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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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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Rue de Maubeuge

Ah, la nostalgie…  This was the view a few minutes from our Paris flat on Rue  Rodier:

Watercolour painting on paper by Jonathan Bray of Rue de Maubeuge Paris

My aim here was to be quite precise with the outline shapes – but totally out of control with everything else.  (Well, I managed the second bit.)  I like the balance between formality/looseness and want to develop this further in some larger paintings.

Phase 1: Far buildings

After the light sky wash (forgetting as normal to retain enough highlights) the buildings went on.  A few different colour mixes went into this – but it needs to be WET, so mix enough paint before you start. Thicker (but not too much darker) paint was used at the base.  Look how much lighter it has dried by stage 2.

Maubeuge - stage 1

Stage 2: Near buildings

Not really a separate stage at all, just rolling on a big wash and splashing on new colours with the board tilted steeply to creat flow effects. (See I failed to follow my own advice and let the paint dry too much on the far right side, leading to a slight bloom.)

Maubeuge - stage 2

Stage 3: Road

Not much going on here: but it was quite difficult to keep this wash light enough in the distance, and strong enough in the foreground. I scraped some lines in the drying paint with a clean, dry brush.

Maubeuge - stage 3

Stage 4: Finish

I took a deep breath, and brushed on soppingly wet colour for the hotel on the left, running it straight down into the shadow. Some even darker paint was then dropped into the middle of the wash to flow down into the shadow wash (and, yeah, all over the table)  A few last details were then painted in – the sign, the balcony – being careful to join into the main wsah while still wet.

Watercolour painting on paper by Jonathan Bray of Rue de Maubeuge Paris

 

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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

 

Too basic?

I almost gave up on this after the first wash, as it looked too boring! I had managed to head out sketching without any pencils, so as you can imagine there wasn’t much detail. Here I have started to add some detail on top with pencil as a framework for the next layer of paint. Turns out that this is quite a good fix if, like me, you have a tendency to drown your drawings in details.

Half-way house.

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.