We recently had a delightful dining experience at somewhere called The Salt Box in Surrey. Rather than try to describe the entire experience, here’s a few lines from their website:

The Salt Box  is a celebration of seasonal food and open-fire cookery through the coming together of people beneath the trees, creating delicious food from nature’s humble ingredients. We celebrate locally sourced and wild ingredients through our wide range of courses and dining events, in the great outdoors surrounded by crackling fires.”

You can also get a flavor of the experience from The Salt Box on Instagram.

We had a brilliant long lunch sat beneath the open sided shelter while being cooked for on open fires. Naturally I took a few photos to record the occasion and thought it’d be an interesting challenge to try to capture the scene in watercolour.

This didn’t feel like a natural choice of subject for me but, in some ways it felt like another one of those rites of passage for a watercolour painter. I’ve seen and admired many paintings by the likes of Joseph Zbukvic and Alvaro Castagnet of busy restaurant kitchens, filled with smoke and steam, glinting pots and pans, chefs’ in their whites and blazing heat from the stoves.

This felt like my own personal nod in that direction:

Chef at work – The Salt Box

There’s something quite paradoxical about trying to depict fire in watercolour, so it’s perhaps not surprising that I found it quite tricky too! I tried to paint this as loosely as possible but I fear the experience may have burnt me as much as it looks like the chefs’ hands are being burnt. I can assure you that flambeed chefs’ fingers were not on the menu!

There are, however, some elements in this that I quite like; mainly those where the painting is quite simple and loose! I quite like the bucket for instance, and the old kettle. I also think that the roof of the building came out ok, with enough texture and variety to perhaps suggest some smoke swirling about. The hits of yellowy white in the roof are supposed to represent light bulbs that were strung randomly across the ceiling. They didn’t work out quite as I’d intended but we live and learn!

Putting the painting aside, we had a fabulous time at The Salt Box. The ethos, food, service, hospitality, and ambiance were all wonderful. If you’re within striking distance of Surrey and looking for something slightly different – I can highly recommend it!

16 thoughts on “Watercolour challenge: fire in watercolour

  1. I really like this one John! I feel the heat! I don’t know if I ever tried to paint fire and would not have thought that it is so hard? Guess I’ll have to otry now that it’s time for the fireplace again. You mention the bare bulbs overhead so want to remind you that it’s YOOUR PAINTING and YOU can choose what to paint and what to leave out! Just because it’s there is no reason you MUST paint it! As you’ve done them, I would have chosen to maybe put them more in a line rather than randomly spaced so that they read as lights; their randomness is confusing. Remember you are an ARTIST not a SLAVE! Good work here!

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    1. Hi Marge and thanks for this, glad you like it! As for the bulbs, same as for the fire – I saw them as a challenge and I actually liked the randomness of them! I suppose it’s the difference between leaving something out because I don’t feel able to paint it, or because I don’t feel it helps the composition. I wanted to keep them in for this as I think they helped to add some variety to the roof. Good luck with your painting of fires!

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  2. I’ve avoided figures in my own paintings, I’m always concerned they’ll look wrong somehow! Lack of confidence I expect. I find Alvaro’s and Joseph’s convincing in their styles (Joseph’s more so), and much copied, but I’ll have to find my own way. The figures in your painting are boldly handled, John, very “painterly” (though anatomically the foreground figure is perhaps less accurate…not sure that really matters in this case), I really appreciate how you have tackled a painting outside your comfort zone, the “right of passage” you described – it’ll stretch you and make you an even better painter (though as I’ve said before, you are already “there” for me!)

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    1. Hi Ray and many thanks for this. I think what comes across with both Alvaros figures and, perhaps even moreso with Joseph’s figures, is just how much time they spend sketching and observing figures. Any shorthand that they’ve developed comes from years of close observation and constant practice. I feel a lot of people, myself included, try to jump straight in to the short cuts! If it’s helpful, I’ve got a small selection of short YouTube videos that I’ve compiled that I’ve always found really helpful: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLdkXW072wqWCwGy2cVrWVyTLvSVUdghqx – I think a good rule of thumb to start with is to keep the figures smallish! For this painting, the figures are perhaps much larger and more dominant than I would usually have them! Many thanks Ray, all the best, John

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      1. That’s a useful set of videos John, thanks! My figure drawing (indeed all my drawing) abilities are good, and despite having such a long break from watercolour , I tried to still draw regularly…I consider it an essential skill for any artist. I agree that many people jump to shortcuts, and I think, “gimmicks”, to achieve a result rather than putting in the hours of practice needed. For my drawing practice I still use Bargue plates (and have been for years). In my experience though, via books, DVDs etc, watercolour education focuses on finished work rather than practice, so it’s hardly surprising that folk want to jump the practice and hence to use another’s shortcuts. Other artists can educate, but they can’t do the practice for you.

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      2. Hi Ray, glad you found that video collection useful (I should probably revisit it myself!). Great that you’ve been able to maintain your drawing and observation skills and embarrassed to have to admit that I had to look up ‘Bargue plates’ – I’d never heard of them before so thanks very much!

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    1. Hi Margaret and thanks so much for your kind words about the painting. Really pleased to have been able to introduce you to those artists too! (I’m booked on to a masterclass with Alvaro Castagnet next year – postponed from this year – which I’m really looking forward to!)

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