A rusty watercolour painting

A busy week in many ways, even if not entirely for watercolour painting!

First up was a visit to the wonderful Towner Gallery in Eastbourne. In recent years, I’ve probably visited this gallery more than any other. I think they’re running an excellent programme of exhibitions, have some great events and workshops for children and families, plus it’s home to a wonderful collection of works by Eric Ravilious, so there’s always something there to keep me entertained!  This particular excursion was to see the David Nash exhibition, ‘200 Seasons’. It’s a wonderful exhibition and celebration of work spanning a 50 year period. While there, I was perusing a book of artist’s quotes and came across this from JMW Turner:

If I could find anything blacker than black, I’d use it.

JMW Turner

Moments later, in the exhibition, I saw this work by David Nash, ‘Nature to Nature’, from 1985:

Nature to Nature, 1985, by David Nash

The accompanying label read “Triangles, circles and squares (together with pyramids, sphere and cubes) often feature in Nash’s work. These universal forms are often found in natures and across different cultures. In Nature to Nature the carved, charred forms are mirrored in the charcoal drawings. The sculpture explores how we see and understand three-dimensional shapes and their two-dimensional equivalents.”

I was quite struck, seeing the power of this work, so soon after reading Turner’s quote. The two seemed to somehow speak to each other. It also made me resolve there and then to keep space for a little bit of black in my palette too! If it’s good enough for Turner and Nash, then it’s fine by me! (For anyone that’s interested, my black of choice is Winsor and Newton’s Lamp Black)

This week’s post brought a new addition to my watercolour library with the arrival of ‘David Curtis, A personal View – The Landscape in Watercolour’.  Published by David & Charles in the mid 90s, this is one of a series of books published under the moniker of The Atelier Series:

Here’s the blurb from the back of the dust-jacket:

“The Atelier Series is a new concept in art instruction which aims to recreate the traditional method of teaching that flourished during the nineteenth century. There apprentices shared a studio with a master, listening to him discuss his work and watching him in action, learning by example. Each of the books in this unique series allows the reader to look over the shoulder of an expert artist, listing and learning as they discuss their chosen medium, its peculiarities and advantages, and exactly how they go about the process of painting. In every facet of their technique, from what brush they choose, to how they interpret the scene before them, readers will find a wealth of information and experience which will permeate and enhance their own work and approach to art.”

I really like this concept, mainly because it chimes very much with how I see (and have previously described) my own approach. That I am merely serving my apprenticeship as I study and learn from those far more talented, experience and practised than myself. There’s certainly no doubting the brilliance of David Curtis’s abilities as an artist, and I’m already greatly enjoying dipping in and out of this book as there is a great deal to learn and to admire. At the beginning of the book, he sets out a number of approaches, one of them being the ‘loose’ approach. This is the one the approximates more closely to my own aspirations – but even his description or idea of ‘loose’ feels a lot more controlled than my idea of loose! 

What did really strike me throughout the book, is the amazing unity and harmony that he achieves in his paintings. This is largely done through a harmony of both tone and colour. The great Joseph Zbukvic sometimes speaks of the ‘mother colour’ – the colour that runs throughout a painting like a thread, tying everything together. (Though increasingly rare and crazily expensive, Zbukvic’s Mastering Atmosphere and Mood in Watercolour is another fabulous book for anyone’s watercolour collection!)

Curtis describes one of the foundations for how he achieves this. After sketching a painting out, he will wet the paper all over with a brush and fresh water. After leaving this to dry for a few minutes, he will begin to apply colour, varying it across the paper. With the correct dampness of paper and the correct amount of water and pigment on the brush, it’s possible to control where the colour goes. This can often be made more manageable by keeping your board flat during this stage so that the pigment doesn’t run down the board. By wetting the paper first, you achieve very subtle diffused combinations of colour, and have longer to work with the colour before it begins to dry.  The aim is to create a very loose colour wash that doesn’t have any hard edges.

This was at the forefront of my mind as I set about this painting. After my dilemmas of last week – I was feeling much better prepared this week. I’ve spent some time perusing my most recent sketchbook and came across one of my favourite sketches of late. This is my A5 sketch:

A5 reference study

Purely for the purpose of this post, I’m also showing the quarter sheet interpretation I did of this sketch as a demonstration when I was painting during my Open House exhibition in May this year:

Quarter sheet demo

I didn’t refer to this painting before starting this painting, I just recall that I wasn’t as pleased with this quarter sheet as I would have liked to have been. To add to the challenge, I opted to paint this version on a half imperial sheet that I’d stretched especially. Here’s how I got on:

This is the first wash that I hoped would set me on a path to a harmonious painting!  My main aim was to create a warm undertone that I hoped would permeate throughout the painting. I cover the entire paper with this wash with the exception of the overhead round globe lights. Once this was completely dry, I started the next phase working from the top down.

By this point I was feeling a little disheartened!  My edges were far too harsh, the darks were far too dark. So much for harmony!

I flooded the really dark areas with water and used my brush to agitate some of the pigment. I kept adding clean I had my board at an angle so the water could run off the bottom of the board. This immediately began to bring a little more light into the painting. I also began to blur some of the harsh edges that I’d created. I think many of the problems that I was encountering were largely down to just feeling a bit rusty. If I’m honest, I’ve been away from my easel for longer than I care to admit and I think my handling of both brushes and paint has definitely suffered as a result.

Next up was to tackle the waiter and the bar area. I tried to do the waiter as economically as possible, and feel that I half succeeded! The bar received a warm grey wash, that still allowed the warmth of the first wash to come through. I also tried to suggest some glasses on the bar but I think I lacked a certain amount of conviction in how I tried to portray these!

Once this was done, I added in a few highlights here and there. In David Curtis’s book – he spoke of the importance of not using a pure white out of the tube (as I usually do), but to make sure you mix with another appropriate colour to the light you’re trying to highlight. In this case I used a touch of Titanium white along with a touch of Cadmium yellow to reflect the bright yellowy light from the overhead lights.

At this point, I finally felt the painting was gradually being pulled, albeit reluctantly, towards something that I might feel okay about!

I did make a few more minor tweaks here and there. Probably most noticeable of these was to darken the top right-hand side of the painting to try to convey the light fading away and to spend a little more time developing the top of the bar and its reflections.

Le serveur (The waiter) - watercolour painting by John Haywood
Le serveur (The waiter)

This is where I decided to call it a day.

I think there are some real positives in this painting (just as there are some real negatives!) but overall I’m pleased with how this translated from an A5 up to a half sheet. I think that I could do this composition even more justice, but I doubt I can achieve this without spending quite a bit more time on some figure studies! I do also feel that, of the three efforts, this does have a greater sense of harmony (though looking at them side by side for the first time, I may just be deceiving myself!):

I think I probably need to get a few more paintings done in quick succession to shake off my rustiness but it felt good to paint at this scale again and of course to revel in the joy of just painting again – even if it does sometimes feel like the joy is very hard to earn.

Thoughts on A rusty watercolour painting

16 thoughts on “A rusty watercolour painting”

  1. I’m slightly surprised by your positive reaction to David Curtis – one of my favourites, too. As you say, his “idea of ‘loose’ feels a lot more controlled than (your) idea of loose!” I’ve got a book of his – “Light and Mood in Watercolour” – and there’s a huge amount of detail in most of his work no matter how keen he is on starting off with a loose wash: take a look at some barn interiors, for example. Superb. Of course, nobody can touch Walter Langley but Curtis is very good.

    1. Hi Rob and thanks for this! I was looking at that Light and Mood in Watercolour book by David Curtis, but I decided to buy this one first to see how I got on with it. I know that I’ll never be as proficient as that (partly due to lack of, or at least different level of skill, but also because I’m not so sure it’s where I want to take my painting – but I can’t help but admire it nevertheless). As for Walter Langley – you have once again mentioned someone that I don’t think I’ve very heard of! Off to google him now!

      1. I suspect he might not be what you’re aiming to be but, apart from his extraordinary skill, he was also a Brummie so must be an all-round great bloke.

        1. Sorry Rob, very remiss not to reply to this sooner! he was certainly very meticulous – I can understand why you admire his work so much. It’s also great to see watercolour being used as a social record of some sort. You certainly couldn’t accuse a lot of them of being ‘pretty watercolours’, but they are marvelous – thanks for the introduction!

  2. Yet again! As to Jean Haines, I love reading her books and I have maybe 5 of them!! But if you have a chance to look at one or buy one, I think the best one for you is her first book, the New Edition published by SEARCH PRESS, entitled ‘Colour and Light in Watercolour’ because it covers such a variety of kinds of her work. Yes, she does her beloved flowers but also animals, birds, people and landscapes. She simplifies her palette for her subjects but light prevails in all of them and lessons can be learned in how she uses her colors to express light in all her subjects. No dreary rainy days for her! You can learn as much from her floral work as well as people and landscapes. Excellent lessons from all of her work. Especially, I like that you can learn as much from what she leaves out as from what she includes. To me that’s hard to DO but rich in DOING…and hard as we want to include too many details! I hope you can find this book especially. I don’t mean you must stop what you’re doing but both you and I want our work to improve. I agree that how art is now taught is sadly lacking but also probably more creative? We no longer live in the 19th cent.! All of the great artists became so because they were ahead of their time, not because they looked backwards! Marge

    1. Hi Margery and many thanks for the recommendation. I’ve got this current book to digest, and another one from the same series by John Yardley that’s on it’s way to me. I’ll add this one onto my shopping list – it may even make it onto my christmas list! Thanks again

  3. Me again! I forgot to mention a thought I have re your bar scene painting; I much prefer the waiter coming toward the viewer than going away for this reason; coming towards the viewer is WELCOMIMG where as going away shuts you out as if saying “It’s closing time, time for you to leave!” Also wonder if you considered doing one more intimately with him being larger and less of the bar? The bar itself isn’t that interesting and the waiter and other people are much more so.
    Just my thoughts!

    1. Hi Margery and thanks for this. You’re quite right. I think having the waiter face on would make him more of the focal point. I recall that thats’ why I chose to do him face on in one of the earlier versions but forgot when I came to translate the original sketch. Also, at the back of my mind was a lack of confidence born from my rustiness in being able to paint him front on. There’s always next time!

  4. Good morning John! Always enjoy your Wednesday musings. I didn’t MISS last week but had house guests arriving later that day (for 5 whole days!) and had a lot to do still. At least they allowed me to go to my Saturday painting class which comes to an end this Sat. I will not be unhappy about that…it’s “An Experimental Landscape Class” and has pretty much been a waste of my paints! It is more an ‘arts and crafts’ class and I’m not into that at all.
    I too, watch and love Gary Tuckers work. I especially like the way he approaches a painting with a boldness I seem to fear and he paints in an area where I once lived (on the North Shore of Boston near Glouster or, as my then young daughter called it, Globster. It’s where we went when we could afford lobsters. To this day, she’s still a Mrs Malaprop! I too am a fan of Hopper…who can’t be?
    You say ‘loose’ painting is your goal but I fail to see it in your work? Have you seen the work of your fellow Jean Hines? Now that’s my goal! Not to copy her work but to combine her ‘truth’ with her looseness and freedom of interpretation. Her subject is clearly there but at the same time it’s ‘lost’ in her gorgeous washes which are a subject all their own. She interprets all different subjects but especially loves flowers and animals, but also does city scenes and people Having tried to paint my great granddaughter unsuccessfully I am amused with Jean’s people as she always paints half a face…it that so she doesn’t need to get the eyes to match!?
    At my age, 89 this month, I find it too hard for me to drag equipment out any more though am equipped to do so and also, I’ve just lived in St. Louis 4 years and am uncomfortable going out alone. I far prefer the countryside to cities and lots of architecture (yes, I do know my perspective!). Some is OK but too much is a bore to me. I don’t enjoy ‘doing people’.
    Enough of ME! I always enjoy your blog!

    1. Hi Margery and thanks for this. I’m vaguely familiar with the work of Jean Haines (and have just had a reminder look at her website!) Wonderfully free and atmospheric as you say. I know that I’ve certainly got a long road ahead of me to get to where I’d like to be, but I’m enjoying the journey! So pleased that you like the blog, I really appreciate that!

  5. Yes John that it a David Curtis quote and I’m pretty sure it’s from that same book. I too treated myself to John Yardley’s book from that series recently and also love that. Two very different approaches to painting, but both wonderful I think.

    1. Thanks Carole – I’m going to keep an eye out for that quote as I continue to dip in and out the book. I’m looking forward to seeing the John Yardley one – again a painter that I admire tremendously so I’m hoping to pick up quite a few tips and will hopefully be able to put some of them to good use!

  6. Hi John, that is my most loved amd favourite watercolour book of all time! It came to me through a book club many, many years ago and I hadn’t order it but decided to have a look and it literally changed my painting life! The overall wash he uses is just wonderful and I can see that it worked well for you in your final version too…nice one John.
    There is a quote I often recall and have been asked to repeat at workshops by those who have heard me before and it’s this: Please excuse some misquoting but this is the general idea. “It cannot be overstated that the key to success is to use a variety of tonal shifts around a single series of basic harmonious colours”…boom boom!!
    I enjoy your musings each week so thank you for generously sharing!
    Warm wishes

    1. Hi Carole and thanks so much for this, really wonderful! I’m pleased to have stumbled across one of your most loved and favourite watercolour books of all time! Is that quote from David Curtis? If it isn’t, it certainly could be! It’s just the kind of sage advice that I expect to find in this book! Seeing the layout and content of this book has just convinced me to buy John Yardley’s book in the same Atelier Series. I may soon have to open up my own public library of watercolour books! Thanks too for the kind words about my weekly blog Carole, I really appreciate it.

  7. Always inspiring! I love all the process that brought you to the final result, I don’t know if is because it’s a bar with that round stools, but your painting reminds me of “Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper!

    P.S.: as your advice, I’m following Gary Tucker’s videos on YouTube that are very useful and I’m enjoying what I’m doing!

    1. Hi Luca and thanks so much for this and I’ll happily take anything that reminds someone of a Hopper painting! I did another interior a short while ago that a few people also commented on as having a Hopper-esque feel about it so your comment is really appreciated: https://johnhaywoodwatercolours.co.uk/2019/04/10/watercolour-interior/

      So pleased that you’re enjoying Gary Tucker’s videos, (I think he’s great!) and even moreso that you’re enjoying your own painting!

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