Saturday, August 4, 2012

Plein Air on the Porch

"Another beautiful afternoon for painting" I posted to facebook just before I set out for Sovereign House for Plein Air class on Tuesday.  Twenty minutes later the sky had darkened and thunder and lightening made painting on the lawn out of the question.  Just before the deluge I quickly cut a few flowers from garden and set up this arrangement in the shelter of the covered porch.
 First, a quick sketch in my Arches spiral-bound watercolour pad.   The jar was, conveniently enough, half the height of the pitcher, and the height of the flowers in the pitcher, from pitcher rim to petal tip, was the same height again, balancing the composition into thirds.  (Very dark skies indeed, at this point)
 A bit of masking fluid on the white phlox flower heads was the next step, and while that was drying I roughed in a few of the black-eyed-susans.
To make a blurred garden background I started with the colours of the background flowers, dropping quinicridone magenta into a clear wash to indicate pink phlox, and a row of cadmium yellow just above that, for more black-eyed-susans.
When this first application had settled I re-wet the background (keeping crisp edges at the jars and porch rails) and dropped in the background greens, using Hookers Green with a dash of yellow or ultramarine added to vary the shade for depth.
While the background was drying I came back to the foreground, touching up the yellow daisies, indicating the water level in the jar and pitcher, and shading the porch rail and posts. With the background dry it was time to peel off the masking fluid and get to work on the flowers and foliage.  By now the sun was coming out again, drooping flowers had straightened up and the jar and pitcher had become quite cloudy with condensation.
I used neutral tint to capture the thickness of the glass, especially at the base,and marked the perceived "break" in the stems where they passed through the elipse of the water surface.  
All in all, a fine afternoon for painting!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Plein Air Painting at Sovereign House

This summer I am teaching some Plein Air classes, painting in watercolours at lovely Sovereign House, where I have myannual summer art show.  For three hours we paint, choosing one of the picturesque views of the house, woods, lake or garden.
  With thundery overcast skies last week we set up on the covered front porch and painted the flowers against the picket fence.
 I began by roughing in the two masses of flowers, the bergamot and the day lilies, plus some accompanying foliage.  The little paint box is an old friend, small but very serviceable. 
After drawing the fence posts and considering background possibilities, I decided to mask the fence and the lily flowers.  Note the jar of soapy water - it is important to frequently clean the masking fluid from the brush with soapy water, every thirty seconds or so, to save the brush from utter ruin.

Even great masking fluid is touchy. If smudged before it has completely dried it leaves an ugly stain on the page that won't come off at the later stages. I accidentally smudged a bit of still-wet masking fluid with my knuckle here, among the flowers. The only options are to go ahead and work with it, or to start all over with clean paper.  I went ahead with a background wash of three greens for a blurred effect above and beyond the fence.

 When that background was well and truly dry I peeled off the masking fluid,  which brought us to the uphill in-between stage, when the background still seems to dominate and the foreground must be defined with multiple hues and values.  Vision and stubbornness are called for here, the finished painting is not really so far off!

Many shades later and the garden has come to life.  This is not a highly detailed painting, but an on-the-spot interpretation of the garden in quick brush strokes. 
The last stage - cutting the finished painting from the board.  Once the painting has completely dried use a steel ruler and an exacto-type knife to cut along the perimeter, where the painting meets the tape.  The edges of the paper that lie below the tape get left behind.  There's probably a metaphor for life in that, and there is  philosophy  in painting.  To quote Sir Winston Churchill, "We must not be too ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joy ride in a paint box. And for this, Audacity is the only ticket."

Monday, February 20, 2012


Here's a nice wet-in-wet technique for painting flowers. I'm stepping aside from my usual glazed layers to work in adjacent segments of feathered colour.

Begin with a simple sketch, just one or two blossoms, with the separate petals defined:
Prepare two puddles of colour, a yellow and a red. I used Winsor Yellow and Cadmium Red with a bit of Quinacridone Magenta for variety of hue. Pre-wet one single petal with a wash of yellow.

While the yellow is glistening and wet, load up your brush with red (pigment-rich rather than watered down), and dab colour into the base and up the centre of the yellow. The wet yellow wash will start to take up the red, dragging it into natural-looking veining.

While that petal is drying move over to a new one, staying away from the first. Start with the yellow as before and add the red, observing the natural shifts of colour and leaving a yellow edge to the petal.
And repeat, again leaving the still-wet petals alone while starting a new one.
Fill in between the petals once they have dried, using the same yellow to red technique, and move on to the next flower.I added a little blue-green, a mystery mix left over on my palette, for some pockets of shading in the yellow.
Mixing Sap Green with the yellow, lay in the stems and a few leaves. Careful brushwork will keep the the red edges from bleeding into the green. And then go to town with an assortment of wet in wet green shades for background.

And that wraps up another two-hours-or-less painting. The studio cat, below, stepped between me and the tulips a few times, just in case I needed his input. Very decorative, if not helpful.

“The smallest feline is a masterpiece” – Leonardo Da Vinci

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Two versions of a still life with apples, both done in my little watercolour sketch pad from Curry's.
For watercolour sketches and studies these little books are very handy, not as expensive as Arches' supreme papers, and a step above the many flimsy "student grade" pads.

Painting with the intent to only sketch somehow frees one's hand for greater ease in both the sketching and painting, and curiously so does using truly inferior non-watercolour paper. For example, the flip chart paper on which I sketched another apple composition in class, using watercolour pencils:
(bond paper in poor light, crinkled from the moisture of earlier paintings
on the pages that p
receded it),
On nicer paper I would have drawn more slowly and cautiously in order to preserve the delicate surface fibres. But on the flip-chart bond paper I quickly laid in a sketch with lots of pencil lines, which were then pared back to the essentials with a soft eraser. The first layer of colours was applied in cross-hatched strokes with Faber Castell watercolour pencils. Cadmium yellow made a unifying undercoat for all the apples . . .
. . . and the individual colours were built up from there - Golden Delicious, Honey Crisp and Granny Smith.
There are cupcakes in the background too, something sweet for Valentine's Day.
Not a bad outcome for plain old bond paper. The next step is to brush the watercolour pencil layers with water, just enough to brighten the colours. But it is not obligatory and would certainly crinkle this non-watercolour surface. I'm going to leave them alone for now, crisp and glossy.

Post-script, Feb 16: A final touch of water, just the least bit on a barely damp brush, brings up the rich hues hidden in the watercolour pencil pigments. Now that's glossy!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sand and Shore

This week's in-class painting is a simple waterfront scene derived from photos taken on my morning dog-walk, with the waves rolling in from Lake Ontario and a single file of ducks strolling up the beach ahead of us. At 8 x 10 this was doable in two hours, with not much sketching required at all.
I made only a few pencil lines before painting, roughing in the ducks and their reflections as 4 separate ovals . The glistening sand colours are faint enough that masking fluid was not needed to save the bands of white in the ducks' plummage.
I began with an overall wash of clear water to prepare the paper for three separate bands of texture, to be painted wet-in-wet for softly blurred edges: Neutral Tint was mixed with Burnt Sienna for the near sand, Antwerp Blue defined the glistening wet sand, and Neutral Tint shaped the waves. Once the background was quite dry I shaped the ducks and their reflections, taking time to build up the dark colours in layers.
To get increasingly darker colours one must load the brush with less water in ratio to more pigment, almost dry-brush in the final strokes. All this building up requires some drying time between layers, which is when one goes back to other elements that also need touching up - textures in the nearest sand, more shaping in the far waves. These layers and touch-ups take time but also heighten the realism of the final picture, a nice way to remember a walk on the beach.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Welcome 2012

This snowy scene with birch trees took just a few hours. The white tree trunks and branches were masked with Pebeo Drawing Gum, which was allowed to dry before I began painting the sky. After pre-wetting the sky area with a clear wash I used Cobalt Blue in sweeping diagonal strokes, leaving the clouds as negative space. While the resulting sky was drying I worked on the snow first with Cerulean Blue then with a bit of Winsor Violet and Neutral Tint. Back to the horizon with Neutral Tint, I shaped the far-away trees, letting them advance and get darker in the woods on the right. The final step was to remove the masking fluid and get to work on the birch trunks and branches, which is where the more fiddly time-consuming work comes in! I try to make these in-class paintings do-able in the time available.

Pebeo Drawing Gum is my preferred masking fluid and the one that I recommend to students. The blue tint keeps the mask clearly visible while you are painting, it stays put until you want to peel it off and then it lifts off readily without damaging the paper.