Peony and Parakeet

Watercolor Interiors – Four Tips

"Heritage" - a watercolor painting by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

Here’s a watercolor painting that I made while being a student of Finnish watercolor artist Mika Törönen. I took the class to understand more about watercolors. Watercolor is a weird medium, and its weirdness fascinates me! Watercolors seem simple and easy at first. But the more you paint, and the more atmospheric you want your paintings, especially watercolor interiors, to be, the more challenging they become.

I have recently realized that more than outdoor sceneries, I love painting interiors. Here are some of my tips for painting watercolor interiors!

1) Start with Geometry and Positive Attitude

Last spring, I committed to learning more watercolor techniques. I built a class called Watercolor Journey.

In the past, when I was teaching IT professionals my colleagues often said: “You learn best when you are teaching.” First, it felt like cheating because I thought that teachers have to know everything already before starting a class. But when you have to break things into small manageable and teachable parts, deeper insights come up. This way I have found simple methods and easy guidelines for making rich and creative paintings.

This painting is made for the exercise of Watercolor Journey. It’s about painting geometric shapes and thus simplifying the interior. You can make the photo more blurry by squeezing your eyes, and focus on the flat shapes that you see from it, for example.

Pyhaniemi Manor, watercolor interiors by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

But methods, tips, and guidelines are not the only useful things that I have learned by building classes. By making sure that I teach with a smiling voice and appearance, I have learned to think positively about what I do and how to encourage myself. One of the most depressing things in classes is to hear negative self-talk, whether it comes from the teacher or the student. That’s why I think it’s important always to express positive emotions, the love for art, and all the enthusiasm that can be found from creating.

2) Choose a Reference You Love

Mika Törönen creates his beautiful paintings from the references. We also had to pick some for the class. I wanted to continue the inspiration that I got by visiting Italy a couple of years ago. I chose a snapshot taken from one of my favorite places – Palazzo Pitti, Florence. Many students used the same photos as references as the teacher did, but to me, it’s difficult to use references that I don’t have any connection.

"Heritage" - a watercolor painting by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet and its reference photo, taken at Palazzo Pitti.

I didn’t aim for an exact copy but still, the photo was quite complicated and it took all the three sessions to complete to painting. I learned some tricks from Mika Törönen, like how to prevent the paper from curling while working (watch the video where I use the method for painting a watercolor bookmark), and the courage to use small shapes and lines of very thick paint when finishing.

The class was based on us students watching him paint. He wasn’t very good at translating his methods to words but as far as I saw it, a lot was to do with finding abstract elements from the photos and building a composition from that. He didn’t guide much, and the painting time was quite limited. The benefit for me was that I got new energy for working with watercolors. I painted a lot between the three weekly sessions.

3) Embrace Surreal to Express Emotions

One of the paintings that I have made recently, is this surreal interior. I used several references for this one and also worked quite loosely from them. Choosing one reference is not always the best starting point because it can control the work too much.

"Lonely", a surreal watercolor painting by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

Here, my most important influencer was the feeling that I got after the first class session. The session was very quiet, and I felt the loneliness that felt both good and bad. Loneliness gives the chance to spend quality time with imagination. But of course, it is also a sad feeling.

When I have clarity about a specific emotion, I have both the positive and the negative aspect in mind. That tension inspires me to express it. In this painting, I used a fish to symbolize creativity that I connect with the time spent alone.

A detail of "Lonely", a surreal watercolor painting by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

Often, the loneliness is in your head. You can feel alone even if you are surrounded by people. So I left a blank triangular ray of light that hits her head.

"Lonely", a surreal watercolor painting by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet, pictured upside down to show Palazzo Vecchio's interiors.

Working with creativity and without other people’s perspectives, can make things turn upside down. I used my photo of Palazzo Vecchio’s Hall of Five Hundred as a loose reference. If I turn the piece, you might recognize some of it.

4) Design the Lighting and Focus on the Light

Here’s my latest watercolor painting called “Eternity”. I think that it’s most loose of all the paintings of this blog post because here, I focused on the light.

"Eternity", a watercolor painting by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

My reference photo was taken in an old church Chiesa del Gesu in Rome. It was only a starting point. After the first pale compositional layers, I abandoned it.

"Eternity", a watercolor painting by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet and its reference photo taken in Rome.

The elements and the lighting didn’t quite match my vision of eternity, so I made a lot of changes. I also wanted to break the symmetry that is in the reference photo. I imagined setting a scene for a movie and let the water express the light more than what it would reveal. There are only a few sharp lines and clearly defined shapes. This way the result is a loose painting and looks less like a detailed drawing.

I used a lot of water when making this one! Sprayed, too!

Watercolor painting in progress. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

Watercolor Interiors – and Flowers!

I used Arches Rough 300 gsm watercolor paper for these three watercolor interiors. I hope that this blog post inspired you to pick your watercolor set and paint some watercolor interiors!

Watercolor paintings by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

This spring I will rerun my class Floral Fantasies in Three Styles, where we paint watercolor florals, a very suitable theme to go with the interiors! There will also be an extra watercolor exercise, which will be available separately if you already have the class. Stay tuned!

Watercolor Inspiration – 5 Ideas and Techniques

Watercolor inspiration from Paivi Eerola. Watch her video about painting a watercolor bookmark.

Watercolor is a medium where I really want to grow my skills this spring. It’s so versatile and much quicker than oil painting, for example. It can be easily combined with drawings and and … Well, I think if you follow this blog, you also love watercolors! Here’s some watercolor inspiration!

1) Watercolor Bookmarks – A Small and Fun Project

Who wouldn’t like to get a hand-painted bookmark? Watch the video with practical tips for watercolor painting!

2) Illustration in Watercolor – Use a Drawing as a Starting Point

If you like to draw, pick one of your sketches and use that as a starting point. My drawing from last Inktober is very detailed, but I enjoyed painting it!

Ink pen drawing by Paivi Eerola.

Here’s my setting. I kept the sketch visible most of the time but allowed my painting to evolve too. I didn’t use any pencil to copy the drawing, I just started painting with pale colors and made adjustments layer by layer.

Creating a watercolor painting from an ink drawing. Using a sketchbook as an inspiration for watercolors. Watercolor painting in progress. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

Here’s the finished painting. When I drew the sketch, I wanted the person to look like she’s contemplating, and wasn’t quite happy with the face. But here, I was more successful the facial features. Colors also add to the expression.

Watercolor painting by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. See her blog for more watercolor inspiration.

What I really liked in this project, was the lack of too many decisions at the same time. When I followed the composition and the elements of the drawing, I was able to focus more on the atmosphere.

3) Watercolor Sceneries – Play with the Level of Abstraction

Mastering watercolors is impossible without making most of the happy accidents and allowing abstract elements build the image. Try how abstract you can and want to go!

These images are from my class Watercolor Journey. The first landscape is quite realistic and representational. It’s easy to see that there are trees and the sun.

Watercolor painting by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. Watercolor inspiration from her class Watercolor Journey.

Here’s a more abstract version of the same project. Trees are not so clear anymore and the sun is more vague too, but on the other hand, it’s not as static as the previous one.

Abstract watercolor painting by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. Watercolor inspiration from her class Watercolor Journey.

Which of the two do you like more? How far do you want to go in your paintings?

4) Intuitive Painting – Loosen Up by Starting with Three Photos

If you like to solve mysteries, here’s a project for you! Pick three photos and use one for each of the three first layers. Watch the video for more detailed tips and instructions!

I definitely did not see that there would be a fish in my piece when I started!

Watercolor painting by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. See her video of how she made this using three inspiration photos for the first layers. Lots of tips included too.

With watercolors, the art of seeing can be sometimes more important as the art of painting!

5) Watercolor Collage – Join my Class Animal Inkdom!

I have also used watercolors several times in my class Animal Inkdom. In Module 3 where we explore the underwater world, watercolors are a natural choice. For example, in this collage project watercolors have a central role. You will learn ways to draw fun and unique sea life animals, and make a playful underwater scene.

Watercolor collage art by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet. A sample project from her class Animal Inkdom.

Come to draw and paint with us in Animal Inkdom! You will get the published lessons (including Module 3) immediately after the registration, and you can start drawing and painting right away. Sign up for Animal Inkdom here!

Watercolor Panoramas to Express Travel Memories

Painting watercolor panoramas by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

I try to have a wide range of topics on this blog, but now I am posting watercolor sceneries again! (See the last week’s post). I have quickly become addicted to them! It all started with buying Daniel Smith watercolors and realizing that many members of my community Bloom and Fly love watercolors. I try to grow my skills in most of the media that the members use. Then I can give advice that’s not only great in theory but also works in practice.

Not So Traditional Landscape Painting

A lot of reasons were needed for landscape painting because so far, it has been one of the most boring genres of visual art to me. I haven’t ever been the kind of person who travels with a tiny watercolor kit and sits down near the sights to paint the surroundings. I do usually carry a camera – often just my phone – when traveling or walking in nature but never before have I understand the fascination of the traditional landscape painting.

But last week, I realized that because art is freedom, I can be as wild and expressive as I want. That made the landscape painting a fun game. It gives me the opportunity to re-live the travel memories, get lost in the process, and then come out with a piece that’s like a souvenir from that creative experience.

Watercolor Panoramas – Playing with Expression

This time, I was not painting just one piece like last week, but five small panoramas at one go. I carelessly chose the reference photos for the last part of the process. I will talk about the process later in this post, but let’s talk about the expressive ideas first.

A) How Would The Place Currently Look?
When painting watercolor panoramas, it was interesting to see what travel memories come to mind and how they got merged with the current life.

When we were in the Scottish countryside in 2014, it was a sunny day in June. The heat felt very similar to Finland’s summer. It was pleasant, not suffocating at all, and remembering it made me ponder how the spring would look there now – perhaps quite similar to Finland too.

Painting watercolor panoramas by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet
This was the photo that I used as inspiration when finishing the painting.


B) The Chain of Memories
Barcelona was my husband’s suggestion in 2009. I wasn’t excited until I remembered Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. And of course, the pavilion was also the first thing that came to my mind when I painted the panorama. But I also remembered Catalonia’s National Art Museum, Gaudi’s architecture, the mountains that surrounded the valley, the sea views, a lot!

Painting watercolor panoramas by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

The long chain of memories and locations started from this (not so artistic!) snapshot showing Barcelona Pavilion.

Mies van der Rohe, Barcelona Pavilion

C) The Emotional Experience

Last summer, we visited Palazzo Pitti in Florence, Italy. The place has inspired me ever since. I remember entering the museum and seeing the first room filled with chandeliers. It was a hot and relatively quiet evening in Florence, but my mind was buzzing. It’s like I was trying to get exposed to as much art and beauty as I could.

Painting watercolor panoramas by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

Here’s the photo that I had in hand when finishing the watercolor panorama above.

Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy

D) Being Far, Seeing Far
When being far away from home, it’s possible to see the life from a different perspective. It’s like rewriting some parts of the personal story. In the brilliant Palazzo Pitti, I had the same experience than when visiting Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia: I should trust my points of view more, and not hold back. When I looked out of a window of Palazzo Pitti, it didn’t matter what other people saw there. I saw what I saw, and that’s true to me.

Painting watercolor panoramas by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

Here’s the reference photo that I almost deleted when I came back from the trip because it wasn’t so pretty. While painting, I realized that good reference photos are not only those which show the best scenes. The ones that remind from the best moments are also worth saving and painting.

Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy

E) Highlighting What Matters
While traveling in Italy last summer, we visited Vatican Museums too. Some of the things that stuck in my mind were the huge maps on the walls and the incredible number of tourists. While painting, I thought how the old maps could be seen as symbols for the curiosity to know the globe.

Painting watercolor panoramas by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

The statue of the reference photo (Arnaldo Pomodoro’s Sphere within a Sphere) expresses the complexity and fragility of the world. I made it dominate the scene in the watercolor panorama and made it look a bit like a round map. To me, it’s much more important than the buildings!

Vatican Museums

Watercolor Panoramas – My Process

The idea for panoramas was accidental. I happened to find oblong pieces when going through the watercolor papers. I often like to paint a square, so I had cut away the excess of a blocked paper. I don’t usually work in this small scale. However, using a thin water brush most of the time, made it quite easy.

Painting watercolor panoramas by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

For the colors, I used a mixed collection of watercolor and gouache paints.

1) Background – Traveling to the Mind

The fact that I didn’t use any reference photos until in the end, made the painting fun. The first layers were splashing and blending. I had no idea about the scene or the location that would appear on paper!

Painting watercolor panoramas by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

I took a photo of the backgrounds and then another one when the paintings were finished. Can you recognize which belongs to which?

Painting watercolor panoramas by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

2) Doodling with Watercolor and Masking Fluid

After I had painted the background, I started doodling. Working with five watercolor panoramas at the same time was handy. I could work with one painting while others were drying. I used both pigments and masking fluid for doodling. Some backgrounds had watercolor doodles first. Others went straight to masking.

At this point, I started thinking about a reference photo that could suit the painting. For some panoramas, I found the picture quickly. But there were a couple that raised no memories at all, so I just doodled this and that!

Painting watercolor panoramas by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

After the masking fluid had dried, I was having fun again. I splashed the paint and enjoyed the wonders of watercolor.

Painting watercolor panoramas by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

After the topmost layers had dried, I removed the masking fluid.  Here’s “Scotland.”

Painting watercolor panoramas by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

3) Finishing the Painting with a Reference Photo

When aiming for an expressive and loose image, the reference photo is more like an inspiration photo. I can glance at it, pick some ideas and elements from it but I don’t follow it to the detail. I let my associations and memories override the photo and build an inner vision of the place. (My class Inspirational Drawing guides you to master this process more in detail.)

Painting watercolor panoramas by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

Why I Have Never Learned Watercolor Painting from the Books

Some elements of the panoramas are more abstract, some more recognizable. It’s important to cherish the abstract nature of art when making room for expression.

I must confess that during the years that I have experimented with watercolors, I have found the books and videos difficult to comprehend and adapt. Watercolor tutorials usually follow the reference photos very carefully. To me, it doesn’t make sense. I need to know “the code” – the logic and the principles behind the image, not just the image. After you’ve got the code, you can express much more!

Painting watercolor panoramas by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

As an artist, I have always been more interested in what something expresses than how it looks. I have often felt disappointed by the lack of the expression part in tutorials, so I try my best to focus on the expression when teaching others.

The Magic of Finishing Touches

To me, the most challenging step in creating is finishing. The first two steps are usually just happy happy happy, but then there is a danger that the project becomes sad sad sad. 

The watercolor panoramas were quite easy to finish, but if I have bigger struggles, I use the camera for the whole creative process. Then I take a photo of my work and look at it in several ways, enlarge it, make it smaller, etc. It’s fast and makes the finishing much easier than just staring at the actual piece. In May at Bloom and Fly, I will show how to use a camera and other digital tools to make the most out of your art, even if the actual creating would happen manually.

Painting watercolor panoramas by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

The Summer Season (July-August) of Bloom and Fly is Watercolor Journey
>> Sign up here!

Intuitive Painting with a Reference Image

Intuitive painting with a reference image – can it be possible? Let me show you how!

Madama Butterfly, an intuitive painting from the sketchbook of Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

Here’s a painting from my sketchbook. It’s called “Madama Butterfly.” My reference image was this Renaissance painting called “Flora” by Tiziano Vecellio, 1515-1520. I took the photo last summer when visiting Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Flora by Tiziano Vecellio. Uffizi gallery. Photo by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

There are very little similarities in these two pieces. The pose is fairly similar, the composition and the facial features have some similarities, but that’s it. The style, the theme, and the technique are all different.

Tiziano Vecellio's painting Flora, and a painting from Paivi Eerola's sketchbook. See how she used the reference for the painting!

The Supplies And the Setting

I like to do fairly quick paintings on my big A3-sized sketchbook. For this sketchbook, I often use Derwent Artbars, a water brush, and Faber-Castell Gelatos because they are easy to layer and I am more relaxed than when working with tube paints. I use acrylic or oil paints for canvas paintings, and working with them is more serious. This time I wanted to demonstrate a concept or a method rather than creating a 30-hour painting.

Derwent Artbars, Faber-Castell Gelatos, and a waterbrush ready for making a sketchbook page.

1) From Intentional to Intuitive Painting

The first idea was to pick the pose and the composition loosely from the reference image and then add geometric shapes to fill the space.

First steps of an intuitive painting that also uses a reference image. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

After sketching the foundation of the figure, the triangles, rectangles, and circles were fun to paint without looking at the reference at all. I painted the face roughly, and then I used the reference image as a guide. But because at this early stage, I didn’t know what I want to express and what kind of person the figure could be, I didn’t bother to spend time perfecting the facial features. At this point, my painting resembles cubistic pieces from the early 20th century.

2) Changing the Style

When creating art for the sketchbook, I like my style to be a bit more illustrational than when I make bigger paintings. Even if I love cubism, I wanted my piece to be a bit more current.

Making an intuitive painting by using a reference image to some parts. By Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

Nowadays, illustrations often use geometric shapes but rather than triangles or rectangles, the shapes are often round, and scallop edges seem to be a bit hit. So I started changing the painting by altering the shapes. This routine work gave me plenty of time to connect with my inner world and work intuitively from one association to another. I tend to be both nostalgic and romantic, so I thought how portrait painters often spend time with the clothing even if they are just a shell. Why not use it as a canvas for the memories, the ideas, and the achievements of the person?

Changing an artistic style by changing angular shapes to round shapes. Example by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet.

3) From Intuitive to Intentional

After rounding hundreds of triangles and rectangles, I realized that I was painting Madama Butterfly, the opera that I just saw last Saturday! I finished the face after this realization and adjusted other elements so that they fit with the theme.

Madama Butterfly, an intuitive painting from the sketchbook of Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet

More Intuitive Inspiration from Opera

This is not the first time I have been intuitively inspired by opera!

>> Tosca

"Tosca" by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet
Tosca, 2015

>> The Phantom of the Opera

"The Phantom of the Opera" by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet
The Phantom of the Opera, 2016

>> La Traviata

"I Am Listening", a hand-drawn art journal page by Paivi Eerola from Peony and Parakeet
I Am Listening, 2015

>> The Marriage of Figaro

Opera, a mixed media collage by Peony and Parakeet.
Opera, 2014

And there’s also a video about
>> Kaija Saariaho’s Emilie

More About Simple Shapes

>> What to create from simple shapes – 6 ideas

Self-study classes:
>> Planet Color – release your mind by focusing on color!
>> Modern Mid-Century – put a modern twist to simple shapes!

Let me be your mentor in creating: Subscribe to my weekly emails!

Scroll to top