Sunday, 27 November 2011

Having fun with your old paintings

     What do you do with those old paintings that end up in a mess and clearly have not worked? Turn them into paper darts? Use the backs for another painting? Frame them and give them to your least favourite aunt for Christmas? Whatever you do, don't tear them up or throw them away as they are more valuable than you may imagine.

    If you keep your old 'failures' in a folder the time will come when you will find them extremely useful to practice techniques. In this scene of Tideswell Moor in the English Peak District you will see a dark cloud on the left with a rain squall beneath it. This was achieved with a glaze - a transparent wash laid over an already-painted part of the composition, once it had completely dried. In this case it was done by wetting the paper first so that a soft edge would be achieved on the falling 'rain'.

    Most inexperienced artists find this glaze technique rather daunting, and of course it is easy to mess up an otherwise competent painting. In order to gain practice with this technique there is nothing better than to do it on your old 'failed' paintings. You have nothing to lose and you might end up with a really good painting after all. The glaze method can be useful for warming up or cooling down a painting or an area within that painting, or for creating shadow or falling rain as in this case where you wish to suggest a film of atmosphere in between the viewer and part of the composition. Have fun with your old paintings!

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Critical observation

    When I talk about sketching outdoors I am well aware that so many artists lose interest - they prefer to stay indoors, warm and comfortable and work from photographs, books, calendars and so on. 'Sketching' is a dirty word to many, although for me it is one of the most rewarding things I do. Still, for those of you who don't wish to venture beyond your front door, you can still learn a lot by critical observation.

     This exciting picture was taken in my hotel bedroom last week in London, and if you look carefully you will observe a number of subtle effects concerned with direct and reflected light. The main light is entering through a window to the right, illuminating the right-hand wall and the right-hand edge of the door architrave in the centre, but where this is blocked by an object in the top right-hand corner the most powerful light there comes from the light bulb above the top left-hand corner.

    If you look carefully you should be able to see a slight lightening of the vertical thin strip of wall in the centre where reflected light is bouncing back from the illuminated architrave.  Again, at the bottom of the scene you can see further counterchange on wall and architrave caused by a table in the bottom right-hand corner.

    Simple scenes like this can provide an excellent idea of how light affects various surfaces and angles. You can observe these effects without having to go out into hostile terrain, or the need to do any sketching. Make it a habit whether you are indoors, outdoors, or sitting in a rickshaw waiting for the traffic lights to change.

    In the December issue of Leisure Painter magazine you will find a complete article I wrote on the subject of observation, and I have a further piece on-line at  Critical observation like this can also while away the time as you wait for a train or whatever, and it can be great fun!

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Sketching and drawing with watersoluble pencils

    This post is in response to Michael Bailey's comments about the Karisma aquarelle pencils - marvellous watersoluble pencils that were so useful for sketching in all weathers as you can lay on the pencil tone and brush water across it to create lovely washes in various degrees of tone. They enabled you to create lovely, moody pencil sketches and drawings.        

    The rough sketch on the left was done with a medium Karisma pencil many years ago. It shows an ice cave in the Argentiere glacier, with great blocks of ice fallen by the entrance, and gives a fair idea of the variety of tones you can achieve with a watersoluble graphite pencil. You can clearly see the vertical pencil hatching on the side of the large horizontal ice slab where it has not quite washed out.

    When the Karisma range sadly disappeared off our art-shop shelves we looked around for a replacement, and after some experiments found the Caran D'Ache Technalo range to be a good alternative. Like Karisma, the Technalo watersoluble pencils come in a range of three: HB, B and 3B, to give you a light, medium and dark tone.

    Thanks for your kind comments, Michael - I hope this helps. I don't, by the way, normally use these pencils with watercolours to produce paintings as some graphite will always wash off and muddy up the colour, although I have used them as an exercise in one of my earlier books to show tone and then applied light washes to help illustrate a point. They are excellent tools for learning about tones.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Eilean Donan Castle as a watercolour monochrome painting

    Many inexperienced artists find that coming to terms with tones, colour mixing and the myriads of other complications with watercolour painting is so overwhelming that they almost feel like giving up. If you suffer from this syndrome then try working in monochrome for a while. This will greatly improve your tonal evaluation and get you back on the rails once more.

    By using just one colour throughout the painting you can concentrate on getting the tones right and not have to concern yourself with any of that nasty colour mixing that confounds so many. As usual, build up the watercolour starting with the lightest tones and gradually bringing in the darker ones. Try a dark colour such as indigo, Payne's grey, burnt umber or warm sepia, though I have to be in a truly bad mood to use the latter as it's such a depressing colour.

    The painting shown above shows the Eilean Donan castle in the Western Highlands of Scotland, which was featured in one of my very early books. It was carried out on tinted paper and is a lovely example of creating a landscape composition without resorting to colour. Monochrome also has the advantage of creating a sense of unity and mood. After a few monochromes try adding a second colour, gradually bringing in more colours once you feel more confident.

    There is a useful section on monochrome painting in my paperback Learn to Paint Watercolour Landscapes available from

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Waterfalls and rocks in watercolour

    Waterfalls make marvellous subjects for the landscape painter, and are often close to the road, as is this one, the Ogwen Falls in Snowdonia, one of my favourites. As they are marked on Ordnance Survey maps of 1:50,000 scale they tend to be easy to find. These falls are spectacular, but rather complicated for the inexperienced artist, with so many rocks and separate cascades of tumbling water. You need to leave out many of these, keeping it simple by only including the most shapely and important rocks. If you go there after half a day of heavy rain most of these rocks will be submerged anyway.

    Bear in mind that when painting waterfalls the secret is to create effective contrasts: those of hard-edged rocks sticking out of the water, or where the water tumbles behind them, and also the soft edges of falling water. The other type of strong contrasts is that of the white, aerated water crashing down beside the dark, wet rocks, but watch out for those rocks that escape the splashes and perhaps have a little colour to relieve the overall black and white effect. I always like to include some vegetation in a waterfall painting, as it breaks up the mass of rocks and cliffs, and can add a little colour to the scene.

    This watercolour is featured in my exhibition currently taking place at Siop-y-Siswrn in Mold, a few leagues into North Wales to the west of Chester. It covers not just mountain scenery, but gentler pastoral landscapes and coastal scenes. The gallery is open every day except Thursday and Sunday, from 9.30 am to 4.30 pm, at 6 - 8 New Street, Mold, Clwyd. The telephone number for Siop-y-Siswrn is 01352 753200