Part III: The viewpoint: Painting skies; painting from a window
To the average town dweller a monotonous vista of roofs and chimney-pots is often the only view to be obtained from most windows above street level. In looking down (which necessitates leaning out), front or back gardens generally meet the eye, which may be further enlivened by some passing traffic on the road; but for the most part such ‘bird’s eye’ aspects of the immediate vicinity can hardly be said to offer ready-made subjects for the amateur student.
And if I take the lot of those house-bound students who live in some built-up area first, it is because I remember very well sitting by the window in my London flat for weeks on end, bewailing the absence of a stimulating subject. No doubt my jaundiced eyes were dimmed by the monotony of a longish convalescence; certain it was that many days of frustration were passed before I began to see how I could make use of this humdrum view. When I began to see – yes, it was from the moment when I considered what I looked at – then the veil of my malaise was pierced, to reveal a series of possible studies that excited my interest to the point of convincing me that I should cease languishing after what was lacking and make use of what was there!
To capture the ever-changing pageant of an urban sky was the first challenge I accepted from a typical London cloud effect, which confronted my newly opened eyes. Here was a series without a doubt and one I felt I could well attempt from my window seat, which combined a commanding view with the added comfort of security from the elements. I could record both wind and rain and remain unruffled and dry, a great advantage over the outdoor sketcher! For many hours of many happy days I gave Nature chase, making rapid impressions of what was offered by sun and cloud, with the realisation that with every study completed (or discarded) I was learning a lot about the elements and their influence on the world beneath, my view being miraculously transformed by each fluctuating mood of Nature.
I executed as many as a dozen quarter-Imperials during the closing hours of a single day. In passing, I would warn the reader who intends to follow my example always to include a strip of horizon in his sketch; for without a hint of mother earth or architectural silhouette, his studies of sky and clouds will remain but sentences torn from their rightful context – airy fragments of little use as reference.
Although one hesitates to lay down any hard and fast rules for painting skies, I think it is more or less agreed that, if atmosphere and distance are to be achieved in water colour, the artist would be well advised to damp his paper first – but only that portion which the sky is to occupy. I say damp and not wet because, if the paper is wet, the washes of colour will at once become diluted and will not only lose their original intensity, but will overstep their boundaries, so that any desired definition of cloud forms will disappear into a mist of nebulous colour. A damp sponge passed lightly over the paper is all that is required.
Another rule that may safely be recommended is to use a really large brush for your sky washes and see that it is well loaded with colour. However expertly a smaller brush is manipulated, a certain streakiness will appear – the inevitable result of trying to make the colour go as far as possible before recharging the brush.
Skies should be floated on – not dragged across. It must be confessed that often a good sky effect is a matter of hit or miss, and the result is nearly always a compromise. After all, clouds are always moving, and if you pay too much attention to their actual shape, that portion will tend to look overworked; and when anything like repainting is attempted, atmosphere and distance – the very quality of remoteness at which you are aiming - are inevitably lost. Of course I am talking about painting skies from Nature, when speed is essential if you are to capture the impression. Indeed, it is because you have to work quickly and boldly that in the end you achieve a harmonious effect. And from long experience I know that it is fatal to attempt to rectify some fault in drawing or to subdue some colour accent; neither will it be anything like so noticeable when your painting is dry. All colours lose their first intensity when dry, so do not be frightened of mixing up stronger and more colour than you think is necessary, and applying it fearlessly with your longest brush!
Lastly, unless there is a storm brewing, you will find that your sky should be kept as light as possible near the horizon. Even when the sky is blue ‘all over’, a comparison between the sky overhead and that towards the horizon will show the difference in tint and tone. It is this very difference that helps to give the illusion of the dome of the sky, without which it will remain a stage backcloth.
In considering views from a window, a great deal depends on the size, height, and accessibility of the aperture; for like so many other ostensible vantage points, in practice it will be found that there are windows and windows! Some are too narrow, some too high in the wall: certainly the sash window, mostly found in towns, is more convenient than the lattice type to be met with in the country, especially if the latter be divided into leaded diamond panes! I have found the criss-cross pattern of these leaded lights a sore trial, only to be overcome by opening the window wide and sitting in a strong draught.
View from the Landing Window. Watercolour, 13” x 20”
Two versions of the country lane leading to the cottage where I was staying some years ago were obtained from two different windows on different floors. From the landing window, it was only by standing on a stool (on tip-toe) that I was able to obtain the view I wanted, and then my range was much restricted by the modest dimensions of my peep-hole. But being tied to the house, I was determined to circumvent the original architect’s craze for privacy, which presumably determined the exalted position and diminutive size of all his windows.
The Same View from the Sitting-room Window. Watercolour, 13” x 20”
Indeed, in my experience, it is rare to find a window which is neither too high, nor small, nor too barricaded with flowerpots and other window-sill bric-à-brac to permit an unrestricted view of what is outside. And if the scene is thus blocked, the obvious solution is to be found in making your picture out of these floral and domestic fortifications, always hoping that the result does not convey too strong a sensation of claustrophobia!
Modern art has shown us very clearly what can be done with flowers against a window and, may I add, flowers in many other places than on the conventional table-top (with the odd blossom languishing on the polished surface), such as on a stool, on the floor, or high up on a shelf. In painting flower studies it is worthwhile to give a little time to planning your subject.
The Kitchen Garden. Oil painting. 24” x 20”
Even when free of window-shelf embellishments, the painting from a window, especially in oils, presents other difficulties, which often need enterprise to overcome them. The reproduction in colour of a portion of our kitchen garden may appear to have been executed under normal conditions, but in actual fact it was painted in a somewhat unorthodox manner. The view was obtained from a small lattice window in an upstairs room, and if I mention the fact that the walls of our cottage are eighteen inches thick, it will be quite apparent to the reader, as it was to me, that this view was obtainable only by standing right up against the window sill, and the problem arose as to how I was to stand in front of my easel and still see what I wanted to paint! I tried placing my 24 in. x 20 in. canvas very precariously in an angle of the window, but this only blocked the light. I even tried putting the canvas flat on the window sill, but in this position I could not get back to see what I was painting. In the end I moved my sketching-easel as near to one corner of the window as possible, and, placing my palette on the sill, was free to move backwards and forwards – forwards to have a good look at the subject, and backwards to paint what I had seen, or remembered! Such a spasmodic method of work, necessitating a continual bodily switchback, proved a very trying and tiring exercise; but being tied to the house, I was determined to persevere. At no time was I able to compare my picture with the view, but at no time have I ever looked harder at my subject!
And while the story behind the picture may be more interesting than the picture itself, I was not ill pleased with the result when I found it had achieved a modest place on the line at the Royal Academy.