Plein air watercolour painting in St James’s Park, London

Morning plein air painting

A much anticipated day of plein air watercolour painting in St James’s Park London got off to glorious start when the sun came out to play! It really was a most beautiful day. Participants in the British Plein Air Society’s paint out event were invited to congregate at the Café Inn the Park at 10.30am. As I walked through the park to make my way to the rendezvous I passed lots of painters already set up, many of which looked as if they’d already been there quite a while. Here’re are a couple of photos I took en route as I was already trying to plan where I might paint from. Hopefully, they give a sense of the how beautiful the day was.

There was quite a gathering by the time I arrived and there was a palpable sense of excitement. Many of the people there appeared to be old friends but there also seemed to be lots of people like myself, who didn’t know anyone! Once I’d exchanged a few pleasantries and got myself a coffee, I was keen to find a spot to paint from and get cracking.

There was quite a gathering by the time I arrived and there was a palpable sense of excitement. Many of the people there appeared to be old friends but there also seemed to be lots of people like myself, who didn’t know anyone! Once I’d exchanged a few pleasantries and got myself a coffee, I was keen to find a spot to paint from and get cracking.

I enquired with others about the direction the sun would be travelling in throughout the day and then set off. Despite some of my pre-determined views I had in mind, such as Horesguard’s Parade and Admiralty Arch  (I knew that I’d really like to get some buildings or architecture in my view!) – I ended up walking about 100metres from the Café, beneath the shade of a tree. What I liked about the view was the sunlight hitting the side of the café, contrasting with the background trees, and the bustle of the figures in and around the café. In my mind, I knew that I had the capacity to just wander around the park looking for the ‘perfect view for me’ and that, to avoid this, I just needed to commit to a view.

On my previous plein-air adventures, I’ve extolled the virtues of my ‘viewfinder’ to help me isolate my view and identify the broad composition. On this occasion, however, I used my phone to do the same. Once I’d selected a good vantage point, I took a few different photographs. The advantage of this was manifold, it helped me to isolate the view and composition, captured some figures that I could use as a reference, ‘set the scene in time’ – meaning that rather than chasing the shadows and the effects of the changing light, I could refer back to it later to remind myself of the view that had originally captured my interest. Finally, having the photo was great to be able to refer to as I sketched the scene out. The sketch I did was much looser and less detailed than those that I normally do when I’m working indoors and I wasn’t entirely sure if this was a good thing, or just an indication of my usual impatience to get on with doing some painting. I did this sketching out sat on my little portable stool before setting up my tripod and easel.

After this, everything passed in a bit of a whirl, to be honest. I was aware of the background clamour of the park, the odd person that took an obvious detour on their route across the park to have a quick peek over my shoulder, not to mention some artists that were a little late in arriving and enquiring for information – but I was surprised quite how quickly I found myself ‘in the zone’.

Here’s a really quick video that I took once the dust had settled: [wpvideo XqgVRTv1]

And the final version:

Plein air watercolour painting of the Cafe In The Park, St James’s Park, London

I really did lose track of time painting this, I was utterly engrossed in painting it and, despite some of its shortcomings I loved every minute of it and couldn’t wait to seek out my next location!

Afternoon plein air painting

I set off across the park with my next destination in mind. It was so utterly brilliant to see so many painters set up and painting. Everywhere you looked there was someone stood at an easel painting, it was really magical. I could help but imagine what first-time visitors to the park must have thought – “is it like this every day!?”, “wow, they sure do love their painting here!”

I’ve long had it in mind to do a view that included Buckingham Palace and my intention today was to try to paint it when the sun was passing behind it so that it would silhouette it and lose some of its detail.

Plein air watercolour painting from The Mall looking towards Buckingham Palace by John Haywood
Plein air watercolour painting from The Mall looking towards Buckingham Palace

Show and tell

At 4.30pm, participants were invited to congregate on the roof terrace of the Cafe In The Park to compare notes from the day. This morphed quite organically into, as they call it at my daughter’s school, a show and tell session – with painters just propping their day’s labours up and everyone having the opportunity to see each others work and engage in a bit of socialising. Here’s a short video that I hope captures some of the work and the convivial atmosphere (if you look carefully you may even spot my efforts!). [wpvideo uDDlUzYt]

This was a really delightful end to the day, and one that I would have liked to have lingered for longer over but I needed to scoot off to get my train home. As I walked back through the park towards the train station I passed many painters still at their easels, making the most the wonderful light at the end of the day.

It really was a wonderful and uplifting day – due in part to the plain glorious-ness of the weather and the setting, partly the fun of seeing St James’s Park overrun with painters, and partly because I was so pleased with my own efforts. While they don’t rank in my mind as being my best paintings of all time, I think they’re definitely my best plein air paintings to date.  I also can’t deny that I found it thrilling to be painting not just publically but in the heart of the capital!

And finally…

An unexpected end of year Open Art Exhibition submission! I saw on Instagram an advert inviting submissions for The Worthing Museum and Art Gallery OPEN18 Exhibition. Now, this isn’t an exhibition that I’m familiar with, however, as it’s comparatively local to me, it did catch my eye.  Apparently, it’s a biennial event and, while there’s no particular theme, all works undergo a selection process by a diverse panel of judges, and the criteria for selection is:

…to choose a fair and representative mixture on the basis of quality and variety

As I had a selection of works and frames ready to select from, and the entry fee was most modest, I felt I had little to lose! I submitted the maximum of three works and am now waiting, with baited breath, the judges’ verdict.

For all of the open submission exhibitions that I’ve entered so far this year, I’ve yet to make it beyond the first ‘digital’ judging phase, in which works are initially shortlisted by jpeg photos of work. On this occasion, I had to deliver original works which I hope may work in my favour.

Suffice to say that my fingers are firmly crossed that the Worthing Open18 judges see something in my work that has so far eluded every other judge in the country!

Thoughts on Plein air watercolour painting in St James’s Park, London

26 thoughts on “Plein air watercolour painting in St James’s Park, London”

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  3. Oh my gosh, John! This is great. I really loved that you included your photos. I don’t think I have seen any of your posts where you have done that. That was just cool. To be able to see what you saw, and then see what you made. Wow! Both paintings are beautiful, and they both capture the original scene, light and feeling really wonderfully. I especially love the morning piece; it just has such a great feel. That early day warm sun, and the general feeling of serenity. Wow! Yes. You outdid yourself here. Very cool post. Thanks!

    1. Hi Tim and thanks sos much for this, I really appreciate it. I do sometimes post work in progress shots but you’re right, I very rarely post the actual image or shots on which my paintings are based. This is partly based on the advice and wisdom of other painters – that one’s paintings will rarely stand up to comparison with the actual view that inspired them. I’ve come to agree with this line of thinking, but can also appreciate that it’s good to be able to see ‘the inspiration’ alongside the finished work! I’ll have a think about whether I could do a little more of this! In the meantime, I really appreciate your kind comments about the painitings! Many thanks Tim.

      1. I had never thought about making a comparison of the actual place/photo with a painting as I view the two as different things. Maybe that’s just me. I view a painting as your impression of the place, i.e. what you were feeling and thinking rather than a documentation of the place. And I am not trying to talk you into anything.

        But, what I personally found most interesting was the chance to see what you saw. To be able to then look at your art and maybe think about your inspiration. That inspiration and impression helps me understand the art.

        And of course as a photographer, it helps me think about my own work and how I might better show what a scene inspired in me.

        Oh, you need not worry about comparing your work to your photo. Your paintings appear to take all of the light quality, the feeling and the artistic perspective while you get to eliminate the busy distractions that we photographers are left with. Actually after seeing the photos versus the art, your paintings are better – cleaner, more simple, but with all the feeling.

        1. Hi Tim and many thanks for this. I think you’re right. When I started this blog, I did used to show the photo that inspired the painting alongside my effort. I began to find this a little bit disheartening however but I think that was when I was more concerned with trying to ‘copy’ the photo. I feel I’ve come quite a way since then and now see the photos as a basis for painting rather than something that needs to be slavishly copied. I think it’s also perhaps helpful for others to see how much editing goes on between the photo and the painting. (P.S. Your final paragraph made my heart swell with pride. Thank you so much!)

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  5. Hi John, sorry I’m a bit late to the party! I do like your 2 new paintings and just loved reading about your trip to London. It must been have a wonderful day…in fact my best painter friend invited me to go out to do some painting with her but it was all a bit last minute so I missed the opportunity, but I do remember it being a beautiful sunny day.
    I think you have such good subjects, drawing and perspective in these paintings, but do agree with Rob about the lack of colour possibly holding you back from being selected. Please don’t be offended by this as it’s paid off well for other artists! And we all absolutely need to follow our own path with painting.
    Good luck with your next entry.
    Happy painting.

    1. Hi Carole and thanks so much for this and I’m not at all offended about the suggestion of more colour! I’m wondering if, on some occasions, my photos of my work don’t do the colours justice! (If in doubt, blame the equipment!) hopefully having submitted originals this time round will work in my favour! All being well I’ll find out in time to report back in next week’s post. Hope that you’ll be able to join your painting friend on the next excursion – I know that I need to try to carve out more opportunities to get out and paint – especially when the weather and light is so beautiful! Thanks again Carole

  6. Very nice paintings, John. Very stylish and very recognisably your work, your style. I’m always particularly impressed by the way you seem to be able to slash in a confident straight line with a dryish brush – even with people looking over your shoulder, apparently. It beats me why you should be turned down by exhibition judges. There are one or two possible explanations but neither of them involve the quality of your work. To begin with, watercolour is not really taken as seriously as other mediums; you’d probably stand a much better chance if you said they were “mixed media”; (there’s sure to be a bit of graphite in there somewhere.) I went to the Society of East Anglian Watercolourists exhibition in Ely yesterday and there they take watercolour seriously – as you’d imagine they would – although there’s still a tendency to add “texture medium”, ink or something Japanese-sounding to the watercolour itself and there was even an acrylic work – wash your mouth out with soap and water! (Acrylic is fine in a watercolour context as long as it’s diluted and used like watercolour but used thick it has to be judged alongside oils, doesn’t it?) The other thing that stood out in the exhibition was the emphasis on the vibrant use of colour in many of the paintings, while you tend to go for muted tones with a predominance of grey. Maybe that’s unfashionable. I’m not suggesting you should change your medium or your palette – just that you’ll need to wait till the rest of the world comes round to your way of seeing things! (I have a similar problem myself.)

    1. Hi Rob and thanks so much for this. I like that my dry brushstrokes appear to be done with confidence! The reality is that I’m a quivering and wreck that has to pick his moment very carefully! I really appreciate too your thoughts on my success (or lack thereof!) in relation to exhibitions! I do think that you’re right about the snobbery around watercolours / and the ‘type’ of watercolours that do get selected. I feel I’m following a very traditional style of painting. I’m not trying to push or redefine the boundaries of what’s possible with watercolours – I’m feel that I’m much more concerned with trying to master the inherent qualities of watercolour ‘to a pleasing effect’ – which just doesn’t really cut it with the criteria of many exhibitiions. I think I also have to be realistic too. This year I’ve enterred the majority of the major watercolour exhibitions, plus other major exhibitions such as the Royal Academy show (never again) and the Jacksons Painting Award. Having also been to see some of these exhibitions – I do often see a distinction in the ‘quality’ of those on show in comparison to my own work. I do think that the gap is narrowing, but it’s definitely still there. Plus these are some of the mist hotly contested exhibitions that I could be aiming for. I do think that I’ll be more choosy next year about what I submit to, and hopefully what I have to submit will be better than what I put forward last year. In the meantime, I think we should do all that we can to bring everyone up to speed with ‘our way’ of seeing things!

  7. Haha I can’t add much because the above comments pretty hit hit all the marks, though I have to say that “hearing” the joy and excitement in your post along with the quality of your paintings is so exciting, what a wonderful turn for you!

    1. Thanks so much Margaret – I’m so pleased the joy and excitement came through! It’s left me feeling quite inspired and itching for more!

  8. Good luck with your entries! Love your plein air story. I am not an artist, just a wishful, stumbling beginner and so I judge these paintings from an art appeciation perspective – I could live with some of these plein air paintings on my wall, including yours which are fresh and lively. Thankyou for your blog. From Sandi (a recent follower who lives in Australia) PS – am sending this on to my daughter who lives in London.

    1. Hi Sandi and thanks so much for your kind and generous comments, I realy appreciate them. I really connected with your description of yourseld as ‘not an artist, just a wishful, stumbling beginner’! It’s how I often still feel but I really hope you can stick with it because it can be so rewarding and fulfilling! Thanks too for sending it on to your daughter. Even though the ten years or so I lived in London was quite some time ago now I still have nothing but great memories from immersing myself in one of the world’s most wonderful cities! Thanks again Sandi

  9. I’m so glad the weather cooperated and you had a lovely day. The paintings you produced reflected the enjoyment you had. Do you plan to participate in more of their events? This isn’t a once a year thing is it?

    Congrats on entering another exhibition. Here’s wishing you luck this time around.

    1. Hi Mary and many thanks for this. I think these kind of events are much more common in the US than they are here but I do think it’s growing. There are a few ‘invitation only’ events but hopefully paint outs like the one I joined in on will also grow in number. I’ll definitely be keeping my out for more opportunities. Thanks too on the good wishes for the exhibition entries. One nice thing about this one is that I only have to wait a week before I hear whether I’m in or not!

      1. Really? Maybe it’s a weather thing.

        Locally our weather is pretty good (remember my comments on the boring skies) so our watercolor society has a plein air paint-out every Wednesday morning around town and there is usually a Saturday one once a month. Seldom rained out (more’s the pity.)

        I always considered watercolor to be much more popular in England than the US. You have quite a history in it. While our manufacturing has caught up a bit I find I’m going to the UK for my supplies as the quality here, especially in the shops, is barely above student grade. The instructors say you can use any brush and they often use cheap ones but I find it easier to get what I want out of a quality brush, just like I use quality paint and quality paper. I do use paints made on the West Coast (Daniel Smith) but our domestic watercolor paper still sucks. My brushes are mostly DaVinci, Escoda and Rosemary & Co. I know of no brush manufactured in the U.S. that is worth wasting my money on.

        If your local watercolor society isn’t hosting a plein air paint out, perhaps this is something you might dip your toe into. Organize something for once a month and see how it goes. Needn’t be the whole day. Half day will do. You might choose some locations with cover near by so that if the weather turns, you can paint in a protected area.

        I think some of these exhibitions have to do more with popularity and name recognition than artistic merit. They’ll choose an entry from someone they know over an unknown. Hosting a plein air group might get your name more recognized in the local watercolor society and your entries might be taken more seriously and accepted. It’s unfortunate, but societal politics seems to enter into everything.

        1. Hi Mary and thanks so much for this. You’re probably right but me trying to organise a regular paint out just isn’t something I can see myself doing in the near future or being able to ‘fit in’ around my weekend commitments. Something for the future maybe though. In the meantime I think I’ll have to carry on ploughing my own furrow! Until I get rejected from this latest submission, I’m still in with a chance of finishing the year on a high, and at least there’s only a week to have to wait for the outcome- hopefully I’ll be able to let you know one way or the other in my next post!

  10. John, you are already winning! Your joy is evident in your love of plein air painting! It is one of my favorite things also! Good luck with your latest submission though!

    1. Haha, I love this and yes, you’re quite right – to find so much pleasure in painting (indoors or out!) means that I am indeed already winning! I’ll try to bear this in mind, whatever the outcome of my latest submission! Thanks so much for this and for bringing a smile to my face!

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