At the conclusion of my last article we were contemplating the more leisurely months of summer ahead of us. After the rather hectic spring days, the time is now near when we can look forward to at least four months of reasonable weather conditions and to being able to work with some degree of comfort.
We should take every opportunity during this time to make studied drawings and to take notes of many of the things which interest us. This should be done in addition to any watercolours we may make. The days will be long and, we hope, warm, and there should be time to do much solid work, learning as we draw and gaining experience of the medium as we paint.
At this stage it might be as well to discuss what we understand a watercolour to be. From the many examples one sees it is obvious that there are several schools of thought on the subject, and it is very right that this should be so. It makes for more interesting work and gives a variety of styles, each of which has its own merits.
To describe what I mean, perhaps I may give some examples, beginning with the watercolour drawing. Here we see a fairly carefully drawn composition where all form and many of the tonal values have been felt in the drawing and where colour has been added in washes, almost as afterthoughts as if to contribute additional interest or emphasis . Then at the other extreme there is what I call the 'Mud and Wattle School' (a term of endearment I assure you) where we can see the most exciting effects obtained by the combined use of watercolour, body colour, pen and pastel, all playing their part to add texture and atmosphere. The beauty of this style lies, I feel, in the air of freedom it can convey when well handled. Somewhere between these two styles is the pen and wash drawing, where the pen supplies only the necessary details and both media combine to give a vigorous looseness.
Now, whilst these styles interest and excite me, none is what I believe a watercolour to be. For me it is simply what the term implies, namely plenty of water and pure colour, where all drawing and sense of form and movement are obtained with the brush.
In order to achieve results by this method we shall certainly need to have a knowledge of drawing equal to that shown in a watercolour drawing, but at the same time the work must have a feeling of freedom which shall be limited only by the medium itself. You will find that if the paint is to be kept fresh and clean , there is a limit to which the medium can be pushed, and this fact has to be accepted. This is an important point. How then do we get over this difficulty? I believe the answer lies in a simplification and modification of the subject matter in order to bring it within the scope of the medium. And therein lies the charm of a pure watercolour, for, make no mistake, the moment we begin to elaborate or to stretch the medium into doing something more than it wants to do, we shall see much of this charm slipping away and once this has happened we are sunk Further work on a watercolour, unless in capable hands, will only endorse our failure. So I would beg my reader to bear in mind these pointsof limitation and simplification when looking for suitable subjects, for I feel they hold the key to a successful watercolour.
In the fullness of the summer we should find ample material on which to test-out this theory. The summer light will give us definite and well-lit planes with their correspondingly long shadows. Trees will be seen as masses in their full foliage, with the crops beneath standing full and firm and the hedges will be thick. All will seem solid and very permanent and should be conducive to some sound work. I have two complaints about this time of the year concerning the choice of suitable subjects. Firstly, everything is generally too green for my liking and this is an obstacle I am continually trying to overcome. And then, because of so much foliage and undergrowth it is some times difficult to find a subject where any distance is visible, and I do think that a distant vista, however slight, helps a composition.
The colour plate A Hampshire Farm (see below) is the type of summer subject I always enjoy - a farmland scene, set against big trees with a sky which seems to echo the shape of the trees below. I found this subject in the middle of the morning when the light usually remains constant for an hour or so. Occasionally the sun would be hidden by cloud , but this does not worry me unduly. I find that when it comes out again the lights, momentarily, are shown even more clearly, and I am able to check that I am conserving these precious passages.
In this case I started with a few pencil notes which would indicate the line of the field and the distance beyond, and followed up with the rough position of the trees and buildings, paying particular attention to the passages which would need to be left white. These included the low buildings in the centre, though much of these would ultimately receive some colour. I made no attempt to draw-in the cloud formation as I knew this would have changed by the time I was read y to tackle it.
With a large brush charged with diluted raw sienna, I now had to decide on my sky, but not having any drawing I was able to pop this in quite freely, and, adding a touch of vermilion, carried a broken wash down into the horizon. With the same colour I noted any lighter passages in the stream where the clouds would be reflected.
Returning to the top of the sky I now put in the blues, modified with black or Payne's grey where they were deepest, diluting as I went and giving the cloud formations some shape by skirting round them. This last mixture I took down towards the horizon, being careful to avoid the lights in the buildings. And so into the stream, taking care to make the tone deeper than the sky This wash would run into the lighter passages which were still damp, thus giving a limpid softness usually seen in slowly moving water. By now I could return to the still damp sky and, with cobalt, light red or vermilion, let in the shadows . At the same time, with a wet brush I could soften off the edges here and there, leaving a coarse one now and again to give shape and contrast.
As the sky was generally too damp to allow me to put in the trees, I next attended to the field. In the sunlight this was by no means an even green and I saw it rather as raw sienna modified and broken up by warm shadows and some highlights. These I was careful to preserve as they would help to convey the broken surface of a rough field. I also had to allow for the light on some of the foreground stakes. Next I needed to put in the distance, indicating the downs beyond the trees and the loose shapes behind the cottage buildings on the left.
I was now at the halfway stage and needed to leave things to dry out a bit before doing any more. A ten minute break , with a cigarette and a chat with some passer-by, I find is very helpful, as it gives a break mentally as well, and I find on returning to the scene of the crime that I am better able to sum up the situation and make more definite plans for the final stages.
Next came the trees. These needed to stand up against the sky and were laid in with ultramarine and raw sienna. where I wanted to indicate some form, a mixture of ultramarine and burnt sienna was let in to give the darker passages. With this same dark mixture the shadows on the field, and along the banks of the stream, were added; following this came the darker reflections.
By now I could tackle the tree branches and the stakes and stumps in the foreground. And as the field dried out I was able to apply the darks in the buildings. These were in burnt umber, modified with burnt sienna and blues. The lighter, warm colours were mainly of burnt sienna and gave a contrast to the greens around them. A little sharpening up along the bank and in the trunks of the tree seemed to pull the whole thing together.
On looking at the result of this exercise, I realize that its composition leaves much to be desired. The stream rather cuts across the foreground and the main buildings would have been better were they nearer the centre. However, as I wanted to stand in the shade it seemed the best natural composition I could get. You know, I often think a sketch such as this, despite its obvious imperfections, can have a charm about it which many a 'cooked-up' composition will lack. So, maybe after all it was better left just as you see it here.
Click here to see Edward Wesson's Watercolour through the Seasons: Spring
Click here to see Edward Wesson’s Watercolour through the Seasons, Autumn
Click here to see Edwards Wesson's Watercolour through the Seasons: Winter