Too much snow in Alagna, Valsesia

We had a couple of meters of snow in the Italian Alps last week… so much snow that the ski lifts opened late some mornings, while the mountain patrol bashed the pistes into shape.

Still, every cloud… These are the sketches I did over cappuccino and cornetto from the great café next to the ski lift, and the final studio painting.  They are a good example of developing an image over several iterations (hopefully without getting totally bored of it).

Alagna - sketch - Jonathan Bray

This was the view from my café table (graphite on paper with a little ink added at the end). It’s a great scene but I decided that I wanted more mountains in it, so the composition was more about the village cradled by the dramatic wooded slopes, than the village itself. The car in the foreground also dominates a bit.

Alagna - plein air

Alagna, Valsesia, plein air 30 x 20 cm

This was painted a couple of days later (standing outside the café in my ski gear, looking mildly deranged) while killing a couple of hours until the lifts opened. You can see I have pulled back the composition a bit – helped by the fact that the cloud was no longer hanging low in the valley and hiding the mountains.

This was the half-way point:

Alagna - half way

Notice that the painting was almost entirely monocrome until this stage. It also looked pretty flat. The problem is that there’s no difference in tone or  hue between foreground and background.  I find it far too easy to get absorbed in painting individual details and literally ignore the bigger picture. To fix it, I brought a wash of Cobalt Blue down from the sky to the tops of the houses, pushing back the tones (and the blue adding a bit of aerial perspective). Adding more Neutral Tint, I joined this with the shadows in the foreground. Lastly, I brought in some richer darks in the foreground buildings so they catch the eye more.  Take another look at the two images together – did it work?

Later, back at home, I produced the larger painting below. By now I was fairly happy with the tones and colours but wanted to broaden the view even more to show the grand sweep of the mountains.

Alagna - studio - Jonathan Bray

Alagna, Valsesia  38 x 21 cm

Other than the wider format, it’s also obvious that I had much more time to build up textures and detail in this one (something to do with not standing out in the cold?)  I think the near building works better being closer, too, as it is now more clearly separated from the other buildings, and echoes the line of the mountain above it and leads the eye into the center of the picture.  Next year’s Christmas card, perhaps?

Eventually, the slopes opened and the sun came out.  So much for painting.

Alagna slopes bw

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Seagulls and focus, Brighton

Brighton sketching

I am used to getting attention from passers-by while sketching – but this was a whole new level. This painting, of Trafalgar Street in Brighton, was carried out under the beady gaze of a particularly determined seagull. Obviously he was an art lover.

Brighton seagull bw

It was a beautifully clear day in Brighton and the sun was casting good shadows across the pleasantly battered-looking terraces. This was the chief attraction of the view (along with the  ability to sketch from the excellent Bread and Milk café).  I also liked the hazy background, which is a good excuse to use some wet-on-wet.

I’ve included below some photos of the three main stages of the picture – base wash, main shapes, and detail.  But the main thing I want to talk about is creating a focal point in a picture.

I am one of those painters whose natural tendency is to sketch in way too much detail – so that in the finished painting, everything is “in focus”.  Unless you’re into technical illustration, this is almost always a mistake.  In real life, you focus on the centre of attention and the periphery blurs into a familiar but indistinct mass.  Easy to say – but difficult to paint.

Here, after putting in the major shapes and loose detail in stage 2, I had to physically stop myself (well, I ordered another coffee) from working back and forth over the whole painting with my detail brush. I made a conscious decision to put the most detail into the central group of trees and the figure crossing the road: and leave the rest with just a few quick touches of contrast. But I could easily have chosen to focus attention on the near café, or the shops on the right – it’s really up to you.

You can judge for yourself if you think this works.  I think it’s certainly better than my tendency to over-detail the nearest part of the foreground – which in city paintings is normally off to one side, and so distracts attention away from the centre of the picture. I also think it’s interesting that a true master of plein-air watercolour (someone like Alvaro Castagnet) would jump straight from a bold stage 1 to deft stage 3 – without all that bother in the middle… clearly something to try next time.

Stage one: Base washBrighton stage 1

Stage two: Main shapesBrighton - stage 2

Stage three: Detail – the finished piece

Brighton Trafalgar Street - Jonathan Bray

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