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:
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:
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:
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.
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.