The March issue of The Artist Magazine shows the second part of my series on light and shade in watercolour, "Game of Tones", this time it is about translating the tonal values onto paper and I use several African wildlife paintings to illustrate my points. The designer has laid the article out beautifully and I noticed that the 3 images on the first spread also displayed the main elements of watercolour painting: the linear brushstrokes of the Kalahari springbok mother and kid show the efficacy of LINE, the silhouettes of the wildebeest against the dawn dust show the strength of SHAPE, and the rounded bodies of the ambling elephants demonstrate how loosely FORM can be suggested. All three illustrate COLOUR & TONE. It is fun to find a 'lesson' in your paintings, take a look at some of your favourite watercolours and decide which element of painting is illustrated predominantly - line, shape, form, colour or tone?
While I am writing the new book on Light&Shade in Watercolour (publication 2019) I am constantly reminded how much freshness in watercolour relies on laying confident brushstrokes and washes. The source of light is our white paper, transparency is paramount for the light to get through the films of colour, and to be reflected back, so the least number of layers is a given. We all know this, and yet even I still find myself adding that ‘extra touch’ supposedly to ‘improve’ the watercolour! Sometimes this is because I am enjoying the painting so much I just don’t want it to end or can’t let go, other times it is because I think a tonal value needs adjustment. The latter reason is of course justifiable, but if I take a before-and-after photo, without and with the additional brushmark, oftentimes, in the small format of a phone screen, I can barely see a visible difference, so was the adjustment necessary? Probably not. Seems to me watercolour is so magical that its appearance matters more than being tonally correct. Wow, what a medium, it must wish we would all stop sooner!
It may not be a white Christmas where I am but white is always an important part of watercolour painting! So If you are blessed with a White Christmas this is the one time when using masking fluid definitely comes into its own. I found it invaluable to preserve the lights and snow and Santa's details in these Christmas card illustrations commissioned by The Ritz Club several years ago. The naturally 'blobby' nature of the masked marks lend themselves perfectly to the shapes of settled snow, Santa's trim and beard and to the myriad sparkling lights.
A natural sponge is a marvellous, and perhaps essential, addition to a basic set of watercolour painting materials. It is ideal for creating mottled or speckled textures, for the patina of granite rocks, fine foliage, or multiple flowerheads. To use, moisten the sponge in water to soften it and squeeze the water out fully. Mix up plenty of creamy paint on the palette (and I mean plenty because the sponge is greedy), and then dab the sponge in the paint and onto the paper, turning the sponge as you go to avoid any repetitive patterning. Colours can be applied in several layers both wet-into-wet or wet-on-dry. But even more useful is that the soft rubbing motion of a natural sponge can be used to lift and remove patches of paint more quickly and effectively than with a brush. On thick paper you can actually rub quite vigorously, I have lifted staining colours to quite an extent by allowing the paper to dry thoroughly in between repeated rubbing, and as soon surface of the paper shows signs of scuffing, I stop! Use a stencil to protect areas you do not wish to erase.
When I am travelling, if the light is flat or overcast and I cannot see anything that really excites me to paint, I go in search of people on the street, figures in motion, relaxing on park benches, standing in queues. The shapes people make are always interesting and can be simplified into a few pertinent brushstrokes. Look for poses with gaps made between arms and torso or head, the triangular spaces between striding legs, or the classic ‘taking-picture’ poses and the ‘texting’ pose. Crowds are good too as the gaps between individuals change as they move apart and together. Wet streets are great for reflections and umbrellas and shopping bags are excellent accessories for the artist to paint!
I am often asked what actual kit I use to make my watercolours out and about: I carry one bag, over my left shoulder: a flap top-opening bag, so my other hand is free to get the paints out in seconds. Inside is a palette of pans and some extra tubes (5ml), several brushes in a thin case, sketchblocks/books x 2 (so I can keep painting while previous watercolour is drying), 2 x 500ml plastic water bottles, (one to drink, one for painting), 3 small transparent plastic pots for water and cotton rag or kitchen towel.
Also in the bag are scarf, pencils, blade, eraser, often a camera, and always a plastic bag (to sit on if wet, or to put over the bag if raining). I carry no stool, no easel. My bag can be ready in seconds (I have used the same bag for over 30 years, and repair it often!).
My check, as I leave home/hotel/tent/car, is: "Do I have: Paint, Brushes, Paper, Water, Pots, Rag. " If I say yes, I can go! When I see something to paint I can set up really quickly so I catch the exact light that has inspired me. There always seems to be somewhere to sit or lean, and with so few materials I can even stand and balance one water pot on my palette. I take up little space! This is why watercolour is such an ideal painting medium, it is SO practical.
This month's Tip is an answer to a question that I am often asked: how often do you use masking fluid? Do watercolour artists use less of it as they improve? My response: I have indeed found I use masking less now than in earlier paintings, but is is more about the mark it makes—if the negative space that the masking fluid preserves is right for the painting then I use masking. A good example would be sea spray, or water splashes around an elephant's foot. If it makes the laying of a wash more whole, confident and harmonious then I would probably also use it. But, if it is a 'lazy' way to maintain a highlight that could be left out by a brush, or reintroduced with lifting, scratching or white paint, then I would not, because the mark it makes is not as attractive as that left by the edge of a brushmark. So it is really about appearance. Negative shapes can be more vital to a watercolour than positive brushmarks.
With the book-signing event of Learn To Paint People Quickly underway, I thought a tip on Signatures would be appropriate. I usually don’t sign my paintings until the time of exhibition, sale, or before they go into a frame or under glass. This is because it is only at that point that I know they are definitely finished. I am reluctant to sign certain watercolours because I feel that adding the signature upsets the delicate balance of the composition and, if a painting holds some magic, I am concerned the signature might disturb it. Hence I sign my name with colours from the painting and choose a spot, either bottom left or bottom right, where I think the least intrusion will occur, so not necessarily where the most space is, because it is often the space I am eager to preserve. I sign with a brush, boldly, swiftly, not too small, not too neat. On smaller paintings I use a rigger to keep the signature as fine-lined and non-blobby as possible.
Signatures do say something about the artist’s character.
Some painters sign their paintings with a flourish, as soon as they are done, some use big signatures, bright colours (Cadmium Red being a particularly good colour over dark tones), others write in tiny, hesitant writing, or hide their signature beneath a shadow, still others use pictograms or sign in quirky places within the composition, some sign only on the back. It does not actually matter how and where you sign a painting, all ways are fine, so long as the addition of the signature does not harm the image. As a guide I would suggest a not-too-hesitant-not-too-showy signature works best, it tells the viewer you believe in the strength of the painting, rather than your personality.
Are you having trouble with drawing and composition? If so, look at the gaps between things, rather than the items themselves. The painter’s world is flat - on paper and canvas, spaces of air are no different to solid material things.
Even within an item, it is spacing that counts.
If you are interested in painting faces, for example, take a look at my current series on portraiture in The Artist magazine: this month I concentrate on the features within the face, and here again it is the positioning of the eyes, nose and mouth in relation to each other that counts, just as much as getting each feature shaped right.
Do you have times when the paint on your watercolour palette looks more lively than the watercolour marks on your painting? If so, be a little less controlling and introduce blobs of paint onto the paper by more random means. Give the paint some freedom and it can make unexpected and exciting marks.:
For example, load the brush and flick back the brushhead to splatter small blobs onto the paper to suggest foliage, grasses or mud. Flick an old toothbrush loaded with paint to make a soft spray of small blobs to suggest gravel texture or spray; flick a loaded brush in a horizontal motion along the bottom of a beach scene to suggest footprints in the sand, or drop watercolour onto the paper from directly above to make colourful splots.