Watercolour painting: Nature in Art

Back in the 1990s Fiona and I used to do a little bit of watercolour painting, despite not really having any idea what I was doing. Over the last few months, inspired by the not-actually-that-good Channel 5 TV show Watercolour Challenge, we’ve started to dabble again. This Saturday, we painted Nature in Art: a Georgian mansion just north of Gloucester that’s been converted into an art museum.

Four of us went — Fiona and me with two friends — and we all painted different interpretations of the same scene. I’m not really free to share what the others did, but here’s mine. I chose a composition that showed the right-hand three-quarters of the house with a bit of greenery to the right, intending to put in the big tree at the end if there was time. Here’s my initial sketch.

As you can see, I went for a fair bit of detail in the building, but omitted the pinnacle tower at the top — mostly because I misjudged the height of the building and ran out of space at the top. If I could change one thing about this whole work, it would be to redraw the top quarter and fix the perspective, which is off just enough to be really noticeable once the paint goes on. Also, the round windows are rough. Ovals are hard.

From here, I painted in an undistinguished sky, then added several more or less flat washes for the two main colours in the building stonework: reddish bricks and rather more yellowish blocks. I also took the opportunity to put in the stone and tree in front of the low wall on the right, so they’d have plenty of time to dry before I started trying to paint around them.

At this stage it was going pretty well apart from the perspective foul-up. I love how the medium of watercolour, so unforgiving in many ways, actively helps you with textures at this stage. Look at how the colour in the bottom left of the house is deeper than elsewhere: that’s just from holding the pad slightly inclined, and letting more of the paint settle and dry in that corner. The same simple technique made the lower edges of the plants darker than the tops.

Next up was picking out some of the detail, suggesting the window panes (very much not attempting the white inner frames!), painting the low wall, and filling in the vegetation in front of and behind it.

I think this might have been the best stage: after this I was probably over-working it. Right now, I like the way the low wall’s colour grades in behind the rock, and the deliberately vague trees behind the wall. I’m broadly happy with the windows, and especially the way those three round ones at the top suggest the frames that quarter them. I don’t like how the porch is now so much more stark than the rest of the building: I think most of the mistakes I made from here on came from trying to make the rest of it starker.

Anyway, here’s what I had at the end of the two-hour span we allotted ourselves (rather than the three hours they use in the TV show):

Not all that much has changed here. I am glad to see I resisted the temptation to mess with the vegetation. I put in some brickwork texture on the low wall, which I am happy with; and drew out the reddish stone that surrounds the windows of the wings, which I think works OK. I also messed with the windows themselves, to less good effect I think.

Anyway. Despite the defects I’ve mentioned, I’m not too ashamed of this. Even though I ran out of time to put in the big tree on the right.

But on Sunday afternoon, I came back to it, wanting to bring out a bit more structure in the house by using a suggest-the-brickwork technique similar to what I had done to pretty good effect with the low wall. I also took the opportunity to paint in the black drainpipe that got overlooked on Sunday, and to punch up some contrasts elsewhere. Here is the result:

This, I am much less happy with. I’ve tipped over straight from insipid to garish without moving through any of the points in between, and the main brickwork now looks like it’s covered with giraffe skin.

In retrospect, I should have done this very differently — fewer brick highlights, more obviously horizontal rather than merely blobby, and probably in a variety of different colours. The frustrating thing is that I did this pretty well for a church that I painted a few months ago, but somehow failed to learn the relevant lessons for this painting.

Oh well. So long as this time I learn lessons, it’s not time wasted. And here are those lessons:

  • Consciously simplify, not just by leaving things out at random but by deciding during the drawing phase what is and is not going to be included.
  • After the initial drawing is complete, do something different for a minute or two; then come back to it with fresh eyes and ask whether the perspective is convincing.
  • Learn to draw ovals!
  • Stick with minimal detail in vegetation (which I did well)
  • Stick with minimal detail in windows (which I did not do well)
  • Make more use of colour gradients, even when they initially look messy.
  • Brickwork must be suggested by horizontal strokes.
  • Resist the urge to keep tampering.

I hope we’ll do another of these challenges in a couple of months; and that I’m able to learn from what I did well and badly this time, so I improve on the next one.

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3 responses to “Watercolour painting: Nature in Art

  1. Interesting indeed. If it is any consolation, many professional artists will tell you that the most difficult skill is knowing when to stop fiddling!

  2. Well done! A complex building like that is an ambitious way to attack an artform you’re less than comfortable with, and I think you came through quite well. Watercolor is indeed the least forgiving of paints (except fresco, I guess, but who even does that anymore?) and learning its ways is a mighty challenge.

    If you enjoy learning from videos as I do, may I suggest you check out James Gurney’s YouTube channel. He has many wonderful videos on painting in watercolor (and other media), both from life and imagination.

  3. Pingback: Plein Air Pittville Park painting challenge | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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