Posts Tagged ‘watercolour’

Two Birds in Watercolour

13/02/2021

A while back, I posted a step-by-step pen and ink drawing of a Northern Mockingbird. The post may be viewed here. Occasionally, I paint birds in watercolour, as well. I’ve done a few recently and I thought I’d show you a bit of my process.

Several years ago, I was teaching an en plein air watercolour class on the Toronto waterfront. It was during the month of June and the trees were alive with busy local nesting birds. At one point, I reached for my binoculars to check out the source of some particularly harsh squalling. It was a fledgling, a young bird that had only very recently left the nest. It was one of the ugliest creatures I’d ever seen and I didn’t know what species it was until a parent dropped by with a beakfull of nourishment for the hungry youngster. I won’t reveal the species right away. Let’s talk about my process.

I worked from my own photo back in the studio. I print both a colour and a black and white version. The black and white version helps me see and understand the values. I grid the colour version and then draw a rectangle of the exact same proportion on my paper. I used a small block of Arches, Hot Press, 140lb., watercolour paper. Using the grid, I draw the bird with a very light touch of a soft 2B pencil. The pencil lines are quite faint and hard to see but easy to clean up with an eraser. For the sake of this post, I strengthened the drawing so that it would be clearer.

Step One of Fledgling

So far, the first step is identical to what I did with my pen and ink drawing of the Northern Mockingbird. This is a watercolour, however. Step Two means it’s time to paint. I mix Burnt Sienna with Cobalt Blue in order to create a cool/neutral grey. In Step Two I painted a narrow range of values to show the darker areas of the bird and also to suggest texture.

Step Two of Fledgling

Local colour is introduced with Step Three. Our fledging is a fairly colourful creature. I ‘glaze’ thin washes of colour where needed.

Step Three of Fledgling

Step Four is really a series of steps as I continue to develop colour and value. I step back a lot and take short breaks. The stepbacks and breaks are just as important as touching the brush to the paper. Eventually, the painting is finished.

Step Four of Fledgling

By the way, I don’t use opaque white paint. I reserve the white of the paper. It’s challenging, especially when there are white areas on the bird. Can you guess the species? It’s a young Red-winged Blackbird.

I’ll show you one more bird painting while I have your attention. It’s another common urban bird and this time I’ll just show two steps. Here is the ‘monochromatic’ stage of this study of a House Sparrow. Again, I’ve used a few values at this point.

Study of House Sparrow

The House Sparrow is not a colourful bird, at all. I stuck with the combination of Burnt Sienna and Cobalt Blue for the entire painting. Also, I gradually darken these paintings as the ‘light to dark’ process is very forgiving. These paintings are quite small, only 4 by 5 inches or so. The image on your screen is probably larger than the actual watercolour study. I hope you find this approach useful for working from your own photographs. It’s just one way to do it as, of course, there are likely as many ways to paint birds as there are artists. If you’d like to view more of my bird studies, click here.

Winter Watercolour Classes at Arts on Adrian – Week Three!

11/03/2020

Cabinet of curios? Treasure Chest? Ye Olde Antique Shoppe? Whatever you want to call it, this still-life offered a variety of opportunities for the watercolour students.

The Sustained Saturday group was first up. I discussed the subtle colours of the still-life; earthy browns and varied greys. Brasses and coppers. I restricted myself to primary colours (yellow, red and blue) and used the three of them to mix all other hues. Why did I do that? Try it sometime. You’ll learn a lot about colour and your palette if you limit yourself to the primaries. Also, your colours will tend to harmonize more successfully when you employ less of them.

As usual, I urged the students to zoom in on an area of interest. I never suggest that they paint the entire still-life. As they work on their thumbnail compositional studies, I walk around the studio and offer my thoughts. The group enjoyed the still-life and their pleasure is evident in the day’s work.

Sustained Saturday Critique

My demonstration for the Tuesday class focused on the same ideas. I showed them the demo sheet from Saturday, as well.

The Tuesday afternoon group also responded enthusiastically to the subject matter. I’m amazed at what they can achieve in three short hours.

Tuesday Afternoon Critique

Currently, I’m planning spring classes and they’ll be posted on this blog in a few days. I’ll send out my usual email notification, too. Of course, the coronavirus may ultimately affect the spring schedule and I’ll address that when I promote the classes. In the meantime, wash your hands and stay well!

Interpret Your Photos in Watercolour at DVSA – Week Two!

17/01/2020

Last March, I offered a one-day workshop at the Arts on Adrian studio in Toronto. The theme was to better understand the process and potential pitfalls of working from photographs. The day went very well and I expanded it to a four-evening course and offered it this winter at Dundas Valley School of Art.

We started a week ago Wednesday. I didn’t post the first class because we spent a lot of time looking at a PowerPoint presentation that I’d prepared. First of all, I showed a selection of watercolours from masters of the medium that were all painted without the aid of photographs and, of course, they were quite impressive. Then, we looked at photos that I’d taken and some that were submitted by students. Our goal was to identify potential problems, elements in the photos that would not necessarily work in a painting. We also analyzed the photos in terms of composition, light and shadow and colour.

Our overall goal is to transform the photo reference into something special and not simply copy it verbatim. We began by creating a four-value study from a photo during the first class. This is one of my photos and it’s unremarkable although the subject has potential.

I started by selecting an area of the photo in a proportion of 3 x 4 units and drawing a grid over the selected area. I chose 3 x 4 because so many of our standard watercolour blocks and pads are 3 x 4 (9 x 12″, 12 x 16″, 18 x 24″).

Using the grid, I transferred the image to a watercolour sheet. The new image is larger than the gridded photo but it’s in the same proportion of 3 x 4. This small watercolour study is 6 x 8″. It was completed with four values. The lightest is the white of the paper. The light and dark middle tones and the dark tones were mixed with a combination of Burnt Sienna and Cobalt Blue.

Detail isn’t important in the study; simplification is the key. Four values create a strong pattern.

The students began their studies on the first evening but didn’t complete them. We continued with them during the second class. Click on the image to view a larger version of their studies.

Wednesday Critique

The students brought in their own photos for the second class and we had a thorough look at them. Each student picked one and started a four-value study. That experience will reward them with the next step which is a small watercolour painting in full colour.

We discussed a few other things on Wednesday such as mixing greens, browns and greys. Next week, I’ll catch you up with their paintings from their own photos. Also, I’ll be offering some more thoughts on how to effectively interpret your photos in watercolour.

Fall Wednesday Watercolour Class at DVSA – Week Seven!

16/11/2019

We had our first big snowfall earlier this week in southern Ontario. I thought this still-life might suggest warmer climes. Whether or not it did, the watercolour students at Dundas Valley School of Art enjoyed it. I didn’t do a demonstration on Wednesday evening. Instead, I reviewed the demos from the first six classes and discussed the elements of the still-life. This approach gave the students more painting time than usual and they responded very well.

Progress continues to be made. I stress that the whole painting be considered. All of the relationships within the frame of reference will affect the outcome. In particular, that means the backgrounds must be considered. On Wednesday, several different treatments of the background were implemented; warm colours, cool colours, light values, darker values, geometric, and graded washes. Which do you think work best?

As usual, click on the critique to view a larger version. Thanks for following!

Wednesday Critique

Fall Watercolour Classes at Arts on Adrian – Week Three!

13/11/2019

The rusty and dusty objects visited Arts on Adrian in Toronto last Saturday and yesterday. It’s a more complex arrangement than I’d used last week at Dundas Valley School of Art as the AonA students are quite experienced so I increased the challenge. Also, the Sustained Saturday group has a whole day to paint.

I suggested that the students zoom in on the still-life for several reasons. When you zoom in, the shapes get bigger within your frame of reference. The shapes can take on a somewhat more abstract quality, as well, especially when you crop them. Here’s an example:

With that in mind, I did a compositional sketch focusing on one area. I made a few alternations and I used a 3×4 format. Many watercolour blocks and sheets are 3×4 (12×16″, 18×24″, etc). Shouldn’t your compositional sketch be in the same format as your paper?

These weathered old things have a lot of texture so I discussed a few ways to create texture with watercolour. Soft-edge techniques can work. So can the use of other materials such as wax. I brought in some very cheap stiff bristle paint brushes and they work very well for creating texture with a drybrush approach.

I was pleased that the students enjoyed the still-life very much. They put that pleasure into their work and it really shows! Remember to click on a critique image to view a larger version.

Sustained Saturday Critique

Tuesday Critique

Fall Wednesday Watercolour at DVSA – Week Six!

11/11/2019

These rusty and dusty old cans were our subject matter last Wednesday at Dundas Valley School of Art. My demonstrations have been focused primarily on soft-edge techniques and brush-handling this term. I added a new wrinkle to the process on Wednesday evening.

I started the demo with a pencil drawing and then taped around it to create a composition. Next, I painted a very light and slightly varied wash across the whole image, using a mix of Cobalt Blue and Raw Sienna. When the wash was dry, I continued the painting and started with the bigger shapes, often touching in a new colour or value and letting it run a bit. Gradually, the image took shape as I continued to work with a ‘light to dark’ and ‘big to small’ process.

This demonstration took a while. The students watched the initial washes only before they got to work. I carried on with it as they painted. I’d do a step and hold it up to show them. After walking around the studio to give feedback, I’d do another step and so on. Once in a while, a sustained demo can be helpful but must be balanced with the student’s painting time.

The preliminary wash idea was new to most of the class but everyone tried it. In a way, it breaks the creative ice. All of the sheet is covered by paint right away even though it’s a light wash. The gritty old gas cans were the right subject, as well. It’s hard to get too precious as they’re so worn and they’re fun to draw.

Here’s the work! Click on the image to view a larger version.

Wednesday Critique

Fall Wednesday Watercolour Class at DVSA – Week Two!

12/10/2019

I was back at the Dundas Valley School of Art on Wednesday evening for our second class of the fall term. Last week, my demonstration/lesson focused on light and shadow and value. This time, I discussed basic soft-edge techniques and compared the results to a crisp-edge look. Many watercolourists combine soft and crisp edges. It’s the soft edges that require the most practice in order to gain fluency and control.

During the class, I showed the group some work by the great Spanish still-life painter, Luis Egidio Meléndez. Meléndez did many things well but it was his command of light and shadow that I drew to the attention of the students. His wonderful textures and rich colours are held together with a consistent light source, which lends a three-dimensional quality to the objects portrayed and creates a dramatic pattern of light and shadow throughout each image.

Luis Egidio Meléndez Spanish (1716-80)

Luis Egidio Meléndez Spanish (1716-80)

Only one of the students chose to adopt the very dark background favoured by Meléndez. Red was a popular option and why not? It complements green. See you next week!

Wednesday Critique

Fall Watercolour Classes at Arts on Adrian – Week One!

09/10/2019

My autumnal theme continued at Arts on Adrian in Toronto this week. I created a  challenging still-life of pumpkins, squashes and gourds with the backdrop of baskets and boxes. The first students to take it on were my Sustained Saturday group. It’s a full day of painting. The Tuesday afternoon students worked from the same still-life and I gave the same demonstration/lesson to both groups.

I also continued with the ‘back to basics’ lesson I offered to the Dundas Valley School of Art students last Wednesday evening. My focus again was light and shadow and how it can be used to create form and pattern in a painting. Observational painting and drawing is a balance between the visual and the rational, what we see and what we understand. Seeing light and shadow can be very difficult, even with a good lamp on the still-life. Squinting helps. Turning off other lights in the studio helps. Still, an understanding of how the objects receive the direct light from the lamp is crucial.

Imagine the circles in the upper row of my demonstration sheet as spherical objects, like oranges. The arrows indicate the light direction. In these cases, I’ve lit them from the upper right.  The direct light (paper-white) and the core shadow (blue-grey wash) meet at the cusp. Which ones feel right to you?

• The one on the left shows the cusp as a straight edge. That doesn’t make much sense on a curving surface. Also, the sphere is evenly divided between light and shadow. This creates symmetry and that usually makes an object look flat.
• Second from the left? The curve of the cusp is curving in the same direction as the bottom edge of the sphere and gives the light area the shape of a football. Doesn’t work for me.
• Third from the left? This sphere is lit, like the others, from the upper right and a little bit behind the sphere, which creates more shadow on the object. Backlit, essentially. Note that the curve of the cusp corresponds to the closest edge of the sphere! In this case, that’s the upper edge of the sphere. This makes sense to me.
• The final sphere is lit more from the front and the light area is larger than the shadow area. Again, the cusp curve is similar to the closest edge and, this time, it’s the lower edge of the object. It gets a check-mark, in my books.
• One last thought! Look again at the two spheres on the right with the check-marks. Note that the light on the backlit one is in the shape of a crescent. The shadow on the rightmost sphere is also in the shape of a crescent. These curving shapes help to describe the sphere.

Understanding light and shadow is a discipline. The great Italian Renaissance artists called it chiaroscuro. It takes thought and practice and it pays off. It worked for the Old Masters, didn’t it?

I didn’t insist that the students just do value studies. Earlier, I’d leafed through past demonstrations and showed them to both classes. There are many ways to skin a cat and these sheets show a few different options.

It wasn’t a bad way to kick off the season of still-life painting in the studio. As usual, the students applied themselves thoughtfully and here are the results. Click on these critique images to view larger versions.

Sustained Saturday Critique

Tuesday Critique

Grand Manan Island 2019 – Final Two Days!

27/08/2019

THURSDAY
Instructor: Don’t paint in the sun!
Students: Why are you painting in the sun?

Good question. We were at Ingall’s Head on Thursday and it was another brilliant day. I set up to demonstrate with a flat angled brush. I chose a spot where the students could enjoy the shade of a hauled-up fishing boat. And yes, I was in the sun. This allowed my washes to dry very quickly so I could work on the somewhat complicated subject rapidly. Of course, I faced the usual challenges and drawbacks of working in the sun. First of all, there is the issue of personal comfort. In addition to that, the bright sun dries the washes in your palette, necessitating constant re-mixing. It also bleaches the painting as you work so that your darks don’t look dark enough, compelling you to make them too dark in order to be able to see them.

The flat angled brush is fun to work with and a good way to free up your brush-handling. I always edit and simplify to some degree but with this sketch I eliminated an entire window. I did so to save time. The students are always itching to start painting.

What about those darks? I’m not immune to the problems of working in direct sunshine. My demonstration is on hot press paper, which made things even worse. It didn’t really absorb the paint and my washes dried even faster. Trouble ensued! After I’d stopped painting and the students got to work, I reworked the shed interior. It had been too dark and the shapes had been rough. My touchup adds interest to the dark interior.

Once again, there was a lot of variety in terms of painting subjects. Charming sheds, fishing boats, docks in various states of repair and the drydock, which is the only place on the island where the boats are guaranteed not to move up and down with the tides or suddenly depart on a fishing mission as the woeful painter ponders a partially finished watercolour of an uncooperative boat.

The air-conditioning and shade of our studio at the Grand Manan Art Gallery were very welcome at the end of the day. The gallery is one of the most important components of island cultural life. That’s Garrett Travis on the porch, this year’s summer student who is doing a great job of keeping things running smoothly.

Critique time!

Thursday Critique a

Thursday Critique b

FRIDAY
Grand Manan Island has a wealth of excellent painting spots. We had only five days together and it was up to me to choose a spot for our final day. Several of the students, in conversation over the course of the week, had indicated a desire to paint a lighthouse. The most famous and spectacular lighthouse on the island is the Swallowtail light. There are two prime viewpoints. One is from above the peninsula that hosts the light. The other is from Pettes’s Cove.

I demonstrated at the studio. First, I tackled the view from the cove. I started with wetting most of the sheet before touching in colour for the sky and water. This preliminary wash covered the entire sheet with the exception of the white area of the lighthouse, which I carefully avoided. I dried the sheet with the studio hairdryer and continued to add shapes, working ‘light to dark’ and ‘big to small’.

Watercolour demonstration by Barry Coombs

Next, I discussed the other view of the Swallowtail. As you can see, I kept it simple and focused on the relative values of the main shapes and colours.

Watercolour demonstration by Barry Coombs

Off we went! The students were free to choose their viewpoint. I visited back and forth as the day progressed.

Friday was a busy day. We wound up the painting portion with our usual critique at the studio.

Friday Critique a

Friday Critique b

After taking a few hours to refresh ourselves, we met once more at the Compass Rose Inn for a yummy Farewell Dinner. Following the meal, we re-arranged the tables and chairs for our Final Critique. Each student presented three paintings completed during the week and commented a bit on their experience. It’s always a rewarding way to wrap up our time together.

Time marches on, they say. It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve taught on Grand Manan Island for twenty-nine summers. I plan to be back for the thirtieth anniversary in 2020. Care to join us?

 

 

Watercolour Boot Camp at DVSA!

07/05/2019

The watercolour world is a very diverse one. Many watercolour teachers impart their personal ‘style’ and not necessarily the basics of the medium. Even those who teach beginners go about it in vastly different manners. Some use exercises out of how-to books. Some base their lessons on play and craft; using salt, saran wrap and credit cards. Is there a right or wrong way? Individual adult students may well respond to one approach with more enthusiasm and understanding than another. Is there a satisfying balance to strike? How much can a beginner learn in 20-30 hours?

I’ve always tried, as best I can, to teach the fundamentals of painting in watercolour. Over the years, I’ve taught a lot of dedicated beginner classes but almost all of my classes now are designed for the intermediate or more advanced student. Recently, I had an urge to return to the basics from my teaching point of view. I proposed a one-day workshop at the Dundas Valley School of Art and I was pleased that if filled up quickly. Last Thursday was the big day!

The workshop was designed for those with prior watercolour experience who hadn’t painted for a while and also students who felt they needed more training in the fundamentals. I promised a series of exercises based on the key traditional watercolour techniques which include brush-handling, mixing and applying even and graded washes, creating soft edges and more. Have you ever watched an entertaining watercolour demonstration video, tried to do it yourself and realized that a lot of very basic elements weren’t discussed. Why did you keep getting blossoms? Why did you have so much trouble mixing darks? Why did everything run together (but not in a good way)? What is perfectly obvious to the experienced artist/teacher is often neglected when delivering a lesson or demonstration.

I attempted to address those little things that can make a big difference. It won’t be possible to describe everything in this post but I’ll give you an overview of our day.

We started with a discussion about materials and mechanics. I had requested absorbent, cold press watercolour in the material list such as Arches or an equivalent. Not Canson or Strathmore. The paper had to be suitable for the techniques I’d be presenting. Mechanics is the term we use to describe how we organize our tools and materials and work space. I’m right-handed and my palette and water container and paper towel are on my right side. I can’t imagine having my water to my left, reaching and possibly dripping all over my painting as I go back and forth from the container to my palette. I see students do it, though. I see students who’ve formed a lot of bad habits and it holds them back.

Finally, we applied paint to paper. Our first goal was to create an even wash without streaks or blossoms and it takes practice and thought. Watercolour is a thinking medium that does not reward dabbling. It’s also much more physical than folks realize. How do those tiny grains of pigment and binder behave when mixed with water and touched to paper?

We practiced and kept it simple. On the first sheet, I also discussed  mixing greys and blacks with only primary colours. I don’t have grey or black in my palette. I mix them. As a matter of fact, we stuck to our primaries for most of the day and it’s the best way to learn about colour and the potential of your palette. I use Da Vinci paints and my primaries are Aureolin (Mixture), Rose Madder Quinacridone and Cobalt Blue. I also discussed brush-handling and lifting excess paint with a ‘thirsty’ brush. I pointed out a few ‘what not to dos’, as well.

Our next exercise involved creating a small painting based on my diagram and on even washes. The colour theme was cools and warms. We tried to paint even, unvaried washes in each shape and one shape wasn’t supposed to run into another. Kind of like a colouring book or stained glass window.

A real building block technique of watercolour painting is the soft edge that is created when wet touches wet. Wet in wet painting is often taught on a grand scale. The entire sheet is soaked first and colour is added into the water. I don’t start beginners off with that. We worked on a small scale and ‘injected’ darker colours and values into lighter areas, while wet. Again, it takes planning, practice and, very important, timing! The students made swatches on one side of their sheet and worked on a small image, based on rectangles, on the other side. They attempted a wet in wet, soft edge transition in each rectangle without letting the rectangles run into each other. Patience!

Later in the afternoon, I talked about mixing whites. I don’t have white, an opaque colour, in my palette. I use the white of the paper and very light tints on it to create cool and warm whites and off-whites.

Many aspiring watercolour painters hope to work ‘en plein air’ one day. With that in mind, I also discussed greens and how to mix a variety of greens starting with primary blue and yellow. It’s easy to start with a green right out of the tube like Pthalo but it’s important to know how to vary your greens. I have Pthalo Green in my palette and generally use it to add intensity to greens I’ve created from yellow and blue.

It was a long day and everyone applied themselves with energy and thoughtfulness. There was a nice buzz in the studio as we wrapped up, which was gratifying, and the feedback was good. Still, there were several things I didn’t touch on. We ran out of time and didn’t deal with graded washes over a larger area. Maybe, this fall I’ll have to offer a part two?