I'd like to share some insights into the watercolour paintings I've been creating and that you can see in the gallery.
There are many ways you can approach watercolour painting, as with other mediums, and it is one of its attractive qualities. For me, much of the process involves imagining and contemplating what I am going to paint.
From this process of visualisation, I look to build up an image on paper. It’s very much a personal thing, I think very often artists will approach painting in many different ways.
I normally think about all aspects of the subject and narrow down my intentions whilst preparing the paper and getting ready to paint. You might call it meditative. I normally think about 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 think about the sort of colours I will aim for. Normally, I think about colour in broad terms, choosing simple primaries first and then decide subtleties later.
I think the choice of colour is crucial to the outcome of the finished 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 paper is unconventional. I staple the paper 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 the paper 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.
Then 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 painting a seascape, for example, I tend to start with either the sky, the sea or the beach.
In terms of how I paint, I look to match my painting 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 use more pressure, or use the edge of a brush to create textures or to express a certain atmosphere.
You also have to think about how much paint you use in each layer. Some colours react differently according to the amount of water you use. They might be transparent or opaque in quality which is another consideration when painting.
Like most artist attempting something new on paper, I often don’t know what is going to happen in the painting and 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 paintings don’t turn out the way I would like them to.
The materials I use have an impact on how the painting turns out. The paper substrate has another influence on how the painting turns out and its aesthetic. There are now a large number of paper choices for the artist.
Much of my work is done using cream paper of a smooth or medium (NOT) roughness, having experimented with rougher papers and found the surface detracts from my aesthetic aims. The finest handmade papers do improve a painting but are increasingly hard to source. Fabriano Esportazione used to be my number one choice but now Two Rivers or a machine-made paper by Arches etc. are my regular choice.
Sometimes if you use a darker toned paper and only have transparent colours, you can find you haven’t enough light in the painting. You might make it too dark overall, lack contrast or end up with the wrong atmosphere.
Sometimes when you paint 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 used can affect the look of the painting. 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 painting 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 painting.
I don’t usually add anything to watercolour paints. I just use them straight from the tube and I look to restrict my choice of paints to those 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 paintings I like to make use of an opaque white, using water-based white gouache for this, although recently I have found the quality of white watercolour paint to be opaque enough for me.
With 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 under the painting you subsequently do.
For me, the painting proper 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 when creating a painting. I tend to use 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 think about 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 use 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 paint washes and I try to reserve the white in the painting for small areas.
Once I am in the flow of the painting, 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.
It can be very easy to forget to stop while watercolour painting. Or to go too far with a painting - 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 painting cannot be brought back to the simple immediacy it once had.
It normally takes me quite a while to complete a painting 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 ways of painting 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 think, I’m fairly expressive in the way I do paintings and 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 the paint, 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 painting process, and therefore the final image needs to reflect that.
Once I feel the painting has got to a stage where it’s nearly finished, I will look to introduce some form of scale, for example, seagulls flying or to some finishing touches to the painting.
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 painting 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 when I’m painting. I’ve tried it on the odd occasion but most of the time I prefer to paint 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 used to be a problem.
Watercolour painting can give you a great sense of satisfaction especially if you create a successful artwork. It’s such a lovely and beautiful medium to use.
They have a magical watery tone look that is exquisite. It is one of my favourite mediums to use because it is so dynamic and flexible. It allows for sensitive expression and clarity. It’s also a relatively clean painting process and using water is very satisfactory. It’s closeness to drawing is also in its favour because you can also achieve some of the immediacies that drawing offers.
Once watercolours are framed and mounted they make for wonderful art statements. They are very immediate and direct expression by the artist and our personal favourite for me. I’m not sure why watercolour painting has interested me for so long, perhaps it allows for an effective connection between what I’m thinking, seeing and feeling and being able to express this and put it into some kind of art form.
One of the interesting things about works on paper is that you can use different size mounts to make the finished artwork looks larger or smaller depending on where is hung. It’s therefore quite flexible as to the finished size of the artwork, how you frame it and the finished artwork size. Compare this to a work on canvas which is not traditionally framed with a card mount.
So watercolour paintings are suitable for a wide range of interior spaces. Also, they can be hung with other works on paper such as drawings or etchings. As they have conventionally been labelled as a medium used as studies for a finished piece rather than a finished artwork in its own right, watercolour paintings are very accessible for collectors — making for beautiful and evocative works of art.
Published August 2019