A Happy New Year to you all: I hope you had a great festive season and are looking forward to a better year ahead. Keeping our spirits up during these grim lockdown days is vital, and after so long it’s not easy to come up with new ideas to stop our art becoming stale. Like many, I’ve been going through mountains of old stuff with a view to throwing a lot out, and that process itself has thrown up some interesting ideas. Firstly checking through old transparencies I’ve recently found some real gems from which to work up paintings. Secondly, sketches I previously hadn’t given any thought about creating a painting from have inspired me, highlighting how our tastes and perceptiveness change over the years, and why it’s important to revisit some of these old resources. Thirdly, some of the old art books can trigger ideas for new types of subject, a new medium, or perhaps a different approach to observing subjects.
So this time my tips involve the foreground in a landscape where we may wish to include flowers, plants or wild entanglements. Above is a section of detail from a painting reproduced in my book Landscapes Through the Seasons. I painted the dark areas first and allowed them to start drying. When the sheen was off them, but they were still damp I used a painting knife to score out light stalks/grasses in the right-hand red patch. When all was completely dry I then painted on the cow parsley using white gouache applied with a rigger. Finally I spatttered white gouache in places with a toothbrush. There are more foreground methods in the book to give you ideas for this tricky part of a composition. See my website for details. Enjoy your painting, and do have some fun going through those old treasures – you never know what you may find!
Getting the composition right is critical whatever medium you use. In landscape painting there are many rules, or guides that will help you achieve a powerful composition, although like most ‘rules’ in painting these can be broken at times in order to create more original results. It does pay, however, to follow these rules while you are learning, and then perhaps taking a more creative approach later when you gain experience.
In this watercolour of Angle in Pembrokeshire I have used Waterford 300lb paper with a marvellous rough surface to enhance the textural effects, particularly in the large foreground area. The large foreground pushes back the centre of interest – the cottage – and allows a large lead-in of the creek. A lead-in to the centre of interest like this helps establish it, and the boats, birds, sparkle on the water and strong orange colour in the sky all draw attention to the centre of interest. The cottage also stands out darkly against the sky. These are all devices you can use to highlight your focal point.
The far right-hand boat gives a sense of balance to the composition, so that not everything is concentrated around the centre of interest. It is a good idea to carry out one or two studio sketches to ascertain the optimum positioning and emphasis on the painting to be done. Having the centre of interest around one-third of the way down the paper, or up from the bottom, and one third of the way along from either side always gives a powerful effect, so try not to place it bang in the centre!
The actual painting is on display in the Breath of Nature exhibition at Boundary Art at 3 Sovereign Quay, Havannah Street, Cardiff CF10 5SF Tel.02920 489869 until 1st May. The other paintings I have on display at Boundary Art are here
If you want to learn how to add Drama and Atmosphere to your paintings come to my Watercolour Seminar in Pontypool in October
It’s some time since I found time to write a blog post – having to work on the studio, being away from home and a recalcitrant computer with an impossible broadband service has made it difficult. The sun is beating down outside and the spring flowers are rife, a marvellous time to be out sketching, so maybe when I finish this post I’ll get some fresh air.
My subject today is Dylan Thomas’s Boathouse where he wrote his poetry. In this case I have designed the composition so that the foreground plays a major part, covering at least half the area of the painting. This has allowed me a rather long lead-in where I’ve elongated one of the ditch-like creeks and let it fade into the immediate foreground. With so much foreground space there is a danger that it could be severely over-worked, so I have made the detail intermittent, gradually losing it lower down as a vignette.
I began rendering the foreground by drawing in the shapes of stones in outline with a fine rigger brush, varying the colour with burnt umber, light red and ultramarine. I then washed a medium tone of French ultramarine and light red over the area, avoiding the stream and light stones, working very quickly with a number ten sable, not worrying if I covered some of the stone images, and losing the edges of others where they were still wet. While this was all wet I dropped in other colours, mainly yellow ochre, and then let the painting dry. Finally I drew in further stones with the rigger – these are the ones that stand out more prominently. I also added touches to some of the light stone shapes to make them stand out.
This painting is now on display with others at Art Matters in their White Lion Street Gallery in White Lion Street, Tenby in Pembrokeshire. Their telephone number is 01834 843375 if you wish to get in touch, and their site is www.artmatters.org.uk Enjoy your painting and make sure you give those foregrounds plenty of consideration before you decide on the final composition. Don’t be afraid to make them a significant part of the painting, and not just an after-thought.
Maintaining morale when out sketching on location is vital, and while some might find a whisky flask useful, I generally rely on tea. Sadly last week in Pembrokeshire the cottage where I stayed lacked that vital ingredient, the teapot. Naturally, this was pretty disastrous, so when out and about I made the most of any such facilities. In the sketch below the right-hand building is a superb tea-shop selling the most delicious cakes, and this is why you might detect a certain hastiness in the rendering of the pencil-work.
However hasty we may be in sketching, it pays to consider the composition carefully when creating a painting from the sketch or photograph. Unless the subject is quite a simple affair I normally carry out an intermediate studio sketch to work out where I wish to place the important elements and the main emphasis, together with the sort of atmosphere I wish to convey. In this instance I would move the composition to the right a little so that the left-hand house did not appear in the centre of the composition, as this would be my centre of interest. I would need more detail to be included above the left-hand wall and figures (detail missed because of the urgency of the tea situation), so I would have to resort to memory, a photograph, or the good old imagination. The main figures would be placed further to the right, a little closer to the centre of interest, and I would make full use of the dark runnels of water descending from the centre right – I have already bent them slightly to come towards the viewer as a lead-in. These are the kind of thought processes that go through my mind before I begin the painting.
Don’t underestimate the value of tea for the artist. I’ve even used it on a painting outdoors on occasion. Last autumn while I was running a landscape painting course a lovely German lady was painting a cottage, which filled her paper. When I asked her what was her focal point she replied, “The tea-pot.” Sure enough, there was a teapot in the window. Such observations may not only bring a smile to your viewers, but might also result in a sale.
Foregrounds can often be a pain in the neck, and are often not considered properly until the rest of the painting has been completed. This is not good practice, of course, as it’s by far a lot better to give the foreground some thought before you start painting. Anything but the simplest of landscapes will benefit from one or two studio thumbnail sketches to help you decide on the main features and relationships of the composition.
Foregrounds vary considerably, and sometimes completely different types of foreground may well suit a scene. Having a lead-in to the focal point can be very effective, and in this watercolour of cottages on Skye the track undulates and wriggles, losing itself in places until it disappears completely round the right-hand side of the buildings. A lead-in doesn’t have to be continuous, and there are times when it helps to be less conspicuous. The warm colours in the foreground here counter the cool ones in the distance, accentuating the sense of space, although I have mashed some strong blues into the foreground vegetation with a spatula in places to create interest. I used the edge of a piece of card to apply the paint here and there – this introduces a change of style from the brushwork, tending towards the abstract. Drystone walls, posts and boulders can be useful for breaking up masses of vegetation. Experiment with all sorts of objects with which to apply the paint if you’d like to try something new.
On a hike recently I wanted to find a spot where the river created a really good lead-in to a mountain, but there was no path. The dense vegetation simply got worse as I battled upstream (without a machete – they don’t like you carrying them around these days, and my Swiss Army knife wasn’t quite up to the job). If, rather than fight it, you wish to paint such dense vegetation, then the semi-abstract system as in the bottom left of this painting, can be the best option. Enjoy your painting/hacking!