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.

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.

Pleinair at Haddo House

The setting: huge country house with a formal garden and a large park. Haddo House in middle-of-nowhere Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

(Do not adjust your eyes, this is two photos inexpertly stitched together)

My brain: buzzing about like a bumble bee, absorbing all the possibilities for paintings. I felt obliged to tackle the building because imposter syndrome was whispering in my ear about how this is what “real” pleinair painters would do, but truly the colours and patterns in the garden are what’s lingering in my mind a couple of days later.

There were two gardeners deadheading the flower beds

My aim with my drawing was to be a drawn exploration of a building with so many different parts to it rather than an obsession with perspective. I found myself wondering why the main door that opens onto the gardens isn’t wider, more grandiose. And if the fountain can be turned up be to more than little dribble. And how strong the wind gets given the supports on the small palm trees.

Top: before I went over the water-soluble ink drawing with a waterbrush and added some coloured pencil.
The view looking the other way from where I sat to draw
Was I being overcautious in not stepping right on the edges of these stairs?
There are tractor marks in the distant wheatfield that echo the curves on the drive and lawn. The right-angle of the shadow felt like an element determined to go its own way

Plein-air Painting at Spey Bay

I’d so enjoyed using pen and water-soluble ink again earlier this week that I decided to be optimistic about the forecast for showers as I decided on what supplies to take with me to a plein-air meetup at Spey Bay with the Moray Firth Sketchers. So I packed my pen with water-soluble ink, a few coloured pencils, and my bag with bottles of watercolours and inks. Besides, I remember that time I was in the woodland in Uig and the raindrops improved did interesting things to my drawing.

It was my first time at this location, and what a friend had said was indeed true: “You’ll like it there — lots and lots of stones and pebbles!” There’s pebble beach as far as you can see, with small enough pebbles for it to be relatively easy to walk on.

The nearby Dolphin Centre cafe had three choices of homebaked gluten-free free cake, so another level of happiness came with the purchase of takeaway cake and hot chocolate. The rain came in not long after I’d sat down to paint, so I quickly ate my cake to stop it getting soggy. After all, cake doesn’t dry out like watercolour paper or clothes.

The river provides another range of painting options
Are those clouds getting darker and heading this way…?

When the rain persisted, I retreated beneath some scraggly trees and did a drawing of branches instead, with the rain assisting in the mark making. Then Phil, who’s an accomplished watercolourist, had a go, heading with enthusiasm out of his comfort zone.

My drawing when it dried. A3.

The end result is quite abstract and expressive. My plan is to add some colour to re-find some trunks and branches, with watercolour and/or coloured pencil so it’s a bit easier for viewers to fathom what’s going on.

The rain stopped and I returned to where I had been sitting with a view of the river.

I started with an ink drawing, using artistic licence to move some elements closer together. Next time I must get a much wider sheet of paper. Then I used a waterbrush to spread the ink, added some watercolour and coloured pencil.

Water soluble ink in a fude pen (the drawing pen with the bent nib)
Mixed media. A3 size watercolour paper, 350gsm

I next decided to have a go at the dramatic clouds, turning the sheet vertical to give me lots of space for sky. I started with Payne’s grey ink, then decided to add some purple to increase the drama. A bit of back and forth with extra ink and dabbing with paper towel, pulling it down at the bottom for the rainshower, and I got it to a point I was happy with. As I’d been doing this a family had started their picnic lunch next to a nearby log, their warm coats giving a splash of bright yellow and blue. I don’t usually add figures in my landscapes but couldn’t resist being able to add the colour and sense of scale.

When I was packing up they came across and said they noticed I’d put them in my painting and asked if they could buy it. So to my delight it’s going to French Canada.

My smile says everything about how much I enjoyed the day and my hair everything about the weather
A first for me: swans in the sea. Also saw a seal in the river and a duck with a string of ducklings swimming behind her

Limited Colour Palette Watercolour at Bow Fiddle Rock

Bow Fiddle Rock is simultaneously inspiring and intimidating because it’s such a recognisable landmark. The last time I painted there was nearly a year ago, in August 2022 (see photo below), and before that June 2019 (see this blog post).

From August 2022. Acrylic on three sheets of A3 watercolour paper taped together, and primed with gesso in adance to give a bit of surface texture

This time I was in the company of members of the Moray Firth Sketchers, and as always it was interesting to see their results (photos on the Facebook group here) and the viewpoints chosen.

The tide was starting to come in, and I found I was enjoying the movement of the water along the channel in the big rocks in the foreground, perhaps even more than the dramatic shapes of Bow Fiddle Rock. So I picked a spot on the pebbles before they drop down steeply to the water’s edge that gave me a good view of this.

If you’re familiar with the branding of UK supermarkets, you’ll know where that orange bag my paint supplies are in came from. That little bit of green foam makes a huge different to comfort levels sitting on the rocks.

I had brought my zip-up case of favourite drawing pencils/pens, plus some of my liquid watercolour bottles having selected only a few colours at home with the steep walk back up the hill from the beach in mind. I knew that Lunar Black, Hematite Geniune, and Soladite Genuine Blue would give me the fundamental colours I needed for the sea and rocks. A bottle of white acrylic would give me the sea foam.

For some reason I’d also thrown in a roll of masking tape, and I was glad I did because sitting on location I had the urge to paint larger and could tape two A3 sheets together. The first painting I started with hematite watercolour, but felt I was getting a little lost as to where things were so I swapped to pencil to feel my way around the forground, using different marks for the rocks and pebbles.

Next I added some blue for the water, to differentiate the water/rocks/sky areas.

Then I went back to the rocks with hematite and Lunar black, aiming to add a sense of shadow and separate the foreground rocks from the fiddle.

I stopped here to let the watercolour dry, then decided I was pleased with the energy to the painting and the risk of losing this was too great if I continued. So I put it aside and taped together two more sheets. This time I started with pencil.

I added blue to the sea, using the silicone ‘paint brush’ to try and get a sense of the white wave edges of the incoming tide. Applying the colours in a different order to my first painting prevents the sense of duplicating myself. I took the blue right up to the pencil lines depicting the edges of the rocks with the thought that I would wait for this to dry and then paint the rocks. (In my first painting, I’d tried not to get the blue too close to the rock colours in case parts were still wet and would thus run into the sea.)

I used predominantly Lunar Black on the left of the fiddle rocks because it was now in the shade. I should have added more colour to the arm or ‘elephant trunk’ in the top right corner, and might still do this. In the foreground, I added some white acrylic to the incoming water.

And finally a little splattered colour for some pebbles.

Which is your favourite? Left or right? Post in the comments section below to let me know. I’m hard pressed to choose myself.

Look Ma, I’m being sensible and wearing my wide-brimmed sunhat!

Trees Don’t Have Leaves on One Side Only

Painting with a friend in the sunshine, with coffee and munchies, makes it possible to forget about the hassles of life for a bit. In our view was a magnificent old oak tree, with fresh spring leaves and branches spreading upwards and outwards in a twisty tangle.

I started with water-soluble ink in my fude pen (the fountain pen with the bent nib), then used Serpentine green watercolour, lemon yellow and iridescent green acrylic ink.

The first painting (above on the right) I got the sense of the branches peeking out through the leaves, but on the second (above left) I got carried away with my enjoyment of the ink dissolving as I added water. It ended up with very dominant branches and trunks, and a feeling of there being any leaves on the back only, none on this front. I tried using coloured pencil to change this, and some opaque paint (by mixing in white) but it didn’t help.

When I said it looked like a dead tree standing in front of other trees, my painting companion said I was being a bit too harsh. But when we swapped paintings, she chose the other one! I picked one where she’d used water-soluble graphite for the trunk and branches, which on the rough watercolour paper she used gave a strong sense of bark texture.

Our other companion was four-legged, and I couldn’t resist trying to draw her even though she’d move when I was about half way with every attempt.

Water-soluble ink pen

Spring-Green Trees

Newly emerged leaves in spring have a bright, cheerful yellowness to them that seems to celebrate the beginning of a new growing season. I was sitting in a friend’s garden in the Scottish Borders looking at the red and yellow tulips thinking they lent themselves to a painting, but kept being pulled back to a couple of trees where the leaves were catching the sun whilst casting shadow on the stems.

I started with coloured pencil, trying to get the sense of the layers of leaves and small branches, sunny and shade sides.

I added watercolour and acrylic ink in various colours, including an iridescent green.

Mixed media on A3 watercolour paper

To stop myself fiddling with this painting while I was waiting for it to dry, I started another which I did wet-into-wet (and forgot to take progress photos).

Mixed media on A3 watercolour paper

I put the iridescent ink as a lower layer in the second painting, rather than top layer as in the first painting, so it shimmers through the other layers. The final layer was a deliberately opaque choice of cadmium yellow mixed with titanium white, so it would obscure what was beneath it.