I’ve never taken any lessons in watercolours possibly because I’ve only ever used them to add colour to a drawing, but to get the most out of this project, like all my past activities, I have to respect the way they would be traditionally used.
My selection of artists ranged from the big guns like Turner to people I know like Chris Haldane. This was to ensure there was a mix of different styles and approaches to using watercolour. When it was possible I’d watch youtube demonstrations but it was more or less me studying their artwork.
The pieces I chose to copy were based on ones that I could have a bit of a go at without needing their years of experience and practice. My aim wasn’t to replicate their work but follow it enough to give me some insight into their techniques and approach.
Joseph M W Turner
Joseph Turner. Image courtesy of the Tate Britain Gallery
I overworked it towards the end and had to be patient when letting it dry before applying the next layer. It felt like he dabbed the paint on rather than use his signature big broad swooshes seen in his oil paintings, most possibly because watercolour is immediately absorbed into the paper not giving him time to pull it around the page.
The initial build up of the shape was good and felt instinctive in technique which helped unify the picture. Copying is not a method I use much to learn from so it was really difficult to do. To help me I had to imagine how Turner might have seen it on the day and develop the scene logically.
Alan Ridley. Image courtesy of Alan Ridley’s Flickr page
Ridley uses very minimal structural lines which was a key ingredient for all the artists I chose. He create the shapes with large brushstrokes and that keeps most of his colours clean. Even when they overlap or blend there’s no going over it a couple of times or fiddling around with it thereby muddying the colours. I guess that’s how he keeps those bright sections so luminous. I also love the contrast of placing cool and warm colours next to each other – its a great universal technique.
My example didn’t bleed as much because I was using smaller amounts of paint from my half pan travel set. I really like this approach as it lets the paints and brushes do their thing. The overlapping of the paint, especially warm over blue gives it that extra dimension but as usual I overworked it.
Carol Readman. Image courtesy of Art by the Sea Gallery
Readman’s work is a good example of negative painting. There’s a nice soft texture that she clearly spent time developing. To save time I tried using a flat broad brush and once I applied the paint, removed it to try and achieve a burnished feel. This is also another example of using warm against cool for dynamism.
Hector Gilliland. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria
I can see Cezanne and the Cubist movement may of had an influence on his watercolours. Gilliland has a lovely delicate touch which I like, a real care and consideration with the shapes and build up of colour.
This was a really pleasant, enjoyable way of painting and could be a great way of loosening up before a big watercolour session. I stuck to one colour and it was so hard not to put in lines.
Thomas Schaller. Image courtesy of thomasschaller.com
This one really pushed me. Although there are lines in his work they’re done with a true painting technique. He doesn’t necessarily draw in the lines with the tip of his brush the way one would with a pencil or marker, instead Schaller uses the body of the brush to ‘shape’ in any linear marks.
I do like the wet on wet backgrounds – the soft, pastels makes the foreground really jump out, it feels like an operatic set design.
The technique is really interesting – he doesn’t seem to paint in shadows to give shape, instead its more about handling the paint so that the concentrated areas fall where the shadows would naturally be. Schaller really explores the full extent of what brushes and watercolour paints can do together.
Nitin Singh. Image courtesy of nitinsinghwatercolor.com
It feels like its an all wet on wet technique but with very distinctive layering. Singh’s painting also feel spontaneous like an Impressionist’s. His limited palette also helps unify the whole picture and the muted background washes give accent to the main scene.
I’m realising that not only with this artist but several of them seem to work more with tubes of paint and deep dishes rather than wetting dry pans. I think that’s how they achieve that nice “liquidy” colour flow.
Chris Haldane and Liz Chaderton
Chris Haldane. Image courtesy of Chris Haldane’s Flickr page
Both artists seem to employ a technique where you apply a concentrated amount of colour and then brush it out into other areas. This is a really nice technique and one that lends itself perfectly to the watercolour medium.
Liz Chaderton. Image courtesy of lizchalderton.co.uk
It creates a more natural and realistic result, because if you keep adding more and more paint to colour in a large section the coverage will look too even – there’s no contrast or movement. Letting the paint dissipate the further you go gives your image dimension.
A side not to copying artwork
The only artwork I’ve ever copied in my life, ie in order to learn from, was from comic books. I know that copying the Masters is a good learning curve for aspiring artists but I really struggled with it.
Admittedly my attempts were very quick, simple and the conditions, equipment etc weren’t exact, like my paper was small, postcard-size (watercolour paper is expensive so for these little exercises I had to be economical) so that affected my learnings.
Apart from the technical side of things, what was lacking from the whole process was that I wasn’t “reading” the scene myself, just putting in blobs of paint where they had in their picture. It never allowed me to see beyond the surface I guess, and I’ve always been more interested in the “why” rather than the “what”. There’s no emotional attachment to the picture.
However, it was far from being a pointless task. There were some revelations that made me excited to test out. They were:
1. Minimise pencil and linework, ie avoid a “colouring-in between the lines” approach
2. Minimise colour palette in one picture
3. Keep colours pure or clean wherever possible
4. Minimise brush work – don’t get too fussy
5. Practice warm vs cool colours for contrast
6. Use tubes not pans and prepare the colours in a deep palette dish
Putting it into practice
I had two big painting opportunities coming up where my local sketch groups had long weekend events. Since the majority of the artists I reviewed painted on location these excursions would provide the perfect opportunity to practice my new learnings.
Sydney Sketch Club – Kiama, NSW
This was a four day event along the South Coast of NSW, just over an hour’s drive from Sydney. A very popular holiday destination for beach lovers and it is also blessed with some amazing natural rock formations.
My friend and I joined the group on the second day in nearby Berry, a very pretty country town that has become an attraction for foodies who love regional and locally made products.
The town has a lot of historical buildings but I went with the local park which had a lovely gazebo. One learning curve I never considered was since I was using a palette dish sitting on my folding chair wasn’t going to cut it. There was no way I could balance my drawing board and a wet palette on my lap without losing control somewhere in the process. So all my work had to be done sitting on the ground.
Knowing I had to commit myself to a way of painting and thinking to what I was normally used to it was very intimidating and was hesitant to start. Even when I finally set up, ready to go, I realised I had drunk most of the water I was also going to use to paint with. So before I started I was compromised! Please tell me Turner had these little brain explosions too… 🙁
It was hard not to draw in lines or overwork things, my usual downfall. At the time it felt like I took this as far as I could go and although I wasn’t unhappy with it… neither was I satisfied that my goals were reached. However, looking at it now, the picture has more volume than initially thought. While I was painting I kept adding more and more colour but it always looked watered down, after it dried completely its not so bad.
Last one for the day
It was very late in the afternoon when I started this one. Apart from it getting quite chilly the lighting constantly changed. I used a dagger brush for the first time and it was great. These brushes are designed to aid in painting long, clean lines but I found that quite awkward to do. Instead it forced me to “work in” shapes using all sides of the brush and not worry about linework so much.
I felt like I was getting closer to a true watercolour result but still got really fiddly with it and probably should have stopped five minutes earlier. My excuse was that as the sun was setting the light kept changing so stupidly I kept adjusting my painting, which made me overwork it and leaving it looking flat.
Well, not quite the last one…
We made our way to the Kiama Leagues Club and sat on their outdoor balcony overlooking the park. This was a better painterly result, maybe because of the glass of red… . It’s more impressionistic and not bogged down with too much overworked detail.
However, I’ve not really captured the natural lighting, which was getting onto early evening. In fact the combination of dwindling natural light and the club’s fluroscent lights overhead made it really difficult to see my work, plus the wet areas kept reflecting in my eyes.
Again when I looked at it the next day it had more definition than I thought I achieved, still a bit fiddly though.
I had written out a little post-it note with all my focus points so I could stick it to my drawing board as a prompter of what I wanted to achieve, but as per usual I lost it or left it at home.
I remembered most things but when you’re in the moment you forget as there’s so much to take in. Luckily some things where obvious like using tubes and a palette dish, and as a lot of my scenery was already a combination of warm and cool colours so that was easy enough to adapt. The rest of the key learnings could all be summarised under my usual motto of “less is more”.
My linework was at least minimal enough to create some shape, and like some of the artists I looked at, started off using a wet on wet background. I didn’t spread colour all over the paper as the water was really bright and sparkly I wanted to use the white of the paper to be those highlights.
Some people might paint in those white areas with gouache or some kind of white gel pen but I don’t think its as dynamic. Admittedly however, I can be a bit of a purist, ie if I’m doing a watercolour then I only use watercolour, yep, a bit ridiculous.
I’m happy with the water sections particularly where I blobbed the colour on and spread it out to create the rest of the waves (refer to my comments on Haldane and Chalderton’s technique above). It’s such an easy, straight forward way of creating a lot of depth and volume. I still got a bit fiddly and overworked it but I’m not unhappy with it.
The painting below was inspired by Gilliand’s work and wanted to see if I could use only bold, simple brushstrokes and layer them. This was fun to do but I lacked the lightness of touch and care Gilliand had.
Boneyard Beach, Kiama
Everyone who saw this picture said it was their favourite out of the lot but I’m not so convinced. It’s a continuation of where I was going with the first couple of paintings but wanting to create a stronger compositional direction using the dark brown paint to guide your eye up and down the painting.
Another challenge which isn’t always applicable to each picture is not always being able to achieve a sense of size and scale as with these rock formations. It’s even harder when you’re painting with a loose style. I guess that’s why some add people to their scenes.
The one above was my favourite for the day. I focused on letting the paint move around the picture almost trying to mimic the movement of the waves washing up against the rocks. The whole process was enjoyable and the end product captures that rhythm between all the natural elements on the day.
Blow it out your…
The Blowhole is a big attraction where, due to the rock formations, when the big waves hit the rock it shoots up large sprays of water through a natural opening. The waves can reach heights of 25 metres and completely douse onlookers, much to my amusement.
Unfortunately the Big Blowhole was crowded not leaving many spaces to sit and paint away. The Little Blowhole, only a couple of metres away, had more vantage points for me with relative privacy, although sitting on rocks can be still “felt” the next day.
My first picture turned out okay. I used the dagger brush again to help create the texture of the rocks which was just as interesting to me as the spray itself.
I didn’t leave any white areas for the spray because when it would shoot up apart from the very tips it was semi-transparent mist. Most people would also splatter paint to indicate the spray but I chose to hand paint it in.
Splattering is too random in regards to where it lands and how big or small the blobs are. Its a fun technique if you want to add a bit of life to your picture but it won’t necessarily help tell a story. My splatter had to be in the right spots (no pun intended) for the whole purpose of showing the movement and impact of the water hitting the rock and shooting upwards.
Still frustrated that I’m getting too fussy with my paintings I did a second one trying to allow the paint and brushwork to have more flow and freedom. It was okay, has a nice Impressionistic feel here but no real learning curve.
The last lookout
I did two paintings simultaneously because I wanted to make sure each layer dried properly before applying the next. Working on a second picture while the first one is drying stops me from painting too early or getting bored waiting for it to dry.
Keeping yesterday’s results in mind I started one using bolder and simpler brushstrokes as well as trying to use all sides of the brush to create texture and interest.
Like before only upon later review I was happy with it, particularly the foreground trees and rocks which I feel I caught the ruggedness and age of them nicely.
The one below I allowed the paint and colours to flow around and like the variety in brushwork plus the level of perspective and spatial depth particularly with the valley below. Surprisingly without relying on pencil I’ve managed to to create distinctive shapes and volume with paint only.
Urban Sketchers Australia – Sketchfest, Brisbane
Only a few weeks later I was off to Brisbane to attend the first Urban Sketchers Sketchfest – a four day event that included workshops where tutors and participants came from all over. My workshops weren’t so watercolour driven but there were opportunities to do what I liked during the afternoon sketchcrawls.
The Queen Vic
I was really liking the whole ‘let the paint flow’ technique and wanted to explore that again but with more thought. My intent was to allow the colours to blend into each other to create a fluidity throughout the painting, and keep the colour palette minimised too.
The only stresser was that there was very little pencil markings so I was painting in all the detail as I was going along praying my proportioning would be on the money!
It turned out better than I thought and was proud at how much control I exercised! The sections that worked well are the areas where I allowed the colour to build up to representing shadow and volume.
Master Tom’s Cafe
Unfortunately as soon as I finished “The Queen” it started to rain for the rest of the afternoon. So my friend and I took refuge in a cafe and set up there. This one I wasn’t so delicate with and really wanted to let all the colours flow into one another.
I was also focussed on getting enough contrast between foreground and background, and setting up compositional direction.
King Edward Park
I probably went a little too far with this as its far too controlled for my liking. My favourite section is the large limb on the left that shoots straight up – the brushwork is bit more natural and free there.
Anzac Memorial Park
This one didn’t work as well as the Queen Vic one probably because I had two interesting subjects vying for attention – the beautiful group statue and the amazing bottle tree in the background.
Eagle St Pier, Riverside, Brisbane
A drawing technique I was exposed to in a couple of my workshops was drawing with found objects like twigs, which I then extended to bark and dry leaves.
They can create all kinds of interesting lines and textures and what that did provide for me was a different way of portraying buildings and dealing with the overwhelming amount of repeated patterns in them like windows, balconies, awnings and so on.
Apart from it being a little tedious spending so much effort putting in all these details can negate the overall impact of the building’s “bigness”, ie they become more of a distraction than a complement.
So this approach allowed me to approach portraying architecture more effectively, at least in an impressionistic manner and not feel bogged down with the details.
With that in mind I did the same here but obviously with a brush and I can safely say it took some of the pressure off worrying whether my high-rises would look convincing enough. It’s also a much cleaner effect.
Being a better watercolourist
Even though this was one of the first exercises in this project I feel I made a massive jump in the right direction. This doesn’t make me an expert but if I could share with anyone who’s reading this my tips on improving your watercolour skills are:
1. Use tubes of paint and a palette dish
Half pans are great when travelling for their practicality but pre-mixing your colours so that they’re ready to go allows for freer flowing brushwork.
You also use every part of the brush too whereas painting with colour pans I guess you tend to only use the brush tip.
My palette dish only had space to allow for six colours (five if I sacrificed one to be my water dish) and being limited to only a few colours actually makes for a stronger picture.
2. Move the colour around
As the name implies its “water”colour. When you brush on paint try moving it around to fill in spaces instead of reapplying more. What this does is creates a more natural randomness in regards to tonal shaping or light play so your picture wont look flat.
4. Minimise your colour palette
Even though the world is made up of millions of colours when it comes to putting a picture together, less is more. Worry less about accurately representing each and every colour you see, but on those that make the scene interesting and emotive.
5. Warm v Cool
If you can keep this is mind its such a wonderful technique to employ. For me, a great picture is a composition of balanced elements – contrasting texture, tone, brushwork, space and colour for instance.
Having a cool colour working with warm is a subtle way of adding a bit of magic to your picture. It doesn’t have to be evenly distributed either, use one purely as an accent.
6. Don’t judge too quickly
This isn’t so much a technique tip, but a suggestion – don’t review your work until the next day. Colours will settle more when completely dried. The same goes for your mind and you might be more pleasantly surprised than disappointed.
The Creative Plan – Day 1 Watercolour Paints