I recently came across a photograph of a view in Manchester that I saw almost instantly as a watercolour painting. This does happen every now and then but more often than not I have to look at a photo and try to work out how I would paint it, which is a much more conscious approach than intuitively seeing something as a painting.

That said, very little that follows from here on looks anything like what I ‘saw’ in my mind’s eye!

The view is a Manchester cityscape. What struck me about it was all the verticals of the various high rises. The view was largely monochromatic but there was colour, especially in the reflected windows. Following how effective last week’s use of a light colour under-wash, I thought a similar treatment might work here, over which I intended to apply the darker greys. I also was had it in mind to keep it loose. Here’s how I got on.

First wash, setting the scene
Second wash with the figures added
Figures strengthened, some details added

To be honest, as much as a liked painting this, there’s not much about it that I like!

This crop focuses in a little more on the areas that I feel best about, however even these areas leave me a bit cold! This wasn’t at all as I imagined it was going to be!

Cropping out the parts I like least…

I thought I’d try another version of this, but hopefully learning a little from my first effort. I felt clearer in my mind about what I trying to achieve. In my preparatory sketch, I reduced the size of the tram which gave greater emphasis to the scale and towering height of the surrounding buildings. I also reduced the line of continuous figures on the right hand side.

Tram, Manchester – morning photograph

Instead of laying a wash all over, I started at the top and gradually worked my way down the paper using different intensities of a mix of cobalt blue and light red. This was all done wet in wet, with a focus on developing the verticals but with soft edges.

It was only as I was doing this that I decided to restrict my colour palette to cobalt blue and light red, accepting that I would probably need to add a little touch of titanium white for some of the highlights.

Once the initial wash had dried, there was just the lightest touch of some dry brush strokes to suggest the odd bit of detail on the buildings, and adding in the figures.

Once these were in place, I added in the lamp-posts and the overhead tram wires – and put in the white highlights for the tram’s lights and tracks. What I liked about this is that it has a sense of suggestion and atmosphere.

Tram, Manchester – Afternoon photograph

It’s still not a complete painting, but I think it gives me something that I might pursue a little further on another occasion. The two photos shown above are of exactly the same painting. One photo taken in the morning, the other in the afternoon. The afternoon photo bears the closest colour resemblance to the original.

Hot on the heels of last week’s arrival of David Curtis’s ‘Personal view’ came John Yardley’s ‘Personal View’ from the same Atelier Series. I must confess that there’s a sparkling freshness to his paintings that I think is just wonderful.

John Yardley, A Personal View, Watercolour

Some readers may recall that some year’s ago I wrote about the pleasure I had of seeing John Yardley paint a demo painting, when I took the opportunity to personally express my admiration of his work and to thank him for being such an inspiration.

John Yardley’s approach is so very different to that of David Curtis. Rather than starting with an establishing wash, Yardley prefers to paint directly, getting the colour and tone correct first time with the barest minimum of layering or over painting. I love that when you understand this, you can begin to deconstruct how he may have created each of his paintings – one brushstroke at a time.

I’m really looking forward to spending some time with this book and, hopefully, gleaning some pearls of wisdom.

7 thoughts on “Manchester watercolour

  1. It’s a bright SUNNY Wed. Here in St. Louis but COLD! Well below freezing! I know for a fact that you DO have sunshine in England, I’ve seen it! I think John, that you’ve documented how well you do grey, now it’s time for some COLOUR as you spell it in the OLD country!
    I’ve finally found another painter whose work is so fresh and alive, watch HIM paint in real time on Utube! His name is Uffe Boesen, I’d guess Norwegian or Swedish. He has tons of paintings both landscapes and florals. To watch him paint and use his hands and arms is such amazing movements is wonderful and comes through in his works. Especially when doing florals. It’s really exciting! I have just painted or tried to, his florals, two paintings and the 2nd one is quite successful! His work, especially the florals will ‘blow your mind’! The magical way he handles colors breaks all the ‘do and never’ silly rules of those darned ‘purests’! I learned long ago, that viewers who can understand art only if it is photogrealist, have little or no imagination, have never studied art history and examined the reasons behind different kinds and styles of art and are, as a result, extremely narrow minded. Try watching some of the marvelous videos, again on Utube, of a lot of different artists; take David Hockney for example. The videos about him and his work are wonderful and explain so much! It’s not necessary to love everyone’s work but at least learn about them and why they see as they do. You’ll be a far more interesting and informed person. GB has some wonderful artists to explore rather than living in the 19th C and being afraid to try anything related to the 20th! Your fear shows in your paintings!
    It’s off to the doctor’s now for new allergy testing…ugh!
    My son arrives later today for 5 days to help celebrate my 89th birthday on Friday!… so no more painting for now! Marge

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    1. Many thanks Margery and, if I may, I’d like to take this slightly early opportunity to wish you a very happy birthday on Friday – I hope you have a lovely time surrounded by friends and family! I’ll have a look at Uffe Boesen when I have a moment so thanks for the tip. I’m super familiar with the genius of Hockney’s work. I went to his retrospective at the Tate Gallery the other year, when I realised that he’s probably been the most consistent artist that I’ve been aware of throughout my life! As for some more colour, I’m sure it will come in it’s own good time Margery so I hope you’ll stay tuned! Thanks so much and I hope you enjoy your rest from painting and your birthday celebrations!

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  2. As a Walter Langley fan, you can probably guess my reaction to these sketches! I’d love to see the photos you work from, John. Are you sure this one wasn’t in Pyongyang? Seriously, though, it does indeed capture a certain (extreme) atmosphere very well but, to my taste, it needs that bit of colour on the tram just to pull us back from the cliff edge. Taking everything into account I think I prefer the second version as a composition but there are definitely features of the first that I like: the colour of the tram. the more definite treatment of the wiring network, the extra detail which gives the buildings some kind of identity, the fact that the people have faces – if not feet. I’m worried, however, that the tallest building looks a little unstable while the tram has been straightened up from jauntiness of the first effort. I like the feeling in the first that everything is very regimented and square apart from the yellow tilting flash in the middle. You were right to remove the queue from the pavement, however. Much better. (By the way, doesn’t your photo viewing program have a “neutral tone picker” or “white balance” thingy to make your morning picture and afternoon picture identical?)

    Anyone reading this might think I’m a negative sort of person but, as you know, I’m just trying to add to the amount of sunshine in the world – just like John Yardley. His only problem is that he always seems to be looking straight into it, which can be a bit of a strain on the old eyes after a while.

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    1. Thanks Rob, I always enjoy your informed and constructive comments! I knew that these paintings wouldn’t be to many people’s taste! To be honest, there’s only a few parts of them that are to my taste!
      I don’t share the source photo, even when they’re mine. This is mainly because I want the painting to work on it’s own, and not become a comparison of how much it does or doesn’t look like the original photo – which I think should always be a jumping off point rather than a destination in itself. In this case however, and as you’ve requested it, I’m going to rather nervously and reluctantly make an exception! The photo accompanied this news article: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/07/manifesto-for-the-north-message-positive-change-election

      I’ve stopped looking at these two paintings now, but my recollection of the second one is that it looked like an early set design sketch for Ridley Scott’s first Blade Runner film! While I think there was a unity from the use of only light red and cobalt blue, on reflection I didn’t utilise the extremes – say of just using light red to indicate faces, or cobalt blue for a jacket here or there. I’m glad you prefer the composition of the second one as I think if I do another version of this, it’ll be based on that composition.
      There’s no point me trying to imagine how John Yardley or Walter Langley would approach this one! I’ll have to either figure it out for myself or just move on!
      Thanks again Rob

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      1. It wasn’t really a request to see the photo but thanks for your bravery and it turns out to be very interesting. I’d never have seen its potential – and it’s not fish-wifey enough for Langley – but you’ve used it very well. Interesting to see how you’re closer to it in the earlier version and move to a starker view the second time around. As you say, you’ve used it as a jumping off point. I’m much more literal, as you know. To quote Yardley (p.68), “I lack the confidence to paint what I haven’t seen with my own eyes. Instead I paint what I see.”

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      2. haha, thanks for this Rob! I haven’t read that particular page yet but my gut response is that ‘I lack the skill to paint what I see with my own eyes. Instead I let my imagination lead the way’

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