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Episode 1. 16th April, 2020

This is the first episode of Rob paints and I’m aware I haven’t yet explained who I am or what I am writing about but I do paint and I do it in watercolour and sometimes I draw, too. That’s what I’ll be talking about and, if you’re interested in either, then I hope you be interested to read this. It’s not written particularly for beginners or for experts and I hope you’ll be able to decide that I am neither as we go along.

It makes sense to start with a picture so here’s the one I finished yesterday:

Now you’ll have worked out a few things about me from this mainly, perhaps, that my style is not “impressionistic” and that I don’t like to simplify what I see too much! Anyway, I’ll leave you to work out the rest for yourself. For the moment I’ll just talk about the process of painting this picture.

I’ve got plenty of time at the moment because of The Lockdown so I may have spent longer on this than I normally would but, overall, it took about five days from first inspiration to completion. The “inspiration” was, as it always is with me, one of my own photographs stored on my computer. It’s a door to the recently restored Tithe Barn in a village called Landbeach near where I live (Cottenham outside Cambridge). It was in the process of restoration when I took the photo at the end of August last year (2019), hence the plastic sheeting on the roof; yes! that’s what it is at the top of the picture. I liked the textures in the picture and thought it might provide an interesting challenge but, as far as I’m concerned, a painting of a landscape or a townscape or an interior or whatever is not enough; there has to be something “going on” to make it a proper painting. (I should say I’m originally from Birmingham and as a child used to visit the Museum and Art Gallery there; in my memory, it was full of Pre-Rafaelite narrative paintings and I’ve recently realised that might have influenced my attitude to what a painting should be). Here’s the original photo (with some of the colour saturation upped a bit):

So how could I make it interesting? I often add a person doing something but felt it was tough enough already without adding portraiture to the mix. Maybe half a child sitting cross-legged but with their face and half their body off-stage to the right? Not very meaningful or amusing. Next I moved on to having an Amazon Prime box leaning against the doorstep. I liked the incongruity of that but my wife pointed out that nobody would buy it even though my teenage son liked the idea a lot. Jack the dog has already featured in a few paintings and I started ploughing through old photos stored on my computer for a picture of him with the right perspective i.e. looking down on him at two or three metres – not too rare, you’d think, if you notice how short his legs are.

The one I found had him looking up and seemed to fit the bill but what could I have him looking at? I’m afraid I went all predictable at this point and found a picture of a grey squirrel on line. I drew the dog, scanned it and then printed it out in a range of slightly different sizes, cut them out and chose the one that I felt was right. I didn’t want him looking up at the latch and lock; there was enough going on thereabouts already. So I tried him over to the left. There was nothing for the squirrel to stand on/hang from so I decided to shift the yellow bar to the left and turn it into a kind of trapeze. (It was actually screwed to the barn to hold the blue ropes over the roof but it wasn’t very windy so…). It somehow made sense to have the squirrel facing left as well so I reversed my drawing and scaled it to match the dog. Then I drew the whole thing out and started to paint.

I’ve been painting now for over 2 years and, during that time, I’ve worked out for myself how I like to render grass (and other foreground foliage). I know a lot of painters like to put it in with a few bold strokes but for me most of the interest is in the texture – the depths – of what’s going on in there.

My basic system is to delineate the lightest colour first, in this case the blades of grass and the leaves so I wash the whole area with the lightest tone I can see. I think I used Green Gold with Perylene Green – all my paints are Winsor and Newton Professional – and a lot of water. When dry I drew in the blades and leaves using Pebeo masking fluid and a dip pen. [Now I find a dip pen – of varying widths – much the best way to apply masking fluid – and I do apply a lot of masking fluid. It allows precise placement, thread-like whites against a dark background and it is so easy to clean the pen once dried; why would anyone use a brush?] Next is a wash of richer green i.e. the next darkest shade that I can see. Then add more masking fluid to leave less paper revealed for the next wash, which is darker still. I probably do this about 4 or 5 times – though here it was only 3 – the last “wash” being a pretty dark application of perylene green possibly with the addition of quinacridone magenta to make it even blacker. I realised the other day that masking fluid is best left on for about 3 hours but mine often stays on for a week or so! This time is was on for about three days because the grass foreground was the last area I finished off so that I could put a few blades over the dog’s hind legs and integrate him into the picture better. There’s quite a lot of white/pale revealed when the latex comes off which gives you the freedom to colour in with appropriate greens/yellows/browns to match the tone of the rest of the picture.

If there’s anyone reading, goodbye for now. Back soon.