Planning your painting

Back in December I posted a couple of my recent paintings and mentioned about planning sketches as a means to making the painting process easier and less wasteful of time, paper and paint.

Rummaging around in my studio this morning I came across a pile of planning sketches and thought “I never did get round to writing about these!” So, here are three of them.

planning sketch of Thornham
Pencil planning sketch of a boat at Thornham, Norfolk
planning sketch of farmyard
A Norfolk farm, complete with pig!
planning sketch of Ely Cathedral
Another small pencil sketch, this time of Ely Cathedral

The whole idea of a planning sketch is just that, to plan how the painting will go. The three essentials of any painting are composition, tonal value and colour. By working quickly in pencil I can establish where objects will go, in other words the composition, and I can establish what will be light, dark and mid-toned. A good range of tonal values is essential to creating an eye-catching painting.

I suggest that, like me, you use a soft pencil for these sketches, say a 4B so that you can quickly shade in areas of tone.  Any old piece of paper will do, I often use off-cuts of mount-board from my picture framing. The most important thing is not to work too large, as you’ll get bogged down in detail. Remember this is just a plan, so work small and work quickly. That way you can do several sketches until you find the composition and tonal value that looks the most exciting. A couple of useful things to keep in mind are “no bigger than postcard size, and no longer to do than ten minutes”.

I think if you practise making these small sketches before you start to paint, your work will soon go to a new and higher level. you will find that the only decision that remains to be taken is what palette of colours to use, which I will cover in another post. My last tip is, when you’ve got a great looking planning sketch make sure that you keep to that plan when you paint. It sounds easy but your concentration can soon lapse. Keep to a great plan and you’ll make a great painting!

Exhibition coming up

watercolour painting of misty day at thornham norfolk
Misty Day at Thornham 2. Watercolour 15 x 11ins.

I suddenly realised this morning that it’s the end of last year since I posted something on my blog, so time to remedy that straight away. The reason that I’ve been a bit quiet lately is that I’ve just had other things to do and have been away from the studio, although I’ve been doing quite a bit of teaching which I’ll tell you about in another post.

The West Norfolk Artists Association, of which I’ve been a member for many years, is having a Spring exhibition. It’s at Thornham village hall and the theme is Coast. So, here’s a coast painting that I intend to enter for the show. It’s one of a pair that use a technique that I like very much – a monochrome painting straight on to the white paper. The monochrome uses a mixture of Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna  and a little crimson, but it could easily be done in just one pigment such as Prussian Blue or Payne’s Grey. Leaving a large area unpainted seems to be quite effective and gives a misty feel to the composition, hence the title, Misty Day at Thornham.

The WNAA exhibition opens on Wednesday 30th March and runs until Sunday 3rd April. Open 10am – 4pm every day. Thornham village hall is on the A149 main coast road at Thornham, Norfolk, PE36 6LX.

A Christmas Candle

Watercolour painting of a candle in a Christmas tree
A Christmas Candle. Watercolour 8ins x 5ins.

Just to wish you all a very Happy Christmas and an inspiring, artistic and healthy New Year!

This painting was a commission for a Christmas scene to form the front cover of the December issue of the Dersingham village magazine, Village Voice. Painted on Arches 300lb rough paper using Maimeri Blu watercolours. A very limited palette of mainly Prussian Blue and Burnt Sienna with a few splashes of Cadmium Red. I hope you enjoy the painting and that it puts you in the Christmas mood. I’ll be back with more painting articles and tips in the New Year. Happy Painting!

Artist Trading Cards can make little gems

Have you heard of Artist Trading Cards? I have to admit that I hadn’t until recently. The idea is that you produce a piece of work at the exact size of 89mm x 64mm and then offer it for sale. There are various websites that specialise in this format. You might only get say £10 for the painting, but if you produce and sell loads of them . . .

artist trading card norfolk field 1
December Fields Norfolk 1. Watercolour 89mm x 64mm on Waterford 300lb rough paper.
artist trading card norfolk field 2
December Fields Norfolk 2. Watercolour 89mm x 64mm on Waterford 300lb rough paper.
artist trading card norfolk fields 3
December Fields Norfolk 3. Watercolour 89mm x 64mm on Waterford 300lb rough paper.
artist trading card norfolk fields 4
December Fields Norfolk 4. Watercolour 89mm x 64mm on Waterford 300lb rough paper.

Anyway, this post is not about selling Artist Trading Cards it’s about encouraging you to have a go at producing some. When I first heard of the cards, in an article in Artist and Illustrator magazine, I really didn’t pay much attention, figuring that working ultra small was not for me. It wasn’t until the SAA (Society for All Artists) decided to launch their ‘World Record Art Challenge’ that the trading cards popped up on my radar. The SAA Challenge is to create a world record for the largest number of original artworks exhibited under one roof. And all those works have to be, yes you guessed it, Artist Trading Cards.

Now how many works might that be? Certainly several thousand, maybe tens of thousands – there are some pretty big galleries out there. But the SAA has many, many members of which I am one, so it’s possible they could pull it off. I decided to add my efforts to the pile and have produced these four miniature paintings, all featuring winter skies over Norfolk fields.

Despite being small, I used quite a big brush to try and keep it nice and loose. A number 2 squirrel hair mop did most of the work, with a number 6 round sable for a few bits of detail. All four were painted with Maimeri Blu watercolours.

You too could be part of this world record attempt. All you have to do is produce as many artworks as you like on any support, in any medium and of any subject. The only requirement is that they must be 2D, capable of being fixed to a display board and they must be the exact size mentioned above, 89mm x 64mm. Oh, and they must be dry too, no wet oils and any pastels or charcoal must be fixed.

Sounds like fun? Just paint away and when you’ve done then download an entry form from the SAA website. The link is here and you only need one form no matter how many works you submit. All entrants will have to chance to visit SAA headquarters at Newark-on-Trent to see the final display. Mine will be in there somewhere! I’ve just learned that over 8000 have been sent in already, but more are needed. The closing date is not far away, the 31st December so get those brushes working. Happy Painting!

Clouds, Shadows, Light

Clouds, shadows, light. Three words that mean a lot to a landscape artist. Here are two new paintings that I’ve made in the last few days, which feature those three motifs.

Watercolour painting of St Felix church Babingley
Shadows Within Shadows. St Felix, Babingley. Watercolour 15ins x 11ins.
Watercolour painting of walkers on the beach at Thornham
Walking the Dogs, Thornham. Watercolour 15ins x 11ins.

Although the works look quite different they both use clouds and the varying light in the sky to draw the eye deep into the composition. The aim is to lead the eye on a journey, from the foreground to the focal point and from the focal point into the distance. In both paintings the dark shadows of the foreground act as a lead-in for the eye, pushing you through to the focus. On the one hand the little ruined church of St Felix at Babingley which is just a few miles from my Dersingham studio, and on the other the figures on the beach, with a couple walking their two dogs.

With careful use of devices such as cloud shadows cast over the landscape, it’s possible to turn the simplest of compositions into the powerful and atmospheric painting. When that is coupled with the beauty of fluid watercolour washes some people might regard the end result as some kind of ‘magic’. But it’s not, it is all about carefully thinking through the painting process and making a well judged plan before you start to paint.  Often, to help the process, I make small pencil planning sketches to work out the composition and the areas of light and dark. I’ve talked about this before, but in my next post I will show you some of these sketches and talk about them some more. Enjoy your painting!

The Bigger the Better – sometimes

Large watercolour painting of Stiffkey marshes
Stewkey Blue – the saltmarshes at Stiffkey, Norfolk. Watercolour 22ins x 30ins.
Large watercolour painting of view from Massingham
Distant View – Sandringham from Massingham, Norfolk. Watercolour 22ins x 30ins.

Today I thought I’d show you a couple of my larger watercolour paintings. These are both full imperial size, 22ins x 30ins, which is the largest piece of normally available watercolour paper. Yes, there is the delightfully named ‘double elephant’ at 27ins x 40ins, but you probably won’t find that in your local art shop!

Both these paintings show that, despite their size, less is more.  A huge sky and a landscape with the most minimal of features is often a great way to show the real beauty of a watercolour wash. And if it doesn’t work well you can always crop it down to a smaller size. I once cropped a full imperial painting down to  six inches square, but it worked!

Both these watercolours are from my personal collection, so they’re not seen very often. But you can buy prints of them, and these will be on sale at my Open Studio event on the 28th and 29th November. Ten artists around the village of Dersingham will be taking part in the Dersingham Christmas Art Trail. you can find out about all the studio in the Trail by visiting http://dersinghamarttrail.org

Another Misty Day

Earlier this year I painted a couple of scenes of Burnham Overy Staithe which, at least to me, suggested a feeling of a misty day. Lots of strong monochrome tone in the foreground and very pale washes in the background. Plus a great deal of plain white paper. In other words a ‘less is more’ painting, ideally suited to the medium of watercolour.

Watercolour painting of mist at Thornham Harbour
Misty Day – Thornham Harbour. Watercolour on Arches 140lb rough paper, 15ins x 11ins.

A couple of days ago I felt drawn to the studio to revisit the misty day theme, with this composition based on a photograph that I took many years ago at Thornham Harbour on the North Norfolk coast. I enjoyed painting in this simple by quite dramatic style again and may do one or two more along the same lines. I’m thinking that ‘I must make new work’ at the moment as the Dersingham Art Trail will be running over the weekend of the 28th and 29th November, and my own studio will be one of those open.

For those who like to know how a painting was done, this began as a simple pencil line sketch, to which I then added strong toned watercolour washes in a dark navy blue made from French Ultramarine, Burnt Sienna and a touch of Permanent Alizarin Crimson. Only when I had the darks pretty much established did I water down the mix and add the background of distant trees and buildings. I often find that putting in the darks early on makes the painting easier to visualise, so I don’t necessarily work in the traditional watercolour way of light to dark. The sky and foreground are mostly unpainted white paper.

Demonstrations at Bury St Edmunds

Here are two paintings that I recently did as demonstration pieces during a visit to Bury St Edmunds Art Society. It’s always a pleasure to visit this enthusiastic group and I think this might be the fourth time that I’ve made the journey down to deepest Suffolk.

My brief was ‘line and wash’, which can encompass many different ways of working. As it’s a speedy medium to work in, or at least it is the way I do it, I managed to fit two paintings into the two hour evening session, although I had to gallop on a little bit towards the end!

pen and wash painting of Burnham Overy windmill
A traditional pen and wash painting of Burnham Overy windmill. Arches 140lb rough, A3 size.

The first is an example of what I would call traditional pen and wash, where the initial drawing is done with a pen and then some simple watercolour washes are applied once the penwork has dried. I used a black Faber-Castell Pitt artist pen for the drawing, with a medium nib. This corresponds to an 0.7 in most other brands of pen.

The drawing is everything in this type of working (actually it probably is in any type of working) so I was careful to observe the line of the windmill and its proportions. It’s not that difficult, but it takes care and thinking about each mark on the paper before making it. I frequently  ask myself questions about each line or point on a line, as in”where is point B in relation to point A, where point A is a mark that I consider to be in the right place”. Always take time to step back from your drawing and have a good look at it. Does anything actually look wrong? If so, it’s never going to be right, so correct it while you can. Particularly in the early stages of a drawing this sort of ‘checking’ needs to happen almost constantly.

Once I was happy with the drawing, I applied some quick and simple watercolour washes. For this I used a large flat brush, not the traditional round. As this had to be quite a large painting for a pen and wash, on an A3 piece of Arches 140lb rough paper, I used a 1 inch flat brush, a Rowney Sapphire sable and synthetic mixture. I find the flat brush excellent for quick working because I can cover so much ground with it, to swiftly render skies and foregrounds. But, using the corner and edge of the brush it’s surprising how accurate you can be too.

I kept to a very limited palette of colours, just using French Ultramarine, Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna and a little Cadmium Yellow Pale. I find that these four pigments will do for almost any landscape subject, although I sometimes change Ultramarine for Prussian Blue which gives a much cooler look to the painting.

Although the painting was a bit larger than the usual pen and wash works that I would do on location, the working method was exactly the same. Do a drawing, hope it hasn’t started raining, and get some paint on it quick!

ink and watercolour painting of Burnham Overy windmill
Indian ink and watercolour painting of Burnham Overy windmill. Arches 140lb rough, A3 size.

Having a bit of time in hand, I decided to use the same subject again and so a different style of painting, although still beginning with ink and ending with watercolour. I drew the mill using Indian ink from a bottle, applied this time with a small round brush not a pen. The brush was another Rowney Sapphire number 4 round and I went straight in with it without any pencil or pen work. You have to have confidence to do that, and that comes from lots of practice, but I like the immediacy of the strong dark mark. I left a strip of white paper on the tower of the mill, because there was a lot of sunlight reflecting off it in my reference photograph.

By the time I’d drawn in the mill the time was getting on. I rapidly inked in the hedgerow in front of the windmill, using the brush on its side to work it against the rough texture of the paper. A quick dry off with the hairdryer, and I just had time to wash over the paper with some Prussian Blue with a little Permanent Rose here and there to give a feeling of winter light. The whole painting didn’t take much more than half an hour, but I think it’s quite effective and atmospheric. Why not have a go at these techniques, you may well like them!

Finally, my thanks to Olive Smart and all the members of the Bury Art Society who made Margaret and me so welcome. See you again another day!

Sun behind Clouds – another new watercolour

Painting of Burnham Overy Staithe
Sun Behind Clouds – Burnham Overy Staithe. Watercolour on Waterford 300lb rough paper. 14ins x 14ins.

While walking recently at Burnham Overy Staithe there were some lovely effects of the light. Sunbeams coming from behind a cloud and a lot of reflected light from the acres of glistening mud. I took a quick snap with my phone and several days later started working on this watercolour.

It was a struggle, as it sometimes is, to resolve the lights and the darks and there were quite a few sessions in the studio before I was happy. Well, reasonably happy. Paintings are like that, sometimes they almost paint themselves, while at other times they seem to fight tooth and claw. Sometimes they win, and go on the pile of those that didn’t quite make it.

But, I feel that this one is okay now and I’ve framed it in anticipation of the West Norfolk Artists exhibition at St Nicholas Chapel, King’s Lynn which opens on the 19th September. Indeed, the painting was shown at St Nicholas and was bought by Marc from Cheshunt in Hertfordshire. Thanks Marc!

The colour palette may look slightly different to the two previous coastal scenes that I’ve posted here in the last few weeks, but actually it is only the addition of a little Alizarin Crimson to some of the mixes that makes the colour shift from blueish to greyish. The foundation colours in all three paintings are Prussian Blue and Burnt Sienna.

far across the beach – a coastal painting

watercolour painting of Heacham North Beach
Far across the beach – Heacham. Watercolour on Waterford 300lb rough, 14ins x 14ins.

Another one of my current series of Coast paintings. This is very local to the studio, just a few miles up the road. Heacham north beach has that combination of wide open spaces and intriguing wooden posts and groynes that just help to make an interesting combination. Add to that the ever changing light and it’s a place I could revisit endlessly and find a new painting waiting for me, every single time.

This new work is in my favourite ‘winter light’ palette of Prussian Blue and Burnt Sienna. Winter light was the feeling that I wanted to generate, but I actually made this painting just a week or so ago, in high summer. That’s part of the job of an artist, to take the basics of a composition and make it their own. Change the light, change the shadows, change the colours, anything to put your own stamp on it. The sketch or the photograph is just the starting point!

As with my previously posted painting of the Seven Sisters cliffs, this watercolour is in a square format 14 inches on each side. The work will be in a frame around 23 inches square. I’ve noticed lately that square is the new ‘must have’ shape for landscape paintings. Maybe the old ‘traditional landscape’ format is just, err, too traditional? We shall see.