Putting the information to work - the visual editor

A painting reflects the thought put into it even before a mark is made on the surface. With this in mind Anne Whalley urges us to allow our technical skills to serve rather than master our ideas.

Everyone reading this must at some time have experienced that shining moment when all goes right, when seemingly an outside force takes over and, almost despite oneself, things take shape. And later, when you look at what you did, you can only wonder at the result and the stranger within who was responsible. It is for these brief golden moments that artists live, and for this we are willing to endure rage and frustration and many failures, in the belief that the next one will be better.

Painting is indeed a hard master, but it also offers a splendid emotional outlet. For someone like myself, naturally somewhat inarticulate and preferring my own company for long stretches, it is a life-saver. There are times when alone on a hillside in the rain or by a sunlit flower that I am moved to tears or have to resort to hopping about with joy at seeing how wonderful the world is. I can’t put into words the glowing sense of wellbeing I experienced at these times. If I could, I would be a writer, not a painter. But all artists must feel something similar at times; why else would we go on? There are times, of course, when clutching at a flapping, sodden paper, with rain dripping dismally down one’s neck, a boring job in a heated office seems the nearest thing to heaven!

It must be clear by now that I get excited about the business of painting. The problems start when the moment comes to transfer this excitement from the on-the-spot sketch to the painting in the studio. I suspect that nowadays most people find more inspiration from Constable’s quick colour sketches on bits of brown paper than from the admittedly magnificent ‘studio works’ which resulted from them, but in which much of the immediacy is lost. The technically brilliant tour-de-force has little place in modern thinking. We look now for different values.

A painting reflects an attitude of mind – it happens the way it does as a direct result of the thinking behind it. If we accept this, it becomes evident that the real preparation occurs long before the physical start. This is particularly true of watercolour, where planning is essential. Mistakes can be rectified, it is true, but almost always at the cost of freshness, that squeaky-clean look which singles out the really good work. This I know to my cost, having all too frequently had to resort to the ‘sponge in the bath’ technique, while telling myself once again to switch on brain before picking up brush.

I am often asked “How long did it take to paint that picture?” For me, this is a completely irrelevant question. The time it takes is unimportant in judging the value of a painting. It may take an hour to get down a statement one has been thinking about for days or weeks, yet one may waste days struggling over an ill-conceived design which will never amount to much. It is in the thinking time when most of the real work is done. I go to bed planning my next painting and wake with the same problems. It is an obsessive and all-consuming occupation.

Easily forgotten

Fishermen’s Cottages. Pencil drawing, 26” x 21”. This lovely group of buildings lies at the end of a steep lane to the river bank – it was a glorious day in February and the lighting was perfect, slanting through the trees on the bank to touch the cottage roof and the pink rocks to the right.

After a day out sketching one comes home full of new ideas, eager to transform them into a more complete statement. Somehow one has to retain that initial feeling of discovery. One may have been fascinated by a strange light on a familiar scene or a combination of shadows and highlights flickering across a group under trees, or it might be the mysterious effect of sun through mist where indistinct colours and shapes are suffused to delicate tints of warm and cool. At the time the impact has been tremendous. Later, beset by problems of composition, colour mixing, perspective etc., this can so easily be forgotten. It is useful to make notes at the time, tell yourself what it was that excited you, state why you chose to record it in the first place.

I rarely attempt to copy exactly or in great detail from my sketch. I use it rather as a series of suggestions, altering where I feel necessary for the composition, while all the time keeping at the back of my mind concepts of the colours I will use and the tonal values.

Fishermen’s Cottages. Watercolour 26” x 21”. This scene made such a vivid impression that I had no difficulty in recall. I used alizarin, cobalt, lemon and peat brown ink.

I prefer to be as economical as possible in my use of lines when drawing up a painting – just enough to see where I’m going. Depending on the subject, I may only set the horizon and make a few marks to indicate the elements of the composition. What is important is that these marks should be accurate in placing, shape and size. They are the foundations upon which the painting will be built and there is no room for woolly thinking or hoping for the best. The concerns at this stage are largely abstract and have little to do with representation. Never be tempted to make marks which have no meaning just to fill a yawning gap. If it really needs to be filled and you don’t know what was there, go back and look. There is great logic in the way landscape exists, and understanding how the world works is something every artist should study and understand, so that in time one can construct believable, complex arrangements from memory and experience. If something looks awkward or uneasy, the chances are the drawing is at fault, not nature. Try turning the board upside down and consider the purely abstract situation.

Stages 1 to 5

Figure 1 Sketch for Mill Owner’s House making use of tone as well as line.

A painting concerned with buildings and architecture requires rather more detailed work. Figure 1 shows the sketch made of the Mill Owner’s House, making use of tone as well as line, and Figure 2 is the start of the painting with only the essential reminders marked. My feelings about this place was of a mellow, russet house nestling under a bank of trees just breaking into leaf, with a tracery of fine branches and shadows flickering across its surface.

Figure 2 The start of the painting with only the essential reminders marked.

I began by washing in a diluted mix of cerulean and cobalt for the sky, and while it was still wet, dropped in some pure lemon for the trees on the left, merging it with a mix of cobalt and light red for the bank on the right. As parts dried a little I pulled out the trunks of a few trees. It is useful to be able to work quite quickly at the early stages, having of course spent some time planning just what you intend to do.

Figure 3 Next the whole surface of the painting was worked over.

Next I worked over the whole surface of the paper, bringing everything to the same stage. The warm pink of the house is obviously the focal point and it was important to keep the colour clean and fresh (Figure 3). I used a number of different soft greens to enhance the glowing pink of the house. I then intensified the purply tones in the right-hand bank so as to define the pale trees in the foreground, and made use of shadows cast by unseen trees to suggest its shape. I clothed the dark pine with feathery green and worked on details of windows, eaves and the foreground grasses etc. (Figure 4)

Figure 4 At this stage I worked on the details which included the windows, eaves and foreground grasses.

Finally I used thick yellow acrylic for the daffodils, added some climbing ivy to the pale tree and lifted out some rather strident darks above the stream.

Figure 5 Mill Owner’s House. Watercolour, 20” x 27”. The completed painting.

Importance of colour

Waterside Cottages, Symi. A quick pen and wash sketch of a small place in Greece, done before breakfast, 17” x 12”.

It is colour that determines the mood of the painting. My first efforts were little more than monochrome and it wasn’t until I started to work around the shores of the Mediterranean that I began to gain confidence. I have never recovered from the impact of my first visit to Greece. The light, colour and warmth changed everything. Greece and subsequently Italy, Spain, France, Portugal and Yugoslavia revolutionised all my thinking, so that while form and tonal values are still the foundations upon which I build my work, colour is now of supreme importance and a joy for its own sake.

Friends in the olive grove. Watercolour 12” x 16”. In this painting of a group of my students resting at lunchtime in the shade at Assisi last year, Mary’s red hair was a gift!

The handling of colour demands its own discipline and restraint. At first I made the usual mistake of attempting to include all the colours I saw in front of me. Soon it became evident that the rules of selection and rejection applied as much to colour as to drawing. I now limit my palette to no more than four or five basic colours. This requires considerable thought on two counts. First, colour sets mood and atmosphere and conveys the emotional intent. Quiet and related colours and soft tints imbue a sense of tranquillity, stillness and mystery; clear, bright colours enliven the spirit.

Purely practical questions also have a place. It is necessary to know what will happen when one colour is mixed with another. For instance, a mix of ultramarine or cobalt with alizarin gives various pleasing, clean mauves and violets, but the same blues mixed with cadmium red result in a rather muddy brown. (This may, of course, be just what you wanted, but it is important to know what will happen or some nasty shocks can occur). The relative transparency and opacity of certain pigments can also be critical. Alizarin, aureolin, ultramarine, burnt sienna are all very transparent and allow for much use of the white paper. Cerulean, all the cadmiums and yellow ochre are much more opaque and this needs to be remembered.

Good quality

At this point I would like to stress most strongly the advisability of using good quality artists’ paints. The students’ grade, while somewhat cheaper, are loaded with chalk and have little in the way of glycerine or gum arabic to keep them moist. It is almost impossible to achieve richness and depth of tone or transparency with students’ colours.

There will be times when even the best watercolour paints prove incapable of giving the effect you want. Now is the time to consider introducing alternative media into your work. I am particularly interested in the use of coloured inks, mixing them with the watercolour to give brilliance or depth of tone with no loss of transparency. Inks can also give great subtlety of colour – my particular favourite is ‘peat brown’, a sort of purply brown which when used with ultramarine or raw sienna watercolour is most exciting.

There is another effective way of using ink with watercolour which involves dropping inks into very wet washes of paint. The ink reacts with the swirling wetness to produce wonderfully evocative growth suggesting scrub or hedgerows, and when nearly dry can be scored to reveal twigs or fences etc.. Another property of ink is its waterproof nature. Once it has dried on the paper it is there for ever more (apart from a pleasant tendency to fade slightly). Any subsequent work on top will not shift it, and while this can be a blight if its application was ill-considered, it can also be a boon in freeing one from worry that the underpainting may lift and muddy further work. Watered down inks used as glazes are great unifiers when colour has got out of hand.

As with all techniques, it requires practice and experiment to be used well, and its properties should not be allowed to dominate the painting or become an end in itself.

Restricted use

There are occasions when I find masking fluid solves the problem of pale details, but I am reluctant to overdo its use. This can happen all too easily and the painting ends up looking like a bad case of measles. To be effective its use should be restricted to the minimum and applied with a delicate touch. I use it for such things as reeds and grasses, and certain textures. Remember its use is going to show even after blending in, so don’t get too carried away.

Judicious use of gouache paint may make masking redundant. Designer white used in conjunction with watercolour is more sympathetic – look at Girtin’s white church steeples in his riverscapes of London, or Turner’s use of bodycolour in his landscapes. Where sponging or lifting are inappropriate the opacity of gouache may solve the problem. Then again it may be that pastel offers a better solution. Pastels work surprisingly well over watercolour, enabling brilliant touches of colour to be introduced where perhaps the watercolour has lost much of its purity. Work combining gouache, inks and pastel with watercolour can, by the widely differing properties of each medium, make possible great freedom and flexibility. Radical changes and modifications are possible at any stage of the work; colours can be altered and dark made light.

My eldest son, John, also an artist, uses a great array of media with confident abandon and to considerable effect. Being young and devoid of inhibitions, he delights in the freedom of expression it gives him and has scant respect for purists. I have been greatly encouraged to emulate him, albeit on a more reserved scale. Most of my work is still more or less watercolour with modifications, and while it is essential to have control over any medium one uses it should be remembered that while technique is the tool of every artist’s trade, once it is mastered it becomes the servant of ideas.