Sunlit Cafe at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, University of Sussex, a watercolour painting by John Haywood.

Watercolour painting without fear

Watercolour painting without fear. Well, that was the theory!

The other week I spent quite a while painting a view that I’ve tried a few times before, but have yet to feel that I’ve  cracked it. Sadly, this remains to be the case. I reached a point where theoretically, it was about 90% complete, but I’d gradually been running out of steam with it for a while and I felt that I increasingly trying to ‘rescue’ a lost cause, rather than painting with confidence and freedom. I left the painting on the easel just so I could mull it over, but I had very little excitement at the prospect of returning to it.

So, there I was, doing a bit of washing up and listening to the radio as Will.I.Am was being asked what advice he would give to aspiring young writers. His answer did go off-piste a little but, at its core, was the sage advice to try to write without fear: fear of failure, fear of what anyone else might think, fear of one’s own limitations etc. If you can free yourself from fear, in whatever your pursuit, you’re much more likely to succeed. This isn’t a verbatim quote or necessarily an original one, but it struck a chord with me.

As I looked back at the painting I’d been working on, I realised that I wasn’t really that bothered about the painting. I was, however, much more bothered (fearful?!) about wasting a really good sheet of Arches paper! I decided there and then to do something I rarely do. I took the tape off the painting, turned it over, re-taped it, and committed to myself that I’d have some fun with the next painting because it didn’t really matter. I may already have ruined the paper, but that didn’t necessarily mean it was wasted!

I chose a photograph from a set of images that I took when visiting the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts at the University of Sussex. It’s one of the original University buildings, designed by Sir Basil Spence and recently refurbished. The café/bar area is a lovely open space with a curved panoramic wall of windows. On a bright day, at the right time, the light just floods in. I’ve had the photos for a while but never felt quite up to tackling the view. In considering it, I also realised that I rarely paint interiors. With the notion of freeing myself from fear running through my mind, I decided to throw caution to the wind and just have a go.

As I did the outline sketch, I was also working out how I might approach this. I think that the danger with interiors and architectural views is to tighten up in order to represent the straight lines, structure and order of a view. This view is full of lines, but I wanted to keep it loose; to paint it with a sense of spirit rather than a sense of it having been painted it with a spirit level! Looking at the subtleties of the play of light across the scene, I thought I could only capture these by painting very wet. There was also a tremendous amount of detail, lots of tables, chairs and their legs, everywhere. I knew for sure that those would need some serious simplifying. Here’s the outline sketch:

Outline sketch

It was pretty quick to sketch this out and because I knew I wanted to paint freely, and very wet, I decided to use masking fluid to preserve some small highlights on the tops of tables, seats of chairs etc and along the top of the bar.

I started by painting the view through the windows, beginning with the sky and, while wet, dropping in some bluey-greys to indicated the distant trees. While this was drying, I started to mix the colour that I wanted to run through the rest of the painting. The base for this was mainly light red and burnt sienna which I knocked back with some ultramarine and cobalt blues and a bit of violet. I basically had a quite a lot of paint in the palette and was making it up as I went. Such was my impatience that when I started to put this colour in, the sky wash hadn’t dried completely and the two started to bleed! Bang went my ‘without fear’ as I rushed around looking for some kitchen towel to see if I could minimise the damage!  I was already planning that this needn’t be the end of the world as I figured I’d be able to rectify this when I came to put in the darker frame around the windows.

With disaster averted, I was able to get back to the fun bit of painting wet into wet. I painted clockwise across the top, down the right-hand side, and then across the floor area. Again, there was a lot of colour mixing on the paper and in the palette, still very wet, still very loose. It got to the point where the paper was so drenched and cockled that I just had to stop. You can see the light catching the buckled paper in this image:

A time to pause after the initial phase of washes and some serious cockling!

The hardest or most frustrating part now was having to wait for this to dry. While waiting, I mixed up a dark grey consisting of yellow, Alizarin Crimson and Ultramarine blue. I was aiming for a much stronger and thicker consistency because this was going to be my base for the ‘dry brushing, of the window frames and bar area etc. I knew I wanted these to be dry brushed because I wanted a more suggestive broken edge rather than a definite hard edge. I also mixed up a large quantity of paint for the shadows, using mainly ultramarine, light red, Alizarin, and Violet.

Once the paper was dry, or at least dry enough for my impatience. I was able to start dry brushing in the window frames and all the detail around the bar. This was followed by the silhouettes of the people, tables chairs – all of which were done super quick and loose. Before these had dried, I started to work on all of the shadow areas. I had to take a bit of care with the long shadows from the window frames, mainly to get the correct perspective as the shadows ‘fan’ out. Again, this was all done quickly, with just some drops of clear water splashed into the main foreground shadow.

One this had dried, I took off the masking fluid, and just put in a few final darks to denote the edges of tables or chair legs if I thought they needed a bit more definition. I didn’t time this painting, but I’m pretty certain that I spent much more time waiting for the different stages of this to dry than I did painting it!

Adding in the shadows, darks and details

As a rare foray into the world of interiors though – I’m quite pleased with this. I’m also pleased that – despite feeling ‘the fear’ at times, I didn’t let it get the better of me! Here’s the final image:

A watercolour painting of the cafe bar at the Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts, University of Sussex
The cafe bar at the Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts, University of Sussex

Speaking of not letting fear get the better of us – midnight tonight (Wednesday 14 February 2018) is the deadline for entering the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. It describes itself as ‘the worlds largest open submission exhibition’.  My fingers are firmly crossed for my own submissions – and my expectations set to ‘low’ – but I’d like to take this opportunity to wish anyone else that enters the best of luck too!

Thoughts on Watercolour painting without fear

20 thoughts on “Watercolour painting without fear”

    1. Thanks so much for this Anna – I really appreciate it – and your observation of bringing the outside inside is great! It makes me want to do another similar painting just so I can use that expression!

  1. You did a great job with this John – painting without fear is very sound advice and JMW Turner made a wise quote about fear “It’s only when we are no longer fearful that we begin to create…. “. I haven’t quite mastered it yet….

    1. Thanks so much Evelyn and that’s a great Turner quote! Like you – I don’t feel I’ve mastered it quite yet either however we can but try!

    1. Many thanks Myriam, I’ll let you know how I get on with the competition – and I’m sure I’ll be back soon with some more drybrush work!

  2. Hi John,
    I really like this which is I think my favourite yet of yours. I think the lighter touch you have used suits you and the subject well…sometimes I have found your darks a bit too strong if you don’t mind me saying…always wary of any negative comments to artists as I know what a sensitive breed we are! This is lovely composition with a wonderful feeling of space in it. I love the reflections from the tables and chairs and also the way you have painted them without getting too tight….you could maybe have added a slight change of colour and value to the shadows as they came forward…but they do work well as they are.
    I have mentioned to you before about flattening the paper with a damp cloth and weights…this is also to lessen the fear factor so I don’t ruin a good paper I’ve gone to the trouble to stretch!
    Wishing you lots of luck with the RA.

    Warm wishes,

    1. Hi Carole and thanks so much for your kind and generous comments, I really appreciate them! I also appreciate you considering my sensitivities too – but please don’t let this deter you in future – I’m not ‘especially sensitive’ and am inclined to agree with you that my darks are sometimes too dark (either too dark or they lack sufficient interest in their colour variation).
      I did recall and quote your advice about flattening paper in one of my other responses to a comment on this post. Even though this paper did buckle a lot when really wet, it did eventually dry pretty flat so I haven’t had to try out your advice yet. At the moment, I’m happy to accept that this is part of the process as an easier and more convenient approach than starting to stretch every sheet of paper which I admire you for doing, but can’t imagine it being something I’ll get round to doing! There are so many positive points in your comment and I really hope I can carry these forward into my next painting – thanks again Carole

  3. That is really striking. Yes, you don’t see a lot of interiors and that makes it a bit unusual. But you did a fabulous job.

    You know, if it’s still a bit wavy you can press it with an iron (not too hot and no steam) or even cover it and weigh it down with some heavy books. In one of the classes I took the teacher was asked about it and she says she irons her paintings if they’re not flat enough to suit.

    Best of luck on your submissions. Keep at it. You’re bound to get in somewhere.

    Our local watercolor society has an International show once a year. You might consider submitting to them. This year’s submission deadline is Monday, May 7th 2018 Pacific Standard Time. It’s pricey to submit and you’d have to pay extra to have your work framed locally, but there are cash prizes.

    1. Thanks so much for this – I really appreciate it. The cockling did flatten out eventually – it just took a while until the paper was completely dry. I had heard a similar tip about flattening ou the paper – I seem to recall someone recommending that you add some moisture with a spray for instance, or lay a dampened towel over the painting before weighting it down. I’m using 300gsm weight paper so it does usually flatten once dry and I haven’t resorted to any of these methods yet.
      Thanks too for the San Diego Watercolour Competition details – very kind of you. I think I’ll need a bit of success closer to home before I can justify going international with my submissions! I already have in mind a blog post for later on this year with the title of ‘The price of failure’ in which I tot up all the money I’ve spent on failed entries! Thanks again for the advice and support.

  4. A great example of how the right choice of colours can give depth to a painting; the subtle blue-greens outside the window throw it right back when juxtaposed to the warm tones inside the building even though there’s only a hint of colour taking them away from neutrals.
    Apropos your fear of putting brush to paper, I empathise entirely. The only difference is that, if I do throw caution to the wind and just “get on with it”, I end up with a muddy mess. You, however, have ended up with a rather accomplished painting. I suspect the truth is that you did not throw caution to the wind; you have done similar things, used similar mixes, used the same wet/wet and dry-brush techniques on so many occasions that you are mastering them without even knowing it. Like driving a car, as they say. I’m always wary of watercolour demos which make the whole thing look so easy and natural; it would be easy and natural for all of us if we’d done it on 17,000 previous occasions – and you’re getting close!
    Good luck with the RA!

    1. Thanks so much for this Rob, I really appreciate it. I also distinctly remember chastising myself during this painting. There’s a distinct difference between throwing caution to the wind and ‘painting without care’. At one point I felt I was painting without care or consideration and that’s when I could feel the errors creeping in. It’s such a fine line to tread but, I think it does become easier as one becomes more assured. I think you’re also right that, at the beginning of every new painting, you bring to it the knowledge and experience that you’ve accumulated through every other painting you’ve ever done. I recall a story about someone asking an artist to justify the seemingly hefty price tag of painting that had only taken the artist a day to complete. The artist’s response was along the lines of ‘but whoever buys this isn’t paying for one day of painting, they’re paying for the thirty year’s it’s taken me to create such a painting in one day.’ This has always stuck with me (though obviously not so much that I can remember it word for word!). Thanks so much for your interest and your comments Rob – I’ll let you know how I get on with these latest submissions!

    1. Thanks Rebecca – I must confess that I’m not holding out much hope! It’s a huge exhibition (paintings, prints, sculpture, architecture etc) but I’m going on the basis of ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’. The first decision, based on the online submissions, isn’t until mid March so I’m going to make the most of ‘the possibility’ that I might get in!

I'd love to hear any thoughts you have about this

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