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How to Paint Figures in Watercolour with Brian Smith – Part Two

Posted on Thu 03 Jan 2019

Last month (click here to read part one) I looked at the problems associated with painting figures in the background and middle distance. The object was to break down some of the barriers, which often seem to put figures outside our comfort zone and to learn to incorporate them without breaking stride. If you want to try this, the main headings for study are the same as the recipe for success in all things watercolour. I have practised all of them throughout my professional life. They are:

  • Careful observation of your subject will help you to isolate what matters. Don’t paint everything just because it’s there.
  • Find a style and rhythm that works for you.
  • Analyse and deconstruct the paintings of other artists whose work you like and which succeeds – they tend to be the same thing – to unravel what they are doing right.
  • Practise, practise, practise. If it’s not working, ask yourself why. The answers are there in front of you. Too quick or too slow? Remember, timing is everything. Too fussy or you’ve missed the main point? Too much or little contrast? Be honest with yourself. I’m often told by students that they have tried to paint looser or they have tried to mix richer washes, when there is no sign whatsoever of it in their work. If you want to kick on then you must go for it – it’s only paper and paint.

This month I want to look at figures at a larger scale. When I first approached this second article, I thought that it would have a clear direction, containing if not rules, then at least a set of conventions, which could be considered in much the same way as middle and background figures. Now as I think about it I find that there are as many exceptions as there are norms so this is largely a discussion about some selected images. I hope by the end of it you will have been given some food for thought.

Musical Interlude, watercolour, (30x21.5cm).

There were lots of lovely interplays of light and shade in this subject. For the girl’s thigh I dampened the surface with a little water first and laid a mid-strength mixture of cool blues partially into it before finishing with a slightly richer stroke of blue to create the shadow.

Creating form

Let’s look first at large-scale figures painted with attention to detail. They are rich in characteristics, perhaps more vibrant than their middle-distance counterparts and other parts of the painting are often subservient to them.

The couple in Musical Interlude (above) were part of a larger group of pub musicians. I chose these two because they appeared to have an agenda

I could isolate and the composition, with a flotilla of accessories like instruments and cases, and with an interesting blend of mainstream and neutral colours, struck me as having potential.

Working at a large scale can produce opportunities to go to town with detail. For instance, in the case of the girl in Musical Interlude I thought about:

1. The defining light in the changing planes of the hands, on the thigh and in the topography of the face.

2. The literal patterns, where the large scale justified some fiddling and lifting out from damp paint with a dry, flat brush to denote the design of her vest top.

3. The volume in both figures and the cello, achieved in the subtle transitions of tone and colour.

4. The relationship in space, or juxtaposition, of some of the parts, for instance where closely married colours and tones lose the lower parts of the figures into the darks under the table, with occasional lifting out to hint at form.

Duo, watercolour, 5x33⁄4in. (13x9.5cm).

These figures are lit from top right and we can tell the orientation and height of the sun from the direction and length of the banjo player’s shadow. Applying this knowledge helps us to interrogate the scene more rigorously, searching for clues about form and relationships between the parts.

The figures in Duo (see above) are not particularly large, but I included them here, because they contain marks that are suited to a larger scale. They are rich in content, which I picked out using a well-honed No. 12 Round brush.

In particular, look at the shadow types:

  • Some are lost-edged, like the shadow on the cylinders of the base player’s arm and the soft transition on his shorts. To achieve them, richer mixtures were laid and a paler mixture placed next to it. Shadows like this denote smooth, even curves caused by sunlight falling on them.
  • The hard-edged shadows, like those on the banjo player’s face and the left hands of both players, are due to the same light falling on tight radii or arises between features (the projection of a nose or a change in the planes of the hand) and we do well to make them clear.
  • Other shadows, like those on the base player’s face, on his forearm (from the mike stand) and on the right side of his shorts next to his instrument, are generated by one object in bright, directional light, casting a shadow on another immediately adjacent to it.
  • They tell us about the relationship between adjacent objects and are invariably hard edged. It’s important to distinguish between the three types. If they are reproduced faithfully they are great descriptors of form and location.

Room for detail

Shoes, watercolour, (18x25cm).

I painted this at my sister-in-law’s house. She only had three colours to hand: light red, Prussian blue and yellow ochre. The children struck interesting poses, which I dealt with in some detail using a well-pointed No. 12 Round brush.

Figures at a larger scale bring opportunities for patterns and creases in clothing to make another contribution to our understanding of form. Checks, stripes and shadows change their shape and direction as they mould around the body, giving us clues about the contours beneath. There are hints of this in action in Shoes (above), Baseball Chat (below) and Figures, Dore Green (below; note the lady on the top right).

Figures, Dore Green, watercolour, (18x25cm).

This illustration is lifted straight from my sketchbook, warts and all. It makes a couple of important points: the first about posing the figures (or parameters around your choice of aspect if you can’t control the pose) and the second about taking time out to assimilate the important points before embarking on the painting.

Baseball Chat, watercolour, (14x16cm).

I used burnt sienna in the flesh tones to reflect a bright, sunny day, sometimes cooled with a little blue-biased violet or darkened with a hint of burnt umber.

Baseball Chat (above) is probably the largest of the figures in this article and I didn’t skimp on suggesting detail. I considered the modelling of the figure in different ways. Arms, legs, heads and torsos are roughly cylindrical shapes, which are characterised by a mixture of edges; lost where bright light falls on smooth curves, found when this is interrupted by folds or shadows from adjacent objects. I allowed a little more time between laying mixtures to create understated boundaries (justified at this scale) between shirt, trousers, hat and flesh.

Large figures, less detail

Larger figures need not be synonymous with detail though. Kitted Out and Ready to Go (below) is based on a subject half in light and half in shade, and has less definition and clarity than my first examples. The man could look equally worthy of special attention as our lady cellist in Musical Interlude (see top). Were it not for the fact that he has been painted contre jour, he might be. Back lighting tends to auger against high definition and lots of clearly defined separate elements within a figure. Instead, the eye sees a harmony of tone, a reduction in the intensity of colour and soft transitions between edges, achieved through correct timing. It should be a mellow rather than a staccato affair.

Apart from his relatively large scale, our attention is drawn to him by high contrast between his lower half and an almost white background. His tonal values float him out of the shadows on the right, into our view, on a podium of his own cast shadow.

He is helped by:

  • A subtle corona of light around his top half, achieved by stopping background washes short of his perimeter.
  • His jaunty red-and-white top, which I subdued by muting its colour with an earth.
  • By laying his head at the vanishing point of all lines of perspective.

All of this, ably supported by the red-and-white awning behind, draws our eye. I reinforced the ethereal quality of the painting as befits the day, by avoiding clarity in any faces, though features and general form are hinted at. The figures bottom right are closer but I lost them, together with other potential distractions, into their background context using colour, tone and edge treatment.

Kitted Out and Ready to Go, watercolour, (28x28cm).

Preparation can go some way towards achieving a good result. This is from a scene I photographed on the promenade at Lyme Regis. I spotted the chap in red, window-shopping ahead of me as I walked along with the sun behind me. Thinking there could be a good composition against the light, I skipped ahead and waited for him to hove into view, taking several snaps to review later.

Colour and form

Café Culture, watercolour, (42x60cm).

This relatively large demo piece necessitated a well-organised sketch, because it relies heavily throughout on painting in the negative to create the positive whites in figures and general paraphernalia.

Café Culture (above) is meant to reflect the busy nip-and-tuck of Montmartre, Paris, where everyone whether artist or caterer, is vying for your attention. It’s a bright, vital environment, alive with sounds, colour and activity and I used a lot of mainstream primary and secondary colours as well as cutting washes around lots of white passages to describe it.

The cloth-capped waiters with their braces and checked pants, looking for eye contact with passers-by, just shade it as the main players, framed with sharp-edged darks. I represented them like everything else in the painting, very simply with quick brushstrokes and lots of white explanatory highlights – and it makes the point that a relatively simple motif of shapes and colours can be enough to describe a complex situation. The figures you see front right are of similar scale, but are absorbed into the shadows by unifying blue violets.

I hope I have given you something to think about. Clearly it isn’t possible or even desirable, to think that a particular scale of working requires a particular method. It is probably important that the style and degree of attention you invest in a large-scale figure are carefully considered in the context of the rest of the painting so that they correlate with each other. Having a defined plan is an advantage, too. I strongly believe that the rest of it is largely down to practice and, within that practice, making a commitment to depart from the familiar in order to take risks, experiment and get your own feedback from your own work.

Click here to read part one.

Brian Smith

Brian is a Sheffield-based artist and teacher. He leads structured weekly courses in watercolour, co-runs life-drawing classes at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery, lectures in freehand drawing skills at Sheffield’s Hallam University and delivers workshops, demonstrations and problem-solving sessions on any subject to art groups and societies.

Visit email or call 0771 4262139

This feature is taken from the February 2019 issue of Leisure Painter

Click here to purchase your copy.


How to Paint Figures in Watercolour with Brian Smith – Part Two


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