A couple of weeks ago I did my first watercolour painting. As a subject, I chose to repaint an old plein air oil painting of a rural shed near my home.
My purpose was two-fold: firstly, to have a go at watercolour and, secondly, to fix a few of the problems in the original oil painting.
Here’s the original plein air piece, which I did about 13 years ago.
35x25cm oil on board.
© Andy Dolphin
At the time, I was pretty happy with this painting but over the years, I’ve realised several issues that needed fixing.
The two major issues are a lack of tonal depth – the background is almost as dark and as saturated as the foreground – and the busy brushstrokes and patterns of light and dark over-complicate the scene and reduce the visual impact.
I sorted both of those problems out in the much cleaner and much simpler watercolour painting.
30x21cm watercolour on Arches medium.
© Andy Dolphin
Yesterday, I decided to re-do the painting in oil, paying attention to those same problems and trying not to make the same mistakes again.
30x25cm oil on board.
© Andy Dolphin
While the finished oil painting is far more detailed than the watercolour painting (and took considerably longer to do), those details retain a sense of unity with their surroundings. The overall contrast, especially of the shed against the background, is much improved from the original.
The tonal pattern of the new painting also provides much better visual impact than the original plein air work. To compare the two, try squinting at them until you only see light and dark. The new painting delivers a much stronger pattern.
I also added a subtle path as a lead in and to break up the large foreground area which would otherwise be a major slab of green. The path carries some of the earthy shed colour down into the lower right corner which helps to create a colour harmony. The distant fruit trees perform a similar role.
You might also note I have dropped that wooden crate from the front of the shed. In reality, the crate is no longer there and I prefer it this way, so I left it out.
Although the final painting is substantially different in effect when compared to the original, it retains a genuine sense of place and I’m sure anyone who is familiar with the location would readily recognise it.
Before I left Perth to move to the country, around 14 years ago, I bought some watercolours, brushes and a pad of watercolour paper , with the expectation that I might start doing some plein air watercolour paintings.
It never happened.
Since buying them, the paint tubes have remained unopened.
I recently discovered the Youtube channel of British watercolour artist Tim Wilmot, where he methodically demonstrates his approach to loose, semi-abstracted representational painting. It’s a style of watercolour I have always liked and his demonstrations make it look possible.
So, with my new-found enthusiasm for watercolour, I dug out an old plein air oil painting – which has it fair share of issues – and decided to repaint it in watercolour while fixing some of those issues along the way.
In the hope it wouldn’t be complete disaster, I also decided to video my progress. And since it wasn’t a complete disaster, I edited the video and uploaded it to Youtube.
I hope, soon, to do an updated studio oil version of the original plein air painting. It will be interesting to compare the results.
When I travelled to the John Wilson workshop in Katoomba last February, I had to devise a plan for bringing wet paintings home in my luggage.
I made two wet-panel-carrier boxes from plywood, using balsa wood for the divider strips, but I also needed something for paintings that were too small for the boxes.
After fluffing around with various ideas using timber strips and elastic bands – ideas that failed, I might add – I came up with the idea of making small corner spacers that could be held on with clips.
These would work for paintings in a variety of sizes as long as I had a pair of same-size boards to clip together.
I videoed the making of them and have finally edited the footage and uploaded it to Youtube.
While the process looks a little cumbersome in the video, that’s largely because I was trying to orient everything for the camera as I worked on just one widget (and also because some of the balsa proved very difficult to cut, even with a sharp knife!)
In reality, it took less than a couple of hours to make 32 of these little spacer widgets – enough to carry 16 small wet paintings. It took me far longer to make the two box carriers.
I would only use these on small paintings, up to around 10″x12″.
I haven’t tried yet, but it might be worthwhile to make some straight widgets to clip to the centre point of each edge, and this might make them more practical for slightly larger paintings when combined with the corner widgets.
Last year my son Michael and I climbed a number of local mountains. One of those climbs was the walk to the top of Bluff Knoll, the highest point in the southern half of Western Australia.
To the east of Bluff Knoll lies a mountainous wilderness known colloquially as “the ridge walk”. Requiring serious bush-walking, navigation and climbing skills it is, by all accounts, a magnificently hellish place to experience.
It’s on our list.
It’s not near the top of the list, however.
For now, I have to console myself with photos of the region, taken from the ground or from Bluff Knoll.
This painting, showing the view to Ellen Peak at the eastern end of the ridge, is based on photos I took from the top of Bluff Knoll.
The photo references were taken mid-afternoon last September. I hope to take another look once the cooler weather settles in later this year. Early morning or late evening should be spectacular.
John Wilson is an artist with a worldwide reputation. Based in the Blue Mountains, a couple of hours drive from Sydney, John has built a career on capturing the region in oil paint and last month I was lucky enough to find a spot in one of his 10-day masterclass workshops.
It was an amazing experience as John gave students his recipe for “peaches and cream” and “apricot” and explained his use of foundational warm and cool greys. No questions went unanswered as John shared the knowledge borne from of his years of professional experience.
Of the 10 days, three involved painting en plein air in some of the most beautiful places on earth. We painted from the Megalong Valley to the Capertee Valley and it was easy to see why so many artists are drawn to the region.
I ventured out on my own, before and after class every day and on the weekend in the middle of the course, snapping hundreds of photos. I also managed to do a few of my own paintings on the edge of the Katoomba cliffs.
One of my more-successful attempts was painted one morning from a cliff face not far from the Sky Rider motel where I stayed.
One thing you quickly learn here is to pay attention at the start and to cement the image in your mind because the light can change dramatically even in the short time it takes to do a small painting like this one.
And here is the “proof I really was there” photo.
As you can see in this photo, the dramatic shadow cast by the distant mountains in my painting was almost completely gone by the time I put down my brushes, less than one hour after I began.
One evening I went to a small lookout just before sunset and decided to challenge myself to see just how fast I could paint something.
I set about capturing the Three Sisters, arguably Katoomba’s single-biggest natural attraction, as the light shifted rapidly with massive thunderhead clouds building all around and changing from bright fluffy white to rich, deep shades of orange and purple.
The final painting took about 30 minutes, after which there was no sunlight on the cliffs and it was too dark to tell what colours I was mixing.
As a painting, it leaves a little to be desired but as an exercise, I absolutely love it.
Thanks John and Cecelia, and everyone who attended the workshop, for an inspirational two weeks with some great people. I hope to do it again soon.