Looe Harbour – the evolution of a watercolour painting

Watercolour Painting Looe, Cornwall ©KarenSmith
Looe Harbour ©KarenSmith

I recently completed this detailed ink pen and watercolour harbour scene of Looe, a small coastal fishing port in Cornwall, UK.

To be specific this is a painting of West Looe as seen from East Looe. The coastal town of Looe is divided by a river, that runs down a deep sided valley . West Looe rises from the valley floor up to the Downs and eventually Bodmin Moor, whilst East Looe curves down to the sandy beach and fishing quay.

This is a town I am very familiar with, and I love the way the colourful houses cling onto the hillside in West Looe, and the way tidal river means the waterfront is constantly changing as the boats bob on the water at high tide, or lie in the muddy riverbed at low tide.

My Process

This painting began with an idea to create a very complex ink drawing of the houses rising up from the harbour in West Looe. Using one of my own photos as reference I decided a tight portrait composition would portray the steep incline down to the water from the top of the hill.

Once I had a rough sketch worked out, I  decided to make this a pen and wash study.
I realised the pastel hues of the houses interspersed with bright green foliage (everything is lush and verdant in a Cornish valley in summer) against the dark brackish water of the river Looe would make a lovely illustrative piece.

I  began the piece by stretching an A3+ piece of heavy watercolour paper on a board, and transferred my composition to the paper. I then inked in the details, being quite precise with the placement of all the buildings and harbour, but keeping the line work as minimal as possible so as not to create a cluttered image.

Whats on my Drawing Board January 08 2020
Looe Harbour ink drawing in progress over the top of pencil sketch.

I scanned the line drawing so that I could print out some samples to try out different colour schemes. different media and different styles of painting. As you can imagine it was pretty difficult scanning the image still attached to my stretching frame – but necessary.

I find I can create pencil drawings on watercolour and then get the paper wet for stretching without too much of a problem. But even when using waterproof ink ( I use De Atramentis archival inks) I find getting the paper very wet after inking causes the ink to bleed and results in fuzzy lines.


I decided to paint in an illustrative style, where all colours are slightly heightened and exaggerated.
Paying particular attention to tonal values, and the use of contrast to make the houses stand out from each other and the hillside.

The painting that keeps on giving

Throughout 2020 I was delivering free art classes online to students who had previously been in my evening art classes at our local studios. I developed a ‘paint along’ lesson using my original line sketches for this painting to teach watercolour painting skills, they were very popular due to their complexity.

Getting too attached

When I finally completed the painting, its finished size was 43cm tall by 32cm wide, I did plan on listing it for sale, but realised I had taken too long over it, become too attached to it, and hadn’t quite finished with it yet!

So I decided to create some greeting cards, they are high quality prints on heavy textured paper, giving them an arty ‘watercolour’ feel.

All artwork is copyright Karen Smith. No reproduction or use of this artwork is permitted without my written permission.