French country cottage watercolour

Last week

I was ticked of by someone on twitter last week when I posted my watercolour painting here based on a photograph by Fan Ho. The commentator was kind enough to acknowledge their appreciation of the painting, but felt that I should not be using other people’s images for inspiration.

I’m happy to defend my use of other people’s images as sources of inspiration, especially in these most unusual of times when I haven’t been able to seek out my own inspiration during lock-down. I’ve also enjoyed the conversations and exchanges that I’ve had with people when I’ve made contact with them to seek their permission to paint or publish a painting based on their photographs.

Is it being truly authentic and original? No, but nor do I try to pass something off as being ‘truly original’ when it isn’t. I also expressed my view that when my time is so pressured – as it is now more than ever – if the choice I have to make is between resorting to inspiration from elsewhere, or not painting at all, then I’m afraid pure originality sometimes has to come second.

I know that this can be a touchy subject for many.

My personal belief is that we need to lighten up a little! Creativity and inspiration can ebb and flow for all of us. Copying from other artists – or learning as I like to think of it – has served the creative development of artists far more accomplished than I’ll ever be for centuries. For me, what’s important is the time I spend painting. Every time I paint, I’m learning. Sometimes learning something new, sometimes reinforcing something that I’ve already learnt, enabling me to be more adept, more fluid, even confident. What I’m trying to be is consistent in my dedication to painting – whether I feel like it or not – whether I’m working from my own inspiration or, from time to time, leaning on someone elses.

Writing this reminds me of a conversation I had with someone a while back. I was exhibiting my work at a local art fair. I was asked if I worked from photographs or from life. I explained that, primarily due to circumstances – that I usually painted from photographs. The person said that their personal art tutor was of the view that if you don’t work from life, then there’s no point doing it at all.

I can still recall how utterly flabbergasted I was at this. That someone would deny people the pleasure and joy to be had from investing time in being creative based on some self righteous pompous aesthetic snobbery.

Now, despite all of this, my exchange on twitter obviously niggled me as I went scurrying back through my reference material to see if I could find something that I may previously have missed or overlooked.

Back to 2011

In 2011, we stayed in a wonderful cottage in France for our summer holiday. The cottage was owned by the parents of a dear friend. The holiday was notable for a number of reasons. For one, it was the first time in many years that I’d spend my ‘main holiday’ under a a proper roof rather than in a tent. For the record, it’s also the last time that our main summer holiday was spent under a a proper roof too!

The primary reason for this choice was that my partner was 6 months pregnant and, understandably didn’t relish the prospect of sleeping on the floor for a few weeks!

So it was that we found ourselves in my friend’s parents’ delightful cottage in Normandy. The cottage is quintessentially French with a distinctly rustic feel to it.

I took the reference photo for this soon after mid day, when the sun was high and the shadows short. I was struck by the sense of light and some lovely moments of contrast. The house has a natural colour palette of pale ochres and warm browns from it’s white washed plaster walls and natural wooden features which I was keen to bring to the fore.

Painting A

Aside from the drying time, this was painted pretty quickly. I was pleased with how it turned out and it really did transport me right back into the cottage.

I shared this with my friend who recognised it instantly, and who subsequently asked whether it was for sale as it would make a wonderful gift for her parents.

As much as I liked this painting, I did also feel that there were perhaps a few things that I could improve on. I felt duty bound then to give this another go.

Painting B

On this occasion I’m not going to go into any detailed comparison of these two paintings. The reason is that seeing the two paintings here will be the first time that my friend will have the opportunity to see them together.

Hopefully, in the fullness of time, one of these paintings will grace the home of my friend’s parents – and I can only hope that it serves as reminder of wonderful times spent in their beautiful cottage in France.

While I’m going withold, for the time being at least, on which is my favourite of these two, I’m sure my friend wouldn’t mind you sharing your thoughts, views and recommendations on these two genuinely authentic originals!


As well as being notable for holidaying under a roof, 2011 was also notable for the birth of our wonderful daughter and, a mere 5 days later, the birth of this blog! My very first post featured a watercolour that was based on a plein-air sketch that I did while on this very holiday!


After a few further posts in November 2011, I didn’t post again until 2014! Who was I trying to kid about ‘having a child won’t change my life’!

I think it’s fair to say that it’s been a long road, and I’m sure that many would also say that I haven’t actually managed to make that much progress along it considering how long I’ve been travelling it!

Thoughts on French country cottage watercolour

34 thoughts on “French country cottage watercolour”

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  3. Both A and B are great paintings, I find elements of each preferable to the other, for example the table and chair in A but the lamp and window in B! But I actually prefer the tighter crop at the header of the post…a simpler, really pleasing and timeless image.

    I have recently returned to watercolour after a ridiculously long break. I’m having to relearn lost skills, indeed learning things that I never really knew (and the Handprint site has been most useful in that regard). But mostly I have been looking at paintings such as yours to inspire me (finding the colours in the likes of Alvaro Castagnet’s art, too strong – especially considering the softer light here on the North Wales coast, though his “Sketch of Scotland” shown in his book “Beyond Techique” is rather more restrained and, for me, superior to his more commonly seen watercolors). So I disagree with both Marge and Carole, your use of colour here was spot on!

    1. Hi Ray and thanks so much for this. Like you, I think there are pros and cons to each of the images! My friend is also finding it really difficult to choose between the two. The most recent exchange I had was that A felt more true to the actual cottage, but B was perhaps a more pleasing image. I’m still awaiting a final decision!

      I’m sure it won’t surprise you to hear that I am a tremendous admirer of Alvaro Castagnet’s work. Not admiittedly every single painting, but I do admire his ability to reduce, to simplify and to join shapes together. I have his ‘painting with passion’ book but thiis covers a much earlier phase in his development. I’d like to see the ‘Beyond Technique’ book it’s not easy to get hold of. There’s a copy on ebay at the moment that I’ve been watching for months now but, at £195 it’s far to steep for me!

      Are you familiar with the work of the artist Chris Robinson: – I think his paintings capture the softer / often driizzley light of the UK rather beautifully and very sensitively.

      Many thanks Ray. It’s great to hear of your recent return to watercolours – really hope you enjoy getting back into your stride again!

      1. I too admire Castagnet’s work, but it’s not work that I want to emulate and so doesn’t inspire (I realise I’m probably being somewhat sacrilegious and expect a visit from the watercolour police any moment). But he’s hardly the first to simplify, though I agree he is quite masterful at it! But no more so than (say) Edward Wesson: I have by my desk Ron Ranson’s “tribute book”, The Art of Edward Wesson and flicked to a page at random – Snowdonia from Port Madog – how much skill is shown to produce such a wonderfully simplified image, using perhaps just 3 colours, every tone perfect.

        The book I have by Castagnet is actually the Kindle version – just a few £s: I read this on my tablet, maybe not the best but really easy!

        1. Thanks Ray – I don’t think the watercolour police will be after you! I think the response to Castagnet’s work is often a bit like the old Marmite analogy. Wesson though!? Well the acclaim there is usually universal. On reading your comment I dashed to look up that painting. Sadly I can only put my hands on the books by Barry Miles and Peter Slade so can’t refer to the exact one! He was indeed a fabulous artist. I think I often refer to Castagnet’s abllity to simplify because he tackles more urban scenes and interiors – both of which increasingly occupy my thoughts (mainly because I live in a city and spend increasing amounts of time inside I daresay!)
          I had seen that there was an e-version of that Castagnet book. I do however love a good old fashioned hardback book to browse through though and I already spend too much of my time looking at screens for my work so I’ll most likely hold out in the hope I can one day lay my hands on a physical version.

      2. Thanks for the link to Chris Robinson, you surmised correctly that I would appreciate his art!

        Now that I’ve taken up watercolour again, my own art is struggling, so I like to remind myself of an amusing link (amusing to some perhaps) to compare early Castagnet with current …  But as I said before I’m not really a fan of his, though the transformation from his early works is astounding (maybe he waited at the watercolour crossroads, – I think may need to, too.  More likely, years of hard practice!)

        An artist I like quite a lot, not only for her art but also the good advice she offers is Janine Gallizia; her book, “Le Grande Livre de l’Aquarelle” (“The Complete Book of Watercolour”) is a joy, though only now available as an e-book (suits me, fine).  The book is in French and English…helps improve language skills too!  Highly recommended!

        I’ve spent a very happy evening and early morning reading through much of your blog – I commented on your “Jem Bowden” challenge (it was through Jem’s site that I found yours).  You have a tremendous talent, and how well you have progressed since your earliest postings.

        1. Hi Ray and apologies for the tardy response. I’m often slower to respond over the weekend as that’s my prime painting time! I’m familiar with the ‘badwatercolorart’ site but haven’t visited it for a long time. I recall having reservations about it. The fact it’s called ‘bad’ for a start. I couldn’t tell whether it was meant to be encouraging to people beginning painting to show that today’s established artists all went through an ‘early’ developmental phase or whether it was just being a bit unkindly! I think you’re right about the path to success thought – there aren’t many short cuts in painting!

          I’m not familiar with Janine Gallizia but will look her up. Thanks too for spending some time reading the blog – I really appreciate it. It’s become a partner to my painting. I try to commit to writing a watercolour post every week, which means I have to have something to write about, which means I have to paint! It is also a good way of being able to chart progress over time, rather than from one painting to the next where you often won’t see any discernible improvement. I think we have to be in it for the long game rather than quick wins!

      3. I just noticed on my phone, the header image isn’t cropped, whereas on my tablet it is, so you may wonder what I meant by ” I actually prefer the tighter crop at the header of the post…a simpler, really pleasing and timeless image” Well, the cropped image on my tablet shows a horizontal view of the painting, the top part cropped just below the large white lampshade, the bottom half just below the base of the lamp!

        1. Thanks Ray – my site is all built on WordPress which automatically alters the headers etc depending on what it’s being viewed on (tablet, phone, pc etc) so I did understand the image you described. I should probably use cropping a lot more in my paintings, but I confess to being a little lazy in this respect! (I usually paint at consistent sizes, partly because it’s easier for me to mount and frame the same sized work rather that doing bespoke mounts and frames for lots of different sized paintings!

  4. According to my favourite art teacher, the most important thing about art is to do it. The materials you use and where you get your inspiration don’t matter. You can’t grow as an artist unless you create art. (One of the clases he teaches is titled “Portraits Like the Masters.”)

    My second favourite art teacher says he doesn’t give a flying about what other people think about his art and his students shouldn’t either.

    Keeping my second comment in mind, I like B better because of the increased contrast of the objects in the painting.

    I love your work and look forward to every blog post.

    1. Hi Leslie and thanks so much for this – especially for your kind comments about my work and looking forward to the posts – This means so much to me!

      I’m also pleased that you had such sound advice from the art teachers in your life – all wise words for us all to bear in mind!

      I’ve been in touch with my friend that is deliberating on these two paintings and she’s currently sill unable to decide! She’s going to show them both to another familiy member that knows the scene well to ask for their opinion! I’ll let you know as soon as I get a verdict!

      Many thanks Leslie, all best wishes

  5. Hi John,
    Interesting post. It is curious how some people need rules, nothing is new in art we all copy to some degree or another as take inspiration from others. Certainly that’s what art history tells us.
    Both your images are great but B has a touch more refinement and a warmer golden glow from the window so that’s my choice.

    1. Hi Warren and many thanks for this. Personally, I can’t help thinking that when to comes to watercolour, although it’s been around for centuries, most roads seem to lead back to Turner!
      Many thanks explaining your preference for B – I really appreciate it. I’m still waiting to hear from my friend and hope that the comments here are helpful for her! Thanks Warren

  6. What an interesting read on this prickly subject! I personally hate it when people subscribe do’s and don’ts in the art world. I understand that an artist should refrain from basing a photo of a living photographer without first getting permission. Your admiration and giving full credit to this particular photographer was all over your post here on WordPress. I would imagine that you referenced Ho, (was that his name?) on your Twitter account. I also believe that one shouldn’t discount art based on photos or the imagination or both! I have hundreds of photos from my excursions out of doors but I have oodles of time on my hands. Many people do not have this luxury. There will be always negativity out there, these people need to mind their own business, I say! Now for my vote…..A has a certain life and mystery and a certain intimacy to it. I feel that it is mainly how you painted the window. The dry brushing with a certain amount of confident touch. Then the eye explores the quietness of the scene. I do like B for the warmth but it doesn’t have a “story” to tell like A. B has a bit of an insipid feel to it ( sorry! Not a criticism, truly) keep going with what you have been doing John, wonderful work!

    1. Hi Margaret and many thanks for this. I know that the readership of this blog isn’t exactly representative of all society, nor are the responses to this post enough to be statistically accurate in any way – but I’m nevertheless heartened by the general consensus of opinion!
      Thanks too for your interpretation of the two paintings which I really enjoyed. I really hope that my friend finds that the comments provide her with some food for thought ahead of hopefully being able to make a decision! As always Margaret, many thanks and all best wishes!

  7. I like both and vacillate between which I like better, First it’s A…then B…or A? I’m sure the owner would love either one! Maybe yet a 3rd one would combine the best of both? I generally like a loose painting leaving something for the ‘reader to finish’ ? Tightness to me means ‘perfection’ and I prefer suggestion to imperfect perfection! And yes, Carol, both could use more color! This coming from someone who has soft grey walls with furniture in analogous colors featuring Opera pink, yellow and orange! Hardly the ‘same old stuff!’ The previous owner and his partner had everything dark brown and low lighting which I got rid of asap! Different strokes etc!
    I love one of Britain’s current artists, Shirley Trevena, who’s demo I watched Again yesterday. It included her disdain for the so called ‘Rules of WC’, specifically scorns such rules as ‘never use black…or white’ and such total nonsense! No such ‘rule’ says not to use either in oils or acrylics! I just wish i had some of her creativity!
    I watch a lot of utube videos from a number of WCists and often copy their techniques until I ‘understand them’ then have learned how to incorporate the useful things into my own style where they have little or no reference to the original artist. Uffe Boesen is a prime example who has taught me so much. Yes, I’ve done pleinair work but more often worked from my own photos taken on a trip where I didn’t have time to stop and paint. I have also painted from a photo, but only when I had to. It’s like taking a class from a teacher and the reason I often don’t do well in a class because I’m learning something new and have not yet absorbed what I’m looking for. I find that happens too in a lot of my paintings; I have to first paint in greater detail to LEARN and understand my subject and until then cannot put MYSELF into my painting, how I feel about the subject. For me it usually helps to paint the same subject over again.

    1. H Margery and thanks so much for this. I can’t help but hope that the reason it’s hard to choose between A and B is because they’re both imperfect – but in different ways! It’ll be really interesting to see which one is preferred, especially as my friend knows this scene so well. I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as any decision is made!

  8. Michael Partridge

    I really feel there is no problem in copying other people’s paintings or photographs as it is a wonderful way of looking again at the way you do things and develop your own style. Past masters learned this way. I recently copied a whole series of paintings by Ted Wesson which taught me a lot, although my own style is nothing like his. BUT although this is a way to learn you obviously should never sell or pass off such paintings as your own work and if a photograph is the primary source of your painting you need the copyright owners (photographers) permission if you wish to sell the painting.

    I feel the grey area is where you take images from the internet and incorporate some small part in your own painting. I tend to feel if your painting is inspired by several different internet images, but is different to all of them, that is probably alright although someone may be able to clarify the legal position.

    As to painting from photographs most people do, even if they don’t admit it.

    1. Hi Michael and thanks so much for this. I must confess that I have sold paintings that are based on works by other artists although none by a living artist. It’s something that I did deliberate on for a long time. For these situations, I settled on making it clear that my paintings were ‘not true originals’ going so far as to name the original artist and the title of the original work. I also sold these paintings at a significantly reduced price as a means to acknowledge that the majority of the hard work was done by the original artist. As time has gone on, I show fewer and fewer of these ‘derivative’ paintings – mainly because I feel more confident with my own voice these days.

      I think the grey area you describe, of perhaps creating a composite image made up of several different images is one that I actually feel quite comfortable with but, I’m certainly no legal expert!

      I’m sure that I’ll carry on with my painting from photographs. I still live in the long term hope that all of the practice and experience that I’m gaining now will one day benefit my plein air painting (even if the days and opportunities for plein air painting still seems a lifetime away!)

  9. As for the idea that you shouldn’t use other peoples work, photo, painting or otherwise, let’s not grace that one with time spent defending an age-old tradition. Nor the idea that one should always paint from life. I ask you, where do these people live?

    Lovely painting, John, of that cottage. I especially love the table top. Don’t know why, but it speaks to me.

    1. Hi David and thanks so much for this. I’m completely with you on the ‘age-old tradition’! So pleased that you like the paintings and the top of the tables in particular. I only wish I could keep my table at home as free from clutter!

      1. How….
        Do you do it….
        Just how.
        I so wish I had a real person to help me now.
        Really love your work and your thoughts

        1. Thanks so much for this Trisha – really kind of you! I wish I had a secret or two that I could share because ‘perseverance’ – while truthful, also sounds really blunt and unhelpful! If I do find out ‘the secret’ – I’ll be sure to share it here!

    1. I’m not being entirely fatuous here, John. When you paint a series of paintings of feathers and call them “The Icarus Series”, you are “stealing” a whole load of cultural background knowledge to boost the apparent profundity of your feather pictures. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all in favour of that but I’m not in favour of throwing stones in glass houses.

      1. You’re quite right Rob, I hadn’t really considered it from this perspective (I think I was far too pre-occupied with trying to defend my own corner!) . Does make me think sometimes about the weakness of my own titles, ie ‘train station’ which feels very lame. I have on occasion followed some advice by Gary Tucker, that it can often be helpful to determine the title of the work before you start painting as a means of ensuring that you keep the main idea of the painting at the forefront of your mind. But this is me straying off topic once again!

  10. I so agree with you John about using photographs as painting inspiration. I certainly do this, especially in the winter when it’s far too cold to sit out. As I live literally opposite our village allotment I have been sitting there a lot, both on my own and with a couple of painting friends. It’s been wonderful but I am a cold person and can only do this when it’s warm enough! I know many artists who use photos and there are free and copyright free programmes available on the internet for artists to use. I feel it is best to use you own when possible, but have been known to use one of these sites…will I get shot?!,
    I prefer your second painting of the window (B) John as it has more light. It is a lovely subject but I am with Marjorie and would love more colour. However, you have done a good job! 😄
    Stay safe and happy painting.
    Warm wishes,
    Carole Rogers

    1. Hi Carole and thanks so much for this. For what it’s worth, I certainly won’t be shooting you for using copyright free images for inspiration! Really pleased that you liked these paintings. I actually thought that they were some of my my colourful of recent outings but I suppose on reflection, it’s more a subtle shift from greys and blues towards browns and greys – so not perhaps as colourful as I first thought! on the second painting, I did use a lot of Brown Madder. This isn’t one of my staples but I’m quite enjoying experimenting with it. Many thanks Carole, all best wishes.

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