Watercolor class #5 – quick location sketching in watercolor

May 28, 2013

camden photo

 I’m personally not exactly convinced about the superiority of watercolor as a medium over pencil when it comes to quick plein air or location sketching, but it’s undeniably popular as an approach.

In terms of materials, obviously a small palette with a minimum of colours is the most efficient answer to location sketching in watercolor. Because you’ll need to get down darks, and get them down quickly, including a black in your palette is advisable. By comparison, in the studio, there’s time to mix a “black” from other colors.

Working small is also advised, no bigger than two views per A4 piece of paper.

The key to watercolor is drying so when out on location, it’s important to have several sketches on the go at any one time, either of the same view in terms of different detail or different views from the same position.

Here’s a view of “Carrington”, a late 19th-century convalescent hospital built at Camden in rural NSW. You can see it becomes a ready-made watercolor from the sunlit and shaded form of the imposing tower; there are also shadows – on the roof, on the sides of those elements which protrude forward from the main facade. The key of course in a quick sketch is not to be distracted by the fenestration and other architectural detail. The sunlight is coming from the top right hand corner of the photo and we’ll go for a simple translation of a “black” form against a “white” sky. There is a strong uniformity of tone across the whole facade, so any sketch will have to involve some exaggeration of darks and lights.

camden 1 lge

Here’s my first attempt: landscape format, half an A4-sized piece of Arches Medium 300gsm. You can see I’ve put in a mid-dark wash denoting the sky up against the sunlight right-hand side of the tower and I’ve been careful about painting the dark sides of the tower. I’ve been careful too about denoting the shadows cast by the protruding parts of the architecture. I’ve gone in with yellow ochre washes to denote the sunlit areas and finished off with strokes to denote the windows. I’ve copied the trees on either side, framing the building facade.

Problem #1. Insufficient modelling of form beyond the tower. While the tower is convincing as a modelled mass, the rest of the building is not. Remedy: “up” the shadows beyond the tower.

Problem #2. Detail needs to be lot darker. Remedy: use a dry brush and paint without water.

Problem #3. In terms of tone and creating a sense of depth, the sky has the same tonal value of the building. There is no strong evidence of a wide tonal scale; the difference between the lightest light and darkest dark is very small: Remedy: To push the sky “back”, paint it last, or at least make it discernably the lightest of all the values, so that you’ve got a light sky, a mid-tone building and dark shadows, a stronger sense of at least three values.

Problem #4: There’s little differentiation within each tone. Despite some additional pigment being added to the initial brushtrokes in the shaded part of the tower, there is no strong sense of going from dark to light within the shade of the tower.. Similarly with the thrusting element at the far right: the roof and wall are the same value, so they look “flat” rather than modelled.

camden 2 sm

This second sketch, done by my teacher, gives you an idea of scale, because this is half an A4-size piece of paper, in this case Arches Medium 300gsm.

The sketch was done in four stages: the first was the light gray, going from the point of the dagger liner brush (defining the tower) and the side of the dagger line brush (the roof masses);

The second stage was the addition of the darks, with a drier brush and almost no water added to the paint, to define the two areas of darkest shadow (left of the tower and left of the bay window at right). To give the facade areas definition, lines of dark paint have been added at the roof guttering. To define the windows, a simple “L” brushstroke has been used. Lastly, some ines have been added to establish the foreground, but note how they are somewhat diagonal or angled to draw the eye to the front door. Notice that areas of white were left in the shaded area of the tower, to be later painted over in yellow ochre. Notice how too how the shadow of the tower goes from dark at its peak to very light towards its base; the same with the bay windows: very dark roof, lighter wall and blank paper light at its base. Notice there is an attempt at balance going on in terms of the vegetation: a “blob” by the bay window (notice dark shrub against the sunlit stone) countered by another “blob” at far bottom left (spikey vegetation).

The third stage was to establish some local color with the use of yellow ochre, because previous to this it was simply monochromatic. Yellow ochre has been added in three values: darkest at the top (the sunlit roof), a mid-yellow at far left facade and lightest in the foreground.

A fourth stage was to establish a very light, fragmented wash for the sky, not in the cooler Payne’s Gray of the building but in a warmer cobalt/cerulean blue, which (similar to use of paint elsewhere in the sketch) is differentiated in value: it is not a uniform sky blue, but varies from very light to mid to dark in places.

Notice the arrows, reminders for how strong definition goes from top to bottom of the sketch and from left to right (i.e. dark to light in the tower and repeated in the far right bay window).

The overall effect is what I call the “atomic bomb blast” effect: it’s has if an atomic bomb went off in front of the building, the facade lit up in a white light and the shadows suddenly strengthened as well.

camden 3 sm

Here’s a third sketch, again using half an A4-sized piece of paper, Arches medium 300gsm, following the four stages of the previous example,

In terms of the first stage, painting the light grey, greater care should have been taken to define the straight-edged, hard-edged lower boundary of the roof on either side of the tower. The ragged edge gives the impression the roof tiles have fallen away. The grey on the bay window doesn’t have enough range in its tonal values: it looks too much like one brushstroke of uniform gray, when it really ought to show some variation from dark to light. There is an inherent contradiction in the values of the tower: the sunlit area looks darker than the shadow. Paint over that streak of white in the tower’s shadow, rendering the whole of the shaded area much darker. In terms of differentiation, there needs to be a dark at the top part of the tower, a mid in the middle and a lighter gray in the base: it’s too uniform at present from top to bottom.

The second stage involving a drier brush and almost no water added to the paint is more successful this time, but the forms could be rendered even more simply: the finicky detail is distracting. The bay window at far right needs more definition in terms of the roof guttering to better differentiate the roof from the wall. More careful drawing of the front door (inherently, both metaphorically and literally a focal point) would have resulted in something more convincing: its perspective looks “off” as a result. Take care with the dry brush and dark paint not to make the windows uniform in both sunlight and shade. Those in shadow ought to be a fraction lighter. Take care with perspective: the windows on the front of the tower are out of whack with those on the side. In terms of “grounding” the building in some sort of foreground, the balance of vegetation at far right and far left isn’t strong enough. It’s more important to use the point of the brush for the calligraphic foreground and any use of the side of the brush needs to be stroked more swiftly and with a drier brush, otherwise a watery “blob” results.

The area of yellow ochre at far left is too dark. Test each new color on a scrap of paper first. There was no need to continue the yellow ochre below the roof line because the yellow from the top part of the tower to the top of front door looks almost completely undifferentiated.

In terms of the sky, there is good differentiation between light and dark. Notice how the sky in the previous example doesn’t show at all in the scan, a problem associated with painting most very light blues on white paper. However, the grays in the building are still not dark enough compared to the tonal value given to the sky. Compare the mid-gray of the door surround in the previous example; that gray is still darker than the sky, and so it should be in the third rendering.


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