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A Marathon of Miniatures in Watercolor

November 3, 2016


A few weeks back, I had the urge to do a major painting expedition. I was in the middle of an illustration deadline, and all that picky computer work was making me crave some watercolor. I wanted very badly to take a week off and just paint every day. Sadly, there wasn’t time for anything like that.

So what’s the solution?


See how many miniatures you can do in a day!

These little paintings are from a huge walk all the way across Montreal’s old port, then hopping the subway up to my old neighborhood on the Plateau. The sketches are approximately 5 x 6.5″ painted two-to-a-page on 9×12″ Canson Montval watercolor paper taped onto coroplast backing boards.

I’m in the process of using up all the student-grade paper I have in stock. I like this stuff for pen-and-wash drawings, and it’s sort of ‘easy on my nerves’ to use it up on sketches. (Cheap enough, you don’t mind wasting it :)) But I probably won’t go back to it for any serious watercolors. It’s fine for this kind of speed-sketching, but doesn’t take wet-in-wet as well, and in some ways, the washes get a bit too ‘edgy’, due to the sizing.


The great thing about working small is: you have to focus on what interests you. Eliminate any unnecessary clutter. There’s just not enough room to get everything in.

Often I’ll walk around gazing up at roof lines, looking for the cupolas and chimneys I enjoy. Just below this frame is a mess of real estate signage and boarded up shop windows. Stuff I’d just as soon leave out.


This one is all about those back lit church steeples. I do this all the time. Just crop out the parking lot that’s in front of me. Looking up gets you out of the everyday, the mundane.


As well, at this size it’s easier to see a silhouette shape. I find if I’m *able* to add detail – it’s very hard to stop myself. My brain just wants to keep focusing, keep overdoing it. So working small, and working fast, are two ways to short circuit that obsessiveness that comes with drawing.  These buildings are four blocks away from me, and on the other side of a park. They were tiny in my view – and thus tiny on the page.


I also find miniatures make it easier to experiment with color. This was the first day trying DS Olive Green and Windsor Sepia. This shop house is of course more colorful than this – but doesn’t it look great with a limited palette? I’m more willing to try things out on a ‘throw away’ piece like this. I went into it meaning to test the color and throw this one away – but it ends up being one of my favorites.



Here’s a trick a sketcher in Ireland showed me. Just sit anywhere, on a bench, or some steps, and clamp your drawing board between your knees. It makes a make-shift drafting table!

Can’t be done with a large board. This one’s 14×18″ – just big enough for my sketches and my paint kit. I was travelling super light that day – if you bring an easel and chair, you probably won’t want to be walking from sun up to sun down.



Of course, out of any set of paintings, some will be more successful than others. In these ones up on the Plateau, I feel I fell prey to over doing it. Trying to put too much in.



It’s always better with a more impressive building. Something where there’s a natural focus. I’m a sucker for a big old dome or a peaked roof. It’s such a natural way to make a focal point.


Finally, closing out the day with the last gasps of light. My feet were ready to go home at this point! I’d actually given up and was heading to the metro – but I caught the light on the Mont Royal angel, and who can resist just one more?



54 Comments leave one →
  1. Janet lee Essex, ct permalink
    November 3, 2016 9:16 AM

    To me they are all wonderful. So beautiful

  2. November 3, 2016 9:17 AM


  3. November 3, 2016 9:23 AM

    They are all little gems!!

  4. Rita Cleary permalink
    November 3, 2016 9:42 AM

    Marc–your work always inspires me. I need to figure a way to just keep doing something every day, not just when I have time to go somewhere or to a workshop. We spent 2 weeks in Sardinia in October, and while I managed a few sketches/paintings, that was not enough, given the richness and beauty of the surroundings….May I ask what pen you were using in these “minis”?

    • November 3, 2016 9:48 AM

      Hey Rita – even in don’t draw daily – but I sure feel it if I dont get some art time at least weekly!

      Re: pen – nope! This time just a little pencil 0.3mm and drawing with the brush. The W&N watercolor sable.

  5. November 3, 2016 9:50 AM

    I love them all Marc..unbelievable talent..I find I am drawn to different types of watercolors and yours are in my very favorites.
    PS the drafting table must exercise the leg muscles:)

    • November 3, 2016 11:36 AM

      It’s surprisingly easy – sort of a physiology trick. If you put your feet a little closer together the board just sits in a little crook formed by your knees. I was impressed how it worked. But yes, not for everyday all day :)

  6. November 3, 2016 10:02 AM

    Just what I needed! Thanks for another inspiring post.

  7. November 3, 2016 10:22 AM

    They look joyful! Nice work! I always look forward to opening your emails.

  8. hmunro permalink
    November 3, 2016 10:31 AM

    I agree with your other fans, Marc: You are incredibly talented, and I love these all (even the one that’s overworked to your more-discerning eye). It’s also inspiring to read about your process a bit, and how you challenge yourself. It’s a good reminder to the rest of us to push ourselves every now and then and try a new approach. Thank you!

  9. November 3, 2016 10:35 AM

    It’s amusing to hear you call 5×6.5 inch paintings “miniatures” since that’s on the large side for me :-P I’ve been mostly been doing “artist trading card” sized paintings lately, and am about to start a truly massive 6×8 piece for a Christmas present X-D

    I’m curious what your biggest take-away is between working larger-format versus smaller-format?

    • November 3, 2016 11:10 AM

      Heh, ‘truly massive’ indeed! :)
      Re – best bit about working small: I do love bleeding effects – where the color creeps on it’s own. So, the smaller you work, the larger that effect appears relative to the size of the subject. I think watercolor on a given paper will only ‘creep’ so far along the fibers. So you get more bang for the buck on a tiny painting. I’m still learning how to paint large :) so I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think you can get the same controlled mess at a larger scale. I’ll let you know on that front as I keep pushing into bigger works this winter :)

      • Dee Ludwig permalink
        November 27, 2016 3:00 PM

        If I remember, painting larger requires some painting on wetted paper…I remember soaking a full sheet with penciled sketch in the bathtub before laying it out to paint. I would think wet spots would give you the desired bleeds.

  10. November 3, 2016 10:43 AM

    If i didn’t know you I would think it wasn’t humanly possible to sketch so many gems in only one day.

  11. Lucie permalink
    November 3, 2016 10:44 AM

    Loving all these miniatures. I was raised in Montreal and moved out to Calgary at 19 years old. Every time I go back to visit family, I am also wanting to get around the city to try and sketch, so many beautiful buildings and scenes to capture. I am very new at this art form but enjoy reading and learning from your posts. You bring me ‘home’ so to speak. Thank you.

  12. November 3, 2016 10:48 AM

    Unbelievable that you got so much done in a day’s time. These are incredible. I love your sketches and your process. Now if I can just learn a bit of it. I’m studying and trying. Keep on sketching…

  13. Maggie permalink
    November 3, 2016 11:00 AM

    Absolutely love them all. You are a great inspiration for and always give such helpful hints….looking up….never even thought of that. Thank you so much!

  14. November 3, 2016 11:03 AM

    Just wonderful. Every one.

    I had to laugh about your comment that holding the setup between your legs won’t work with a large board. I’m 5′ short and wonder how small a board I could hold? I’ll have to stick with just holding it on my lap.

  15. November 3, 2016 11:06 AM

    Marc, always love your work, large or small. These are wonderful little masterpieces, yes, masterpieces.. Your brushwork seems to ‘dance’ over these pieces. It does have a lot in it , but you know just how to ‘work it ‘ so it doesn’t look ‘overworked..

  16. November 3, 2016 11:40 AM

    Love your work!!!

  17. November 3, 2016 12:11 PM

    These are fantastic, Marc. I got some great ideas and inspiration from it. And I agree with you on the Montval paper–I use it for my ‘throw-aways’ as well. It’s not terrible paper, but not great for the reasons you stated. And for something special I’m always going to use Arches or St. Cuthbert’s products. Thanks for sharing these wonderful little nuggets with us!

  18. November 3, 2016 12:13 PM

    What you accomplish in a single day Marc is most impressive! Your work is mesmerizing and I look forward to each post you share. Thank you for allowing us to peek into your world.

  19. November 3, 2016 12:16 PM

    Wonderful post. I like big formats (A4 landscapes) but I often do a series of smaller vignettes in them.

  20. Communidee permalink
    November 3, 2016 12:33 PM

    They are all so yummy looking!

  21. Jen G permalink
    November 3, 2016 12:54 PM

    Hi Marc, thanks for posting this, super informative in words and visuals. I especially like the photo at the end that shows the difference between a scene in reality and how you use your artist’s licence to paint it as an appealing scene. Also makes me feel like a visit to Montreal :-)

  22. November 3, 2016 12:55 PM

    Beautiful sketches and as usual great work! Love the miniatures you were able to capture beautiful views! Definitely something I will try out! :-)

  23. Susan Hale permalink
    November 3, 2016 1:04 PM

    Gorgeous colors, Marc…and great idea to go small and catch the magic mingling of the washes! And I like the tape you used to hold the paper down, because it appears to be semi-transparent and white. May I ask what kind/brand of tape it is?

    • November 3, 2016 1:08 PM

      Hey Susan – it’s just cheap-o masking tape:) I normally use a fancy 3M masking tape, but sometimes I have to buy a random roll while travelling. Off-brands tend to use thinner paper backing.

      • Susan Hale permalink
        November 4, 2016 10:49 PM

        Thanks, Marc, I’ve had trouble with regular 3M masking tape tearing the paper(even while being careful when pulling it off, but I think I bought a roll that was too old or something. The blue painters tape sticks well but doesn’t destroy the paper…wish they made that tape in white!

        • November 4, 2016 10:52 PM

          I never get tearing on cotton paper (Fabriano), but I does happen on the student grade Montval. I just pull the tape at an outward angle so the roughed up paper is in the white border, not towards the art :)

          On the other hand, I’ve had the blue tape pop off in the middle of a painting – it’s too low tac for me.

  24. November 3, 2016 1:05 PM

    Hi Marc,
    This is a neat idea and I look forward to having enough control over watercolors to try it. I did want to mention one thing, though. You seem to be under the impression that there are ‘cellulose’ and ‘cotton’ papers. There are wood-fiber and cotton papers but BOTH of them are cellulose. — Larry

    • November 3, 2016 1:06 PM

      I stand corrected! Thanks Larry. This from Wikipedia: Cellulose is the most abundant organic polymer on Earth. The cellulose content of cotton fiber is 90%, that of wood is 40–50% and that of dried hemp is approximately 57%. Cellulose is mainly used to produce paperboard and paper. … Cellulose for industrial use is mainly obtained from wood pulp and cotton.

    • November 3, 2016 1:10 PM

      Fixed in the text – thanks again!

  25. November 3, 2016 2:45 PM

    Marc, fantastic! so inspiring – do you mind to share what size of brush you’re using? Thanks!

    • November 3, 2016 2:47 PM

      Hey Helena – I’m going to say these were almost all with the #7 Pointed Round, Winsor and Newton Artist’s Watercolor Sable. A great long-hair brush for fine drawing with the point, or laying on it’s side for wide marks.

  26. Eliska Adema - artist permalink
    November 3, 2016 4:36 PM

    Here is my answer to carrying a chair . Everything fits in this:

  27. November 3, 2016 6:34 PM

    Hey Marc,
    Thanks for sharing. I wouldn’t call them miniatures… I paint 5×7″ on location all the time! ; )
    Your painting here in Toronto, at John B. Aird, is fantastic. So nice to see one of your paintings live!! You’re always an inspiration. Thanks for sharing all your experience with us.
    Happy Painting Marc.
    Nora MacPhail

  28. Cathy McAuliffe permalink
    November 4, 2016 12:14 AM

    I’d say it was a day well spent!

  29. Leonor Janeiro permalink
    November 4, 2016 3:45 PM

    Hi Marc
    They are wonderful and I learn a lot reading your experiences. This one about miniatures I´ll try soon as in Lisbon is very easy to find places to draw the basic and leave the details.
    Cheers from Lisbon
    Leonor Janeiro

  30. November 4, 2016 9:08 PM

    Yes how light can we go with just a watercolor book or the paper taped down, one brush and the paint box!! Limiting yourself allows for more creativity..thanks for sharing!

  31. November 11, 2016 10:59 AM

    Inspiring as usual! Work small,work fast. I like it. Please let me know when you’re doing any workshops in Montreal 2017. Bill Fagan

  32. anthoniaart permalink
    November 11, 2016 7:00 PM


  33. November 15, 2016 2:17 AM

    Myself I use to make micro paintings, And I try to make them as sketchy as yours

  34. June 5, 2023 11:11 PM

    Great readingg

  35. Rita permalink
    June 6, 2023 1:10 PM

    You are always inspiring, Marc. I need to give myself an assignment like this. I am still stuck trying to control things too much, whereas what I want is lose and les precise. Why is this so elusive? Possibly going out for a day like this with the goal of doing a small-ish sketch/painting of the spots in my town that are meaningful to me. if I do, I’ll post ’em.

    • June 8, 2023 1:10 PM

      Nothing like time limits and poor conditions to loosen a person up! Plein air has that natural clock of moving sun and eventual need to find a bathroom :) Two things that keep your paintings brisk!


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