From long experience, David Smith has the practicalities of painting in the cold and windy months cracked. ‘If the weather’s really bad I just get my sketchbooks out instead,’ he says. ‘But if it’s good I’ll work on a big surface, tied to the easel, and that in turn is held firm with ropes and tent pegs. The light in Scotland is very variable so you really have to paint on location. All the good landscape artists I know work outside. Coping with the weather was certainly frustrating at first, but working from a photograph bears no comparison to being present in the landscape while you paint it.

‘If I’m not able to make big paintings on the spot I usually work in my watercolour sketchbooks and use those for reference back in the studio. I’ve got a lot of props in my studio – bits from boats, lobster pots, old wooden fish boxes I’ve picked up over the years – so if the weather’s really horrendous for a period I can work there. Sometimes I even paint on the props, rather than on a canvas.’

MacLeod’s Red Boatshed, Gairloch, watercolour on paper, (106.5x150cm)

‘This painting was hung in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh for a while. It was a grey wet day in Gairloch, but I changed the colour of the sky to suit the reds and blacks of the boats and shed. I did numerous drawings and watercolours on location then painted a very large watercolour in the studio, using big brushes.’

Handling paint

Boats appear often in David’s work, and one of his favourite locations is Bowling Harbour on the Clyde. ‘I find that old boats have much more interesting textures and with my oil paints I let the paint do the talking, layering it a lot, scarring the canvas, often putting on paint with a palette knife then working it in with my hand or a pencil. I like making marks, mixing up the colours to see what happens.

‘There’s no rhyme or reason as to whether I use oils or watercolour – it’s just what I feel like doing and what takes my eye. I’ve always got a selection of stuff in the van, and if it’s a dark day I may just do some charcoal drawing, or if it’s dry and not too windy I’ll try to do some watercolour.’

Doves, Bowling Harbour, oil on linen (122x122cm)

‘Most of my paintings are realistic, but this one is quite symbolic and there’s a bit of abstraction here too. It’s almost like a still-life painting of an altar. I set up the fishing tackle and chose where to place the doves that were perched around the building. The painting was nearly completed on location in one day – all I had to do in the studio was tidy up some marks and splashes. The background is Prussian blue with a thinner layer of blue behind, while the harbour wall has much heavier paint – I squeezed the tube right on to the canvas and worked the paint in.’

Fishermans Row, lsle of Whithorn, watercolour on paper, (53.5x76cm)

‘I spotted these cottages from the beach and did a quick sketch in acrylics to take back to the studio. For the watercolour painting, I impregnated the paper first with about 13 coats of Chinese white. Once that was dry I painted on top of it. The sky is a translucent wash of Naples yellow, with the white providing more luminosity than I would have got from blank paper. I added a little impasto gel on the houses to give texture.’

Working with watercolour

‘Most of my watercolours are finished in the studio on a large flat table and I incorporate all sorts of stuff I’ve collected outdoors. Conversely, many of my oil paintings are finished outside and you’ll find wee bits of grass and all sorts stuck in the oil paints! A while ago I did a watercolour of the side of a boat at Bowling Harbour, working in a loose and abstract way, and as the rain was coming down quite heavily I took it back to the studio to let it dry. In those circumstances I’d normally just use that for reference and stretch a new piece of paper, but I really liked the marks on it so I cut some parts away and added more marks to the painting. That doesn’t happen often, but responding to what you’ve got rather than sticking to a prearranged concept is often what gives you exciting results and ideas where to go next.

‘What I like about watercolour is the freedom it gives – you never quite know what you’ll end up with. I get lots of water on the paper and experiment. I’m confident with it so I can use big brushes and have a good idea what’s going to happen; sometimes I blow the paint around with a hairdryer, making shapes. For big washes I use a 3–4in brush, sometimes an acrylic one because they are heavier. I’ve got some really good sable brushes for small work. On occasion I’ll even cut my brushes into shapes just to see what happens.

‘Lifting off watercolour paint with a sponge doesn’t work for me – I find it tends to leave dirty marks. And I try not to use too many colours because that can give a muddy result. I might add granulation fluid, or throw on some sand or grit, or mix in a bit of acrylic just to see what effects I can get. Prussian blue is one of my favourite colours – it changes a lot depending on how much you dilute it. I often mix gum Arabic into it to make it more viscous and dense, which brings the colour out. Gum arabic is always useful for making strong colours, such as an under-layer that I want visible through another layer on top.

‘Another technique I use is one I learnt from reading about the Scottish watercolourist Arthur Melville. He would saturate his paper with Chinese white first and then let it dry before proceeding. I don’t soak my paper in a bath of diluted Chinese white like he did, but I do put multiple coats on and I find it really adds luminosity to a painting.

‘I buy my paper on a roll and choose a size I think will suit the painting. I use 400gsm and for larger paintings I always spend a lot of time saturating and stretching it, otherwise I get ripples and bubbles, even with that heavy weight of paper.’

Boats on the Tay, watercolour on paper, (101.5x101.5cm)

‘I found an old red fishing trawler and a lot of reflections in the water on this bright breezy day, so I did quite a few watercolour sketches and drawings from which to make a new painting in the studio.’

Oil techniques

‘With oil paintings too I have only five or so colours on my palette, because you can get so many mixes from those. My favourites are titanium oxide and Schmincke Mussini dove grey – that’s the basis of a lot of my work. Mostly I use Michael Harding or Old Holland paints, and I tend not to mix different brands in one painting too much as I think that can cause problems with different drying times.

‘I’ve had a couple of disasters with putting hardeners in and the paint drying too quickly and starting to fall off in a couple of weeks. I like to be especially careful with technique as I put paint on very thickly. The first layer has to be dry before you put more on or the next layer will start to sink in and you will get cracking. The best way to work is to buy the more expensive brands of pigments then paint very quickly and get your picture finished all in one layer so that you have no problems with drying times.

‘At first I painted with small brushes, but my art teacher used to take them away and give me big ones, telling me I had to take the brushes for a walk. As my confidence grew I realised I could make small marks with them too, so they are all I need. Once you develop that confidence with your materials you can really begin to enjoy yourself and paint more loosely, then everything comes together in your work.’

David Smith studied art at Latrobe College in Melbourne but returned to Scotland before finishing his degree course. He was accepted at both Edinburgh and Glasgow art schools but ultimately decided to go his own way. He is an elected member of the council of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW). His work is shown at the annual exhibitions of the RSW, the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, the Royal Scottish Academy and Paisley Art Institute as well as at many private galleries, including the Lime Tree Gallery, Bristol; Red Rag Gallery, Stow-in-the-Wold; and Roger Billcliffe Gallery and John Green Fine Art in Glasgow. David won the Rendezvous Gallery Artist in Residence Award at the RSW exhibition in 2015. See more on the website

This feature is taken from the May 2016 issue of The Artist

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