A walk in the woods, in watercolour

In a change to previously advertised content, this week’s watercolours are both examples of me choosing subjects by how quickly I think I can paint them. I had hoped to feature my new watercolour palette, however, as part of the post I really wanted to film a short video and the light over the weekend, plus my available time was very poor on both counts. Instead, I selected a couple of source photos that have been in my ‘to paint’ pile for a long time. On reflection, it seems slightly odd that the reason I haven’t painted them before is that I wasn’t sure quite how to paint them, yet when my time was most pressured, these were the images that jumped out as ‘oh I’ll just bash something out quickly!’

First up was a view looking across the marina in Dieppe. This was done in an A4 sketchbook and my main hope was to find a means of simplifying the sheer mass of small boats and masts but still create the illusion of jam-packed marina.

Quick watercolour sketch of the marina at Dieppe

I did spend a bit of time sketching this out, partly to try to get some of the shapes right but partly to help me think through how I was going to paint it. Once I started painting, it all came together quite quickly and straightforwardly. The aim was to create enough description in the front row or two to give the eye what it needed to say ‘boats’, and then find some means of shorthand to describe the more distant vessels. This did end up as a series of dots, dashes and dabs, but done with a degree of consideration and thought rather than being applied randomly. The masts were done last with some white gouache and really helped to make sense of the scene.

As I often find, working in the sketchbook takes away any hope or expectation of anything I do being ‘any good’ and liberates me a little. I’m not so sure I would have ended up with anything quite as loose and spontaneous had I tried this scene on a taped up sheet of paper – but I am tempted to give this a go sometime.

This other view dates back about five years! We were camping at a music festival a year or two after our daughter was born. The setting was lovely and, partly to get away from the hubbub of the festival we struck out for a walk through some nearby woods. The light was really bright and, looking through the perimeter of the woods, the adjacent field was brightly lit with sunshine. I took a photograph of the scene and it’s gradually been gnawing away at me ever since! One reason I haven’t tackled it is because it’s quite cliched. For anyone following any watercolour hashtags on Instagram, there are a plethora of similar views. While they can be visually ‘pleasing’ there’s also something quite formulaic about them too – like those films where you know exactly how the director is trying to manipulate you but at the same time you can’t help but go along with it!

Regardless of my opinions and reservations, there’s still the challenge of trying to paint it! Here’s the quick sketch I did to start things off.

Preliminary pencil sketch

And here’s the how it looked when I decided to down brushes:

A walk in the woods, watercolour

Harking back to my new palette again, I’m really enjoying both the colour selection and the physical object and mixing surfaces. Looking this week’s paintings, and last week’s paintings, I think there’s a discernable difference in my painting.

This painting followed a very traditional approach of painting light to dark and from the background to the foreground. The darker areas in the trees were built up over a number of washes, sometimes using brushstrokes, sometimes splattering the page. While those areas in the trees dried, I worked on the foreground area – which was done with much more dry brushwork. The tree trunks and branches went in last, being mindful to vary the tone of them as well as the width of the trunks to help create a sense of distance.

Because one or two areas of the shaded foreground ran together and created areas that looked a little too uniformly dark, I mixed up a thin wash of white gouache and splattered that on to break up those dense areas.  Aside from losing the sense of the path that ran through the woods from the viewpoint towards the light, I’m quite pleased with the impression of the dappled light on the ground of the woods.

I think this painting does conform to the many similar paintings that have preceded it. It pretty much looks like it’s supposed to: it’s gentle; sort of pleasing; sort of effective; kind of visually seductive but, ultimately, I think it feels a little ‘empty’. I don’t mean empty of people but, after a short spell of looking at it – just plain old empty!

Is this just me? Maybe I feel like I’ve just seen too many similar treatments but I’d be interested to hear if others feel similarly about this ‘type’ of painting.

Now I’m not going to promise any updates on the palette next week, but I am getting rather tired of having to keep on cleaning it out after each use because I’d ideally like to show it to you in pristine condition!

Thoughts on A walk in the woods, in watercolour

26 thoughts on “A walk in the woods, in watercolour”

  1. Pingback: Littlehampton marina in watercolour, step by step

  2. You are so ambitious to do that harbor scene. I shudder just looking at it. But you successfully accomplished what you set out to do. You simplified yet gave the impressions of many boats.

    I do like the shade of the dappled forest scene.

    Now….where is that palette? With a rundown of pigments, please.

    1. Thanks so much for these comments Mary, really appreciate them (especially about the harbour scene!)
      The palette is coming and yes, I’ll also do a run down of pigments too! I really want to dedicate a whole post to it and do a video but I just haven’t been able to make the time (or find the light) to do this justice. I’m already concerned now that it’s going to be a massive anti-climax!

  3. Hi, after reading through the comments I see you have been given some well thought out intelligent feedback. I like the lower painting very much, it doesn’t have a noticeable focal point but it does have a beautiful atmosphere. Maybe it was memories of atmosphere of that day drew you to painting this photo.

    1. Hi Sunnyfae and many thanks for this. My feelings towards this painting have softened since my post! This is partly due to some of the comments, but also because I found a spare mount and popped it over this painting and it suddenly looked a lot better and, while it still won’t rank amongst my favourites of the year, I think it does still have a particular appeal. Many thanks for taking the time to comment Sunnyfae, it’s much appreciated!

  4. Hi John and many thanks for another fascinating post. I love how we all learn from each other on this wonderful and exciting adventure of being an ‘artist’. I think they day we are all satisfied completely with what we’re doing will never come and neither should it. Here’s to contimuing to learn, experiment and grow.😱
    Happy painting!

    1. Hi Carole and thanks so much for this, and for the reminder that our artistic adventures aren’t about the destination – it’s the journey that’s far more important! Many thanks Carole

    1. Thanks so much for this – it’s comments such as this that make it all feel worthwhile, so I’m delighted and most appreciative; thank you!

  5. Great post, John. Once again I so appreciate the thought processes in your posts. “Empty”. I am thinking about that description, and Margaret has hit upon something. I see that same thing, the same feeling, in some of my landscapes. In my own work, I feel my strongest photos always have a central point of focus.

    However, that being said, some of my favorite work is just pleasing without one particular focal point. Maybe it is just a certain rhythm, or a certain calming quality of light. Your emptiness might be another’s soothing balm.

    Many years ago when I was just starting out in photography,my teacher said something to me that has always stuck with me. He told me to always think about what I am seeing, and to think about how to convey that in my photo.

    Many times when we see a shot, or in your case a scene, there is something very specific that has triggered our senses, our vision. Our job as artists is to figure out how to get that specific detail of the image into our work in a pleasing way.

    Here is an idea. Go back to your forest scene and study it for awhile. No distractions, no rushes. Just sit and take in your photo, and think about what you saw or felt that made you snap that shutter. If you just relax and calm your mind, you will “see” exactly what you saw that day.

    Then go back and only paint what you have just seen. You might be pleasantly surprised.

    Anyway, thanks again for the wonderful post and your superb descriptions. 🙂

    1. A very interesting post, John, and a great response, Tim, and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I wonder if technology can help you to do the same thing; I like to go back to the photo and study it on-screen and try boosting the colours and/or increasing the contrast or flooding it with light – just generally messing about with it – until something reminds me of what grabbed my attention enough for me to bother taking the photo in the first place and then I paint from the “enhanced” version of the photo but always bearing in mind what I am trying to get the viewer to look at. It’s usually something about the way light works in terms of showing off colour or texture or some other visual surprise; something that elicits, “Look at the way that roof is sparkling” or “You wouldn’t believe tarmac had so many colours in it” or “Look how bleached out that field looks from here”. And I think you want the viewer to look at your painting and say, “Look how cleverly the artist has pointed out to me that particular effect of light” so I think it’s got to be pretty emphatic. Now, in order to do that in paint, artists with more skill than us have invented useful techniques such as masking areas or points of light, or spattering darks over lights, or using a bright yellow for a green sunlit field or “being mindful to vary the tone of them as well as the width of the trunks to help create a sense of distance” but it’s vital not to get too matter-of-fact about this. It’s got to be a fresh no-holds-barred approach to conveying your vision every time you paint and it may involve inventing your own techniques for the rest of us to copy later, John.

      1. Thanks so much for this Rob. I feel a little torn on this one. I’ve never tried this approach and am not sure about my abilities of manipulating images, but I can’t help thinking that if the image doesn’t remind me sufficiently well of a scene, or if I can’t recall what it was that got me interested, then maybe it’s just not worth pursuing full stop? The other consideration (and this is more a reflection on me and my circumstances) is that I already feel squeezed for time with my paintings. Spending time tweaking my images feels like I’d have even less time for painting – even though it might lead to better outcomes! In this instance, it was the sense of looking out from the darkness of woods towards the bleached out field that was almost dazzling in its brightness. I do think between the comments from you, Tim and Margaret that I have a far greater appreciation of why this painting doesn’t work as well as I’d like it to. I also feel much better prepared for whatever subject I do next – but it definitely won’t be this view (not for a good while anyways!) – thanks so much Rob – I really appreciate the thought and time that you put into your comments!

    2. Hi Tim and thanks so much for this really useful advice. I’m not sure that I feel I can go back to this photo right now – it just feels a bit too soon, but I think your advice applies to any source material. Before setting pencil to paper, I need to be clearer in my mind at the outset and I your suggestion of calmly spending time, taking it in and considering exactly what is the quality about any given scene that interests me. I think it’s something that I’ve gradually been becoming more discerning about but the idea of making much more of conscious effort to create the time and space for that consideration is likely to be hugely beneficial – I’m already looking forwards to trying it out on whatever subject comes next! Thansk so much, really useful thoughts and advice that I really appreciate!

      1. You are very welcome. I need to follow my own advice and focus more when I am photographing. I love how we learn from each other. Thanks for your wonderful posts.

        1. Thanks Tim – I know exactly what you mean about needed to follow one’s own advice – I suppose it’s good that we often know what’s the right thing to do – it’s the sticking to it that’s the problem!

  6. I know of you speak. For me that “empty” look often is because I am realizing that there isn’t a strong point of interest. With such a repetitive subject (and often mudane) it can look empty. After I discern that I have enough content and yet still looks empty it usually is that I don’t have an arousing area that livens it up. I struggle with this all the time. By the way there is a quality that I really like in your woods painting. A glint of otherworldliness, a glimmer of unique lighting that intrigues me. I do see the change up on your color palette. It will be fun once you post more and more paintings to see more of the changes. Anyway, my two cents worth. 😊

    1. Hi Margaret and thanks for this. I think you’re right about that lack of a single focal point. The composition is quite bland and I think the eye just ends up meandering around and not being sure where to fix itself. If fact, considering your comments and looking again at this painting… I think the focal point is often where there is the strongest contrast between light and dark. The case of this painting there isn’t a ‘single point’, but rather lots of points where the contrast is equally strong, so maybe it’s the case that the eye is being pulled from pillar to post in search of the focal point. Thanks so much Margaret, your comments have been really helpful!

      1. I am so glad! I was shooting from the hip using what you said and what I experience all the time….too many times! ugh!! Your wording rang a bell within me and it wasn’t really based on your painting. I am glad that you were able to glean from what I offered. 🙂 happy artist, happy life!

  7. John, your style and techniques are very inspirational! I love checking out, reading and learning from what you are sharing. I think at times, we as artists get trapped in our own styles and techniques, forgetting to step back, look and reflect how far we have come in our own personal creations. I say BRAVO to you for putting it into words and on paper for us to see and be inspired! Thank YOU!

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