The aim of this exercise wasn’t so much about creating nice backgrounds like how to do a beautiful sunset but painting fantastical or imaginary settings. I guess, this was a way of getting myself out of using watercolours in a more traditional or assumed manner. So much of my use has been on location where everything is real and natural. This time it was all about the unreal and using colour to create drama of some kind.
First off I made little colour samples trying out different combinations with the hope that they would create something special when layered one another.
What ended up being more exciting than the colours created was the actual watercolour play on some, particularly those I didn’t “man handle” and just allowed them to do their own thing.
I can’t remember how I stumbled across these sculptures but they just blew me away. Coderch & Malavia are two sculptors who collaborated to make these amazing pieces. In a way, they’ve achieved what I want to do in this exercise but without the use of colour!
The beauty of their work is because the figures are so lifelike and the elements of fantasy are quite subtle which makes them so much more believable than something that might be overly decadent and ornamental.
My paintings were to expand on a background story for each subject matter using colour to help narrate it and hopefully retain that air of fantasy.
Unlike a lot of my others exercises, I spent time thinking, preparing and working on this one. Usually my layouts come straight from head and don’t require reference photos to “get things right”. But this time I did and searched for the right images to help develop a layout. They acted more as a template or instructional guide rather than being a mirror image of my painted version.
Even selecting the colours caused me some anxiety – there was going to be a lot of layers so the error of becoming too messy and complicated ran through my head. I also had to break from more natural colour selections and choose a surreal palette. I was essentially choosing colours the way an interior designer might choose for a room, you have the main colour and a handful of others to compliment it. For this I employed my colour wheel made up from my watercolour stash. It’s not the greatest wheel I’ve done but it’s enough for me for the time being.
Coderch & Malavia’s “Learning to Fly” sculpture immediately conjures up the world of Leonardo. I don’t know if the Renaissance genius was in mind when they created this piece but I just leapt to that conclusion.
When you have such a well documented and referenced artist like Leonardo it’s really hard to go against convention. If this was an exercise in concept development I would push myself harder to be more original.
I locked in on the dusty, light ochres of his sketchbook pages and the reddy brown terracotta rooftops typical of the northern Italian landscape that he lived amongst.
The process I used to come up with my all my layouts is the same approach when I design a poster or piece of packaging. Firstly, I jot down all of my own ideas, good or bad – like a mind dump. After choosing one design I go online and search for images close to what is in my head. They will never be exactly what I want but when you’re a visual person it helps to see all the various elements together so you can start building your idea.
This time I also created a mock layout in Photoshop mainly to clarify my idea and have some constant reference to go back to in case I got off track.
Building the image
Whether your background is complicated or plain it must complement or support the foreground, which is usually the hero of your picture. This was really hard for me to start as the background was a much larger space than I was use to and manipulating watercolours to do things you’re not even 100% sure of was difficult.
I wanted that faded parchment look and it was way too busy so started to remove a lot of the colour (once it completely dried) by brushing over with water, basically diluting and blurring all the hard edges until it left soft tones and texture. There’s probably much better ways of achieving this but that’s the way it happened for me.
Taking learnings from a past exercise and how well cool and warm colours work together I injected a bit of Winsor & Newton Smalt (Dumont’s Blue) into the landscape, starting off with less paint then gradually building up more.
I also let the colours bleed into one another, this helped in keeping it look more like a texture rather than a detailed, figurative scene.
The landscape was still too prominent, their purpose was to only give a sense of time and place and create spatial depth.
One of the hardest things to get into my head while painting is that watercolours darken when they dry so again it was stronger than anticipated. I thought about brushing out some of the colour but wasn’t confident of being able to control the situation.
However, there was a need to have areas of concentrated colour, not only to “ground” the picture but to guide your eye around the scene.
In the sky I wanted hints of Leonardo’s sketches on flight. Once painted in my plan was to then remove as much of it as possible so you only saw the faintly.
This was to imply that they were thoughts whirring around in our hero’s head. If I didn’t dilute them the sky would have been too crowded and that sense of air and space would have been lost.
Initially, the pedestal the figure is standing on was meant to be very faint, like a metaphorical ledge, you know “standing at the edge of the world” or on “the cusp of greatness”, but the background colours were so soft it was impossible to get any shaping into the pedestal so I had to paint in some colour. This turned out to be my favourite part of the painting because it’s where I let watercolours just be watercolours.
To anchor everything together it needed a frame, so with the same brown used in both the foreground and background I brushed in a border. Again it was too strong so removed what I could without pulling off any of the bottom layers.
That was supposed to be the final layer, but looking at the figure he was looking a bit ghoulish so I added a wash of colour over him as well as the background. This also brought back some warmth to the painting which I had inadvertently lost during the whole process.
This didn’t feel quite right for me in the end and had to fight the urge to fix it up as the whole point of this project was to learn what watercolours can do, so if the end result wasn’t how I imagined, that shouldn’t equate to a failure.
My favourite Shakespearean play. This is another well replicated character and story. Although the whole talking to Yorrick’s skull/graveyard scene comes much later in the play I decided to create my picture around the opening act where the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to him and appeals to Hamlet to avenge his death – the catalyst for the entire story.
The image came quite quickly to me, so there wasn’t much to reference. I think the biggest influence was remembering seeing Kenneth Brannagh’s version of Hamlet and the intensity of his father’s ghost – the booming voice of Brian Blessed and those freakish icy blue eyes.
But I didn’t want to do a painted version of that scene it still had to be my own. The film is set in winter but the play is actually set in spring, which for my purposes helps me out a bit more, giving me more options to play around with colours. The trick was how to use bright, warm, cheery colours to portray a very dire and tragic story.
I looked at the colours of tomatoes and the decent range you can get from bright green to ruddy brown, and from ripeness to rotting.
My scene was taking Coderch & Malavia’s fragile, soul searching figure of Hamlet and sit him on a large castle wall (where Hamlet first see’s his father’s ghost) then have the apparition loom over him like a massive burden on his son’s young shoulders.
I went with a lemony green background because he is a ghost and wanted it to look a bit eerie and supernatural.
To develop the texture of his wiry beard and facial hair I let the colours flow into each other to create fullness. Regarding the wall, I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted from it other than blood was going to trickle down the wall from where Hamlet was sitting.
Once this stage was completed I put down more detailed in the background and brickwork.
As much as I like “big daddy” he was too dominant so removed a lot of the work I created. However, instead of diluting it with water it was done by brushing over washes of Lemon Yellow.
The brickwork was becoming a bugbear for me as I didn’t create enough shape to it. You can see the stones are draw in quite straight and don’t curve around to the left, leaving me constantly trying to round it off – it was a lost cause.
In all the paintings I wanted to keep the sculpture coloured differently from the background just to emphasise their importance. With my Hamlet painting it works the best. Keeping him that cold, stone colour helped reiterate his outward appearance and behaviour to those around him but inside his frothing and emotionally charged.
I could have gone another layer of yellow in the background and wash out more of the detail but I had already spent so much time on this it wasn’t worth it. Had it been a commissioned work or a gift for someone, yes, but I needed to get a move on.
I absolutely adore this sculpture – the energy is so exciting. My idea was inspired by memories of Peter Greenaway’s film “Prospero’s Book” and a mix of the characters Puck and Caliban. I wanted a character that was very self-absorbed, free spirited and confident.
I was going for an eerie atmosphere but with a more ancient, mystical feel to it and really wanted to push the colours. While building up the initial layers I let the watercolours do their own thing, letting it run and bleed everywhere.
I enjoyed painting this one more than the others, just seeing the colours clash and swirl around with each other was addictive. Using contrasting colours that complimented each other added to that energy as well.
My biggest worry was linking the foreground to the background and having a gradual progreesion from light to dark, it not only had to create atmosphere but spatial depth.
My best shot was to employ a negative painting technique, which I don’t often use, so went online to get some ideas. There were some wonderful examples but most were flat designs or patterns.
My solution was to gradullay lessen the dilution of paint as I got closer to the centre, as in the real world the further away something is from you the lighter the tones appear.
I’m really happy with the final picture. It truly was one of those “I can’t believe I did this!” moments. It’s not just the way I painted it but the restraint I showed. In other posts I’ve mentioned how you want to keep working on a picture and not because it isn’t finished but that it’s so enjoyable to work on – this was one of them.
I feel like I only touched on the possibilities of where watercolours can take you, especially in terms of pushing colour combinations and how effective they are in creating atmospheric backgrounds. It does feel like the crazier I go with them the more exciting the results.
The Creative Plan – Day 3 Watercolour Paints