I’ve been practising for next week’s workshop at Higham Hall near Cockermouth. I’ve been trying to get a bit more systematic and specific about what I do so I can explain it, making a list of what individual layers are or might be because “be intuitive” isn’t a sufficiently helpful instruction. Also with the aim to have some examples of “layered paintings” “informed by” (based on) the photos in my new photo reference book (which workshop participants get) as well as some that combine elements from various photos.
Here are two of my paintings. Each has bits I like and things I don’t think are resolved, yet, or I would do differently next time. When I was telling the in-house art critic how I felt about them, when he finally got a word in edgeways, his response was that I was being way too harsh. He might be is right, and only I can see the gap between what was in my head and what’s on the paper.
Here they are with the reference photos alongside. 350gsm, A3-size, NOT watercolour paper, using pencil, coloured pencil, acrylic ink, acrylic paint, and oil pastel.
I’ve had requests to explain a bit more about my painting process (hence this is called #1). It’s an edifying, albeit slow, process nailing down what I do and why. It doesn’t always make sense to me, even as I realise I’m doing it, but then evolution isn’t necessarily logical or sensible (think: furry creatures that eat very specific leaves only).
I admire artists who work strongly with warm and cool colour*. I know the theory. I’ve tried doing it slowly and conscientiously. I’ve drawn myself little diagrams of what part of a composition should be warm light and warm shadow, cool light and cool shadow, and still blown painting it thus. I put warm into cool areas, make distant hills darker than nearer, and choose between lemon yellow and cadmium yellow based on transparency not warmth.
I could blame all the “soft northern light” on Skye, but that doesn’t hold for not doing atmospheric perspective in a painting. And Monet said the light in Algeria taught him to see colour so all my years under a southern African sky should surely have imbued me too.
Most of the time I don’t about consciously think warm or cool, neither the lack thereof nor the using of it.
[cue: shock, horror]
I paint with my favourite colours**, and if something isn’t working when I’m in “pondering mode”, I consider changing the colour and/or the colour’s tone. But it’s not colour consciously measured in warm/cool. (That’s why if you’re in a workshop with me and you ask about something in warm/cool terms it takes me a while to respond, I need a bit of thinking time.)
The adage is that you learn by teaching has proven itself again this week during a 1:1 workshop during which we’ve been exploring mark making and layering. It’s forced me to slow down and ‘unpack’ how I paint, how I decide what I’m going to do, how I wield a brush, why it’s a flat brush and not a round. Things that have become everyday through time, things that are automatic through practise, things I don’t consciously think about yet must have at some point but can’t remember when that was.
Take continuous line. The first time I met this was in a life-drawing class when I was living in London. Was it love at first encounter? I don’t remember. But I do know I love it now, especially for rocky shores.
So explain continuous line, about drawing a line tracking what your eyes are looking at, without lifting up. Except with ink you do lift up because at a certain point the dropper from the bottle (which I use as a drawing tool) runs out of ink.
How do I control how much ink goes onto the paper a dropper? You can’t really, that’s part of the joy of using it, the unpredictability, the irregular line. But you can to some extent by remembering not to squeeze it, and to wipe it on the edge of the bottle.
How fast does it dry? Well it depends on how hot it is, if you’re outside in the wind or inside, plus the weight (thickness) of the paper you’re working on and, of course, how much ink you’ve put down.
How fast do you need to draw? Well it depends on whether or not you intend to spray the ink when you’ve done the first layer of drawing and have it spread. How far will it spread? It depends on how wet the ink still is, how much there is, how close to the surface you hold the spray bottle and how much you spray. Or maybe you just want some wet spots to spread with a brush into washes of grey (Payne’s), then you don’t need to be as fast but still not too slow so that it’s all dried.
And that’s just one layer.
This is as far as we got:
My next scheduled workshops are at Higham Hall in the Lake District, near Cockermouth. (Maximum group size is 12, and over four days there’s plenty of time for some 1:1.) Find out more here.
This is Monet’s “Apple Trees in Blossom by the Water”, painted in 1880.
1. What’s the focal point?
2. Where’s the water mentioned in the painting’s title?
Turn page 90 of Monet: The Seine and The Sea 1878–1883 by Michael Clarke and Richard Thomson, where it’s explained that:
“Such is the density of the surface activity that the painting has no conventional focus or compositional base. … This is a canvas about touch, texture and colour…”
The trunk does leads your eye up into the branches, but then it takes it off the top. There’s so much going on with the leaves and shadows it’s hard to make out any single bit but simultaneously inviting you to get lost in it all. Paintings don’t have to have a traditional focal point, positioned according the Golden Mean, with a composition leading the viewer’s eye towards it. It’s your choice.
The water in the painting is supposedly implied by the sense of a tree growing on a bank. (It’s thought it’s one of the paintings Monet did from a river boat .) I’m not sure I’d think about it if it weren’t in the painting’s title. Would you?
Mostly I find myself wondering how Monet didn’t get fedup with all those shades of brown from burnt umber to beige, and whether in real life the painting has more yellows and green visible. What would your third question be?
Yesterday afternoon I was at the Uig woodland, mostly sitting at the shore looking towards the ferry pier and Waternish Peninsula. This is a favourite spot, but this time the light was particularly beautiful, the juxtaposition of light and dark shapes, the clouds. Minimal colour when looking into the sun, but not entirely monochrome.
If I moved a little, there could be some green in the foreground.
This is the wide view you see when you emerge from trees.
A few steps further back.
Puddles and reflections can be distracting.
Where I sat to sketch, on an array of flattish stones, the grassy lump being a bit damp.
My sketching kit: watercolour box (my indulgent, big one which holds a flat and a rigger brush), pencil box (with coloured pencils, sharpener, and some acrylic inks, Payne’s grey, yellow, and red earth), watercolour paper (A3 350gsm NOT) in a plastic folder which also acts as a board, couple of clips to hold paper, water container , and a bag to carry it in.
I don’t regard any of these as successful pieces, but they do all have potential for being continued /reworked in the studio.
The first, the one on the left, has bits that work but don’t work together.; this might be resolved by overworking it with pastel or opaque paint. The middle one I stopped because I liked what the hematite watercolour was doing but suddenly thought I wanted more rocks/seaweed in the composition but would mess it up if I tried to alter it, and so started the third. That lacks contrast, but the 350g paper needed to dry totally so that subsequent layers of paint didn’t just spread around and soak in. It’s a “stopped too early” painting.
Will I rework these? Maybe, rather than probably. What my fingers are itching to do is to paint the greys and light on a large canvas, lots of texture and interesting greys.
A beginner painter just told me her first art tutor advised her to buy a basic watercolour set because she was only starting out and it wasn’t worth her while spending the money on better quality yet. It makes me want to cry with frustration, because that’s how you too easily end up hating watercolour rather than loving it and giving up before you’ve ventured very far. I was once there.
Too many watercolour paintings are wishy-washy, pale, insipid, nothingness simply because there isn’t enough pigment in each brush stroke. Better quality paints have more pigment in them. More pigment equals more intense colours, brighter colours, better results when mixed. More pigment means a little bit goes a long way.
Cheap pan watercolours are hard and you have to scrub away to get decent colour. Decent watercolours ‘dissolve’ readily, leading instantly to stronger colour. It’ll go further than you believe, and you’ll enjoy using it more.
You need only a handful of colours to start, and these will get you off to a better start than a load of cheap. Stick with pencil and paper while you save up a little more. Ask your family and friends to each get you one colour for your birthday, and build your set that way. You’re worth it.
What do I consider essential colours? A single-pigment blue, yellow, and magenta (not red). Next step would be Payne’s grey, then another blue, then another yellow.
Brands I like? Daniel Smith, Golden (aka QoR), Sennelier, Schmincke. I love the Sennelier eight-colour set (*affiliate link) as a starter set, not least because it has Payne’s grey rather than a useless white. I struggled with watercolour until I got one of these little Sennelier sets, about five years ago now, and I’ve never looked back. Suddenly it was easy to get strong colour, to get bright results. From this I ventured into Sennelier tube watercolours, putting together my own set of colours with three blues, two yellows, two greens, two reds, magenta, and Payne’s grey.
I haven’t tried Golden’s half-pan set (yet) though I do have two tube watercolour colours (quinacridone gold and quinacridone magenta) and love them for their intensity. With 12 colours, two blues, reds, and yellows, plus Payne’s grey, it looks like a great starter set too (read about it here).
Why pans rather than tubes? Because it’s one less thing to faff about. You just put brush to water to pan to paper and you’re painting.
JOIN ME FOR AN ART WORKSHOP: Sketch to Studio on Skye, Monday 17 to Thursday 20 September. Six participants only, ensuring personal attention. Plus the chance to try my watercolour set if you’d like. Details here…
What I’ve found out: Adrian Hill presented BBC “Sketch Club” from 1958 to 1962 (way before Tony Hart‘s show), was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum in London during the First World War (the first, according to his Wikipedia entry, which also says he went back to art college afterwards, worked as a professional artist and art teacher, and coined the term art therapy) and he wrote quite a few books. There are a dozen of his paintings on the UK public art collection website, and a short BBC radio interview.
But back to the book I found. It’s written in a style you don’t find in contemporary photo-led books, when sentences could be longer and have more complex constructions, language more descriptive and poetic, and opinions more strongly stated. It’s like listening to an artist thinking aloud on various aspects, with the thoughts organized not random.
I suspect quotes will make their appearance as Monday Motivators, but here’s one for today, from Chapter 6 which is called “Timidity and Courage”:
“…once perfect freedom of execution has been enjoyed, a little self-disciple will generally make itself felt, and the rebel will turn docile; whereas the law-abiding student will rarely ‘break bounds’ without persuasion.”
I do wonder if it caught my eye because my mind’s been on my introduction to watercolour workshop on Monday (still spaces if you’d like to join us). How when you know next-to-nothing about a workshop attendee other than they want to learn about watercolour painting you have to prepare approaches that’ll work for wherever they turn out to be on the spectrum from cautious (timid) to expressive (courageous).
The small print on the labels tells us: PR 122 and PV 19.
Looking up the numbers tells me: quinacridone magenta and quinacridone rose.
Depending where you are on your colour journey, this may or may not be useful information.
The good news is all you really need to know is that one’s a red (R) pigment, the other a violet (V) so, besides the difference in colour as you see it, they’ll do different things when mixed.
Handprint says: “Because it is warmer than a typical magenta, quinacridone rose creates clean, bright mixtures across the red to yellow span of a color wheel. Its violets are not as bright as those mixed from quinacridone magenta, but I find this creates a more natural color when the mixtures are used for shadows.”
For me the two feel like Rosa rugosa flowers (“pink-pink”) vs its rosehips (“red-pink”), which I can’t find a photo of right now.
At Patchings Art Festival last month I was very encouraged by the number of conversations where “single pigment colours” and “pigment numbers” weren’t met with blank looks.
The short answer: One.
Try black or Payne’s grey or sepia. (If you don’t believe this, then ask yourself how black-and white photography is still a thing so many years after the invention of colour photography.)
The colour theory answer: Six.
A warm and cool blue, yellow and red.
The typical answer: The primaries, white, and some earths, perhaps a green.
The Colourist’s answer:
Whatever floats your boat.
My slightly longer answer:
However many you wish, but probably not all in one painting.
Exploring colour is part of the joy of painting, getting to know the personality of each, how it behaves when it’s by itself and how well it plays with others. (I mean: the properties of a pigment and how it mixes with others.) Everyone has their preferences as to how many they want to play with, both at any particular moment and overall.
There is no magic number, it’s about personal preference and it’ll change. If you don’t enjoy colour mixing, you’ll likely use more straight-from-the-tube colour.
How many colours make a successful painting depends on how you use them. Mix them all together and you’ve a muddy mess. Have scattered colour across a composition and you’ve disjointed visual chaos. Worked together, considered and intuitively, it can be intriguing and full of discoveries for a viewer. Never let anyone insist that you limit yourself if you’re enjoying playing with your colours.
When painting with acrylics, I tend to use a subset of colours that has got slightly larger over the past few years (I now need two hands to count the colours, not only one). I do have tubes of many other colours I’ve tried, and occasionally I play with these again. But mostly I use titanium white, Prussian blue, cadmium orange and yellow, lemon yellow, magenta, and?perylene black. Phthalo blue, cobalt blue and phthalo turquoise are also regulars, cerulean blue sometimes joins in. Burnt umber is now neglected as I’ve shifted to mixing greys with orange and blue, and I still don’t like ultramarine blue much (sorry Sharron.
But when it comes to watercolours, since discovering Daniel Smith’s granulating colours, I’ve increasingly been having a ceilidh with colour. Pigments with distinctive characters, not homogenized to all behave the same way like well-socialized, good little colours. I’m not using every single colour in every single painting, and the more successful ones do have fewer colours, but I think these also work because they retain the joy of mucking about with all the colours.
When I moved to Skye 10 years ago, my watercolour set looked like this:
My current watercolour box looks like this:
It feels indulgent to have so many colours, but it’s also so joyous. Sometimes one is all you need, but how will you know which one unless you’ve tried many?
Why not join me exploring and playing with colour this September: read more…
Is it a drawing, is it a painting? Did it start as a drawing and become a painting when I added water to the ink? I don’t know, and don’t believe it matters. What’s of more interest to me was that this afternoon, after days of exploring new watercolour colours, I felt like using “black” ink only. Maybe it was a side effect of a grey-skies day.
It’s not black though, it’s Payne’s grey*, a dark blue-grey that I find has got more rich depth than straight black.
The subject is Neist Point, the westerly most point of Skye, punctuated with a lighthouse. I was working from memory with one of my reference photos (in the booklet of photos I use for my workshops) to hand to remind me of shapes. I’m using acrylic ink, and the dropper as a drawing tool.
You can’t easily make it out in the photo but there are some composition lines I drew using a non-photo blue pencil before picking up the ink. It meant I could concentrate on getting the ink drawing done fast enough that some would still be wet enough to spread into the sea area when I dampened this. (If I were to do composition and ink simultaneously, it would split my attention and lengthen the drawing time.)
Line only at this stage, on dry paper (350gsm Not watercolour paper).
And here’s where I got so caught up in what I was doing that I forgot to take photos. So between the previous photo and the next the caption reads “Draw the rest of the #@&%! owl”**
Once I’d worked my way down to the foreground (it’s a cliff edge from which you can see the lighthouse), I made my way back across the drawing with line a little. Then I wet the sea area with clean water, taking care not to touch any of the ink yet.
I needed the sea area to all be damp so I wouldn’t get any hard dry edges (except on the horizon) when I started spreading the ink into the sea. I then carefully ran a damp brush along the edge of the ink line to connect it to the damp paper. Areas of still-wet ink spread out, and I brushed it outwards too.
Where there wasn’t enough ink, I used the brush to ‘borrow’ some from other areas. Where there was too much, I dabbed at it with paper towel. Brush wiped and dunked in clean water periodically too. At full strength this ink colour is very dark; thinned it’s a beautiful blue-grey.
I could add colour, such as the greens of the grass, but I won’t. That’s a different painting.
*Payne’s Grey is named after a British watercolourist and art lecturer, William Payne (1760–1830), who recommended the mixture to students as a more subtle alternative to a gray mixed from black and white. Payne’s grey originally was “a mixture of lake, raw sienna and indigo” according to “Artist’s Pigments: c.1600-1835” (by RD Harley, Archetype Publications, 2001, page 163). What’s in it these days varies between manufacturers, typically a blue and a black together, sometimes a touch of red is added.
**A meme from a few years ago on how to draw an owl in two steps, the first being two circles and the second a detailed owl drawing.