The past week has been a little more emotional than most. Last Friday, the 16th of April marked the first anniversary of my mum’s passing and, on Monday the 19th, it would have been her 96th birthday so happy birthday mum. Quite naturally, it’s been a time of considerable reflection, both thinking about and celebrating mum’s life, but also acknowledging what a remarkable year it has been in so many ways.

This is the sketch of my mum’s kitchen window that I shared on Instagram to mark this most poignant of anniversaries.

I can’t help thinking that this emotional rollercoaster of a week has spilled over into my paintings – where I feel I’m on a similarly reflective little journey! I wonder if the following paintings illustrate this?

First up is painting based on a view from our trip to Porto a few years ago:

Pedestrian crossing, Porto

I was quite enjoying painting this, and even liked the way it was looking right up until the final stages of painting it!

The last elements that I added to this were the figures and the traffic lights – all of which I felt I made a bit of a hash of!

As I’d been having a nice time remembering Porto, I decided to stay there for my next effort. My reference for this was a really strong contre jour (into the light) image that made the view almost entirely monochrome. At the back of my mind was some of the recent workshops with Alvaro Castagnet and I was envisaging how this may look if I was to successfully employ some of what I’ve learnt.

Porto thoroughfare

I think the key phrase here was ‘successfully employ’! – something that I resolutely failed to do! Many of the colours are muddy, there’s little sense of depth or distance created any regression of tone, the cars – while obviously cars – are still pretty unconvincing and the energy that I hoped to create with my brushwork never really materialised!

Maybe it wasn’t me. Maybe it was Porto! Maybe I should try France!?

This painting was based on a photo I took a few years ago in small village, not far from our campsite in the Dordorgne.

French village

Now while there are some elements here that I quite like – such as the foreground of the bridge in shadow – there are plenty more that I really don’t like! As I was painting it, it had something of painting by numbers feel about it. This is the roof, paint it grey. This is the wall of the building, paint it a pinky ochre. Does this come across? I think this is partly because I was being very literal to the photograph, and the lighting on that particular occasion – which produced lots of very clear distinct colours and crisp lines and, in trying to remain loyal to the photo, this led me to really tighten up.

Pencil free watercolour painting

After my spring cleaning session the other week, I have lots of unsuccessful paintings that in the past I’ve just thrown out. This time however, I’ve kept every painting so that I can use the back of all my failures just for playing around with. The main aim of me playing around is just that, playing around. Trying things out, trying to keep my brush marks confident, loose and spontaneous. Here are some examples of what I’ve been doing in those snatched moments when there’s not enough time to ‘do a painting’, or even to sketch anything out, but there is a few minutes to have a quick mess around:

After my French ‘painting by numbers’ effort I felt as if I just wanted to throw off my shackles! I’d had enough of ‘filling in a drawing’ – and right now this just didn’t seem to be working for me. I’d been enjoying my messing about, but that’s exactly what it was, just messing about – little notations with no real context of any sort.

I wondered whether I could take my messing about to a slightly different level?

So, I selected an image and, with no sketching or preparatory drawing of any sort – started to apply paint to where I thought it should go! Here’s the first wash.

Sandstorm in a dessert perhaps?

As I hope you can see, even if you have no idea about this, there is at least some consideration and effort into what’s going on where. Once this was completely dry, I continued to try to make some sense of out it!

So there’s a lot here that I don’t like – but I can’t really say that I’m disappointed with it because it was so invigorating to paint this way! I was totally immersed in concentration as I painted this. Not having even the most basic of outline sketches meant that I had to really look, and to really consider what can be simplified, what’s essential, where will the point of focus be – what do I need to try to get right, and what can slide a little (or a lot in this case!)

Well, this led to another pencil free sketch – this one of Prague:

Sketch of Charles Bridge, Prague

And finally this one of a coffee shop:

Sunlit coffee shop

Even though I’ve got three pieces of paper newly stretched just waiting for me to get started – I think I’m going to stick with some of this seat of the pants sketching, at least for another few days or so! I won’t be selling my extensive collection of pencils just yet, but I feel that these loose sketches are a great and welcome antidote to any sense of painting by numbers!

I’m also struck by how much closer they are in energy and ‘feel’ to the sketch of mum’s kitchen window, which I for one think is probably a good thing!

18 thoughts on “Pencil free watercolour paintings

  1. You must be made of money John – not using the backs of the car crashes. I use them for all sorts from test strips to trial paintings to painting in acrylics over them, especially for life sessions – I have even sold paintings which were painted on the back of ones I didnt like. For a poor pensioner like me you cant afford to waste those opportunities.

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    1. Oh Jo, thank you so much for this! It arrived at the perfect time as I feel like I’m having a bit of a struggle with my painting at the moment so to receive such a wonderful comment really lifted my spirits! Thank you!

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      1. I’ve been thinking about what you said about stuggling with your painting and it surprises me so much. You are an incredibly skilled and gifted painter. I look at art all the time from a huge range of sources and your stuff stands out as some of the very very best. So don’t be downhearted about what you do – it’s amazing!

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      2. Oh Jo – thanks so much for this! I suppose that however good any of us are, we’re always looking at our own work and thinking how it could be done better. I know that I periodically go through phases where sometimes it feels like I’m totally on-fire and can do no wrong, while at other times it just feels a real slog! I really do appreciate your kind and supportive comments though – they mean a great deal – thank you!

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  2. I too had my ‘emotional crisis’ these past 2 weeks and it surely spoils painting…or it CAN inspire ti too. It did NOT inspire me this time and I still am struggling. That aside, I was impressed at how you’ve challenged yourself with this series and should, but won’t , comment on each one. I loved the Bridge in Prague for it’s freedom! Save the darned pencil ‘crutch’ and use them for pure drawing. When painting concentrating on the paint and what it alone can do if left to just do what WC can do alone! IT’s so wonderful when left without constant ‘controls’ just let it go! liked the Bridge in Prague for it’s FREEDOM! I know it rains a lot in Eng but the sun does shine too! Try making darks out of colors and not just various blacks; they get too depressing! All in all, I like to see how much you have ‘grown’ with these latest paintings!

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  3. Hi John,
    I have to disagree with you and say that I really like the figures in your Pedestrian crossing painting, but they do need grounding a bit I think. I also love your Mum’s kitchen sink and send you commiserations for the anniversary of her death. I absolutely love the top middle sketch with the couple round a table. That is a great way to go about a painting. Interesting to try painting without drawing…I tried it for a while and did find my concentration increased as I had to think a whole lot more when painting…a good thing, but my accuracy was poorer I thought. Good to experiment…always.
    Have a good week John,
    Warm wishes,
    Carole 😀

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    1. Thanks so much for this Carole. Painting without drawing does certainly focus the mind doesn’t it! I almost had a headache from concentrating so much on some of these! I think I’ll be okay with relatively simple scenes to carry on like this – but for anything more complex – I know that I’ll still want to have at least some guidelines mapped out, but hopefully they can just be the barest bones just so I know everything’s in roughly the right place and the perspectives are correct etc. Thanks so much Carole – hope the sun continues to shine for you this weekend!

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  4. I love your pencil free sketches John. they have life and energy. I do quite a bit of pencil free watercolour sketching and it’s a very liberating way to paint. I can also identify with your “painting by numbers” comments too – I feel like this sometimes when when I paint using a preliminary sketch – I call it “glorified colouring in”… !! Please do more “seat of the pants” watercolour sketching, you might be surprised at what creative, expressive talents it unleashes that have been hidden away inside you. Fine tune your technique a little and could it be possible that more of this style of painting might be accepted into some of the competitions you like to enter… who knows… ??

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    1. Hi Evelyn and thanks so much for such supportive and encouraging comments! Much appreciated! While I have been enjoying them, I don’t expect them to replace my any preliminary sketching out altogether – but hopefully I’ll feel a little less reliant on my any sketching out – especially if I get to the point where I’m increasingly confident with my painting and my ability to handle whatever comes my way! Enouraging stuff though so thanks very much!

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      1. I do agree with you John, I too still like to use a minimal pencil sketch sometimes because I’m not always confident that I can paint what I would like to without one….

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