Posted on Fri 31 May 2019
The pattern of a summer landscape
Ronald Maddox, President of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, describes the progress of a summer landscape, illustrated here in seven stages.
Over many years I have been fascinated by the pattern and form of the landscape in Britain, the result of its geological formation and centuries of weathering. This country is particularly rich in contrasting landscapes within a comparatively small area, varying from the ‘old’ rocks of mountainous districts through the limestones and sandstones of the ‘new’ beds o chalk and clay which cover much of the midland and southern parts of England. Each provides its distinctive land shape which may be exploited by the artist to provide an impression of a location rather than a photographic type of image.
My work as an illustrator and designer often requires me to be extremely accurate when depicting both architecture and landscape, so I enjoy the freedom of being able to go out and choose whatever subject I like, and interpret in my own way. Even so, a sense of design and pattern enters into my sketches and paintings, probably because of my training and subsequent career.
Many eminent artists’ works portray this sense of pattern – Paul and John Nash, Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Edward Burra. They are all what can be described as designer-painters, that is they have a certain element of stylisation in their interpretation of the landscape. Amazingly, Burra could look at a subject, then go home and produce his painting without even having made a sketch, a rare gift.
For most artists, a sketchbook is essential, and I rarely go out without one. I have literally thousands of pencil sketches, some no more than the briefest note, others fully detailed. Someone said to me recently “Drawing for you is compulsive”, and I had to agree.
As well as pencil drawings, I often make small colour sketches on location, sometimes enlarging one a stage further to make a small painting, or increasing the size yet again to a much larger painting which I work on in my studio. By working in this way, when I see a promising subject, wherever I may be, I can absorb the details quickly in a kind of artist’s shorthand to be recorded for future use.
It also enables me to carry the minimum amount of equipment when I go out, sometimes on foot or on my bicycle, and not to have to worry about stretching paper beforehand or carrying heavy bags. Some artists I have seen resemble packhorses when they move off. My equipment must fit into a small rucksack, which is why my sketchbooks and watercolour pads are no larger than A4, and my paintbox has only eight colours. A lightweight water-bottle with a secure top is essential, and a folding sketching stool is useful as long as it is light enough to be carried comfortably.
To include a great number of unnecessary items not only inhibits the distance you can walk, but leads to the danger of attempting more complicated subjects than can successfully be accomplished on the spot, given our changeable climate. When I do a finished painting on location, I choose a subject that is simple and direct to interpret.
Trying to explain how one went about doing a painting in stages is always hard, as an artist does not usually progress in this way with intervals to allow photographs to be taken. The whole thing is normally a continuous process, especially when working on location, and recreating a painting in this way inevitably leads to some loss of spontaneity.
This was something brought home to me when I was working on a step-by-step watercolour book with Patricia Monahan. Having to explain my techniques to the writer while carrying them out, with a photographer in the studio recording the work as it progressed, was somewhat daunting. However, I hope the experience has helped me in describing how I originally did the painting described in this article.
Stage 1 Initial sketchbook drawing using 2B and flat pencils
The landscape I have selected is based on simple shapes, with nothing complicated in the way of composition, as you can see from my sketchbook drawing. It was originally done on location in Dorset, at King Down near Badbury Rings, a fascinating area, full of ancient hill-forts, with groups of trees on the skyline and hawthorn hedges emphasising the shape of the chalk downland.
Stage 2 Two small preliminary watercolour sketches, looking at varied viewpoints
In looking at the landscape, I first make a series of drawings and colour sketches to help me select an appropriate viewpoint to develop for a larger painting. Often I do two sketches in an area on the same sheet, as shown, so that one can be drying while I work on the next. This helps me to assess both viewpoints, and sometimes I end by using both?
I generally use a ‘Not’ surface watercolour paper, either in the form of a block or stretched on a light board, depending on the subject. In this particular painting, I wanted to achieve the effect of the smooth hillside, and the contrast of the white chalky path against green fields and dark trees and bushes, so I used Cotman 90lb/185gsm, and a Number 8 brush for the main washes.
Stage 3 Outline drawing and first washes with small details masked out
I started by drawing a faint pencil outline before putting down a first wash of Winsor blue and Payne’s grey for the sky, and light tones of sap green with a touch of yellow ochre for the hillside. I always aim to get the sky wash complete in one, but if it dries too light, I wet the paper again all over this area and apply a second light wash; giving a graded tone.
Stage 4 Light washes building up to the tones of landscape, trees and bushes
I drew in details with a brush, using masking fluid where I wanted to retain small areas for the white paper to show through, for the lines in one of the fields and the May blossom on the bushes. For this I used a number 3 brush, and it is important to remember to wash the brush out well after using masking fluid.
Stage 5 Washes at about 75 percent stage
When this was thoroughly dry, I painted in washes of Davy’s green with a touch of sap green for the foreground, and a mixture of Winsor green and raw umber for the trees. For the distant landscape on either side of the hill, varied tones of Payne’s grey were applied.
Stage 6 Strengthening watercolour tones to give more contrast
Having covered the area of the painting, with the exception only of the white hillside track and foreground path, I began to apply a second wash of sap green to the fields. When this was nearly dry, I dropped in the darker green – made up from Winsor green and raw umber – for the foreground bushes on the left, letting them spread wet into wet into the field colour.
The deeper toned field to the right of the track was given a wash of sap green and yellow ochre, and again I dropped in the darker green for the bushes. The same colours were used for the main group of trees on the skyline.
Stage 7 King Down, Badbury Rings. Watercolour 15” x 22”. Close-up detail of finished painting
The final shadow across the foreground to the right of the painting was achieved with a light wash of raw umber, and the outline of the dead tree, random fencing posts and free pattern of grasses, were drawn in with a brush using raw umber and Payne’s grey.
When the painting was dry, I rubbed off the masking fluid and judged the overall effect of the picture. Fortunately, on a summer’s day the colour dries quickly, but conversely it sometimes is difficult to achieve flat washes, particularly for the sky and grassland, so one must work fast.
For those who have previously only painted watercolours in a studio or classroom, working out of doors can be a challenge, but there is nothing more satisfying than coming home with one or two spontaneous paintings, however small, that have captured the subtle colours of an English summer landscape.
This article was originally published in the August 1989 issue of Leisure Painter
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