A sunlit train station and a big sky: watercolour paintings

After all the restrictions of working on the perspective of last week’s train station painting, I was keen to liberate myself with something altogether more free and easy this week.

A weekend or two ago I had to return north to scatter my mum‘s ashes. One of my favourite parts about returning to the ancestral bungalow are our trips to the sand dunes between St Annes and Blackpool. They’re a wonderful little range of dunes and, in such a flat landscape offer one of the highest vantage points for miles around.

Here’s my painting set up on top of the dunes from a while ago.

Beyond the dunes, especially when the tide’s out – which is more often than not! – lies an enormous expanse of flat sands that serve to accentuate the scale and the drama of the sky.

The skies were marvellous during our last trip so they seemed like the perfect opportunity for some free and easy painting!

From the outset I knew I wasn’t going for the traditional composition based on the rules of thirds or fifths. I knew that I wanted a very thin strip of land at the bottom of the painting, with the suggestion of cloud shadows scudding over the surface, while the main focal point would be the sky.

Big Sky over St.Annes

I did a few very minimal outline pencil marks to indicate the main cloud formations. I ran a strip of masking tape across the horizon to ensure I got as straight and consistent a line as possible.

To paint the sky I first turned the board upside down along with my reference photo. The aim was to allow me to focus my efforts on painting the shapes I could see within and around the clouds, rather than trying to ‘paint clouds’ – which I hope makes sense?

It’s definitely something I’ll try again. While you’re painting upside down you’re only focussing on the shapes and not on whether they look like clouds. I really enjoyed the sense of the ‘reveal’ when I’d finished the sky and turned the board round the right way. Only then did I see the clouds!

The sky was painted wet into wet and all in one go. I started at the horizon line and gradually worked my way down the paper. I kept my board flat as I didn’t want the paint to run down the paper. I did use a water spray every now and then, just to prevent the paper drying out too much which would have risked sharp edges when I wanted softer diffused edges.

Once the sky was complete it was left to dry and I resisted every temptation to go back in and overwork bits of it. I couldn’t help but feel that my meddling would most likely make things worse rather than better.

I removed the masking tape and re-applied it over the top of the horizon line, again to try to keep that straight edge.

The sands were done in couple of quick washes. I think that these could have been done a little better/more successfully but again, I didn’t want to risk overworking them by continuing to play with them. I would have preferred to capture a little more light and shade to give the sense of the clouds casting the shadows.

Finally I put in a few tiny figures to help with a sense of scale. I enjoyed painting this and it made me think I should do more of them . I think there’s something wonderfully timeless about these big sky paintings.

Another train station painting

Whilst it was nice to work on something more loose and free – I also had another train station image that was rather ‘burning a hole in my brushes’.

This was from another one of my reference photos that I recently sourced when looking at monochromatic images of stations. As with the painting that I did last week unfortunately I have no more details about which station this is or where it is in the world.

Sunlit train station

I had to spend a little time sketching this out to try to ensure the perspective was correct but, once I started painting, this came together surprisingly quickly.

There are still some parts of it that I think could do with some further refinement but, as with the sky in the first painting, I thought that any further meddling might end up distracting from what I think is quite a powerful and dramatic painting that captures the atmosphere of the sunlight flooding into the station.

I’m really enjoying these station paintings. I think they make great subjects and I’m particularly enjoying the challenges that these images present. They need to be accurate from a perspective and drawing point of view, but I want to try to paint them with a loose approach and with energetic brushstrokes.

It can sometimes be a tricky tightrope to walk but I’m pleased with the results of these recent station paintings.

Thoughts on A sunlit train station and a big sky: watercolour paintings

12 thoughts on “A sunlit train station and a big sky: watercolour paintings”

  1. Pingback: A sunlit train station and a big sky: watercolour paintings | Carlosalho's Blog

  2. A great sky, John, and I’ll have to remember to turn my paper upside down next time I attempt anything like that. It really was worth being patient and careful with your horizon line, too; it has a very clean and real look. I’m not quite sure what the people are doing – a bit post-apocalyptic?!! – but they do help with the scale.
    Your monochromes of the stations are very effective though you know by now that staring into the sun isn’t my cup of tea! They’re very well done, though, and I would imagine most normal people would love them so more power to your elbow. I’m afraid I haven’t had time to research the locations so you’ll just have to stick to the generic “sunlit station II”..
    I’m still waiting for your first portrait, of course…

    1. Apologies for such a tardy response Rob and I hope you have the capacity for incredible patience! I’ve marvelled at yours and many other peoples portrait work but so far, the prospect of trying it out only fills me with terror! I’m not going to say never…. but nor can I imagine when the time will ever come either!

  3. Wonderful paintings, John and so happy you managed to resist the temptation to go back in there! There is a special hell awaiting watercolour painters who give in to the temptation… it’s called Mud!

  4. Maureen Gass-Brown

    John, all of these paintings are excellent, and, in my humble opinion, successful “forays”. 😉 Your train station series is especially powerful, expressive and superb !! I love them !! 😉👍🏼 ❤️

    1. Hi Maureen and thanks so much for such a wonderfully positive and enthusiastic reaction! If you’ll forgive the pun, I was wondering if my train station series might be running out of steam but you’re comments are the perfect encouragement – thanks so much!

  5. Good morning John! As usual, your blog is the first thing I look at on Wednesday mornings along with my coffee, muffin and jam. It was a delight today to see and learn about the beach scene, and also yet another Victorian station. I appreciate your talent for painting stations though I like the small village ones better from waaay back in the days of the steam engines! Landscapes appeal more to me, a purely personal choice (and COLOR!)
    I love ‘water’ as you know so I liked how you did the sky in your latest ‘beach’ scene minus water. (I can smell it though…!) I have used masking tape before for such purposes but I hate masking fluid so don’t even have any now.

    1. Hi Marge. Thanks for this. So nice to imagine you enjoying my blog alongside your coffee, muffin and jam! Glad too that you liked the beach scene. I’d like to try to combine those dramatic big skies with something a little more interesting in the landscape but there’s plenty more landscapes ahead of me! I haven’t totally ditched my masking fluid but it only ever comes out now on very rare occurences. I don’t use the masking tape very often either but it was helpful on this occasion. Sometimes I’ve totally ruined paintings when I haven’t pressed the tape down firmly enough and the paint runs beneath the tape – leading to the exact opposite of a straight edge!

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

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