For a great many years artists have been inspired by The River Thames. Canaletto, Turner, Monet, Whistler, were just a few who captured on canvas the Thames in its many moods. No matter what the time of day or year, the Thames has provided the painter with a wealth of subjects as it flows majestically through countryside and town.
I spend a great deal of time painting along the Thames, though early morning or early evening are the times of day that I prefer to work. The richness of colour at these times never fails to excite me. The painting reproduced here was painted during a late afternoon in September. I set up my easel on the foreshore at Rotherhithe, a delightful spot and where I frequently paint. The still slightly wet foreshore was bathed in bright sunlight and cool shadows. Old buildings standing along the edge of the river added charm and serenity to the scene. There was only one figure on the foreshore at the time, a young lady walking her dog. I decided, however, to enliven the scene by creating a few more figures.
STAGE 1 The hardboard panel was covered with a thin wash of pinkish-yellow paint. The main features were drawn in with blue pigment.
My working method was as follows. After making preliminary compositional drawings in my sketchbook, paying particular attention to where the figures should be placed later, I covered my primed hardboard panel 9½” x 12” with a thin wash of pinkish-yellow paint. My selection of colours were French ultramarine, viridian, cerulean blue, yellow ochre, chrome yellow, cadmium green, cadmium orange, light red, burnt umber and titanium white. I used small brushes, a Number 4 Winsor & Newton round fine hog, a Number 2 bristle, and a Number 2, 3 and 5 Rowney nylon. My dipper contained a mixture of English distilled turpentine and a small amount of stand linseed oil. I drew in the main features of the subject using the Number 2 nylon brush with blue paint. Using the Number 4, I quickly washed in the main areas such as the sky, the river, the foreshore, and placed a few dabs of colour on the buildings and wall to the left. Each of these areas would receive further treatment later on. For the whole of the sky I used a mixture of ultramarine and a touch of crimson. I would deal with the clouds in more detail later.
The sky was a truly dramatic manifestation. Clouds rolling in from the west, forming all kinds of interesting shapes. The water was painted using a mixture of cerulean blue with a small amount of cadmium green and white. As there was very little colour variation in the water, I decided that additional colour would not be necessary. As I had used a pinkish yellow wash to cover the board at the outset, this thin colour could be left relatively undisturbed to represent the area bathed in sunlight. So I concentrated on the delightful shadow running across the foreground and along the wall. I used some ultramarine, crimson, yellow ochre and a little white for this shadow. The latter two colours were used sparingly.
STAGE 2 Details drawn in using purple paint with a small nylon brush. More work on the sky, the buildings and the foreground.
When the whole scene has started to take shape, I concentrated on drawing in details using purple paint on a small nylon brush. I find nylon brushes are excellent for fine detail work. Details such as the shapes of the distant buildings, the roof, chimney and windows of the nearest buildings, as well as the vertical supports along the wall were drawn in. After the drawing work was completed, I then worked again on the sky. For the darker parts of the clouds I used a stronger mixture of ultramarine, some crimson and a slight touch of viridian with a small amount of white. I wanted to try to create the movement of the clouds as they rolled past. I used white with some chrome yellow and a very small amount of crimson for the lighter parts of the clouds. The artist must observe at all times what effect the sky has upon water in colour relationships. If the sky changes to a lighter or darker colour then inevitably the colour of the water will also change. It is therefore advisable to paint the sky and the water at the same time.
The wall of the building to the near left was a rich khaki colour so there was a delightful relationship between this and the olive green of the river wall. For the building I mixed yellow ochre with burnt umber and some light red and for the river wall I used yellow ochre, cadmium green and a small amount of ultramarine. The distant pinkish coloured building was painted using crimson, light red and yellow ochre. The jetty some way off, and moored boats, were an interesting and important feature of this painting. I used burnt umber, cerulean blue and white to suggest these. It was important to make the colour of the foreground shadow harmonise with all other colours in the picture. It was essential not to paint the shadows too dark or too blue or too purple. The sun will of course produce shadows of different strengths and the artist has to decide for himself what strength of shadow is best for the effect he is trying to achieve. In my painting I chose to vary the colour of the shadow by making it warmer to the left and cooler to the right. The foreshore was covered in bits of junk, bricks, pieces of wood and other objects. I decided that a few dabs of green brown colour to the right would suggest this debris and also act as a counter balance to the ‘weight’ of the buildings to the left.
STAGE 3 Placing the figures: six had been decided upon an much thought was given to their composition and colour.
Having paid particular attention to colour harmony and to the general balance of one shape against another, I then decided to place in the figures that I mentioned earlier. It can be difficult deciding what the figures in a painting of this kind should be doing, what stances they should assume, should they be standing, bending down, or even running, or perhaps fishing? Only the artist himself can resolve this problem. It becomes even more difficult, of course, if there are no figures around. I always make a number of sketches showing imaginary figures in various stances, and when, after a few minutes, I have decided which of my figures to use in the painting, I place them in positions in the picture which will be important from a compositional point of view. The lady with the dog had long since gone, but I had noted in my sketchbook the size of the figure in relation to the height of the river wall. I worked out a quick composition, having decided to use six figures. The choice of colours for the figures was also important. I did not want them to be the main focus of attention, I simply wanted them to be a necessary part of the painting, helping it to ‘live’, to stimulate interest and create movement in the work. The colours selected for the figures would, I felt, be in keeping with the other colours in the picture. I painted each figure, including the dog, fairly quickly. Indeed, the whole painting took only three hours to complete. After returning to the studio, I spent about 15 minutes making a few minor alterations here and there before declaring the painting finished.
The finished painting. Thames Foreshore, Rotherhithe. Oil 9½” x 12”