Well, after two cancellations and almost three years of waiting, my Alvaro Castagnet Watercolour Masterclass finally came to fruition.
During the intervening years, I’ve rea some of his books, watched his DVDs, taken a few live zoom classes with him and seen studied many of his paintings The first, a city scene, followed by an interior, but this was the pinnacle!
I was thrilled and nervous in equal measure. How could the expectation of three years of waiting and anticipation be met over the course of just one weekend.
At the point of booking, all those year’s ago, we were given the venue of the workshop, the Memorial Hall in Whittlesford, on the outskirts of Cambridge. From this point onwards, I’d expected that the workshops would be held indoors at the venue. It came as quite a surprise then to hear just a day or so before the workshop that the weather forecast for the weekend was looking good so we’ll all be painting outdoors, so please bring your plein air kits!
I must confess that this threw me a little! Painting plein air on top of everything else seemed like it might be a challenge too far but there was no turning back now!
On arrival at the venue, we were greeted by a series of trestle tables that were covered in Alvaro’s original paintings:
I felt quite reverential seeing them all laid out before me! I was familiar with so many of them from Instagram and Facebook but to see them in the flesh – it was a real treat.
Straight away I was struck by their richness. Even the darkest darks had a luminosity to them and many of the brushstrokes seemed to have a ‘devil may care’ attitude.
On some paintings, the paint had been applied so thickly it had its own texture (this was mainly on an area of detail, when colour was being used almost as body colour over a dark passage of paint.
These photos don’t really do them justice, but I wanted to record them all as I knew I’d probably never be in a room with so many of his original paintings again!
Naturally I was looking forward to being able to paint with the same verve as displayed here by the end of the weekend!
Once all the participants had arrived (there were probably about 23 or 24 people in total) Alvaro gave an introductory talk. During this, he explained the equipment he uses, the easel set up, paints, palette, brushes etc before moving on to talk about his painting philosophy and the four pillars of colour, shape, value and edges that he believes underpin all good watercolour paintings.
I was already familiar with a lot of the information that Alvaro imparted here from the various books, DVDs and YouTube videos that I’d already seen – but it was still nice to hear it all again live and there’s no doubt that he’s passionately enigmatic and engaging when talking about painting, and his enthusiasm is undoubtedly infectious.
The talk lasted for about an hour, after which I felt that everyone was fully primed and itching to get on and do some painting (I know that I certainly was)
From the hall, we loaded up two cars with everyone’s equipment so we could transport it the short distance to the nearby church, which was to be our location for the day. Once everyone had walked to the church and unpacked their equipment, Alvaro did his first demonstration:
It was so good to watch Alvaro paint in real-time without any edits. He’s also good at narrating and explaining everything he’s doing as he goes along. The stand out elements for me were the speed and looseness of his initial sketching out, with only the minimal amount of information drawn out, and then the speed with which proceeds with the painting. I also enjoyed watching the confidence of the brush handling, with the brushes nearly always held at the very top, even when applying details. You can see how the speed, loose but confidently assured brushwork combine to create paintings of great energy and freshness.
What with the introduction, getting to the location, setting up and doing the demonstration, which was followed by a further quick demonstration on how to paint figures, it was well into lunchtime before we were all set loose to paint! We were given 30 minutes to do whatever we wanted with the only stipulation being ‘big brush, small paper’.
I was slightly panicked by this as 30 minutes is no time at all! I quickly found a vantage point that I felt might work, where I could see the church in the light in the background, against which were some silhouettes of other painters. I sketched this out very quickly and very loosely too on a quarter sheet and then, with my largest brushes, just started throwing paint down.
In the time available, I was quite pleased with how this turned out, and even more so when Alvaro gave me some encouraging feedback. Less so specifically about this painting, but more generally that he could see that I could paint. About this study, he suggested that I put a tree on the left-hand side to break up the shape of the tree line in the background and to stop the eye from wandering off the page. He also felt that there were maybe a few too many continuous straight hard edges, and that some of them would be better as soft edges. He singled out the brushstrokes on the legs of the tripod on the left as showing that I knew how to handle a brush, but questioned why I had gone for the dark drybrush over the shadow in the foreground, which he felt (and I agreed) was too heavy, but it seemed like a good idea at the time!
After a quick break during which sandwiches and packed lunches were consumed, and people milled around saying hello to each other and discussing how they’d got on with the exercise, it was time for Alvaro to do another demonstration.
This was from a similar position as the first painting, but looking in a slightly different direction, towards some gravestones that were just catching the light against a background of dark foliage and trees.
Again, it’s the speed and deftness that impressed me. You could also see how the speed can trip you up too! About halfway or two thirds of the way through this painting, Alvaro decided that it wasn’t working as well as he had hoped and he felt that the composition was missing something. This led to the introduction of some figures into the painting to create a stronger focal point and to tell a better story.
I really enjoyed seeing and hearing Alvaro work all of this out it front of us. It was so reassuring to hear such an accomplished artist encounter and have to deal with the same challenges that I often find myself stumbling into! Granted he’s better equipped to deal with them and navigate a way through them than I am, but this is something that only comes with time and experience and lots and lots of painting!
By the time this painting was completed and there’d been a little discussion, it was 4pm – which was the time the session ended. Many people, myself included, were due to meet later that evening at a nearby restaurant to have dinner with Alvaro, so most people packed up and left.
I was still keen however to get a little more brush time in so, along with one other participant, I decided to stick around and try to put some of what I’d seen and heard during the day into practice.
I took a similar view point as Alvaro had painted from and tried to work as quickly as possible.
This is how it looked before I decided to add the figure in on the right hand side. I’d always planned to include this figure, however I knew there was a risk involved in it!
Told you I should have left the figure out (or at least done a better job of painting it!) Figure aside, I was pleased with a lot about this painting. I’d managed to complete this quite quickly and felt that I was able to draw on some of my recent experiences of painting green in watercolour. I also felt that I was consciously making better decisions about what to leave out and what to include.
It was great to get this painting time in, but I then had to rush like crazy to get back to the hotel to get changed and to the restaurant in time for dinner.
This was a bit of wash rinse and repeat of day one. We met at 10am again, rather conveniently in the gardens of the hotel that I was staying in which was nice!
The view was the end of church-like building:
Once Alvaro had shown us how it was done, it was our turn to try our hand! I took a similar viewpoint and, again painting on a half sheet with my biggest brushes, worked as quickly as I could.
This image shows the final version of this painting, which I’d altered a little based on Alvaro’s constructive feedback. At an earlier stage, I had another group of figures beneath the umbrella in the middle. Alvaro felt that while the handling of them was ok, that they competed with the other group of figures and that it might be more interesting to make them less distinct, and maybe to introduce a figure or two walking towards the tables, and that this would also break up the dark zig-zag composition of the shadows that already created.
Alvaro also picked up on my inclination to paint too densely, with too much pigment and not enough water, which often leads to opaque and dead areas of paintings.
It’s fair to say that I struggled more with this painting. There are some areas of it that I do like, but trying to introduce the figures late in the day leads to them becoming quite overworked.
After another quick stop for lunch, Alvaro was on to his next demonstration, which he opted to do sitting down this time in the hope that more people could see better.
I think it shows that my concentration was wandering a little now! It was super hot on this day and I couldn’t find a vantage point to stand where I was out of the sun and also able to see well! Fortunately, I could still hear everything!
After this demonstration finished, Alvaro had to say his farewells quite quickly as a car was waiting to whisk him away to his next appointment, which was at the International Watercolour Masters exhibition over at Lilleshall Hall!
In a way, feel I’m still processing everything about the workshop. I think that almost three years after booking it, what I got out of it was distinctly different to what I would have back in 2020.
My main takeaways from the weekend were;
- That unless I feel particularly compelled to do so, there’s no special need for me to take another masterclass or workshop.
- My painting is already heading in the right direction. All I need to do is to carry on, to paint as often as I can, and to paint on location when I can.
- Even the best painters still have moments where they struggle with a painting.
- I need to spend more time painting figures! I’m not bad at this, but I could be a lot better at painting a variety of figures in different positions and poses and, crucially, painting them with a more direct and gestural confidence (that will only come with practice).
- I need to be mindful of going in too dark and heavy too soon. Alvaro paints with quite a lot of water so that even though the paint looks dark when applied, it’s drying a lot lighter and the colours sing a lot more than I’m often achieving in my paintings.
Phrases that stay with me
- Small paper, big brush. This was the direction for our first exercise on day one. It set the tone for me using my biggest brushes and it felt good (but will also take more practice to master!)
- Big shapes. Medium shapes. Small shapes. Not rocket science but just in terms of approaching a scene. Don’t get overwhelmed by what’s in front of you. Break it down into a series of shapes, and then how they relate to each other, and how can they be connected.
- Paint a lion of a painting! – basically, a reminder to paint with confidence to create paintings with impact.
- ‘ping, ping’ is an expression that Alvaro says when he’s adding in some of the final details, a telephone cable here and a dot of colour there as his brush flits and dances across the painting. As someone who talks to himself pretty much all the time I’m painting, I could see how this could be a useful little verbal aid!
There are probably some others too that may come back to me, and if they do, I’ll try to keep updating this list!
Alvaro was also very patient with everyone’s various requests for selfies and book signings. I had secretly sworn to myself that I would do any of this, however, when I saw everyone doing it, and thinking that I may never have this opportunity again, I succumbed to my more base fan by instincts!
Postscript / icing on the cake
One of the highlights of the second day, was to be immersed in the workshop with Alvaro Castagnet while also receiving text messages from Starling Studios back in Brighton to inform me of paintings that had sold during the last day of my works being exhibited there. This felt a bit like a dream coming true!
It was also great to get a brief comment from Alvaro after the workshop ended which you can see at the bottom of this Instagram post:
You have a lot of talent! Go for it 🔥Alvaro Castagnet
All in all, it was a very affirming weekend! All I need to do now is to keep painting and keep the momentum going!