Painting ‘close to the bin’, paper choice, and December the 13th workshop.

Farmland near Swineford. Sold

I’ve had a full and enjoyable month, with some more new experiences, as ever in this, my first year as full time artist/tutor.

I was so pleased to be invited to run a workshop at Windrush in May (
Encouragingly the course filled up last year, and I think the day went well as everyone seemed to enjoy it.  We were very lucky with the weather, so spent most of the day painting along a stretch of the riverside soaking up the frankly idyllic Cotswold location, inspiring vibes of James Fletcher-Watson and rather a lot of sun. (For anyone watching Springwatch at the moment, we were just a few fields East of where they are based this year.)

Painting away at Windrush.

A grand buffet lunch was provided by Jo Neil at Windrush House/Gallery.  Delicious and probably too classy for me, but I’m learning!  It was a privilege for me to lead a workshop at this special place, so I’m especially happy to have been invited back by Jo for next year (date TBA).

I managed to produce a painting I’m happy with this month too (at top of page).  There’s a lot of luck involved with my general ‘method’, and with this one things came together as can sometimes occur (continual persistence does pay off!), with the necessary audacity combining with inspiration in the intended way.  Others may not like it of course, but this one stays out of the bin.  In fact I’ve sold it, so I might get a takeaway this evening (thanks so much, Anne!)

I’ve been on trains a few times again, with long but mainly pleasurable days visiting art groups around the south of England. Being fully immersed in these I almost always forget to take photos during the day, which is annoying for more than one reason.


I think you could say that I ‘paint close to the bin’.  Yes, I like that expression.  For about 4 years now I’ve mainly used St Cuthbert Mill’s Bockingford paper, at 200lb weight, and Not (Cold-pressed) surface.  There are advantages and disadvantages to every different paper (all of which are different), and if you change either the weight or surface type even within the same brand then you’ll find various other characteristics changing with it.

I’m an advocate of sticking with your materials for a decent amount of time, since whatever they are, you’ll get the best of them by getting to know them well, which takes time and frequent use. Painting ‘regularly’ is important, but painting often more so.

Clevedon rocks and headland. On Bockingford 200lb Not. For sale

From time to time I’ll change paper to keep things fresh, and I’ve done this recently, but yet again have gone ‘back to Bock’.  I like the fact, for one thing, that it is contributing to the look of my work, helping to differentiate it in some ways from other watercolourists in the world – working within broadly the same tradition – who use papers that allow a longer working time.

Arne heath and RSPB nature reserve, Purbeck. On Bockingford 200lb Not. For sale

When I use these cotton papers (such as Saunders Waterford, Arches, or Millford for example) I find various things, but particularly:

  1. My work is allowed more ‘fiddle’ time. 2. It starts to look too much like the work of some of these artists I could mention.

In some ways the extra working time that less absorbent papers like these permit definitely makes things easier.  It’s obvious why many artists love them.  Large unified washes can be obtained more easily, and transparency seems more easily retained too. Glazing is no problem, as underlying washes are not raised from the paper inadvertently.

However, I do find that the sizing on these papers means that I cannot move the brush very quickly at all without it resulting in dry-brush effect where I don’t want it.  It’s almost like painting on a wax resist by comparison with Bockingford, and I find I have to slow down and press the brush into the paper, spending time just filling in flecks of white that I don’t want (this is on Not, never mind Rough).

Any painter’s ‘style’ and method develops in a way that is partly dependent on their choice of paper, and other materials.  Bockingford 200lb Not encourages a direct approach, with glazing not a good option.  The paper takes the paint off the brush easily even when you move the brush quickly.  For me it allows for spontaneity – if not demands it – which is apt for my inspiration-driven and somewhat impatient approach to painting (and life).  But if you don’t get it right, you haven’t a lot of time to push the paint around once it’s on the paper, and especially so en plein air if the sun or wind have anything to do with it.  But this trains you in so many ways.

Many people will know of Joseph Zbukvic and perhaps his term ‘Mr. Bead’ (referring to the bead of water/paint at the base of a wash when your paper is tilted).  With Bockingford 200lb Not Mr Bead doesn’t hang around for long.  He doesn’t sit up there compliantly waiting for you to drag him about while you attend to squeezing out some more paint.
I find I’m often painting outwards in several directions at once, keeping an eye on the edges at each periphery, and usually, somewhere, there will be an unintended occurrance.  Or nice surprise.  But this is then worked into the ‘plan’, and over time, one’s method, and by extension becomes part of the resulting look of your work, or ‘style’.

When I try out those ‘longer working time’ papers I dislike how my work begins to look more like quite a few other contemporary artists in some ways.  I know my artist influences are evident in my work, but I feel sticking with Bockingford is helping me to develop skills that depend on quick, instinctive, intuitive thinking, and minimal washes and brush strokes.  You can paint this way on other papers, but Bockingford is more demanding of it than many.  
But I also have to accept that it will always provide a harsh discipline and there’s a fine dividing line between a potential picture frame and the bin.

I quite recently did a few paintings for the first time with Saunders Waterford, 200lb Hot-pressed.  I found to my surprise that at my usual working speed I obtained plenty of dry-brush effect on the fairly fine tooth of the paper.  I guess it’s to do with the different material (cotton) and the sizing.  I can see myself turning back to this paper for some situations in future.

New workshop date; December 13th 2017

I’ve now set a date for my next day workshop at Timsbury, Bath & Northeast Somerset) – south of Bristol and Bath.  This is for a maximum of 8 participants.  Please click here for full details, and let me know if you’d like any further information or to book a place.

Wells, and painting holiday 2018:

Wells cathedral, rising over almshouses. En plein air. For sale.

I managed to get out on a plein air jaunt with a couple of friends the other day.  This is Wells cathedral from a nearby street of almshouses.  
I am booked to teach on a painting holiday next year based around the highly picturesque, mini city of Wells and surrounding villages of Somerset and the Mendip hills.  More details will follow.
Next month I’ll be painting the lovely Wye Valley, on my painting holiday (also full!) with ‘Alpha Painting Holidays’.  I’m really looking forward to it.  Here’s a scene we may be venturing to:

On the river Wye. For sale.

Now, it’s raining outside so I must go and sit in the garden.  Hope you have a good painting month.

Leave a New Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Linda Leatham 1 year ago . Reply

Had a great day, beautiful location. Learnt a few inspiring things. Congrats for next year, hopefully see you then.

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Thank you for commenting, Linda. Really pleased it was worthwhile for you, and it’d be great to see you again next year.

David Finnell 1 year ago . Reply

Jem, you seem to be flourishing in your first year as a full-time artist and instructor. Well done.

Bockingford is a marvelous paper. I haven’t tried the heavier version. However, 140-lb Bockingford (not) is my workhorse, and Mr. Bead lives happily there.

I have a perhaps unrealistic hope of signing up for your painting holiday in and around Wells in 2018. May it come to pass.

Best wishes,

Virginia USA

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Thanks David. So far so good, I think. Interesting to hear your account of Mr bead on the lighter paper. These things are all relative, too (including to the size you work at) and I realise I didn’t specify the weights of the cotton papers I’ve used either.
    It would be great if you made it next year, then, but I hear you about the likelihood.

Harjinder 1 year ago . Reply

Hi Jem
Inspirational blog and beautiful paintings. So happy to have you as my tutor. I am going to try and do one of your workshops, too.

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Thank you Harjinder! A pleasure to have you as a ‘student’! Very kind of you. Would be lovely to meet you sometime at a workshop.

Stephen 1 year ago . Reply

Another interesting and informative newsletter Jem. I must try the 200lb Bockingford paper. I usually use Saunders 140lb in a block, so I don’t need to stretch it.

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Thanks Stephen. I used to use blocks myself several years ago for plein air, before I worked so large. At half-imperial they are so expensive, and less effective at keeping things flat too. I found they sometimes would fail too, becoming detatched from the thick backing board. No system is perfect!

Andrew Pitt 1 year ago . Reply

Hi Jem
I enjoyed reading all your perceptive comments about paper. I’m glad your reactions to trying out different surfaces, weights and, of course, makes, corresponds to mine.

I have tried many different papers over the years, including some top of the range, very expensive sheets. But I still find myself returning to good old Bockingford (200 lb Not). If you don’t abuse the surface I think the paint seems to look ‘happy’ on the paper. It is a very responsive paper and essentially I find I am simply using the brush to deliver the paint to the paper. I think an important consideration when choosing a paper is to find one which suits the way you apply the paint to the paper. This involves, obviously, the angle of the board as well as the nature of the surface and type of brush. Some soft haired brushes are just not man enough for Rough. A sable with plenty of spring is required to push the wash into the paper. It also depends on whether you prefer to make two – sometimes three strokes of the brush are necessary – to cover a passage completely to avoid the dry brush look , as with Arches, for example, or whether you prefer to manage the paint consistency to achieve a dry brush mark, as you do with Bockingford. A large fluid wash is relatively easy on Bockingford. The more thirsty papers with a rough suface require more work.

The words: loose, fresh, lively, are also used a lot, and quite unhelpfully at times. I am beginning to think it is useful to distinguish between fresh and lively brush work. I like the beauty of clean fresh washes. Evidence of the intention behind the mark which comes through lively brush work can add a lot of interest and life to a watercolour. But it is vital to get the balance right. A painting composed of perfect, flawless washes looks sterile and dull. And an overly excited brush might provide life to a painting but can appear self indulgent and give the impression the artist is a bit full of themselves.

When trying out different papers I find – and this might be just me – that I unconsciously alter my approach and end up painting like well known artists who I know use that particular paper. If, on the other hand, I shuffle my sheets so that I am unaware of the make of paper and work in my usual “Bockingford” way, I have found, curiously enough, that the end result just looks as if it was painted on Bockingford, regardless of the make of paper I have used.

One last thing: I’m sure the light reflects off rough paper differently to the Not or smooth papers, and that reduces the fresh bloom of washes. But some texture is needed to control the paint.

Anyway, hope some of this makes sense. Painting, like life, is full of contradictions. Perhaps that is why this watercolour business is so endlessly fascinating.

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

    Hi Andrew, and thank you for your comment.
    I think I understand your points, and can clearly relate to most of what you say personally.
    I have had conversations with other painters about paints, paper and brushes and you’d think we had been using completely different things, considering the apparently very different impressions or experiences we describe. To a degree I suppose it’s all relative to previous experience only, which is never complete nor the same as for others’, and also people can describe even the same experiences in surprisingly different ways, even though they intend the same meaning! An example may be your use of ‘thirsty papers’ here. I would have thought of an absorbent paper as a ‘thirsty’ paper, in that it sucks up the liquid readily. Whereas your description also makes sense, being that a ‘thirsty’ paper would be one that requires more water! ‘Large fluid wash relatively easy on Bockingford’ could be another one of these cases. Do you mean you can get the paint down onto the paper quickly, and without unwanted ‘specks’/dry-brush? I certainly agree with that. However, I find that some of the cotton papers allow much more easily a large wash to be controlled (allowing more time for this as the paint/water sits up on the surface longer) and to dry evenly. Traits I would describe as ‘of ease’.
    And, just when we think we’re getting an understanding of things, perhaps the manufacturers deliberately and devillishly throw in a few ‘freak’ sheets to the mix! Occasionally I get a Bockingford that seems to have been surface-sized… Then again maybe it’s just a more humid day… Or simply just my
    brain’s perception at fault. Now that is certainly quite a likely explanation.

      Andrew Pitt 1 year ago . Reply

      Hi Jem
      You are dead right in everything you say. Those of us who, if we are not actually painting, spend are time thinking about painting, are always searching for the secret ingredient that will guarantee success. If only!

      By “thirsty” I mean the paper requires more water and paint than an equivalent area of Bockingford. I describe other papers as more “forgiving”. I need all the forgiveness I can get!

      I once queried the variation of surface texture of Bockingford with Jacksons Art Store, in London. They were very helpful. I had purchased a batch of 25 sheets and it was excellent stuff. So good, in fact, that if my painting was a dud I was left with no one to blame but myself. Anyway, I bought another batch and it was completely different. It looked different, besides handling differently. After investigating this change in the texture Jacksons came to the conclusion that the variation was caused by the felt used in the drying process.
      New felt delivered a more pronounced texture, but over time the felt gets worn smooth. My two orders were the two extremes. The first batch was fresh off a new pile of felt, and the second batch appeared to have been manufactured at the tail end of the life of the felt. Always good to be able to blame the paper! although, by the time Jacksons had completed their investigation I had got used to the surface.

      And, yes, you are right about paper taking in moisture when painting outside. I find a little humidity can be a great catalyst between the bush and paper.

      Now off to Flatford Mill for the weekend. 12 students who will finish the course with more problems than they came with!

      All the best


        Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

        That’s interesting news about the felt, which makes perfect sense really. I wonder how often they change it?
        Have a great weekend at Flatford Mill. It looks a great place to work.
        No doubt as usual you’ll be doing some explaining to the students about the different results they’re all getting owing to the range of papers alone!
        All the best,

Mike Porter 1 year ago . Reply

Jem, I find your posts informative and inspiring. You are frank about what you like, don’t like and how you are doing with it all, including your own progress. I, too, have been using 200 lb Bock for a while. I started it because it was a favorite of Wesson who is reported to have asked St Cuthbert to make it for him. Then I met your and was delighted to find you use it.
All that said, I am painting like crap these days and very frustrated. Wish we were closer as I’d hire you as may painting coach. Wife and I had a week’s trip up the Oregon coast and I used my sketchbook each day with some success. Trying to get my mojo back assuming I ever had it in the first place!
So, keep writing and sharing. I really enjoy reading your posts.

Jem Bowden 1 year ago . Reply

Thanks Mike.
I appreciate your words , always of support.
I also go through phases where I feel every bit as down about my own painting as you describe you’re going through. People don’t generally want to hear ‘negativity’, so in fact I try not to be negative in my posts.
But you can’t have lost your skills, so it must be partly a perceptual thing. I find that from time to time inspiration deserts me, and that leads to poor painting and losing the plot. Also in a different way sometimes I think I lose sight temporarily of the most important things in painting, and then thankfully something happens (perhaps a break, or some really ‘abandoned’ painting) and I realise and snap out of it.
It’s hard to know what to do, and I think sometimes it’s probably good to take a break from it. We all have different personalities and for me I’m afraid I can’t paint something well if I’m not inspired to paint it, which as a teacher is not always ideal. To me in that position painting can all seems meaningless and pointless!
For what it’s worth I’d advise you to go back to experimenting in your painting. I find it takes off pressure and anyway is usually productive. It usually leads to some feeling of progress, and been fully involved in and enjoying the process, which keeps us going productively.