Hardest lesson to learn (@ Corsham High Street and church)

Corsham High Street. For sale

Corsham High Street.

A slightly strange day weather-wise.  The forecast was pretty good, but early mist hung around, the sun never showed, it was humid and by halfway through my morning painting (Corsham High Street) it started spotting with rain.  The spotting continued and gradually got worse until it was properly raining and we had to pack up.

My painting was on Saunders Waterford, which I’ve not used much for a long time.  It was, as usual, an interesting experience using a different paper, but Saunders doesn’t help with drying time in the humidity. I sometimes like these cotton surfaces for the extra working time they allow in heat – good for big washes like the shadowed area on the left in this painting. But I picked the wrong day and the rain can just about be seen as a subtle snow effect of miniature cauliflowers.  Not a problem in a painting that was a bit experimental in other ways (consciously being a bit more ‘colourful’ than usual) and which never got properly finished.  Incidentally, the shadows on the left and elsewhere were completely made up in the end.


Corsham church. For sale

Corsham church.


After lunch the rain had stopped and bits of blue sky were appearing.  Unfortunately they didn’t last long and shadows were largely undetectable again for the next couple of hours.
As I drew out the main shapes of the churchyard in pencil the paper seemed damp just from humidity and buckled slightly.  This was Bockingford (200lb), which is quite absorbant and probably just soaked up the moist air.
Amazingly, as per the last time I was painting a churchyard, the peace was ruined by grasscutters for the duration of my visit.  Three of ‘em this time, and in fact I had to pack up and move in the end just before they were upon me.  Merciless.
A staple mantra in my tuition is that ‘you need to keep faith in a painting until the end’.  
I learned a long time ago that if you can manage that then a painting has a far better chance than if you basically give in because of the odd slip up.  However, this is one of those things where knowing it doesn’t make it much easier to do!  
Every brush stroke seemed to be going amiss during this, all the marks I made seemed off and the noise, dampness and lack of shadows was frustrating.  The painting looked terrible to me, right up until the last five minutes, where it came together a bit.  Not a complete disaster in the end, but I really made hard work of it.

So many practical watercolour books are published each year, with most focussing in a familiar way on techniques, within a publisher’s tried and trusted template.  But how many discuss the attitude or philosophy needed of an aspiring watercolourist? (Please do let me know if you know any.)  This is at least as important – and to me more – than learning how to do a ‘smooth gradated wash’, and it is the type of book I hope to write one day myself.
A few years ago I found a book in (the renowned) Art reference collection of Bristol Central Library (and subsequently bought from second-hand bookseller www.abebooks.co.uk)
‘On the mastery of watercolour painting’ by Adrian Hill.  Published in the 1940s this is the best book on watercolour I’ve come across.  Although it is essentially ‘instructional’ in nature I’m not sure if any technique is described at all.  They weren’t just scratching at the surface in those days.  
Adrian Hill was relatively young, and ‘serious’ when he wrote this, though some may know him for presenting an art TV programme for children in his later years.  
I’ve always had a few quotations from the book on my website, if you’d like to sample a flavour.  Scroll to the bottom of my ‘About’ page.  There are also plenty of sage words from Sir Alfred East and others here.  Click on a quotation to stop it and read:

– Oh, almost forgot – I’m fortunate to have been featured this week as a ‘guest blogger’ on Doodlewash (www.doodlewash.com) where I discuss the subject of ‘Plein air vs. The Studio’.
Here’s a link to the page:

Comments On This Post

Patricia Brander 5 years ago. Reply

One book I have found inspiring about attitude to painting watercolours is a book by the Danish architect, Ole Kortzau, simply called “Akvarel” ISBN 87-00-08814-5. A word of warning – it is in Danish.

    Jem Bowden 5 years ago. Reply

    That’s interesting Patricia, thanks. And could you ‘sum up’ at all what it says about attitude, do you think? Tricky request, I know!…

      Patricia Brander 5 years ago. Reply

      A good question!

      I am impressed by Ole Kortzau’s book because he captures and conveys what he feels is the essence of his subject. Well to me anyway! In the accompanying texts he talks about the subject and execution mostly in general terms, but with some more precise tips, which leaves me inspired to go away and get my gear out.

      I look at the illustrations and think – well what is so hard about painting a landscape like that? And then I get bogged down in the detail – again! I like the book because it points me to where I am trying to go.

      This is a quote from the foreword: To paint you have to have “lyst” (feeling / desire / pleasure), and you should not be frightened, especially not of making blunders. In fact you have to make a lot of mistakes before you can say you can more or less paint, and you must enjoy it. This about enjoying yourself could sound like I put less emphasis on the finer points / nitty gritty or the formal – and that is correct. Imagination should have a free run and not be bound by rules about painting technique and a requirement that the picture should be a representation. The best pictures are often those that are painted in a free and personal way.

      To sum up there is the usual basic information about paint, brushes and paper, but much more he describes to how to get out there and see and feel – and translate that onto paper.

        Jem Bowden 5 years ago. Reply

        I suppose it will always be partly about who we connect with in terms of what they see as the essence of their subject, and what they say (and how they say it) with words. Or to put it another way, as much about us as about the book or the artist who writes it.
        But from what you quote here I think this person places a lot of importance where I do too. For me that’s a really great quote from the foreword. Emphasis on the process of painting. And enjoying it, and the all important fearlessness. Then you are painting from the heart, and you might actually be a painter. I would look forward to what he says about interpretation, as hinted at here. And also what he does say about technique.
        I do think technique is very important in some ways too; without it the aspiring painter can end up feeling helpless, discouraged and defeated. Technique should aid and support our interpretation, whether we paint in a very ‘representative’ way or not.
        Don’t suppose there is an e-book version, which might be translatable into English?
        Thank you very much, Patricia.

Patricia Wafer 5 years ago. Reply

Great posts and paintings, Jem! While plein air painting is enjoyable, mostly, there is a lot to put up with out there! Every once and a while the weather and the environment cooperates but often there are bugs, spectators and noisy machines around. Thanks for the advice about never giving up on the painting. And for all the helpful suggestions in the Doodlewash post; I will try them. Great post and so interesting to see the plein air and studio paintings together and your thoughts on painting indoors and out. I would find it impossible to paint landscapes in the studio without having painted many hours outdoors. I have painted long enough that how to books are not as interesting to me as ones that are more philosophical and even very opinionated. I don’t need to agree with every opinion to learn from that artist but I get more out of the books that make you think. I found Ken Howard: A Personal View Inspired by Light very interesting for both oil and watercolor painting. And Lucy Willis’s books on watercolor painting were also helpful and did more than scratch the surface. Good luck with your book; I will want to add it to my library.

    Jem Bowden 5 years ago. Reply

    Thanks Patricia.
    Great points you make here and I quite agree. I will check out the books you mention.
    Just been given a link (and some other ideas, via people on my Facebook page) to this page of ‘inspiring books’ for creatives:
    Have already made a few reservations at my local library…. Shame I’m a slow, easily distracted reader.
    Thanks again for your comment re. my own book! Although it is just a glint in my eye at the moment, I am getting quite keen on the idea. Will need to find some time to set aside though.

Stephen 5 years ago. Reply

I always enjoy descriptions almost as much as the paintings Jem. If I had seen the Corsham church painting in your gallery I would have thought you had accomplished it quite easily, rather than through the difficulties you describe. I’m sure it is true for much of the art we see, once again thanks for honest descriptions. Put me down for a copy of the book when it iis published!

    Jem Bowden 5 years ago. Reply

    Thanks Stephen, it’s reassuring to hear you enjoy the words.
    I’ll put you down for the book then. It might be some time though – in fact I may need to get ‘subscribers’ for it, to help get it published!

Edo Hannema 5 years ago. Reply

Watercolour books for more skilled painters are very rare!
You are right, we dont care about techniques or what paints and paper someone use.
We like to know his feeling, and how he gets there! recently I began to read all the “boring” pages from my books. Layout and shapes, its making me realize that they are more important than to paint a tree or a house! I like the book of Whitney, and also Robert E Wood. Old books that are mostly in B&W, but with a lot of knowledge!
My teacher Kees van Aalst did write a few books to, he is working on his third now. I can recommend his book Realistic Abstracts.
Its not how to do it, but how you could do it!
I will check out Adrian Hill!
regards Edo

    Jem Bowden 5 years ago. Reply

    Hi Edo.
    Spot on!
    I will try to look into those books you mention.
    Thanks a lot, Jem

Maria 5 years ago. Reply

I love this Corsham Church painting. Live the colours and the atmosphere. Thank you for sharing you thought too.

    Jem Bowden 5 years ago. Reply

    Hi Maria,
    Thank you very much.
    It is a pleasure to share these things. All the best, Jem

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