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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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…