Yesterday I sat on a tree stump in the Uig woodland amongst the bluebells, with my watercolours. My aim was to try the various blues I have and see if I could crack “bluebell blue”. Looking at the options I had for shifting blues towards purple, I decided to try Imperial Purple (a Daniel Smith mixture of PV19 quinacridone rose and PB29 ultramarine blue) and mixed it with my favourite blue, Prussian (PB27). And just like that I had my recipe, andnow I can tick “paint bluebells in the woodland” off my to-do list.
This is the tree stump I sat on whilst painting bluebells. It was one of the trees cut down by the woodland trust last year because they were damaged or rotten.
It was such a beautiful, windstill morning I couldn’t resist painting outside despite the temperature struggling to get to 0°C. I don’t know that I would recommend it, but having ink and watercolour freeze as I used it was intriguing. It certainly “sparked joy” as ice crystals gathered on the tip of my brush.
Ending up with paint frozen on the surface of the paper made for something very tactile, inviting my fingers to slide across it. Of course, as soon as the painting was moved to a slightly warmer environment (i.e. indoors), it melted and the paint behaved like “normal”; the paper was cold-damp to its core across the entire sheet and took a little while to dry through.
This was my favourite painting from today, a slice of loch shore, started on location and finished indoors.
There’s one little tree in the Uig woodland that wears its autumn colours later and longer than the rest. I call it the “The Little Tree That Could” (context: the children’s book The Little Engine That Couldwith the lines “I think I can, I think I can … I knew I could“) and first painted it in 2014 (see this blog). On Monday I went to say hello again, taking my watercolours and some acrylic ink (video link if you don’t see it below).
This video was taken when I started moving the colour around with a rigger. (It goes a awry for a bit as I open a bottle to add more orange, just skip that bit. Video link)
My fourth painting is my favourite, ending up a bit like Moses’ burning bush. Watercolour only.
I was sitting on a convenient rock next to the stone wall. 1 = Watercolour set. 2 = Painting drying. 3 = A bit of waterproof padding to sit on. 4 = Plastic folder with paper that also serves as a ‘drawing board’. 5 = Inks and fluid watercolour in plastic box. 6 = Water bottle (for me before my brushes) 7 = Backpack with raincoat, biscuits etc.
As all location painting should, I started by just sitting staring out to sea. The warmer the sunshine, the longer this stage tends to last.
Then getting out my supplies: sheets of watercolour paper, clips to hold these down, my watercolour set, container for water, box with drawing supplies and longer box with bottles of fluid watercolour (also known as watercolour ‘ink). I’m hoping not to drop anything off the left-hand edge of the wall, because it’d be quite a scramble to get to it.
My first sketch of the day was the view to the left, of the headland and the pebble beach. I was trying to get a sense of the rocks and the colours of the seaweed on it. The direction of the sea as it comes into the bay isn’t right — it doesn’t turn this sharply — but I didn’t feel like fixing it as I’d lose the white and overwork it.
I then shifted my focus closer to where I was sitting, the jumble of larger rocks with the puddles of green weed.
I was pleased with the painting above, and decided to try again with a wider view. As so often happens, I was then trying too hard, hindered by what I’d just done, and ended up with a displeasing result. It lacks the strength of the previous painting, and feels insipid, unresolved, confused. If I crop off the sides, I’m less unhappy, but I consider this a dud.
This was the other dud of the last, the very last painting I did, though this one might still be rescued if I add something that pulls the sea and shore together. And also crop.
This was my favourite painting from the session. The rocks were painted with Daniel Smith’s Lunar Black, a strongly granulating colour.
I then did a version using Daniel Smith Hematite Genuine, which goes from deep dark to browns depending on how diluted and mixed it is, plus some Lunar Black. I like the colour, but I’ve rounded the rocks as I concentrated on the colour rather than shapes.
I’ve kept the expanse of sea ‘white’ as part of my ongoing exploration of white space inspired by the little I know of the traditions of Chinese painting. It’s ever so tempting to paint colour in that space, but that’ll change it completely. Also, I find the granulating colours lift very easily, so you’ve got to have a light hand painting over them. Given I was using a stiff acrylic brush not a soft ‘proper’ watercolour brush, that’d be near impossible, thus removing the temptation to try.
Whilst hunting out the one bottle of fluid watercolour I’ve got in preparation for a 1:1 workshop on expressive watercolour, I came across a few empty bottles of acrylic ink and had a lightbulb moment. Why not wash them out and make my own watercolour ink with some favourite colours?
The unknown of course was how much to squeeze out of a tube, and if I’d been sensible rather than impatient I would have started with less and then added more testing it as I’d mixed it up. Maybe next time.
If you’ve noticed that the bottle of Aquafine watercolour ink is ultramarine and are thinking that it’s a colour I openly dislike and wondering why I would have chosen it, the answer is that I was given it as a sample last year at Patchings Art Festival. I wasn’t about to get fussy about the colour of the gift horse!
This is the spread from my sketchbook where I was trying out my three DIY watercolour inks. Definitely a member of the messy sketchbook club.
The sienna is too strong, and needs further diluting. The Lunar Black spreads out a lot on wet paper. The haematite genuine holds a tighter edge on wet paper, and on dry dries to a variegated line. Overall I anticipate much happiness working with these colours and the ink-bottle droppers as the drawing tool,. Taking what I’ve been doing with acrylic ink but using watercolours that granulate and have multiple layers of colour., and remembering that it’ll lift up unlike acrylics.
Blooms, washbacks, backflow, cauliflowers … whatever you call it when you’re painting wet-into-wet watercolour and the colour you just applied pushes out the one already down, rather than making friends and sitting with it. There’s one rule to avoiding it (or to use if you deliberately want to get this result, much as watercolour purists might shudder at the thought). In the words of that skilled Australian watercolourist John Lovett:
If you are painting a soft edge into a wet wash, make sure there is more pigment in the color you are applying than is in the underlying wash or obvious blooms will be created.” Source: John Lovett, Watercolour Edges
So how do you know whether you’ve got more pigment or not? Like everything, practice. It starts by deliberately considering it, and eventually it becomes ingrained knowledge, instinctive. If in doubt, add more pigment (“thick paint”). Or pull some of the water from the brush hairs by holding a piece of paper towel to the ferrule end of the hairs, a tip the artist Katie Lee taught me.
In a multi-day workshop, I usually include some time for colour studies, exploring colour mixing with some underlying focus but mostly for the sheer joy of colour, of seeing what happens. The most common response is what fun it is and why don’t we do it more often when we’re by ourselves? I suspect the answer lies in that we get too fixated on “creating a painting” and forget it is time well spent to practice our scales.
When I sat down at my favourite picnic bench in the Uig woodland, I had intended to do a watercolour version of the sketch I’d made a few days before. But after the first tree trunk was painted, impulse led me to trying various colour combinations in search of the ‘perfect recipe’. An hour or so later, I had this:
This photo is a bit blown out. In the middle is my favourite:
lunar black + cobalt blue + serpentine green
I know what the colour are because I remembered to make notes! Not the proportions of each, just the ingredients.
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…