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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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

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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

 

Bairro Alto

Lisbon on a Sunday feels like a shared secret. The locals progress in a relaxed fashion from café to café in the Bairro Alto, as do the beautiful antique trams that cruise up and down. Or at least, that’s what it feels like in November.

I found a choice spot on Lago do Chiado and did this quick painting over coffee and pastel de nata. It’s basically just three layers: base wash, main shapes, and detail (making sure each was fully dry before moving on).

This bit didn’t take long! I was concentrating on not making the sky too dark, and getting that washed-out, dusty feel for the mid-ground. But the most important thing is to wash it on quickly so it retains a fresh, loose feel. Lightly spraying a bit of water over the paper first helped this. I built up the colours in the central section – the only place they will actually be visible once it’s finished – and added a few vague details to the still-wet wash to break up the sameness.

Here the real painting began (and arguably finished). This stage took 75% of the time, working out the main tonal relationships and trying to link the main areas of colour. Though the painting still is obviously unfinished, this wouldn’t be apparent from the other side of the room. The fact that you are so close to the paper when painting is probably why it is often so tempting to overdo the next phase – adding fine detail.

The finished painting. Note how the dark lampposts push back the shadow area (just as the shadows in step 2 made the first wash look much lighter).

I’m not dissatisfied with it, but at 30x20cm I do think it pushes the limits of how much scene and detail you can cram onto a smallish bit of paper. More on this to come. In retrospect I should have simplified more or chosen a smaller field of view… but the sun was shining and I couldn’t resist.

Anatomy of a painting

Last Sunday I was monopolising the cafe table with the best view on Avenue de l’Opéra.  These are the prep studies in preparation for my main painting below. I don’t always bother with these (there are only so many coffees you can drink in one sitting).  But they are extremely useful for working out what is going on under the surface before you start.

Avenue de l'Opéra (study II) - Watercolour on paper © Jonathan Bray 2015

What a mess! These are the bare bones of the painting – the main perspective lines (which I think most people get right) and the main colour and tone changes (which are easy to overlook).

Watercolour washes look most alive when there is a change of hue or tone across a shape. Look closely and almost every “flat” surface you see gradually changes colour. This effect is most marked when you have strong cast shadows, as the edge of a cast shadow will look much bluer because it is next to yellow sunlight.  Ruskin talks about this in his section on “local colour” in The Elements of Drawing (Dover Art Instruction, 2012) – and suggests that you should look through a small window in a piece of white card to make it easier to truly judge a colour in isolation.

Similarly, buildings against the sky will often have a much darker tone against the sky than mid-way down the facade.

Avenue de l'Opéra (study I) - Watercolour on paper © Jonathan Bray 2015

This is the “full” prep study.  The role of this study is to decide the main tonal relationships between the far side of the street, the Opéra Garnier in the background, the near buildings and the people and streetlights in the foreground.

I got a bit carried away with this one – four quick washes would have got the job done. But the sun was shining, I was trying out a new drawing pen, and with a quick prep study I often feel nothing can go wrong and if it does, who cares?

Avenue de l'Opéra - Watercolour on paper © Jonathan Bray 2015

After all that, I didn’t have much time to do more than get my drawing down for the main painting and lay in a first couple of washes.  By then the sun had moved round so the colours and tones were changing – definitely time for lunch.

I finished the painting using my reference studies later in the afternoon in my studio (ok, ok – on my dining table).

Boulevard d'Opéra - Jonathan Bray

That first wash

Sometimes I think that 60% of a painting is done in the very first wash. Here you set the base colour for your picture, establish the major forms and (if you remember) reserve a few bits of white paper for highlights.

After you have worked the first wash over the paper and dropped in any stronger colours, you have to let it dry completely. (In the picture below , this was just as well, as I was late for work…)

Saint Augustin From Boulevard des Malesherbes.