Watercolour isn’t exactly known for being an adventurous pass-time. But after last month’s painting in a storm in Amsterdam, this month I was out painting in sub-zero temperatures in the French Alps. (Perhaps this says more about my sanity than anything else.) Here’s the finished piece, of the valley in Les Gets, in the Portes du Soleil ski area:
This was painted in two super-short sessions (40 minutes each) for reasons you can probably guess. I was on the chalet balcony around 5pm, and the sun had just set behind the mountains as the valley filled with an icy mist. Even in full ski gear and thin gloves, I was still feeling pretty chilly at -4 degrees. After the first wash, I noticed all these strange dark gritty bits in my palette – which turned out to be ice: my pool of colour had frozen. The same thing was happening on the paper. You can just about see the miniature dark snowballs of paint in the photo below. After that, I tried using very hot water for a while to mix with, but there was nothing for it to head inside to defrost myself and my painting, then continue the next afternoon.
The picture on the left is an earlier pencil sketch of the same view. When I came to the painting, I decided to minimise the tall tree in the centre as as it was too distracting (in retrospect I should also have moved it to the side to improve the composition). After a brief sketch (a vague line for the mountain ridges and some outlines of the major chalets) I was ready for action:
Stage one: first wash. The key with a painting like this is to remember to reserve highlights. There’s no going back! This began as a sky-coloured wash of cobalt and a bit of light red, which I brought down to the mid-ground. Once it had slightly dried, I dropped in the line of trees on the top right, getting (roughly) the blurred effect I wanted. I then carried the wash down, varying it for interest with Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna as I cut around the snow-buried chalet rooves and piste. A few darker touches of the same mix with a bit of Paynes Grey strengthened the contrast in the foreground roof and the focal point, the buildings on the rights.
Stage two: detail. Though it might not look it, the difficult part of this painting was 90% done in the first wash. If you have a strong base, all that needs to be added is some definition to the existing shapes: in this case, chimneys, windows, shadows and lots of trees. All this was painted in fairly dry, then edges softened here and there to avoid the detail looking “stuck-on”. I also added some more distinct trees to the ridge, to show how it looms over the snowy little village.
As final touches, I redefined the second tree-line, which had got lost in my earlier wash, developed a bit of detail with a dry brush, and added a couple of street lights for scale. Then it was time to defrost!
Les Gets, France. Jonathan Bray 2016
Key Materials used:
- Daler-Rowney The Langton Prestige Cold Press (Not) Watercolour Block 14×10″
- Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable Water Colour Brush (size 8)
- Winsor and Newton artists’ watercolours