Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Painting rough ground in watercolour

    My work tends to gravitate to those places I love most - the mountains, the wild coast and remote places where nature is supreme, where the ground is generally pretty rough. Capturing this roughness in a painting can be very rewarding, and as rough ground is not found only in the wild areas it pays to be able to render this effectively.
    In this watercolour of a barn on the Isle of Skye rough terrain dominates the scene. I chose Saunders Waterford rough 140-lb paper which works so beautifully when you wish to create these fascinating rough textures, and effectively does half the work for you. With the highest mountain I began with an overall wash of Cobalt blue, bringing in some yellow ochre near the bottom in a soft graduation. When all this was dry I then used a stronger mixture of the blue with little water on the brush, dragging it down in the direction of the slope to produce an overlaid wash of broken colour which allowed some of the previous wash to show through, thus creating the appearance of rough ground on the mountainside. I employed the same technique on the warm-coloured left-hand hill, making the contrast between the first and second applications much stronger than those on the mountain because the hill is so much closer. In front of the barn I've used a combination of drybrush and dabbing on a warm colour to suggest the rough grasses, over an initial wash of Naples yellow. You can apply this broken colour technique in many situations, but for rough terrain it is ideal.

    This painting will be displayed in my forthcoming exhibition at the Windrush Gallery in Windrush, Gloucestershire OX18 4TU  Tel. 01451 844425 from Sunday 3rd to Sunday 10th May. Please note it will be closed on 7th and 8th May during a workshop. Opening hours are from 11am to 5pm The exhibition covers a wide range of subjects, including mountain, marine, pastoral and several overseas paintings.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Magic of Backlighting

    I have to confess that I've neglected this blog lately as I've been away enjoying the highlands of Scotland in one of the most beautiful periods of sunshine. As well as climbing some of the peaks I also found myself drawn towards the stunning coastline, and with a combination of light mist and strong sunshine, day after day brought heavenly opportunities for the landscape artist.

    One of the sketches I did was of the rugged west coast as shown on the right. Here I used a 5B pencil on a cartridge pad. Most of the horizon was lost in mist, so I only hinted at it on the right. With the sun providing such strong backlighting the rocks stood out dark, with their tops catching the light, as were the areas of beach. For the sparkling water I have simply dotted the area in question, and this can be moved to suit my needs when I carry out the final painting.

    A scene like this can look a little desolate without some form of life, so I would introduce bird life or maybe a small boat into a painting. A cormorant stood on a rocky promontory well to the right, and in a nearby beach a number of waders were at work on the wet sand so it would be easy enough to introduce any of these to this scene, perhaps with a strip of sand in the case of the waders. The sand would also break up the monotony of wall-to-wall stones and pebbles in the foreground.

    I enjoyed every moment I lingered in this delightful spot. Nature washes away all the stresses of life, and for me always injects a tremendous energy into my work. If you go out into the landscape it will always have a lesson for you, without fail. As someone with a deep love for the natural environment I have always treasured my visits to the Highlands, but for how much longer I don't know. With the encroach of massed wind turbines across some of Scotland's most iconic landscapes they will before long be submerged in a ghastly industrial mess. Even if the turbines were effective and didn't involve highly toxic manufacture, didn't decimate the bat and raptor population, didn't pose a considerable threat to human health, they should still be kept out of these overwhelmingly beautiful landscapes for which Scotland is (at the moment) world-renowned. As they are primarily a means of making vast profits for corporations, political parties and even many so-called 'green' organisations, it is little short of criminal what is happening in Scotland and Wales. Please go and see these marvellous landscapes before they are decimated, and see for yourself what is happening to one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Coping with Painters' Block

    Do you ever get painters' block? You're not sure what to paint next, and nothing seems to be working? I'm lucky, meeting so many interesting people and creatures (yes, it's often those wild things out there that give me so much pleasure when I'm out sketching), that it never seems to bother me. If you are finding it hard to get going again, you can try working on different surfaces - tinted papers, perhaps - or a different medium for a while, to trigger new sensations.

    Think also about changing subject matter. This can be totally different to your usual work, or simple extending it in a way, such as adding wildlife into the middle distance of your landscapes, or more detailed figures than you normally paint. While I mainly paint landscapes, the impact of stunning wildlife stumbling into my scene (and sometimes getting a bit too close for comfort) has encouraged me to paint more wildlife. Boats and the sea are also favourites, bringing a pleasant change to inland scenes, and I love doing figure work in various forms.

    Here, I'd like to talk about another type of subject I find fascinating - the industrial scene. When the coal mines of South Wales were closing down rapidly towards the end of the 20th century I wanted to capture the last of the mines before they all disappeared. This is a watercolour of Penallta Colliery with the miners coming off duty. I didn't want to include all the intricate detail of the pithead and environs so I introduced quite a bit of atmosphere. This also had the advantage of making the figures stand out against the background, and the whole composition was created from several sketches and photographs. This was especially important with regard to the miners who had to relate to each other. Here and there I have deliberately lost detail, but note how the smaller background figures in silhouette really suggest a sense of depth to the painting.

    There tends to be a lot of detritus lying around in a scene like this, but you don't need to put it all in: some of it can either be simply suggested vaguely, or you could leave it out altogether. As always with a complicated scene it is vital to do at least one studio sketch before the painting, to work out the optimum composition. Consider also keeping the background as an almost monochrome as I have done here. This will further throw emphasis onto the foreground.

    Unfortunately Images of the South Wales Mines, the book that resulted from my mining paintings, has long been out of print, but you may be able to get a rather expensive copy secondhand. Most of all, don't let that painters' block stop you - we all get a little stale at times, but trying a different type of subject is often a good way of rejuvenating your artistic impulses.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Creating a large foreground

    It's some time since I found time to write a blog post - having to work on the studio, being away from home and a recalcitrant computer with an impossible broadband service has made it difficult. The sun is beating down outside and the spring flowers are rife, a marvellous time to be out sketching, so maybe when I finish this post I'll get some fresh air.

    My subject today is Dylan Thomas's Boathouse  where he wrote his poetry. In this case I have designed the composition so that the foreground plays a major part, covering at least half the area of the painting. This has allowed me a rather long lead-in where I've elongated one of the ditch-like creeks and let it fade into the immediate foreground. With so much foreground space there is a danger that it could be severely over-worked, so I have made the detail intermittent, gradually losing it lower down as a vignette.

    I began rendering the foreground by drawing in the shapes of stones in outline with a fine rigger brush, varying the colour with burnt umber, light red and ultramarine. I then washed a medium tone of French ultramarine and light red over the area, avoiding the stream and light stones, working very quickly with a number ten sable, not worrying if I covered some of the stone images, and losing the edges of others where they were still wet. While this was all wet I dropped in other colours, mainly yellow ochre, and then let the painting dry. Finally I drew in further stones with the rigger - these are the ones that stand out more prominently. I also added touches to some of the light stone shapes to make them stand out.

    This painting is now on display with others at Art Matters in their White Lion Street Gallery in White Lion Street, Tenby in Pembrokeshire. Their telephone number is 01834 843375 if you wish to get in touch, and their site is www.artmatters.org.uk  Enjoy your painting and make sure you give those foregrounds plenty of consideration before you decide on the final composition. Don't be afraid to make them a significant part of the painting, and not just an after-thought.


Tuesday, 24 February 2015

In Praise of the Tea-Pot

    Maintaining morale when out sketching on location is vital, and while some might find a whisky flask useful, I generally rely on tea. Sadly last week in Pembrokeshire the cottage where I stayed lacked that vital ingredient, the teapot. Naturally, this was pretty disastrous, so when out and about I made the most of any such facilities. In the sketch below the right-hand building is a superb tea-shop selling the most delicious cakes, and this is why you might detect a certain hastiness in the rendering of the pencil-work.

    However hasty we may be in sketching, it pays to consider the composition carefully when creating a painting from the sketch or photograph. Unless the subject is quite a simple affair I normally carry out an intermediate studio sketch to work out where I wish to place the important elements and the main emphasis, together with the sort of atmosphere I wish to convey. In this instance I would move the composition to the right a little so that the left-hand house did not appear in the centre of the composition, as this would be my centre of interest. I would need more detail to be included above the left-hand wall and figures (detail missed because of the urgency of the tea situation), so I would have to resort to memory, a photograph, or the good old imagination. The main figures would be placed further to the right, a little closer to the centre of interest, and I would make full use of the dark runnels of water descending from the centre right - I have already bent them slightly to come towards the viewer as a lead-in. These are the kind of thought processes that go through my mind before I begin the painting.

    Don't underestimate the value of tea for the artist. I've even used it on a painting outdoors on occasion. Last autumn while I was running a landscape painting course a lovely German lady was painting a cottage, which filled her paper. When I asked her what was her focal point she replied, "The tea-pot." Sure enough, there was a teapot in the window. Such observations may not only bring a smile to your viewers, but might also result in a sale.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Reserving whites in a watercolour

    One of the greatest problems concerning the watercolourist is that of reserving whites in a painting. There are several ways of tackling this: the use of the negative painting technique, masking fluid or film, scratching with a knife or scalpel, or the use of Chinese white, white gouache or acrylic. Pulling out colour with a damp brush or tissue, or sponging out when the wash is dry, are further ways of achieving a considerable lightening of the tone, although these latter methods rarely are as glaringly white as the aforementioned ones. Down the centuries white body colour has been employed, the equivalent of our white gouache or Chinese white.

    These days even the main watercolour societies feature paintings carried out with much use of white gouache or acrylic paint, so there is no stigma attached to using that method, and I shall illustrate it in a future blog. Scratching can be effective for minor features such as ropes or rigging in a harbour, limited sparkle on water, and similar items, but for larger or more intricate work masking fluid or the negative painting technique is a better method.

    In the watercolour on the right I applied masking fluid over the actual icefall with all its complexities, in the positions where you see the absolute white. This, of course, is the naked paper after the masking fluid has been removed near the end of the painting. For the snow lying on the peak and crags, and also for the light cloud, I used the negative painting method, that is, I worked round the white shapes with the darker sky, the rocks and shadow areas. When it was all dry I applied further shadow washes using French ultramarine and cadmium red over some of the snow and rock areas that were in shadow. I could have employed masking fluid to some of these parts, but it results in hard edges and much of the edges there I wanted to appear soft, especially the light cloud. I find it best not to mix the two techniques in the same area as it can get confusing, thus causing errors, so I have deliberately kept the top and bottom halves of the composition apart in that sense.

    This is one of the paintings that will appear in my exhibition at the Windrush Gallery from 3rd to 10th May (it will be closed on 7th and 8th May), at Windrush, Gloucestershire, OX18 4TU  Telephone 01451 844425 The gallery open times are from 11 am to 5pm daily. The exhibition will cover a wide variety of scenery, including marine and pastoral paintings. I shall also be doing a watercolour demonstration Painting in the Cooler Months in Windrush village hall on Saturday 9th May at 2pm. If you wish to come along please book in advance:  j.neil299@btinternet.com or phone 01451 844425

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Adding energy into your watercolours

    Artists who work solely from photographs really do miss out on those marvellous energizing sensations of being tossed around in the wind, or being spattered in face and sketchbook by rain, snow, hail, or whatever. These sensations link you with the natural world, and provide a tremendous advantage when you wish to really make your paintings more dynamic and full of movement. But, of course, not everyone wishes to go through such experiences.

    This  section of drystone wall and wind-swept bush is part of a watercolour painting where I began with masking fluid painted over where the stonework would appear. The dark bush throws up a strong tonal contrast with the top of the wall, and after this had dried I removed the masking fluid and brushed a light blue-grey wash over the right-hand end of the wall to subdue that part.

    For the branches I mixed some burnt umber and French ultramarine and applied it with a number 1 rigger. To give a sense of strong wind and movement I painted with vigorous strokes outwards from the centre of the bush. When this was done I spattered a number of small blobs or spots with the same mixture, to further enhance the feeling of robust movement in the branches. With all the branches bent in the same direction it suggests a rather windy day.

    Watch for these effects when you are out and about, and note them, even if you don't have a sketchbook or camera with you. You can, of course, include them in a composition where there is no wind, just to liven things up a but, or to create a sense of movement. This can be really effective on water - I've just returned from a few days in London and when sketching on the Thames the water was alive in the wind, creating a real sense of sparkling movement in the sunshine.

    have a go at this more vigorous approach - it really does give your work a marvellous boost.