Photo collage watercolours by Vera Billing


This is a blog for everybody who is in awe of the beauty in nature and who loves art and especially watercolour! Some posts will be long, others short, some describing a painting process, others sharing thoughts and nature observations…

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Reflections on water… isn’t it mesmerizing?

I want to paint them in watercolour, but it is not the easiest thing. Recently I created ‘Decorated’ surface’ and here I share some thoughts and experiences. The title being double, pointing to both water and paper.

A painting like this is built up with many layers of rather thin and transparent paints. Working this way, with time for drying in between layers, leaves room for reflections in my mind.

So – what is a surface?

A regular in my philosophical mind… I have come to the conclusion, that absolutely most of what we percieve with our eyes and touch, are three dimensional. They are ‘things’. Exceptions are surface and also shadow. They only have two dimensions. 

Natural science try to look into all things possible and do so with brilliance, revealing to us so much fascinating and important phenomenons and facts. But still – it remains on the surface and never penetrates beyond it. It only comes to new surfaces and new and new… we finally end up in metaphysics.

A water surface has no thickness! It shows us the boundary between different densities. When the air is also full of water, the surface diffuses… Air is in fact diluted water, isn’t it? It seems ‘surface’ is something that shows a border between different densities of matter. The larger difference, the most perceivable is the surface.

A fascinating thing with water surfaces in nature is to see how quick and immediate its conversation with the air is. Also showing how they are so closely related. With the movements of air, the surface plays and creates constantly changing patterns. We try to hold it, freeze it, but we can’t! Photography gives us the opportunity to freeze that constant movement. Still it is tricky…

Then, how to paint it? How to translate and transform the impression into a static picture on a flat, two dimensional paper surface? Well, we do as best we can. I love studying how others do it, so brilliantly. I am a beginner at this, but want to learn, so I watch and experiment.

In this watercolour I used different techniques. All painting is about catching the light. In watercolour we need to think backwards and decide in advance where the light shall be in the final painting, since the paints are more or less transparent and painting a light colour over a dark obviously doesn’t work.

Before starting

I study the subject, being live or a photo, carefully for as long time as it takes, until I stop seeing what it ‘is’ and everything just becomes shapes and lines. Scaling down to two dimensions only. Then I look for the underlying colours. Often there are some very few, or even just one, colour in the bottom, creating coherence and unity and harmony in the subject. Probably something I notice unconsciously when I get hooked on a subject, but then have to become conscious of in order to paint it.

Decorated surface, wip 1

First washes and adding some masking fluid. Barely visible here, since this brand, Sennelier, is turquoise in colour

Decorated surface, wip 2.

Adding greens and some lemon yellow, working wet on wet, wet on dry and dry on dry, with a light touch of the brush. The structure of the paper helps!

Decorated surface, wip 3

The right side left, ready to paint greens over the grey underpainting, to unify the shadowy part. All wip (work in progress) photos are too blueish, because of photo quality, sorry!

First washes

A thin light mainly cobalt blue wash was painted on wet paper with a broad brush over the whole sheet. Very thin at the top, for it not to turn too dark, when yellows and greens should be put on top. When still wet I added a thin and very bright yellowish green mix on the top part, fading down into the blue towards the bottom. I was not sure where that meeting edges were to be, didn’t plan that in advance, so I was careful not to get green onto blue, where only blue should show in the end.

When totally dry, I added masking fluid on detail parts that I wanted to keep crisp bright in the darker greens. I tried out a new brand, Sennelier, a bottle with a fine tip to place it with. I found it very tricky and hard to handle, because it was so liquid and too much ran out, hard to manouver. Also, it said to shake the bottle before use, stupid thing! Because it creates bubbles, that comes out on the paper! Everywhere else, it is said not to shake the bottle. Why didn’t I think… Otherwise a good medium, I shall just learn to handle it. The amazing Thierry Duval uses it all the time, so if he can, I can too…

Then I started to draw, with an hb pencil, the shapes of the dark ripples on the light blue water towards the bottom of the sheet. That was the only drawing I made.

Mixing greens

I mixed four different greens: one bright yellowish, with lemon yellow and very little cobalt blue. One green green, with the same yellow, but a darker blue, ultramarine. A darker with the same yellow, but also quinacridone gold and indantrene blue. The darkest and coolest with quin. gold, indantrene blue, some very little phtalo blue green shade. To all mixes, to tone them down to more natural shades, I added raw umber, in different portions. Raw umber is a bit greenish in itself and helps the mix stay green. If you use burnt umber, which is more red, you easily get a grey mix, instead of green. Also sometimes I added a very little hint of permanent rose, to shift some shades towards brown, mostly used on the right part of the sheet. Indantrene blue is a bit greenish in itself. It is very transparent and I love it, but it dries much more light and dull, than it looks when wet and thus is a bit hard to handle.

My palettes, paint tubes and chinese brushes - my very good friends!

Here are my friends, how helped me with this piece: My palettes, chinese brushes and Sennelier watercolour paints in tube. Missing is Permanent rose (W&N) and the broad hake brush, already hanging to dry.

Decorative surface. 35x50 cm (14x20") on Arches fine grain 300gsm 2018. In juried internet exhibition NAS (Nordic Watercolour Society, nov. 2018. 500€

Decorated surface 35×55 cm (14×20″), this is how it really looks. I did warm all up with very thin and quick glaze of quinacridone yellow, though, at the end. See it also here.

Just go on…

The tricky thing, that I need to study more, is the transition between light ripples on dark and dark ripples on light! So on to the next one… Every painting I do is an experiment and a learning. That is the energy that drives me. Once finished, I put them aside. No framed paintings in my home… Just go on, go on… I guess defines my character.

Your experiences on greens?

This with mixing greens… many seem to find greens difficult. One shall learn by experience, how the pigments mix together.

Comments are welcome!

On making paper in Fabriano

Category : Crafts
Date : 30/05/2018
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I guess all watercolour artists know about Fabriano paper! One of the most commonly used art papers in the world. I recently took part of the yearly big watercolour festival there, as coordinator for the Nordic countrie’s delegation.

Fabriano in Italy is regarded as the cradle of modern paper making, starting in the 13th century. Here the methods were much improved, new one’s invented. As an artist, historian and also handicrafty person, I find papermaking so very fascinating. I visited the museum in Fabriano, where I found some very interesting research, that luckily also was available in an English version. The work was masterfully done by Giuseppina Corinaldesi in the 1940’s. Photos are mine and taken in the museum.

Historical research uses mostly written evidence. The further back in time, the more scarce is the material to work from. People have simply thrown away. Fires, wars and other aggressive actions have made evidence disappear. Paper was also expensive, few could read and even fewer write, so it was mainly used for documenting important legal decisions. People did not write down what just went right and smooth, or to tell about jolly things in life!

Before paper, one wrote on parchment (writing sheets made of goatskin). It stayed along with paper for a long time, being the most important for legal writings and such, because it was mire safe. Paper quality was low and it could deteriorate quickly!

Fabriano paper museum. Mary Magdalena, the patron saint of the papermakers.

Mary Magdalena was the patron saint of the papermakers. Once in Fabriano, a very heavy press of wood fell down on one of the workers. Miraculously he was not injured at all! It was on the day of M.M., so naturally she was seen as the one who saved him.

From Fabriano paper museum.

Deckles on the wall, with different watermarks. The basin with the pulp dissolved in water. To the left a glimpse of the big impressive paper press of wood. Museum of papermaking, Fabriano.

Here is a very short paper history!


As far as one knows, paper making was invented in China around 100 B.C., but was kept a secret within the court for centuries. The paper was made from tree bark and hemp rags, pounded into pulp in large mortars, being a very tiring and slow way of working. A monk who knew the secret, came via Korea over the sea to Japan in early 600 A.C. Hundred years later paper is known to have been made in Samarkand. This was an intense market- and trading place, where of course also ideas and knowledge was passed on. Arabs took the craft with them along the northern African coast and over to Europe. They refined the method by using other materials for the pulp – no tree bark, but linnen and hemp rags in combo with mulberry bark. They standardized the method and also experimented with sizing (read more below). From the 13th century there is evidence of paper made the Arab way in Spain and Italy.

But – by the same time something new came up in Fabriano!

What was the new?


Mainly the use of water power to stamp the pulp, instead of beating it by hand (rather body). This made the process more quick, with less effort and resulting in a more homogenous pulp. In the mountain areas there were rivers and on these were everywhere mills for stamping wool into cloth. Such wool mills were very common all over Europe. Felting woolen fabric gave materials for making warm and waterprotecting cloths. I have once visited such an old mill in Sweden that is still in use.

In Fabriano it seems it all started with some people renting room in wool mills, for stamping and beating their paper pulp. The pulp was mainly linnen and hemp rags. New mills were soon built (well, ‘soon’ in medieval times, could mean some decades…), for the paper only. After some hundred years there were 170 paper mills around Fabriano, delivering pulp to some 15 papermaking workshops. Wow! Just imagine all these people being busy in the making of paper!

Fabriano paper museum, water powered machinge for beating rags into paper pulp.

In Fabriano one started to use water power for beating the paper pulp. Here is an example of such a machine in the papermaking museum of Fabriano. This method is the cradle of modern papermaking.

Fabriano paper museum, arrangement for boiling gelatin for sizing paper.

Arrangement for making gelatin by boiling rests of skin from the tanneries nearby. This was another Fabriano invention, used for sizing the paper and still what is used in most watercolour papers from all brands.



Sizing is needed to create a surface on which ink and paints can stay and not just get quickly absorbed and dispersed into the paper sheet. It involves soaking the paper in different solutions.

In the start, the Chinese used a glue, made of some kind of lichen. The Arabs improved the sizing technique and used starch from rice and wheat instead. But these materials were from plants, making the papers appetizing for microorganisms. Remember that the houses in those days where not central heated and dry…

The Fabriano people started sizing paper with animal glue, gelatine, instead. That gave more longevity to paper, thus making it a more secure basis for documentation. People got hold of leftovers from the many tanneries in the area.



From the very beginning it seems that the Fabriano papers were made with watermarks. Starting with one or two letters or a simple symbol, showing who had made it. A way of marketing, really. Soon making watermarks became a more ornamental thing, real artworks. Making the watermark in a paper frame was a great skill! Still, the frames could not keep for long and were thus replaced, with new watermarks. The watermarks were mostly placed in the middle of the sheet or of the half part of the sheet. As a watercolour artist I am now happy it is just in two corners…

Fabriano paper museum, stacks of handmade paper.

Beautiful handmade papers in Fabriano papermaking museum.

Fabriano paper museum, deckle with watermark.

Deckel with watermarks, resting over the bassin with paper pulp, disolved in water.

Getting raw materials


People in historic times were eager to earn money from whatever and whenever they could. Many back then (as well as nowadays) earned their money from not doing any work at all, just controlling others… The crucial raw material for paper – rags of linnen and hemp – needed to be collected and traded. For the papermakers in Fabriano, the costs for buying this became the biggest expense. It practically set the prices of paper and finally the Pope intervened to give it proportions, so that paper actually could be produced and sold.

The production in Fabriano rather quickly mounted to impressive numbers. By the end of fourteenth century more than 9 million sheets were made yearly! Easy to understand, that the making of paper had become a wealth for the Fabriano area and also how they tried in all legal ways possible to protect their craft and trade.

The moneymaking of the business also made the many small mills from the beginning compete with each other and some bought up the losers, meaning, as it use to go, that it all ended up with some very few owning and controlling it all.

In Fabriano there is nowadays a big factory of course, but still, some artist papers are made by hand.

On portraying a birch tree

Category : Trees
Date : 04/03/2018
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In spring, seven years ago I was visiting the pictoresque Baskemölla on Swedish southeast coast. On a meadow very close to the sea, I met this stunning old birch tree on a carpet of snow white wood anemones and fresh spring green grass. Now I found a photo and started to do a portrait of it. Here I share some observations and reflexions while working. Further down I explain the more technical part. The photos are not very good… The finished work shall get scanned later, but here we go – I hope you enjoy!

So – what defines the birch?

Everyone recognizes the birch by the smooth silvery bark, but also, unlike most trees, this tree follows no rules for dividing and branching out – I can’t think of any more irregular tree crowns than those. Just bursting out branches here and there! But somehow it still creates a harmonious shape around the edge. The leaves are very small and it is necessary with soft and very finely divided twigs, that easily dance in the breeze, to make the light reach and be able to kiss all those chlorophyll cells…

A birch portrait. Graphite drawing and plant pigment watercolour on Bockingford paper, 56x38 cm (22,4x15,2") 2018. 470€
A birch portrait. Detail. Graphite drawing and plant pigment watercolour.
Birch leaf study. Pure plant pigment. 14x19 cm (5,6x7,6") Birchleaves arranged as a birch leaf. Pure plant pigment. 19x19 cm (7,6x7,6") on Bockingford 300gsm 2017.
Dry birch leaves, in the shape of a birch leaf. Pure plant pigment watercolour. 15x15 cm (6x6") on Bockingford paper 2017.

The magic with nature I find, is the awesome combination of uniqueness and conformity. We easily recognize a birch tree from others and a birch leaf from others, but still, every tree and leaf is unique and individual. I remember once reading a scientific rapport that measured birch leaves – no single one is the same as another!

In summer the birch looks so light, bright and airy, but in winter the crown is rather dense and it casts quite a shadow, because of all the fine twigs. The opposite in this respect could be the maple.

The wood is bright and has lots of energy stored, making it an excellent fuel. The bright silvery bark shoots up like rays of light in dark coniferous forests and at forest edges. It is very hardy and thrives well also where winters are severe.

This particular birch is exposed to strong winds from the Baltic sea in the east, but is very sheltered from the west. This is why the branches on the left side are so short. But still, look at the top! In it’s unique birch manner, it defies the forces from the winds. Normally that is where this ‘wind pruning’ normally is the strongest.

Observations like these, resonate inside of me when while I work. I find that the birch is showing the way into the future for us humans – be individual, be unique, be resilient, be soft and receptive but strong inside. Strong inner flame…

I don’t get too serious when I do artwork though… I also fell curious and have fun and get amazed when the picture emerges. Here I felt like a little bird, skipping around on the branches and twigs.

The process

I wanted to do a precise detailed tree portrait with graphite and then paint on some watercolour. So I chose watercolour paper and Bockingford, since it has such a crispness and a surface that is not so vulnerable for erasing. I chose a half sheet, meaning 56×38 cm (22,4×15,2″). I did the drawing directly on this paper. I had printed the photo as A4 size, reversed into black and white. I made no lines, just marked out squares around the edges of both photo and paper. On the working sheet they were approximately 8 cm (3,5″) wide. I layed out strips of transfer paper on both photo and paper to separate the square I should work on. This way every square became for me a piece of artwork by itself and was interesting to work on and it was amazing to see the tree emerge on the paper, square by square.

I started on top with paper upside down, to get a good working position. When all that was done, I went back to add more detail and also more graphite until it felt like enough. I mainly used a 2B pencil, by the end also some 6B and even 8B.

Time for some colour! I chose my homemade watercolour paints. The black pigment is simply finely crushed charcoal. The brown pigment is from the bark of a Southamerican tree called quebracho, a warm reddish brown. The paint was layered on carefully and slowly with dry brush technique and a thin chinese brush. I left the low right parts unfinished and unpainted.

I have never before used so many hours painting such small amounts of watercolour paint …

A birch portrait, work in progress, the finished graphite drawing, before starting to add paint.
A birch portrait, work in progress, the finished graphite drawing, detail.
A birch portrait, work in progress, starting to paint watercolour on drawing.

On moss and poetry

Category : Philosophy
Date : 04/02/2018
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So what is ‘poetry’ really? Let’s first look at literature, a sibling to painting in the big nice family of creative beauty. Looking into the word itself, it comes from greek and simply means creating, making and was earlier used for creative literature generally speaking.

What makes the difference between poetry and other writing?

Not necessarily the rhymes and rhythms with those specific names we learned in school… but there is rhythm somehow. There is a condensation. Nothing is there that does not have a meaning, not a single unnecessary letter. In German, writing poetry is ‘dichten’, meaning concentrating. I used to write poetry earlier and loved this condensing work, taking away, moving around. Painting with words.

Mossy forest floor.
Hylocomium splendens, glittering woodmoss. Graphite drawing approx 20x20 cm (8x8") 2017.
Hylocomium splendens arrangement for painting.

In this concentration the magic happens, that it also opens up! Breathing, leaving space for the reader/viewer to take active part and communicate. The careful choices of elements does this and in that way it works the same way as advertising! Just with such different intentions and results… There is always a manipulative element in advertising, whilst in poetry it is not. You, as reader or viewer, are free.

So, earlier I painted poems with words, now I write poetry with watercolour paint…

Poetry is about giving significance to the seemingly unsignificant.

I don’t ever have that as an intention! It just happens, because I see things that fascinates me and I want to share it to others.

Later on, when painting it, I staged this piece up on some kitchen paper, on a saucer filled with water and lay two large, heavy nails across the base, to keep it upright. Then I carefully painted freehand with watercolour mixes I can’t remember now… but mostly plant pigments, that I know.

Hylocomium splendens, glittering woodmoss. Partly with plant pigments. 25x25 cm (10x10") on Arches paper 2017. Available as print.

This finished work shows the 5 cm (2 inches) high, unsignificant piece of forest floor in it’s splendour, honouring the latin name ‘splendens’. You can see it in the gallery and there are small giclee prints, framed or unframed.