An even bigger big sky watercolour

First, some bad news…

As was hotly predicted, if not wildly anticipated, my submission to this year’s Royal Institute of Painters in Contemporary Water Colour Exhibition 2019 was met with the judges’ disapproval:

Another rejection letter for the archives!

As disappointing as any rejection notification is, it also feels good to have it out of the way. It’s not that it was that much of distraction really but, having decided to make a last minute entry, I can’t deny entertaining against my better judgement the vague possibility that I might get selected.

Ah well, there’s always next year, and there’s plenty of time for practice and painting in the meantime!

Second, some painting…

After enjoying last week’s big sky painting so much, I had it mind to try a much larger version, just for fun. Just as a reminder, here’s the quarter sheet painting that I did last week:

Watercolour painting of a view of the Weald from Firle Beacon in the South Downs by John Haywood
View of the Weald from Firle Beacon in the the South Downs

As much as I enjoyed this, and was pleasantly pleased with the result, I felt I could have even more fun and hopefully achieve a better painting by upsizing and trying out a few slightly different approaches in different areas.

Here are a few of the changes I hoped to make:

  • not to paint the sky in one wet in wet go but to do it in stages using thin glazes of wash to build it up.
  • not to use any China White or gouache in the clouds. The highlights on the clouds just above the horizon where done using China White – still watercolour, but I would just prefer to achieve what I’m after without resorting to it.
  • create a better sense of the patchwork of fields with more variety of colours tones and textures.
  • achieve greater sense of distance and recession to convey the scale of the landscape.

Here’s the initial sketch I started out with:

Not a lot to see or even say about this really! There’s not a single line in the sky, but I did try an draw out the foreground patchwork of fields and main wooded areas with a degree of accuracy so that they helped to create the sense of distance and perspective that I was looking for.

Here’s how it turned out:

View of the Weald from Firle Beacon in the the South Downs in watercolour by John Haywood
View of the Weald from Firle Beacon in the the South Downs

I started off by wetting the paper liberally as far down as the horizon line. While the paper was absorbing the moisture, I mixed up some generous quantities of the colours I needed for the sky – mainly ultramarine and cobalt blues for the blue areas of sky, and a more blue/grey/mauve mix for the clouds.

These were then all washed in liberally, following my reference photo and trying to be careful to avoid some the areas that I know I needed to keep bright white. Some of the streaks in the sky lifted out by wiping a kitchen towel tissue across the paper.

Similarly, for the highlights on the more distant clouds, they were lifted out using some scrunched up kitchen towel.

This was all done quickly and, while the paper was still damp, I dropped in more of the cloud mix that I tweaked as I went, a little more blue here, a little more light red there.

Once I reached the horizon line, where quite a ‘bead’ of paint had gathered, I removed some of this with a damp brush and then started to wash in some raw sienna and some yellow over the land areas.

In my earlier version, I added greens to the yellows wet in wet and I think this created too many blurred areas of colour, which made it more difficult to create the patchwork sense of the fields.

With this version I was more careful to vary the raw sienna and yellow wash, and to then let this dry before beginning to add in the different greens for the fields. These were all added in thin glazes, altering the mix of the green with every brushstroke as I gradually built up the patchwork effect.

Once I’d reached a stage where I felt reasonably happy, I began to added in the hedges and trees that helped define the shapes of the fields. There was then a bit of backwards and forwards-ing. A few fields here, a few hedges there.

And it was roundabout here that I knew I was in danger of overworking it so stopped for a while.

After a bit of time away, I felt that the blue area of the sky needed strengthening, which I did by re-wetting the top section of the sky, adding in some slightly stronger blue washes and then using tissue again to lift off the streaks in the sky.

The final touch was to add in some shadow areas, beginning on the horizon line, where the cloud cover was most dense, which really helped with the sense of distance.

After that, I applied some quick broad cloud shadows over the landscape – and then downed my brushes and resisted the growing temptation to do any more fiddling!

I feel like I’ve rambled on a bit here, for which I really apologise but hope that you’ll see this rambling for what it is, a sign of just how much I enjoyed working on this painting!

Thoughts on An even bigger big sky watercolour

17 thoughts on “An even bigger big sky watercolour”

  1. Pingback: Distant horizons

  2. Pingback: A busy watercolour week!

  3. Thank you John for the self-critiqueing, and the invitation on your blog for discussion that enhances learning. And, if I may add a little observation..a rejection slip is proof of one’s involvement in the outside world. When I did a certificated writing course we were encouraged to collect as many rejection slips as possible. Thank you for your blog.

    1. Ooh thanks so much for this! I like this idea very much – particularly as it plays to my strength of collecting rejection notices! 😉 thanks so much too for your kind words – they’re much appreciated!

  4. Thanks for sharing your process. It’s really helpful to read how you identified and addressed the changes you wanted to make in the second painting. Best of luck on your next submission!

  5. John, excellent work. If I may be so bold to critique, I think the first painting lacks a little depth and tone. I know how hard this is when painting landscapes and the workshop with Herman Pekel really helped me understand some things that I didn’t know. The main reason I went , was to improve landscape painting and clouds in particular. I notice on your second painting, the foreground is a bit darker, bringing it more forward. I think both paints are excellent, but the second is more appealing to me because the different hedgerows and squares are more random and there are more of them. I think a stronger foreground and more wet into wet in the background will give the painting more depth. Herman talks about leaving more sparkel, being bold with color, doing it in 2 simple washes + hardbrush, etc. I know I struggle with this every time I paint with landscapes and I’m sure the big boys do too! Lately, in my work, I’m trying to think more about the message and sometimes it will get lost in the struggle of painting. I find myself revisiting my post on the 5 day workshop with Herman just to confirm these principals of painting.

    1. Hi Al and many thanks for this, much appreciated and I’m still super jealous of all the wonderful workshops you’ve been on! I really like Herman though my experience has been limited to watching some of his DVDs! The first version on this post is the painting I did last week. This second bigger version gave me more space to work and allowed me to get a bit more detailing in of the fields and hedgerows etc. It wasn’t however done in two washes – so I’ve still got quite a bit to aim for on that front. Still, the direction of travel is feeling good at the moment!

      1. Yes, I was actually surprised when I went to Herman’s workshop. He doesn’t do quarter sheets. He does almost all of his studio work on FULL SHEETS and his Plein Air on half sheets!. I think for landscapes and vast paintings, it will read better on larger ‘canvasas’. :) Great job on the second painting!

        1. haha, yep, I can’t imagine Mr Pekel fiddling about on quarter sheets! I’ve definitely got the brushes to do full sheets, I just don’t really have the space for them, but I really out to try a few full sheet paintings, if only for fun! Thanks Al!

  6. Pingback: South Downs Watercolour

  7. Definitely a positive evolution in the second version. To achieved your goals! There is always so much to learn from a painting. I enjoyed being on the journey with you. Thank you for sharing!!

    1. Hi Amanda and thanks so much for this and I’m pleased that you can see an evolution between the two, and that you enjoyed being on the journey. I also look forward to following your journey too. Kind regards, and hope you’ll visit again!

  8. Great piece of work, John, and both parts work really well. It’s unusual to see a sky that looks like a real sky and you’ve certainly cracked it with the blue depths and high white streaks way up there and the rolling clouds at a much lower level. You’ve managed “to create the sense of distance and perspective” that you were looking for. For even more of the same I wonder if you could grade from a slight warming of the foreground to cooling of the distant fields. I also notice, (when I’m running across the fens under gloomy skies), that distant clouds do a precise mirror-image of what the fields do; i.e. the bands/rolls get narrower and narrower towards the horizon. That might increase the feeling of depth even more – though bitter experience tells me it’s damned hard to replicate without getting into fiddly mode – and I know you don’t like fiddly mode.
    Keep up the good work and try not to be flattened by the naysayers!

    1. Hi Rob and thanks so much for this. Looking at your comments and at the painting, I think you’re right, I could enhance that sense of regression with a little more cooling down of the distant fields. I do also know what you mean about the perspective of looking upwards at clouds and how the bands narrow towards the distance – as you say – tricky to achieve! It’s certainly made me want to do a few more of these paintings where the sky is the star of the show!

      1. I love this painting where the sky is the star of the show, and I also love your description of how you went about painting it. You can’t imagine how helpful that is to a beginner like myself. So if you feel like “rambling on” again on your painting process, please know that some of us will be all ears!

        Best wishes to you from across the pond in ice-coated Massachusetts (we just had an ice storm today). Before too long we will be back to green pastures like those in your wonderful painting. Thank you for sharing it.

        1. Thanks so much for this and my apologies for such a tardy response! I really appreciate your comments and hope that the temperatures are a bit warmer than when you commented! We’re just hitting a really cold snap here with freezing temperatures and snow flurries so there won’t be any plein air painting for quite a while yet!

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

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