Jem Bowden

Jem Bowden - watercolour landscape painter

Re-working, learning, painting…. And ‘looseness’.

Tall trees, track, light in sky…. 1

I like to work sometimes with a quite vague, simple idea of a composition, and allow surprises to take the painting in a slightly different direction.  It’s a way of getting some practise at a particular subject whilst keeping it fresh and enjoyable.  Also, any training in ‘adapting to circumstances’ with watercolour is time well spent, as it’s a full part of the painting experience in many approaches to the medium, including my own.

I could paint trees and the sky and probably nothing else, quite happily.  The subjects are organic, fluid, allow expression, energy, movement, ‘dynamism’… drawing with the brush, mark making practise.. so many things, and can be simply combined to make a good composition.

Here I show a couple of alternative variations on a painting I did, and enjoyed, a couple of months ago.  First is shown the sky stage and then the finished painting.  Each painting took about 45 minutes in total.  The sky is so important of course but takes only a few minutes.  

There’s planning involved though, especially in relation to how the light effect will be created, and how the cloud is gradually built, from lighter tone, watery washes, to darker, thicker paint.  One of the main considerations is through this build-up creating soft edges in places where paint is added wet-against-wet and wet into wet, whilst carefully retaining some dry, untouched paper for a few key hard edges, the positioning of which is certainly planned in advance.  

Then the painting needs to be done very fast, so certain things will occur that aren’t planned, but will (often, but not always) work out okay, because it is expected, and built into the overall method.

I love painting this way, as it really feels properly like painting. Working with the medium in the moment, not totally dictating to it.

A lot can and should be learned from the ‘first go’ at a painting.  It can be only the beginning.  In other media there is opportunity to amend mistakes occurring from lack of forethought, bad luck or lack of competence.  With watercolour I think we are better off spending time on ensuring we are learning from all aspects of our experience each time, by evaluating the result against our initial plan.  With some distance for objectivity, make notes on what worked and what didn’t, then plan an alternative approach to what didn’t, and try to repeat what did!  (Good luck with the latter.)

Does the composition work? Can it be tweaked to improve the counterchange?…  and many other things may be improved.  A second attempt can make progress, a third more.  But not every part will get better at each run.  That’s just not the sport of watercolour.

The best bits of a painting for me are often the result of a crucial, allowed compromise.

That is the compromise between taking risks and (potentially) receiving a reward, and relying on learned, more reliable ways to succeed.  But even the former is something that has been learned.

Making real progress is normally quite slow with watercolour. People of a bold and exploring nature will often make the quickest progress from beginner to the ‘intermediate’ level.  Some people are also just generally better at learning from their mistakes (and hence at least making different ones next time) than others.  But later a lot will depend on powers of observation, not just of the subject, but also of what is happening in your own painting.  A lot depends on discipline and determination, and how much you love to paint, and I think also how much you love your subject.  The latter will come across to the viewer and contribute a great deal to the result.  You’ll be noticing and bringing out aspects of the subject’s essential character, that others will share admiration for.

A lot of apparent ‘looseness’ in painting style can be misinterpreted by an outsider as a lack of care or attention, or some kind of ‘genius’ or magic that makes the artist appear to have an ability to make every brushstroke look good despite being slightly wayward/skewiff in some sense or apparently being thrown down onto the paper.  More likely it is consiceness, mixed with knowing precisely where compromises can be allowed, and where intensely careful painting must be done. These latter areas do not always concern accuracy of ‘shape’, and may be quite unapparent to the observer, but they are there and are what holds the whole thing together.  At first sight it might look like a painting has been made mainly with very broad strokes, but have you noticed the very thin negative spaces the artist has been careful to leave in between the strokes?  Or the few but vital very small dots that appear elsewhere to offset the broad marks?  There may be a dripping area in the foreground with (apparently) nothing happening and a runback has formed next a blob.  But have you also noticed how that area is the perfect tone, colour and size of shape in relation to the adjoining section of middle ground, and the apparently careless ‘blob’ creates just enough visual interest to balance the more busy area at the back-right of the painting.  These relationships can go unseen, but the ‘loose’ (misnomer) artist probably knows that they matter most.  And they weren’t born with this knowledge, they learned it.

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Raye 1 year ago . Reply

As I “learn” from all my mistakes in achieving a painting that looks halfway decent, I find that the “memory muscle” of what worked and what didn’t, plus throw in the unexpected…is part of the journey. So to speak. I can’t say (wish I could) that I’m making progress…but like learning a second language…watercolour is a process. Thank you Jem for being so meticulous in your tutorials. Raye

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Thank you Raye. Absolutely, watercolour is a process. And a second language. So well put.
    I’m sure you are making progress. And you are very welcome.

Mary Ann 1 year ago . Reply

My paintings have greatly improved over the years, however, I still struggle with what I consider a mistake
with wanting to correct it. If I leave it alone and come back to the painting later, the “mistake” is insignificant
and the painting has a freshness and crispness for which I strive. I’m learning to enjoy the process and
not being a slave to it thanks to the many wonderful painters such as yourself. Your article should be
inspirational to all who take up the brush.

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Thank you Mary Ann. I think that struggle will probably always persist, but you sound wise to watercolour (and by extension, life!).
    Enjoying the process is the fastest way of making progress and getting closer to the result we aim for.

Patricia Brander 1 year ago . Reply

Thanks very much for your thoughts on “looseness”. I have learned now that looseness is not equivalent with speed, but that planning, clear intention and control are of the essence. I’ll keep coming back to this post to drum the message in when I’m tempted to dash off some casual stones or “flicked” grasses in the foreground to give depth to the picture.

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Quite right, Patricia. Although speed is also necessary, for quite a few watercolour effects at least.
    It can be responsible for as many ‘bad’ bits of painting as good though – part of the balancing act.

j.parry 6 months ago . Reply

enjoy reading your blogs and your paintings

    Jem Bowden 6 months ago . Reply

    Thank you J.parry !