Eber and Iain Stewart. Top watercolorists in the field.


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