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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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

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