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…

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