Tag Archives | Watercolour

How long did you take to paint that?

Broadstairs Sunrise

Sunrise over Broadstairs, Kent in Watercolour

The people who usually ask this question, often have little or no concept of studying in order to learn a craft skill or a profession. It’s a discipline they have never endured or understood. They think that artists are born with magical powers, a gift of God! Of course in reality, we’ve had to learn our craft over many many hours. I used to know a musician who told me it takes approx 4000 hours of learning and practice, to reach a standard, sufficient to play with a local orchestra. Likewise an athlete will spend years, training for an event that could take as little as 10 seconds, in the case of a 100 metre sprint. Who would wish to visit a Doctor who hadn’t spent much of his life learning about medicine? So why are artists assumed to be born with their gifts already in place? Even the masters like JMW Turner, or John Constable, spent many years studying the works of their predecessors, and learning their craft.

Chichester Canal by JMW Turner

Chichester Canal 1828 by JMW Turner, Oil on Canvas

There is unfortunately no quick fix, no way of speeding up the learning process. Just hard graft. At the end of each year, I go through my work and assess if I’m making progress, usually it seems miniscule, but when viewed over a number of years, then real progress can be seen more clearly. I learned early on that it’s no good painting only once a week, to make real progress, I have to sketch or paint as often as possible. Luckily, I enjoy creating art so it’s a real pleasure for me.

Shown here is my interpretation of a spectacular sunrise over the jetty and harbour at Broadstairs. If you click on the photo, It will give you full details and more photos. Then we have Chichester Canal by JMW Turner, painted in oils on canvas in 1828 and currently at the Tate Modern, London. A master work of light and reflection, I think you’ll agree.

So when people ask me “How long did you take to paint that” I usually reply, “about thirty years of practice and one hour of painting”. It’s a shame we can’t charge for the 30 years of practice, like some other professions, but I suppose that’s another story.


How I plan a Painting – from the Start – (Part 1)

Here is an explanation of how I approach a painting – Part 1.

1) Planning or Preparation – 5 Minutes Max

Steam train on the Ffestiniog Railway Snowdonia.

Steam on the Ffestiniog Railway, Snowdonia.

Choose a subject – If I’m in my ‘great big studio under the sun’ ie it’s a ‘plein air’ day I’ll spend a minute or two thinking what it is I like about this view, if I’m indoors, I’ll choose a subject for which I already have some quick sketches and perhaps some photographs, from an earlier visit. So I’m thinking about what drew me to this view, was it the way the light ‘caught’ the subject, was it just a ‘pretty picture’ or a view I’ve seen in another painting, or photograph? Once I know why I want to paint this subject, I have to consider other factors that may change the subject’s appearance as I work. So the time of day is important, How will the sun’s movement affect what I’m doing for the next hour or two, which direction is it travelling, what will happen to the colour and intensity of the light and the position of the cast shadows. What about clouds, are there any and how might they develop, its harder to predict this in advance, but I need to think where my lightest lights will be and my darkest darks, and I need to pick a point in time when I decide to fix these in my work. It’s a big mistake to try and follow the sun and the shadows as they move on their way. Am I next to a tidal river or the sea? Is the tide coming in or out? On more than one occasion I’ve found the water lapping at my feet and had to move fast, or the river has turned to mud or vice versa. If I’m in the studio I need to be sure not to just copy the photographs, because the tonal values will lead to a dull uninteresting painting and the colours likewise will be unexciting.

2)  Decide on composition  – 5 minutes max

Tonal or Value Sketches

Tonal or Value Sketches

I sit down, make myself comfortable, and look for the strong shapes – these are important. The bow of a boat, the shape of a building the curve of a road or pathway. What will be the focal point and what can I leave out? Many a good painting has been ruined by having too much ‘clutter’. I know its there, but that is no reason for me to include it in my work. This is where I pull out my artists licence, metaphorically speaking, My most interesting shape, may be a curved footpath, which leads my eye in towards my chosen focal point. Looking around, I also notice an ugly old building, dominating another part of the scene, which is in conflict with my focal point. If it doesn’t add interest to my subject, then I can decide to leave it out. There may be a tree right in the centre of my view, so what’s stopping me moving it to one side, where it could be used to good effect to frame the painting and to prevent the viewers eye from wandering off, out of the picture. My aim is to create a route along which the viewers eye will travel, across and up and down the painting, until they rest at the focal point. The longer I can hold their interest, the more successful it will be.

3)  Tonal and initial sketches  – 5 Minutes Max.

In my sketchbook, I draw a rectangle about 3″ x 2″ and quickly put in the big dark shapes, then the mid tones, and leave the highlights blank, (see above). For the most powerful effect, brightest lights go against darkest darks and vice versa, by squinting, I can determine what goes where. If my plan doesn’t work, I can do another, and darken a highlight or lighten a dark, remember that artistic licence! This is the time to make changes, before water meets the paper. When happy with this sketch, I’ll lightly draw the big shapes in position on my watercolour paper. I’m now ready to paint and its only taken me 15 minutes Max.

Reading in Battersea Park, London

Reading in Battersea Park, London

Because of this preparation, I know exactly how and what I’m going to do, and furthermore, when the finished painting is eventually exhibited, the viewer will see the full range of tonal values, and their eye will be led unknowingly but deliberately, into the painting, and around it on a journey, until it settles on the focal point. They may or may not understand why, but my hope is that they will know that this painting works, it has some attraction, even better if it has made an ’emotional connection’.

That is important to an artist.



Some confessions of a ‘plein air’ painter!

The greatest studio an artist could ever wish for is the great outdoors!

An old painting showing a plein air painter at work

Plein Air by Ramon Casas i Carbo c 1891

Why ‘Plein Air’ Painting? What’s the big idea?

Artists have for centuries wanted to get outdoors and set up their easels and work outside under the hot sun and the brightest light that exists. This is when colours are at their strongest. For court painters and those with wealthy patrons, who could supply staff, this was possible, but not common. For most artists it was impossible to carry everything needed, and then to have to mix his paints, from various earth pigments, usually in powder form with Linseed oils, or even egg tempera, it was just not practical to do this in the field. What changed all this, was when pre-mixed paints were put into little lead tubes, A whole rainbow, of colours, well not quite, but that’s for another time, could now be easily taken outside to be used, and the french impressionist painters who we all know and love today, were the pioneers of this. Here is a picture of an early plein air artist at work about 1891.

O.K. So our artist has arrived, and set up his equipment, its a good warm and dry day with a cloudless sky, so what could possibly go wrong?

Well, almost everything actually!

View of Llanberis Pass, Snowdonia, North Wales. before the rain.

At Llanberis Pass, Snowdonia, before the rain!

Irrespective of the view, every day Is different. The light is different and it changes constantly, throughout the day and as ‘light’ is the vehicle through which we see, every time the light changes, so the colours change and the contrasts or tones change. At the same time, clouds are forming and moving across the sky, often very quickly. This in turn affects the light levels and changes the cast shadows, not only their shape or intensity, but their colours as well. Add to this, the fact that the light source also moves steadily throughout the day and well, I think you’ve got the picture!

Then someone comes up and says “That must be so very relaxing, painting” Ugh! If I had a £ every time someone said that!

So whilst I’m working at my easel, painting in a ‘relaxing’ manner, inside my head, all this is going on, how to cope with changing conditions, I can’t change with the weather, or the shadows will end up in the wrong places and at the wrong density. or the colours on  the ground won’t match the sky. Errors like this have caught out every artist from time to time. its all part of the learning experience. I hope you can’t spot any errors in this painting of mine, painted at a favourite spot in North Wales, where it usually rains.

Q Are you an artist who has tried plein air painting? I’d love to hear your story!