I found a picture of Littlehampton marina / harbour at dusk that I’ve been mulling over for a week or so. I liked the view, but i didn’t like the idea of trying to paint it! The detailing and the amount of visual information and clutter in such a view is mind boggling.

I challenged myself to find an approach that I could make work. In my mind’s eye, what I liked the idea of is a painting that had really carefully constructed passages of quite flat washes such as the sky and the water, contrasting with a mass of freely painted boats, done in the most economical way possible.

I had done something not dissimilar in a sketchbook a year or so ago, a view of the Marina at Dieppe that I felt captured bustling boaty-ness of a marina but without getting fussy. I did however want this painting to have a little more balance between control and freedom.

Here’s how I got on:

Sketched out and first wash applied

I purposefully tried to keep the sketch simple to help avoid getting too caught up in any detail. I was a little disappointed that the first wash dried as light as it did, so thought I’d best do something about it.

Sky strengthened (and evened out) and the silhouette of the distant buildings

I was pleased with the strengthened sky, and also with the silhouette of the distant buildings. So far, I felt, not too bad!

beginning to add in the mass of boats

I started to add the boats, starting with the most distant. I was only indicating the boats with simple dashes of the brush, certainly nothing that you could discern as a boat. The plan was to give the boats in the foreground sufficient definition and information to make the sense of all the implied brushstrokes of the more distant boats.

First wash for the water

Before taking the boats any further, I thought I’d add in the water. This was done in one take, and then the odd reflection lifted out with a bit of kitchen towel. At first, I quite like this, and was impatient to move onto the masts of the boats, the verticals that I thought would break up the main horizontals.

Adding in the masts and rigging

As much as I enjoyed painting these, I was beginning to think that the sky and the water were out of kilter – the water too turquoise for the sky.

I applied another wash to try to deepen it, and also tried to add some indication of movement on the surface of the water. Sadly, neither of these interventions were particularly well executed and I was feeling increasingly despondent about this effort. I tried to cheer myself up by adding in the odd dash of colour in amongst the boats.

Another wash across the water

With nothing to lose, I put yet another wash over the water.

Calling it a day…

By this stage, I’d had quite enough of looking at this painting! After a short time, of looking at it, I wondered whether anything could be salvaged by exploring a few different crops.

Crop 1

I like elements of this crop, but I miss the hotch-potch of all the boats jostling about together in the marina.

Crop 2

I do prefer the balance of this crop to the full version, but the water still troubles me.

Crop 3

I think this final crop is probably my favourite. It has the least water in it, which I think you can probably tell by now, is my least favourite element. I think this crop focuses attention towards the mass of boats, the verticals of the masts and the sky.

This painting lay around for a while, taunting me with it’s not quite rightness! I decided that before I took the painting off its board, and with nothing to lose, I may as well just put a final wash over the water. Here’s what this final act of desperation looked like!

Littlehampton Marina, full size

I’m not sure that this is an improvement – it certainly doesn’t rescue the view, even when seen in my preferred narrow crop!

Littlehampton Marina, narrow crop

I do still like the idea of combining controlled areas with purposefully loose areas, even though this effort fell a long way wide of the mark that I’d hoped for!

I’ll chalk this one down to experience. Yes it’s frustrating, but now there’s a little more time and distance between me and this painting, I feel I can see the painting and my feelings about it, a little more objectively. I used to feel a similar sense of despondent frustration with almost every painting. Now it’s just with most of them. That’s progress!

Fortunately, a blank sheet of paper, some water, paints and a new beginning are never far away!

14 thoughts on “Littlehampton marina in watercolour, step by step

  1. A 100% successful painting. Most of the bits are successful because you like them and may enjoy trying them again in the future. The other bits succeeded in showing you what you may do differently another time. Who could ask for more? Thanks for the tour of your process and for your lovely painting, John.

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    1. Thank you very much Eileen for introducing such a positive point of view! I’ve never really considered any of my paintings as 100% successful but looking at them through this lens will make all of my paintings more successful! Thanks for taking the time to comment Eileen, I really appreciate it.

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  2. Lots of very nice things about this painting, John, even if it is a bit “Greetings from Littlehampton”. I particularly like the silhouetted buildings beyond the boats and the boats themselves are beautifully done, with just enough detail to convince us that there’s more there than actually meets the eye. I can even interpret a little bridgey thingy between the boats. Being pure and unsullied, I would, of course, have avoided the opaque white emulsion you have used for the masts but I have to confess that they’ve come out well despite the nasty taste they leave…
    Where we perhaps have a different mind-set is highlighted by your uncertainty about the colour and tone of the sea (and, to some extent, the sky). I imagine you chose the view because you liked the look of the sea in the photograph so wouldn’t you want to reproduce that effect in your painting rather than start trying to imagine what sea colour might match a certain sky colour? Anyway, that aside, all your seas are fine in their different ways. I, of course, prefer the earlier versions rather than the later ones, (which remind me of a chilly November dusk next to a freezing harbour). Give me the warmth and colourfulness of the earlier versions every time. I think you could have pulled your finger out over the reflections; perhaps that yellow wash could have come down into the water on the right to hint at a reflection of the sky light behind the buildings and, while I understand that the boat reflections don’t need to be precise, I think they’d have helped things to “pop” if you’d wiped a bit harder below the whiter bits – the sterns of the boats – rather than being quite so random. These, for what they are worth, are the little things I would be saying to myself if I had painted it… But, then again, I wouldn’t have been able to paint it as well as you have.

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    1. Thanks for this Rob. I think my travails with the sea started with the sky! The sky I ended up with was much darker in tone than the original photograph. My first take at the sea tried to match to the photograph more closely, but it then seemed out of kilter with the sky. I know that I’ll never convince you about the use of opaque white – but would it help at all to say that the paint I used was Titanium White watercolour, not white gouache? (I know I’m probably clutching at straws here but thought I’d give it a go!). I actually found it hard to resist not to use some of this in the reflections once I’d realised that I hadn’t made them strong enough in the first place! I’m pleased however that you didn’t find this effort as disappointing as I obviously did!

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    1. Thanks so much Luca – I really appreciate this. Sometimes I have mixed feelings about perseverance but I feel with my painting I’ve invested too much time, thought and energy to give up now! Really great to see that your blog is live now!

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  3. Sorry to say but I liked the first one most! Nothing wrong with he water being a little turqouisy where it is shallow and underlayed by the sand. In the last version it is too dark for my liking, this color of the water has a somehow depressing touch. But this is only imho. Still I like the overall composition and the last crop is making quite a difference to the focus.
    Thank you for sharing an letting us now about your thoughts – I Know this feeling of despair quite well 😉

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    1. Thanks so much for this Marita and I think I agree with you – the earlier version was better! I’m sure there’s a moral in this somewhere to do with the expression of knowing when to leave well alone – don’t mess about with something that doesn’t need messing about with! Ah well. We live and learn, and paint and learn! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment – I really appreciate it!

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