Keeping it local

Keeping with my watercolour paintings of local views, this week’s subject is St. John the Baptist Church on Palmeira Square, Hove. It’s about five minutes from where I live and, as a subject, it’s probably one that I’ve photographed more than any other but never with the light in the right place for me to conjure up a view I’m happy with. What actually draws me to this scene isn’t the church especially, but The Flower Stand, that sets up outside the church every day.

I’ve often found it a struggle to fit the church and the flower stall in to the same view as they seem to compete for attention, but I thought this composition might work. This is the first painting of I did of the view:

A watercolour painting of The Flower Stand in the shadow of St. John the Baptist Church, Palmeira Square, Hove (version one) by John Haywood
The Flower Stand in the shadow of St. John the Baptist Church, Palmeira Square, Hove. (version one)

This didn’t take long to do and, although I quite liked it, I felt that the darks were a little too heavy. I liked it enough however to give it another go.

Watercolour painting of The Flower Stand in the shadow of St. John the Baptist Church, Palmeira Square, Hove (version two) by John Haywood
The Flower Stand in the shadow of St. John the Baptist Church, Palmeira Square, Hove (version two)

Initially, I did think that this effort was more successful. A little lighter of touch, with more warmth in the foreground and more subtlety in the handling of the church.

The more I’ve looked at these two paintings, however, the more dissatisfied I’ve become with them. Partly the painting of them, which I’ll come on to, but I think there’s also something much more fundamental. While I quite like the view, mainly because it’s one that’s so familiar to me, I don’t really think this works as a composition. Most successful paintings have distinct areas such as a foreground, middle ground and distance. The focal point of a painting is often somewhere in the middle ground. I think that one of the problems with this view is that everything is in the same area. There’s very little foreground to speak of and no distance. Everything’s in the same plane. Which I think makes it quite dull!

As for the actual painting, I put an initial wash where the sky meets the building. On the first version I used a yellow and on the second, raw sienna. While this was still wet, I then put a wash of blues (mainly cobalt but also a touch of cerulean) and allowed this to run into the first wash with the aim of allowing them to run together to create a lovely sense of transitioning light. Sadly, on both paintings, I meddled too much. This is a fatal error to make which – instead of creating a subtle and magical transition – makes green!

I’ve also found that, while I’m really enjoying painting on the Arches rough paper, it’s not without its drawbacks. On both of these drawings, I made quite few mistakes when drawing it out as I was trying to get the scale and perspective of the church correct. Where these errors weren’t going to be painted over – such as in the sky – I tried to erase them with a putty rubber. I suspect that the rubber I’m using is too soft and, instead of lifting off the pencil, it left a dark smudgy residue on the paper, and seems to have an adverse effect on the surface that impacts on the way the paint behaves. You can see this most noticeably on the second painting where – in-between the green bits, there are also ‘grubby’ marks in the sky where it should be, clear as day!

I do still think that elements of this view have potential, but not as I’ve tried to compose and paint them here!  I have in mind a view in which the church may appear in the background, but more as a distant silhouette rather than as a focal point, and I think the flower stand will also appear again but much more prominently as a main focal point.

After having been quite pleased with my paintings over the past few weeks, I can’t deny a bit of disappointment with these efforts. While I’m on the subject of disappointment, I received another rejection email from the other watercolour competition that I entered recently. Naturally, I’ll be adding this to my motivational hall of shame collection!

But let’s not part in such a downhearted fashion! There are many positives to be derived, even from disappointment. For instance, it’s good to be able to reflect on why a painting has or hasn’t worked – both from a compositional point of view and a technical point of view. It gives me something tangible to learn from and move on from. As for competitions, well there’s no shortage of competitions to submit too. In true, ‘as one door closes, another door opens’ fashion, I stumbled across another competition over the weekend and have already started to compile a list of possible submissions.

Thoughts on Keeping it local

13 thoughts on “Keeping it local”

  1. Pingback: Constructive watercolour criticism –

  2. Hi John. I’ve bothered to look up this view on Streetview and the immediate thing that strikes me, as far as foreground interest is concerned, is that it’s full of pedestrians, bike racks, buses/cars/taxis and buildings and trees which crowd into the sides of the composition. Plenty there to choose from for your foreground interest, I’d have thought. It does look as if the tumbleweed is about to blow across your versions, I’m afraid! If you want to feature the flower-stand, however, I’d have thought you’d be looking at moving in a lot closer and that would preclude showing the whole of the church building – though window-/pillar-/stonework-detail would make an attractive backdrop.
    (By the way, your efforts are already a lot better than mine would be; I only TALK a good painting. Keep up the good work – both the painting and the blog!)

    1. Hi Rob and many thanks for this! – your streetview endeavours go way beyond what I could ever expect! The funny thing is that when I took the reference photo on which this is based, I was consciously trying to avoid some of the foreground interest that you’ve identified. I thought that some of it was either unnecessary visual clutter or that other subjects – cars, people, other buildings etc – were a little bit beyond my capabilities! You’re right too about focussing closer if I’m to feature the flower stand more prominently, but I’m not sure that I find the prospect of painting the architectural details of the church that interesting. I do really appreciate the time you’ve taken on this and your feedback. There’s a bit of me that can’t help but take your comments and suggestions as a metaphorical throwing down of the gauntlet – challenging me to go back to this view and try harder! I can already feel myself beginning to take the bait too! I may have to move onto something else first for a change of scene but I’m pretty certain this won’t be the last of this view – and I hope to be able to reflect your constructive comments in my next version! Thanks again Rob.

  3. I really like the fact that you are tackling local scenes, closer to the heart, which I think will show up in your paintings. I think your analysis is spot on. Have you thought of giving more atmosphere to the objects, it might give more presence, therefore more essence of a focal area? Edward Hopper comes to mind. The focal area is there but not apparent and yet there is presence. So let’s say on the 2nd painting if you had soften the far building on the left and soften the edge of the church. Giving more of a mysterious atmosphere between the flower stand and the church gives more interest. Afterwards I think you would know how to handle the foreground as a lead-in. As I write all this I am thinking ha, what do I know but who knows? ☺️ It might work. I have used a watercolor pencil in the past instead of a graphite, it seem to work though I still grappled with lines that remained. I love your attitude, keep going, it will make you stronger. I think that you are much braver than I am, just thinking of submitting work gives me the hives!

    1. Hi Margaret and thanks so much for this – I think you’re spot on about the area on the left where the church meets the buildings, and the more distant row of buildings. I’m not sure I’ll tackle this exact view again, but I think I’ll return to the subject in some shape or form. There’s a bit of me that’s thinking, when the weather improves, that I should really get my easel down there and paint this scene from life. (I’m putting this out there now but am already nervous about it becoming a reality!) – As for the competitions, maybe one day my travails will become a source of encouragement rather than purely anecdotes of woe! Please don’t let my ‘competitive’ experiences put you off!

      1. There you go, plein air can be scary but so good to exercise those artistic muscles. No worries, one of these days I will get into the competitive stream but for now I like to stay safe on the beach 😉

        1. Haha, thanks Margaret, I know that painting plein air more often is probably the single most important activity that would benefit my painting… but doing it on my own doorstep somehow feels all the more terrifying! Submitting work to an unknown group of individuals that I’m never likely to meet feels like child’s play by comparison!

  4. Both paintings are very nicely done John and I think the lighter tones on the church in the second does work better. Keep trying with the competitions John – you’ll get a shock one day when you win something…. !

    1. Hi Evelyn and thanks so much for this – I really appreciate it! As for winning something – you’re quite right, I’d be incredibly shocked! In the meantime I’d happily settle for just getting beyond the first selection phase! Thanks again Evelyn

  5. Hi. Doug from Canada here. As a beginner in watercolour I’ve taken a few classes. Currently taking a class on composing a scene.
    For me personally I like the first painting better. With the Church being quite dark it really allows the red umbrellas to ‘pop’. What about pushing the red further into bright red?
    I really like your work and applaud your entering competitions. Don’t ever get discouraged.
    Best of luck!

    1. Hi Doug and many thanks for getting in touch. I think I know what you mean about the first painting. I think the contrast gives a greater sense of drama – but I thought it lacked a certain sensitivity. It did cross my mind about going ‘redder’ with the awnings – but I thought having them ‘whiter’ would be a greater contrast, plus (and not that this matters particularly!) it’s closer to the actual view. You’re quite right though – another go at this (or a similar view) in which I ramp up the red might be worth a shot! Thanks so much for you comments, and for your encouragement – it’s all really appreciated and good luck with all your watercolour endeavours!

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