Cliffs, Water and lots of Trees; recent paintings and the stories behind them.

Rough surf at Seaton.


Hi folks,
I hope this finds you well.

The above painting was done recently as a demo for Seaton & District Art Society.
When possible (which is not always) I arrive early at a demo location and find a local scene to do as my ‘main’ painting, usually done in the second half of my presentation. Arriving at the seafront of Seaton I could see this part of mostly chalk cliff at the west end of the bay.  It looked good, so I walked along the beach a fair distance until I found some great views of it in relation to the surf and more distant headland. That half-dead tree on the right  was also somewhere along this stretch, but I pulled it in to my composition. I took lots of photos as I went, using the camera to compose, stood and memorised colours and key tonal relationships, and enjoyed the atmosphere and weather a great deal. It was windy, and drizzling (the clouds were more of a blanket than I’ve portrayed them here).
Then, getting a bit damp, I returned to the car (just in time as the rain came heavily down), viewed the photos and sketched a ‘composite’ composition at 4 inch size. It includes a few words about my colour palette also.  The latter is helpful in advance of a demo when the subject is very new to me, as in this case (I’ve hardly painted surf – and virtually never chalk cliffs). During the demo I refer occasionally, and just for a few seconds, to my camera/photos as well as the sketch, for example to see the particular details about the leftmost section of the main cliff, which really needed observing fairly well, because it was so good in reality and crucial to the focal point of the painting.  I explain all of this to the audience while I’m doing it.  Most demos these days are enlarged onto screens, so I can also hold my photo and the sketch up the camera when helpful.  In fact Seaton’s demos are held in the local theatre, and it was the biggest ‘big screen’ I’ve ever seen!
I don’t often show my demonstration paintings on social media (or here) partly because I’m not often very happy with them as paintings but just as much because I want the ‘demo experience’ to remain an alive one.  My demos are not just about the quality of the final painting but about the process, the strategy, psychology, techniques employed, energy and the full and rapid communication of all this!  But I felt in this case the 45 minute madcap fling of paint (which is how it always feels to me) worked out okay – on the whole – for the painting as well.  I hope to be painting a lot more sea, later this year.


Plein air by the flooded river Windrush at Burford.

This was just a couple of days before Christmas.  It was unseasonably mild and the sun was out (dare say we’re heading for ‘the warmest winter ever’, in my part of the world anyway).  Well, the sun came and went, being low in the sky and therefore at this time of year very liable to disappear behind cloud for prolonged periods, but I was lucky to see it a fair bit.
One of those where you know not to make the paper wetter than necessary, as it won’t dry out much.  But in fact I regretted it in a couple of places where I’d have preferred some softer edges.  A challenging situation though, so can’t complain too much – and it came out a bit better than I thought.  Returned with muddy but dry feet, and very happy not to have been in the supermarket.

Walking boots are the most vital piece of a plein air painter’s kit!  Seriously.


Tree near Windrush Gallery.

Perfect.  Stood on a damp, but still day in a damp grassy verge in the Cotswolds.  I could barely be happier.  And sharing a morning’s plein air painting with David Curtis, Chris Robinson and others (some of the UK’s most admired landscape painters).  I was fortunate to be here as a guest, as part of a larger group exhibiting at Windrush Gallery, and this view was just a five minute walk down the lane.
The exhition was of the Pure Watercolour Society, a small informal society founded by James Fletcher-Watson (info here: and I was invited to include a couple of my paintings in the show.

Exhibition of The Pure Watercolour Society, at Windrush Gallery


Exploring potential subjects in early morning. A good dilapidated barn; one for next time.



Trees and chickens near Whitley, Wiltshire.

An opportunistic plein air painting, combined with visiting a friend, making the most of some winter sun.  I found this very tricky.
I spotted that tree from the road as I was driving to my location.  Always got to be careful to keep the eyes on the road, when there are trees around!

Just a scene on a footpath, as per usual.


The Welcoming Crow Tree and River Windrush

A tree and scene that seemed to me to be welcoming the sun, and Spring (wishful thinking) as well as the crows.
The water was just about overflowing the river banks, and down into the fields below it, and my feet were dangerously close in order to take some photos here.  This was a studio painting – rarely truly satisfying to me – and I felt the usual struggle with authenticity.  Hard to explain, but without seeing and feeling everything closely as I’m painting I just don’t believe enough in what I’m doing.  Having very high res photos enlarged onto a huge screen might improve things a little bit, but it still wouldn’t be the same.  I don’t want to just ‘make pictures’ and that seems to be what it is reduced to, rather than participating in something with the landscape.


Return to the Tree near Kelston Round Hill

This one was a return to a subject I’ve painted more than once.  Done for inclusion with a two-part article on Composition, to be published in Leisure Painter magazine later this Spring.  On this occasion I’ve chosen an alternative vantage point, then made quite a few adjustments to the reality of how things were, to illustrate various points about Composition and artistic licence.  Thomas Schaller commented to me on this one (via Twitter), remarking on an ‘unusual and successful composition’, so that’s alright then.


Top of a Hampshire hill, with crows

While visiting an art group in the area for a demo I had some time to explore some nearby fields and came upon a great old tree right at the brow of a hill.  Clearly a favourite again with crows, though possibly the field beyond also.  In the field beyond were a group of detectorists (of the metal variety), which made an unusual scene.  The farmer, perhaps already on alert for suspicious behaviour, called over to check me out.  Well, I was taking lots of photos of his tree from different angles.  I’m quite used to feeling like a bit of an oddball, explaining that “I’m an ‘artist’; painter – of the landscape variety, and I really like your tree”.


By the railway line, Flax Bourton


Another studio painting.  I quite enjoyed this one.  A scene of not a lot again, but another nice old tree and large patch of sky.  From photos on a damp walk back in late summer, out looking for plein air opportunities along footpaths.  There wasn’t much, as is quite common on monoculture farmland these days, with barely a hedgerow tree or much ‘nature’ at all, but by the edge of railway lines can often be a bit neglected, which is always good for nature by comparison.  The trees were cast under cloud shadow, hence why they are so dark.  I only hope it reads that way.  I’ve been experimenting a bit with Burnt Sienna instead of Burnt Umber for my darks.  In fact it is easier to obtain a clean (‘transparent’) dark with that combination, but the colour just doesn’t fit with the rest of my palette so well, so that’s being a bit of a struggle.  In fact I’ve been through all this before, many years ago, but I’m doing it again…


Happy painting until next time.




Comments On This Post

Frank Scrivener 1 year ago. Reply

Hi Jem, I always enjoy your blog, honest and refreshing so clearly saying what you are thinking. There is a great book lurking inside you just waiting to be released. Very much enjoyed all the paintings, I must give treees much more attention than I have done. Best wishes for this year .

Regards Frank

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago. Reply

    Hi Frank,
    Thanks very much and I appreciate the positive thoughts.
    I think I’ll need a great and patient editor, for any book.
    But I might have a chance to pick up that idea reasonably soon… if this year goes to plan.
    Wishing you an excellent year, too. Jem

Ken Smith-Ormesby 1 year ago. Reply

hello Jem, Great batch of tree paintings. A big frustration for us would be painters ‘UP NORTH’ ( I’m in the North East,near Whitby), is that all the societies, as with the new ‘Pure Watercolor Society’ seem to base their showings south of Manchester, which means we miss out on seeing top class work. Pity they cannot see a way of having a touring show. Best regards, Ken Smith.

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago. Reply

    Hi Ken.
    Yes, it must be frustrating.
    I can relate, in fact, since I never enter the RI exhibition in London owing to difficulties such as them only providing one drop off day and return day (for example) making it quite offputting to those outside London. Unless you happen to be free/not working on the right days!
    I expect there are difficulties for them, too, though. The Pure Watercolour Society is in fact not new, since it was set up by J F-W before he died, and is based at The Windrush Gallery because that was his home. His daughter continues it, for the sake of the ‘pure watercolour’ tradition. To tour with it, I dare say, would not be viable. We’re all doing something that does not make money these days. On the positive side, being that some of us don’t do it for money (or make a meagre subsistence from it!) I’m looking forward to being a northerner myself this year, with a bit of luck. Or a southerner, in Scottish terms. Best regards, Jem

michael w davies 1 year ago. Reply

Hello Jem – what a great batch of paintings ! Have just got your Studio
Painting video which is really inspiring
too. I am looking forward to my own efforts improving now !
Mike Davies

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago. Reply

    Hi Mike.
    Thanks very much for your comment, and for buying the video.
    I hope it helps, but give yourself time. All the best, Jem

Richard Polinski 1 year ago. Reply

In your comments about studio painting I really appreciated and understood that you “don’t want to just ‘make pictures’ and that seems to be what it is reduced to, rather than participating in something with the landscape.” While I should do more studio work, to practice and experiment if nothing else, for myself I don’t find it inspiring or satisfying. I can’t get the mood of nature which I find so important, or a true sense of color and space from a photograph. Getting outside and being on the spot, even if it’s from inside a car while it’s raining, really motivates me.

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago. Reply

    Yes, even inside a car is a lot better. Being able to observe at real scale, and with movement and sound, etc.
    In an ideal world it would be possible to be outside working a lot more, and then feeling free to do a lot of experimentation as you work.
    If it’s only now and again that we get outdoors it tends to become less experimental as we’re less willing to take risks with that precious time. The ‘risk’ being not producing something that ‘looks good’. But when you’ve had enough of just producing pictures, then there’s no risk any more, because you want more than just a picture. A ‘failed experiment’ (oxymoron perhaps?) is better than nothing. What I’m wanting more and more is just the experience. And ideally a painting that manages to record that experience, with its pleasures and its reality in as many senses as possible.
    It is true that we need to experiment to progress. But a wider question is, do we really need to progress? The world at large makes me ask this question generally. Progress is not all it’s cracked up to be! …. But most of us feel a need for some kind of personal progress, as its a cultural conditioning, but it’s not felt so much at the actual time of painting (i.e. in the present moment) but during the in between times, of rumination.
    Regarding perception, of colour, space, etc – yes, and I think in fact again it is for many of us inspiring not only because we feel we are more able to perceive and capture something of this ‘reality’, but just in fact because we enjoy these qualities, of being outdoors, of feeling connected with our subject. Often we might feel we’ve ‘captured’ something extra by being there, but perhaps another viewer may not tell the difference between such a painting and one of our studio pieces. To me, that doesn’t matter. It is the experience of life that matters most.

Margot Stricker 1 year ago. Reply

I love your paintings very much and it’s so pleasing to see Windrush and surroundings aswell as Bourton where we spent many holidays. We love this aera and your paintings are great and bring back lots of memories. Kind regards Margot from Germany

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago. Reply

    Thank you, Margot, for your comment.
    That’s nice to hear. Kind regards, Jem

Olga 1 year ago. Reply

Loving them all, as always. So inspirational. Perhaps the first two most of all. It’s very helpful to read your comments too. Maybe just what I need to get kick-started to paint on my month in Galicia. I’ve just been round the Museum of Pilgrimages and there is one room dedicated to some watercolours by a local artist which have made me want to get going again. Thanks as always!

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago. Reply

    Thanks, Olga. Yeah, we all need a kickstart sometimes.
    A quick look at google images and that place looks to me like it should be pretty inspiring itself! Lucky you – Have fun

Ian Barnes 1 year ago. Reply

Hi Jem. Great paintings as always! I particularly like that view of the church and river at Burford and in fact I tried to find that viewpoint while visiting Burford when I came to your one day course at Windrush last Autumn but I couldn’t work out where it was in the time I had available. Didn’t JFW paint a similar view??

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago. Reply

    Hi Ian. Thanks very much, and hope you’re painting is going well.
    I’d not seen the view before that day, but asked Jo about footpaths with potential views of the church, either west or east of the town from the fields.
    I don’t think the Windrush’s water’s edge is very accessible by footpath, and here I was over the other side of the field from the actual ‘permissible’ path.
    I gleaned from google satellite view & street view that this should be worth checking out at least. You go to the ‘bottom’ of the town (actually the north side of town), down the main street and over the road bridge, and turn left at the roundabout. Then next left and then there’s a layby quite soon on left. And stile into the field here.
    I expect JF-W did a similar view, though I’ve not seen one from this spot myself. But he’s pretty much bound to have done, surely…

Joe Griffin 1 year ago. Reply

Hi Jem
Happy New Year and all the best for 2020.
I love these paintings and the first one at Seaton is particularly apposite as I have been practicing coasts and rough seas for a couple of weeks now. Unfortunaately I had to resort to white guache to get the crashing waves but I’m now working on negative painting to achieve the same. So very interesting to see how you managed this theme.
All the best


    Jem Bowden 1 year ago. Reply

    Hi Joe. And the same to you for a good 2020.
    One day at a time… The water and sea in all its forms is a subject I feel like I’ve only painted a few times myself, and so it is never a comfortable one, not that many things are ever that comfortable. It is such a variable one, too, that is offers so many ways of being interpreted into a still image. Very much hoping that before the year is out I’ll be a lot physically closer to the water’s edge! ….
    Nothing wrong with gouache. It might be useful to look at your finished paintings in a mirror (helps with objectivity) and try to see the ‘negative’ shape you ended up with, albeit though positive whiteness. Then you know that’s what you need to end up with next time. Or turn the neg into positive on a computer, perhaps.

Ewa Collier 1 year ago. Reply

Hi Jem,
Thank you for an excellent article. I particularly liked seeing the photos of the finished painting on the easel in front of the landscape itself. Its useful to see what you include and what you leave out. I shall look forward to reading your article on composition later this year.

    Jem Bowden 1 year ago. Reply

    Hi Ewa. Thanks for your comment.
    Maybe I should look at this too. I wonder if I’m actually aware of all that you’d say I include and leave out. Hmmm.

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