Rowland Hilder watercolour exercise

With the nights drawing in, and the weather at weekends leaning towards winter, my opportunities for painting outdoors are becoming increasingly rare. It seems like a good time then to turn my efforts to learning from my betters and, for this first exercise of what I hope will develop into a series, I sought out Rowland Hilder’s wonderful book, Painting Landscapes in Watercolour.

While I prefer the looseness and immediacy of the Edwards Seago and Wesson, what I love about Roland Hilder’s work is the layering of washes. In trying to emulate these, it may also help instill in me some of the necessary discipline to wait for one passage to dry before applying the next as my own impatience has ruined many an effort.

For this exercise I’ve photographed my work at each of the same stages as does Hilder in the book. From the outset, it wasn’t my intention to make an exact replica but to create a similar feeling of atmosphere.

Stages 1 and 2

After doing an approximate sketch, in which I omitted a couple of details for the sake of simplicity, I was ready to apply the first wash, which was primarily made of raw sienna with touch of burnt sienna, although I replaced the burnt sienna with some light red. Hilder then lifted some of the wash out in the sky to the left of centre, and charged the sky to the right of centre with some more intense burnt sienna/light red.

Unfortunately I allowed my wash to dry out too much so when I tried to intensify the raw sienna/light red I ended up with some hard edges. After a couple of attempts to rectify this, by wetting and lifting off, in an ever larger area, I was almost ready to give up and start again! Following a couple of deep breathes, and standing back a little, I decided that the whole wash was too intense. With nothing to lose, I soaked the paper and wiped it over with some kitchen towel to lift off much of the colour and quickly charged the area right of centre with some light red. It wasn’t as I’d wanted it, (or I’m sure as Hilder would have wanted it!) but at least I felt that I’d retrieved it sufficiently to carry on.

The second wash called for an overall treatment of cobalt blue with monestial blue (which I’m neither familiar with nor in possession of, so I substituted a touch of payne’s grey for good measure).

My downfall on this wash was not mixing enough up to cover the page in one go, so I had to quickly mix up some more colour and, in the panic of applying this before I got any hard edges, I forgot to paint around the sails of the second boat in from the right, so I had to try to lift the colour out afterwards but only had limited success. Once dry, the darkest areas were painted with black using an almost a dry brush. (I’ll do another post on the use of black another time)

Stage 3

The next wash was a diluted mix of cobalt blue, ultramarine blue and light red. This was applied first across the sky, leaving some areas clear in the centre, and then I added in some more of the mix in the right hand side and, as suggested in the book, I gently tipped the painting back and forth to encourage the paint mix to granulate. The same mix was then applied to the water in a number of broad sweeping strokes, trying to take care to leave reflections untouched for the sails (which again I failed to do for the boat second from right so once again had to lift out some of the wash here.

Whilst this wash on the sea was still damp, some lamp black was dropped in and drawn down under the collection of boats on the left, the large foreground boat and the small row boat. Once this had dried, I was quite pleased with some aspects of the painting so far. Compared to my usual quick one-wash-one-visit efforts, the colours overall have a much greater sense of depth and richness and because they’ve been applied across the image, it feels very unified up to this point. The harsh line on the foreground wash that cuts across the refection of the sail jars with me but I was hoping I may be able soften this during the next stage.

Stage 4

This stage began with another layer of the cobalt, ultramarine and light red which was applied in the top right hand corner and across from the left of the sky across towards the middle of the painting. The same mix was also used in a loose, dry brush style across parts of the water. Once dry, it was time to begin adding the detail into the ships. Immediately I found myself struggling as I had only done a very light pencil sketch, and a very loose sketch at that, so not only couldn’t I see much, but what I could see wasn’t particularly helpful! Using the same wash that I had used on the sky and sea, I created the impression of distant boats and sails. Raw sienna and burnt umber was used to give warmth, shadow and shape to the main sail, boat and the collection of crafts and figures on the left of the picture.

Masts and rigging were added wherever I felt appropriate and by now I had left behind Hilder’s guidance and was beginning to freestyle. Mindful of over working and getting sucked into the detail, I made a conscious effort to stop and take stock. I knew from the book that Hilder took this on to another stage, but later regretted having done so. I decided to follow the far better artist’s advice and, aside from scraping in a few highlights with a scalpel into the water, I called it a day.

Although this scene wouldn’t be my natural choice of subject matter, as an exercise to follow I’ve really enjoyed it and am reasonably pleased with certain aspects of the results. I still feel that Hilder’s washes were much lighter in touch than I achieved, and that my washes had a little too much purple about them, but it’s nice to finish an exercise like this feeling full of enthusiasm for my next watercolour adventure!


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