Monday, November 19, 2007

Today's Wake-up Call

When preparing for a day in the studio it's nice to do a practice 'warm up' study from a sketchbook. Today I came across this little sketch done at a favorite location. It caught my eye though it was done some time ago - I've already used it for a watercolour called 'The ending of the day – Aberdovey'

Seeing the sketch again I realise how far the colours in the finished watercolour had drifted away from the original. In taking the original sketch further I've tried to recapture the original mood. I did think of framing this but I don't think it's good enough. I'm unhappy that the original pencil drawing is distracting. So it will have to be a fresh start – no bad thing a new beginning might lead to further discoveries. The wake-up practice has helped me get my eye in.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Why I always stretch paper

This is a plein air sketch I did a few weeks ago at our week-end workshop at Clunton. I was using 300gsm Fabriano Artistico Not. It's a nice pure cotton paper but with a rather bland grain. I was working with the sheet held on a piece of mdf by two bulldog clips. Since the workshop it has been stored flat between the pages of a sketchbook.

After a day in the field you face the dilemma of which of the sketches to taken further. Usually I hold the best as reference for the future. A few like this I decide to take further. It's obvious from the photograph that the sheet has cockled. It's tempting to try a quick fix by taping the sides down with masking tape but that could cause the centre to lift and there will still be some cockling when the masking tape is removed.

Others may have a different solution but the only sure way to achieve the nice flat surface I like to work on is to stretch. With partly completed work I only spray water on the back before taping the sides with good old gumstrip.

Incidentally there's an unightly 'bloom' just above the ladder on the left. This was once regarded as a serious fault but I notice Shirley Trevena frequently makes use of the effect in her paintings. How taste changes! I might be tempted to exploit the 'fault' in this work and call it a 'happy accident.' They sometimes happen don't they?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Peter De Wint

I’ve just been reading about Peter De Wint in the October issue of the A&I mag. It was a surprise that the article described him as ‘almost unknown today’ because his work is represented in many public collections and careful study of his work is a ‘must’ for anybody who is serious about painting in watercolour.

The main lesson to be learned from him is the fundamental importance of sound drawing. He was a superb draughtsman and much of his work is constructed on a sound underdrawing. There’s a marvellous example, ‘West Front of Lincoln Cathedral,’ featured in the A&I article. In this painting - apart from the fine draughtsmanship - there’s a little wisp of smoke on the left deftly applied with bodycolour which is a masterly touch.

Here are links to a few more examples:

Constable Tower Dover Castle – Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
Fine drawing in the architecture combined with looser handling in the foreground.

Sunset – Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
A lovely painting evoking a quiet mood at the endng of the day.

Sheltering from the sun – Birmingham Museum & art Galleries.
Unfinished perhaps. It has the feel of a plein air study with lovely fluent directly painted brushwork.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The End of an Era

Two events this summer have made me aware of the passing of a generation of artists who were an inspiration. The first was the NEAC exhibition in Hereford which commemorated the life and work of John Ward. He had many admirers in the circle I befriended when I began to paint seriously. I went to see the exhibition again this week partly to admire John Ward’s pen and wash drawings of Rome and also to enjoy the diversity of the work by a group of painters who are working in the figurative tradition.

The next event was prompted by a flier which dropped out of the September issue of ‘The Artist’ magazine. It announced the publication of a book celebrating the life and work of James Fletcher-Watson. His loose rather understated watercolours in the Wesson – Seago manner had many followers among the older Ludlow Art Soc members when I began exhibiting. J F-W was an architect and for me he was at his best when painting buildings. Although he still has many admirers and a lifetime of achievement that will make copies of the Hallsgrove monograph greatly prized he belongs to an era that is passing.

It was an article by Frank Whitford one of the judges of the Singer and Friedlander Watercolour competition in the same issue of ‘The Artist’ that confirmed this opinion. He was writing about his favourite entries amongst the shortlisted prizewinners. Contemporary watercolour now admits the use of any waterbased medium whether opaque or transparent. Though this development would have upset Wesson who would never countenance the use of Chinese White I don’t have a problem with incorporating gouache or acrylic in a watercolour painting.

I have to say though Frank Whitford’s favourites are not to my taste but then taste is a subjective matter anyway. I’ve always enjoyed the work of David Curtis and David Prentice – both past prizewinners – as among the best exponents of contemporary watercolour. I’m pleased that David Curtis is now on the S&F panel of judges and that David Prentice is a 2007 prizewinner.

Friday, August 03, 2007

At the New English

Happened to be in Hereford last week and was delighted to discover an exhibition by members of the New English Art club in the Museum and Art Gallery. It seemed to have been staged in memory of John Ward CBE, RA, NEAC who died earlier this year. He was born and educated in Hereford before going on to the RCA after service in the Royal Engineers in WW2. He left a set of drawings which he made on active service to the Hereford museum which were on display.

The NEAC was founded in1886 - one of founder members was Sickert he and others imported impressionist and realist ideas from France. Augustus John’s work aroused a concern for sensitive draughtsmanship and his influence is still traced in the work of current members.

The NEAC claims to represent the very best of contemporary British figurative painting. There are some fine medium sized oil paintings that look well in a large gallery space and are well worth studying. There’s also encouragement to be gained by seeing the smaller works painted with a directness of touch maybe as studies. There were two little oils of Padstow by Tom Coates – they left me with the feeling that with a little effort and practice I could pull off something almost as good! A touch of conceit? – perhaps but at least Tom's paintings inspired me to push myself a lttle further.

The exhibition runs till 29th August - do get to see it if you can.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

stagestruck at midsummer

Around midsummer my wife and I become stagestruck. It starts in early June with visits to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and this year was special because we got into the final performance in the old theatre before it closed – it was Coriolanus. There’s a nice busy atmosphere in Stratford upon Avon around Midsummer – it’s nice to hear the different accents Japanese, American/Canadian and a few French.

It’s a surprise to find that each year significant numbers of Japanese visitors come to enjoy Shakespeare. Glen Walford who is directing ‘The Comedy of Errors’ at the Ludlow Festival this year has just returned from Japan where she regularly directs Shakespeare plays in Japanese theatres.

The Ludlow Festival takes us over for a period of four weeks or so. I’ve been preoccupied updating the Festival website – posting pictures of the cast and making last minute changes. Today we’ve been in the Castle arranging things backstage ready for the arrival of the costumes. Next week the company will be holding rehearsals so I can leave them to it and get back to painting.

Wardrobe management is one of the less glamorous jobs in the theatre and I don’t know why my wife enjoys it. It has its compensations because she has worked with some charming actors who remember her. Last week we were at Malvern to see David Suchet in ‘The Last Confession.’ Another member of the cast was Clifford Rose who she had ‘dressed’ at Ludlow on couple of occasions. She just had to leave him a card and a box of chocolate fudge at the stage door. She was delighted when he rang her up the following day to thank her – that was a nice gesture from an actor who has is well-known for the work he has done in the theatre and on television.

Here’s the set for this year’s Ludlow Festival play under construction – let’s hope the rain goes away!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Mill on a Bruges Canal

Pen Study – This windmill stands on the banks of a quiet canal between Bruges and Dammer. I discovered it while taking a boat excursion and there was barely time to get down a scribbled impression so I had to work it up with the aid of a photograph.

Mills, waterways, and canals occur in many of Rembrandt’s drawings in pen and bistre. Occasionally he worked them up as etchings but mostly he seems to have done them for relaxation – a form of escape from his studio enterprise perhaps.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Canals, Beer and Chocolates

I'm just back from a trip by Eurostar to Bruges. It is city frequently compared with Venice because of its canals. That's about the only thing thing the two places have in common though - apart from the tourists. Like Venice the place fills up with tour parties during the day. Evenings though are magical when the place becomes quiet. That's the time to enjoy the restaurants and the beer. Then there is the other Belgian speciality - Chocolate. The plan was to fill a sketchbook but the crowds and responsible beer tasting made this almost impossible so I had to rely on my digital camera.

Bruges has altar pieces by Van Eyck and the Flemish primitives which are not to my taste. But Antwerp is less than hour away and it was marvellous to see Rubens on his own ground. There are two large altar pieces by him in the Cathedral and his house - now a museum - has some masterly portraits. There are some who think he is overshadowed by Rembrandt but for me his outstanding achievement was to bring a touch of Italy north of the alps that at least makes him Rembrandt's equal

Monday, April 09, 2007

A Ferry Tale

I fished this painting out of a draw today because my wife remembered it and thought it would be nice to send as a birthday card to a friend who has helped with her genealogy researches. They go back a long way, so to speak, he is a distant cousin several generations removed. It turns out he is also related in a similar way to the guy who was once the ferryman which I suppose my wife is too.

The ferry has long been replaced by an ugly footbridge and in the old days you could ferry a horse and cart and farm animals across the Severn - now you can't. This was one of my early watercolours - must be 20 years old - and I''ve never thought of selling it because in our courting days my wife and I would walk upstream along the west bank of the Severn from Bewdley cross on the ferry and walk back downstream on the east bank. We never realised as a couple of dewy-eyed lovers that she might be distantly related to the ferryman.
The Place of Stones

I began this painting by simply taking pleasure in making vigorous marks with a few pastel sticks and blending them by rubbing. I continued the process until the patches of colour began to ‘read’ as a landscape.

I had no particular plan or location in mind until I remembered a couple of quick studies made a few years ago in an A4 sketchbook. They were drawn on location while walking one of the routes up Cader Idris in the Snowdonia National Park.

One of the sketches showed a group of stones that were once a farm dwelling. Built high up at the limit of cultivation life was always going to be hard for whoever lived there. Now I’m thinking ‘Highland Clearances’ and wondering if the former tenants were forced to embark from Liverpool for the New World.

So a painting that began in a dreamy sort of way by toying with the abstract elements of painting took on a point and a meaning. I rather like that way of working – when it comes off!

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Autumn Evening, Great Langdale.

The Royal Watercolour Society’s Diploma Collection has a wonderful painting of the ‘Dents des Bouquetons, Arolla’ that will cause anyone who loves mountain subjects to catch their breath. It’s by Cecil Arthur Hunt (1873-1965) and he’s created a marvellous rendering of swirling wisps of cloud forming in the valley below two alpine peaks.

To render the clouds he’s used Chinese (Zinc) White body colour – the direct handling is a tour de force. I’ve attempted to follow his example in this watercolour of Great Langdale by using White Acrylic Ink rather than the traditional Chinese White.

Hunt’s painting is reproduced in ‘The glory of Watercolour’ by Stephen Spender (p186) and ‘Watercolour Masters – then and Now’ foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales (p36). Both books are a ‘must have’ for serious study of the art of watercolour. If you haven’t got either of them search the online catalogue of your local library and reserve a copy.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Watercolours Fast and Loose – but are they any good?

I regularly post to artists’ forums and become a bit dismayed by the almost universal preoccupation with ‘looseness’ of handling in watercolour. Look around though and you discover watercolour is a medium which can be handled in many different ways.

The argument about loose and free as against tight or controlled handling of the medium has raged for at least a hundred years. Ruskin taught students to avoid the easy freedom achieved with the uncontrolled sweep of the brush or pencil. He wrote: “masterliness is in never letting the hand be free, but keeping it under control at every part of the line.” The qualities he admired are found in the beautiful drawings and watercolours of artists like Rossetti.

With watercolours of any quality looseness is an illusion. In the apparently freely handled watercolours of Edward Wesson or John Yardley what we’re really observing are carefully considered confident brushstrokes precisely placed to create maximum effect. The kind of mastery they each achieved arises from close observation and through the discipline of drawing. There’s no quick half-hour fix as offered by some of the popular watercolour manuals.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Painter IX again

At last things are coming together. I’ve found a simple way of working with Painter IX that I can get on with. This involves working with layers and devising a plan for what each will contain. The first layer is always the canvas and for the moment for me that is always ‘sandy pastel paper.’

The next layer contains the drawing. Until today this has been a scanned drawing from my sketchbook. The drawback with this is that the sketch has to be cropped and resized in Photopaint first to fit the canvas. Today though I made the drawing by working directly with the stylus on an Intuos 3 tablet. This is how I would normally work on a real canvas, corrections can be made just as easily but the big advantage is that the sketch layer is preserved in the saved file and can always be referred to. In a real painting it is lost.

A new layer is opened for the lay-in where the main features are blocked in. This is followed by a defining layer where the drawing is firmed up and tonal adjustments are made. Finally come a detail layer for the final touches.

For the moment I’m following this simple strategy with a range of Pastels Brush tools. These tools respond to stylus pressure which comes easily with the way I draw. There is some stunning digital art produced by artists with Painter IX who manipulate photographs and graphic art work using cloning techniques. The range and scope of digital art is amazing.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Going Digital

I'm resolved to gain some competence with Painter IX this year. I’ve tinkered about with it and found it a difficult piece of software because of its complexity. I suppose the danger is that you read abouits different features and try out everything at once.

So it’s back to basics. The pastel, conte and grainy pencil brushes seem to suit my style best and they’re the tools I’m most at ease with. So I’ve decided to confine myself to using those.

Then there’s the problem of getting started. I’ve not been too successful with using cloned photographs so at the moment I’m using scans of sketches as a starting point. ‘Keep things simple’ is my motto as far as digital painting goes. Here’s a sample:-

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Thank You Prof. Gombrich

‘There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.’ These are a surprising couple of opening sentences for a book about the ‘The Story of Art.’ Back in December I read reviews of Ernst Gombrich’s best seller which Phaidon have reprinted as a pocket edition. The reviews prompted me to take a fresh look at my own copy – a weighty paperback which is a reprint of the 16th edition of 1995. Like many other students my first acquaintance with the book was via a college library copy and I immediately took to the direct plain language of his writing.

I’ve always discovered new insights from Gombrich. Even after having ‘The Story of Art’ on my bookshelf for around ten years I was taken by his comments on Raphael’s sketch books in the introduction. The sketchbook drawings were Raphael’s studies for his ‘Virgin in the Meadows’ of 1505 now in Vienna. It’s regarded as the most charming of Raphael’s ‘Madonna’ paintings and the pages of pen and ink sketches reveal the trouble he took to get the group of three figures into a harmonious relationship.

Few of us take similar pains or are inclined to give much thought to composition today. Painting manuals gloss over the problems in demonstrations – giving descriptions of each stage but little about the thought processes needed to compose the painting in the first place. When sketching ‘en plein air’ all too frequently I take the subject as presented and often have to make major changes in the studio. The Professor's words and Raphael's sketches prompt me change my ways!