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:
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!
Last Sunday I was monopolising the cafe table with the best view on Avenue de l’Opéra. These are the prep studies in preparation for my main painting below. I don’t always bother with these (there are only so many coffees you can drink in one sitting). But they are extremely useful for working out what is going on under the surface before you start.
What a mess! These are the bare bones of the painting – the main perspective lines (which I think most people get right) and the main colour and tone changes (which are easy to overlook).
Watercolour washes look most alive when there is a change of hue or tone across a shape. Look closely and almost every “flat” surface you see gradually changes colour. This effect is most marked when you have strong cast shadows, as the edge of a cast shadow will look much bluer because it is next to yellow sunlight. Ruskin talks about this in his section on “local colour” in The Elements of Drawing (Dover Art Instruction, 2012) – and suggests that you should look through a small window in a piece of white card to make it easier to truly judge a colour in isolation.
Similarly, buildings against the sky will often have a much darker tone against the sky than mid-way down the facade.
This is the “full” prep study. The role of this study is to decide the main tonal relationships between the far side of the street, the Opéra Garnier in the background, the near buildings and the people and streetlights in the foreground.
I got a bit carried away with this one – four quick washes would have got the job done. But the sun was shining, I was trying out a new drawing pen, and with a quick prep study I often feel nothing can go wrong and if it does, who cares?
After all that, I didn’t have much time to do more than get my drawing down for the main painting and lay in a first couple of washes. By then the sun had moved round so the colours and tones were changing – definitely time for lunch.
I finished the painting using my reference studies later in the afternoon in my studio (ok, ok – on my dining table).
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.
More quick figure sketching from a cafe near near Place Marcel Pagnol, using a Faber Castell watercolour pencil, a Pentel Tradio Pulaman Pen(and liberal splashes of water). The pen is a recent purchase at the wonderfully antiquated Sennelier shop on the Left Bank – I couldn’t help myself. It has an unusual felt-tip “nib” which is good for quick sketches and the ink dilutes nicely with water.
This is what happens when you’re trying to paint as much as you can before you’re due at the office… this was all painted into a single wet wash, starting with the sky and road then dropping in the far buildings, near cafe, people then awnings while still damp. If only I’d waited! Though the blooms aren’t too bad, I’ve completely lost control of the side of the building on the left. I show you my attempts to fix this in a later post.
Clearly I should have ordered another coffee.
Paris is emptying as the locals depart for the South, for the West, for Italy – anywhere with a beach. I have been sketching in line and wash from the cafés still open. You can build a much more finished image than pencil alone; and much better reference for a painting. And if you make a mistake with the initial pencil drawing – who cares! – it can be covered with the wash and ink.
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.