Buena Vista Social Club Watercolour

My main objective, after last week’s watercolour workshop was to work with a greater sense of urgency. This need was highlighted by my second attempt at the workshop painting. I think one of the drawbacks about painting in a studio, or at home, is that time becomes less of an imperative. This means that the temptation to do a bit more, and then a bit more, and then a bit more, is hard to resist.

With this at the forefront of mind then, here are a couple of quick paintings!

Two colours, two brushes, one sketch

This first quick study is based on a black and white photo by Swiss photographer René Burri (1933-2014). I was really attracted to the monochrome of photo and the highlights:

When I started painting this, my main intention was to work as quickly and fluidly as possible and throughout, I endeavoured to hold my brushes as near to the top as possible, even when trying to cut around the highlighted areas, to encourage more fluid and expressive brush strokes.

I started off with a base wash of burn sienna, that went pretty much everywhere except for the highlights on the faces and clothes of the figures. On top of this wash, I applied a darker wash using a new addition – Sepia. This was the first time I’ve ever painted with it. I bought it as I thought it might add a different dimension to my darks – some of which I often find I go a little too strong with.

I was considering adding in some other colour tints when I decided to limit myself to just using two the two colours and, as I’d only used two brushes up until this point, I also decided to limit myself to just the two brushes too!

Two brushes, two colours, burnt sienna and sepia

And the finished sketch:

The chess game, after René Burri

I was quite pleased with how this turned out. From a distance it reads quite well and I was pleased that I was able to resist the temptation to fiddle unnecessarily. As a study, I think it’s the kind of thing I should be trying to do more often. I still think that the brushstrokes, especially when I was trying to carefully cut around shapes and highlights, lack a little energy and expressiveness, but that’s exactly what practising this type of study will help to develop.

Buena Vista Social Club Watercolour Painting

I received an ad on Facebook recently from one of Brighton’s many music venues. The ad featured a crop of the iconic Buena Vista Social Club image:

I wasn’t sure why at the time, but I rather absently mindedly saved the image. When I came to looking for some inspiration, I realised why I’d saved it! I think it was because it featured so many elements that are common to Alvaro Castagnet’s images and which are on my mind following the most recent workshop. The strong shadows, bold contrasts and lost and found edges on the cars are all key features in his paintings that I’m also strongly drawn to.

What followed was a quick outline sketch followed by an almost as quick painting! I wasn’t setting out to do a photographic reproduction of this image, more just to use it as a basis for practising the principles of what I’ve been learning.

I started off with light wash of yellow ochre across all of the buildings and the road, being mindful to cut around the hat of the figure in the foreground and, to his right, the figures on a bike. While this was wet, I also added in the sky using a mix of cerulean and cobalt blue. Again, while this wash was still wet, I added in some burnt sienna into the road in the foreground, some cobalt blue for the car on the right, along with some light brushstrokes of cobalt blue into the road, which were all left to diffuse. This was then all left to dry.

In the original image, the tone of the shadows is dark right from the foreground right through to the far distance. I wanted to use a little more variety of tone to help create a greater sense of distance. To help me, I broke out some recent purchases that had just arrived!

I’d decided to treat myself to a tube each of Alvaro’s Caliente and Fresco Greys:

I purchased these two tubes from APV Films as I know they supply some of his brushes too. The Caliente Grey is described as:

…a smooth, warm velvety grey on its own, mixes wonderfully with other colours toning them down and adding warmth

“A terrific hue, very powerful, excellent to create strong and warm paintings. In monochrome this wonderful Grey is perfect to achieve a powerful atmosphere with amazing glow. This colour is also perfect to add dramatic highlights and shadows.” Alvaro Castagnet

The Fresco Grey is described as:

…a cool midnight in mass tone and a cooling mist in washes, it mixes well with other colours, toning them down and adding a touch of coolness

“A very powerful and true hue, with no artificial look to it. Passionate and mysterious, great to evoke distant elements of any kind even the unknown…I love the hue.” Alvaro Castagnet

I’ve shown the labels of the paints to share what colours these two greys are comprised of. I already carry most of these colours in my palette (and I already don’t have space in my palette for these new colours!). Theoretically I should be able to mix equivalents to both of these colours with what I already have. I’m hoping however, that having these ‘ready to go’ colours will benefit me in terms of convenience and immediacy.

For anyone interested in learning more about these greys, there’s a lot more information available on this Daniel Smith blogpost which is dedicated to these two colours. The blogpost includes details about the pigments, colour swatches and examples of paintings by Alvaro created using these two different colours.

Back to my painting, however, I started to apply some of the fresco grey to the distant buildings on the right hand side, gradually intensifying the tone as I came towards the foreground. While this was still wet, I started to drop in the dark tones using my new found friend sepia! The cars and their shadows were done in just a few strokes and I was pleased with how these turned out.

The buildings on the left felt altogether darker, and that’s how I treated them, again working from the distant buildings towards the foreground and just trying to indicate the sense of some of the buildings. I had to be a little careful cutting around the figure, and in painting the figure too but by this stage I wasn’t trying to copy the reference image – I was just trying to make the figure work in the painting that had developed.

Once the main figure was in, I just added the suggestion of a few figures in the distance, some directional brushstrokes on the road to lead the eye in and a bit of spattering on the road for some texture and it was all done.

The Buena Vista Watercolour Club, with thanks and apologies to the Buena Vista Social Club!

I had fun painting this. Again, I could have fiddled around with this some more, but I doubt it would have improved it any.

It felt good to paint with a sense of urgency, and to put into practice some of the advice and learnings from the most recent workshop. Hopefully these are all things that I can build on and carry forward into future paintings.

Thoughts on Buena Vista Social Club Watercolour

5 thoughts on “Buena Vista Social Club Watercolour”

  1. Hi John, I found your blog recently and have been enjoying going through some of your posts. I just wanted to say, I appreciate seeing someone who is experimenting and dabbling, doing workshops, and finding inspiration in many places. I enjoyed the Buena Vista Social Club and found your watercolor fun and nostalgic. I bet it would be great fun to find your favorite album covers and do watercolor versions. Anyway, thanks for posting!

    1. Hi Dawn and thanks so much your kind comments, they’re much appreciated! It immediately took me back to my A level art piece where I appropriated some of The Groundhogs’ album cover, Thank Christ for the Bomb as for a work based on a Wilfred Owen poem about the 1st world war! Also makes me lament the loss of first all my vinyl, and even all my CDs as we go ever more digital! I’ll try to have a reminisce about some other favourite covers in case anything leaps out at me! Thanks so much for taking the time to get in touch Dawn, I really appreciate it!

    2. Hi Dawn and thanks so much for getting in touch and for your kind comments! Your album cover suggestion took me right back to my A level art exam (a very very long time ago!) when I appropriated parts of The Groundhogs’ album, ‘Thank Christ for the bomb’ to create a work inspired by a Wilfred Owen poem about the first world war! Your comments also made me regret getting rid not just of all my vinyl but every CD I had too (just not enough space for everything!). Still amazing though how album covers live on in the minds’ eye. Thanks so much for visiting and taking the time to comment Dawn, I really appreciate it.

  2. John, Guess I’ve been waiting in vain all this time for you to put on your’ ‘big boy pants’ and find your own self confidence at last? Stop, for heaven sakes, COPYING and LOOKING TO OTHERS for your 2nd hand ideas and inspiration. You will be a good artist only if it is YOU you are painting from and for and NOT how well HE paints, not how well you can COPY whomever. How do YOU PERSONALLY feel about a scene YOU see only at that particular time. NOT how the scene or the feeling HE had while painting it. How does the grass growing at YOUR feet make you feel and not how someone else felt maybe a century ago. You surely lack any self confidence, soak up your friend’s praise but not ever criticism however thoughtful. I give up!

    1. Ah Margery – I was thinking of you only the other day. I hadn’t heard from you in quite a while so was hoping that all was well with you!?
      I can see now that I needn’t have worried and that you are in characteristically strident form!
      I do appreciate your hope and ambition for me to become a ‘good artist’ – I think we perhaps differ on how I’ll get there! It’s also worth reminding you that I actually like representational paintings. I’m not seeking to break any moulds or discover new previously unchartered territory in the world of watercolour. I’m just trying to paint paintings that I like. I happen to like the approach of a good many artists and feel that I can learn much from them – so endeavour to do so, in order to further my own abilities and voice. The fact that we differ on the type of work we aspire to, the artists we like etc is fine by me, I just can’t see why it’s not fine by you! You chide me for not listening to your criticisms but I do listen. I can hardly not listen to your shouty missives! I bought, read and digested the book you recommended to me, it just didn’t do it for me. I’ve watched videos by artists that you’ve suggested, many of which I have enjoyed, thank you. During all of your advice and criticisms, constructive or otherwise (which I’ve always published and responded to as politely and comprehensively as possible) I’ve never endeavoured to impose my view on you. I’ve never tried to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. Obviously you could put so much of this down to a lack of confidence. If that’s the case, so be it. I would rather suffer from a lack of confidence than have your overbearing sense of arrogance that only allows room for your world view.
      I’m sorry if I disappoint you with my paintings, or my style, or by who I like or who I don’t like, or by whether you consider my work derivative, or to dark, too plain, not colourful enough or if you feel that I don’t fulfill whatever vision you have for me! But none of this is really my problem Margery! To the best of my knowledge Margery, I’m not beholden to you in any shape or form.
      Your comment ended with a slightly resigned ‘I give up!’ – please do feel free to give up on me Margery, I really wish you would, and I promise that I won’t be offended! In case this is the last time, all best wishes Margery.

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