I find the winter a very stimulating time of year.  I can only think it has to do with the drama in nature that is more evident at this season, I particularly like the low sun in early morning and evening which casts long shadows across fields and buildings.  Even without the sun, skies are usually dramatic and colourful.  Apart from the cold, it is a good season for painters to be out observing, sketching and painting.

To make it easier to paint outdoors in winter, some years ago I made a mini watercolour outfit that that is proving excellent for quick colour sketches.  It consists of a piece of 3mm plywood 8” x 8” with the tiny Winsor and Newton Bijou watercolour box glued on.  And at last I have found a use for the wonderful nylon film containers that I hate to throw away.  I have cut a round hole through the board just big enough to jam a film container through.  With its top on, it is waterproof, making the perfect water container. True they contain only a little water; after a couple of paintings it makes a pleasant light-brown wash.  However, I have always managed to find enough cleanish water from a puddle or stream to start afresh.  Also attached to the board, with a bulldog clip, is a 7” x 5” Bockingford 140lb ring-bound watercolour book.  I have cut the long handle off a number 12 Dalon brush which I keep in the watercolour box with the small sable which came with it.  And, as they say, there you have it, a small convenient painting outfit that can be taken everywhere.  The dearest item is the Bijou watercolour box, otherwise it is inexpensive and easy to make.

Well wrapped up against the cold, off I go with my mini kit to hunt for a suitable subject.  I am fortunate to live in the country, so I have only to cross the road to be in the fields, at the bottom of which is a delightful river lined with alder and willow trees, which make hundreds of possible subjects.

Travelling companion

I get a great deal of pleasure from producing these 7” x 5” paintings.  They are an excellent way of constantly observing what is going on in the countryside in winter.  If it is very cold, I often work from the comparative comfort of the car.  Again, the mini kit is so easy to use in any situation.  In fact, I keep it in the car in case I see something interesting while travelling.  Fotheringhay Church was painted on just one of these occasions when rounding a corner, this is what I saw.  The low morning sun cast long shadows across the road and fields.

Fotheringhay Church. Watercolour 5” x 7”

I drove forward until the distant church was framed between the stark winter tree and the mass of trees on the other side of the road. Because I want to work quickly on these occasions and cannot wait for washes to dry, I usually paint in a direct way.  That is starting anywhere on the white paper, not following my usual method of first flooding background washes of appropriate colours over the whole surface to establish the lightest tones.

In this case, I started by lightly drawing in with a 4B pencil the main shapes to establish their positions.  Next I mixed a wash for the church, mostly raw sienna.  Having painted the silhouette, I left that to dry and moved across to the trees on the left, picking up a little light red to add to the raw sienna.  I continued that wash across the road and into the fields, adding a hint of new gamboge.  Next I tackled the main tree.  I noticed that at the base of the trunk the foliage was slightly darker than the trunk.  Here was a chance to exaggerate the light and dark contrast.  The branches could be very dark against the light sky, so I mixed light red and French ultramarine to get an interesting dark.  I used the number 12 brush for as long as I could before resorting to the small sable, to avoid adding too much detail.  Next I added the pale sky, painting around the tree branches, church, etc. with a wash of ultramarine and raw sienna.  Finally the shadows were swept across the road, using a mix of French ultramarine and light red.  In fact the following four colours used in this small painting are ideal for winter landscapes – French ultramarine, light red, raw sienna and new gamboge.

Counter changes

Farm House.  Watercolour 5” x 7”

Farm House was drawn in with a fine point Edding waterproof pen before the same four colours were washed over it.  Although I have been fairly careful to depict the true colours, I have employed counter changes of light and dark wherever possible.  One end of the house wall is light, the other slightly darker, as is the roof but in reverse.  While you are painting, watch for chances to do this.  These subtle changes of tone can often make what may be an ordinary rather dull subject far more interesting.

Walberswick. Watercolour 5” x 7”

These small paintings take only a few minutes to do, but they are so valuable, if completed on the spot, for observing true effects of light and colour apart from being very pleasant memories.  They can also be repainted on a larger scale back in the studio.  Walberswick started out as a 7” x 5” on-the-spot mini, but I found it such an interesting subject that I could not resist repainting it in a larger size in the studio.  I stretched a half sheet of Saunders Waterford paper only a three-ply board, then using a limited palette of only three colours, French ultramarine, raw sienna, and light red, I was ready to start.

When working at this size, it is important to stand with the board at about a 10 degree angle and low enough so that when holding a large brush on the far end of the handle, the arm is almost straight and free to swing easily from the shoulder.  I lightly sketched in the main shapes with a soft pencil before starting on the sky.  After flooding on just water in the cloud areas I dipped the big mop brush in a pale wash of ultramarine blue and painted up to the wet paper areas letting the blue just break into damp paper in some parts.  Next, with a mix of ultramarine blue and light red I flooded in the cloud shadows.  I continued that wash down to the bottom of the paper, changing the colours where necessary.  Time for a cup of tea while that all dried.

Next came the middle tones, the distance and light areas of the foreground.  Finally the darkest areas and details like the windows, the man, and various posts.  After another cup of tea, I stood back and decided it needed some strength in the foreground, so taking the big brush with an ultramarine blue and light red wash, I added the shadow.

Again I found that the little mini painting done on the spot was certainly not a waste of time.  When I travel for personal holidays I now take only my mini kit and sketchbook, of course, it makes travelling so much easier not having to struggle with a heavy bag of equipment.  If you make yourself a ‘mini kit’ I hope you enjoy using it.