Oh what a delicate and fragile flower confidence is

I was so excited recently as I had a rare opportunity to get out and paint plein air. Not only that but I had in mind a view that I’ve long admired. Furthermore I felt I was riding the crest of a watercolour wave that could see me overcome any challenge (except perhaps that of people, animals and city-scapes!). I was on location by 7.30am on a bright but chilly morning. I was brimming with anticipation and expectation.

Here’s the scene – not necessarily idyllic (and I’d first seen this view in winter, when it looked much less verdant) but I thought I could definitely do something with the silhouette of the fence and fallen tree.

I used my viewfinder to narrow down the view – only had chance to use this on a couple of occasions but it’s a really useful tool. Here’s a clearer sense of what I was focussing on:

I was completely unprepared for what happened next. I made a complete and utter hash of two attempts. I don’t just mean they weren’t very good. They were simply appalling. So much so, I can’t even bring myself to share them with you. With the benefit of hindsight, I think I can pinpoint why this happened, but I wasn’t at all prepared for quite how deflating an experience this was. It completely knocked the watercolour wind out of my sails.

So, here’s my autopsy. It’s probably not completely comprehensive but it’s more than enough for me to try to take on board for next time!

  • I need to spend much more time examining a view before I start painting.
  • Do a quick pencil study, just a really quick one to help get my eye in
  • If there’s part of a view that I don’t know how to paint, or interpret, spend a little more time considering this. Don’t just dive in and hope that the paint will figure it out for me. It won’t.
  • Accept my limitations. Painting plein air is totally different to the controlled environment of painting at home or in a studio. From shiveringly cold hands to taking an eternity for paper to dry – I need to learn to deal with it better.
  • Be patient. If I’m not 100% certain that the paper’s dry enough for me to apply the next wash without any unwanted bleeding – wait a little longer. The waiting is far less painful and less frustrating than watching the unwanted bleed unfold wantonly before my eyes.
  • Have a sketchbook on hand, or another painting set up – basically anything that will allow me to make good use of my time in-between washes drying.
  • Don’t let my enthusiasm and anticipation get the better of me.

Having had such a chastening experience, I subsequently sought comfort indoors with something a little more familiar and did a quick pencil sketch and a couple of paintings based on something from my Aubrey Phillip’s book. Nothing much that I want to say about these – which I this says quite enough about my view of them. I think they were an essential part of my rehabilitation following a bad experience – the doing was far more important that the result.

After a few days I began to feel a little better. Better enough to dip into my Edward Seago bible for inspiration – and to select his marvelous watercolour: ‘After Storm, St. Benet’s Abbey’ – a beautifully rich painting achieved with startling economy.

As I’m trying to do increasingly now, I started with a quickish sketch of the scene:

Preliminary sketch

Followed by take one:

After Edward Seago’s ‘After Storm, St. Benet’s Abbey’ – Take 1

Then take two

After Edward Seago’s ‘After Storm, St. Benet’s Abbey’ Take 2

I like aspects of both of these images however, overall, think that version two is the most ‘complete’ image. I missed out (accidentally/carelessly) the sail crossing the horizon line in my first effort and I think it’s really important. I do however like elements of the foreground. In the second version, the dark tower structure and treeline to the right are too dark/dense. I also can’t say that I’m completely convinced by the cows in either of them (the cows are supposedly the brown and white bits to the right of arch!).

Both of them are still ‘overworked’ compared to economy of the original but, after the painting week I’d had, I was pleased to end it with a couple of respectable efforts.


Thoughts on Oh what a delicate and fragile flower confidence is

19 thoughts on “Oh what a delicate and fragile flower confidence is”

  1. Hi John.. Your blogs and paintings are great… I find my confidence ebbs and flows on a daily basis… Can’t wait to talk to you about your approach to painting.. We approach it from very different places but I can really appreciate your pure watercolours. Regards Sarah. Ps Im also taking on board all the other great ideas and suggestions in the previous comments. Definitely going to check out the ‘Realistic Abstracts ‘ book mentioned above.

    1. Hi Sarah, so pleased you’ve found me here and thanks so much for you kind words. Yes, it’d be great to get together sometime – I very rarely get to actually ‘talk’ watercolours with anyone face to face so it’ll be a real treat!

  2. Don’t get to bogged down by admiring other artists, have set days when you just try things out with absolutely no pressure on a finished article. I try just doing washes, or skies…from any ref…pastel works very well with watercolour too…splatter….more comfortable in the studio too than plein air. But your results look good so far…and I throw about 60% of my watercolours away, as it’s so uncontrollable. Oils are far easier….

    1. Hi Vanessa and thanks so much for visiting and for your comments. I’ve found working from other artists really helpful, especially with developing a few tools of the trade in terms of washes, etc but I have more recently been heeding your advice. Since my post Flying solo I’ve only been working from my own reference materials and have been really enjoying it and feel that I’m beginning to find my own voice as it were. As for trying oils… maybe one day, but I think I’ve still got far too much on my hands already with watercolour without adding anything else into the mix! Thanks again for visiting and taking the time to comment, it’s much appreciated.

  3. I like Take 2 especially. The simplicity and the mood appeal to me very much. The sail is important, just giving a nod towards human involvement. A pencil or ink sketch is vital, I think, otherwise the structure tends to get lost, especially if there is architecture involved. This, though, is a successful painting

    1. Thanks so much David. I’m increasingly doing a preliminary sketch which I’m finding really helpful. I think the most valuable part is allowing myself the time to really think about how to paint it. I think my on location enthusiasm got the better of me on this occasion!

  4. Ah the life of an artist can be so emotionally brutal! It reminds me of holidays where I’d decided I would do an outdoor drawing every day, and doing horrible drawings that were crushing (usually in the first few days)….. what I also remember is that by the end of the holiday (if I stuck with it) it had all got soooo much better.

    I have no doubt you’ll flourish on the course and come away with tactics and confidence to paint outdoors more. A flask and good biccies while you appreciate the view might fill the drying times too (if a little less productive than your suggestion)!

    Good recovery and best of luck, Bec x

    1. Thanks Bec and I think your flask and biccies suggestion is great. It’s basically something to do with my hands whilst waiting for paint to dry – left to their own devices, my mits are right meddlers!

  5. I like take two as well – the sky is fantastic. Sorry to hear you had a bad plein air painting day, but if you can produce those other excellent drawings and paintings so soon after, it looks to me like you have already recovered!

    1. Thanks so much and yes – the trauma is gradually subsiding but I’m still a bit apprehensive about venturing outside again. I have a week’s course of outdoor painting coming up which I’m hoping will help me conquer my fears!

  6. I agree, plein air painting is very challenging and the discouragement and frustration can be stealthy and can easily rob you of your joy for outdoor painting. I used to castigate myself to no end because I would have the worst experiences and I thought I failed (when I actually failed!) and yet I am learning that there is always another day, another painting. I had a horrible painting day just last week and I decided not to even post about it, and yet I came away with a different attitude, I just can’t put my finger on it. I like my new attitude and that is growth alone even if my painting wasn’t up to my standards. Learning to set aside having to have a painting that I had envisioned or even hoped for is not why I paint. Sure, I would like to have a painting/s that I can feel good about but it is ultimately the experience and growth I am striving for….the gold just around the corner. The more you get out there, the better you’ll get, the more comfortable you’ll get, it will come. I really like your set-up John, I see that you use a board on a tripod, did you make it or did you purchase it? I am wanting to paint larger outdoors and on a tilted easel. The next step for me. Oh, I think your second painting is my favorite, though I really like the sky on take 1. From one perfectionist to another (I think that you have mentioned this) be careful of being too critical of yourself, it ruins the fun and the potential for growth. 🙂

    1. I think your ‘new attitude’ is great – and it’s obviously paying dividends too as I think your painting has hit new heights! I think this is one of those things whereby the answer lies in the doing. I just need to get out there and get on with it. As for my set up, it’s all a bit ramshackle and home made. Funnily enough I was contacted last week by someone enquiring about my drawing board so I’ve promised to do a post about it with pictures and measurements in case anyone wants to fashion their own. Thanks for your support and encouragement Margaret – it’s much appreciated!

  7. Awesome, a week painting, two a day! About advice, I regular visit my friend and teacher Kees van Aalst. He ia a watercolor master in Holland. He wrote books about it and I can certainly recommend his book “Realistic Abstracts”. There are not much books for the more skilled artist, well this is one! On his blog are eight lessons he wrote. http://www.keesvanaalst.nl/wordpress/?p=9
    Hope you like it!
    Regards Edo

  8. Painting outdoors can be really overwhelming, the flies on your paper, wind and the overwhelming 3D view. Indeed a preliminary sketch would help. But learning to limit your self what to paint and what not when you are in front of a scene is difficult. You have the tendency to mix all the different greens that you see. I know, cause I have expierenced the same problems. And still it is giving problems, cause what you make on that piece of paper is no match for the beauty of the real view. Painting a lot outdoors will improve your paintings! Just making sketches outdoor and make the watercolour in the studio is also a option!
    Succes, and I loved your blog
    Seago never dissapoint you!
    Regards Edo

    1. Thanks Edo – all wise words! At the beginning of July I’ll be on a 1 week painting course. Weather permitting we’ll be doing 2 scenes a day so hopefully I’ll have some concentrated time to get some way accustomed to painting outdoors and I’ll be taking your advice with me! Thanks again Edo

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