Living in Calgary the mountains are an iconic part of the landscape. They are certainly majestic but I find that I am drawn much more to the beauty of the foothills. The scale, rhythm, and line of the foothills is so much more user friendly. I was reminded of this again when I was a guest instructor this week at the Leighton Centre. On the way home I took this photo which I think really captures the colour and feel of these particular foothills.
Foothills & Cow
11 x 20
The painting is a scene just beside where the photo was taken. I think it has a very nice feel of recession into the distance and I love the pond as a centre of interest. The pond is actually located a few kilometres from the photo but I felt that the painting needed something to break up all the green.
I’m having an animated discussion with my wife about this painting at the moment. She thinks the cow blocks the eye from going to the centre of interest. She is also adamant that the tower on the horizon totally takes away from the bucolic nature of the scene. I feel that it helps break up the sky. I realize that the painting is too fresh in my mind and I’ve fallen in love with it and can’t see any mistakes. In particular I like the cow. As always, living with a painting will allow me see it objectively at some point. My wife is rarely wrong with her critiques. Sometimes but not often.
Fast forward one week!
Foothills & Cows
11 x 20
This new version I feel is a much stronger painting. Now, the arrangement of the cows actually connects with the pond forming a nice triangle. Removing the tower also helps to focus the front of the painting. It’s too much detail way back there in the hazy distance.
A very interesting aspect of this version is the use of gouache which is an opaque watercolour. With it it’s possible to create whites or various other lights right over dark passages. In this particular case that was the only way to paint the other 2 cows. The use of gouache is still, in some circles, considered to be a breach of the watercolour rules but I don’t subscribe to that view. If it helps the painting it’s good and in this case it certainly helps the painting.
Union Cemetery Wash 2
9 x 12
I’ve been reading a lot, lately, about the benefits of trying to complete a watercolour in 3 washes. I’m finding that it forces me to combine and simplify shapes and it gives me a focus to my painting process. Today I went plein air (on location) painting and consciously tried to apply this method.
I’ve been very influenced by a book I’m reading by my watercolour hero Joseph Zbukvic (Creating Mood And Atmosphere In Watercolour). He says that your painting starts the minute you begin looking at the scene, not when you first apply paint to paper. When you first look at the scene you need to simplify the scene into as few shapes as possible (5 or fewer is very good). Also you need to organize these shapes in terms of their value and colour. This preliminary thinking can be amongst the most valuable moments in the painting process.
So in version 1 my first wash identified the 3 main shapes: the sky the hills and the road. Much of the wash on the main hill is in fact a final wash as can be seen in the final version. In this first wash I also left a few white highlights to add interest and contrast later on. In wash 2 I added nearly all the shapes ie the trees, the accents on the hills and various grave stones. In the final wash I added the shadows, the dark tree on the right and various bits and pieces. So the entire painting took about an hour and a half and I think captures the feeling I was after.
Another idea I’m trying to keep front of mind is to have the painting tell a story. In this simple study I want you to be drawn up the pleasant curve of the road and up to the top grave stone and the flags. Interestingly the flags are at half mast because today was the Ralph Klein Memorial Service. So I think that that is also part of the story of this painting.
For me, however, the main point of this was simply as an exercise to further develop my understanding of this 3 wash process of painting a watercolour.
9 x 12
During the past couple of weeks I have heard 2 well known watercolourists talking about their process, particularly their plein air (on location) process. Both of them said that their goal is to quickly capture their impression of the subject and they try to do this in maximum 3 washes. This painting of some ruins on the cliffs in Scarborough, England illustrates how I think about that process. It was done in just over an hour using three washes with a few details at the end.
The first wash was the blue of the sky blending into the yellow ochre just above where the cliffs begin and carrying that wash down to the edge of the road. The purpose of this wash is to add a unifying tone and also to identify by painting around any whites that are wanted. In this case the only whites I left were on the lower building and the wall by the road. This wash is allowed to dry completely and then it’s on to the all important second wash. This second wash is the one that creates almost all the shapes of the painting. In this case that second wash included the ruins, all the buildings and the multi-coloured cliff. Everything just as you see it right down to the road. This wash is about 15 minutes of exhilarating chaos as you monitor the wetness of various areas and continually add more colours wet in wet as well as a few darker drier bits to define shapes. The final wash is all the darks and shadows and by magic when these darks are applied the light shines through the painting and it comes to life. In this painting the only variation on this process was that I left the water alone until the end so that it could reflect what was going on in the rest of the painting.
Anyway, with this process I feel this painting has a nice sense of light and does show a bright sunny day. Fast and fresh.
For me a real benefit of thinking in terms of this 3 wash process is that it gives me a way to organize the painting process before I even begin. When I look at the photo I try to see beyond a collection of objects to get the underlying unity of colours and values. I am forced to see not the objects (buildings, trees, rocks etc) but the painting as a whole.
This process is most applicable to plein air painting where speed, capturing an impression and spontaneity are key elements but they are also valuable for any type of painting.
Calgary Centre Cut (Demo)
18 x 18
Seaton Seafront (Demo)
18 x 24
A Great Group
It was an excellent workshop last weekend at the Leighton Centre. A great bunch of people and very enthusiastic. It was also very neat to drive out to the Leighton Centre in the early morning light.
One of my goals for this workshop was to make the best use of the magical first wash in watercolour. It was very gratifying to see everyone tackle that important aspect of watercolour painting. Another very useful that idea that floated around the class was stated as “it’s only a piece of paper”. If we look at our paintings like that then we are more likely to just have fun and see what happens. What if . . .
I added finishing touches to both paintings when I got home and it might be helpful to take a look at them.
What I Like
Calgary Centre Cut is a painting idea that I am developing and I find the composition very exciting. I love the lead-in of the road. The story I want this painting to tell is of everything and everyone being drawn into Calgary as symbolized by the Calgary Tower and I think it has a strong sense of this story. I like the centre of interest around the Lion Statue on the right.
I also enjoy the composition of Seaton Seafront. I find the 2 poles which were attempts to deal with some of the dripping an interesting element. I love the blue – purple colour contrast in the background hills and this is played against the warm orange in the middle of those hills. The wall is a very effective lead in to the painting. The little use I made of gouache is also effective particularly in the small light reflections in the puddles on the pathway.
What I Would Like To Change
Both paintings by this point have been a little over worked. That beautiful first wash has been diluted by subsequent washes. In Calgary Centre Cut as much as I like the dark shapes I added to both edges I don’t like the colour choices. The purples don’t work well with the overall colour scheme. In Seaton it’s mostly that the second wash in the sky takes away that lovely sense of light it had at first. I would also like to make the wall wider at the bottom and make the colour notes in it more to the blue side so it contrasts with warm beach. The original study that I did before the workshop shows very effectively the sense of light that can be had when that first wash works.
Anyway, thanks to all who attended and keep painting.
Seaton Beach, watercolour, 12 x 16
I’m very excited by this painting. It’s from our trip to England about 3 years ago. It’s the sea front in a little town called Seaton on the south coast.
Lately, I’ve been very conscious of the beauty and magic of the first wash in watercolour. The first wash begins with the first touch of water and pigment to the paper and doesn’t end until it is finally left to dry. For years I lacked both the confidence and technical ability to get very creative with that first wash. I would mix a colour in the palette and apply it to the paper and let it dry, planning to then come in with further washes. The problem with watercolour is that as soon as you put another layer of paint on top of a dry wash you lose some of the glow. In watercolour that freshness and glow that it is famous for comes from light passing through the pigment to the paper and then reflecting back to the eye. So it’s sensible that with 2 or more washes for the light to pass through the light that bounces back has lost some of that glow. The goal therefore is to try to get as much accomplished as possible in that first wash. When you apply the first wash of colour it’s very beneficial to ask yourself ‘What else can I do’.
The reason that I talking about this and the reason that this painting excites me is that it was a true success story in terms of that first wash. For the sky I started with a very pale yellow ochre wash and then started adding some light washes of blue. Then while this was still very wet I added the dark clouds which blended beautifully. Then with the paper still wet I added the land in the background, gradually getting stronger and thicker mixtures of pigment. Then after waiting a couple of minutes but with the paper still wet I added a few darker accents along the top of the hill and along the shoreline. I just kept playing with it until I was happy with it. Then and only then I let it dry completely. So after 15 minutes the top half of the painting was pretty much done. When it was dry I did add the darker accents that you can see have the hard edges. Adding these darker shapes does make that first wash, visible beneath them, truly glow.
The bottom half of the painting was accomplished in a similar manner beginning with a very pale yellow ochre / cad orange wash and then building up the darker values. Final touches including the tree shape on the right and the shadow side of the wall were added to dry paper.
So I’m feeling quite evangelistic about working with that first wash and seeing how far I can push it. You often hear that if you allow watercolour to do it’s thing it will paint itself. One thing this means is that when you get creative with that first wash magic things happen.
If you are interested in learning more about this you will want to join me for my 2 day workshop March 23/24 at the Leighton Centre. This is an important component of what I will be teaching at the workshop. You can get information and register for this workshop from the Leighton Centre website.
I’ve been experimenting with acrylic recently in anticipation of my workshop in Turner Valley on Oct 20. It’s been interesting because I’ve had to push myself a bit to get the effects I’ve wanted.
These paintings were done using acrylic in a non-watercolour style which I think it was a very good choice for me. Acrylic can blend wet in wet in a manner that approximates watercolour but it just isn’t the same. So I choose to use acrylic in an opaque manner similar to oil. It helps me to keep these 2 workflows completely separated.
I enjoy doing portraits from different angles because often we see the back of the head more freely than the front, probably because of the emotional impact of eyes so predominates a frontal view. From the back it’s easier to just see the shapse. These 3 portraits were of members of the Calgary Sketch Club.
The landscape was taken from a photo of our trip to England. While travelling from Southhampton to Cornwall we just randomly took a little detour off the motorway and discovered the charming little village of Punknowle in Devon. This painting is from a photo of the main street with the all important pub.
I am a firm believer in the power of play in our art journey. Those times when we are completely unconcerned with the product and just playing with the process can yield some real gems and even when they don’t they almost always teach us something.
This image is a good example. I have been wondering for a while about the best way to create rays of light emerging from a sky or through a mist. With only that thought I did a couple of little studies. In one I worked the sky and then lifted out with a paper towel. In this one I again wet the sky but this time I used a spray bottle to wash out some rays. I may not have the timing right because the force of the spray swept away most of the paint so I added some darker pigment between the rays. Eventually it looked like this and I just put a tree right in front of it. It think it’s a really neat, spontaneous painting. Doesn’t look like a sky at all but it became a great waterfall. Another factor in this case is that the paper is from a Strathmore watercolour block and it accepts the paint totally differently then arches which I usually use.
In any case this hour of playing can branch out into a number of new directions so it was well worth the time.
I posted a painting a few days ago. It’s a copy of a Joseph Zbukvic painting. This particular image is a cropped section of the original painting showing just the centre of interest. It’s just one of those happy accidents that the pattern of lights and darks in this image is so effective and attractive. This section alone makes a lovely and successful composition.
This is definitely a one off. Again it was an old pencil value sketch that I did a few years ago. I was just in the mood to try something different so I thought I would try to turn that value sketch into a colour study.
I like the opaque marks of cad red light and cad orange.
Forest Fantasy 2
9 X 12