Jem Bowden

Jem Bowden - watercolour landscape painter

Getting the eye back in en plein air, and ‘painting for your life’ (demos)

The plein air season has probably been here for a while, but the first chance I had to get out was a Sunday at the end of March, and a visit to Bath it was.

Bath cathedral en plain air, March 2017.

I’ve seen this view before and knew it was the one I wanted to do.  It’s quite wide though, as I tend to like, which means since I’m getting a lot in there’s a great deal that needs simplifying.  
Being a townscape it is not really a connection with or love of the subject itself that attracts me, but it’s quite convenient for me to get to Bath on the bus!  In these cases I really need to find a composition that makes me want to paint.  And for me and buildings this often will require certain things combined: depth and distance, building profiles at different heights and angles, some lead-in and ‘arrows’ for movement around the scene, some interesting shapes – that OLD buildings/statues etc provide (to be honest I really don’t enjoy looking at most new buildings) – and ideally light and shade.  Without the latter, so long as the others are in place a painting can still work well, but a bit of artistic licence may be required to change building tones and/or colours for extra counterchange, adding less detail to some than others to draw focus where desired, etc.

Plein air always brings its challenges, and here I thought I was pretty lucky overall.  I was set up against a wall on a wide bit of pavement, so I wasn’t really in anybody’s way.  The downsides were that my position was raised, above a garden and the river Avon behind me, so it was very windy, and there was a sightseeing bus stop to my right, which most of the time the buses stayed further back in, but as you can see at one point I had to stop when the right hand side of my composition was totally blocked.   

The main difficulty, which I find needs getting used to every year, is the drying out palette and paint blobs.  If it’s not the wind it’s the sun, but this makes getting the right amount of paint in your mix a lot more difficult than in the controlled conditions of indoors, slows things down and hampers spontaneity as well as technique.

I compose by walking about with my camera.  Then I view the snaps and quickly judge which is the best before plonking my easel on the spot it was taken.  Of course in a busy town there is often a compromise here, as per the rest of the plein air experience.  
I draw the main shapes out from looking at the image on my camera, not from the scene in front of me.  This takes about 5 minutes (maybe 10 for a townscape), getting the proportions roughly correct.  The camera is basically a viewfinder (except you don’t have the difficulty of holding it still in front of your face!) so it’s much easier to get the placement of the composition correct on your paper than looking just at the subject without any ‘frame’.  But it’s just the basic outline edges of the largest shapes, then I put the camera away and observe again from the scene in front of me, filling in gaps, putting perspective right, and roughly marking in some important smaller shapes like vehicles and people, to scale (when I remember them!).

For this scene the sun was in front and to the left.  The sky was bright with a fairly low morning March sun and the large shape of the cathedral appeared quite silhouetted in general effect.  I had to paint the buildings to the left of it in the same overarching wash as the cathedral, working as quickly as possible, squinting a lot (not always by choice) and putting in most internal ‘detail’ as soft edged, dry into wet.  I’m impatient to say the least when it comes to ‘orderly’ (tedious and boring) things like windows and anything else that’s repeated, so I allow myself to take a bit from the subject but take a lot of liberties with the facts too.  It’s those larger shapes of the composition that matter to me in terms of the subject.  After that it’s about trying to do something enjoyable and interesting with the paint itself, whilst hopefully capturing a bit of the ambience of the place.  I can’t really be bothered with drawing cars either, which I know shows!

This second painting was, I think, my first commissioned plein air painting.  It is of Winterbourne Medieval Barn, a beautiful building (, which is being restored and opened to the public through a charitable organisation, and the painting will be made into a card to raise funds.  I hope the painting is worthy of it.  In fact this shows the back of the barn, but I thought this was the better option, at least at this time of day, being sunlit, rather than a total silhouette which is what I had from the other side.  I was thinking of hopefully helping the card to sell!  And I thought here the composition was attractive, with the surrounding buildings, church and trees contributing but with the (Light Red) roofed barn still centre stage.

Demos – painting for your life!

I’ve done these for a few years now, and several this past winter/early spring.  They are always an interesting experience. Normally they are very welcoming and friendly events.  I had a particularly enjoyable one at The Lawrence Art Society in Devizes recently.  As it was a bit of a treck for me and I hadn’t been to the town before I took the whole day and managed a very quick plein air there too.  The town has lots of paintable views, in theory, but a lot are from narrow pavements or the middle of the road.  I found one in the end by a great church.

Devizes is home to Wadworth brewery, (a paintable building as you can see in the photo below) and the town has signs around the main roads saying ‘Welcome to Wadworthshire’.

To me, doing demos, can often feel a bit like ‘painting for your life’. 
My painting approach is so hit or miss in the first place, and that’s under ideal conditions!  This one while setting up, definitely felt a bit like one of those ‘no pressure then’ situations, at a large society, in the town hall’s Assembly rooms with chandeliers to boot.  Painting vertically, with a small lamp by which to see your painting (and palette) in a darkened room, while trying not to stand too much in front of it, are things for which one hopes the audience makes allowances.  

The room got fuller!

Anyway, the demo went well, was good fun, and I managed to get the last bus back homeward, which is always a bonus.  

View out the window from the Assembly Rooms, Devizes Town Hall

I’m told by other professional painters that not so long ago they used to sell a lot more of their demos than they do now.  Nowadays it seems people are quite happy to take a photo of the painting/s on their phone to take away instead.  It sometimes amazes me how little original paintings are valued.  On a (different) recent occasion, following a demo completion I was approached by a lady, with “Oh, that’s so beautiful, I do love your work, Jem… How much would you sell that for?”  To which I replied, “Well, how much would you say it’s worth?”  To which I received the answer “How about £20?”
Opinions always welcomed.


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Patricia Wafer 1 year ago . Reply

Hi, Jem! Great post – Your paintings look wonderful. You are a master of the dry brush stroke which I am trying to practice and use more often. It is not easy. The use of it in your first painting really makes the sunlit areas of the buildings on the right work so well. It’s what our eyes see in that bright sunlight. I use a little viewfinder but it is tricky holding it steady while I get a couple lines down so I will give the camera a try that way. You are so right about all the handicaps the plein air painter faces but it is much more challenging with watercolor than oil or pastel which are at least for this year my choice of medium for painting. I am using watercolor and gouache alot in my sketchbooks and I count my sketchbook work just as important as the paintings. I use sketchbooks that lay pretty flat when open and often do 2 page spreads so they can be pretty large, up to 14 x 22. I agree about you comment about undervaluing original artwork. I had a similar experience with a woman insisting she wanted to buy a small pastel study I was doing. It was not one of my best but she went on at length about how wonderful it was so I said ok how much was she thinking of and she said $5!!! When I told her I couldn’t sell it for less than $20 we both laughed when she reacted like I’d said $200! At least she did not ask to take a photo of it!

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Thanks Patricia, and your related experience made me laugh.

George Gordon 1 year ago . Reply

enjoyed this very much Jem-thanks.

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Thanks George.

David Finnell 1 year ago . Reply

Thanks for describing the challenges and creation of your plein air work, Jem. These are lovely paintings.

How fortunate you were able to catch the last bus home. What would you have done had you missed it?


    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Thanks David. I see good things in your own painting, on FB. Markmaking, counterchange etc..
    In answer to your question, I’d have had a VERY long walk home!
    I knew the times and knew I should make it, but it is sometimes close timing and the ‘getting home’ part is sometimes the reason I can’t do demos, though I’d like to. As it was on this occasion I had to hang around in Bath for an hour to get a midnight bus connection. But mustn’t grumble…

Stephen 1 year ago . Reply

Interesting to read of your experiences in demonstrating, they always seem so effortless when I watch them but doubtless they have worries and difficulties like you. Again your honest comments are much appreciated.

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Thanks Stephen.
    Of course all demonstrators, as ‘professionals’ are supposed to be so cool and ‘effortless’ in appearance, but I don’t like such deceipt!
    I’m all for demystifying watercolour. I think it helps people learning the medium to know that it’s difficult not only for them, don’t you?
    Also, I should add that some approaches to the medium are certainly ‘safer’ than others. As for people demonstrating in oil, acrylic etc, well, I’d better not start off on how easy they’ve got it!!

Yvonne hopton 1 year ago . Reply

Very undervalued when are you coming back to Easter Compton.

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Hi Yvonne, and thank you for your comment. In fact I’m booked to return to you in the Autumn, so look forward to seeing you then!

Francesca Cunningham 1 year ago . Reply

I really enjoyed your demos at the Lawrence Society meeting in Devizes recently. I love the loose style of your watercolour paintings, accented with some strong colours. I am enjoying reading your blog too. A few friends and I are going to try a plein air session soon. Your comments about the pitfalls of being outdoors, paint drying quickly etc are very useful.

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Thank you very much, Francesca.
    Have fun with the plein air, then. What I always tell myself is ‘enjoy the process’. Stay focussed on that and don’t expect too much of the result – in fact, try never to think about the result until it’s done. After all, it’s focusing on the process that gives the result the best chance.