Sunday, October 31, 2010

GREY WAGTAILS  Watercolour and bodycolour 31 x 41cm on 300gsm Arches.Not.

This is a sheet of Grey Wagtail studies made from two skins. The annotated sketch is the foreground bird in the watercolour and the far one is based on the top right sketch. I'd never actually seen a wagtail turn its head like the centre right bird which was drawn from a second skin - so I've not made use of it yet.

Bird painters seem to fall into two categories - first there are those who make detailed anatomical studies for identification and recording. Angela Gladwell - who runs courses at Ludlow Museum - was trained at the RCA as a technical illustrator used to be very keen on this kind of painting. I did two courses with her from which I learned a lot and I acknowledge the help I received from her tuition. The second class of bird painters try to capture their subjects in their natural surroundings. So Peter Scott, Charles Tunnicliffe from a previous generation, and contemporaries like Lars Jonsson, Keith Brockie and Darren Woodhead point me in the direction I want to go.

Even if you sketch outdoors the real challenge comes when the painting has to be composed in the studio. In the past I'd observed Grey Wagtails in the rocky steam beds which fall down through the oakwoods on the steep sides of the Afon Mawddach. Some years ago I'd used the sketches - not very successfully - in that location. On a summer holiday in Yorkshire I did this sketch from the side of the River Nidd near Knaresborough that seemed a suitable setting - though I didn't see any wagtails.

Having done the research and assembled all of the elements the most satisfying stage, for me, is bringing them all together in the studio.

Friday, October 29, 2010


One aspect of the steam train era I get nostalgic about is the poster and carriage art. Before nationalisation the railway companies commissioned artists to produce posters to promote attractive destinations served by rail. There was once a fashion for showing prints of watercolour paintings in carriage compartments. Jack Merriott received several commissions both for posters and carriage prints.

Ceredigion Museum has a nice example of a poster designed by Merriott and the draft sketch design he submitted for it.


Here's a nice example of his watercolour of Mousehole, Cornwall used for a carriage print.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


I've been fortunate over several years to have been given advice from more senior members of the Ludlow Art Society. One I remember with particular affection was Kath Edfryn-Jones - she was Welsh, she taught art at Hafren College in Newtown and her watercolour presentations were always very informative. I once asked her to tell me of a good book on watercolour methods. Without hesitation she  recommended 'Discovering Watercolour' by Jack Merriot. "You needn't bother looking at any other." she said. At that time I'd never heard of him and the book was long out of print.  Edward Wesson was everybodys favourite and Ron Ranson wielding his Japanese Hake was beginning to make his mark. 

I was lucky though and found a second hand copy of Jack Merriot's book in a Tewkesbury bookshop. The book grew from a correspondence course which Jack Merriot devised with his friend Ernest Savage. So it was carefully structured placing initial emphasis on good observational drawing. Successive chapters then dealt with three basic methods first Line and Wash. Secondly The Direct Method which involves a direct attack on the main centre of interest on dry paper. This is a method for responding to the excitement of the first compulsive eye-catch with strong colour. Finally he describes The Controlled Wash method where the painting is built up with superimposed washes on slightly dampened paper. It's the method most frequently advocated by contemporary watercolourists - notably David Curtis.

When I'm in watercolour mode I often look at Trevor Chamberlain's plein air watercolours. They are usually very small 7" x 10" or 10" x 14" and display an attractive controlled looseness - where does he get it from?
There's an element of Merriot's Direct Method about them. I was pleased to discover Trevor acknowledged the influence of Jack Merriott in his early years in his book 'Light and Atmosphere in Watercolour.'  One of Merriot's wartime watercolours showing St Paul's after the Blitz is printed on page16.

This image of Merriot's painting appears on the Wapping Group of Artists website.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Here's the finished half-sheet watercolour. I've made use of Titanium White as a bodycolour because it is more opaque than the traditional Chinese(Zinc) White. I'm not someone who holds strictly to the 'pure transparent' doctrine. The use of white 'bodycolour' has always been part of the watercolour tradition and it's use enhances the possibilities of the medium. You can play off opaque passages against transparent ones as Ken Howard does and it can be used to create crumbly textures on rocks and old walls. Only when it is thickly laid on like whitewash does it look out of place.


This is a view near Siror done on holiday in the Dolomites some years ago. I've got a stretched sheet of Waterford on which I'm going to make the preliminary drawing for a watercolour.

The composition perhaps needs a little attention. I'm going to push the donkeys further back to simplify the foreground - I may include just one. Then I think the building needs more space so that will have to go further back too. Maybe a hint of peaks at the head of the valley would be nice.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Digital cameras are a great aid for the painter. I'm showing a way of using a digital camera to help paint a watercolour of a complex subject. The subject is the Trevi Fountain in Rome which gets so crowded I would find it impossible to paint on the spot. I had to resort to taking lots of photographs.

The first stage is to crop the photograph to find a good composition. I did this in Corel Photopaint an alternative to Photoshop. These programs also let you superimpose a grid. This is useful when you have a complicated subject. Here's a screen grab of the active Photopaint window

I set the grid size to one quarter of the width of the paper I was using. It's easy then to feintly draw the grid on the paper and make a careful outline drawing. Using a grid to transfer an image to paper or canvas is a well established method.

I painted the watercolour with the image displayed on a laptop. It's obviously not a straight copy. I've left out much of the background detail so that the focus of interest is the falling water. This was painted by first using masking fluid and later using 'drybrush' (ie with little paint on the brush and dragging it sideways rather than using the point.) This way you can exploit the grain of the paper to achieve a nice broken texture.I used a heavy Waterford rough.


These gulls were scavenging on the sea front at Ostend. It was December last uear, bitterly cold and I was with friends. Not the occasion for sitting sketching so I took lots of photographs. This sheet of studies was made in preparation for a composition. Trouble is I can't decide what species of gull they are. My best guess - based on the shape of the bill and the colour of the legs - is that they're immature Blackbacks.

This grey squirrell was under the apple tree in my garden - an easy target for a 300mm lens I took 6 photographs and based this drawing on one of them.

I've used Wollf Carbon Pencils - Artifolk sell them in sets of B, 2B, 4B, 6B and they make rich black marks. They don't go shiny like graphite when applied thickly. I was taught a very traditional technique in the Life Room - tones built up gently and gradually with hachures. It's a lovely way of drawing