Low tide on the Mawddach estuary

I was rummaging through an old box of books recently looking for something that I thought I had (mainly to save me buying it all over again just because I’ve forgotten what books I already have!) when I came across a book that was gifted to me quite a few years ago. As it was a book on watercolour, I immediately considered it a very thoughtful gift. When I opened it up to find that the entire book had been printed back to front and upside down, so most likely a charity shop purchase, I appreciated it all the more: thoughtful, thrifty and different! I also couldn’t help but spare a thought for whoever was responsible for an entire book run being bound upside down and back to front!

The book in question was ‘A Vision of Venice in Watercolour’ by Ken Howard OBE.

The book was also accompanied by a video of the same name. I haven’t seen the DVD but here’s a trailer for it:

I didn’t spend that much with the book when I first received it – I recall that it just didn’t feel like ‘where I was’ with my painting at the time. On rediscovering it again, however, I had a more thorough read and explore of it. First off, I couldn’t help but be struck by what a wonderfully gentle, humble and down to earth man he seems to be. The book follows his process as he tackles a number of Venice scenes and illustrated with lots of work in progress photographs and Ken’s step by step commentary.

Broadly speaking his approach is to build his paintings up with thinly applied glazes of wash. What I also particularly like is his willingness in his studies to use a bit of body colour, gouache or pastel to apply highlights or details.

I think one reason why I paid the book more attention on this occasion was that it chimed a little more with some of the smaller studies I’ve been working on recently. In this book, Ken explains that he prefers to work small when painting on location in watercolour, often working on two pieces at the same time. To do this he tapes paper to each side of a board, alternating from one side to another to allow the paint to dry. I have tried painting two views at the same time, but usually, find that I just end up concentrating on one rather than the other if I feel it’s going better!

Still, that was the last time I tried it so who’s to say whether I’d feel the same this time around!

After last week’s blog post, where I showed a study of Lindisfarne – the dear friend we were visiting all those years ago read the post and sent me a couple of new photos of Lindisfarne taken only a few weeks ago. I made a couple of crops to the two images and thought I’d use them as an opportunity to paint the two simultaneously. I don’t have a board that allows me to tape to either side (most of my boards have a tripod mount on the back of them) so I had to tape both pages to one side of the board. The paper I used was Arches rough 140lb/300gsm. 

Below are some step by step images of how I got on:

Outline sketches
First wash
2nd wash
Adding in the details and finishing touches
Lindisfarne sketch 1
Lindisfarne sketch 2

I quite enjoyed working on these two and, as quite quick studies, I think they’re okay. Of the two, I think sketch 1 is the more successful of the pair, both in terms of composition and the overall treatment and handling of the subject.

Now as much as I’m enjoying these smaller studies, after completing this pair – and having only worked small for the past month or so, I felt the urge to work on something a little more expansive. I can’t recall exactly what led me to my next choice, only that I think it was another one from my archive that I’ve previously overlooked or dismissed. On reviewing this photo, however, I began to see more immediately what the painting of this might look like, and how I might paint it. 

The view is looking up the Mawddach estuary in Snowdonia, Wales, at low tide. We have been to this spot a number of times because we have friends, John and Sarah, that own and run Graig Wen, of the most fabulous campsites in the whole of the UK (in my humble opinion). If you don’t like camping, there are also a number of cottages that you can rent – so there’s really no excuse should you ever find yourself in the vicinity. The location is wonderful and the scenery just stunning, even when the weather’s on the moody side!

Sadly I didn’t take any work in progress photos as I painted this, which I regret on one hand, but I also don’t think they’d have looked that good as I ended up painting this late into the evening under a normal electric light because I couldn’t be bothered to set my daylight light up! At the time, I also wasn’t sure whether what I was working on had any merit to or not! Here’s the finished painting.

Low tide on the Maddach estuary, Snowdonia Wales - a watercolour painiting by John Haywood
Low tide on the Mawddach estuary, Snowdonia Wales

It’s painted on a half imperial sheet of Saunders Waterford High White Rough 140lb / 300gsm – so about 3 times larger than the sketches I’ve been doing of late. Despite taking frequent time outs for drying, this all came together pretty quickly. I do have a few niggles about this, but overall there’s more that I’m happy about than unhappy. I often find that wet sand or mud can be tricky to capture so am particularly pleased with the foreground mud.

I was also really unsure about how to tackle the foreground rocks and boulders without getting caught up in trying to paint each one individually. I ended up using the chisel-like edge of a half-inch flat brush to make quite random and varied marks, making everything smaller as it receded into the distance. I also varied the consistency and colour of the pigments, even just splashing on some cerulean blue in the right-hand corner to try to evoke something like moss on the rocks. I’ve not tried the approach before and was pleasantly surprised by the result.

I’ve already got ideas about how I could improve on some areas of this if I were to tackle it again, mainly in relation to the sky and distant hills but, overall, I like the combination of elements that this scene offers.

I like the subtle flat open areas of wash combined with the more free and expressive brushstrokes, and it does evoke some wonderful memories of our time spent on the Mawddach.

Thoughts on Low tide on the Mawddach estuary

19 thoughts on “Low tide on the Mawddach estuary”

  1. Hi John, just a comment about APV films, which I love but have to smile sometimes at just how dated the production values are. And the music! LOL. Other than that, great. Hope I’m not being mean ):

  2. Pingback: Step by step watercolour paintings

  3. I really enjoy seeing your process pictures and watching your blog as your skill and style develops over time. I prefer the first of the two Lindisfarne paintings as well but both have merit. That part of the Northumbrian coast has a bleak emptiness to it and your second painting really captures that. The shadows in the first painting work beautifully for me though and make it my favourite. Super work!

    1. Hi Jo and thanks so much for this, I really appreciate it. I think that, as with so many things, my development is a bit two steps forwards and one step backwards. The blog is a good way of being able to chart the general direction over time which can often provide some comfort when you feel like you’re just not getting anywhere or making any progress! Thanks so much Jo

  4. Good morning, well, guess it’s already afternoon, no wonder I’m hungry! Been busy getting ready to fly to Michigan on Saturday to visit my older son and his wife. If there’s room left, plan to take a small painting kit along. Their little farm has been my subject more often than not!
    As to your latest, I love Wales (with a name like Griffith, I can’t help it!) I did another dreamy sky/mountain WC again the other day! Good for trying to get washes right! My daughter has my GOOD one framed. Who can spell Welch words anyway? At least I’ve learned to make a fair stab at pronouncing them! I can’t spell English ones very well either!
    John, if you can get it, go to Daniel Smith Artists’ Supplies. They published on line, a video of Jean Haines’ All that Shimmers Watercolor Set. Dan’l Smith makes my FAVORITE watercolors! Their list is endless and I love that they use many mineral pigments which offer such wonderful granulation. In her video (perhaps my favorite painter) she uses DS’s great new colors that are subtly opalescent. Not harsh, brash or gaudy, they are subtle and might work well in your many lovely beach scenes? DS now carries a whole set of greys especially designed for Alvaro Castagnet for use in his endless cityscapes like you do. You might like to try some?
    Another thing I really like re DS’s WCs is their honesty in naming their colors instead of naming them ‘cutsie’ names like ‘pumpkin orange’…they name AND label their paints with the pigments they have used. Just go to their website. Now for some lunch!

    1. Hi Margery and thanks so much for this, so pleased you like the welsh painting! Thanks so much for the Daniel Smith recommendation. I am aware of the brand, and admire the work of so many artists that also use DS watercolours. I am also, however, quite wedded to my Winsor and Newton paints that I still feel, even after years of painting with a pretty limited palette, that I’m still only scratching the surface of what I can do with them! (I’ve also built up quite a stockpile of my favourite colours that is going to take me quite a while to work through! Hope you have a great time in Michigan (as an aside, my mum was born in Michigan, in Detroit, before coming to the UK when she was six years old!) All the best Margery

  5. Ah yes. The paintings. Let’s start with the last. Very nice sky, as usual. There’s something a bit laboured about the mountains; perhaps they look a bit crisp on the sky edge or something…. Anyway, they’re fine. I love the middle distance. I think the water, the light on the water and on the mud, the receding wall all work really well. The foreground rocks and boulders look better through screwed up eyes, I think. My first thought was, “I see he’s used the chisel-like edge of a half-inch flat brush”. I mean my attention was drawn to technique rather than the impression created. If the rocks were slaty, then I think you’ve captured the flat surfaces well but I’m not sure they were. (Personally, I dither this sort of thing with a broadish pen dipped in watercolour but then people seem to think it must take a long time to do and this seems to be against the rules of painting in watercolour. It doesn’t actually take long.) I think the stones sticking out of (or lying on) the mud could be grouped a bit rather than being evenly spaced out but that’s nit-picking. Overall, a jolly nice piece – but there’s not much point in just saying that, is there?

    Lindisfarne: I prefer the first.probably because there aren’t so many bare open spaces and again I like the colours you’ve used – none of your usual urban violet-greys which make me feel sad on a Wednesday afternoon. Against your better judgement, there’s also quite a lot of detail implied, which I like, of course.The colours in the beach also work well in comparison to the other version. It’s a shame you couldn’t have had an ongoing argument between a tourist and a Northumbrian piper in the foreground to make a real success of it. Landscapes/townscapes don’t really do it for me; I like to see something going on – but I think I’m in the 1% minority there (and feeling bitter that my work keeps getting rejected by exhibition organisers who probably think it’s a bit bizarre!)

    (Don’t feel you’ve got to answer at similar length. You’ve probably got a life to live.)

    1. Hi Rob and many thanks for this. I’m not saying this just to minimise the length of my reply, but your comments chime pretty much exactly with my own thoughts.

      Sorry to hear that you’ve not been having any joy with your exhibition proposals or submissions. I know from personal experience how hard it is (and important) to not let it dent your enthusiasm, confidence and direction!

      1. Dent my enthusiasm, confidence and direction? No chance! They clearly don’t know what they’re talking about… Most of the greats had the same problem.

    1. I really do need to start getting you to proof my posts before I publish them! Thanks so much for your ‘pedantry’ – I really appreciate it and have tried to correct the spelling throughout. (Of course these spelling mistakes and typos could all be part of my cunning plan to try to divert your attention away from the paintings!)

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

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