When I turned professional my subject became the landscape and I knew I had to work in the field. Watercolour was the most practical medium and I strove for realism. In landscape the sky comes first, with washes of simple blues, keeping the white for clouds, or even lifting them out with a sponge. Depth is more of a challenge; skies can be vast yet to me the colour was undefinable at times and the depth unfathomable. I worked hard at creating skies of depth with the pure technique.
Clouds were not always white and cloud formations would change by the second throughout the day. I once used gouache but when you start to use body colour with watercolour you are into another area of technique. A sky of real substance is still a challenge to any watercolour painter.
Passing By, oil, (30.5x30.5cm)
Thinking like an oil painter
Working forwards from the furthest distance I would build my colour from light to dark in true watercolour fashion, trying to keep my highlights. In order to lighten an area as the light changed, I created a method of overlaying and weaving white and yellow acrylic body colour over my dark washes. When the acrylic was dry I could wash over with more watercolour, thus building up layer after layer. I had begun to think like an oil painter by adding light. I knew I could develop watercolour further but after 20 years I was searching for a deeper level.
I took a step back, thought, and switched completely to oil, and I was surprised how easily I was able to do this. It is, after all, only paint. I think I always had the mentality of an oil painter even when working in watercolour.
Through the Grass, oil, (30.5x30.5cm)
One early frosty morning I was caught by the wonderful arrangement of grasses in the foreground of this composition
The joys of working in oil
Working in oil allows me to paint pictures of greater depth. I am able to get nearer to the realisation of my vision. The beauty of oil is that it stays wet while working, thus allowing me to control colour blending; I still paint a sky first but I can work the cloud formations and of course I now use plenty of white. After years of having to leave the paper as my highlight I can now add pure white – joy of joys.
Now I can come back to a picture and pick up where I left off – it is wonderful to be able to work over a dry area or paint something out, correct or adjust. And I can have many works in progress at once, which maintains the creative flow. Oil paint is thick and sticky yet can be thinned, and so used as a glaze. When working the scent of English distilled turpentine now fills my studio and the fragrance is art itself.
My initial drawing. When making drawings I write thoughts, notes and often quite philosophical ideas. Here on the right-hand side are notes on colour, photography and pencil drawing, as well as possible titles for shows.
Landscape with Crows, oil, (30.5x30.5cm)
I had painted this scene before in watercolour and having also drawn it (above) I had a chance to go a little further with this oil painting.
Many artists use oil paint thickly and broadly but if you look at the Old Masters there are many examples of fine brushwork, particularly in the Dutch landscape artists of the 17th century. I use the finest 00 sable brush, which is fine enough to allow me to paint incredible detail using a mahl stick on large canvases.
Thoughts on materials
My gallery pointed out that if you are going to paint a picture of any significance you owe it to yourself, and more importantly your customer, to use the best materials. This applies to every aspect of your practice.
For a really serious watercolour painting I prefer St Cuthberts Mill’s Bockingford White 250lb (525gsm). This heavy paper will not cockle when really soaked. I have tried all sorts of amazing papers but always come back to this one.
When working in oil I stretch the canvas myself. Ready-made canvases are fine, but the wooden stretchers can warp if the canvas is large. I was also shocked to find that some of my stretchers had joins in the wood, and therefore an inherent weakness. It is so important to have the correct batons, especially for large canvases. I now use a 12oz heavy cotton canvas that I stretch and prime myself, enjoying the whole involvement with the work from start to finish.
Valley of the Rocks, watercolour, (53.5x66cm)
Very high up on a precarious ledge in this North Devon beauty spot, I could see nothing but the Atlantic all the way to America and a treacherous drop into the sea to my right.
I have always sized the canvas first with a rabbit skin glue size made and applied in a traditional way. I am still experimenting with various grounds and finding what suits you really is a matter of trial and error. It is important that the canvas is primed first, though there are always artists who defy all logic, such as Francis Bacon who used to love working directly on to raw canvas.
Primroses in Newbottle Wood, watercolour, (43x43cm)
These were painted en plein air, which was very difficult as I was on a sloping bank and kept falling backwards.
I do not use any gums or mediums in watercolour. I gave up using masking fluid very early on – if left on the paper for some time it is hard to remove and I have lost count of the number of brushes ruined by not washing the fluid out properly. It can be effective, though, if used sparingly.
For oils I love English distilled turpentine for thinning and glazing, and use general household turps for cleaning my brushes, though not for painting. I also have some Dutch sun-bleached linseed oil that will loosen up any oil paint that is drying out.
I always recommend the best quality sable brushes for watercolour work. I do use larger nylon flats for large washes as I tend to use these less often, and large sable brushes are so expensive. I use the same brushes for oil painting as I do for watercolour. People have been amazed to see me with my No.1 brush on a really large canvas, but I can achieve more detail in this way. I usually have four or five brushes in my hand, which I work with until they literally can’t hold the paint or their shape any more. If I put down a brush and then can’t find it, I am often not able to carry on until it is found.
Oak and Grasses, oil, (62x62cm)
The texture of the bark on the old oak and the way the light and colours presented themselves cried out to be painted.
I have refined my palette to the following: I prefer to mix my own greens and avoid viridian in my landscapes, though it is the most wonderful colour in its own right. I use very little red but when it is necessary for buildings will use cadmium red (hue) as a basic red. Again I love magenta and alizarin crimson as colours but unless I am doing a portrait will rarely use them.
I have experimented with just about every make of paint there is, and made the false economy of trying student colour. I notice the difference particularly in burnt sienna and the ochres and umbers, where the cheaper varieties tend to be bulked up with white. If you are serious about your art you should endeavour to use the best artist-quality colours. These inevitably cost more but the colour is rich and you can feel safe about their fastness.
For watercolour I have settled on Winsor & Newton Artists’ Watercolour 14ml tubes, and for oil the Daler-Rowney Georgian range in 225ml tubes.
Again, price varies according to quality and so it really depends on how much you want to spend, but I will always recommend using the best quality materials where possible.
I want to produce a lasting work, both in terms of imagery and craftsmanship. I love being an artist and this involves all aspects of art from history to how art is made. To me the whole process is entwined and it is heartening to feel that you might possibly have made something for posterity.
Read Martin's article on developing your drawing