I am not a plein-air painter and so don’t usually complete paintings out of doors. Instead I like to make pencil, pen or quick watercolour sketches, which is sufficient to record the important elements and imprint the scene on my memory. In my studio, with everything to hand, I can experiment with the subject, perhaps developing it with abstract or imaginative elements. I start by gathering other material, much as an interior designer might create a mood board, with sketches, small watercolour experiments, photos on my laptop and perhaps taking a look at other work that I’ve done on the subject.
When working out a colour palette, a pair of complementary colours can be a good starting point and helps to keep it simple. In this painting the flower colours immediately suggested a colour scheme based around yellow and purple, a palette that also suggests early evening. This allowed me to avoid using too much green and to err instead towards yellowish, lime or cool, darker greens and to complement them with a spread of warm-to-cool as well as greyish purples. Part of the initial planning should be designing the tonal pattern for the composition. You can see that I kept the sky, distant trees and far edge of the meadow in soft tones, increasing the contrast a little in the middle distance. In the foreground the light and dark tones are notable, as are hard-edged marks and shapes, which all contribute to achieving a sense of depth in the painting.
Acrylic inks tend to be rich in pigment and a little goes a long way – just a few drops are needed during the mixing process. Bear in mind that some of the pigments, such as phthalo blue, are very powerful, and should be added one drop at a time to avoid overpowering a mixture. These inks normally come with a dropper, which is handy for both squeezing the ink directly into the washes or using it to sketch in grasses and stem shapes, for example. Sometimes I pour a small puddle of ink onto a flat ceramic palette (a plate would do) and then take up a small amount on the edge of a palette knife, which enables me to draw fine lines freely.
Combining acrylic ink into a wash also allows us to take advantage of the resist effects between the two media by using a ‘wash-off’ technique. This can produce interesting shapes and textures, as seen in stage one (below). You can achieve this by allowing the washes to partially dry – a hair dryer helps – but be careful not to dry it completely, as it is the still-wet parts of the wash that will wash off. This is an experimental process and so difficult to control, but it is possible to wash off just small parts of a painting if that is what is required. With a large area I like to take the painting outside and using either a large jug or a watering can, pour water over the areas where I want to see the texture emerge. This technique takes practice to master and the results can’t be easily predicted, which is the joy of it, of course. Two things that can go wrong: you dry the painting too much, so nothing washes off; you don’t dry it enough and risk the whole of your wash flowing away with the water. Trust me, I’ve been there! It is also worth bearing in mind that the paper is likely to become very wet and may need to dry overnight before continuing.
I use loose washes of colour and work standing at an adjustable easel – which is ideal as I can alter it quickly to any angle to allow very wet washes to pour down the paper and am also able to stem the flow, instantly. You can easily achieve the same effect by propping your board at an angle and be prepared to either tip it more acutely or lay it down flat if the paint is moving too quickly. Working as wet as this, a gun stapler can also come in very handy as the watercolour paper may cockle and the tape start to lift away from the board. If this begins to happen, staple at 2in intervals and the paper should dry flat. Stapling watercolour paper onto a board is a good alternative to using paper tape, particularly if you are using heavier paper.
The order of working in this painting was slightly unusual. In a watercolour landscape, the sky is usually painted first and then the work proceeds both from top to bottom and also from the distance towards the foreground. In this case I decided to reverse these two steps. This worked well for me, but if you decide not to wash off the painting, you could of course use the more conventional order.
The distant tree line was painted in while the sky wash was still wet; as there was a lot to be done at once it was important to be prepared, with all the paint mixed up and tools to hand. The sky wash had to absorb into the paper to just the right point, so that when I started to add the tree shapes, the paint didn’t shoot up into the sky. The paper was just moist enough for the edges of the tree shapes to remain soft. As I painted them I imagined groups of trees with uneven spacing, rather than single specimens, to avoid a hedge-like, uniform effect.
The bottom half of the painting is an impression of stems and leaves of the meadow plants, created with some graphic mark making; again, this is something that benefits from practice, especially when out in the field! Begin by drawing with the tip and side of the round brush, sometimes opening up shapes with a water sprayer; a sharpened stick dipped into paint is another good tool and finer lines and flicks can be added with a palette knife. Although not used here, ripped and scrunched or stretched pieces of cling film also create realistic shapes when pressed into a wet wash, and a sprinkling of table salt will also add texture.
As most of the stages of this painting were worked in very loose washes, the painting was frequently very wet and therefore overworking the surface was a real risk. The way to avoid this happening is to make sure that each stage is completely dry, using a hair dryer or leaving the painting overnight if necessary, before moving on. In the final stage of a painting, it’s often difficult to know when to stop, especially one like this where the foreground is quite busy. My guide on this is to listen to your inner voice: when your mind is posing the question ‘Is it finished?’ it is most probably time to put down the paint brush.
DEMONSTRATION Pikefish Meadow
My reference photograph
I mixed generous wells of colour to a runny, milky consistency, varying from yellow-green to blue-green,with a drop or two of lime green acrylic ink to the middle mixtures and phthalo blue to the darkest. With the board at a steep angle, I wet the paper unevenly, alternating the round and flat brush together with the water sprayer, using sweeping, horizontal and then vertical strokes. Paint, fluid enough to run down the paper, was added to the wet areas, working from light to dark; add water from a brush or help it down with the water sprayer as necessary. When partially dry, use the ‘wash-off’ technique and then allow it to dry completely.
The flower shapes were reserved with masking fluid. I used a rubber shaper for the larger shapes, pulling the points out of the knapweed flowers with a cocktail stick. Distant flowers were suggested by spattering masking fluid with a toothbrush and the edge of a palette knife used to draw in grasses and stems. Note that the grasses go up into the distant trees, which helps to link both areas together. I mixed a variety of soft purple greys, wet the sky down to the horizon with the round brush, leaving a few odd dry areas, and painted the sky wet-in-wet,suggesting clouds using the side of the brush. The wash was left to absorb until at the just-shiny stage while I mixed tree colours to a consistency slightly stronger than a wash and quickly painted in the tree line before the paper dried out. While the trees were still wet I used a cocktail stick to lightly sketch in some details of trunks and branches.
I mixed wells of watercolour, strengthened with drops of acrylic ink: a reddish and bluish purple and a range of greens and browns. With the board at an angle and a very light purple I began working across and down from the top left. From about the halfway point down I began some descriptive mark making – to do this the paint should be wet enough to flow down, creating stem shapes and to drip off the bottom of the painting. In one or two places I squeezed some burnt sienna acrylic ink from the dropper while the paint was still wet, then left it to dry.
Pikefish Meadow, watercolour and acrylic ink on Not paper, (50 x 50cm).
First, I protected the painting by covering the sky section down to the horizon with a strip of cellophane held in place with masking tape, but cling film would also do. The knapweed flower heads were painted using a tiny spray of water, then dropping colour into the spray; I used a cocktail stick to pull out the points of the petals. I painted the middles of the oxeye daisies then completed all other flowers, adding flicks with a little spray to open out the more distant ones. When the flowers were dry I added some grasses with the side of the palette knife. Finally, I brushed a small amount of light purple/grey paint quickly over the oxeye daisies with the side of the brush to add a little shadow.