Return to Herengracht

What a difference 6 months makes.  Painting in Amsterdam last November, I was struggling to shelter my paper (and beer) from a violent thunderstorm.  Now the challenge was not to doze off in the balmy summer sunshine, having walked round and round the curious Canal Museum.

Watercolour painting on paper by Jonathan Bray of Herengracht, Amsterdam

Herengracht is my favourite of Amsterdam’s canals, and in summer the trees throw blue shadows across the bright pavements. This painting began life as a quick sketch in watercolour and ink and a number of colour notes, which grew into the finished painting above.

Watercolour painting on paper by Jonathan Bray of Herengracht, Amsterdam

Prep. Study – Line & Wash

This was the initial drawing.  This too would make a decent composition, but I wanted to show more reflections and the way that the buildings recede in the hazy sunlight.  This said, the bridge is the obvious centre of interest so it would need to remain the boldest shape in the bigger painting.

Herengracht summer - stage 1

Stage 1 – first washes

The first wash was slapped on with gay abandon:  a cobalt blue sky, taking on raw sienna and ochre half-way down and brought down oto the pavements.  While still wet, I added some more tone to the buildings and ultramarine shadows, then a few minutes later the distant trees.  The reflections then went on, dropping in lots of different wet colours for reflections, and lastly the bridge and dark canalside. Throughout, the aim is to keep varying the colour or tone to keep it interesting and avoid the look of an “illustration”.

Herengracht summer - stage 2

Stage 2 – Tone and texture

Here comes the detail. Or at least, enough texture and variation to make it look like there’s detail even though there isn’t.  The shadows are important as without them it will be impossible to give a sense of what shape the trees are.  Is this because I am rubbish at trees, or because I didn’t want to make them over detailed?  Hmmn.

Herengracht summer - stage 3

Stage 3 – Splash on the trees

By now the hard work of a watercolour is basically done, but it is still far too easy to spoil it.  Slightly apprehensive, on went the trees.  You absolutely must mix up large pools of colour for this, as any delay is fatal and leads to eye-catching “blooms”. More colour was dropped into the wet wash for variation (and you can see just how wet from the drips on the right).

At this point, I had a panic that I’d never be able to turn this splashy mess into anything approaching trees, and had to have a beer to console myself.

Watercolour painting on paper by Jonathan Bray of Herengracht, Amsterdam

Finishing touches

Lastly, the real detail is added – bridge railings and people, lamps, tree trunks, bikes, near people. This order was deliberate, as the detail in the centre is essential, but I could stop if I felt the rest was beginning to pull focus.  I’m surprised quite how little it takes to turn the green splashes into trees. Only in the near tree on the right did I feel a bit of leaf detail was needed.  So all in all, I’m happy with it – time to look at more flights to Amsterdam.

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Borough High Street, London

Borough High Street - Jonathan Bray

Sketching on a grey Saturday, from a conveniently-placed Pret à Manger at the London Bridge end of Borough High Street.  Wandering about London, I am struck how often Pret have bagged all the best sketching spots – clearly they are sympathetic towards artists.

The was a fairly swift sketch, not least because it started to rain just as I was finishing: always a surefire way not to over-work a painting.

Watercolour painting on paper by Jonathan Bray of Rue de Maubeuge Paris https://jonathanbrayart.com/gallery-london/

This was the first wash. I thought I had made the heavy shadow from the bridge too dark, but lo and behold it annoyingly faded away while drying, and later needed to be strengthened . I am reminded of a quote of Edward Wesson, one of the masters of twentieth-century British watercolour: “If it looks right when it’s wet, it’ll be wrong when it’s dry”.  I should have this tattooed on my brush-hand.

London Bridge photo

Here’s a photo of the view. Apart from demonstrating that even a good camera can’t record  nearly as wide a range of contrasts as the human eye, it shows that I’ve taken a few liberties with the traffic lights to avoid cluttering things up. Conversely, the picture would probably have benefitted from a few figures in the foreground to break it up – or some judicious cropping.  But still, I’m happy with it given the time constraints. Perhaps I’ll donate it to Pret?

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Rue de Maubeuge

Ah, la nostalgie…  This was the view a few minutes from our Paris flat on Rue  Rodier:

Watercolour painting on paper by Jonathan Bray of Rue de Maubeuge Paris

My aim here was to be quite precise with the outline shapes – but totally out of control with everything else.  (Well, I managed the second bit.)  I like the balance between formality/looseness and want to develop this further in some larger paintings.

Phase 1: Far buildings

After the light sky wash (forgetting as normal to retain enough highlights) the buildings went on.  A few different colour mixes went into this – but it needs to be WET, so mix enough paint before you start. Thicker (but not too much darker) paint was used at the base.  Look how much lighter it has dried by stage 2.

Maubeuge - stage 1

Stage 2: Near buildings

Not really a separate stage at all, just rolling on a big wash and splashing on new colours with the board tilted steeply to creat flow effects. (See I failed to follow my own advice and let the paint dry too much on the far right side, leading to a slight bloom.)

Maubeuge - stage 2

Stage 3: Road

Not much going on here: but it was quite difficult to keep this wash light enough in the distance, and strong enough in the foreground. I scraped some lines in the drying paint with a clean, dry brush.

Maubeuge - stage 3

Stage 4: Finish

I took a deep breath, and brushed on soppingly wet colour for the hotel on the left, running it straight down into the shadow. Some even darker paint was then dropped into the middle of the wash to flow down into the shadow wash (and, yeah, all over the table)  A few last details were then painted in – the sign, the balcony – being careful to join into the main wsah while still wet.

Watercolour painting on paper by Jonathan Bray of Rue de Maubeuge Paris

 

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Simplicity is…

…technique + luck. Sometimes a painting feels like it “paints itself “. But this only happens when you are confident enough in your technique that you can anticipate most of the happy accidents of watercolour – granulation, back-runs, texture – and turn the to your advantage.

This was one of those paintings. I started about 7:30am in Queen Square in Bath, feeling freezing and wondering if watercolour had made me slightly crazy. But it was a beautiful sunrise, the sun streaming past St. Michael’s church leaving the Georgian buildings in bold silhouette.

The painting has 4 layers: sky, shadows, trees and detail. Each was applied quite simply, using a single main effect.

Bath-stage-onetwo.jpg

Stages 1 and 2 – Base wash and shadows: This wash is about granulation.  Applied fairly wetly on rough paper, the Ultramarine + Burnt Umber + Raw Sienna wash breaks down into a fantastic granulated texture.

Stage 3 – Trees:  These trees were painted using (almost) controlled back-runs.  I applied big splashes for the foliage, then joined these with quick strokes of a darker tone for the branches. This allows the water to run into the branches, creating a nice variation and avoiding a “stuck-on” silhouette look.  The railings were quickly sketched in with the same wash, increasing the strength of the mixture in the foreground.

 Stage 4 – Detail:  The finishing touches were added (including a Raw Sienna / Ultramarine wash for the grass, which I’d completely forgotten).  A little goes a long way at this stage, so I limited myself to defining a few stronger branches, to give the trees more depth, and emphasising the bench, which had got a bit lost.

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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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Frozen Paint!

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:

Les Gets - Jonathan Bray

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:

Les Gets I

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.

Les Gets II

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 - Jonathan Bray

Les Gets, France.  Jonathan Bray 2016

Key Materials used:

 

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Night painting demo – Notre Dame

This was my last Paris painting before moving back to England (and – to confess – completed back in the UK). Maybe some of my nostalgia has spilled out onto the paper.

There’s a great little jazz bar/café Aux Trois Mailletz on Rue Saint-Julien le Pauvre which, if you can grab the last table on the terrace, has this incredible view back down to Notre Dame. (Here’s the google StreetView.)

I started with a rough sketch and another of colour notes, before moving to the more accurate drawing and laying in washes. I’m going to run through the main steps and talk a bit about the trickiest part of the painting – getting the sky right.

Initial Sketches

This took some time (i.e. several coffees and a demi pression). Although the washes on top would be thrown on pretty loosely, I wanted to have a decent framework for all the architectural detail – even if I wasn’t going to paint it all.  The painting is quite big for me, too – 33x56cm, on Arches 300gsm rough.

 

Now the fun bit.  This was all splashed on pretty rapidly, making sure to vary my washes as I went (more on this below) then dropping in thicker paint into the wet wash to create some soft detail.

Key Wash – the Sky

This was one of those washes that scared me a bit. Where there’s nothing for it but to mix a huge quantity of paint, take a deep breath, and jump in. The wash is 70% Ultramarine, with Light Red and a bit more water added closer to the horizon, and (whisper it) some Lamp Black stirred in as it gets pretty thick at the top.

Although I mixed a frightening amount of paint, I still ran out. Half by luck, half by design, I was able to time this at the narrow gap where the right tower meets the tree, so it was easy to leave a large blob of paint on the paper here until I’d finished the new mix, and brought the sky round the other side of Notre Dame to meet it. Obviously this doesn’t work for all skies or big expanses, but it’s worth asking yourself “where is the least-bad place for this wash to be broken?”

I actually painted the whole sky in upside down, as I wanted to get maximum control when I was painting around the cathedral, where any inconsistencies in the wash would be more noticeable.

It’s striking quite how much of a difference the sky makes to the rest of the picture – and in particular, to the values. As soon as it went on, I realised that it had been impossible to correctly judge the tone of the walls and Notre Dame itself against the white paper: before, I had actually been worrying that the tones were too dark; now, I thought they looked slightly light.

Value Changes

Night paintings, because they contain lots of different, localised light sources, make far greater use of gradations. Fortunately, this is what watercolour is made for. Almost every surface in the picture is a graduated wash from one colour to another. This is one of the main sources of magic in watercolour – that sense that the painting leaps out at you (and is much more complex than it really is).

It’s important in a painting this size that you keep some big abstract shapes to balance the detailed sections. Here, this role is played by the big shadows in the street which fade out into the road (and break up what would be a boring expanse of paper). Arguably, they don’t do quite enough to enliven the foreground – it could use another few figures in the near-right section.  Perhaps I should go back and add a couple in the near-left area in front of the buildings?

Notre Dame night - Jonathan Bray