Watercolor Class #3

May 13, 2013


Here’s today’s reference photo, 12x15cm, chosen for its relative simplicity: a ‘blocky’ building, half in sunlight half in shade against a blue sky.


Here’s Step 1, a line drawing foundation: 18x16cm, on 150g cartridge paper, slightly larger than the reference photo. I’ve added more detail than is normally required because I’m unfamiliar with the subject and only by drawing everything am I going to understand what to leave in and leave out when it comes to the overpainting.  I’ve paid attention to the perspective (by laying my pencil on the original then transferring that same angle to my own page), noticing that because the photographer is so close to the subject, the perspective lines go from steep angles (the top) to more gentle angles (progressing towards the bottom). I’m becoming increasingly aware that the architectural detail is familiar: the turrets, parapets and corbelling are strongly reminiscent of the Barcelona Royal Palace, so even though this is in Portugal, it reeks of Spanish Gothic. I’m also becoming increasingly aware of the blue shadows and their shapes. The scattered tiny black areas have the potential for providing the variety of mark-making I want.

I checked the accuracy of my pperspective by doing a photocopy of the line drawing reduced to a quarter of the size of an A4, printed and adhered to a piece of A3 cartridge. The lines matched up so I had no more excuses but to progress to painting! A more detailed understanding of how the perspective works in the building’s various components (especially the two heights associated with the extension far left and the additional, lower extension of the front wall to the steps would require another, more detailed drawing, but for the purposes of a quick, sketchy watercolour, I didn’t need to go quite that far!

In class, we worked on Step 2, initial background washes. As a musician, I see Step 1 (drawing) as establishing genre (is it a prelude or an opera?) Step 2 (washes) creates a harmonic foundation;  Step 3 (variety of dots and lines) is melody and ornamentation. The final  Step 4 (shadows) turns the music from something static to something ‘alive’ so is all about articulation: rubato in the rhythm and variations in volume (loud and soft) to create the necessary movement and interest. Until we get to Step 4, it looks remarkably unfinished; it’s a technical exercise rather than a piece of music.

Before class, I photocopied the scan of my original line drawing on to 200gsm Canson Montval watercolor paper. This saved me the effort of having to re-do the line drawing by hand since I just wanted to create various possibilities for the sky.  I worked on eight versions during the 2.5hr class. I needed to overcome my phobia about washes for skies. You’ll notice that I completely avoided the sky in last week’s bridge landscape, a bit instantly noticed by my teacher.

Two demonstrations by our teacher, one of a boat undergoing repairs on a beach and a medieval bridge (both quick sketches at under 15min each), showed me how tentative I was being with the sky having to mold the building, especially in the case of my Portuguese tower. Better to simply splash on wet paint (use the large flat brush on an A4), minimising any brushwork (which actually enhances the feeling of depth in the finished watercolor) and not worrying about (1) achieving any fancy effects associated with deep blues or (2) going back into the wash. It’s pretty fatal to go back in with another layer over this original one. If the paper is at all inferior (anything of lesser quality than Arches), terrible things will start happening with fanning and the ability to ‘push back’ pigment to create tonal variation. No, instead, keep it light and atmospheric.

Washes for the sky and building

In this particular case, I’ve experimented with keeping the lit area of the building blank (white paper) and with giving it a yellow sheen. When it comes to the building, though, it’s critical to create variations in tone from top to bottom (or bottom to top): beware any flat, undifferentiated tone or color! In larger works (A4 and larger), create two tones of the one colour on the palette and reserve those colours for the job. In small works, it’s possible (if the paper is of sufficient quality) to push back the pigment with the brush if using one color, or create two colors, one dark and one light. My teacher has a particular penchant for stressing the tops of buildings and towers and petering away towards the bottom to nothing.



A4 sheet. Brush marks are unfortunately visible, caused by a need to create some white/blank paper areas. Since the focus is on the building, better to eliminate brushstrokes. Here I’ve tried to emulate the pink haze of the original photograph. I need to practise transitions between colours (where I’m picking up two colours from the palette) before the next lesson! Rather than try to outline the building, I need to try and wash “through” the building more and achieve tonal contrast by working the dark side of the building.


A second A4 page. The brushmarks in the sky are unfortunate, or rather the ‘going back in’ with a second loaded brush. The one at left suffers also from too heavy a wash in the lower LH corner, betraying a confusion about what my focus is – I’m taking attention away from the top of the tower by working the base so solidly. In addition, while I’ve gone for lots of white in the dark shaded side of the tower (to give it a less monolithic look), I’ve not sufficiently graded the colour from dark to light to give it interest. I’m happier with the light side of the building at right, but again, not sufficient differentation in the pink between top and bottom.


These three formed quarters of a single A4 sheet, so I’m working really quite small here – practically thumbnails. Except for the middle one where the wash is diffuse, the others on either side from an undifferentiated mass of a wash on the dark side of the building. The one at far left shows unacceptable frenetic, nervous activity via the brushwork in the sky; the wash at the base is not unacceptable, but it does detract from the verticality of the tower which is the overriding visual interest of the ‘object’. The ones at both right were reworking of the initial wash: a washing and scraping back, resulting in an ‘unnatural’ flocculated look, less “clean” than an alla prima brushstroke. Nevertheless, an interesting exercise in ‘texture’ on watercolour paper, which I will keep in mind.


Here’s the final quarter panel of the A4 sheet and is the most successful of the eight washes for the sky, though I’ve not made the transition between the acid yellow and the sky very well in the far left corner. But at least there is no haphazard-looking brushwork in the sky and there’s tonal graduation to make things interesting. I’ve not complicated matters by continuing the sky down the RH side of the picture.  While I did the sky, the teacher took over for the rest. Step 2 was continued with a blue (a different blue from the sky, of course, but importantly a darker one) starting at the top of the tower. The point of the dagger liner brush (or rather just past the point) was used to create both the effect of having coloured in the upper part of the tower and yet leaving fragments of blank paper to shine through. It thus (compared to the light side) looks like texture, or bricks, creating visual interest. Notice how he picked up another colour for the base of the tower, dark side, a pinky-yellow complementing the yellow of the sky. Here there is less white showing through, throwing the focus back on to the white in the ‘bricks’ of the top part of the tower.

Step 3 involves going back with a darker tone of the original blue of the dark side of the tower and with the point of the dagger liner brush, working the parapets and the filigree of the ornamentation. Step 4 (shadows) was concurrent with Step 3, but notice how the wonderful geometry of the (blue) shadows in the original photo are stressed in this sketch. The two largest ones are in fact present but don’t overpower.

When it comes to the base, there is the variety of mark-making or brush-strokes involved with the lines. The tone is not sufficiently dark that it will interfere with the colour work above it. The original photo is ambiguous because one doesn’t immediately realise that the tower building is on water, so there is a final flourish or two to suggest the watery base, again with lots of white paper showing through.


Finally, here’s an on-site sketch I did between last class and this. You can see I’ve tried for the splashy, spontaneous look. I am disappointed at how little I was able to get down in the 40mins, compared to what I could get down if working in pencil. But I’m at least focussing on watercolour.


Next day, I reverted to pencil alone – something of a “day off” or a day away from watercolor. I will return this week to this location, Pine Cottage at Little Bay, having photocopied it on to watercolor paper for some on location experiments with washes.

But back to the Old Government House, Parramatta. In terms of what I’m being taught by my teacher, though, I note several things:

1. too many colours, including use of green. The only contemporary watercolorist I’m aware of who incorporates greens is Matt Brehm, and he uses quite dark greens. I’m beginning to think it’s fatal to combine both warm and cool greens (Sap Green and Viridian) in the one picture. I’ve spent the whole week wrestling with the notion of green, aware that most watercolorists go out of their way not to use it. On the subject of greens, I’ve purchased some additional Art Spectrum Australian greens, shying away for the moment from the more expensive W&N (European) greens, though in time I know I have to investigate Hooker’s Greens, Pthalo Green and Emerald in their series.  I want to include greens in my urban sketching because trees are unavoidable in Sydney: every building is surrounded or impinged on by trees or vegetation, perhaps the sole exception being the Sydney Opera House, since it sits on a peninsula jutting out into the harbour. In Sydney, we have no treeless piazze or squares so typical of Italy and the Mediterranean. More on my own working with green anon and especially how my teacher tackles vegetation and trees in his Sydney city sketches!

2. too much brushwork in the ‘harmonic foundation’ (see left sky and vegetation in particular).

3. nothing of visual interest in the white of the facade – some sort of wash to liven this up is required. This was an interesting piece of advice because the facade on location was in shadow, with the sun setting behind the building in the late afternoon (3-4pm at Parramatta). I had in mind at the time putting a grey glaze over the white to knock it back and thus liven up the areas of white/sunlight around the building.


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