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.
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 wash
Stage two: Main shapes
Stage three: Detail – the finished piece
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