Summer plein air roundup, Big Sky Art, materials snippets…


Crossman’s Cider Farm, en plein air

I‘ve managed to get out a fair few times to paint this year, but most opportunities are now behind me.  There may be a few more, but any bad luck can mean wasted journeys and time. Even if weather’s pretty good the low sun of Autumn and Winter can often get stuck behind cloud lingering near the horizon.  Some subjects can still work out fine despite, but it’s less likely.

I did the above painting quite hurriedly, perhaps an hour or so, as I was perhaps a bit in the way of the small parking area at Crossman’s cider farm.   In the morning I’d been several miles away painting another farm. In conversation it turned out, by some coincidence, that Mr. Crossman actually used to run this farm many years before!
Here’s that one:

Chestnut Farm, en plein air.

This features a characteristic of the low October sun in the morning.  Really stark shadow and light. If you look directly towards the light on such a morning things virtually become a black and white silhouette.
Very friendly farmers, who again I had a nice chat with, and a farmworker who offered to move the tractor out of the way.  It was at that point blocking the shaded barn door, so I asked if it could go back a few metres to where you see it here. Well, he did offer… Perfect! I really didn’t want the tractor out of the painting, but on my earlier reconnaissance visit I noted that I did want the barn door in the painting.

Farm track near Corston, en plein air

I quite like this one!  Not all aspects came off, but on the whole.  I feel it has character, and it’s a lovely English landscape scene – the sort of place I really love to be.  On walking up towards this view I knew straight away it was where I was going to place my easel.  I did move the puddle into a better position, so I could make a reflection in it of the woodland on the horizon.  This is never an easy matter to make work. In fact, all the way through, this was one of those (many) paintings that I felt was going badly, very badly.  I was really struggling in full sun most of the time (the clouds in the sky were mostly fictional), and it was very warm, low humidity and everything was drying constantly.  I wasn’t that happy on the journey home, but a couple of days later, looking at the painting away from the scene and with more objective eyes, as is often the case I thought it revealed itself to have captured some important things.


2 days in Devon

Lympstone harvour, en plein air

I treated myself to a flying camping trip (one night) to Devon.  Pretty nippy at night, down to 5 degrees, but a chance to test my new little tent, and to paint some great scenery.  

On arrival late morning I did this very messy shot at Lympstone Harbour.  Totally gung-ho with nervous energy to enjoy myself, and to try to capture a continually disappearing/reappearing back-lighting effect, I dived into the clock tower with almighty irreverence for forethought or accepted technique!  I’d drawn the whole thing so hastily too – that light speeding me along… Anyway, this place is definitely one to return to to make a better job of.  Full of character. People living in the houses here hang their washing on the lines between those poles.  I think only the residents can get over onto that side, too. Imagine having this as your own back yard.  An inspiring but quite complicated scene with a lot already simplified out here.

Incidentally, thought I’d share this online tent review I came across, which amused me, but maybe it’s just me….:
“Not much use as a tent, other uses possible., 13 September 2017   By claudio (bedford)
I would say this tent is just fine, if you’re not planning to sleep, or put anything that you even remotely value inside it.
Perhaps all you want out of a tent is to prevent someone from looking at you while you sleep? In which case, this tent is the one for you. Fully translucent.
I think it would be ideal for compost, or growing mushrooms. The fact that it lets water in quite freely would suit these applications nicely.
The fact that [.company name removed.] even sells a tent this poor, let alone has the audacity to pretend that its retail price is £50, lowers my opinion of them. I’m going to try and get a refund.
For the love of god don’t buy this tent.”


Budleigh Salterton as sun sets, en plein air

I then explored a couple of potential locations, ate something, then found myself at Budleigh Salterton at close to sunset time.  I wasn’t going to paint, as there was not a lot of light left, but in the end I persuaded myself to go for it, and since I had very little expectation of success I also experimented in my paper choice, using Arches 140lb Rough, which I’m basically a stranger to.  
(To me it’s a bit like painting on rough plastic, but it has its advantages, including keeping a wash fluid and movable on the surface, which helps you tie shapes together.)  The drawing was too quick again, and the painting very quick also. I’m amazed the result wasn’t an awful lot worse. The sun was very low when I started (lower than the impression my painting I think conveys), and it was gone before I put the brush down.  But again I loved the scene when I saw it. A key thing was to get the light shining on the rims of the boats, which disappeared as the sun went behind the hill.


Next morning I did this one close to a boatyard/mooring area in Exmouth.  Not very successful, but par for the course:

Dilapidated huts at Exmouth, en plein air

And finally in the afternoon I got down onto Ladram Bay, timed carefully for low tide to get to where I wanted to be for the stack, rock pools and reflection.  I’d seen this area earlier in the year, looking up the coast from Sidmouth bay, then ‘researched’ online using Google Images – so useful these days for checking things out in advance.  The rock stack and very red stone here were for me an enticing subject. A lowering sun made the red even warmer. I got through a fair bit of Light Red and a bit of Indian Red. Looking forward so much to next year when I’m going to be painting the coastline of the UK more often than ever before.

Ladram Bay, Devon, en plein ar.


Another recent local farm painting.  An open view of a great arrangement of very old buildings being a rarity these days.  I had to ‘zoom in’ a bit from where I could set up the easel, though (on a footpath) as you can see.  I just got away without rain.

Manor Farm, Brockley, en plein air.

In case of interest, when I remember I often post short video clips of my plein air paintings showing the scene and the painting together on my Instagram account, here:

Behind The Manor House, Marshfield, en plein air

This one was done out with the plein air painting group I’m a part of (‘The Exiles’) in Marshfield.  I was really struck with this scene of the back of ‘The Manor House’ from the churchyard next door.
It had the impression of a towering, dilapidated, potentially haunted place (apparently the front is nothing like this), as per Amityville or Miss Haversham’s or something.  I didn’t do it justice. Despite really wanting to paint it the light was not really in the best place – would have been better to do in the afternoon rather than morning, so I had to invent this face being in shade.  Well, I suppose I didn’t have to, but it was all face-lit and I felt that wasn’t the ideal scenario. Anyway, didn’t pull it off as well as I might have. Ho hum…
More plein air watercolours not featured on the blog can be found in my Plein Air gallery page.

Big Sky Art
(now booking for 2019)

2018 is the first year for a new painting holiday/course provider, ‘Big Sky Art Courses’.

I was very happy to be invited by them to run a course there.  The notion of ‘Big Sky Art’ seemed absolutely made for me, so I was very lucky.  I think it’s also a brilliant thing for the painting course-going public, generally.  Located within 10 minutes of the North Norfolk coast, the world was crying out for Big Sky Art to come into existance!  It’s an exceptionally paintable place. Many artists (Wesson, Seago, James Fletcher-Watson…) have loved painting the coastal and village scenery here.  As word spreads I imagine the best teachers in the world will want to work with Big Sky Art (well, some very big names already are), so I’ll hope to keep my place on the roster.  Happily my course this year filled up well in advance, so if that happens again hopefully it’ll help my case!  Thankfully I received some very positive feedback, as did the venue ( for their fantastic food, accommodation, overall hospitality…  I’m looking forward to my return visit there in September next year (details now on the Big Sky Art website).  Here are a few pics, including a couple of my 40 minute plein air demos:

40 min plein air demo, Burnham Overy Tower Mill. (photo courtesy of John! – thanks)

40 min plein air demo at Burnham Overy Staithe.

This one was fun.  First morning of the course – and stuck in drizzle!  We got out nonetheless to Thornham creek, to ‘soak up the atmosphere’ and I painted my first demo, literally in drizzle.  As you might imagine, the painting disintegrated as quickly as I painted it.  The drizzle got worse in fact, and walking back to the car at the end (before taking refuge in the pub for lunch) most of the painting poured off the paper onto the ground!  I’m sure the saltmarsh didn’t mind too much, and as I say it was good fun.

Drizzle-based art (a new form acceptable to the RI ?). At Thornham.

I had a very game group of painters – thanks for that, folks – but happy to report that the following days featured a fair bit of sun.


Below is a recent studio painting, done from photos taken when in Norfolk.  I thought this turned out okay, a different paper to the norm (Arches 140lb Rough again), making certain things easier, and other things not so.  I might persist…

In the mud, Brancaster Staithe. Studio painting.


On the mud, Bright and breezy.

I posted the first painting on Facebook.  Interestingly, someone interpreted the light areas in the sky as white cloud and the dark areas as the ‘blue’ of the background sky.  In fact it was intended the other way around, with the white areas supposed to be sunlight shining very brightly through gaps in the dark cloud – quite late in the afternoon.  I’ve felt this confusion/uncertainty in my own viewing of other people’s paintings, not least with some Wessons.  I’ve always thought it doesn’t really matter, so long as the painting works in the eye of the beholder.  I think, for one thing, it shows how close the actual hue of a ‘blue’ sky in reality can be to that of shadowed cloud in certain light situations.  Anyway, for fun I decided to do a version the other way around, which is this second one here.

One-to-one plein air tuition.
This is something I get asked to do occasionally, and always a pleasure, when the weather holds!  In this case another very pleasant visit to a different area of Devon.  Below is a demo painting done in the afternoon, with the second photo showing the scene we tackled together next morning.

Towards Northam from The Burrows, plein air demo.



I’ve started regularly using Ken Bromley’s Burnt Umber (Dark).  
For a long time I’ve been frustrated at how quickly the W&N one dries out (especially noticeable outdoors) and although the actual ‘hue’ of the KB one is pretty close, this doesn’t matter greatly to me anyway since I mainly use the paint just to mix my strongest darks.  So far I’m happy. I did also try out KB’s French Ultra, on the advice of someone who swears by the KB paints as a whole, but found this a less good substitute once I mixed it with the other colours in my regular palette.

In a quest for the ‘perfect paper’ (ha!), I’ve experimented with trying to soak and gently rub with a sponge the surface of a few different papers to remove some of the surface sizing.  I’ve not been successful. I wondered if anyone else out there has any good experience of this. Be grateful to hear about it if so.


East Devon Art Academy (Sidmouth) workshop.
Oct 10th & 11th 2019.

I’ll be returning to Sidmouth for the following course next year:

‘Direct & Dynamic Watercolour Landscapes’
This two day studio-based workshop will address technique and overarching issues that lead to watercolours with energy, vigour and beauty.  
Jem will cover his approach to composition, interpretation and prioritisation of ‘what counts’ in the quest for fresh, atmospheric paintings, using a fairly ‘direct’ handling of the medium.  There will be a mix of demonstrations, exercises, step-by-step painting and lots of ‘going for it’. Students are asked, also, to bring with them a landscape painting they feel has not worked, which they’d like to improve on.


I wanted to help spread the word about this (relevant to UK-based folk):
Perhaps you know of it already.
I reckon those who care for our ‘landscape’ (ecology, wildlife, ‘environment’, etc) would want to read this.  Some people, very lucky to live in certain, particular parts of our country may, reasonably, be under the impression that things are quite okay out there, but in general they really aren’t.  It’s only thanks to campaign groups/charities and tireless, passionate individuals that things like this ever get onto the ‘political agenda’ or into our ‘news’. Anyway, I’ll halt a potentially negative rant right there.  Thankfully (despite government) there are some very positive things going on.

I’ll leave you with this.  Do you know the work of Andy Evansen?  A US-based watercolourist, who is certainly known, but not as well as he should be –  yet – in the UK. Andy’s work is up there with the very best in the world and you should check it out on Facebook, Instagram and here:

Wishing you all a great upcoming season.  
Cheers, Jem

Comments On This Post

g gordon 11 months ago. Reply

very interesting as always-happy painting.

    Jem Bowden 11 months ago. Reply

    Thank you G!
    All the best, Jem

Maryann Brail 1 year ago. Reply

I just discovered your paintings and already purchased your video. Outstanding work. I look forward to following you in the future!

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago. Reply

    Thank you, Maryann!

Nick 1 year ago. Reply

Jem thanks for all the time and trouble you take preparing your blog. I appreciate your honesty. Of course there is room for a book by you. Your dvd was excellent and I will look forward to your new one.

    jem 1 year ago. Reply

    Thank you very much, Nick. I appreciate your comment, cheers.

Nicole Guenin 1 year ago. Reply

Mister Jem Bowden
I wrote you two years ago et you answered me very very amiably.
My english is bad and I dont write comments, but I look at all your works and also to day I am very happy to see your automn painting. How much I love your painting and thank you to give me so happiness.
I am waiting your future book , I hope I shall can buy it in France
So many “”thank you” because I greatly love your interpretation of landscapes.
Nicole Guenin

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago. Reply

    Thank you, Nicole, very much, for your comment.
    That’s very kind of you to take the trouble, and I understand your English perfectly.
    It’s a great deal better than my French, I’m not proud to say!
    I really appreciate your encouragement, re. the book and my paintings. Thank you!!

Agnes 1 year ago. Reply

Dear Jem,
I love to read your posts. If I may give my opinion, I would much prefer a second video (ideally of a village scene) than a book. It is so much easier to watch an artist in the process of painting. I have already watched your first video a few times.
In any case, keep enchanting us please!

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago. Reply

    Thank you very much for your comment Agnes. That’s much appreciated.
    The second video should be here this side of Christmas, I think, so that’ll definitely happen anyway.
    I’m pleased you enjoy the blog. Thanks again for the feedback. Cheers, Jem

Tricia Spink 1 year ago. Reply

Nice work, as always, Jem.
What easel do you have, or, what would you recommend? Something strong, but not too heavy. Easy to put up, etc.


PS I have always loved Arches more than any other paper. Very forgiving, too.

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago. Reply

    Hi Tricia.
    I use and totally recommend the Jakar Lightweight Adjustable Watercolour Easel.
    Meets all your requirements (and mine) better than any other easel I’m aware of.
    You’ll find it online, and you’ll find a demo of it on youtube.
    Arches – well, each to their own when it comes to materials, I think. One person’s strength/benefit will be another’s weakness/hindrance.

Ashley Raddon 1 year ago. Reply

Really enjoyed your tales from the riverbank Jem (a great Jam song too), made me laugh but also your honesty is really helpful in terms of your thoughts and what you’re thinking as I guess we all have doubts and sometimes successes. I am as you know a big fan of yours and am inspired by your work so thanks as always for sharing your Carry on Camping tales, great work 🙂

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago. Reply

    ‘True it’s a dream mixed with nostalgia…’ I was a big fan in my teens! Thanks, Ash, I appreciate your feedback and pleased you enjoyed the post.

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