We’ve just returned from Spain where we ran a group painting holiday in the lovely old Andalucian town of Ronda, based in a hotel right on the edge of those sheer cliffs. It was brilliantly organised by Richard Cartwright of West Norfolk Arts. I did several sketches of the mountain panorama from my balcony, taking care not to drop a pencil as it wouldn’t have stopped for over 200 feet straight down!
Ronda is full of fascinating subjects, apart from its magnificent Puente Neuvo, the bridge that links the two parts of the town and spans the dramatic gorge. The watercolour sketch shown on the right is of the old bridge, which I carried out with a sanguine pen and a limited range of harmonious colours to retain unity. I chose to do it fairly early in the morning when it was backlit, for added drama, but also to avoid the crowds of tourists. I could see the green fields beyond the bridge and the blue-grey mountains beyond them, but chose to introduce a misty atmosphere in which I could lose detail. This was especially helpful with the gorge itself as it enhanced the sense of space and depth, which is also true of the vertical dimension as it goes down a long way.
We were mainly blessed with good weather most of the time, although we did have a number of splendid storms, one of which was accompanied by a cloudburst that filled the streets with roaring torrents, trapping many for nearly an hour.
I’ve just returned from running a sketch & walk course in the Lake District with a lovely group of students, where the biggest problem was a lack of water! This is something which is rarely encountered in Lakeland, and it did confound attempts to sketch certain waterfalls rather devoid of water. Still we had a great time and at least we eventually found some in Coniston Coppermines Valley.
The watercolour on the right is the view we painted, though I actually did this three years ago during autumn when there was more water in the beck, and the hillsides were alive with warm colours. This also happens to be on the cover of the summer issue of Leisure Painter magazine, featured in an article on creating wisps of cloud and streamers, which can so enhance your work. It was painted on Saunders Waterford rough 140 lb paper, and to achieve the soft misty edges I scrubbed with a damp half-inch flat brush. Losing ridges and parts of a hill or mountain can add so much mood and mystery to a landscape, and the article covers various ways in which you can achieve these effects.
These softening-off techniques are a common feature in my books, especially theWinter Landscapes in WatercolourandSkies, Light & Atmosphere in Watercolour. Some artists feel that a standard broad-washed blue or grey sky can fit any landscapes, but I put great effort into my skies to introduce exciting and interesting cloud and atmospheric effects that suit a particular landscape, so there are a great many examples of these in both books.
In Lakeland my biggest problem with the students was keeping up with the three octogenarian ladies, one of whom was leaping up and down precipitous slopes like an over-active monkey. What a great pleasure it is to see people respond so well to the beauties of nature.
Recently I received an interesting email asking how to develop an artist’s ‘mindsight,’ or visualisation in constructing a painting. This is more than just assembling the various parts of a composition, and brings in more about your own feelings and imagination into the equation.
This watercolour of the Pembrokeshire coast at Amroth is an example of how visualization created a really different painting from what I saw in reality. I sketched the scene in mid-afternoon with light coming from the left. I could see the village and background hills and cliffs in strong detail and an overwhelming green. There was little atmosphere. In the studio I played around with studio sketches, tried various lighting and mood effects and considered how to increase the dramatic effect. I needed to lose most of the detail and the greenery.
I decided to change the lighting to an evening sky, bringing in atmospheric cloud to lose much of the hills, and enhance the unity by using few colours in the background, mainly French ultramarine and cadmium red. Backlighting like this adds dramatic appeal and the cascade of light above the houses highlights them as a focal point. The dark closer rocks and cliff create a sense of space, again painted in with the same colours as the background only with much stronger tones and the addition of yellow ochre in places.
How do you develop this visualisation of a scene? Firstly seek out dramatic lighting situations, sketching, recording and photographing strong atmosphere, moving around to find the most dramatic viewpoint and observing the effects created in these situations. Secondly study these phenomena at exhibitions, in books, etc, in the work of good landscape artists. Experiment with ideas, exaggerating height, tonal values and atmospheric effects, and using your imagination to create mystery, drama, intense light or moody shadows. Eliminate features that don’t work for you. This all takes time and experience, but if you make a deliberate effort to work on this aspect of painting it will improve your work enormously.
My Skies, Light & Atmosphere in Watercolour book contains a great many paintings that have been enhanced dramatically by visualising the overall atmosphere before touching the watercolour paper. Most of the skies depicted – and there is an enormous variety – have been changed to something more exciting for that particular composition. Concentrating on skies is an excellent way of beginning visualisation methods.
We have a lot of mud in Wales, and this winter it has excelled itself, making hiking something of a messy process, so it would be a pleasant change to see some good clean snow for a change. Then back to mud, of course.
I love those misty mornings with the sun beginning to filter through. It’s worth finding a local river scene on these mornings as they lend themselves well to this sort of atmosphere. This scene shows only part of the composition, and I have applied masking fluid at the top of the birch trees to accentuate the hard edges of the ice-rimed branches. When this had dried I worked in the background wet-in-wet to create a soft, misty effect, and this included the distant trunks and branches. It was an intensely cold morning. I have washed in Naples Yellow into the right-hand sky area and into the birch trees to add a sense of warmth, as well as in the reeds. The water was again achieved wet-in-wet – note how the bank below the birches has a slightly darker reflection than the bank itself.
This is taken from my Winter Landscapesbook which is crammed with ideas for painting winter scenery, even if you have no intention of going outside to take full advantage of all that glorious mud!!!
Injecting a little sunshine into your landscapes will give them a strong appeal, and the best way of achieving this is to lay cast shadows across a light surface. Nothing will give a more striking or fresh approach than doing this across a pristine snow scene. With winter upon us you will hopefully have opportunities for practising this effect before long.
In this watercolour the sense of strong sunshine has been achieved by laying cast shadows across the foreground and over the left-hand part of the roof. For the shadows I used a mixture of cobalt blue and cadmium red, although very little of the latter was included as it is a powerful colour. This produces a lovely, fresh shadow and is not as dull or overpowering as say burnt umber mixed with the cobalt blue. French ultramarine is also a superb colour if you wish to substitute it for the cobalt blue.
Note also the warm colours employed on the house and trees – this takes away the utter coldness of a snowy landscape. Aim to have white highlights on the snow, but not an overall whiteness. On the left-hand trees I deliberately applied white gouache with a painting knife. I don’t normally do this, but I wanted to show a variety of techniques in my Winter Landscapes in Watercolour book, where this scene appears.
This painting is now on show with several others in the Ardent Gallery, in the High Street, Brecon tel. 01874 623333, and is also available as a Christmas Card, available here
Don’t forget to watch out for that snow – it rarely seems to stay long these days so make the most of it whilst it’s still around, and preferably before all those tobogganers have churned it all up!