“Come to France in August – it does not rain then,” said artist friend James in Loche.
It did. For five days. Inspecting the interiors of innumerable churches and chateaux was fine, but I had come armed with paints, brushes and stacks of watercolour paper, and my patience snapped. I came to paint, and I would paint!
The Red Shutter, Loche-sur-Indrois, (33 x 48.2cm)
The cluster of bright blue dining chairs inspired this composition. A red shutter seen through the window also helped to cheer up the scene. Sunlight and shadows were invented to add depth to the image
Looking up from the sofa, I thought that the blue dining chairs (above) opposite me were rather cheerful, despite the pervasive gloom. When I completed drawing the rest of the interior of the cottage, my pulse quickened, and my spirit lifted. I even made up the sunlight coming in, and the accompanying shadows.
I was beginning to enjoy myself. The veil of despondency lifted miraculously. Even the abandoned row of straw hats by the stair landing inspired another interior composition. Nothing was going to stop me now. Next, I went up those stairs to the dormitory whose walls were hung with James’s brilliant, sunny acrylics, and simply had to capture the wonderful colours throughout the room. I painted the interior of the next church we visited instead of sulking. I even went into town and began to sketch wet Frenchmen on market day, with umbrellas, and reflections in puddles (below).
A Wet Market Day in Loche, France, (30.5 x 45.7cm)
The variously coloured umbrellas and awnings, and the light-coloured clothing made a bright picture despite the rain. The road surface was surprisingly dark, but that is the colour of wet asphalt. It is lighter through the archway because of light reflected from the sky.
This anecdote speaks volumes and I do not need to elaborate further on it except to say that inspiration is very much a state of mind. Change down to a positive gear and you will take off! Indoors or out.
Wet painting gear
Ever since then, I have not been intimidated by inclement weather because I go prepared mentally as well as with waterproof gear, a sturdy umbrella, portable watercolour set, and the ability to down a series of expresso coffees during the course of a morning’s painting in friendly cafés.
In May last year, my painting friends and I were propped up at the bar of the Hotel Sablon in Bruges, waiting for the weather to clear. On turning to greet Brenda returning from the shops, I saw this delightful composition (below) which materialised because of the colourful central figure.
Hotel Sablon, Bruges, (28 x 38cm)
This view from the bar of the Hotel Sablon materialised when the wife of my painting friend returned from her shopping. We were waiting for the drizzle to stop. There was an outer door of plain glass. Hence the slightly unusual posture of the figure entering the hallway.
This year, April in Venice was to be our wedding anniversary celebration. Ken Howard’s book and video had stoked up great expectations of exquisite Venetian light and sparkling reflections of brilliantly lit facades. But yes, it rained! We visited the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, and explored the interiors of San Rocco, and then St. Marks. Despite the drizzle, I ventured out on the balcony by the magnificent bronze Greek horses, and looked down on the clusters of umbrellas in St Mark’s Square, in a variety of colours and making intriguing patterns. Inspired by this view I decided then that I would paint umbrellas in Venice.
So off I marched with my ‘wet’ painting gear, including a camera, and at the end of five days I had a series of umbrella paintings which I felt in retrospect to be quite special. Firstly, I was pleased to have got on and painted despite the greyness and the disappointment. Secondly, my images in muted tones were a refreshing departure from the usual sun-drenched Venetian paintings you are accustomed to seeing. There was still colour, and a lot of life and movement, and a certain charm.
Crossing the Accademia, Venice, (28 x 38cm)
Looking down from the bridge, I could not resist such a wonderful pattern or umbrellas. Thereafter it was a mix and match of the pedestrians’ clothes to add colour but without clashing. With such a busy and dark-tones scene, I decided to leave the brown wooden parapets unpainted. I think this has also resulted in a better-balanced picture.
The key to depicting a rainy scene is actually surprisingly simple. There are essentially only three elements to be employed in converting an ordinary dry scene to a wet one: umbrellas, reflections on the ground, and grey skies (and of course elimination of sharp-edged shadows).
From the compositional point of view, it was a treat to have the curved forms of umbrellas break up the pervasive verticals which tend to dominate street scenes, particularly with tall buildings close to each other. Umbrellas today come in a myriad of colours and even patterns, and some artistic licence could yield any colour combinations to suit your composition.
Reflections of figures and buildings on wet surfaces are no different from those on still water. Except that instead of a green or blue undertone there should be the colour of the surface – road or pavement or whatever.
The sky is the easiest. If the composition is a busy one of figures and buildings, I would use an even wash of grey or a warmer ochre tone (anything except blue). A larger area of sky made more interesting by applying various tones of grey wet-on-wet on a pre-dampened surface. I find it useful to carry the sky grey wash down to cover the whole painting surface, leaving only the highlights (such as a particular umbrella or a figure that will serve as a visual centre of focus) untouched. This will produce a muted tone in the finished picture, in keeping with the weather.
Having said this, you will note that there is still a lot of colour in the paintings. I did not consciously darken the colours, and I could still leave a lot of white areas untouched. For, as long as the three elements discussed above are in place, the viewer’s eye is already preconditioned to accept that it is raining.
The figures are central to this series of paintings. I have my camera and express film services to thank for the main figures in each picture. Having decided on the composition, I sketched its outline under my umbrella, and then retreated to the nearest café to draw on the full-sized watercolour pad. Thereafter I made intermittent sorties out to the check on a detail or a colour.
Finally, the rain stopped, and early that morning I caught sight of the Salute through the soft moist light, with puddles still on the ground, and was rewarded with an image (below) that will forever remind me of those few days of wet, but still wonderfully paintable Venice.
The Salute, after the Rain, (30.5 x 45.7cm)
I hope I have succeeded in capturing the soft, morning light with some dampness in the air, evoked by the lifting grey cloud and puddles on the ground. The glow on the columns also indicates the mellow early light.