How dark can you go in watercolour? This sketch was quite wishy-washy when I brought it home so I decided to add another layer of really dark washes to the background trees and the utility poles. Did I go to far? Maybe. But you don’t learn until you push it. And hopefully next time the result will be something in between the drab and the overly dramatic.
Painting the nude in watercolour is difficult. My paintings from last week’s life drawing studio were so unsuccessful (overworked and lifeless) that they ended up in the garbage, and instead I posted a three-minute pencil sketch. Today I went in with a different attitude. I will be happy if I get one thing right — a part of an arm or a leg, or a change in value or a cast shadow… The light in the painting studio is not ideal because it’s quite flat which makes it harder to show the volume in a figure (it’s much easier when parts of the body are lit, and others are in shadow.) But I did come home feeling that at least this week the legs had volume — in sharp contrast to last week’s legs which were shapeless and overworked. I think the trick for me is to touch the paper as little as possible with the brush, but that means getting the colour and tone right the first time.
There was a crowd at Sunday sketching with USk Montreal today, possibly the biggest ever (I think I say that every month so I guess we must be growing.) It’s hard to refuse the offer to sketch in a humid greenhouse on a brutally cold day. Sunlit, filled with tropical vegetation, fragrant with the scent of exotic flowers… it was like a mini-vacation in our own city. I sketched a row of pots near the window, and drew most of it with a contour pencil line, paying careful attention to the negative shapes of the leaves and then trying to vary the greens from warm to cool and blue to yellow in the vegetation.
I’ve been looking forward to writing a more detailed post about the colours on my palette after Parkablogs asked the question a few weeks ago. It’s grey and damp in Montreal (January thaw) so instead of getting out to sketch, I made a little schematic of what I am currently using.
This comes with a few disclaimers:
1: There are no rights and wrongs with colour. Colour choices can be very personal and different people have success with different pigments. For example, I rarely use Phthalo or Prussian blue because they just don’t work for me. Or rather I can’t make them work. Other people use them to great success. Have a look at how successful Alvaro Castagnet is with reds or Milind Mulick is with pale greens.
2. Value is more important than colour, so if you can get the right value with whatever colour you are using, you will have a higher success rate in your paintings and sketches.
3. I’m not someone who studies the chemical compounds of colours to analyze how they are made. If I like the colour and it works well in my paintings, then I stick with it, even though there may be plenty of alternates. If you, on the other hand, are interested in the science of watercolour pigments, the most valuable resource you can find online is handprint.com
Below is the list of the colours I am using these days and in case you want to know the brands there’s a photo of the tubes below. (Forgot to include the Daniel Smith Carbazole Violet in the photo.) Again, this is just my personal preference for the time being.
So let’s go over the colours one by one. Each one has a specific reason for being in the palette.
Azo yellow: transparent, cool, mixes well to make pale greens. And this from handprint.com: “is a very good “primary” yellow, leaning neither to red nor to green, with a bright, clear appearance.”
Gamboge: I like to have a cool and a warm yellow. This is the warm one.
Naples Yellow: very opaque, chalky yellow that is best used on its own rather than in mixes (turns them dull and milky). I love to use it as the warm tone in the sky close to the horizon line.
Pyrrol Orange: this is a transparent orange, one that I used a lot of recently in Costa Rica. It dilutes beautifully into a light salmon colour, is great in skin colour mixes and even works nicely for warmth in skies.
Azo Green: great for foliage because of the uniqueness of the green. Warm but not too pale.
Deep Sap Green: I have been searching for a deep, blueish green for a long time. This one works well for dark evergreen foliage in winter, especially mixed with Indanthrene or Alizarin.
Phthalo Green: Handprint.com describes this as the anchor green for many “convenience greens” (like the two I use above) so if you only have one green in your palette it should be this. Add a little yellow, you have spring green; add some burnt sienna to get a beautiful mid-green for trees. Just don’t use it on its own for foliage! There’s nothing in nature that looks like this.
Cobalt Teal: I’ve been looking for a good turqoise for a while. I used to use Manganese Blue but stopped because it was too runny. Beautiful to use for tropical seas, if you are lucky enough to be somewhere warm.
Cerulean Blue: for skies, greys, backgrounds. I only use Winsor Newton brand.
Cobalt Blue: wonderful in shadow areas, and of course for snow
Ultramarine Blue: great for making greys, especially mixed with Burnt Sienna
Indanthrene Blue: a fairly new addition to the palette for mixing darks
Carbazole Violet: another recent addition that makes beautiful shadow tints and rich darks
Permanent Alizarin Crimson: the cool red that is part of my favourite primary triad along with Azo Yellow and Ultramarine. If I could only bring three colours on an outing it would be these three
Organic Vermillion: another new addition to the palette to replace Cadmium Red, which I find too opaque
Burnt Sienna: This is in almost every sketch I do, but the only brand I use is Winsor Newton. I could do a whole post on this colour alone and all the great mixes you can make with it.
Burnt Umber: Mixed with Ultramarine, great for deep, rich darks
The palette I’m using these days is one generously given to me by someone who took my workshop in Seattle last summer. It’s a little bigger than the one I travelled with last summer, and I find it works well because it’s light and has a generous mixing area. If you use a plastic palette like this one, be sure to wipe down the mixing area with an abrasive cream cleanser to avoiding having your paint bead on the surface.
The current favourite brush is one I’ve had for a long time but only recently rediscovered. It’s a Raphael Petit Gris Pur mop brush. It holds lots of paint, has a great point and feels perfect in the hand. More about brushes in another post since this one is now rather long.
The warmer temperature today has softened everything. Turned the snow to slush and the ice to puddles. The same is true for the view from the window at school. Montreal looks soft and blurred. So what do you sketch when nothing is really clear? I struggled with this for a while before I tried to describe with a brush what I saw. The answer for me is to paint what you see, and if you can’t see much then that’s what you paint. So, the sky was first. I used a big mop brush to wet the top 3/4 of the paper and went in fast with colour. In this sketchbook the paper dries quickly and there are no second chances. After that I painted the big shape of the city with one wash that had some warm and some cool areas. When that dried, I added in some horizontal and vertical shapes, nothing too defined. Lastly I put in the bits of smoke from the industrial chimneys with some touches of Titanium White.
I used to be more fastidious about cleaning my palette but recently I’ve found that if I add some water to the dried sediment left from the last time I painted, I can get an interesting mix that I may want to use somewhere in my sketch. And since I often start by painting the sky, that mix makes some kind of warm or cool grey that might otherwise be hard to create from scratch. Today I painted out at Macdonald Farm in Ste. Anne de Bellevue. Those yellow buildings of the Poultry Complex have appeared often in my sketches but my favourite time to draw them is when they are half hidden in snow. Hope the chickens are keeping warm in there.
This is often true for drawing as well as painting: when you know your time is limited, you have more probability of getting the lines right. I don’t know why that is, but it’s often true. At least for me it is. This week at life drawing my quick poses were more successful than the long ones. Sometimes it just works out that way. What about you?