I’m not talking about teeth here (although I could).
The little cropped images spread through this post are sections from paintings that I’ve been producing for my next Video-on-demand. Sort of ‘teasers’, I hope. The film will be longer than my first and is likely to feature several paintings and mini ‘technique tutorials’. Apologies for what I’ve said previously about timing, as I’ve not yet got to the editing stage.
I’ll begin this post proper with a bit of plein air action I managed to get in during November, and following that (WARNING) there are some randomly ordered extracts from the collected meanderings of my eternally incomplete ‘book’. I haven’t worked at all on what is already written since last winter, but since it’s sitting there digitally rotting and in fact becoming less and less ‘me’ all the while… Perhaps the blog is where it should end up, if anywhere. And I know it cries out for an editor!
Finally (and you might just wish to scroll down) at the bottom are a few other ‘plein airs’ done this year but not posted previously.
I hope you will enjoy a good and peaceful festive period.
As ever thank you for your interest in my painting this year, and looking ahead please do consider joining me for a painting course/holiday or workshop in 2019. All the info is on this website here: Courses 2019, and here for shorter Workshops (most recently confirmed, a Windrush Gallery Autumn date, studio-based). Please contact me if you have any enquiry.
All the best, Jem
I managed to get out one sunny and not-too-cold morning to Hawkesbury, on the edge of the Cotswolds to paint this scene in the low morning light. Actually, the light only burst through the clouds very periodically (and at least, thankfully stayed out at the end), so this painting was difficult and is nearly 2 light situations in one, with most shadows held back as the last parts added. Thankfully the cloud scheme still fitted reasonably by the end. (Choosing a sky with some light and some cloud was the idea, in hoping it would fit with either a sunny scene or a dull-light scene that may have prevailed by the end of the painting.)
It was quite mild, but windier than forecast, until the afternoon by which time it was a lovely day but I had to be elsewhere. Just gripping the palette to stop it from blowing into you with paint everywhere leaves an aching arm at the end. This was in mid-November, so lucky to have quite a mild day and always feel compelled to get out somewhere if possible when that’s the case.
One of those not so rare occasions where the day began with anxious locals checking out the suspicious unknown man-about-village with camera snapping away at just about everything. Well, it’s an attractive place, and I’ll be back there hopefully at some point next year. There are plenty of other good scenes very close by.
I also recently discovered this isolated and windblown church a few miles away from Hawkesbury on top of a hill. I’ll be going to paint here next year with the intention of filming the process.
Following a trip to Gloucester to get a larger new mop brush from Jackson’s shop (Jackson’s own Series 828, size 15 – a larger size than I’ve been using up to now) I took a detour to check out Purton, by the river Severn, where there’s also a canal. I did a hasty (cold) plein air to test the brush, but the result’s not really worth showing up close. Love the new brush though. I’ve gradually increased the size of the mop I use for skies over the last few years. It took me time with each to really control its carrying capacity well enough, but I’m now finding my new one really beneficial. Right decision – hooray!
Those ‘book’ excerpts:-
……. The best watercolours often tend to show their whole ‘journey’, each moment of their honest, nothing-to-hide creation is present for all to see, if you know how to look.
No mistake of drawing, duff brush mark or technical blemish of any sort can be truly hidden, nor the self-doubts of the painter, or changes of mind. (I’m talking about the traditional ‘transparent’ approach to watercolour of course; sometimes called ‘pure watercolour’ nowadays.) What goes down might as well stay down, and this makes it an ‘honest’ medium, as well as compelling. We can trace a watercolourist’s methods much of the time, but may, intriguingly, lose sight of it at some point, for there are ways and means known to some and not to others with watercolour. But the truth is all there for the avid detective and any ‘deceit’ – the painter should be well aware – may stand out a mile.
Ultimately, the watercolour painter’s heart is visible in their work, if not on their sleeve. We can see where devotion most lies, and where it lapses. Through observation of the techniques employed you can even attempt to copy the approach of another watercolourist, and many will wish to emulate another’s ‘style’. But you’ll never do exactly the same, and of course you wouldn’t really want to, would you? More on that later too….
WETTEST SUMMER SINCE RECORDS BEGAN – Plein Air Journal, excerpt.
I pause… I’m thinking ‘what does it need, what haven’t I done?’ I haven’t done a lot of things but this pause is lasting a long time as I survey the scene and begin to just enjoy the view again. I know this is a sign – it probably doesn’t need anything else. And that means I should definitely not do anything else. As usual it looks pretty poor, but I know there are lots of ways it could have been worse, so I am sort of satisfied. If I leave it a while I may even be pleasantly surprised….
I notice how cold my hands are and my knee aches again as I begin to pack up. Well, no pain no gain… Hannah is home when I get back and asks me what I’ve done, “I made a mess”. “Good”. Normal.
What you might need, if you want to be a watercolour painter:
A good sense of humour, and eternally sunny disposition
Willingness to take chances, and to fail
Ability to learn
A fair amount of luck
Some watercolour equipment
Actually, I seem to cope even without the first of these, but only just… Additionally, and barely ever mentioned that I’ve noticed, is a necessary ability to know when something ‘looks right’. How do you obtain this skill? Good question. Did I mention practise?
Photos, unless perfectly conveying everything inspiring about the experience of being at a scene, a place in time, with all its atmosphere, can rarely create for me a desire to paint.
At the very least there needs to be a strong memory link to the experience.
A photo is a visual image. It is all too easy to literally be ‘copying’ many aspects when working from a photo. The fact that I took the photo makes it no less pointless (or unmeaningful) to me. Photos are a great compositional aid, and the camera brilliant in exactly the way a cardboard viewfinder is; in fact more brilliant. This is how I use it when I paint en plein air. Digital cameras have a fantastic advantage of allowing you to look back at several alternative ‘visions’ you have of a scene, side by side quickly flicking through, enabling one to ‘jump out’ at you in deciding on where to set up your easel. Then, suitably inspired by the bones of a composition, changes can of course be made to improve it further in terms of a painting.
Once the basic shapes of the composition is marked onto my paper the camera has served its purpose and is put away. I then know I’m heading into a deeper level of interpretation of ‘where I am’. Inspired by something visual, partly, but also in being there it will be the sound of bird calls, the experience of the weather in that moment of decision, and an overall emotional feeling, of enjoyment, peace and satisfaction at being there in that moment for all sorts of possible reasons, including the feeling of sharing the moment with all manner of other life. These things are intrinsic to place, time and experience. The enthusiasm generated in a painting is for me not necessarily much to do with visual experience, despite the result being a visual thing. To ‘capture the atmosphere’ of a scene is perhaps a trite term, but if a painter truly manages to do this when en plein air then the result will have channelled much more than a purely visual experience.
Working in the studio, a photograph has done some important aspects of the interpretation already, and it requires concentrated effort to move away from what is recorded and ready-presented by a photo – or I should say, by a camera. Most of the pleasure from the moment of the photo is in the past.
Although I will usually make some changes from a photo in terms of composition and especially in terms of light, time of day and ‘mood’ as determined a lot by the sky and weather. But in terms of the visual ‘detail’ of forms I feel restricted, enslaved even, and feel a distinct pointlessness in doing it. Sometimes it’s possible to rise as if by some magic (just luck, probably) above these limitations and produce an ‘evocative’ painting in the studio, but many attempts fail in these terms. Even a bad painting done from life has that feeling of authenticity – having experienced, translated, put emotion into the endeavor – which feels like the full virtue of interpretation on the part of a painter. It has this reward, which a photo doesn’t lead to.
Copying any visual image (especially created by a machine) has no interest for me because there’s no emotional reason for it. Contrastingly, working from life, literally out in the field, I’m inspired with my brush strokes to attempt to follow the twists and winds of the branches on a beautiful tree, full of its own history, bestowed with inherent meaning and life, swaying as it does, drawing attention to certain aspects of its character – the essential aspects that give it its character – which gives conveying said character a purpose, and a pleasure too. It’s often in the sway of grass, or the felt knowledge of its three dimensions (NOT its colour, or other visual aspect) that inspires the choosing of where precisely a shadow should fall to describe it, or perhaps where a butterfly draws attention to an area (unnoticed in a photo) or a feature, and its in this choosing, this selection by the painter that pleasure is found, and where his mark is made. It is also this feeling of connection gained or felt that leads to a decisiveness of action – spontaneity – resulting in a particular energy in a brush stroke, a vigour in the way a wash is put down, which again, cannot be re-created in the studio from a photo, without the reality of the enthusiasm felt by the painter. And it isn’t technical confidence (though with practise competence does of course gradually grow) as is so often mistakenly attributed to this ‘verve’ of brush work, but rather it is literally ‘inspiration in action’, some impatience in the pressing situation of the moment, and with some audacity, not confidence.
It can be learned, by analysing later, with the intention of more ‘objective’ eyes, that this audacity has resulted in a visual appeal in the marks that, though not fully controlled by the painter, do ‘work’. And so from this can follow a degree of confidence that next time, the same action may also lead to a similar result. But of course, it ain’t necessarily so. Nope, things don’t always work out, as there are other factors that come to bear on the success or otherwise of a painting, and the mystery in it all is probably one of the reasons we persist with the art form.
A true appreciator within any field is one who will experience it fully, observe it well, and of course this is essential for a painter to ‘interpret’ in a way that might be related to by the eyes of the beholder. They say (as I do) that you must ‘enjoy the process’, focussing on this when painting and not the result. It’s absolutely right, and your best chance of a good result anyway.
In effect the process can be close to meditation, or certainly it is being ‘mindful’, as now often described. The changing landscape keeps you in the moment, absorbing and reacting to it all, not only through sight. Ideally you’ll have a heightened sense of awareness. Surely the definition of living; being not only witness but also in your own way taking part in the outside existence of reality.
Time disappears, and as such you may not notice how cold you’ve been for an hour or two. At which point I realise I can hardly move my hands. Which I like to think does slightly explain some of those shoddy marks.
WETTEST SUMMER SINCE RECORDS BEGAN – Plein air journal, excerpt.
Forgot my Raw Umber, aaargh!… Oh well, look at it as a ‘fun’ challenge to overcome… The tiles turn out quite well, and give the picture a bit of sparkle. I go to town with textural effects for the ancient barn to draw focus. This goes okay, since there is plenty of real, interesting detail to base it on. The picture has some depth at least, and when I’m away from here I think it might do enough, as per Wordsworth’s ’emotion recollected in tranquility’. That’s being positive – a bigger part of me says it’s uninspired dross, enlivened superficially by some technique. I put it away and pretend I’ve only just woken up. The day is young.
Paint as you would like to live life. Take your chances. There has to be risktaking for the best watercolour results. There’s not a lot to lose with paint and a bit of paper, as we often seem to think. You’re not really putting yourself in danger.
Someone once commented after I’d finished a demonstration painting that ‘I can see you really paint close to the edge, don’t you?’. I was probably red in the face, nervous, agitated, anxious and slightly crazed. I remember I replied without thinking: ‘I think I paint close to the bin’.
I also think that an approach of ‘what goes down stays down’ is a rather useful way of directing your approach towards a decisive, strong result. It’s a harsh, self-disciplined approach, perhaps even cruel at times. I strongly related though, to a quote from Adrian Bury’s book ‘ On the Mastery of Watercolour: ‘…only then can we hope to arrive at the situation where watercolour is as strong and invulnerable as the perfect argument.’ I absolutely don’t advise it for everyone, and am not a whip cracker in my tuition – I hope…
WETTEST SUMMER SINCE RECORDS BEGAN – Plein air journal, excerpt.
I’d finished the painting, or nearly, and just sat and watched a great ‘swarm’ of swallows swooping around above the whole field. Suddenly I had a nasty awakening, as I heard a crunch behind me and turned to see a group of cows almost on top of me. I jumped up, grabbed my rucksack and painting and literally ran. The cows must have come through the hedge in a gap I’d missed somewhere… Luckily they were just curious and stopped at my bits on the ground that I’d not been able to grab. Unfortunately, when they’d left the scene and I could get back to the spot, they’d hoofed stuff around a bit, broken my plastic palette and evidently one had my brushes in its mouth as they were covered in saliva and a couple were crunched in half. From now on I will always check for unseen gaps in hedges!