This blog is a showcase of the work I’ve been sent in response to the ‘challenge’ I set a couple of months ago.
As always there’s some great painting here to see and to learn from, and I hope you enjoyed it if you had a go. I’ve made a few personal observations on each piece below, based on aspects of the paintings as they strike me. But what grabs your eye? It should be helpful to make note of those things, and think about them in relation to your own work.
Firstly, here again are those main reference photos.
Some people had a go at both references, others at one of them, twice or more. I said I’d show up to two watercolours, so as promised and in no particular order…
I enjoy the colour in this, especially the green, but it’s in relation to the blue distance and warm/brown colour closer to us that seems particularly to make it work. Strong tonal range also provides a ‘solid’ realist quality. I think the soft ‘edgedness’ of the distance (new word, edgedness?) is important in conveying depth, and that being fundamental to the ‘sense of place’ with this kind of landscape scene. (Soft edginess?… No, not the right meaning!) The negatively painted shapes in the right corner add important light-against-dark, and the area of interest in the clouds is nicely handled as well as perfectly placed to balance the composition.
Lots of softness (edgy or otherwise) in this one, which I think helps convey the muffledness(TM) of being out in a snowscape. But also it means the eye is drawn to the hard edges, such as the (simultaneously) darkest bit within the main tree, these things strengthening the focal point. There’s some lovely bleeding/softness in this tree too. The use of fence posts, being a different type of shape to all the foliage, also works well as a lead in to the tree. Nice cool shadow in relation to the subtle areas of warmth, and the hard-edged bits of the tree further down the lane again grab the eye and pull me further in. The combination of soft and hard in that tree works a treat, as does the subtle cool-to-warm of its colour.
This has a nice, evening-time atmosphere, to me, conveyed because of low light level, fairly long shadows, warmth in the sky and also the silhouetted nature of the main tree. Actually the first thing I noticed was the appealingly bold and expressive range of brush marks in the tree. Conviction and energy = dynamism! The wet in wet softness in the sky nearby compliments the tree, rather than competes with those hard-edged marks, and the sunlight is well placed, to the right in the composition. Easy to miss, but there is a little bit of white paper in the sky behind the tree, which actually helps it as well (I am assuming deliberate!). Good control of tone for the distance; those pale, cool hills on the right appear very far away, and as if light is falling in front of them.
I’m struck here particularly by the good range in terms of marks, and there’s a subtle, observed/controlled use of tone and colour. The negative, scraped out twigs/branches leap out. One or two is always enough. The left hedgrow is well simplified (not at all easy) and contrasts well with the treatment of the main tree, which contains many smaller marks. It’s so helpful to have a full range when it comes to markmaking – of size, shape, soft/hard, etc. Just look at how tiny the smallest marks are here (e.g. ivy on trunk). These are effective because of how they relate to the quieter areas, such as distant hillside, sky and those larger marks in the left hedgerow. Importantly, these small marks are concentrated in a good place and not scattered willy-nilly (as often happens!), thus they contribute very effectively.
A painting of strength, from an artist you probably know! Vigour is one of the foremost qualities of Steve’s work, to my eyes, and demonstrates the importance of ‘going for it’ for fresh watercolour results. A broad Range, of many aspects here, from tone (virtual black darks through to retained white paper), colour (saturated grass colour through to muted browns) and again marks – large ones through to tiny linear ones for that tree down the lane. A simplified approach to the main tree, with statuesque trunk and just a few picked out branches (artistic licence – again boldly employed) and just a couple of well placed scrape-outs provide an eye catching negative shape in a helpful position. Note, folks, how dark the shadows are in relation to sunlit areas. The painting is as much a definition of light and shade as it is of twig and leaf. (Note also branch shadow cast across the trunk.)
This one also strikes me for its boldness and conviction. The composition has been considered and pared down to essentials. The tree grabs you, but the clever inclusion of a figure moves the eye away and into the scene. It helps provide scale, and a contrast in terms of type of shape. Having just fence posts on the right (omitting the bit of hedge in the ref) also adds value to the hedge foliage on the left. And the hardy-edginess of most of this closer area contrasts superbly with the soft, wet in wet background. Again, there is a helpfully broad range of mark size, from the unfussy tree and main ‘bulk’ of left hedge, to the carefully thin fence wire marks and directed use of spatter (note, again NOT all over the shop thus cancelling out its purpose and meaning!) Those few small negative marks in the grass on the right are important, too. Like fallen leaves catching the light.
Once again, a boldness to the markmaking here.
(These things suggest confidence, but does the painter feel confident? Often its not real confidence, but a willingness to take chances regardless of risk! And ‘risk’ of what – ‘messing up’ a bit of paper? Audacity is what many watercolourists need a dose of; don’t wait for genuine confidence.)
More use of the distance here, which works well in terms of creating depth in the painting. Just a few small areas of more saturated (bright) colour amidst generally greyed/earthy foliage works well. This painter has learned the value of the ‘unfiddled’ mark. A given mark will rarely be all you intend, but if you let it retain purity (which smacks of conviction) it can convince a viewer and sell a painting much more than fiddling in an attempt to put a mark ‘right’. The tree has real character, which I love, and also very effective is casting the distant hill under shadow, so as to throw up the sunlit path against it.
A lovely and perhaps more delicate use of watercolour, showing it does not have to be all about those apparently ‘bold’ or the more minimalist approaches. Subtlety has equal power to brashness. It’s all about how you combine and balance these qualities. In fact this painting is still daring, and ambitious.
A very effective combination of soft and hard edges in the sky and background, which set up well the finer, more densely, tiny-marked detail of the trees. Use of artistic licence to open up the left of the scene, and some great negative painting of the grasses here (and in front of the right-hand tree). There’s a kind of poetic deliberateness in the echoing of two figures within ‘two’ trees. But very importantly, the compositon as a whole is not symmetrical. To me this painting is a great reminder that ‘detail’ and definition are very positive things. Paintings can sometimes go too far towards ‘simplification’, where there’s just nothing much left to look at (or being evoked). Simplifying but retaining what is required for a great picture is an enormous skill. The ‘detail’ is effective here because of the more simplified areas, each being well chosen.
And so on to the boats! Wow, what a corker. Very distinctive ‘style’ and moody, owing most obviously to strong tonal range in conveying the quality of light, but also the latter is achieved through use of minimal colour (limited palette). The starkness of these boat shapes combines nicely with the fine level of detail (ultra fine marks for the boat rigging and the ‘bittiness’ – that’s a good thing in the context – of the area of dry-brush bottom-right. Notice again the concentrated placement of these things – if you put a particular type of mark all over the place you cancel out its effectiveness. Use of water spatter in the foreground adds to the textures, and the sky texture suggests a hand-made paper. A very intriguing painting!
A second take on this subject, being more cropped/zoomed in, and having more degrees of subtlety in tone. But which is ‘better’? I like both equally. Just goes to show there are plenty of alternative ways of approaching one reference. You’ve got to have enough ‘interest’ in a painting, drawing just as much as you need from a reference/your subject. The little bit of extra colour on the main boat here, and addition of the boat ‘number plate’ (I don’t know what its called) add something. Importantly there’s still a solidity and overall ‘wholeness’ to the shape of the boats that mean the dry-brush marks and smaller marks (boats) in the distance contribute very effectively.
Check out John’s own blog, ‘Brushes with watercolour’, HERE. (Always a pleasant and insightful read, John takes you with him through his own very relatable journey of watercolour’s unending pitfalls and discovery.)
A wide open, bright and breezy feeling to this one. The sunlit (described through use of hard-edges) and windswept clouds (soft-edged bits) help this effect, as does the rigging on the left hand boats. Depicting the rigging with unconnected lines in this way really suggests movement and shimmering in light. Suggested movement always gives life to a painting. Subtle use of colour – note the bit of umber/yellowy sand bottom-left – is really important here. Without a touch of this ‘difference’ throughout a large area things can become monotous. Colour difference in this way can help suggest distance from front to back, too. Nice bit of artistic licence with the boat added bottom-right. And the birds add well to the painting. Important to the ‘sense of place’, adding literal life, and, importantly, they are well placed in the composition. Their addition helps create a good overall balance and connect all areas. I presume this was planned from the outset. Birds should never be an afterthought, though if need be, a well placed greenfinch can sometimes aid an otherwise failing painting!
This is a well-composed take on the subject. The edge of the platform really works here as a lead-in. We are taken on a zigzag ride into the main boat, then up and down those left-hand boats. The background is also found and the horizon line here is very effective for its soft edge. That really helps create a sense of distance. But also it stops it from competing with (or even seeming to merge with) the main boat’s hard edges in front. The sky is very subtle (often a very good policy) but still contributes well to a feeling of, again, a bright and breezy coastal day. By keeping the sky quite ‘quiet’ extra value is given to the rigging and other details on the boats in front. The retained white paper and very pale wash on the top of the platform area really captures an effect of bright sunlight on the ground here, and works well to set off the shadows.
This one struck me firstly for the nice range of treatment throughout and the bold spirit of approach, giving it dynamism. The red of the boat is very effective owing to the very limited use of colour (mostly quite neutral greys) in the rest of the painting. That’s clever, as are the concentrated areas of ‘detail’, or suggested detail through the use of small and bitty marks close to the main areas of focal interest. The really ‘quiet’, simplified foreground counterpoints this very effectively. There are some important bits of negative/white in this, through various means, I think. Particularly eye-catching is the ‘counterchange’ in the boat’s railings, going from dark against a lighter sky to light against the darker cabin windows. The cluster of birds adds an effective extra dose of energy and life, also helping to take us into the distance.
Oooh, heavy sky. Better take cover!.. I love the bit of white (or very pale tone) visible on the water behind and underneath the boat. It looks just like the sunlight is finding a way through to shine on the water here, creating a very evocative mood. Very nice ‘moulding’ of the boat itself – 3D well achieved – and that post on the right is quite cunning. It serves to funnel the eye towards the distance, as do the ‘perspective lines’ in the sand. Those boats back there are set in the same grey as the headland, which helps place them as both ‘similarly distant’, as does their very simple treatment. The light patch on the water just beyond the boats is again (I hope) no mistake. Another bit of water shimmering in the light, and of course helping those boats stand out. I love the soft-meets-hard edges in the beach, where sand meets seaweed and little ridges.
Compositionally quite enclosed (perhaps cropped down afterwards?) this provides a very different take on the composition of the reference photo. That’s great to see and shows the freedom we all have to create what we want from a subject. A good sense of light and shadow and a nice balance between important shapes well-defined and vagueness/implied jumble elsewhere.
Importantly, the defined shapes are well observed and accurately drawn, especially in terms of perspective. This is still essential and the sort of thing that lays the ground allowing for what people often term ‘looseness’ in what comes afterwards. Certain things may seem ‘loose’ here, but I reckon it’s based on a lot of experience in terms of what you can be loose with, and what you can’t. Other essential aspects of reality are also accurately observed and recorded here, such as how things appear to merge into one amorphous mass when they are equally in the shade – like whatever is going on under the boat! The point is, however loose or free some of the markmaking appears, key observations underpin it all.
Well done, everyone (including those who sent me their versions but didn’t want me to show them!)
Until next time, take care out there –
– but be audacious in your painting!!
All the best, Jem