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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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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Too much snow in Alagna, Valsesia

We had a couple of meters of snow in the Italian Alps last week… so much snow that the ski lifts opened late some mornings, while the mountain patrol bashed the pistes into shape.

Still, every cloud… These are the sketches I did over cappuccino and cornetto from the great café next to the ski lift, and the final studio painting.  They are a good example of developing an image over several iterations (hopefully without getting totally bored of it).

Alagna - sketch - Jonathan Bray

This was the view from my café table (graphite on paper with a little ink added at the end). It’s a great scene but I decided that I wanted more mountains in it, so the composition was more about the village cradled by the dramatic wooded slopes, than the village itself. The car in the foreground also dominates a bit.

Alagna - plein air

Alagna, Valsesia, plein air 30 x 20 cm

This was painted a couple of days later (standing outside the café in my ski gear, looking mildly deranged) while killing a couple of hours until the lifts opened. You can see I have pulled back the composition a bit – helped by the fact that the cloud was no longer hanging low in the valley and hiding the mountains.

This was the half-way point:

Alagna - half way

Notice that the painting was almost entirely monocrome until this stage. It also looked pretty flat. The problem is that there’s no difference in tone or  hue between foreground and background.  I find it far too easy to get absorbed in painting individual details and literally ignore the bigger picture. To fix it, I brought a wash of Cobalt Blue down from the sky to the tops of the houses, pushing back the tones (and the blue adding a bit of aerial perspective). Adding more Neutral Tint, I joined this with the shadows in the foreground. Lastly, I brought in some richer darks in the foreground buildings so they catch the eye more.  Take another look at the two images together – did it work?

Later, back at home, I produced the larger painting below. By now I was fairly happy with the tones and colours but wanted to broaden the view even more to show the grand sweep of the mountains.

Alagna - studio - Jonathan Bray

Alagna, Valsesia  38 x 21 cm

Other than the wider format, it’s also obvious that I had much more time to build up textures and detail in this one (something to do with not standing out in the cold?)  I think the near building works better being closer, too, as it is now more clearly separated from the other buildings, and echoes the line of the mountain above it and leads the eye into the center of the picture.  Next year’s Christmas card, perhaps?

Eventually, the slopes opened and the sun came out.  So much for painting.

Alagna slopes bw

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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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Frozen Paint!

Watercolour isn’t exactly known for being an adventurous pass-time.  But after last month’s painting in a storm in Amsterdam, this month I was out painting in sub-zero temperatures in the French Alps.  (Perhaps this says more about my sanity than anything else.) Here’s the finished piece, of the valley in Les Gets, in the Portes du Soleil ski area:

Les Gets - Jonathan Bray

This was painted in two super-short sessions (40 minutes each) for reasons you can probably guess.  I was on the chalet balcony around 5pm, and the sun had just set behind the mountains as the valley filled with an icy mist.  Even in full ski gear and thin gloves, I was still feeling pretty chilly at -4 degrees.  After the first wash, I noticed all these strange dark gritty bits in my palette – which turned out to be ice: my pool of colour had frozen. The same thing was happening on the paper.  You can just about see the miniature dark snowballs of paint in the photo below.  After that, I tried using very hot water for a while to mix with, but there was nothing for it to head inside to defrost myself and my painting, then continue the next afternoon.

The picture on the left is an earlier pencil sketch of the same view.  When I came to the painting, I decided to minimise the tall tree in the centre as as it was too distracting (in retrospect I should also have moved it to the side to improve the composition).  After a brief sketch (a vague line for the mountain ridges and some outlines of the major chalets) I was ready for action:

Les Gets I

Stage one: first wash. The key with a painting like this is to remember to reserve highlights.  There’s no going back!  This began as a sky-coloured wash of cobalt and a bit of light red, which I brought down to the mid-ground. Once it had slightly dried, I dropped in  the line of trees on the top right, getting (roughly) the blurred effect I wanted.  I then carried the wash down, varying it for interest with Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna as I cut around the snow-buried chalet rooves and piste. A few darker touches of the same mix with a bit of Paynes Grey strengthened the contrast in the foreground roof and the focal point, the buildings on the rights.

Les Gets II

Stage two: detail.  Though it might not look it, the difficult part of this painting was 90% done in the first wash.  If you have a strong base, all that needs to be added is some definition to the existing shapes: in this case, chimneys, windows, shadows and lots of trees.  All this was painted in fairly dry, then edges softened here and there to avoid the detail looking “stuck-on”. I also added some more distinct trees to the ridge, to show how it looms over the snowy little village.

As final touches, I redefined the second tree-line, which had got lost in my earlier wash, developed a bit of detail with a dry brush, and added a couple of street lights for scale. Then it was time to defrost!

Les Gets - Jonathan Bray

Les Gets, France.  Jonathan Bray 2016

Key Materials used:

 

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