Posted on Wed 03 Apr 2019
Landscape Textures in Watercolour
John Blockley discusses various and realistic effects with watercolours. Here he looks at architectural textures and qualities.
This article came about after a recent talk in the Editor’s office. I mentioned my interest in the characteristics and special textures of different parts of the country, and we thought that the problems of representing the textural qualities of landscapes in watercolour would make an interesting subject about which to write. We had in mind the landscapes of Wales and the northern parts of the country, where I love to paint. With this agreed, I left the office, walked a few yards down the road, and upon turning a corner, stopped in my tracks; the buildings in front of me were full of character. I hope it may amuse the Editor to read that I spent the rest of that day within sight of the office, sometimes sketching, but for the most part walking around to mentally register ideas for future sketching.
Pencil sketch 8½” x 6½”
I returned again two days later, and made a number of sketches to work from in the studio. The decaying facades of the buildings offered all sorts of textures: old advertisement posters; cracked cement rendering; bricks, varying from ochre to chocolate; some walls painted and peeling, and some shop windows, ornately framed with splendid examples of the sign-writer’s brush. Beautifully lettered in gilt they read, “St. Martins Kennels Aviaries and Aquaria”, and just along the road, Alfie Johnson’s shop advertised, “Percy Dalton’s Famous Peanuts” in bright red letters. These sorts of shops are to be seen in most towns, but I was amused to come across such a fund of material when only minutes before I had been gushing about the more spectacular material of Wales and Yorkshire.
Pencil sketch 7¾” x 11¾”
My interest in textures derives from years of living near to upland country, where rock is evident everywhere. It lies just below the land surface, barely covered, or it punctures the surface so that every part of the ground is textured. The nature of rock is very varied throughout Britain, and it is interesting to observe how the character of the buildings changes from one part of the country to another. Some places have simple buildings made from hard, unyielding stone, whereas in other places, softer rock is carved with interesting details. These buildings with distinctive local characteristics are wonderful to draw and paint. My own interest is primarily a visual one, I support it with questioning and reading and so have some understanding of how the local geology dictates the type of buildings and the way of life. Surface qualities vary greatly, depending upon the substance of the ground and the building materials. The buildings I sketched in London are built of brick, made with clay varying from subtle yellow to darker shades, according to the length of baking in their manufacture. These colours break through the stains and film of dirt that have accumulated with age, to give soft changes of pattern as well as subtle colour changes which are fascinating to paint. Some watercolour pigments, Burnt Umber for example, can be floated onto the surface of a previous, still-wet, wash of colour, and by gentle movement of the paper, the pigment can be made to precipitate to create a minutely speckled surface. If this is done over a first wash of a different colour, an aged surface can be created. I like the combination of black floated onto a wash of still-wet green. I allow the black to precipitate in places to suggest a finely grained masonry surface, and in other parts I gently mix the colours together on the paper to produce the colouring of a wall, stained moss-green. It is possible to make the precipitated paint particles extremely small, almost pin-prick dots, irregularly spaced.
Closed Down. Watercolour 18” x 15”
You have probably come across an old advertisement, still hanging to a wall, sentimental, and ornately designed. Watercolour is good for reproducing such faded motifs. A brush with just-moist pigment can be stippled and stroked into a damp paper surface to produce soft mellowed edges. When sketching, I often make separate pencil references of interesting details. I remember one old poster with an elliptical decorative border enclosing a central ornate motif. I enjoyed working this into my studio painting, building up the faded design with the tip of a small brush, slowly progressing until it reached the stage where it was only just apparent. I left it at this stage because I wanted the viewer to discover it for himself. I often build up features this way, with careful brushwork, and then I deliberately flick several up-and-down movements with a wet brush through to partially destroy it. Working into it again, I then try to achieve a feeling of “suspension”, a recognisable feature – almost. The action itself it satisfying, changing from the deliberate to the abandoned. It is not really abandoned though – the flick of the brush is preceded by a moment of nerve-tingling questioning. Much of the charm of watercolour painting lies in this variable brush action. Large brushes quickly cover areas of paper with washes of colour and then smaller brushes take over to hint and suggest and to model bits of detail. One moment the brush action is generous and vigorous, and the next moment it is searching and tentative.
Wall Textures. Watercolour 15½” x 15”
I like to construct a large, hard-edge shape and paint soft-edged forms within it. In my painting, Wall Textures (above), the chimneys and roof profiles are sharply silhouetted against the sky, but within the building shape, the eroded brickwork and hints of advertisement posters are mostly soft-edged. I painted the building with Raw Sienna to establish the lightest tones of the building, and into this I floated some Cadmium Red. Whilst this was damp, I modelled the various internal shapes and patterns, suggesting brickwork and bits of lettering. I blotted out some of the lightest parts, added large areas of sombre, green-black, and drew into the still-damp paper with a piece of stick dipped in watercolour. With the same stick I impressed dots and smudges of paint into the damp paper.
Pencil sketch 9” x 7¾”
Although my illustrations here are of buildings, I am not primarily concerned with their architecture. My principal interest is with surface qualities – roughness, smoothness, erosion, pattern, the play of light on surfaces, and edge values. We are surrounded by these qualities and I spend a lot of time looking and thinking about them, and it is this obsessive sincerity of interest that prompts me to paint them.
This article was originally published in the July 1979 issue of The Artist
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