6 burning questions from beginner painters answered by Kevin Scully

Taking up a new hobby, like painting, can be exciting yet daunting at the best of times but throw in equipment and new terminology and it can feel a bit overwhelming before you have even started.

FEAR NOT! We have teamed up with Kevin Scully, our painting holiday tutor in Spain, to ask him some important questions beginner painters may ask.

Kevin trained at Wimbledon School of Art, and began his career as a scenic artist in theatre and television. He then worked for many years as a successful illustrator in advertising and publishing, based in several London art and design studios. His commercial experience has enabled him to be able work in a diverse number of mediums, but he now paints primarily in oils and pastels.

He produces paintings that are mainly figurative, but at the same time strives to create a sense of the enigmatic and evocative. The subject matter is varied and he focuses on choosing the less obvious viewpoints whilst avoiding the cliched and overstated. Mood and atmosphere are his primary concerns whilst eliminating as much unnecessary detail as possible. The paintings he produces en plein air, are often used as the basis for larger studio-based works.

He tutors on painting holidays at home and abroad, and runs regular art courses in the UK. He has led groups of painters to Spain, Portugal, Morocco, India, Crete, Gozo, Turkey and Italy.

He writes regular articles for The Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines, and is the author of several books on painting for The Crowood Press, including Still Life in Gouache, Drawing and Painting on Location, and Painting Landscapes.

1. What’s the difference between watercolours, oils, and acrylics?

The main difference is that watercolours and acrylics are both water-based, whereas traditional oils are not.

Watercolours are basically a medium whose beauty relies on their transparency when light is reflected back through it from the white paper on which it has been applied. They are thinned with water, and brushes are also cleaned with water.

Acrylics can be used in both thin, transparent washes and also in an opaque form. They can be used on paper, canvas, or canvas painting boards. They are fast-drying, very durable, and immovable when dry.

Oils are generally used on canvas or canvas painting boards. They are slower drying than other mediums and thinned with turpentine or similar painting mediums. Brushes are cleaned with white spirit, or white spirit substitute.

a. Is one easier to use in your opinion?

Watercolour is the easiest to use, but the most difficult to use really well. You have to be prepared for mistakes! It tends to stain the paper, and mistakes are often difficult or impossible to rectify.

Acrylic dries very quickly and because of this, it’s difficult to blend colours together, but mistakes can be rectified by simply painting over them. Acrylics are perhaps more suited to hard-edged contemporary work.

Oils, like acrylics require a bit more equipment, but because of their relatively slow-drying properties, mistakes can be rectified by simply wiping the paint off and re-painting areas.

b. Is one more affordable than another?

Watercolours are the most affordable.

2. As an artist, is there one in particular you prefer to work with? If so, why?

I prefer both watercolours and oils to acrylics. Even having had many years of experience with watercolours, I still accept the fact that there will be failures, but when there are successes, the appearance of a well-executed watercolour is unique.
Oils also have a unique quality, and this is in their richness and depth of colour. Using oils gives you time to think whilst you’re painting, and is generally less stressful than the unpredictability of watercolours.

3. If someone uses a different medium than you, are your tutorials still beneficial? How so?

I give tutorials in all mediums. If a group is using different mediums, I give individual tutorials.

4. Is it easy to switch between paint types?

As a beginner, it’s best to stick to one medium, but if you feel that you just don’t get along with it for whatever reason, you should try something else. With experience comes confidence, and with that you can then switch from one medium to another.

5. Is there a material better to paint on than others for each type of paint (paper, wood, cardboard, scrap, fabric, canvas)?

For watercolours, whether you choose loose sheets, watercolour pads or blocks, good quality watercolour paper is essential. One with a texture classified as NOT is a good surface for most work.

If you use acrylics or oils, either fine grain stretched canvas, or canvas painting boards are best. But if you are travelling abroad, the latter is preferable, as canvas is rather bulky and fragile, and more likely to be damaged.

6. Any advice for a beginner painter looking to do their first shop?

Always buy the best you can afford, but be sure to only buy paints that are labeled ‘Artist’s Quality’. Buying ‘Student Quality’ paints is false economy, and the same goes for ‘Practice Watercolour Paper’. These products are inferior, and will give disappointing results. Small tubes of watercolour paint are best, and can be re-wetted on your palette for future use. If you buy ‘Starter Sets’, you’ll find that you will only need some of the colours, and others may go unused, but for the sake of economy they are sometimes a good starting point, as other colours can be added at a later date. You will never need white watercolour. You only need a few colours initially, and some good quality brushes; a selection in sizes 10, 6, and 3 will be enough to start with. If you are using watercolours, good quality synthetic or semi-synthetic brushes will be adequate.

For oil painting you will need more robust brushes and these should be either hog hair, or a mixture of hog hair and synthetic materials like prolene or nylon. There are brushes specially made for acrylics, and these are usually synthetic.

When it comes to art materials, you can’t go far wrong by choosing affordable, recognised brands. Among those for paints and other materials are: Winsor & Newton, Schmincke, Daler Rowney, Daniel Smith, Michael Harding and Jackson’s. For watercolour paper, among the best brands are: Saunders Waterford, Bockingford, Fabriano and Arches.


Follow this link for more information about Kevin and his painting holiday in Spain.

Or, feel free to explore our full range of painting holidays here.