David Bellamy – Enhance your watercolour landscapes with simple cloud effects

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 the Winter Landscapes in Watercolour and Skies, 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.

David Bellamy – Visualising your painting

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.

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David Bellamy – Wonderful Distractions from Painting

    It’s been almost impossible to do much painting or writing lately, thanks to a very happy event. On 22nd February my daughter Catherine gave birth to an absolutely gorgeous little daughter, so for the first time I am now a grandad. She goes by the name of Guinevere, and I can’t wait to paint her. She’s already had a trek across the mountains at around 10,000 feet in the Italian Dolomites, when Catherine was carrying her last July, and as you can see from the photograph she is obviously deep in artistic contemplation.

For my own contemplation I’m beginning to put together thoughts and images for my next book about coastal scenery, for which I have a whole host of new work from both the UK and abroad. My Arctic book will be coming out in June, so there will be more on that later on, but it’s important to keep thinking ahead when you work on various projects. The sea has always been one of my favourite subjects, and the coastal book will be the fourth and last in my current series of how-to-paint books.

Before I go, just a quick tip on painting those boaty things – you don’t always have to insert a complicated harbour background into the composition, or indeed any sort of complex background. In this watercolour sketch I have simply brought the atmospheric sky down to meet the sand, and left it at that. Just because something is there, you don’t have to include it!

And don’t forget – if you want to get views of a boat from all angles it pays to take along a pair of wellies before you dive into that lovely mud….

David Bellamy – Coping with Painters’ Block

Do you ever get painters’ block? You’re not sure what to paint next, and nothing seems to be working? I’m lucky, meeting so many interesting people and creatures (yes, it’s often those wild things out there that give me so much pleasure when I’m out sketching), that it never seems to bother me. If you are finding it hard to get going again, you can try working on different surfaces – tinted papers, perhaps – or a different medium for a while, to trigger new sensations.

Think also about changing subject matter. This can be totally different to your usual work, or simple extending it in a way, such as adding wildlife into the middle distance of your landscapes, or more detailed figures than you normally paint. While I mainly paint landscapes, the impact of stunning wildlife stumbling into my scene (and sometimes getting a bit too close for comfort) has encouraged me to paint more wildlife. Boats and the sea are also favourites, bringing a pleasant change to inland scenes, and I love doing figure work in various forms.

Here, I’d like to talk about another type of subject I find fascinating – the industrial scene. When the coal mines of South Wales were closing down rapidly towards the end of the 20th century I wanted to capture the last of the mines before they all disappeared. This is a watercolour of Penallta Colliery with the miners coming off duty. I didn’t want to include all the intricate detail of the pithead and environs so I introduced quite a bit of atmosphere. This also had the advantage of making the figures stand out against the background, and the whole composition was created from several sketches and photographs. This was especially important with regard to the miners who had to relate to each other. Here and there I have deliberately lost detail, but note how the smaller background figures in silhouette really suggest a sense of depth to the painting.

There tends to be a lot of detritus lying around in a scene like this, but you don’t need to put it all in: some of it can either be simply suggested vaguely, or you could leave it out altogether. As always with a complicated scene it is vital to do at least one studio sketch before the painting, to work out the optimum composition. Consider also keeping the background as an almost monochrome as I have done here. This will further throw emphasis onto the foreground.

Unfortunately Images of the South Wales Mines, the book that resulted from my mining paintings, has long been out of print, but you may be able to get a rather expensive copy secondhand. Most of all, don’t let that painters’ block stop you – we all get a little stale at times, but trying a different type of subject is often a good way of rejuvenating your artistic impulses.

David Bellamy – Exploiting plastic food wrap in a watercolour

The first snowfall of the winter arrived last Wednesday, and with glorious sunshine slanting across the landscape I abandoned all work and set off up into the hills. Familiar scenes lay transformed into jewels sparkling in the light. At one point I had a sudden urge to seek out a view at a point I had never stood before, a sort of premonition that I might find something exciting there. It was not far off the path, but about 200 yards across rough dead bracken covered in deep snow – ideal terrain to trip over and get a nice refreshing snow-bath.

When I reached the point there was no wonderful view, but as I turned back the scene before me really caught my imagination. It was a familiar abandoned house, but from a totally new angle, the whole image enhanced by the deep snow. It certainly brought it home to me that you can often find amazing new scenes simply by approaching the subject from a slightly different viewpoint.

One technique I sometimes use, mainly for foregrounds is that of covering an extremely wet wash with plastic food wrap, as I did here in the watercolour of highland deer that I came across in Glen Affric. In this instance I used Winsor blue, in places mixed with a touch of cadmium red, and varying the wash so that in places there was less strength in the colour, and even parts without any colour at all. You need to leave the food wrap in place until the wash dries completely. The method gives a spontaneous feel to the finished work. Experiment with various colours. It’s great fun to try this without any preliminary pencil work – you can do several examples at once – and when the work has dried you can see the optimum position to place your drawing before doing any further painting, and thus taking optimum opportunity of how the effect has developed.

This painting appears in my Winter Landscapes in Watercolour book and DVD, which you should find especially useful if you enjoy painting snow scenery. It is crammed with tips on how to bring sunshine into your paintings, creating misty effects wet in wet, transforming a scene by altering tonal effects, making the most of warm colours in winter, and much more. If you wrap up well, use a thin pair of gloves and carry one of those vacuum cups with warm coffee, you can make the most of a snow scene caught in the lovely low sunlight of a calm winter’s day. Leave the food wrap for the studio though!