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Beach Tones by Brian Gallagher. The Artist, January 1998

Posted on Thu 11 Oct 2018

Beach Tones

Using watercolour, pastel and pencils, Brian Gallagher enjoys painting the stones, sand and skies of his favourite beaches

  Cornish Beach, 24x33in. (61x83.8cm)

Whenever and wherever I work I look for subject matter that inspires, stimulates the senses, heightens the emotions and causes the adrenalin to flow with the expectation that something worthwhile might be realised.  It is important to be emotionally alive to the subject before starting work as this indicates a positive state of mind. Whenever possible we head towards the southwest and the beaches of Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall.  I find pebble and shingle beaches visually exciting.  The sheer expanse of interlocked stones, their visual weight of colour, physical presence and timelessness are compelling subject matter.  Places such as Climping, Dunwich to Minsmere, Budleigh Salterton, Sidmouth, Burton Bradstock, West Bay, Chesil Beach, where the local fishermen know the spot they have landed by the size of the pebbles on the beach such is the drift and movement of the tides and currents - all these are awe-inspiring beaches.

Demonstration picture

Boats are wonderfully crafted shapes; hauled up on beaches they afford wonderful subjects and also imply a human element in a picture.


STAGE 1  Morning Calm.  Using a mid-tone blue-pastel pencil I indicated the line of the horizon and settled for seven eighths of ground plane. Varying the pressure I placed the position and the contours of the stone shapes, working from the furthest away to the foreground.  With the side of a mid-tone raw sienna soft pastel I laid in a surface of colour, blending lightly with my finger to knock the pigment into the surface of the board.  Using a mid-tone raw umber pencil I worked into the raw sienna, varying the pressure and length of the pencil strokes, and introduced light greys, blending diagonally from right to left.  The beach was built with passages of colour tones and implied textures, with strokes made away into horizontal space from the stone shapes.  I worked forward, strokes becoming broader, seeking to capture the rhythm of the ground plane.  The beach began to take on a visual meaning as I described the textures with raw umber, raw sienna, burnt sienna, warm and cool greys.

For the demonstration shown above and below I worked from sketches made on site and visual memory.  My materials included:  Derwent pencils HB, B, 2B, pens, Derwent and Caran D’Ache watercolour pencils, Derwent and Schwan Stabilo pastel pencils, a palette of Winsor & Newton watercolours, Pro Arte brushes, 6, 8 12 and a water container, pencil sharpener, knife and putty rubber, tissues, a damp cloth and a plastic bag.

I keep a working palette of mixed soft pastels, Derwent, Rembrandt, Daler-Rowney and Conté in a tin filled with rice, which keeps the pastels separated and cleaned when the closed tin is shaken.  I also use a Daler-Rowney A3 sketch pad and Daler-Rowney pastel boards, a light plywood drawing board, 20x24in (50.8 x 61cm) and a lightweight easel.

First, I stood and looked at my subject, allowing my eyes to traverse the expanse of the beach, drawn visually through space following the run of the tide line.  The initial consideration was to look for the rhythm of the stones and their contour against the plane of the sea, having already decided on a high horizon with a quarter of the surface representing the sky and the boat shape breaking the line of the horizon.

Working on grey Daler-Rowney Studland board with a mid-tone blue pencil I drew the contour of the stones against the plane of the sea, close to the line of the prow and hull of the boat.  With broad diagonal surface strokes of dark blue, I described the lower contour and surface of the stones, working from base to base, laying strokes of mid-tone cobalt blue into the dark blue indigo; the marks were made over the lower surfaces of the stones, conveying the direction of the light.

I continued to work with a mid-tone burnt sienna over the stones, where the sienna mixed with the blue to create varying values of green.  Broader surface marks were made with indigo, following the line of the keel of the boat towards the stern.  With cobalt blue I drew the contour of the stones into the shadowed areas of indigo, varying the strength of the mark.

At this stage I can selectively bleed dry colour with water, using a size 10 or 12 watercolour brush, to create rich, intense colour and tone.  Wet colour can also be transferred to pristine areas of the work and dry marks made into the wet surfaces, creating interesting textures.  Wetted surfaces also fix the pastel marks.

I modelled the individual stones with a hatching mark, following the planes of the stones.  This enabled me to build textures without loading the surface of the board with pastel pigment.  Light and mid-tone raw and burnt sienna, with cool greys and burnt umber, were used to construct the hull of the boat and lay interior and exterior shadows.


STAGE 2  Finished picture, Morning Calm, 27x36in (68.5x91.4cm).  Before I thought about reflections and water textures I worked into the background with warm and cool greys.  With dark blue, light grey and white pencils I textured the sea surface and indicated the line of the sea against the beach.  I laid the sky plane with the side of a light blue-grey pastel, working into the surface and blending the under pigment with a light grey pencil with short diagonal and vertical strokes, varying the pressure of the mark and breaking the line of the horizon. Turning to the reflections, horizontal strokes against the upper contour of the major foreground stone were made with a mid-tone burnt umber pencil, indicating the dark reflective water surface.  Using a light blue I described the horizontal plane of the water surface, and with varying intensities of blue-greys and whites I made the water surface.  Interfacing burnt umber, burnt sienna and raw sienna I established the reflections and indicated water texture with a close-hatched linear white breaking the dark surface.

For the sea area I added light, mid and dark tones of blues, blue greens and burnt sienna in horizontal strokes of varying length and intensity to describe the recessional plane and movement of the sea.  You can, of course, work with a wet brush to do this.

As the sky represented only a minor area of space in the picture I wanted to keep it understated.  I used cool blues and greys in diagonal and vertical marks and broad diagonal sweeps to indicate the direction of the light.  These were blended with shorter marks lightening towards the horizon line.

It is important not to try to chase the light; make a decision about the areas of light and shadow in the painting and stick to it.

Always look for the geometry and powerful abstract design in the natural world.  Does the geometry of line, shape and plane work as a composition?  I take the reality of what I see and seek to make it work on a two-dimensional surface, endeavouring to create three-dimensional space, form and texture and the drama of light.

  Treasure Island, 17x24in. (43.2x61cm).  For this composition I worked from the shadow side of the shapes towards the light.



Beach Tones by Brian Gallagher.  The Artist, January 1998


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