D.Morrell Watercolour Landscapes - A Deeper Look

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•   Appendix 1:
‘Castle Hill from Honley Road’
•   Appendix 2:
‘Bolton Abbey on the River Wharfe’
•   Appendix 3:
‘Richmond Castle - N. Yorkshire’
•   Appendix 4:
‘York Minster’
A few words from the artist   -   on influences and approach

Firstly, I would like to thank Peter J. Jackson for his kind introduction. Secondly, I must explain the reason for this page. The idea is, for those who may be interested, to explain why I paint the way I do and what inspired and influenced my approach to watercolour painting, and to try to illustrate what I have learned along the way. Maybe stimulate an active interest in this style of painting in others.

The turning point in my way of working resulted from a visit to the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, a number of years ago where I was impressed by a watercolour painting by Edward Dayes (1763 - 1804). In contrast to Conceptual and Expressionistic art, Dayes' painting was quiet, subtle, sensitive and low key. Nothing political; no social comment, just a painting of a landscape scene. I later found another Edward Dayes painting at Cartwright Hall, Bradford, and was allowed time with it to analyse the technique.

Watercolour paintings by other artists of this period including J M W Turner, Thomas Girtin (an apprentice to Dayes) and John Varley form part of the Harewood Estate collection near Leeds. They are exhibited for six weeks, every two years. I spent hours studying the compositions, tonal values, colour and brush techniques in these paintings, (to the bemusement of the staff), but the elements most worthy of description here are composition, tone, colour and style.

Composition and Tone


The first problem in designing a composition is to find a good subject, and then to find a good view of it without it being obscured by something. I always work out the composition and tones with thumb-nail sketches, in an effort to get the general scheme of things into my head; where the main subject will be placed; where the light will be coming from; where the shadows will fall and what tonal contrasts can be created between the foreground, the subject and the background to create the effect of space. They usually get discarded, but below are three examples that I have found.

(Watercolour image: “Cow & Calf Rocks - Ilkley”, painted: 2011, D.Morrell.) >>





Thumb-nail sketch of ‘York Minster’.
Thumb-nail sketch of ‘Bolton Abbey’.
Thumb-nail sketch of ‘Castle Hill’.

Pictorial composition does not follow any particular rules, but the arrangement of the elements of a picture determines whether or not a painting ‘works.’ For example, a painting must have a ‘centre-of-interest’ - a subject, as a sentence must have a subject, or nothing is being said about anything. If it has more than one ‘centre-of-interest’ then it becomes schizophrenic and confuses the viewer. The idea of composition is to use the elements of a scene to draw the eye to the main subject. The elements of a picture are usually arranged on three planes; the background, middle-ground and the foreground. The ‘centre-of-interest’ can be placed on any one of these planes. The surrounding elements of the picture are toned down to focus the eye on the focal-point. Some refer to these contrasting tones as ‘counter-change.’ The painting in Appendix 1: ‘Castle Hill from Honley Road’ the focal point occupies the foreground. The gate is the subject, even though the title is the castle on the hill. Girtin uses this arrangement in his painting of Dunstanburgh Castle, shown in the next column, top left (1795).  > >

In his painting of 1802, Morpeth Bridge, the subject is placed in the centre-ground, in the same way as I have tried to do in my Bolton Abbey painting in Appendix 2: ‘Bolton Abbey on the River Wharfe’,and ‘York Minster’ Appendix 4:, but Girtin's sky creates a drama.   Click to Enlarge for a clearer view     > >

The focal point is sometimes placed in the background, but not often. My painting of Richmond Castle in Appendix 3. puts the subject just about as near as you can get to the background.


    < Dunstanburgh Castle







             Click to Enlarge  >
          Morpeth Bridge
Colour and Tone

Colour and tone are difficult to define separately as all colours have tonal values, but the basic colour pallet that I detected in my examination of Turner, Varley and Girtin's work was as follows:
      Blues
  • Indigo
  • Ultramarine
  • Prussian Blue
      Browns
  • Burnt Umber
  • Vandyke Brown
  • Sepia
      Yellows
  • Raw Umber
  • Indian Yellow
     Reds
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Crimson Lake
  • Vermillion
Blues and browns can make a wide range of greens and greys.

A wide range of tones and colours can be achieved in this medium by just varying the proportions and dilution of just a couple of colours. The object in water-colouring is to avoid opacity, otherwise the colour goes dead and you might as well use ‘Gouache’. Above are some colour combinations that give browns, greens and greys to blues. Starting from the left in the block above, the first pair of colours is Indigo and Burnt Umber, giving a rich Olive Green when mixed. Next is Ultramarine and Burnt Umber, giving a range of greys, followed by Prussian Blue and Burnt Umber, again, giving Olive to deep brown/greens. Next is Raw Umber and Indigo, giving a range of greens. Lastly, Burnt Sienna and Prussian Blue giving reds, greens to blues.


Approach and Application:  The following is a stage-by-stage illustration of the development of a watercolour painting. The photograph (left) along with sketches, forms part of the reference for the ‘Fenay Bridge’ composition. The role of the painter is not to produce a copy of the photograph, as this would prevent any personal style or expression, but to produce a picture that works in terms of composition, tone, colour and space, as alluded to earlier. The artist often has to make a picture out of something that might not be all that picturesque to start with, by changing the light, repositioning of the elements or remove the occasional obstruction. In this case it was necessary to illuminate the central field and the buildings, to reveal the water in the beck and to exaggerate the path in order to enhance the perspective.

In addition to the formal requirements of composition, the subject is really a vehicle through which to express a response to a visual experience, and hopefully reveal a distinctive personal style and brush signature through its execution; the kind of thing that sets the work of individuals apart.Some prefer to paint direct onto the paper a section at a time. J.M.W.Turner approached his work in this way, clearly evident in his unfinished paintings. Girtin, on-the-other-hand, put down broad washes of Burnt Umber and Vandyke Brown, often cooled with a touch of Ultramarine, establishing the tones of the composition right from the start. I must say, I prefer to get some tones down and get rid of the plain paper as soon as I can. It helps in establishing the relative tonality of the entire composition. This under-painting also gives a unifying consistency to the colouration of the painting as a whole. But I suppose it is this divergence in approach that results in individuality...different strokes for different folks, or whatever.


Fenay Beck - Huddersfield
Spatial and Linear Perspective

Regardless of approach, all representational painting involves either linear or spatial perspective. Landscape painting utilizes spatial perspective, where objects appear to get smaller as they recede, but additionally, since air contains moisture, colour becomes paler as blues prevail with increasing distance. The edges of objects become defuse as you are looking through more and more moist air and as sunlight illuminates this moisture you have this wonderful thing called atmosphere. Whilst foreground objects remain sharp, distance obscures detail and sharpness and colour becomes pale. Response to these wonderful effects of atmosphere and spatial perspective is, to me, what distinguishes work of quality and makes a subject worth painting. Getting rid of sharp edges is one of the difficult skills of water-colouring.





• Move the cursor over the paintings to see the perspective construction lines.


• Move the cursor over the paintings to see the perspective construction lines.

The painting on the right of Beast Market, Huddersfield, is just such a case. The roads rise as they recede and the central building is indeed curved, giving it several vanishing points. There are many vanishing points on the eye-level line and many more outside the picture, (indicated by the white arrows). To draw everything using this method would be ridiculous. You have to make judgements by guessing angles and distances, otherwise it becomes a technical drawing too technical to draw.
Linear perspective The linear perspective of architectural subjects is by far the most demanding of all. The paintings illustrated here, left and above, have only one vanishing point (where all the lines meet). They meet on the eye-level line (depicted in white), that is, the level of your eyes from the ground. Although the eye level remains constant, there can be many vanishing points. Every time a building is at a different angle, it will have a different vanishing point. You can end up with dozens of them. When a building is itself curved, and when the road starts going up or down hill, the theory of perspective can get too complicated and you have to trust your eye.

• Move the cursor over the paintings to see the perspective construction lines.

Images:
•  Huddersfield Station from the North.
•  Huddersfield Station.
•  Beast Market - Huddersfield.
Watercolour Paper

In retrospect, the greatest difficulty I encountered in attempting water-colouring, was in finding the right paper to work on. Curators don't let you take masterpieces out of the frames, so it is impossible to tell what the paper is like under the glass. It was only through trying everything available that I could find what best suited the medium. On some papers, the paint just laid on the surface. You need a paper that will absorb the water without it going soggy. At one point I thought that ‘sugar paper’ was getting close to what I wanted, but it needs to be acid free, otherwise it discolours. It also needed a ‘tooth’, a texture that will hold the wet paint. Also, one that I call, ‘forgiving’, where you can scrub it off now and then without the paper losing its surface.

In the end I settled on a white paper and a tinted paper and both were ‘Bockingford’, Oatmeal (140lbs-NOT) and White (90lbs-NOT). The 140lbs. in white has too soft a tooth.

I always wet the paper on both sides and tape it to a board with gummed paper strip, otherwise it stretches when you start painting. When it is bone dry you can draw on it without embossing the surface.




This painting of the river near Aysgarth, is painted on Bockingford ‘Oatmeal’ paper.

‘Honley Village nr.Huddersfield.’
Click to Enlarge
Appendix 5:
The painting of Honley Village, ( left ) was done on white paper, giving the colours a lighter and brighter effect. The one of Hepworth Village, ( right ) was painted on ‘Oatmeal’ paper, taking it down a tone.

The cool areas of shadow in the ‘Honley’ painting are intended to illustrate the usefulness of Indigo and Prussian Blue, while the sunlight colours of Raw Umber and Indian Yellow illuminate the subject areas.

The reason for selecting a white paper in preference to a tinted one, or the other way around, is determined by the degree of spatial distance you might wish to create. White paper enables light, pale, distant horizons, creating maximum recession. But you can still warm up the foreground with washes of Burnt Umber and Vandyke Brown, ( both prior to and after working up the detail ). Yet a tinted paper gives a nice low-key consistency.

Mediterranean scenes are not my thing, but this painting of Artà, Majorca might be a clearer example of what I mean about the bright white paper effect. It is from a number of drawings I did whilst on holiday. I can't sit still doing nothing.

For a slightly better view:
  Click to Enlarge      Appendix 6: > >




For something a little more British, to bring us back to earth, the painting on the left is on 140lb. ‘Oatmeal’ paper. It was developed from drawings and photographs of a street in Halifax. This kind of glorious squalor has become rare these days; a regrettable loss of interesting subject matter. Most such places in this country have been demolished and turned into smart, boring apartment blocks.

However, I hope the above might encourage the like-minded to engage in this kind of creativity, and for those who already do...Click Exit!

Click to Enlarge    Appendix 7:
Shakespeare Street, Halifax.

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