Daily watercolor – Cockatoo Island, Sydney Harbour

March 24, 2014

Out of the studio and into the streets today with a quick 35-minute sketch done on Cockatoo Island, a former maritime industrial site in Sydney Harbour. My sketching colleague and I were attracted by the water tower set high above dark vegetation and cliffs and a series of old pieces of machinery giving the area its name of “Easter Island”. In terms of tonality, the white water tower was set against dark storm clouds brewing – some exciting tonal differentiation!

Location sketching is about doing the best one can in straitened circumstances. It will only be extremely rare that Composition and Technique combine to work superbly in these circumstances.  By contrast, in the studio, faults can be corrected, weaknesses minimised; the sketch can even be completely re-done from scratch while preserving the ‘feel’ of having been done plein air. So Managing Expectations is, to me, an extremely important thing to consider.

DRAWING. A minimal 15mins drawing threw up the strong contrast between the metal railing and the trees behind, which became a focal point of sorts where the darkest dark lay next to the lightest light. The curves of the cylinders in perspective needed more attention and I could have spent all day on the series of machines in the foreground. The Drawing tragic in me would have liked to have spent all day on the machinery. In hindsight, a choice between either the water tower OR the machines ought to have settled on, but when out sketching it’s not always easy to arrive at the “perfect” composition. A sketch is primarily about observing and capturing – getting the mud and water bearing the gold into the pan first, followed by a lot of messy swilling around; a Drawing or Painting is about casting and setting that gold, an entirely different experience.

PAINTING. Because of a departing ferry back to Civilization, I had exactly 20 minutes to do the brushwork. Note to Self: take off spectacles to paint properly any straight lines (or cylindrical curves, in this case) of any Built Environment items. I paid scant attention to local color, focusing entirely on tonal differentiation. The ‘green’ was an accident caused by mixing Payne’s Gray with Burnt Sienna. I followed Malcolm Carver’s advice about painting trees (though I need more practice to perfect them), including using the wooden end of the brush to draw in branches and trunks.

I still have a tendency to “colour in” and where I don’t, I leave instead “rogue whites” and/or hard edges which need softening. As usual, I could have paid much more attention to the hard edges, softening them with clean water, scrubbing the paper with the brush right down the ferrule (in the case of this 185 gsm paper). I’m constantly surprised at the lack of any need to wait for paint to dry with this hot press paper. Yes, there are runs but I’m not reaching for a hair dryer. The biggest weakness (apart from the errors in painting convincing curves and straight lines in the water tower) was the “contradictory” nature of the dark on the right-hand side of the water tower: it ought to have been kept completely white.  The machinery in the foreground ought to have been better “grounded” to form a large triangular shape up to the water tower. A fundamental error was not taking a reference photo, so vital to any analysis and fiddling around with variations back home.

Probably the main strength is feeling confident about going plein air with minimal watercolour equipment: a water bottle; a tiny water cup; a zip case containing pencil, brushes and bulldog clips; a travel palette containing tube paint (12 colours) and a wad of A4 watercolor paper. One additional item I wouldn’t have minded having is some sort of easel or sloping support to overcome my tendency to paint horizontally as per an ordinary sketchbook.

My colleague did a brilliant job with the black clouds negatively painted around the water tower. Fortunately I’m scheduled to return to this spot in a week’s time, so I’ll have the opportunity to sketch it again perhaps with greater insight.

Arches Smooth 185 gsm; Reeves and Winsor & Newtown tube watercolors.

cockatoo island


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