We looked at how few colours were needed to make many other ones last week.  Now I want to build on that to work out how colour choice creates atmosphere.  This is my source.

Now, there are various resonances drawing me to paint this scene.   It’s a lookout place in Lisbon where people gathered to enjoy the Spring weather and the view over the river Tagus.  We first came upon it at dusk with a clear sky, and it reminded me of Alma-Tadema’s paintings, and of the scene in Kenneth Branaugh’s “Much Ado” when the soldiers, returning triumphant at dusk, strip off and plunge into pools that were surrounded by marble pillars.  But my camera failed me – or rather I failed it, as it’s a new one I don’t understand yet.  We returned a few days later in different weather conditions but I was sure a photo would help me revive the memory.

I planned a varied wash over the whole page, using  Indian Yellow and Permanent Rose,  to re-create the golden evening, then the figures and superstructure were laid in (dilute Ultramarine Blue).   These blue areas mark out those parts that I will continue to refine.

The figures are in strong silhouette.  Next,  I need to decide how dark the light areas in shadow should be in relation to the people.  As you can see, I have begun to make such judgements, though as yet no modelling is defined.  It’s early days, but the atmosphere is beginning to appear.  The image is too clear cut as yet,  – more thought about shade and deep shadow,  maybe a cloud or two?   If I  do more work on the painting this week …..


Colour and tone

This week my class were looking at tonal value – how dark or light a feature was – and colour mixing.

This exercise is so much easier if you are using tubes of paint!  We started off with Prussian Blue.  He’s a bit of a big beast, a very intense colour where a very little pigment goes a very long way,  but I was keen to help my students create an intense watercolour.  A dob of paint with very little water added to create  a deep tone  mixes to a creamy consistency, giving a luscious, brooding, greeny blue.  More water gives a mid tone, always remembering to  take the water out of the brush before dipping into the mix so as not to dilute it further.  Pale tones are approached from the opposite direction – a dollop of water with a small amount of pigment  added.

In this set of three, we looked at Permanent Rose and Aureolin the same way, then we mixed them variously, creating scarlet, oranges, greens, violets, browns, and blacks.

Then we looked at Ultramarine Blue,  Indian Yellow and Quinacridone Red in the same way, creating different reds, oranges, greens etc.

Finally we tried the Siennas, Burnt and Raw, with both blues to achieve intense but different blacks and greys.

Next week, we will be using one of these sets to paint people in a cityscape or landscape.  Here is my source.

Light and shade again

This is a re-run of last week’s session with my class.  This is such an easy way of simplifying a given scene – taking one aspect of the image at a time.

A simple outline of this dainty lady with her parasol, face lifted to the sun, has all the shadowed area shaded in pale blue.  We are all told that achieving pale colours in watercolour is to have a high ratio of water to pigment.  The danger is that we have so much water swimming around that it becomes impossible to control.  The answer is to mix your pale colour on the palette,  remove excess water from the brush by resting it on a towel or tissue, then dipping it in the pale mix.  It works – it’s taken me a long time to work out,  but it has removed the hit and miss efforts of past years!

By doing this, the light has been “saved”, as have areas where “true” colour is needed, but the shadows are in, and the picture already reads.  Putting the colour on is sheer magic.  Here she is, dancing down the steps.


The Permanent Rose was washed over the whole of the skirt, and the light and shaded parts appeared without further effort.  The steps, after their colour wash,  had the shadows strengthened, and the dark background projects the figure forward.



It works for more complicated scenes, too.  Here are a group of railway enthusiasts, cameras at the ready, as the locomotive approaches.

It doesn’t read as well as the lady, but I think it is clear enough, especially with a photo crib to introduce colour.

Even is this unfinished state , the figures read well and you have time to devote to colour because the shadows are already worked out.



Light and shade

Reading an article by my favourite guru, Hazel Soan,  I was struck all of a heap by her remark that we paint shadows in watercolour to create light.  OK! OK! I’ve known this intellectually and attempted to practice it for years – I’ve even demonstrated it .  But coming to watercolour from oil painting where we create light in dark places, I have not truly understood it nor appreciated the implications.  It’s as if the mechanics have over-ridden the concept.  Have I finally arrived in a new place in watercolour painting?  Is this enlightenment what painting blocks are for?

Fortuitously, I had intended to consider watercolour shadows in the next stage of watercolour basics, so I’m keen to see if enlightenment makes a difference, and, much more important, can I export the concept to the class.

This is a much more difficult idea to get across than I at first realised.  I used the method of painting every part that is not a highlight in a soft Ultramarine Blue.  But even achieving a “soft” blue is fraught.  Pale watercolour consists of low pigment/ high water mix, but it’s essential to reduce the water held in the brush before picking up this dilute paint if the painted passage is not to pool and puddle or rush uncontrollably over the page.  Then painting shadows blue when they are patently red or brown seems obtuse.  Nevertheless, some students were beginning to understand, so we will try again next week, using figures as our image.

Back to basics continued

Consolidation is the name of the game, using recently learnt skills to create a painting. I suggested a simple theme, distant hills, a lake, and a tree in the foreground. There are some new ideas here of course, making picture for a start!

Wetting the shape, then introducing colour is a good way of painting a very simple sky.   While that was drying I mixed a dull green, Ultramarine Blue and Indian Yellow, for the hills to push them back suggesting distance.  It a strange fact that a warm blue and a warm yellow make a dull green, – well not really strange in you think about it because they both lean very slightly towards the red  thus the mix includes the three primary colours.  The trick in painting these distant hills is to start with the whole body of the brush level with the top of the hill, then draw the paint down, so a more interesting, believable edge is achieved.  A sweep of the brush following the hill top is just too smooth.  Now, watch the paint dry, and just as it loses the shine and turns dull,  touch in the trees edging the lake with darker green   (more pigment, less water).

The back of the lake is a sweep of the brush for this time we need a reasonably straight edge, while the front is dry brushed.  The foreground is begun with a wash of Raw Sienna, then titivated to suggest fallen leaves, rocks, etc., and a truly dark mix of Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna define the tree trunk and pushed the hills further away.  The leaves of that tree are tickled in with the point of the brush.

I’m not thrilled with the result, but I’m not ashamed of it either.  Maybe my painter’s block of the last four months is finally cracking!

Watercolour – back to basics

This term my classes will be looking at very basic watercolour techniques.  I’ve done this in the past, but mostly nervous students revert to painting between the lines as they did in their early years.  I want to see if I can break this barrier so that all my students will be able to use all watercolour’s advantages effectively.  About a third of this year’s group are new to watercolour, so I’m going to work more slowly, consolidating techniques as I go, and encouraging them to assess which technique will serve them best in each painting they do.

Last week we learnt how to hold the brush (not like a pencil, but more loosely and further up the haft) and how to gather paint into the brush  by twisting it gently in the mix.   We looked at how to create shapes by using differing pressures on the brush, using point and body as needed.  We also created 3D effects by painting the whole object with clear water then flooding in colour so that it crept across the surface getting more pale as it went.   So the first exercise this week is to repeat that.

Then we turned to Dry brush and Rough paper.  By loading the brush with thick paint and moving quickly across the rough page, a broken effect is achieved.


So we tried that out on a generic tree aiming for an airy lightness of texture.  The initial laying of Aureolin does not show well on the white surface, and this ain’t any tree I know but the idea of what “dry brush” can do is there.

Next week we are aiming for a painting incorporating these techniques – big sky, distant hills, a lake, and a tree in the foreground.

Two English Roses

A very early piece from the 1970s – I remember battling with the wall, most of the problems being created by the angle of shot.  At the time it caused much heart ache, though I quite like it a a composition ploy now!

This was a lesson in not being wedded to the photograph.  The white (!) wall ran unchecked by plants in a strong diagonal, effectively cutting the picture in half.  This line was echoed by the dark earth, the even darker fence and the grass.  Luckily my tutor came to the rescue, solving the problems I didn’t know I had.

As instructed, I toned down the earth, the fence,  and grass, and blued the face of the wall so that they all came towards the same tonal value, created two vigorous “Snow in summer” plants tumbling over the ends of the wall, and played up the shadow of the child.  Her anatomy isn’t brilliant either, but I was thrilled with her hair – and I still am.


Tulip time

Just to remind us that Spring is on its way.

A rather free interpretation of tulips in Pot Sunlight – the Lady Lever Gallery overlooks the garden leading to the rather splendid War Memorial.

The building itself is sketched in using shadows create its shape.  It always surprised me how much of a likeness you can get just by painting a few shadows!  Anything more detailed would overpower the flowers,  the focus of the picture.  Using blue helps to push the building back, as does the largely blue green of the trees.

The flowers themselves were indicated by a mid-toned pink wash across the page which was allowed to dry.  Then I introduced  solid shapes made  in dark tones of Alizarin Crimson, some of them touch with blue, by pressing on the heel of the brush for each individual flower head.  Bluey green leaves and stems, randomly connected to flower heads provide the foliage.  There was an underplanting of forget-me-nots which I created by speckling blue paint using my finger running over an old toothbrush charged with a fairly thick paint.

This was something of an experiment at the time – an exercise in minimalism.

Another blue fan

One memory provokes another – this image, in true colour,  is from the same photo sequence as the last post.   Again, the dancer is poised momentarily in the dance – I must look up these photos again and try for some more of the action shots – so we can appreciate the long line of the pointing leg,  and the arrogant tilt of the head.  The fan is deployed, fully opened, to half-hide the nose and chin.

I have suggested, rather than defined the base of the wall.  This is one of those situations where a definite line would be too much information.  We know that people stand on flat surfaces and that walls rise behind them so there is no need to put them in.  Indeed such definition would draw the eye from the head and shoulders, where the burst of light behind her and the strong blue fan create a focus.

The great swirling skirt, firmly controlled on her left arm, provides wonderful soft folds created wet-in-wet, deep tone contrasting with the light catching the skirt over the extended leg.

The Blue Fan

I was looking for a watercolour to show you, since my painting performance is still under-functioning, when I came across this one.

My friend, responding to my request for dance movements to photograph, delighted me by performing flamenco, a discipline she knew well.  I was also lucky enough to attend the class she attended, so I have a wealth of images both of single dancers and of groups.  This particular dance contained a number of still poses where only the feet were in motion.

Just two colours were used to create the image, Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna, quite enough to mirror the concentration of the dancer.  I began  by making a light outline sketch to isolate the shape, then wet the background only, flooding it with blues and browns.  Thus the highlights became immediately apparent as I worked on the figure.  A pale Burnt Sienna sufficed for the face and arms, shadow touched in  while the paint was still damp.  Using that shadow tint, the lower bodice and skirt were indicated, the rich deep mix of my chosen colours added wet in wet following the sweep of the material, and the shape of the hair.  When all was dry, Ultramarine Blue gave me the fan and the flower in her hair.

It’s good sometimes to contemplate past achievements!