Alvaro Castagnet watercolour workshop

My hotly-anticipated online watercolour painting workshop with Alvaro Castagnet took place on Saturday 12th December.

This was my first ever online watercolour workshop so it was a particularly novel experience for me. The workshop wasn’t scheduled to start until 10.00am GMT so I had plenty of time to get myself set up. It wasn’t necessarily the most ideal or elegant of setups, but I figured it would serve sufficiently well for this occasion:

As you can see, I basically had my plein-air set up in front of my home office space, with the addition of a daylight lamp! The main thing for me was that this is a set up I’m familiar with and, crucially, that I could paint standing up! I had deliberated about whether to paint on a half sheet or a quarter sheet and, thinking that it would be generally quicker, I decided to go for the quarter sheet onto which I’d sketched out the basic scene.

I knew that Alvaro would make some changes to this scene, but thought I’d be able to respond to any changes more quickly if I already had the main elements in place.

Although the workshop was scheduled to start at 10am – participants were allowed to join from 9.30am to settle in and say ‘hello’ to each other. This mainly involved lots of people saying ‘hi’ and what time it was in their country. This did serve to show the global nature of the event – with participants in the UK, US, Poland, India, Finland, Australia and New Zealand to name only some that I can remember. I think there were about 40 or so participants in total

Alvaro delivered the workshop from his home in Montevideo in Uruguay. I was a little concerned at first when Alvaro confessed that it was 7.00am in Montevideo – about an hour before he usually rises, so he was still feeling a little groggy and in need of a coffee or two!

Alvaro explains the need for caffeine!

The workshop began with a run through of the colours in his palette and some explanations behind his choices. This already rang the odd alarm bell with me! The recommended palette had been sent through in advance but I figured I’d just work with my usual palette. So, for instance where Alvaro has Yellow Ochre, I have Raw Sienna, and for where Alvaro has some of his own specially designed greys with Daniel Smith – I knew that I’d be having to mix mine up as we went along which I thought could prove a little tricky and may have meant that I would lose some time! It’s always interesting to listen to artists you admire talk about their choices, why they prefer one colour over another and how they utilise them to best effect.

Alvaro talking us through his palette

After this, Alvaro started sketching out the scene, and straight away you’re aware of the gulf in ability and experience! It can often take me a while to draw something out and to see someone do it so quickly and economically is both a treat and quite daunting! I was really glad I’d already done a basic version of it in advance!

The main change to the reference photo was the addition of the figures. Alvaro wanted to convey the idea of two people stood talking next to the car while another person was crossing the street, maybe to join them. I know from watching other instructional videos about the importance of joining up and connecting shapes and compositional elements, and all of these figures were to be connected to the foreground shadow.

No sooner was the sketch done and we were off onto stage one.

Stage one

First off, the paper was dampened all over with little water spray before quickly applying the underlying wash. What was most interesting to me during this phase was the need to keep an eye across the dampness of the paper at all times, so that you can return to say the windows and drop in an indication of them that would still give form but also have diffused edges.

I tried to follow Alvaro’s palette where I could – but this wasn’t always possible so I had to mix my own variations up in a few places. Here’s how it looked at the end of this first stage:

Alvaro Castagnet watercolour workshop demonstration work in progress photo after stage one
The end of the first wash

At this point, there was a 10- 12 minute break so people that had been watching rather than painting along had the time to apply this wash. I took the opportunity to get the hairdryer out and get my paper completely dry and ready for the next stage.

Stage two

I’m usually more familiar with the idea of working from light to dark, and from the background to the foreground. In this instance, however, Alvaro worked from left to right, beginning with the building on the left-hand side, then working along the street towards the vanishing point, and then onto the right-hand side of the painting.

I was able to keep up for the first few minutes but then I gradually began to fall behind and was just listening to Alvaro talk while I tried to take on board what he was saying and try to apply it as and when I got to the relevant stage in the painting. Again, this is where the years of experience and skill come into sharp focus! The fluidity, immediacy and confidence of his brushstrokes were a joy to watch… even though half the time I was only able to listen!

Alvaro Castagnet watercolour workshop demonstration work in progress photo after stage two
Alvaro’s demo after stage 2

By this point, it was all becoming a little bit of a blur to me, so much so I didn’t manage to get a photograph of my painting at this same stage!

The things that I do recall however was the importance of joining and connecting shapes and shadows, creating interest through the variety of brushstrokes, using the spray as necessary to diffuse any edges that were too harsh and muting the colour and tone to create the illusion of depth.

Stage three

This stage moved seamlessly on from stage two and involved first working on the foreground to bring in the dark foreground shadow, making it darker on the bottom right and finishing lighter towards the left-hand side of the painting where Alvaro wanted us to try to have some more energetic dry brush strokes to add a little more dynamism to this section.

It was around about this point – so pretty early on! – that I started to fall slightly behind yet again! I was listening much more than I was watching as my focus was mainly on what I was doing in my own painting! One interesting aspect was that after laying in the foreground shadow, Alvaro added just the legs of the figures first before working on the rest of them. I’ve seen him paint before on DVDs etc so know that this isn’t always how he does them, but it felt a bit strange to me to paint from the legs up!

From this point on, as Alvaro was busy bringing the finishing touches to his painting, with the overhead lights, lamposts, birds in the sky etc.

I felt like a little kid having to run to keep up with their parents as they strode on ahead! I was however listening throughout and trying to take on board the more salient points or considerations that he was deliberating on.

This is Alvaro’s finished demonstration painting:

Finishes demonstration watercolour painting by Alvaro Castagnet of a sunlit street in Montevideo
“Ciudad Vieja” – Montevideo. Online watercolour workshop demonstration by Alvaro Castagnet

And this is my attempt at keeping up:

My Alvaro Castagnet watercolour workshop painting, ready for feedback.
My version of Alvaro Castagnet’s workshop painting

I knew that there were some elements of this that weren’t as successful as I’d have liked them to have been, and it’s hard for me now to look at this in direct comparison to Alvaro’s version however, overall I was really pleased how this turned out under workshop/running to keep up conditions.

Feedback session

At the end of the demonstration, there was time allowed for anyone that wanted to share their work, by holding it up to the camera so that everyone could see it, and receive a mini critique from Alvaro. He made it clear out the outset of this session that he’d be looking at things that we could focus on to improve our paintings in the future.

I wasn’t sure whether there would be time to do this for everyone, plus I thought I’d prefer to try to get it over and done with early so I didn’t get put off from doing it at all after seeing everyone else’s work; so I volunteered as quickly as I could!

Not so quickly however that I couldn’t get my phone set up to record Alvaro’s comments for posterity! I’m so pleased to be able to share my school report with you:

Feedback from Alvaro Castagnet on my workshop painting

Look how good you are!

Alvaro Castagnet

I’m delighted that I have this recording! I know it’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but to hear an artist I admire saying things like ‘look how good you are’ and joking that my figures were better than his! – well it’s just so encouraging for me and a real boost to my spirits and confidence!

I also listened to all the other feedback too and it was especially nice to recognise a few readers of this blog showing their work and receiving their feedback too. I was struck by how he was able to be simultaneously concise, encouraging and constructive to everyone which I think is a real skill, honed no doubt from many years of demonstrations and workshops!

This is my painting again, after I’d made a few adjustments following the feedback to strengthen the car, soften the gradation of the wash in the distance and add a few directional brushstrokes onto the road to lead the eye through.

Alvaro Castagnet watercolour workshop painting completed by John Haywood
Final version of my Alvaro Castagnet workshop painting

I still think that the treatment of the car on the left is the weakest area of this painting but that aside, I’m pretty pleased with how this turned out.

Here for another comparison is this workshop version compared to the practice painting I did last week:

I really enjoyed this entire experience, particularly because I found it to be such an affirming one. It felt good to be able to recognise and appreciate that, although it sometimes feels like two steps forward and one step backwards, progress is being made!

Even though I have a few instructional DVDs by the likes of Alvaro Castagnet, Joseph Zbukvic and Herman Pekel, I did enjoy being part of this live demo. Did I learn much that I didn’t already know? Yes, I think I did, but maybe this was also about trying to demonstrate that I can apply at least some of what I’ve learned too!

Alvaro’s Watercolour Masterclass in Cambridge has now been re-scheduled from 2020 to a weekend in May 2021, and my booking has also been transferred.

Attending this online workshop has only served to further whet my appetite! All I can do now is to keep my fingers crossed that this is still able to go ahead, and of course to keep on painting.

Thoughts on Alvaro Castagnet watercolour workshop

28 thoughts on “Alvaro Castagnet watercolour workshop”

  1. To be honest…as much as i think Alvaro is terrific..your painting outshone his!…your buildings and figures had good solidity, where his looked limpid ..Well done !!!!

    1. Thanks so much for this Chris, really kind of you and much appreciated! Coincidentally – I’ve got my masterclass with Alvaro in a couple of weeks which I’m nervously excited about!

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    1. Thanks so much for this, so pleased you liked the post and the results! This was my first ever zoom ‘lesson’ and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it! Sadly the workshop in May has already been postponed but my booking has been transferred to 2022, which I suppose means I’m going to have to carry on painting for another year or two at least!

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  7. I don’t remember where but I learned that yellow ochre and raw sienna are not always interchangeable. They mix differently. When I do a workshop I do try to use the palette of the artist for this reason. I use Daniel Smith and so did not for a local one, looking up the Mission Gold color pigments and substituting the equivalent and in a few cases mixing ones as close as possible. I had to mix one with Ian Stewart and with Thomas Schaller I used a Daniel Smith Lavender instead of a Holbein.

    How interesting that he added the two figures you already added in your practice painting.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the workshop and got some really great practice and excellent feedback. Your workshop painting is better than your practice one. It reflects the improvement of taking the workshop.

  8. Hi John, only just catching up with your blog. I was hoping to catch a JZ course a couple if years ago but by the time I had moved up the wait list I had another engagement! The results speak for themselves,the tutoring obviously works although as I’ve said before you’ve got figures sorted already.
    I look forward to more posts next year.
    Best wishes,

    1. Thanks so much for this Warren! I did enjoy the AC session – though now we’ve been promoted to Tier 4 – I can’t help think that it puts next year’s scheduled in person workshop into greater doubt! Hope you have a great festive season Warren. I have one more post to do in 2020, so I’ll save best wishes for 2021 until then!

  9. Ooh well done indeed John! You must be so thrilled as you really excelled with this lovely painting. I love everything about it, as did Alvaro it seems.😬 I had no problem with the car, though his was more ‘lost’ than yours.
    I just want to add that I am hoping to get onto Andy Evansen’s course next year too…he is just about my favourite water colourist so am hoping it will go ahead as planned….so exciting.
    Have a lovely Christmas and definitely a better 2021. Take care,
    Warm wishes,
    Carole 😍

    1. Hi Carole and thanks so much for this! I’m envious of your Andy Evansen course! He’s an amazing painter – I’ve always really loved his thumbnail value sketches – most of them are better than my ‘finished’ paintings! I’m sure his course will be great and will keep my fingers crossed that it’s all able to go ahead! Hope you have a great festive season and New Year too!

  10. HinJohn
    Seen this now after sending you a message
    I liked your
    Run through and it was a great session
    Like Herman that message
    If connected shapes
    And shadows is the big thing I take away from this and that distance graduation
    I am booked on to a JZ in September in Norfolk for a week and I do hope it goes ahead
    Done on your painting though it was one of the best of those shown

    1. Hi Brian and thanks so much for the email (to which I’m respond separately). Thanks too for your kind words about this workshop effort. I think all of these things about connecting shapes, the importance of shadows etc are familiar to so many artists that I admire! The main difference is that they’ve mastered the consistent application of these rules whereas I’m still a bit hit one, miss one! I used to be a bit more hit one, miss three so hopefully I’m getting there.
      I’m envious of your JZ workshop! I would like to think that events like this for September next year will be able to go ahead. I actually think that I did have a look at that this workshop the other week – just on the off chance – and saw that they were already taking people’s names for 2022! Many thanks Brian

  11. You did a great job there, John. Excellent! I’ve had one experience of online and found it really frustrating. I just couldn’t keep up! In the end I just watched and took things in. Currently, I’m doing a one hear mentoring course with Andy Evansen. It’s a great experience, or was, until I landed a full-time high-tech job. Blah! Now I have to paint nights. Well done again!

    1. Hi David and thanks so much for this. I could see how frustrating it could be with trying to keep up during on online demo. Fortunately this was only a relatively short demo. I reckon out of the 3 hours, the time spent actually painting was probably around the hour mark.
      I like the sound of your course with Andy Evansen – he’s a wonderful artist, really admire his work. So sorry to hear about the job getting in the way of things (story of my life!)

      1. Wow, John, you out-painted Alvaro in 90% of the painting you did during the workshop. I agree with Alvaro’s comment about the car on the left, but everything else surpasses Alvaro’s attempt. And there so much more light and colour than in your pre-workshop attempt. I wonder if that car became a problem because you had drawn it in too much detail, which held you back on being loose enough?

        I think you should be rather pleased with yourself!

        1. Haha – what a wonderful response Ray! Thank you! Not sure if I can entirely agree with the 90% part but I am pleased with how it turned out! You could be right about the car – I think it definitely points towards the need for more practice on cars and the like! Thanks so much Ray!

  12. So you had fun, then! Interesting how much warmer and more dramatic he (followed by you) makes the subject than it is in real life. I’m really impressed by your version (and his, I suppose). If I didn’t know who was the master and who the pupil, I really would be struggling. There are certainly aspects of yours that I prefer. Well done; as British representative you’ve done us proud – at least that’s how a certain PM might see it. (Only one thing I don’t understand: why is it that the whole Castagnet-Zbukvic-Pekel club insist on such oddly bright orange tail-lights on cars? If you look at the source photo, you can’t even make them out! I’ve just got to have my little say!).

    1. Hi Rob and thanks for this. Obviously I did it for Britain. I do know what you mean about the tail-lights on cars. I suppose it becomes an effective short-hand for ‘car’ as well as a little shot of colour variation. I think it’s where the line blurs between painting what you see and painting what you know, or at least painting what you know works for others!

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

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