A watercolour challenge

This week’s post is inspired by a recent challenge that watercolour artist Jem Bowden issued to the followers of his blog/e-newsletter.

As many readers will be aware, I’m a tremendous admirer of Jem’s work and really enjoy and learn from his updates and videos. You can see more of Jem’s work on Instagram, YouTube and via his website.

I’ve detailed below Jem’s challenge in full – taken from Jem’s original email – beneath which you’ll find my responses.

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it

Below are a few photos as references. Below those are some starting suggestions in terms of an approach to painting, and then it’s over to you.

Reference 1

Boats at West Mersey

Reference 2

A footpath near Bath and Bristol

And here are a few alternative skies, should you like to use one in combination with the above…

The painting process

Do one thing different to normal – eg, use a different colour (or whole palette of colours, though it could just be three), a different brush to normal, a different size or alternative paper surface, a different angle of board… or other things you might be meaning to try out for a first time.

Set a time limit and divide it in two – Maybe shorter overall than your normal time for a painting, then using a timer stop yourself two-thirds through it and walk away for at least half an hour before returning to complete the painting with refreshed eyes and better objectivity about what still remains to be done.

Before you start the painting decide on the following:

One bit of the subject that you will leave out entirely or simplify greatly.

One area at least that you will paint as soft-edged.

One corner that you will leave very ‘quiet’ in the painting.

And make sure you plan for one bit (at least) of negative painting somewhere.

Then stick to these things!

Other than that do as you like – change composition, atmosphere and anything else. Do it as an ink & wash, turn it into a cartoon, paint a rhinoceros into it, and so on. Maybe you’ll start with a small sketch to test some ideas out, maybe not. I hope you’ll have a go and enjoy it.

Before I’d had chance to make a start, I received another email, alerting me to a full demo that Jem had done based on the boat image:

I often find it difficult to tackle a painting when I’ve just watched someone else paint something wonderfully and with such apparent ease and fluidity!

I am however, getting gradually better at trying to paint things ‘my way’ rather than trying to emulate how another artist might interpret a scene, regardless of the esteem in which I hold them!

Here’s how I got on:

Attempt no. 1

For my ‘Do one thing different to normal’ – I experimented with a different paper. For the past year or two now I’ve used Saunders Waterford High White Rough 300gsm. I was, however, running very low on stock due to delays in delivery times. I remembered that some time ago I ordered a sample pack of paper from Two Rivers. They hand make all their paper and from the little I know about them, I love their ethos. They’re a small close knit team keeping a traditional skill alive and they obviously love what they do and I really admire this.

While the paper feels amazing, the way that the paint behaved on the surface felt so completely alien to me! I had in mind to make the sky the star of the show and keep the boats etc and secondary subjects.

I wanted to keep the foreground loose and simple, and keep the right hand side of the painting ‘quiet’.

From the first moment that the brush touched the paper I was battling with it! It was so different to what I’d become accustomed to and I just couldn’t get to grips with it!

The painting became a rollercoaster struggle – that only really seemed to find some kind of resolve when, after taking a break to reflect, I decided to paint the main focal point boat much darker than I had it. By strengthening it, turning it into a silhouette, seemed to pull the painting together a bit.

I still felt pretty disappointed with this painting and the entire process.

As it was quite quick to sketch out, I couldn’t resist trying to right a few a wrongs.

Attempt no. 2

This time, I returned to my trusted Saunders Waterford. I also decided to make the boat the unmistakeable focus of the painting.

I can’t deny that it felt nice to be painting on my regular surface again. I do think that the Two Rivers paper is amazing quality, but I need to spend more time with it – to learn how to paint with it, but this will have to wait for another time!

This painting came together with relative ease. I’d learn’t a lot from the first attempt and felt that I knew my way around the various elements better.

On completing this, I felt quite satisfied, pleased and relieved that I’d atoned for the at least some of the mistakes of the first painting.

It’s much to my surprise then that, after looking at these two side by side for a while – I’ve had a change of heart!

Once I’d managed to distance myself from how I ‘felt’ whilst painting them, I could see the two paintings a little more objectively.

I now think that the first painting has a greater dramatic impact than the second one. I still didn’t enjoy painting it though!

I really enjoyed this exercise and it felt great to do something different and to follow some of Jem’s prompts.

I’ve subsequently sent both of these paintings to Jem as he may be showing some examples of how people have responded to his challenge in a future post. As ever, I’ll be really intrigued to see how others may have tackled or interpreted the same subject.

If you subscribe to receive Jem’s emails (via his website) – you could get to see them all too!

Thoughts on A watercolour challenge

10 thoughts on “A watercolour challenge”

  1. It was these two paintings that brought me to your site, John…I think they are magnificent. I particularly appreciate the first, on the Two Rivers paper (I have a stack somewhere, long neglected): the struggle you had with the sky has actually created a wonderfully textured surface; the boats, especially the fishing vessel in part silhouette, look themselves to have been struggling out at sea, they look so rugged and weather-beaten, and the abstracted foreground sets up the rest of the painting so convincingly….a remarkable painting that I would be honoured to own!

    1. Hi Ray and thanks so much for such kind and generous comments, they’re much appreciated. I’m afraid my experience with the Two Rivers paper has made me a little shy of trying it out again! It’s good to know you found me via Jem. I’m a tremendous admirer of Jem’s wonderful paintings and, in his writings and video demonstrations, his frankness and honesty.

  2. Michael J Partridge

    I was interested in your comment about shadows. I was looking at Edward Wesson pictures recently and in particular one where he had two boats. He had painted the bow darker on one side than the other, as is usual. However, one was dark on the starboard and the other on the port side. Just shows even the best can have problems with shadows!

    1. Hmmm I’m not sure which exactly of Wesson’s paintings you may be referring to but the phrase the immediately came to mind on reading your comment was ‘paint what you see, not what you know’ – This is something that I’m often guilty of. Then, on top of this, there’s the licence of doing what’s best for the overall effect or impact. I think the wonder of painting is not having to be slavish to what we see – but to bring our own ideas and interpretation to it. I think this is why I do like exercises like the one Jem set – you get to say a whole range of vastly different paintings all derived from exactly the same source.

  3. Michael J Partridge

    Hi John,
    I was interested in your comments about the Two Rivers paper. I bought some a while ago but, as it’s expensive, I have never used it (silly I know).
    I usually use Sanders Waterford, but recently have been using Bockingford as with this paper it’s easier to lift out highlights etc. It’s also the paper Edward Wesson used and I am trying to learn from his paintings to loosen up my own style (whatever that is – sometimes I doubt if I have a style). I guess like many people I see someone produce a wonderful painting and then try to copy that style. Usual the result is disappointing so l can sympathise with your comments about trying not to emulate another artist.
    I really enjoy your weekly blog. One general comment if I may is that you often seem to be moving towards an almost monochrome effect without using much colour. I wonder if that is deliberate.

    Best wishes,

    1. Hi Michael and many thanks for this. Sounds like we’re of a similar mind! i bought a sample pack of 1/4 sheets from Two Rivers and, because of they were pricier than my usual I’ve been keeping them to one side. I’d like to say keeping them for ‘best’ but after this experience, I’ll need a lot more practice with it before I’ll be painting my ‘best’ on it! I started off using Bockingford and can’t now recall why I changed! I spent quite a bit of time on Arches before coming back to Saunders Waterford, and then finding the Saunders Waterford High White which is now my preferred paper. As you’re an admirer of Wesson, I hope you’ll check out Jem’s paintings and videos – I think there’s a tremendous synergy and an artistic lineage between Wesson and Bowden. That said I think Jem’s paintings are undoubtedly uniquely ‘his’ – hope you’ll be able to take a look if you’re not already familiar!

      As for my palette – I know that many readers of my blog prefer my more richly colourful paintings. and they do tend to be better received more generally. I think I’m just exploring a few avenues with the more monochromatic paintings. I’m actually trying to work with a lot of colour to creat the darks but it doesn’t always show through, particularly in the photographs. I think what I’m trying to do is to explore tone and contrast more, and extremes of the two – which is often easier to do with a narrower colour range than it is with colour. Sometimes however it’s purely because I start off a painting by going in too dark or heavy, after which the only way to get some of the contrast that I might be looking for is to go even darker and heavier! Your comment has reminded me of a video that I watched recently that I’ll signpost to people next week. I only watched it the other day and found it really interesting so it will be good to share it! Thanks again for your comments Michael, they’re much appreciated. Also, I hope you’re able to keep up your enthusiasm for painting – and maybe you could try your Wesson approach on some on your Two Rivers paper!?

  4. A question somewhat out of left field, but knowing you to be a Seago admiree, thought I’d ask.

    Is/was Seago essentially a ‘dry brush’ man, notwithstanding his skies, but again a lot of wet on dry there too. What do you think?

    Also, must ask, do you like Wesson’s trees?

    1. I think Seago could do it all to be honest! I don’t think of him as being either one or the other – more that he was able to use all the ‘techniques’ at his disposal, whether wet into wet, wet on dry or dry brush etc to arrive at the interpretation he was after.

      I think the most successful watercolour paintings often have feature all of these approaches, they give paintings a liveliness and work together to create interest for the viewer. There’s not doubting his ability with a dry brush though. I often think with Seago that it’s his economy that is so amazing – the economy of detail and of brushstrokes.

      As for Wesson’s trees – yes, I do like them – but not necessarily in isolation from the rest of his work. By this I mean that a Wesson tree would look out of place in an Alvaro Castagnet painting. I think they work in his paintings because they work harmoniously with the other elements. I admire the unlaboured unfussiness of them. It’s a fitting topic for this post because, while I think Wesson’s trees are wonderful – I think Jem Bowden’s trees (Jem who I see as a natural successor to Wesson in many ways) are better! I do seem to recall one of Wesson’s sayings about painting trees. I think it went along the lines of ‘you’ve got to have gaps in your tress for the birds to fly through’ – I often have this in mind when painting trees (and curse myself whenever I accidentally fill all my ‘gaps’ in!)

    1. Thanks so much for this, so pleased you like that one. As you can see, the light was a bit of an invention as the light in the original image was very flat. I’m still not entirely sure that I can get away with the direction of the shadows considering they don’t really match where the light source is coming from in the sky!

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

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