Barcelona (with a hint of a swagger?)

While I’ve very familiar with, and a great admirer of Alvaro Castagnet’s work, and have watched a few Youtube clips of him at work, I’ve not really studied his approach in any detail. Recently however, his DVD Alvaro Castagnet paints Antwerp came up on my favourite bargain hunting site and I was fortunate enough to win the auction. The DVD shows Alvaro – and here I’m going to take a tremendous liberty and pretend we’re on first name terms! – tackling a range of subjects in the beautiful city of Antwerp. Here’s a brief promotional clip of from APV Films who produced and distribute this film.


As is so often the case when I watch such tremendously skilled and knowledgeable watercolour artists, what often impresses me the most is the ability to distil a scene, to filter out all of the unnecessary visual noise to leave you with the most important elements of a scene. Whilst I’m sure there are certain tips that can be employed to help this, using a viewfinder, squinting the eyes to bring out the values etc. none of these are substitutes for years’ of dedicated practice and application. Allied to this is a confidence that I’m sure is born of many failures, but also many successes. I found this DVD hugely inspiring and really enjoyed Alaro’s willingness to share information about his colour mixing and his general approach to painting. What I love about watercolour painting is that we’re all working with such strikingly similar materials: water, some pigments, some brushes and some paper – and yet something of each of our personalities always shines through. I like to try to take on board many of the approaches and techniques of more accomplished artists, but also to find some way of making those approaches ‘my own’.

It’s true to say that the DVD greatly informed my thinking and approach to my next subject. It’s another Barcelona street scene that I’ve had it in mind to paint for quite some time – so much so that I’d even done some thumbnail doodles to help me simplify it…

Thumbnail sketchs

…but the mood or confidence hasn’t been with me of late.

I had it mind then to approach elements of this scene whilst trying to channel the genius and the many years of experience of Alvaro Castagnet! I began with a loose outline sketch that mapped out the main elements and not a lot else. At this point I was undecided whether buildings would have windows etc so anything that I wasn’t convinced was essential information, was omitted from

Barcelona street scene, preparatory sketch

How painting this in the spirit of Alvaro Castagnet actually manifested itself was to try to paint with more confidence. This is something that I find particularly difficult to fake! I made a conscious effort to hold my brushes high up the handle, I painted quickly, focussing at first on trying to establish the main shapes and tonal values in one hit. I also worked with a heavily loaded brush, often dipping the end of the brush into different colours to vary the mix, especially in some of the wet in wet scenes. Most of the foliage was done by splashing paint onto the paper rather than with brushstrokes. All of this was both liberating and slightly unnerving as at some points I had paint sloshing around all over the place, often running where I didn’t intend it to go. Fortunately the liberation won over the unnerving and I was able to mop a few things up here and there and carry on. I rarely retuned to any element to overpaint it or tinker with it until I got into the details of some of the figures. By stripping out so much of the detail in the design, the painting seemed to develop a momentum all of it’s own and came together fairly quickly.

Watercolour painting of a Barcelona street scene by John Haywood
Barcelona street scene

Whenever I completely messed something up, I just accepted it and tried to make a judgement of whether I need to try and rectify it, or whether it was essential enough for me to even worry about. I was surprised as I went along at just how often my mistakes didn’t really matter! The finished painting is still a long way from perfect, but I still think it’s a strong image that reads pretty well, captures the sense of strong light and has an energy about it.

I must have been pleased with the finished item as I decided to put this onto my Instagram account – which is when I realised that the last time I posted something to that account was ten weeks ago! So, feeling quite reinvigorated and armed with a renewed enthusiasm, I’ve already got my next scene in my sites!

Thoughts on Barcelona (with a hint of a swagger?)

10 thoughts on “Barcelona (with a hint of a swagger?)”

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  3. Jump in some more and yes, have another go or even two. I think you should let loose and give it several good tries, why not? I see the looseness and if anything the attitude in this painting. I love the fact that you are letting the “mistakes” not bother you. Part of that letting go process and before you know it, you’ll find your own unique rhythm and creative expression. Way to go! whew, seems like I wrote in circles, hope you can decipher what I am trying to say!

    1. Hi Margaret and thanks so much for this – I sense that the way you wrote it is a bit like I feel, with my head in a bit of a spin (in a good way!). I think I’m going to try something else, but to try to carry the ‘attitude’ that I’m so pleased you picked up on of this painting. I worry that if I try to revisit this one too soon, I’ll lose all that I like about it, and end up being tighter rather than looser. I have another in mind already and hope to carve out some time this weekend to let loose again! Thanks so much Margaret!

      1. Remember that worry (or fear) is what makes you tight in the first place, at least for me it works that way. You have your original one that you do like, so you have nothing to lose, right? Throw caution to the wind and dive in, I say! I can’t wait to see what you will surprise us with next. 😊

        1. Thanks Margaret for your ever positive and encouraging support! I’ll be sure to carry it with me into my next adventure! 🙏🏻😁

  4. Well done John, only comment I have offer is that the tree is right in the middle of the painting composition wise one side or the other might make for a more interesting painting. That’s my two cents worth of advise that which I somethings forget to follow myself, thanks for posting Alvaro is one of my favorites took two workshops and they were well worth it.

    1. Hi Joe and thanks for your comments – I’m super jealous that you’ve been able to attend two of his workshops! I’m sure any DVD is a poor substitute for the real experience! I did have another thumbnail sketch of this scene where I’d drawn the picture up into approximate thirds to help me with the composition. My inclination was to move the whole image over to the right , but this would have meant I’d have had a lot more detail to add into the foreground on the left hand side where of people sat outside a cafe – plus losing the figures on the right hand side! I did also like the symmetry of the two buildings on each side so didn’t want to completely lose that. In the end, I took the easy way out but the tree still ended being a little more central than I’d intended it! Now that you’ve commented on it I’m feeling slightly rumbled and wondering if I need to give it another go!?

      1. Give it another go, and remember you’re the artist make changes eliminate some of the people, move buildings if necessary. Capture the essence of the scene that’s what Alvaro would do, you would not believe what he leaves out. I have the same problem working from photos you just want to put everything in the painting, sometimes it best to do your drawing and put away the photo and start painting only looking at it for a detail or two. That’s more than two cents worth but who’s counting. Nice communicating with you John, keep your brushes wet!

        1. Hi Jo and thanks for the encouragement! I think I’m going to do something different, and come back to this one again later when I can approach it afresh – I still feel a bit too close to it if you know what I mean! I will follow your advice on putting the photo away though, I think I’ve got enough on this first painting to base a follow up one on it. I watched the video again last night and each time I see it, I pick up a little something else to try out which is great! Thanks for your two cents plus worth Joe – I really appreciate it!

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