Watercolour painting of the sun going down over the South Downs by watercolour artist John Haywood

Distant horizon watercolour painting


Delighted to begin this week’s post with the good news that this watercolour painting, ‘Sundown on the South Downs’ is now residing happily in its new home. 

Watercolour painting of the sun going down over the South Downs by watercolour artist John Haywood
Sundown on The South Downs, Nr Firle

I received a message last week, completely out of the blue, from someone that saw this painting during my Artists Open House exhibition last May. After ten months of deliberating, during which time the buyer was unable to get this image out of their mind they decided to get in touch to see if it was still available. It’s always a pleasure when someone feels such a connection with a painting, and it somehow felt all the more so as it came as a total surprise.

I also think it was looking at this painting again that led me towards this week’s subject matter.

Distant horizon

Recently, I drove my partner and a friend out of Brighton to the top of a local beauty spot and vantage point called Devil’s Dyke. Legend has it that the devil was furious at the conversion of the people of the Weald to Christianity and decided to dig a dyke through the South Downs, so the sea could flow in and drown their villages. To make sure his efforts were not discovered until it was too late, he decided to dig it over a single night. However his work woke an old woman, who lit a candle. This then woke her cockerel, who began to crow. Seeing the light and hearing the cockerel, the devil was fooled into thinking it was dawn. He rushed off with his work uncompleted and the Weald was saved.

For anyone that may be interested, here’s a quaint two minute animated video that has been produced by the National Trust about the legend of Devil’s Dyke:

On this particular occasion, I was purely a chauffeur. I was driving my partner and a friend up to the top of the Dyke so that they could do a picturesque run back into Brighton. On my way back into Brighton the early morning sun was catching on the clouds, shimmering off the distant sea, casting into silhouette one of the hillside farms, glinting off the odd roof and, in the foreground, off little puddles of water, perhaps caught in cow’s hoofmarks.

Even though it was from the opposite end of the day, I think it was the clouds of ‘Sundown on the South Downs’ that reminded me of this particular scene. Here’s how I got on with this quarter imperial sheet watercolour painting:

Outline sketch and masking fluid applied

This shows my starting point, just a few outline pencil marks and some little areas of masking fluid applied to capture the sparkle on the sea, and the light glinting off the foreground puddles. This spattering was done by dipping the ends of the bristles of an old toothbrush into  my masking fluid and flicking it on to the paper.  Once dried, I rubbed off any bits that I thought were in the wrong area before I started painting.

Before painting the sky, I wetted the entire sheet of paper. I left it for a few minutes, until the sheen had gone from the paper, while I mixed up what I thought was going to be a suitable grey. Most of the sky was done using varying mixes of neutral tint and cobalt blue. First though, just along the horizon line and beneath the most distant clouds, I applied an super thin wash of cadmium orange and raw sienna.  I then started to apply the blue/grey clouds, working quickly while the paper was still wet and my board relatively flat as I didn’t want the paint to run down the board. I started pale, and just dropped I stronger colour as I went, mindful of trying get a sense of perspective and recession by using paler colours and smaller clouds into the distance.

First wash, sky done

By the time I was happy with the sky, the paper had dried out sufficiently for me to quickly brush in the sea. At this point, I stopped to stand back and take a quick photo:

Moving into the foreground

Next up came the foreground area. I daresay that I’d struggle to recreate this particular green again but, from recollection, it was done with a mix of neutral tint, cobalt blue, transparent yellow, and raw sienna. I washed in the green all over first, and then started to add the darker colour where I wanted it. This was all done quickly and wet into wet. I then started to move onto the buildings on the left hand side.

At this point, I paused, hence this photo, while I took off the masking fluid on the sea as I knew I was about to paint over this area. I then continued to define the trees and distant hedgerows with a very dark mix, allowing it to bleed into the still damp wash of the fields:

All done, bar the removal of the foreground masking fluid

Finally, all that was left to do was to rub off the masking fluid in the foreground, a task in which I was ably assisted in by my daughter whose nimble fingertips seemed perfectly designed for the job:

Watercolour painting 'Distant horizon, from Devil's Dyke Road, Brighton' by artist John Haywood
Distant horizon, from Devil’s Dyke Road, Brighton

This painting was done and dusted in about an hour of relatively uninterrupted painting. It’s one of those rare occasions when a painting comes together pretty easily and where the results far outstrip what I expected from the painting at the outset. (I usually have tremendously high hopes only for them to be dashed by my own abilities!)

Notice of potential disruption to services!

This is just to forewarn readers that my painting and posting is likely to be hampered over the next couple of weeks. We are having to pack up our flat this weekend before throwing ourselves at the mercy of friends and family to accommodate us up for a few weeks while we’re having a new floor put down. This is undoubtedly going to impact on my painting. I daresay I’ll find space in my bag for a little sketching kit, plus a watercolour book or two, but I apologise in advance if my next few posts have a certain feeling of being ‘filler’ material! I will, of course, endeavour to resume normal painting services as soon as possible.

Thoughts on Distant horizon watercolour painting

23 thoughts on “Distant horizon watercolour painting”

  1. I’d like to add that I for one have noticed a few holes in the story of the Devil’s Dyke. You must all be a bit gullible down there!

  2. Congratulations on your sale, two Thumbs Up to you and your buyer. Your painting is superb and sounds like you are on a roll. Don’t get too angsty while having your floor is being put down. Go look for inspiration at galleries and museums. I have been hankering to go look at some myself. We live about two hours away from my favorite painting. The Haggin has 12 paintings by Albert Bierstadt. Maybe this spring I’ll go get my hankering satisfied. Cheers!

    1. Thanks so much Margaret. I’ve just looked up your Albert Bierstadt – wow! What incredibly epic paintings – I bet they must be amazing in the flesh. I think you should definitely treat yourself with a visit – meanwhile, thanks for the advice. I must confess that I’m not really looking forward to being itinerant for a few weeks!

        1. Thanks Margaret, took me while to find this particular one amongst his many of that view! They’re all amazing but, seeing the 1868 painting, and being familiar with so many of your paintings, I can completely see the both the attraction, and many similar qualities! Many thanks for the introduction!

  3. A wonderful sky John and I enjoyed the history lesson! It does look a wonderful place. Good luck with the floor and congratulations on your sale.

    Carole xx

  4. A wonderful sky John and I enjoyed the history lesson! It does look awonderful place. Good luck with the floor xx


    1. Thanks so much Carole. So pleased you like the sky on this one. I’m sure that in the long run it’ll be great to get the floor done but right now, it’s just a huge upheaval!

  5. Thank you for taking us through how you got to the end result. I’m just started using masking fluid (I bought it for a wrokshop I never got to attend), and I’m about to do a sea painting….. sparkles here I come! 🙂

    1. Good luck with masking fluid – there’s a lot of snobbery around it’s use and, to be honest, I tend to prefer not to use it, but on this occasion I thought it could work. Another one to try for a sparkling sea can be waiting until your painting is dry and scratching the surface of the paint with a sharp blade or edge to reveal the paper beneath – then there are those very talented people who achieve the same result with just one confident sweep of the brush across a rough paper!

      1. I thought the snobbery came from people like me saying, “use masking fluid to retain the white paper; don’t use opaque paints after the event!” Very nice painting, though, made by the sky and that wonderful green that’s just slipped beyond your grasp.

        1. Haha yes, indeed Rob! I suppose it just goes to show how rife with snobbery is the otherwise gentle pursuit of watercolour painting! Pleased that you like this one though!

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