From watercolour sketch to watercolour painting

After returning from holiday with an almost a full sketchbook I was really looking forward to turning some of them into larger paintings. I decided to start on a painting based on this sketch, which I’d notionally titled ‘A train runs through it.’

Watercolour sketch, 'A train runs through it' by John Haywood
Watercolour sketch, ‘A train runs through it’

I was pleased with this sketch, in particular, I really liked the textures in the foreground. What I hoped to bring to a larger painting of this view, was a better sky and, with a little more time on my side, I also slightly rejigged the composition. I nominally set the main horizon line across the bottom third of the paper and the distant church steeple and balancing conifer tree are set on the vertical thirds. On the sketch, I felt these were perhaps a little too heavy, so I hoped to treat these more lightly. Well, it’s always good to have a plan. Here are some work in progress shots so you can see how I got on, beginning with the initial outline drawing (you can also see where I’ve indicated the third’s on the masking tape around the border):

Outline sketch

So far, so good! Initial washes next. With two-thirds of the sheet given over to the sky, I felt this was a make or break element. To achieve the sky I was aiming for, I knew I’d need to work quickly, so I mixed up some generous quantities of ‘thin colours’. I pre-wetted the entire sky area, then started to apply the pale blue wash across the top of the page. This started to give me a feel for how much the paint was ‘bleeding’ on the pre-wetted paper. I then started to add the clouds, working quickly and trying to ensure that I left sufficient space between each brush stroke so that the paint wouldn’t all bleed together, but would leave white ‘halos’ around each cloud. As I moved down the page I used smaller brush strokes and gradually began to join them all together to help create a sense of distance.

At this point, I was quite pleased with the sky so moved on to the foreground washes to get some base colours in place. My intention here was to replicate some of the textures that I achieved in the sketch by splattering a bit of water on at the right time. Sadly, I got my timings all wrong and tried to do this when the paper was still too wet, so the water splatters just dissipated on the wet surface of the paper, which resulted in a much flatter and less interesting foreground. Even so, I was quite pleased with how it looked at this stage:

First washes (very wet, very cockled!)

I’ll have to apologise for some of the work in progress photos as most of them were taken when the paper was still very wet, so it’s all cockled up and catches the light awkwardly. Having tackled the sky and the foreground, I started to block in the background hills, background trees and move into the buildings.

Beginning to add in the buildings

Somewhere along the line here I began to really stiffen up. I think it was because I thought I was ‘onto a winner’ and with this came the pressure of not mucking it up. The result was that I started to paint the buildings individually in a slightly ‘colouring by number’s’ approach rather than in a broader and looser fashion. Contrast the treatment of the buildings for instance with the distant hills and dry brush on the right-hand side which is much looser, yet more descriptive. This was then followed by some unnecessary fiddling as I was feeling the painting begin to slip away from me!

Should probably have left it here….

I should probably have left it at this point, but think I already felt that I was in too deep to pull out or be reasoned with at this point! I didn’t feel that the tone of the foreground areas matched the sky so wanted to strengthen them a little and try to create some more texture. I put a bit of dry brush over the ‘yellowy’ looking strip and then left that part alone. I then washed a darker glaze over the foreground area – again with the hope of creating a bit strength and some well-needed texture. This proved to be a rather fruitless task as what I ended up with was a flat and slightly muddy foreground with little to excite the eye! Once this had dried, I used a liner brush to add in the railway line running across the foreground (yep, that’s what that line is! – to be honest, I only know that’s what it is because I was there in person!).

And that was it.

Watercolour painting, 'A train runs through it' , by John Haywood
‘A train runs through it’

I do still like the sky of this painting however, all in all, this painting falls someway short of the immediacy and atmosphere of the original sketch. It was nice however to be painting larger again, and to paint standing up at an easel with my big brushes and a spacious palette! Just a shame then that none of this is reflected in the outcome! Painting this also made me realise how familiar I’d become with painting on the paper in my sketchbook, a heavyweight rough watercolour paper, but how different this was to the Arches rough that I’m currently painting on.

I know that working from a sketch isn’t just a matter of trying to enlarge it, but I think I need to give some real thought to what it is I want to achieve with the larger version. Part of me thinks that I was clear on what I wanted to achieve in this instance and that I just didn’t manage to do it. Another part of me, however, thinks that I need to use or view my sketches differently that simply being smaller and quicker studies that I can later paint bigger.

Fortunately, it’s only a bit of paint and some paper! I’m off on another camping jaunt this weekend. This time it’s just for a few days in Wales. I probably won’t manage to do much painting (partly because the forecast is pretty grim!) but I’ll take my sketchbook with me just in case. Here’s a sketch that I did whilst at the same location last year, and a link to the post that I wrote following that trip. I’m already looking forward to revisiting this view!

Watercolour sketch, Wales, by John Haywood
Watercolour sketch, Wales

Thoughts on From watercolour sketch to watercolour painting

17 thoughts on “From watercolour sketch to watercolour painting”

  1. The sky is stunning even if you feel the foreground didn’t live up to the rest of it. How did you manage to avoid the paint pooling in the sky with so much distortion in the wet paper?

    1. Hi Nicola and thanks so much for this, I really appreciate it! The paper was very wet, (partly because I pre-wetted the paper with water) which led the buckling, but the paint wasn’t applied so wet that it was flowing across the surface of the paper, so it didn’t run or pool in the dips – but was just absorbed into already damp paper – does this make sense? (Oh, this was done on Arches 300gsm rough – and it did eventually dry flat!)

      1. Thanks, yes that makes perfect sense. The Arches I’ve used in the past has been very keen to instantly absorb colour so I can see how that would work. With thinner paper I always end up with puddles that no longer resemble clouds very well 🙂

  2. It may be a bit stiff and studied. What would happen if you blobbed a bit of liquid into the foreground of your studio version? Would it produce anything like the effect in the earlier version? I think what works with the original sketch is that the foreground splashes start to suggest shapes and forms; I, for example, can see a possible trackway leading towards the railway out to the right and, personally, I’d like to see that consolidated a bit with a few added darks or tufts of vegetation on the verge and maybe a rut or whatever. (My landscape teacher would like you to have that track take you into the picture rather than out at the side but I don’t really mind as long as there’s something happening!) I know you don’t like messing with a picture too much but, if you’re not really happy with it, there’s nothing to lose – and serendipity is a marvellous thing.

    1. Hi Rob and thanks for this. I agree that the foreground textures on the sketch are some of the best parts (where the paint does all of the work with less interference from me!). My attempts of rescuing a painting to achieve these textures once it’s dried have never worked out and my inclination is to just leave this one well alone and to move on. I think I’ll probably come back to this scene another time. My main take away is the importance of getting the timing just right for creating the right textures – something I completely missed on this occasion!

      1. Spontaneity!? Timing!? Pah!! That’s just for showmen!

        One rainy day, Robert the Bruce lay in a cave, listening to the rainfall outside the cave entrance. He was tired and felt sick at heart, ready to give up all hope. It seemed to him that there was no use for him to try to do anything more.

        As he lay thinking, he noticed a spider over his head, getting ready to weave her web. He watched her as she worked slowly and with great care. Six times she tried to throw her thread from one edge of the cave wall to another. Six times her thread fell short.

        “Poor thing!” said Robert the Bruce. “You, too, know what it’s like to fail six times in a row.”

        But the spider did not lose hope. With still more care, she made ready to try for a seventh time. Robert the Bruce almost forgot his own troubles as he watched, fascinated. She swung herself out upon the slender line. Would she fail again? No! The thread was carried safely to the cave wall, and fastened there.

        “Yes!” cried Bruce, “I, too, will try a seventh time!”

        (There’s no need to answer this, John. Just keep up the good work.)

    1. Hi Anna and thanks so much for this, I really appreciate it (you’ve managed to make me feel better about the painting and about confessing all in the post!) 😊

  3. I think this painting is fantastic, but I guess we always find some flaws in our own work (I can’t really see them though..)☺ I can recognize the pressure you’re talking about in seeing that a painting could end up really nice as long as you pull it together (by my own abilities), which was fun to read. But, anyway, I think it looks awesome!☺

    1. Hi Kim and thanks so much for your kind words. I think you’re quite right that we’re often our own worst or harshest critics. I think one of the best things about doing the blog is that you often get some great comments and reactions that help to put everything into perspective – just as you’ve done for me! Thank you!

  4. Hi John Quick question… on final painting of this post how do you achieve your fine light lines for tree branches or fence posts. Do you use gouache or lift out or use masking fluid….I’m always interested in how artists achieve these lines – yours are particularly successful. Best wishes Sarah

    Sent from my iPad


    1. Hi Sarah and thanks for this, I really appreciate it. On this particular painting, the whiter lines that are set within the dark tree line were done by scratching the surface of the paper very lighlty with a metal palette knife just before the paint dried, so it just lifts off the paint. My timing is often a bit hit and miss on this as there’s an optimal time to do it (depending on paper, dampness etc but on this occassion I got lucky!) The darker fenceposts in the mid distance were done with a fine rigger brush. I’m also not averse to using a bit of white gouache too. I have tried masking fluid but have rarely been satisified with the results so tend to avoid it if possible! Hope that this is of some help Sarah! I also owe you an apology – you contacted me recently but I was away on holiday – I’ll reply to your message today!

  5. Hmm. I think your attempt was too planned, too studied.

    I’m looking at the sketch and the painting and the thing I like about the sketch is that it doesn’t follow the rule of thirds. It’s a bit off, but in a good way that pleases my eye.

    I also like your original sky with the blue on the bottom and gray clouds on top. You reversed that. The new sky is a bit too uniformly “dabby” if that is a word. Too many uniform dabs of the brush although I do like that lower left corner.

    I hope I’m not being too critical of a painting with which you are already a bit disappointed. And of course, not seeing any reference photo I have no idea what the scene really looked like.

    I’m looking at getting a book on amazon by Ron Ranson on clouds. Do you have that one and is it any good?

    1. Hi Mary and thanks for this – which I think is a pretty fair and accurate assessment – and I really don’t mind the criticism as it’s all constructive! I already know what my next ‘planned’ painting will be and, taking on board your previous advice, it won’t be from one of my recent sketches! Hopefully I’ll be able to move on from this somewhat disappointing effort quite quickly! I’m not familiar with the specific Ron Ranson book on skies, but I did refer to a lot of his books a few years ago. Although I tried to follow, and found a lot of his advice valuable, I never really got on with his preferred ‘Hake’ brushes. I’m increasingly of the opinion that when it comes to mastering skies, there’s no substitute to just studying and painting lots of them!

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

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