I love a good tidy up – there’s nothing better than creating some order in the muddle that I make around me. And so it is with the way I paint: no matter what the medium is, my progress through the painting is a process of organisation. However, tidying up can become an obsession, and in painting the big idea can be lost through fiddling. Interesting areas of colour or texture can be lost in a moment.
Falling in love
When, after 25 years, I retired from teaching regular watercolour classes, I gave all my watercolours away and concentrated on mixed media, using acrylics in all sorts of forms together with drawing media. But you should never say ‘never’, and out of the blue I discovered some wonderful watercolours from Korea: bright jewel-like colours with a beautiful intensity. I fell in love with this medium all over again, discovering that all my years of painting in mixed media had destroyed any inhibitions I might once have had about giving watercolour a helping hand with things such as pastels, crayons, gouache and acrylic ink. In these paintings, I have used water-soluble pencils from Derwent called Inktense, which disperse beautifully when wetted giving rich saturated colour, leaving very little mark on the paper.
For me, watercolour has never been about colouring-in a drawing. It is about exploiting what this most difficult of mediums does best – flowing washes of colour that mix together, sorting themselves into what they want to say. Many a painting of mine has been started as one thing and ended up as another, the paint having decided on the subject matter. I have often compared watercolour to an unruly child: let it have its head first, then slowly bring it into line. You can’t control it, so work with it.
Much of this involves using the colours that the paint gives you by working in the spaces around objects, known as negative space. For some, this is a really difficult concept, but once mastered, paintings become cleaner and, because colour that is already on the paper is being used, overworking and mud are less likely. Paintings also have a greater cohesion because washes of the same colour run underneath several areas. This type of painting in watercolour is known as layering, and I compare it to a sculptor carving shapes from a block of stone, only in this case shapes are being carved out of paint on a piece of paper.
Firstly, I have a very clear idea of what my subject is going to be. Although I have often laid an underpainting just for the fun of it and then matched it to a subject, that approach is not for the fainthearted. Secondly, I use rag watercolour paper, which will allow me to paint more layers. Thirdly, I make the paper really wet, not just damp, and I lay a wet towel underneath, which means I can work for longer. The paper isn’t stretched, it is only attached to the board with two bulldog clips, which allows the fibres of the paper to breathe and flex as it is wetted, minimising cockling. I also make sure that I can pick the board up and move the paint around as desired.