Painting from life is the ideal way to learn to paint watercolour, but lockdown has shown us that, with the right approach, painting from photographic reference can still evoke the challenge and bliss factor that gives watercolour such an edge. The changing light from clouds moving unseen across the sun above may be missing, the smell of the landscape is not wafting in and out of our senses, and the adrenalin punch of chasing light and moving subjects is absent, but, staying outside the comfort zone, the adrenalin still rises, the fear of spoiling that pristine white paper still paralyses the brush as it is about to lay the first wash and the exciting adventure that is watercolour remains wonderfully undiminished.
If you feel you are slipping into your comfort zone, introduce an entirely new colour, something scarily bright, like red or violet. Limit your palette to three colours and take the plunge. Elephants are the perfect subject, being grey or brownish in terms of local colour you can use a red, yellow and blue to mix the greys and browns and if you do not have your own reference there are plenty of copyright free photos online. The subject is so adorable, doing it justice will concentrate your mind wonderfully.
If that does not raise the adrenalin, work much bigger than usual. If that doesn't work, give yourself a very limited time (38 minutes) to complete a whole painting, and if that does not work hold your brush at the tip of the handle or paint with your other hand so that you have less control over delivery than normal. If you are like me, you find every watercolour painting scary, exciting, thrilling and challenging, knowing life is not long enough to conquer this extraordinary medium, in which case you need no other incentive to raise the adrenalin because painting is all you ever want to do!!!
What is it about the beach that is so appealing to the watercolour painter? Space, light, simplicity… and the long wide view. If you want to practice painting figures, the beach is one of the best locations, as there is little to block the view and the shapes made by people walking or crouching are enhanced by being relaxed, lightly dressed, ruffled by breezes and set against the uncluttered background of sea, sand or sky. If the figures are backlit, paint the setting/background first as the figures will be darker than the pale beach and can be safely painted on top of the background. If the figures are lit from the side, paint the figures first, leaving untouched white paper on the lit side, then paint the background up to and around the lit side leaving slices of white paper to represent the light. If the colour on the shaded side is not likely to bleed, carry the background wash partially across the shaded side to maintain the relative tone. If you paint on the beach on a windy day, beware! If sand gets into your paint palette it takes a long time to remove it from the pans and will annoy you for days afterward! Keep your palette off the ground or surrounded by a large towel, or maybe take tubes of watercolour and a spare washable palette instead. And you do not want salt to get into your pan colours either, so do not be tempted to use sea water if you run out of your water supply!! Have fun!
In figurative painting the use of light & shade, aka tone, is the way to suggest three dimensions, aka form, in/on the flat world occupied by the painted image. I am always amazed, especially in watercolour, how even the smallest tonal difference hints towards this suggestion (a slight irregularity in an otherwise even sky wash provides enough annoying proof!), but, on the flip side, if there is not enough tonal contrast between the light and shade, it can render a watercolour dull and lifeless. Getting the relative tone right is therefore the main challenge in figurative painting. I have two comparative questions constantly running through my head while I paint: when I am assessing tone I ask "Is it lighter than / darker than?” and when I mix and lay each brushstroke I ask ‘Is it too light / is it too dark’? Estate agents may say Location Location Location, I say Tone Tone Tone! It sounds strange to non-painters to hear that painting is about answering a constant barrage of questions in one's head for every mark made, but it is. And it doesn't end with the light and shade, what about all the relative measurements a painter is constantly making in regard to line, shape, colour? The idea that painting is relaxing is absurd! However, the uninterrupted concentration required to constantly answer all these questions does give the mind respite from other concerns and anxieties, and hence it can be a highly therapeutic occupation.
BE THE RED: As painters we often add a splash of red into a painting to bring a composition to life. The red stands out because it is different. This week I read a quote by the Stoic Agrippinus, likening our role in society to threads in a garment, he said, "I want to be the red, that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful”. Red stands out because it is different but its real purpose is to make the other colours come alive. Being different is not about attracting attention to oneself, it's about bringing out the best in everyone else. Red understands how to "be the small part that makes the rest look bright”. No wonder the red tube lasts for so long!
The danger with photographs is that one tends to copy them, and copying, while admirable for record, is not really creative. Paintings made from photographs often look rather stilted because they lack the 'time element' evident in work made from life. By 'time element' I mean the generalisation and selection process that is a necessity if you are painting from life over a period of time, whether it be minutes, hours or days, because the light and shadow changes and things move. Paintings do not have to look perfect, and they certainly do not have to look like photographs to be successful, in fact they are more appealing if they don’t!
Using several photographs together for your reference can help avoid becoming a slave to the limited information of one photo, a sequence of photos will help you realise that things change and help show what matters and what doesn’t, that you can leave lots of things out without losing any of the punch. If I am working from photographic reference I tend to work from several photographs at once, flicking back and forth between them. I also place the photographs/computer screen at a small distance away from me and upright in front of my gaze, so they are in the same eyeline as if I was observing 3 dimensional life.
The eye sees the subtleties of light and shade but the camera sees tones rather starkly. Shadows may look very dark in a photo and even black, but apply some logic, unless the shadow is really underneath and devoid of all light it probably wasn’t black at all because the ambient light would have enabled your eye to see more colour in the shadow than the camera can. And shadows move quite swiftly, so don't allow a shadow to be too static in your painting either. People tend to believe that the photo must be right, but why would you trust such a small portion of reality? So use them as a guide, feel no obligation towards them or their supposed veracity, take things from them such as shapes and spaces, but work out your own colour set and the relative tones. Question what you include and leave everything out that is not relevant to your painting. The upside of photographs is that they do not move or go away, so you have plenty of time to experiment and master your techniques!
It is the interaction of colours within a painting that makes it appear more colourful, not the number of different colours employed. Too many colours can in fact dull a painting - the mixing of pigments leads to dark browns, greys and blacks (as shown by earth and the oil below the surface) and consequently, mixtures employing too many pigments become dull. I aim to use three colours to make most of my paintings (versions of RYB), adding more only if I cannot reach the desired colour combination with three. The limited palette does not mean you cannot use several, or even many, colours in a painting, but in colour mixing a limit on the number of pigments helps protect the mixtures from becoming muddy and dull.
Shadows very much belong to the objects that cast them. Insofar as is possible they should be painted at the same time as the figure/table/chair/building that owns them, painted as an extension of the colour used for the shady side of the object, since it is from this side that the shadow extends. The proximity shadow, the area where object and shadow meet, is usually the darkest part. Often I wonder if the shadow owns the object rather than the other way around, as shadow areas act as an excellent link between objects and their patterns reinforce the abstract two dimensional composition of figurative painting.
The New Year is well underway but I am not one for New Year resolutions, in fact chasing change for change’s sake means less time consolidating that which is good. I am talking painting here, and talking particularly about colours: there are SO many lovely watercolour colours and it is SO tempting to keep adding more to one’s palette, but the end result does not necessarily make better paintings, in fact more often than not it creates confusion. We coax various reds, yellows and blues into stimulating and attractive patterns, encouraging them to ‘show us their true colours’, and then along comes a new turquoise and the lure is too tempting to resist! New colours ARE exciting in themselves, but fundamentally painting is all about combinations: red, yellow and blue and how they come together to make all the other colours. The pans and tubes you squeeze dry, are the colours you are using, their properties (temperature, transparency, opacity etc) are why you are using them, keep these characteristics in mind when a tempting hue seductively seeks to join your palette!
The temperature of colours matters hugely in mixing, so a warmer orange mixed with cool blue will make a duller green, for example, than a cooler orange mixed with the same blue. Transparent Orange mixed with Ultramarine Blue makes a fab black as they are opposite colours but mix it with Prussian Blue and it makes a gorgeous foliage green. Letting the colours mix on the paper makes a different green from mixing them together in the palette and overlaying each colour as wet on dry glazes makes it different again. There is just so much variety in colour mixing it is somewhat mind blowing but also sooo exciting!
You have probably noticed, if you view my work, that I love painting the shapes made by black suits, especially in movement. First I love the silhouette they make, second I love the slight tonal difference seen in the black as different angles of fabric receive light more and less. Inspired by a wedding I went to recently (and the Royal Wedding in May) I began a series of brush and ink paintings, contrasting the formal shape of the suit with the more ephemeral nature of the dress fabric, they have become rather romantic and strangely uplifting so I wanted to share them with you. Painting happy subjects actually uplifts the spirits, you will find yourself smiling as you paint. Here, painting just with black ink, I only had to concern myself with shape and tone so my mind and emotions could completely engage with the subject matter and were likewise lifted on the wings of love.