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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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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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

KEY MATERIALS USED:

 

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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

 

Contre-jour

Here’s an example of why you can afford to be bold with your first wash.  On Sunday I was back in London, braving the crowds in Leicester Square to paint this.  I was painting into the strong yellow winter sunset, which gave the scene a wonderful warm glow.

This is the very first wash, and a poor photo of it:

Leicester Square - first washLeicester Square (photo)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now this first wash may look horribly bold and non-realistic, but my thinking was:

  • In real life, the scene was positively glowing – the photo doesn’t do it justice.  Digital cameras are designed to normalise colours unless you use a sunset setting, so often won’t record strong colour casts accurately.
  • Most of this will be covered up by later (largely grey) washes.  So the only “pure” bits of wash showing will be reserved highlights (where the colour won’t be noticeable) and in the sky (which isn’t so bold)
  • The colour that shows through will gently boost the general mood without looking too strong.

You can see that I also didn’t want too much attention paid to the figures, which I prefer to leave as a near-abstract mass.  Details can come later – but that’s for another post!

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.