David Bellamy – Reserving whites in your watercolours

Many folk ask why I didn’t use masking fluid in a demonstration painting where I needed to reserve white areas, and this is a constant source of concern to artists. Often  the decision depends on how you feel about the use of the fluid, and in my case I normally only use it when there are intricate details in white, or a light tone.

In this detail of a watercolour of the old harbour at Fishguard I made quite extensive use of masking fluid on the roofs and chimneys, the clothesline, steps and white highlights on the water. This allowed me to brush the sky wash vigorously across the paper and over the tops of the roofs, and later to apply the dark washes over the harbour wall and steps and the background to the clothesline without having to fiddle. The same applied to the sparkling water where I used cobalt blue.

I sometimes work round these features to create the negative shapes, but this can make the background appear overworked or splotchy, and take away the freshness. However, developing your skills at negative painting is invaluable, and is an excellent alternative to masking fluid. You will notice in this painting that there are tiny white features such as gulls, masts and ropes hanging from the harbour wall. These were rendered with white gouache, as I prefer this where the feature is so thin that masking fluid can appear clumsy. Gouache is also really effective for tidying up bits that haven’t quite worked.

I hope you all have a great festive season, and maybe Santa has left you an arty treat in your stocking to help get you going again with your painting. I shall try and snatch a few moments in the great outdoors with my paintbrushes. May you have much success with your painting in 2017

Capturing autumn colours in watercolour

Autumn colours have been late arriving this season. I’ve just returned from running a painting course in Snowdonia, hoping for a blaze of colour, but sadly only a few trees co-operated. Despite the strong winds a lot of leaves remain on the trees and it is still worth getting out and seeking colourful subjects out there.

autumn trees

This is a small demonstration piece I did for the group. While I use a number of warm colours for autumn trees, here I’ve applied gamboge, a lovely warm yellow, with cadmium orange. To make your autumn colours really sing you need to juxtapose them against a mauve or blue-grey, as these are complementary colours. You will see this phenomenon at its best where autumn trees stand against distant hills or mountains, or against a dark sky as in the painting.

There are some good examples of this in my Mountains & Moorlands in Watercolour book, and the DVD of the same name. There is a special offer on this package, which is only available on my website.

At the moment Jenny is working on a fascinating staged pastel painting of a Moroccan scene – I pop into her studio every now and again to have a peep, and you can find it at on her blog 

Don’t forget, my exhibition in Lincoln Joyce Fine Art continues until Saturday 9th November, where you will find some watercolours from some of my books, as well as new paintings. They can be found at 40 Church Road, Great Bookham, Surrey,  Telephone 01372 458481

Reserving your whites, 19th-Century style

I’ve been somewhat distracted over the last week or so, with members of the family sick, hence the lack of posts. We’re experiencing marvellous walking and sketching weather in Wales at the moment, and it’s a lovely time of year for getting out with your sketchbook, flask and sandwiches. Being out amidst nature is one of the most therapeutic ways of casting off the stresses of life.

In a recent comment Mark has enquired about the manner in which 19th-century artists preserved the whites in their watercolours. They did not have any masking fluid available in those days, but they did employ a number of the alternatives that we currently use, although I don’t know many artists these days that rub out areas of watercolour with stale bread, which was a method much used by JMW Turner.

Barn & trees

Barn & Trees

The most obvious alternative is that of negative painting, ie,painting the dark spaces around a light object as in the tree-trunks and fence in this watercolour detail. With practice this is an extremely useful technique. You will see that some blue-grey shadows have been painted over the light trunks directly under the foliage where it casts a shadow, yet the trunk still stands out, though less stark. John Cotman, in the early 19th Century exhibited marvellous control of this method, and is a water-colour master well worth studying.

Well before the 19th Century artists used white bodycolour to create highlights, or to render small features such as seagulls, and Turner certainly used it in many of his works. Writers of that period would often refer to this as ‘chalk’, so that the medium used might be referred to as ‘watercolour heightened with chalk’. Turner used numerous techniques to achieve whites, scratching through the darks with a knife, thumbnail or the wrong end of a brush; removing colour with blotting paper; and even stopping out areas with glue size to prevent washes being laid there. The glue size was washed off afterwards, but this technique obviously required great care and expertise, as it would be easy to mess things up at the washing-off stage, but expertise was something which Turner, of course, was not short of!