Saturday, December 31, 2011


The last day of 2011 and it’s a time for looking forward. I had a sketchbook from my daughter for Christmas to I decided to ‘christen’ it with a quick watercolour sketch. The primary subject is a Grey Heron which was standing near some rocks. I added in a few ducks to complete the composition.

I think I’ll be developing this way of working where the drawing is allowed to play a part in the final watercolour. Plein air painters like Michael Warren and Robert Greenhalf – both SWLA members – are accomplished exponents of the method.

I've just clicked on the sketch to open a larger image in a new window and noticed that the head is out of proportion - too large! Something to correct if I take it further.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


I was looking at Barry Miles monograph on Edward Wesson today. I bought the book some years ago when it was first published by subscription. He handled watercolour with great dexterity and like so many others I was an avid admirer. Judging by the accounts of students on his courses – working in front of the subject – he made a few sketchy pencil marks then plunged in with bold gestural washes. These deft demonstrations left his students overawed and full of admiration.

He was able to work this way because he had a ‘good eye’ developed by accurate draughtsmanship. This comes out plainly in the poster commissions which he did for British Rail and the Post Office Savings Bank. The posters are quite different in conception from his impressionist watercolours.

In the early days with watercolour I’m ashamed – looking back – at how I neglected my draughtsmanship. I also realised that being a ‘Wesson follower’ resulted in a lot of wasted paper. By all accounts he said for every four paintings he did only one was any good, most of the others ended up in the waste bin.

Well I’m a hoarder and I’m reluctant to consign work I’ve done to the waste bin. Good watercolour paper is too costly. I had my eyes opened by the Watercolour exhibition at Tate Britain last February. Most of the watercolours seemed to be worked on paper that was distinctly off white. The pure transparent methods advocated by Wesson and his disciples would not be very successful on the paper which Turner used for the ‘The Blue Rigi’. There is though another dimension to the watercolour tradition. It finds expression in the lovely translucent washes of lead or zinc white which Turner has floated across his painting to create atmosphere.

I’m using Chinese (zinc) or Titanium White these days to ‘recover’ watercolours which were painted a few years ago that I’ve become unhappy with. This one ‘Above Grasmere’ dates back to 1987. I’ve made use of white to give atmosphere to the sky and distant mountains. I think that it’s important to make the opaque passages blend in softly with the transparent areas. Don't want to fall foul of Wesson's disparaging criticism by making the painting look as if it's been given "a touch of the whitewash brush."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

'The Magic of Chinese Painting'

I'm pleased to see that the coming LAS February is about Chinese painting - I'm quoting the title of the presentation as the heading of this post. The presenter is Moira Gibbs MA and it will be good to meet her again since I was once a student on one of her courses in Ludlow.

I never completely fell for Chinese painting - the preliminary rubbing of the ink stick on a stone then the absorbant nature of the rice paper. A short time later I did a further course at Shrewsbury with a charming oriental tutor Su Ning Bailey. This took me a little further but I failed to become a devotee.

I'm grateful to both tutors though because they taught me to how to use the brush as a free expressive tool and to simultaneously load it with different strengths of ink for graduated strokes. These are methods which carry over to other kinds of work.

Painting birds has renewed my interest in Chinese painting because Chinese painters see them more as subjects to be arranged in a decorative motif. Nevertheless in the best examples the paintings express the liveliness of bird behaviour while dispensing with realistic detail.

I recently discovered Jingua Gao Dalia's blog which has some lovely examples. See

Friday, December 02, 2011


After following the 'Search Box' link described in the last post the page whiich opens presents a second link 'The Elements of Drawing' which gives access to Ruskin's teaching collection. The opening page has a slide show with a beautiful drawing of the head of a Golden Eagle.

It'a a lovely example of a graphite drawing developed by adding a watercolour wash - a classic technique. The initial 'search lines' which Ruskin used to arrive at the final form are still there. It's worth making a careful copy of it. By halting the slideshow - right click the image - choose the 'View Image' option in the drop down window.

Alternatively take this link: 'John Ruskin: Head of a Golden Eagle From Life' Click the 'Zoom Button' for a large image.

Enjoy a browse of the whole site there is a lot of material to choose from. The best way to learn is to copy a great master - it's a practice all studio apprentice artists followed.

Thursday, December 01, 2011


Back in 1991 I acquired a copy of John Ruskin’s ‘Elements of Drawing’. It was a new illustrated edition with notes by Bernard Dunstan. I still refer to it from time to time. There is a wealth of information to be absorbed in the first chapter ‘On First Practice’ without going further.

The Ruskin School of Drawing has 9 introductory lessons based on ‘The Elements of Drawing’ which are available on line. Go to: and type ‘Elements of Drawing' in the search box

When the page downloads. Click on the blue page link 'Stephen Farthing’s Practical Drawing Classes' to access the lessons.

The lessons are short and at first they might appear trivial but they follow Ruskin’s teaching method – count them as initial concepts to be developed with practice.

The annual ‘Big Draw Event’ is supported by the ‘Guild of St. George’ a charity which Ruskin founded.