Thursday, 29 August 2013

Simplifying Foregrounds with the Vignette Technique

    One of my favourite techniques for dealing with those troublesome foregrounds is the vignette method, which can be equally effective when used on watercolour sketches. This is especially true when you don't want to include every bit of detail in front of you. The method can be carried out with a softening effect as though the viewing frame becomes more and more misty as it gets further away from the centre of the composition, or it can be accomplished by abruptly stopping detail while adding a few stray examples - perhaps stones, pebbles, grasses, plants or whatever is present, in the foreground.

    In this example of a cascade plunging between rocks I've simply splashed in a few hints of falling water with weak French ultramarine, and to the left-hand side have spattered some flecks of paint. The rocks have been faded out, although the method works equally well by rendering a few strong, hard-edged features at this point. If you find the latter method is too strident you can softly sponge away the hardness with a natural sponge and clean water until you achieve the effect you are seeking. It's also a useful technique when you are out sketching and see those heavy rain-clouds approaching and need to finish it off at speed! Try it out - you have nothing to lose, as if you feel it doesn't work you can always superimpose a more normal foreground over it.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Sketching in remote places

    I've just returned from a trip to South Greenland with my friend Torben Sorensen, hence the lack of blog posts over the past month. Our objective was to sketch and paint the spectacular mountains near Nanortalik, which is about 45 miles north-west of Cape Farewell, the southernmost tip of Greenland. To gain access to the area we hired an inflatable zodiac to go up Tasermiut fjord, a 50-mile stretch with stunning peaks on either side: a rather crazy idea as neither of us had 'driven' such a boat before, and perhaps when we found it had a hole in the bottom we should probably have abandoned the idea rapidly.

    We carried on, and had to do quite a bit of baling out, as well as heaving the craft over rocks and beaches at anything but high tide. Sunny weather blessed us most of the time, but clouds and cloud streamers added greatly to the atmosphere. When you can see everything the view tends to lose its aura of mystery.

    Watercolour, of course, is supreme in conveying a sense of atmosphere. This is a rough watercolour sketch of icebergs near Cape Farewell, done on cartridge paper, which generally dries rather quickly and so makes laying complicated watercolour washes quite difficult, as in this case where I've had to work the darker sky round the light foreground berg. Even wetting the paper first still leaves one prone to ugly brushmarks across the cartridge paper. However, as it's just a sketch this doesn't matter. The important thing was to capture the subtle colours in the ice, the slightly darker overall tones on the further skyscraper-like icebergs, and a general sense of the atmosphere. At the same time I wanted to suggest the coldness of the Arctic sea. These aspects are difficult to render with a pencil.

    I regard sketches as working documents which will give me all the information I need to complete a full watercolour painting at home. Photographs help a lot, but often lose the subtleties of tone and colour that is needed to produce an authentic portrait of the scene. And naturally, being out in the natural wilderness sketching is a wonderful therapy, especially when you know that you really don't have to exhibit the result!