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.

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.