As much as I love painting in watercolour – that doesn’t mean it’s something that I find easy or always relaxing. Some paintings come together with an effortlessness that seems to confirm how far you’ve come in your painting. Others, however, are much more of a struggle – as if serving to remind you of how far you’ve still got to go!

This week’s effort was definitely one of the latter. Now that there’s a bit of space between my working on this week’s picture and actually writing about it, I’m actually beginning to enjoy this painting. As I was painting it, I felt like I was in the eye of a storm! There were so many twists and turns along the way that I started this post off with over 20 work in progress images from trying to catalogue each stage of the painting’s progress. You’ll be glad to know that I managed to edit these down to what I hope covers the key stages, in between which there was a tremendous amount of general fiddling about, glazing, lifting off, darkening, some more fiddling, then another bit of glazing. It just went on and on!

I’ll try to spare you the gory details in favour of brevity and also not wishing to revisit the angst!

First up, the outline sketch. I spent a bit of time on this because I felt that perspectives on the boats needed to be as accurate as I could make them, otherwise it might stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.


One of the things I wanted to learn from last week’s painting, was to go strong enough with the first sky wash so that would need to put another wash in over the top.  Here’s the sky wash (and please excuse the cockling of the paper, I was far too impatient to let this dry completely before getting on with the next stage!

And then came the foreground. Again, learning from last week, I tried to get a little more variety into the foreground at the outset,in this instance dropping in a lot more colour into the wash while it was wet and letting it all run together.

By the time this had dried, it was apparent that the sky would need another coat of paint! This was to add a little more intensity to the blue on the left, but also to make transitioning light in the sky better.

While the second sky wash was drying, I tried to put in some dark, bold shadows into the foreground. I tried this last week, instantly got cold feet and ended up blending the dark shadows across the foreground which did give it some extra texture. In a case of history repeating itself, I did exactly the same again this week!  Here’s how it looked after I’d got cold feet once again!

Having so far been frustrated by the sky and the foreground – and don’t get me started on the sliver of the sea!  (this went through so many variations!) – I was impatient to get on and paint the boats.

The boats took a look more work than I’d anticipated! I was trying to keep a sense of colour and the strength of tone. As I strengthened one area, then another looked too weak.This cycle of gradually building up the tone and colour went on for what seemed like an eternity!

Again, feeling impatient, I jumped ahead of myself to put in the main shadow, which then gave me the confidence to put in the other dark shadows on the beach that also help lead the eye towards the boat. The ruts in the pebbles are caused by the ski’s of the boats as they’re dragged up and down the beach.

Once that we dry, the beach looked too bright and warm, so I put a cool bluey glaze over the beach which got lighter and lighter towards the horizon line. At this stage, it finally felt as if the painting was coming together and that it might not be an entire disaster!

Next up was a lot more time spent on the boats, strengthening (yet again!) the hulls and adding in all of the details of the boats’ structures.This did involve a lot of backwards and forwards-ing but at least now I felt that the painting was mine to ruin! Oh, the last bit of masking fluid to come off was at the bottom left-hand corner, where I was trying to convey a jumble of bright green nylon netting.

Eventually, and after much more fiddling about than I care to admit to, I decided that enough was enough. As I say, with a bit more distance between the final painting and the frustrations I experienced painting it, I’m increasingly coming to like this painting which I think has a strong presence. I particularly like the composition, looking up at the boats from this angle and seeing them silhouetted against a setting sun makes them look quite monumental and heroic.

Boats at sunset, Hastings, a watercolour painting by artist John Haywood
Boats at sunset, Hastings

While this isn’t the end of my Hastings boats, I definitely want whatever I do next to be painted with a greater sense of freedom, and hopefully to actually feel like it’s more fun to paint!

20 thoughts on “Watercolour struggle

  1. Hi John! Thanks so much for sharing this progression. I find it very helpful! Uncontent with the way I’ve been working and wanting to become more loose, I am currently feeling ‘lost’! I’ve told I’m my harshest critic but unless I am, no progress is being made, or at least that’s how I feel. I agree with Rob Ellis’ critique; the shadow is the first thing I SEE…it’s so strong, solid and dark! It has no transparency nor does it ‘ride with the waves’ of the ground beneath! I also feel the furrows are too dark too? I am, or was tillI got too old, a boater. I love how well you got the hull shapes, love the ‘tumble home’ at the stern of the boat to the right! I have always felt that if you are going to paint boats, you MUST understand their correct shapes! You must understand them…or paint something else. They are tricky indeed, and you did well!

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    1. Sorry to hear that you’re feeling a bit ‘lost’ in your painting at the moment Margery! I don’t have much scientifically proven advice, but don’t be so hard on yourself that you stop painting! Maybe change things around a bit – do more short time limited sketches, work in just one or two colours, try the same scene a few times and try counting your brush strokes to see how few you can capture it in – basically, have a play around and to take the pressure off ‘the painting’. As for your critique, as with Rob, all fair comments about the shadows! They did start off with more transparency but it looked a little too weak for the strength of the sun so as I darkened it, it also lost it’s transparency. Aside from these points, I really appreciate your positive comments, all the more so as they’re from a boater!! Many thanks Margery, and I hope you find your way again soon!

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  2. PAinting boats close up generally does entail detail. The only way around that I know it is to push them back and place them into the sun and then hint at the shapes. Then perhaps put a figure or two into the foreground. I’ve been there myself many times.

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    1. Hi Graham and thanks for this. I think it partly highlights the drawback of painting from photos. The thinks that interested me most in this image was the shapes of the boats and the shadow that held everything together. Because I had photo to work from, and time, I found myself zooming in to understand certain parts of it a bit more, and before I knew it I was getting sucked into focussing more on those details than on the shapes that I think really make it. Perhaps I should try it again but with strict time limit!?

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  3. Wonderful you showing us your process John, I’d be very happy to see a painting like this – I used to paint boat hulls and have seen many boats in this pose.

    I enjoy the hints of back and forth reflection between the hulls; maybe I’m seeing something that’s not there, but that space seems to be activated.

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    1. Hi Nigel and thanks much for this, so pleased you like the progress shots and description and the final painting! Great to hear too that you used to paint boat hulls? I don’t doubt that it’s hard work but perhaps also a meditative element about it too? I know painting a boat in water is showing it in its natural habitat, but I think that I find the shape of boats when when they’re out of the water much more interesting and dynamic! Many thanks for taking the time to comment Nigel, much appreciated!

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  4. I write more than I paint, but the process is very much the same struggle to arrive at that “done” moment. Painting provides relief (sort of) from the intenseness of writing. Thanks for this week’s show and tell!

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    1. Hi Carol and thanks for this. I imagine the struggle is similar – but I think so much about writing is purely ‘internal’ – so I can imagine that intensity that you mention, and I really don’t envy you it, I don’t think I could cope with it! Glad you liked the post, and good luck with the writing!

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  5. Exactly, John! You’ve taken my own angst from my
    latest Watercolour “garden party” and claimed it
    for you own. Happiness is in the sharing!

    Love the boats. Appreciate the blowXblow. Second time around is a winner!!! You are most welcome….praise, indeed, is warranted!!!

    My own second attempt has grown from 12×16 to an
    overwhelming 18×24 (inches). How confident am I that bi
    larger is going to be better? Not at all…but the coward in me is jumping feet first into the fire! Will keep you posted…

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    1. Hi Raye and thanks so much for this – there’s comfort to be had in knowing that we’re none of us alone in our struggles! I admire what you’re doing by going larger – and the attitude with which you’re doing it! I look forward to hearing about how it goes!

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  6. John, this post couldn’t have come at a better time. I too am struggling with my very own “boat scene”. In my case, it’s disproportionate cows that are mocking me while standing on an overworked meadow. My dreaded pièce de résistance has always been flat green grass. Now that that’s out of the way: Let me tell you that I very much enjoy watching your artistic journey. And in this case, I feel you are being a bit too hard on yourself. I guess the tricky part of painting boat scenes is that architectural elements have to blend in with nature (otherwise they might look like cutouts). As you’ve mentioned, getting the perspective wrong in man-made objects can ruin a watercolor in no time. Then again, painting nature demands different brushstrokes… That’s how I see the struggle of combining those two elements, if that makes any sense. My husband’s mantra is to not give up when things get tough because that’s when personal growth happens. With that in mind, let’s paint some more!

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    1. Thanks so much for these comments, I really appreaciate them. I think as painters there’s a whole host of bête noires – (I’m with you on the flat green grass!). I’ve got loads, people, urban scenes, trees, breaking waves, animals… the list goes on and on! I admire you tackling cows when they’re such a dominant part of the composition! I think there are some wonderful qualities in your painting so I hope you’ll heed your own advice and not be hard on yourself! I also agree with your husband’s mantra about personal growth coming from when we’re most challenged – so yes, let’s paint some more!

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  7. A really successful picture, John, and so pleased to hear it didn’t come too easily. Personally, I’ve found that the ones that “come together with an effortlessness that seems to confirm how far you’ve come in your painting” are a lot less satisfying in the long run than those that are “much more of a struggle”. After all, if you can do something without really trying – e.g. drive a car – you’re likely to start finding it all a bit of a chore. It’s great to see you pushing yourself beyond complacency like this.
    As you know, I don’t like to criticise but here are one or two minor points that struck me on first viewing. DO NOT FEEL OBLIGED TO ANSWER THEM. They are just the things that would run through MY mind if I had done this painting and we definitely don’t have the same painting aims so they may not seem relevant to you:
    1. Your boat shadows, beautiful as they are, could be used to give the beach a bit of shape; the shadow edge could follow those ruts in the shingle.
    2. Is there any transparency/reflectance visible in those cabin windows; their opacity makes them look a little like model boats for me.
    3. I would have gone to town on texture in the foreground netting etc. by building up lines of masking fluid followed by ever darker washes. Of course, the bottom left-hand corner may not be the ideal location of a centre of interest but there you are….
    Great composition, really convincing drawing, superb handling of light and shadow – l love the colours on the shady sides of the boats – seamless sky, ideal viewpoint, and a great atmosphere of sun and sea and flies. No seagulls????

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    1. Hi Rob and thanks so much for this. I also can’t resist responding to the things that went through your mind on seeing this!
      1. You’re quite right! I painted the boat shadows first (before the furrows in the pebbles) and my plan had been to paint that edge with a swift and energetic brush stroke that would leave a more broken edge. I did achieve this with the first wash, but ended up having to strengthen it an lost the variety of the edge. With the benefit of hindsight – and your comments – I should have reworked that edge so show the texture of beach!
      2. No, there isn’t any transparency on those windows! I agree that they’re a bit flat and odd looking. They started off looking okay, but as I had to keep darkening that side of the boat, they lost what little sense of ‘glass’ that they had!
      3. I know what you mean, but I wanted to keep the treatment of some areas loose in order to balance the tightness of the boats and I thought that trying to go to town on a pile of fishing nets could lead me down a rabbit warren of painting frustration!
      Really pleased you like some of the other elements though and, oddly enough, there weren’t any seagulls at that point in the day? (just as well really as I really don’t feel confident about painting them!)

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