Italian sunshine

The above diary doesn’t begin to explain the deep delight of a painting holiday at The Watermill in Posara, near Pisa in Italy!  Just seven small pictures chronicle seven days of adventure with brush and paint in the great outdoors.

My purpose was to find out what was needed to successfully paint outside,  and indeed I fulfilled that purpose, due in no small part to the comprehensive but unobtrusive organisation and care of our hosts, and the focussed help of our tutor.    It was a working holiday – there was no doubt about that – two paintings at different sites every day, and the sites so varied, mountains, sea side, villages, cloisters, hill towns, fast flowing rivers.    But such was the level of planning, that the biggest non-painting decision I had to take was whether to red or white wine at dinner, real bliss to be able to concentrate on painting alone.

Day one, and we were painting in the courtyard of the Mill itself.   This is the corner of one of the buildings that surround it, a beautiful golden render (Quinacridone Gold and a touch of Orange) with big shuttered windows.  It was a baptism of fire, straight in, no drawing, don’t spend too long at it – exhilarating.  I did more than one but this is the best of the bunch.

Then, after  lunch, we were up a grassy alley to paint some of the houses of the village.  Here is a longer view, a more considered painting.  I think you can see I was struggling to cope with water, paint brush, paper and easel! In fact, I forgot how to paint!  Colour mixing ideas went out of the window, brush strokes didn’t exist.  Nothing seemed to be where it usually was when painting at home.  It took me a day or so to  realise that I had taken too much equipment with me.    By the end of the week, a big pocket, rather than a big bag would hold most of what I needed.

Koala – sort of!

I have to say, I’m rather pleased with this.  It doesn’t look much like a Koala – the eye is too big for the size of the head –  more of a rat or squirrel with long hairy ears, but the loose style, especially for an animal, is a new achievement for me.  The beast, whatever it is, looks alive!   I’d never have got here if it hadn’t been for the experimentation I’ve been doing lately.  My thanks to Mike Wildridge and Jean Haines.

I started with the eye and sighted the nose from there.  A little modelling to join them up, just light spots of colour whisked away by wetted brush.  Next I tried to define the shape of the head at the top, again whisking the rather darker paint away following the fall of the hair on the ears.  I’ve lost his chin (Hazel Soan: form first then texture, why don’t I remember?) and needed to resort to Opaque White to find his ruff, but it is certainly worth another go.

This is an excellent example of my new mantra, “If you want to paint loosely, you must learn to draw accurately”!


The Ghan

This is altogether a brighter image.  It’s the usual shot of the front and side of the engine, referred to by railway photographers as a “three quarter wedge”.    I’m using paints fairly new to me, Quinacridone Red and Indanthrene Blue.  These are carbon colours, transparent, making a beautiful purple when mixed together.

This time I started with the Engine itself, free hand, straight in with the paint.  I wanted the image to be crisp, rising out of the blur of ground, under carriage and sky.  Then I sloshed in the sky allowing it to blend with the red as it came towards the ground,  thought “this isn’t going well!”, left it to dry and found the watercolour elves had been at it.  It has possibilities, after all.

It looks too much like a bus but the vestiges of an undercarriage will help.  Neither colour alone will give a very dark tone, but the two mixed together at their most intense are blissful.

Working on the dry surface, I tried vigorous strokes of intense blue alone, and mixed with red to give energy to the motion of the train, and completed details of the nose to express the immense height of the beast.

The drawing is not up to scratch but there is some sense of the train arriving at speed.  Certainly I have a painting, not a copy of a rather uninspiring photo but I still haven’t truly understood how to translate such a hard edged image into a painting I’d want to sign.  So I’m going to try a Koala next.



Where next?

It’s all very well to try someone else’s technique, but apart from the fun one should explore it to see what, if anything, one can do with it from one’s own inspiration.  I loved the looseness of the style – the blending, swirling, bleeding,  thinning of the watercolour paint are integral to its magic.

I think in last week’s effort, I tried to define the picture too soon.  The straight line of the water’s edge was too definite, and since it crossed the page from edge to edge, was far too dominant.  The real dominance should be the brooding cloud and the bright sea.  Then again, the lighter hillside was in advance of the darker one, and while that is not necessarily a design fault, in this case, I think it is .  And finally. I think the Indigo needed a bit of warmth added.

Taking that analysis as my starting point, I tried again.  Certainly, start with deep Indigo in the top corner, but instead of clean water  as my diluent I used Ultramarine Blue, again stopping the diagonal flow but allowing the darker Indigo to cross it.  Lots of water near the shore line,  then introduce Manganese Blue fairly strongly in the middle without defining that shore line for its full length.  It’s hard to resist the impulse to fiddle as you can see from the bottom of the painting!    But I feel this is an improvement on the last one.  It allows for the addition of a few details when the painting is completely dry.

Duly added.    I think this is a reasonable result.  I introduced more Ultramarine Blue in the sky and put in the steamer.  I also defined the plunging mountain more carefully so that the lighter one does go behind it.  There is a very fine line defining the shore in front of the boat . The painting is not as dark as the first image suggests so I lightened the photo and this  has enhanced the image!  There’s a feeling of moving towards the light.

I’m going to explore further next week but I’m using one of my photos from Australia.  I’ll look for something less gloomy.



The threatening storm

This is fun, just the job for a rainy afternoon.  It’s a bit of a mash up, derived from the third and final painting in the watercolour class and  from a DVD I have by Jean Haines, “Watercolour Passion”.    Both tutors were using very wet paint,  Mike to create an atmosphere and Jean to loosen the mind and hand/arm in watercolour exercises which might, or might not be useful later.

The image for the course painting was of Milford Sound in New Zealand, with steep slopes and lowering clouds, a bright sea and a small steamer.  Mike was mixing his colours on the palette to achieve his vision, but Jean’s use of intense neat colour in the presence of copious amounts of water appealed to the colourist in me.

I set the board at an acute angle about 45 degrees, and the paper at an angle on the board, as you can see.  The intention is to encourage the paint to run diagonally down the paper.  Using my squirrel mop, I started in the top corner using neat Indigo,just a few strokes fanning out.  Then I loaded the cleaned brush with  clean water stroking some at the edge of my paint strokes and some in the dark wet Indigo so that it ran in varying strengths but always diagonally.   I had a picture to paint (!) so I stopped  the careering paint with a stroke of clean water in the opposite direction defending the dry paper behind it which  later had pale colour added.   About half way down the paper I needed to make room the sea,  so I laid a piece of clean cloth across the paper and mopped up the excess water.   I laid damp brush strokes of clean water across the sea horizontally, letting the mountains bleed a bit.  I did enjoy that!

Let it dry thoroughly.

I used Manganese blue for the water, turning the paper to an upright position and using it quite intensely near the mountains, adding water as  I  approached the bottom of the paper.  At this board angle you don’t get cauliflowers!  Some dry brush strokes added craggy detail to the mountains.  Again let it dry thoroughly.   Finally I put in the steamer to give scale to the mountains and give humanity to the painting.  Though it’s not a masterpiece, it was exhilarating.  I think I prefer stage one to the finished result.

Waterfall – Brecon Beacons

This is a very busy scene with three waterfalls, a dark cave, spring sunshine and a very rock-strewn stream.  This is my third attempt – one, a disaster, two, Disneyland, three, flattered by the photograph!  From choice, I would have painted this in pastel, either soft pastel or oil ones giving help to the many textures.  But it was the subject of my second Zoom lesson, so watercolour it had to be.

In this one, I began with the sunlit rocky hillside, dropping in the ochres, siennas and muted greens.  Then I introduced more detail with stronger versions of those colours and finally laid in the darks to give form.   On the cave side, the introductory washes were darker, as you can see on the nearer rock face.   After it had dried, I re-wet the part where the cave was going to be, being careful to give a crisp edge on the right hand side.  At that point I dropped in very strong Indigo, letting it bleed into the wetted area and introducing Burnt Sienna, then Raw Sienna as the paint moved to the  left.

At this stage I thought I was heading for Attempt Four,  but before I despaired, I put in the water, and life got better.   The form of the central rock went in using ochres and Ultramarine Blue, the exposed stream bed  being muted tones of the same colours.  Dry brush strokes gave depth to the falls, and I will admit to white gouache to save the day in places.

Painting with Zoom

For the next three weeks I shall be attending an on line watercolour painting course on Zoom.  It’s always interesting to see how other artists tackle a subject and I wanted to get to know the teacher, or at least learn something about his methods, since I will be attending one of his courses in person soon.  That will be about “painting outside”, something I have very little experience of,  as circumstances have dictated that I work mainly from my own photographs.  It turns out that he paints very like I do, which means I only have to cope with “outside”!

Teaching via Zoom requires a different approach to face to face lessons. For one thing, he had 100 students from all over the world, some painting after a day’s work, and others up before breakfast.   Some were absolute  beginners while the rest had varying  painting skills.  With this  set up, the usual demo followed by personal advice as class members work at their own paintings would be impossible.  In the event, he painted a passage, then the students essayed the same (we were all working from the same photo). Then we proceeded to the next passage.

As you can see, it is a fairly simple image of three figures on a beach, backlit and with reflections on the watery shore.  We started with the sky and the distant hills, working through the sea onto the wet sand in the foreground strengthening the tones at the second pass.  The figures are virtually silhouettes, the light catching the shoulders thrown up by the darker background and the silhouetted shapes.  the reflections were placed on a damp surface.

The inevitable start-stop nature  of the lesson took some getting used to both for him and for me.  Working to someone else’s brief was a useful experience.  Next week we are painting a waterfall.



Back to oil painting

I’ve returned to oils for this painting.  It’s a view of the Yarra upstream of Melbourne and is the type of scene I enjoy painting in oils.

It never ceases to amaze me how much you can say with a  mishmash of colours and tones and stroke directions.  I do like to get the picture on the canvas as  soon as possible for after that,  you are only pulling out detail and refining strokes.  This took all of 15 minutes.    It is ” hold your breath and concentrate hard” sort of stuff.

The trees and bushes are laid in with scribbles of paint matching the tones in my source without worrying about what they represent, aiming for as much variation in colour as I can find, dark over light and vice versa.  When I arrived at the water line, brush strokes became strictly vertical, echoing the colours and tones above without being too pedantic about it.  Then the bright reeds and a couple of tree trunks were sketched in with a turpsy rag.  Reflections of the sky do strike across the water but that’s for a later date.

The secret is to be as loosely accurate (!) as you can with your tones.  You don’t have to be precise about the shapes of the tones, but they should be, broadly speaking, in the right place!

Canoeing – Katherine Gorge 2

The water makes such a difference, providing both context and contrast.

You can see the depth of the overhang and the scale of the cliff in comparison to the canoeists.  The overhang casts a very strong shadow, the counterchange with the cliff making it appear even stronger.  The water is in shadow too, the only relief there being the canoe itself.

The palette is very restricted, only Prussian Blue and Cadmium Red, their pale presence visible in the cliff face.  These two, mixed richly together give a vibrant black.  Dilute the mix and you get varying greys and browns.   The river was created by wetting the area, avoiding the canoe and people, then adding a strong Prussian Blue stroke where it meets the cliff.  The Prussian Blue bled into the watery glaze, lightening as it went.  Just before it dried, I ran strong Cadmium Red into the Strong Prussian Blue, that bled just enough to blacken the area under the cliff, but not advance into the lighter water.

Canoeing – Katherine Gorge

I’m back in Australia, where I was a year ago today, though this scene is from later in the holiday.

Part of the holiday was a train ride on The Ghan – my bucket list isn’t very big, but this trip was definitely on it.  We started in Alice Springs (see “the Red Desert” from January of this year) and The Ghan took us North, eventually  to Darwin.  On the way, we spent half a day gliding down Katherine Gorge, cool on the water.  Lots of Geology! and here is some of it.

I love the colours in the rock, this sheer cliff face faceted and patterned, crying out for watercolour.  I had an idea that the myriad undercuts would work well using the deeper colour which gathers at the base of a stroke as the defining technique.

As you can see, the idea had merit, but … there is always a but! I left the piece to dry unattended, the paper cockled, and my beautiful undercuts cauliflowered, every one.  “I think I’d better think this out again.”  The answer seemed to be to put in the deep undercuts by hand and run a wet brush underneath them when they were damp but not watery.  I hope that description makes sense.  It  probably will when you see the next photo.  Then I used dry brush to indicate the lesser variations .

If you look just above my painting you will see the photo I’m working from.  At the bottom of the painting you can just see the shape of the two canoeists passing a very deep overhang, and the water itself is still to come.