When I was researching for my book “The Bridges of Dee”, I took lots of photos to use as inspiration but didn’t use all of them by a long way. So I revisit my album from time to time to find compositions that work.
This is a quick watercolour, about quarter of a hour with minimal drawing. It’s the opposite bank of the river to the painting in the book, with the Dee out of picture to the right. I like the size of the people in contrast to the height of the arch, and the sweep of the fence takes you right there! I think the shadows at the top are a bit too strong – maybe a rusty brown rather than purple would have been better allowing the drama of the arch to stand out more. The reds and greens are enjoying each others company as usual.
Where do ideas for projects come from? out of thin air often, but this one has a clear back story. It is a tale of two visits, one to an exhibition of paintings by Alma-Tadema in Liverpool, and the other in London, attending the Winter Service of a London Guild.
The Liverpool exhibition was an eye opener. Alma-Tadema is a master of textures, his furs dense and soft, his silks airy, his flowers newly picked. Crucially, some of the pictures on show were unfinished, and looked a bit like my finished ones! They sparked an interest in emulation, something I would never have considered if he hadn’t shown the way.
The Winter Service was a very different experience, all robes and ceremony, friendship and laughter, but it gave me a possible subject. A passing glimpse of the Master and the Honorary Clerk reminded me of another painter, Hans Holbein, and his painting, “The Ambassadors”. It shows the two gentlemen, beautifully dressed, surrounded by objects, many of them set out on a sideboard, which demonstrate their interests and enthusiasms.
So, I had my subject and my goal. The canvas is 50 inches x 70 inches – it needed to be at least that size if I was to have a chance at getting a likeness. I didn’t hold out much hope but it would be silly to tie my hands at the outset.
The first problem was sighting the figures on a canvas of that size. I have a projector, so I used a postcard reproduction of “The Ambassadors” to indicate where and how the figures stood, tramping back and forth across the studio with the canvas to get a clear image of the right proportions for this seemed to be at the edge of the projector’s range. Still the detail didn’t matter, and I had placed my figures.
This is a return to an idea that I have used in both oils and watercolours. Painting the picture in monochrome helps me to assess the tonal balance, and makes the composition easier to plan. Some of this underpainting will become part of the finished painting so I chose to use French Ultramarine to add vigour to the shadows. I was re-using an old canvas, but the white acrylic I used to cover the original picture was contaminated with rust. That was a piece of serendipity, as the pale orangy glow is making the blue sing already!
I’m using a palette knife for these early stages, so as to get the shapes and tones down quickly. The composition works quite well – the long curving hedge meets the short straight one near the church where the dark holly takes the eye upward to the spire. I put in the figure at this point – figures always draw the eye – but it also gives a sense of scale. The dark foreground on the right frames the church and cottage neatly. The white gate could have been a second focus making for uncomfortable viewing as it is too far from the spire. However it seems to be behaving itself. Maybe the tree above it helps to draw the eye upward too.
This is one of the things I enjoy about watercolour. Just doodling, really, but they express movement and energy in the painted and in the painter!
So, we have a pretty cross ostrich, the penetrating stare, the tightly closed mouth (beak), looking altogether mean. Such a dramatic face to paint, such a lot said in a small space.
Then, I have always been enchanted by Hazel Soan’s oranges, so this is my homage to Hazel, very derivative but great fun to do on a wet afternoon to get the painting juices going. I love the bright orange and the free brush strokes.
Now how about these two fellows racing down the railway platform? Wet-in-wet can work wonderfully well in these circumstances. The paint runs seem to enhance the hurry, everything incomplete suggesting no time to finish. You can tell it’s a railway platform because of the chap in the back with a peaked cap on! Little things mean a lot.
This little lad is wandering down the lanes of yesteryear, the pale tones, the misty background, the bright sunshine all conspiring to make an very Twenty First century young man reprise his Greatgrandad – such simple things creating atmosphere.
Flowers – this is more of a study than a sketch – have been a blind spot for me for years. In all my years of painting I have achieve only two paintings of flowers that satisfied me despite numerous attempts in various media. Then Hazel Soan rode in to the rescue again! (I think you can tell I’m a fan of hers!). She suggested that flowers have a basic shape, saucer, cone, plate, bell, etc., and that form can be expressed three dimensionally. Paint that form first before you think of petals or stamens and your flowers come alive on the page. Then you can have the fun of all the detail. Brilliant! And, dear reader, it works. The sea holly had the white sparkles scratched in afterwards, adding a physical 3D effect, and just painting background where the white flowers needed to be defined keeps the whole thing airy. The vase was painted last of all in a few sweeping strokes.