Watercolour painting

Watercolour painting insights by Timothy Gent

I'd like to share some insights into the original watercolour paintings I've been creating and that you can see in the gallery.

There are many ways you can approach this medium, as with other methods of painting, and it is one of its attractive qualities. For me, much of the process involves imagining and contemplating.

Starting a painting

From this process of visualisation, I look to build up an image on paper. It’s very much a personal thing, I believe artists will approach it in many different ways.

I normally think about all aspects of the subject and narrow down my intentions whilst preparing and getting ready to paint. You might call it meditative. I mull over where am I going to start and what I’m going to put down on the paper first.

When I have formed an image in my mind, I consider the sort of colours I will aim for. Normally, I consider my choice of colour in broad terms, choosing simple primaries first and then decide subtleties later.

The choice of colour is crucial to the outcome of the artwork. It can lead the painting down different pathways according to the choice of colours you start with.

One of my first decisions is to select the size and proportion of the paper. My method of stretching is unconventional. I staple it firmly to a wooden board. This developed out of a suggestion by another watercolourist that you can pin the edges of damp watercolour paper, rather than using wetted tape and letting it dry overnight.

Once it is ready to work on and all my materials are to hand, I continue to think about the artwork as a whole and what I want to achieve.

Forming an image

I’ll pick a certain starting point where the painting process will begin and flow from. This leads to a natural division of the whole process into smaller areas (although this doesn’t always happen). If I’m creating a seascape, for example, I tend to start with either the sky, the sea or the beach.

For me, it starts with a simple thin layer of colour over the blank paper to give an overall undertone. I like to work with a mixture of tones and I tend towards traditional earth colours such as yellow or orangey-red.

Once that’s fully dry, I chose a point to begin, the specific area I’m going to work on next and its relation to the whole. For example, I might look at the seascape I’ve seen in its entirety - the light, movement and atmosphere. I might start with the sky, with an eye to what the sea will be doing underneath and the whole painting. Then I will choose a painting style that reflects what I’m going to show.

For example, if I want some strong contrast and interesting shapes I will choose a drier, concentrated wash of colour with a smaller brush and work a medium strength of colour into the areas using interesting brush handling to create this. Or if I’m looking to create a very atmospheric dreamy painting I might decide to use a lot more water, in lots of layers of colour on top of one another. So I might be thinking about colour interaction with this and keeping the wash nice and tidy. With more watery washes and I try to reserve the white in the painting for small areas.

Building up to a fully-formed painting

Once I have an inkling of what I need to do, I’m always looking to create an overall balanced picture, with overall tones that aren’t too dark or light in value, with an interesting range of colours.

In terms of how, I look to match style and technique to the kind of light, atmosphere and movement I’m looking to produce. I might prefer to be very quick with the brush, to apply more pressure, or use the edge of a brush to create textures or to express a certain atmosphere.

You also have to consider about how much to put down in each layer. Some colours react differently according to the amount of water used. They might be transparent or opaque in quality which is another consideration.

Like most artist attempting something new, I often don’t know what is going to happen and I rely on instinct and intuition. As watercolour is such a liquid, fast-moving medium, you are balanced on the edge of control. I still find it a challenging medium and often the art doesn’t turn out the way I would like it to.

The materials used have an impact on how it turns out, for example, the substrate has another influence on the final result and its aesthetic. There are now a large number of choices for the artist.

Much of my work is done using cream paper of a smooth or medium (NOT) roughness, having experimented with rougher ones and found the surface detracts from my aesthetic aims. The finest handmade papers do improve things but are increasingly hard to source. Fabriano Esportazione was my number one choice but now Two Rivers or a machine-made paper by Arches etc. are my regular choice.

Sometimes if you are painting on a darker toned sheet and only have transparent colours, you can find you haven’t enough light in the image. You might make it too dark overall, lack contrast or end up with the wrong atmosphere.

Sometimes when you start too conservatively and too thinly it can lead to an insipid look to everything, which I try and avoid. Achieving a healthy-looking watercolour is somewhere between these two extremes.

The type of brush chosen can make a difference and the size and pressure applied can affect the outcome. I don’t have any hard and fast rules for brushes and go by general principles that suggest using the largest brush you can find for the size of picture you’re going to do. You can be surprisingly accurate with a large brush.

Occasionally I draw some compositional lines as the first stage and it can be helpful when deciding what you’re going to do and how you going to approach the watercolour.

I don’t usually add anything else to the mix. I just apply it straight from the tube and I look to restrict my choice to those pigments that are as permanent and lightfast as possible. Exotic colours can be limiting in this respect and earth colours are generally speaking the safest. In some watercolours I like to add an opaque white, using water-based white gouache for this, although recently I have found the quality of white paint to be opaque enough for me.

With a watercolour painting, you have to work quite quickly and there are certain times when you can’t go back as all these marks will show in what you subsequently do.

It can be very easy to forget to stop or to go too far. It’s very easy to think oh, I’ll just add another bit more here or there. I find sometimes you are unaware of it and you discover that the image cannot be brought back to the simple immediacy it once had.

It normally takes me quite a while to complete an artwork and it is not a fluid quick process but some of that is might be able to achieve. My approach is to not look for decorative mark-making but to make my brushstrokes count and establish important visual qualities. It is more about the light and the movement and the beauty of nature and what I’ve seen outside. What moved me and expressing those emotions that I’ve felt.

I like to keep things immediate and a mirror reflection of the feelings and emotions from my senses as I’ve been out on the beach.

A lot of the time when I am out on the beach looking for subjects, I’m just watching the processes of nature. The way the sea rolls over the sand, the makeup of the clouds and how they are moving. The way the tide is moving, the light shimmering over the surfaces. The type of surfaces and how the air is moving.

I am trying to replicate at least some of this through my process, and therefore the final image needs to reflect that.

I often struggle when it comes to coping with sound distractions. It can be the strangest noises which affect me. Anything that distracts me can make it difficult to continue in the same way and with the same level of concentration as before. It might just be me and a personal thing but I’ll often find it hard to continue where I left off when I’ve been distracted. I am not sure if it applies to all artists. In my case, it sometimes feels like my focus and concentration goes. Sometimes you have no choice but to work through these things. I try my best to make sure that my working environment is as peaceful and calm as possible.

I don’t usually listen to music while I’m making pictures. I’ve tried it on the odd occasion but most of the time I prefer to create without it. Sometimes classical music is fine but nothing too dramatic. Quite often I used to struggle to find somewhere light enough to paint indoors. It’s much better now but it was a problem.

Published August 2019