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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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

KEY MATERIALS USED:

 

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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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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.

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

Impatience

This is what happens when you’re trying to paint as much as you can before you’re due at the office… this was all painted into a single wet wash, starting with the sky and road then dropping in the far buildings, near cafe, people then awnings while still damp. If only I’d waited! Though the blooms aren’t too bad, I’ve completely lost control of the side of the building on the left. I show you my attempts to fix this in a later post.

Clearly I should have ordered another coffee.