Horses, etc

Watercolour of Whitehall by Jonathan Bray

Military horses make perfect models.  This is what I discovered while painting on Whitehall in London, a few yards down from the Household Cavalry post outside Horseguards.  The horse managed to remain near-motionless for at least an hour (which is a lot longer than I did).

A few thoughts:

  • The hardest thing was to ignore the bustling background along Whitehall, and let it melt into one gorgeously wet wash. After the sky, this was the first part to be painted and the was that sets the high-summer mood of the painting.
  • Detail has a nasty habit of looking “stuck-on” if it is painted onto dry paper or has only hard edges.  Look at the bike and horse:  each were painted in one go, allowing the blocks of colour to merge into one another.
  • Dry-brush also works to break up shapes – look at the near bollards.
  • If in doubt, cheat.  In July, no tree is quite this transparent – but if I had made the foliage opaque you wouldn’t be able to see Big Ben.

 

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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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Redchurch Street and Brick Lane

Sun, finally: so off to Redchurch Street in Shoreditch to monopolise a table outside the great Barber & Parlour with my sketchbook. This began life as some rough scribbles in soluble watercolour pencil, followed by a wash from a Derwent waterbrush pen, then inked detail and darks with a Winsor & Newton Paynes Grey brushpen. Accidental addition: white americano.

The bar at the corner of Redchurch Street and Brick Lane has a large sign outside saying “No Hipsters: Keep out, with your silly hats and bushy beards” – being happily disregarded by their entire clientele.

 

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Extreme Amsterdam

Or at least, extreme weather. I braved the elements on a (relatively) sheltered café terrace as the storm raged across the canals. With frequent gusts sending rain spitting across my paper, a tight painting was never using to happen. So instead I ordered a generous beer and dropped a load of colour onto the damp paper.  What made it harder was the strong orange glare of the street lamps which made it impossible to judge colour accurately.

First washes for Amsterdam painting

This was the base wash that would later become the windows and reserved highlights. I honestly never thought it was going to dry. The wind was pushing the pigment around on the paper and the spray creating a nice mottled texture… but the paper was getting damper by the second.  I painted in the sky with a fairly strong mix of light red and cobalt, then retreated inside the café.

Amsterdam II

 

Next came the beautiful canalside buildings of Keizersgracht – visible through the rain as a low dark mass. This was painted as a single varied wash: light red, ultramarine, burnt sienna – whatever  was to hand.  Once this was sort-olf dry, a bit of loose wet detail came in, toghether with the canal’s choppy reflections and the foreground.

Stormy Night in Amsterdam

Here’s the finished painting.  I had fun with the trees and bikes, slopping on rough shapes of wheels and branches in a weak wash, then adding stronger, more precise details.  The final touch was a fair bit of highlight detail in various opaque shades of titanium-white, which I also used to recover a few windows I’d accidentally painted over in my earlier exuberance. Arguably this should be a bit finer, but as the shapes merge together it doesn’t jar too much.

Looking at the final painting, I think it needs a rain-swept figure or two, desperately trying to keep their umbrella from blowing inside out. Still, next time…

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.

Contre-jour

Here’s an example of why you can afford to be bold with your first wash.  On Sunday I was back in London, braving the crowds in Leicester Square to paint this.  I was painting into the strong yellow winter sunset, which gave the scene a wonderful warm glow.

This is the very first wash, and a poor photo of it:

Leicester Square - first washLeicester Square (photo)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now this first wash may look horribly bold and non-realistic, but my thinking was:

  • In real life, the scene was positively glowing – the photo doesn’t do it justice.  Digital cameras are designed to normalise colours unless you use a sunset setting, so often won’t record strong colour casts accurately.
  • Most of this will be covered up by later (largely grey) washes.  So the only “pure” bits of wash showing will be reserved highlights (where the colour won’t be noticeable) and in the sky (which isn’t so bold)
  • The colour that shows through will gently boost the general mood without looking too strong.

You can see that I also didn’t want too much attention paid to the figures, which I prefer to leave as a near-abstract mass.  Details can come later – but that’s for another post!