My Gouache Learning Curve: Four Paintings at the Beach

The last two days I’ve been back at the little bay with the pebble beach and yellow, gorse-covered headland. But, unlike the time before, I had my new-to-me box of gouache* paints with me and a determination to finally try this medium for myself.

It’s the student-quality Caran D’Ache set I watched Michael Chelsea-Johnson use to good effect when he was on the Isle of Skye in 2019 (scroll to the bottom of this page on his website to see his gouache sketches). It’s got 15 colors, in a cheerful red tin, and may well let me motivate myself with “What would Michael do?” thoughts.

Here are my four paintings, in the order I did them.

1. Gouache and water-soluble wax crayons on A2 watercolour paper. Trying to get a feel for the colours and how they mix and work.
2. Gouache and water-soluble wax crayons on A2 watercolour paper. Going bigger, but finding I was using too much water and losing the opacity. Stopped before it was resolved.
3. Gouache, acrylic ink, and water-soluble wax crayons on A2 watercolour paper. Started with a Payne’s grey acrylic ink drawing as it’s something I enjoy doing, but then found I fought against losing it under opaque colour. I didn’t think to draw again with the ink rather than worry about hiding it.
4. Gouache, acrylic ink, and water-soluble wax crayons on A2 watercolour paper. Also started with Payne’s grey acrylic ink, but spread it with a brush before moving to the gouache. Didn’t get obsessed with covering all the white of the paper nor worrying about using too much water. Worked the sky wet-into-wet. The in-house art critic says it looks like someone standing fishing on the rocks, not an accidental blob.

Overall I had a lot of fun, and can see potential, especially for adding opaques to a mixed media painting as a contrast to more transparent colours. (Joan Eardley is the inspiration for this, though she used oils.) I next want to explore what gouache gives me working it more watery (as semi-opaque) compared to watercolour (will it look “chalky?), and using watercolour over and alongside.

Top left: the initial ink layer beneath the colour, drawn with the bottle’s pipette, then (top right) spread with a damp brush.

*Gouache is essentially watercolour that’s opaque rather than transparent. If you’ve used the white in a watercolour set, then you’ve used gouache. (Acrylic gouache isn’t gouache as it’s not water-soluble when dry; it’s acrylic paint formulated to be opaque and dry to a matte finish.) I’ve heard it described as most like painting with oils because of the opacity.

For comparisons of gouache brands, have a look at the reviews by Sarah Burns. For the last year or so I’ve had the opportunity to paint alongside Sarah as part of the Moray Firth Sketchers group. Sarah’s colour-rich pleinair paintings are another reason I decided it’s time to try gouache.

Plein-Air Painting: Seaside Yellows

It being perfect weather for painting on location, I headed to my favourite seaside picnic table taking three infrequently used things: sunscreen, my sunhat, and the box of water-soluble crayons I’d rediscovered. Once again it was the bit of rocky shore with the angled slabs of yellow-tinged rock echoing the yellow gorse that grabbed my attention. Would today be the day I felt like I finally did it justice? Turned out it was.

The bit of the landscape I was focused on.
Rediscovered water-soluble wax crayons provided a change from my usual mediums.
Size: A2. Acrylic ink and water-soluble wax crayons on 350gsm NOT watercolour paper.
Detail from above painting
Size: A2
Detail from above painting
I couldn’t help but notice neither her partner nor their dogs joined this swimmer enjoying the “refreshing” North Sea.

Plein Air Without Aiming for a Finished Painting

What would be different about how you painted if you were not needing to end up with a “finished painting”? Less worrying about things going wrong or ruining a good bit? Not focusing on all the elements of art but only your favourite things (eg ignoring perspective or tonal contrast)? There’s no rule that says you have to aim to complete each and every painting. You won’t loose your artistic licence.

It may be easier to do when pleinair painting than in a studio because you’re on a time limit and without access to all your supplies. If it’s a location you can return to, then instead of doing everything in one go, you can focus on different aspects on each visit.

Sitting here:

I ended up with this:

Without context, I don’t think it makes much sense, merely a set of squiggly lines. But if I said “incoming waves”, then you’ve a starting point for interpreting the squiggles.

I often watch the waves in this little bay, and on this occasion I had an impulse to see if I could draw the differences in the motion and textures of waves as they approach and hit the shore. Could I convey the energy and movement in a non-fluid medium, i.e. pencil. Would water-soluble pencil (the drawing in blue) be a better choice as it gives the opportunity for fluidity as it turns to paint? Or does it merely weaken the line and I should rather combine watercolour with non-dissolving pencil, coloured or graphite?

I’d done that looking at this rugged bit of shoreline:

I like the granulating watercolour, but the pencil feels too delicate for the subject. Maybe ink line is the answer? Or a softer, darker pencil? I’ll try on another day.

Do not adjust your eyes, these are green. Probably olivine the in-house art critic wearing his geologist hat said

Plein-air Painting: Mark Making for the Feeling

I was ever so comfortably huddled under the duvet this morning after a busy week teaching at Higham Hall, but the forecast for big waves on the coast persuaded me to head to the beach in time for high tide. The sun came out too, changing the colours.

After a stroll along the pebbles enjoying the roar of the waves, I sat at one of the picnic benches to try to paint the feeling of the exuberant waves hitting the shore.

Also running through my head were thoughts about mark making, about how to better teach the concept, the idea of shifting away from drawing likeness to drawing the sense of something, the feeling of it, your emotional response to it through the calligraphy of your drawn and painted marks. What did I not convey to the one workshop participant who, after my explanation, drew little literal images on the sheet of word prompts, or were they merely disinterested in the concept?

I orientated the sheet this way because there was a slight slope to the table, which I noticed only when the ink and watercolour started to head to the edge of the sheet. I got frustrated that it wouldn’t dry so I could work onto it with oil pastel, and might still add this in the studio. As it is now I regard it as a painting of turbulence and rumbling (rocks), a painting to reinforce the time spent on this location with these sea conditions.

Stormy Sea: My Biggest-Ever Print

This piece started when I found I had a piece of perspex that was just a little long for the bed of my printing press. Enter the in-house art critic, the Dremel and a tiny circular saw attachment, and it now fits, giving me the possibility of doing prints that are almost A1 in size.

The ink I’m using is an oil-based printing ink that can be cleaned up with water rather than solvent (Caligo Safe Wash). The colour is Prussian blue mixed into my “leftovers grey” (leftover ink I keep in a little glass jar) to make it a bit darker. I put some directly onto the sheet using a palette knife, then use a roller to spread it out, leaving an edge that would become a white border to the print.

To create the image, I worked into the ink using various things to remove parts and create marks, including paper towel, a coarse-haired brush, and scrim (a stiff, open weave fabric). I tried not to leave any area of ink untouched, having learnt that these print as very solid, flat colour, which I didn’t think would enhance the sense of sea. I was visualising the tempestuous sea I’d watched last month as I did this.

When I was happy with how it looked and found myself fiddling with little bits, I put it onto the press, placed a sheet of dampened paper over it (the moisture in the paper encourages the ink to transfer), put in the printing blankets, and ran it through the press. I got so caught up in in all that I forgot to take any photos until after I’d made the ghost print (a second print done to use up any leftover ink). The paper was a little too damp in places and created a watercolour-type effect where the ink has spread; another variable I need to remember.

Ghost print using a sheet torn into three long pieces, which I’m envsaging making into concertina sketchbooks. Doing a ghost print also makes cleaning the sheet of perspex easier as there’s minimal ink left on it.

This is the print as it came off the press, with my hand for scale. It’s hanging up to dry using clips with magnets, out of reach of the studio cats.

There were two areas where the ink had spread because the paper was too wet that I felt dominated the image. The most obvious is on the horizon above my hand. I left the ink to dry before trying to resolve this. I first tried scratching into the paper to see if I could reveal some white, but the ink had soak into the paper and it was blue beneath the surface too. So I took out some white acrylic ink with the hope it wouldn’t be too different a white to the paper, and added some of this.

Spot the ‘fix’

Here are a couple of close-up details, to give a sense of the variations in mark making. When I look at this, I’m trying to remember what gave me which mark.

This is the final piece, the biggest print I’ve every made. I like the dark blue, which I think conveys the sense of a stormy sea, and the sense of movement.

“Stormy Sea”, approximately 60x50cm (32×20″). Available from my studio.

Whether you’d frame it with the edge showing or not would be a matter of personal preference; I can’t decide which I prefer.

Invitation: Life Lines Online Exhibition Launch on Thursday

Fife Contemporary invites you to join the online launch of Life Lines, an exhibition bringing together artists affected by the long-term impacts of COVID-19, opening up their creative practice on an online platform.

Marion Boddy-Evans | Sasha Saben Callaghan | Kathryn Hanna | Kirsty Stevens | Gosia Walton | Tumim and Prendergast

Spanning work in sculpture, printmaking, painting, drawing, digital illustration and bookmaking, the artists brought together in this exhibition are based across Scotland, and exemplify the great variety and quality of creative practice being produced by artists in studios across the country.

Life Lines: Online Exhibition Launch Thursday 26th October 2023 at 11am (Edinburgh time).

Book a free ticket here…

This Week: Yellows, Degas’ Monotypes & an Invitation

A mixture of moments from my week.

Stepping out the front door I encountered a swirl of leaves from trees who’ve decided it’s autumn. The yellow of the salt box made the yellows in the leaves seem to pop out. They’ll pile themselves in the corner there and wait for the spring garden tidy.

#SpotTheArtist

On a perfect blue-sky autumnal day, the in-house art critic and I had a picnic at the beach watching waves marching in across the bay, listening to pebbles rumbling, and enjoying the turbulence between the incoming and receding waves at the water’s edge. There were patches of yellow on the hillside where gorse is flowering.

Don’t listen to the wind, don’t look at the wind, don’t talk about going out in the wind to rescue the clematis

Yesterday a red-warning level storm hit parts of Scotland; fortunately our little corner of Aberdeenshire avoided the worst of the wind and rain. This morning I put out food for the birds and straightened the clematis tower (there are some big stones holding the base).

Continuing my explorations with monoprinting, I discovered Degas did monoprints and that there was an exhibition of them at MoMA in 2016. You can read an extract of the catalogue here and see photos of the exhibition here. (Link to video if you don’t see it above.)

A4 size print

I did another set of monoprints featuring the in-house art critic, exploring how what seem subtle marks in the ink translate into more evident marks in the print. This is because I’m using an etching press, and the pressure from the roller lets these transfer. There are bits I like in each, and bits that don’t work for me. Overall they make my fingers itch to try again.

You’re Invited: Next Thursday Fife Contemporary is having an online launch of Life Lines, an exhibition bringing together artists affected by the long-term impacts of COVID-19 and opens up their creative practice on an online platform. Beginning 11:00am, Thursday 26 October 2023 the online exhibition will launch alongside a virtual tour of the exhibition and discussion with some of the artists. Book your free space at the online launch event here. My part of the exhibition features my pebble paintings, many of which I haven’t shared online. Please sign up even if you’re not sure you will make it as it shows support for the organisers.

This Week: A Nasturtium & Monoprinting

A mixture of moments from my week.

A running joke my Ma and I have involves the time my Ouma, who had extremely green thumbs, complained about how nasturtiums insist on spreading everywhere whereas we have been only too happy to have them grow at all. Seeing one tiny flower from the seeds I planted made me laugh about this anew. The grass gives a sense of scale.

I was determined not to let the wind get hold of my paper this week. I took only a brown pencil, an indigo Inktense pencil, a sharpener, and a waterbrush because I knew it was going to be windy. I will either take this concertina sketchbook again another time or add colour onto the headland drawing section in my studio.

My two favourite pebbles on this day:

I also found a U for my pebble alphabet:

In the studio I had a go at monoprinting for the first time, using the A2 press I bought from a Banff-based printmaker earlier this year when they upgraded. Monoprinting involves inking up a smooth surface (I used a large piece of perspex leftover from when I made my roadside tiny gallery on Skye), wiping into this to create the image (working dark to light), putting a damp sheet of paper over this, and running it through the press. Lots of variables and a lot to learn, but I had great fun.

The inked plate

The idea to try this was prompted by this week’s homework from the online Expressive Drawing workshop by Edinburgh-based artist Alan McGowan I’m doing.

The atmospheric results make me think this could well be the technique to use for imagery relating to the in-house art critic’s brain that I keep thinking about. My favourites I hung up on my print rail (there are magnets glued to the clips, which then stick to the was-for-curtains metal rail).

The A4 one was done with graphite ink.

I’m using oil-based printing inks that clean up with water, thus avoiding solvents, but made the mistake of thinning it with water on the perspex not extender, so it lost the tackiness that makes it transfer to wet paper and smeared with the pressure of the press. The effect is interesting, but doing it wasn’t deliberate. All part of the learning curve.

“No, I wasn’t sitting on them a moment ago,” said Little Em.

Printmaking is delayed gratification mixed with the unpredictable; lifting the sheet of paper to see the result is a bit of a birthday-present moment every time. Studio cat Freyja who sat on a chair watching me isn’t entirely convinced.

The Other Story: My Watercolour Palette

When it comes to my watercolour set, it’s very different to the colours I use with acrylics and oils. I’ve built up a big set of tantalising colours by squeezing out tube watercolour into half pans (which have the names written on them). Opening the box makes me happy, being presented by the possibilities and joy of the colours, though I do feel a bit embarrassed bringing it out in a workshop where I’ve been extolling the virtues of a limited palette.

I know have favourites amongst these; I can tell by which I need to refill regularly, such as haematite genuine. I never use them all at once. I do know what most are, but will admit to getting a bit lost amongst the blues which look very similar as dark dry pans. I solve that by simply trying one after another till I hit the right one. I do know that the end one is Payne’s Grey and the one above is Graphite Grey (it has that typical graphite shine to it). I also tend to use the set orientated as it is in the photo, as this helps muscle memory in terms of what colour is where.

Controlling My Colour Mixing

My favourite paint colours

When I first started painting my “Moods of the Minch” seascapes (the stretch of sea between the Isle of Skye and the Outer Hebrides is called the Minch) I used Prussian Blue, Burnt Umber, and Titanium White as the main colours. At times, the only colours.

Moods of the Minch: Cold Snap 80x40cm (31×15″ approx) Acrylic on canvas

Adding a cadmium yellow gives grassy shore greens, lichen on shore rocks yellows, and sunset colours. Adding magenta gives the pinks of the seathrift and purples of sunsets. Removing red from my palette as using it was how I kept ending up in murky mixes, and using magenta wherever I would have used red instead. Add lemon yellow which is a lighter, transparent, bluer (cooler) yellow, perfect for daffodils. Plus a black (PBk31) for sheep, one that when mixed with white leans into green, and mixed with yellow produces beautiful landscape greens.

For me Prussian Blue gives a sense of the cold Atlantic Ocean and dark showery weather, with a tremendous range from deep dark to very pale. It’s one of those “a little goes a long way” colours, and the way to control it when colour mixing is to add a touch of it into another colour rather than adding into a pile of the Prussian. It remains my favourite blue, and ultramarine remains my least.

When I started exploring using coloured grounds rather than working on the white of the canvas, and after a life painting workshop with Alan McGowan where I came away with the mantra “build a bridge between the orange and the blue”, I really got into blue plus orange mixing. A single-pigment orange mixed with a blue, plus white, is now a fundamental part of my palette. It gives a wide range of brown and grey, and because every mix is derived from the same two colours they all harmonise. (It needs to be a single-pigment orange because one that’s a mixture of red plus yellow goes into greens when you add blue, not useful for painting a seascape.)

Orange + blue + white

I expanded the cadmium orange plus blue possibilities by using different blues, and worked with this for some time. Then I bought every single-pigment orange I could find to see how different oranges would work. Of these, Transluscent or Transparent Orange PO71 was the one I enjoyed the most, and this is now a standard on my palette too. It’s a transparent pigment, so mixes differently to Cadmium Orange, which is an opaque pigment.

The next colour I added was Dioxazine Purple, to explore purple plus yellow colour mixing and using purples in shadows. Made hideous murky messes with yellow, but discovered that mixing it with orange did beautiful things.

Moving to northeastern Aberdeenshire, I found I myself on seashores with red sandstone, a colour that wasn’t mixable with a palette that didn’t include red. So that’s been added this year though I haven’t got a favourite yet.

30x30cm, acrylic on wood panel

There’s one other colour that I use as an ink, but not as a tube colour, and that’s Payne’s Grey. I enjoy it for continuous line drawing. It’s softer than black, having blue in the mix. Mostly I’m using it as a strong dark, not as a mixing colour.