Abstracting the Landscape

I knew today was going to make my brain hurt – and I was thoroughly looking forward to it.

 Geoff Pimlott stretched us in all sorts of ways in the SEAW‘s workshop on Abstracting the Landscape. I’ve taken part in my fair share of workshops over the last couple of years and they typically start with a demonstration done by the tutor, after which everyone gets to feel thoroughly inadequate as they try to master the techniques just demonstrated. By the end of the day, the ‘Aha’ moments have happened and the new techniques are on the way to being learned enough to practice to proficiency level at home.

It was clear this one was going to be different when Geoff walked in with just two completed paintings, two wall charts, and three books in his arms.  Once we got going, it became obvious why he chooses to work this way: Abstracting is about the thinking process.

Geoff emphasised how important it is to understand the history and the background to the development of abstract painting in the last century.  We looked at the extremes of abstract work from John Nash whose work is quite representational, who uses extensive planning of the image and the harmony of his palette in his abstraction, to Bridget Riley, renowned for her use of repetition and colour patterns.

Two other artists Geoff recommended  we research were Sir Matthew Smith, and Ivon Hitchens. We were told about Artcyclopedia: a marvellous resource for those interesting in exploring the history and background a little more. The website stores details of paintings from 8000 artists, searchable by name, style of painting, location and many other criteria. I’ve always found that searching for the artist on Google and then just using the Images tab is quite useful, but Artcyclopedia gives an added level of search sophistication.

Of course technique is always critical to the success of a painting. The process of painting: the layering of colour, the use of shape, and repetition in the composition are all important. But given that the possibilities are almost infinite when you’re working on an abstract, it’s the thinking that is critical to success.  Decisions need to be taken about so many aspects. The artist must ask themselves:

– what am trying to emphasise about this landscape?

– am I going to interpret the landscape, or simply paint my reaction to it?

– just how representational do I want to be? How far can I push this?

– what colours does this painting need to make it really pop?

…. and so it goes.

As a gallop through my painting process today, I’m sharing the stops along my journey, (good and bad).

We started with a sketch, or painting we’d done before that lent itself to abstracting. We were looking for good rythme, shapes and ideas in our preparatory work.

Retreat Watercolour landscape painting.
Retreat (watercolour 21 x 21 cm)

We started out by thinking about what we wanted to say about the landscape in our ultimate paintings, and continued on to creating colour studies in preparation for the main event after lunch, which we already knew would need to be presented to the group (no pressure then).

I wish I had photographs of the work done by other members. Every one had their own approach. The use of colour was diverse. Some people used a range of geometric shapes to create their composition, interpreting the landscape through their composition. Others were more organic and it was all about the colour – a way of working that is particularly suitable when the abstraction is a response to the landscape, instead of an interpretation. That distinction was one I’d not thought about before. There is a vast difference between a painting which seeks to interpret the landscape, and one that is responding to the landscape. The former is a more intellectual process, the latter, much more emotional.

Geoff pointed out that, at heart every painting is an abstract. It is a two dimensional representation of the image which uses a range of techniques to create the illusion of three dimensions. So, if we strip out the illusion of three dimensions and actually try to flatten out the image, we are able to focus on other aspects we might want the viewer to see in the image.

Abstracting watercolour landscape colour study 1
Abstracting colour study 1

Stripping the image right back to it’s basic shapes – perhaps a little too minimal, but I do like the palette.

Abstracting watercolour landscape colour study 1
Abstracting 2

Looking for a moodier sky and adding in some detail. I rather like the rhythm of the fence posts, but combined with the greens it made this study a bit too representational.

Abstracting watercolour landscape colour study 1
Abstracting 3

Still too ‘green’ but adding a bit more complexity to the shapes to bring in the distant hills just visible in the original painting

Abstracting watercolour landscape colour study 4
Abstracting 4

This palette appealed. The addition of red seemed to bring a better energy to the painting.

So now, to dive in to the final painting:

Abstracting the Landscape (watercolour 28 x 38 cm)
Abstracting the Landscape (watercolour 28 x 38 cm)

I reverted to my usual love of extreme colour and texture. My abstraction process is definitely a response to the image. It’s a journey that starts and then finds it’s own way to some extent, each step directed and informed by what has just happened on the paper. That’s what I love about watercolour. Every painting has it’s own little surprises in store.

If I were to do this painting again I might not add in the grass abstractions in the foreground – they feel a bit over-representational in relation to the rest of the painting, but overall, I love the process. Expect a few more abstract paintings in future.

Geoff left us with the reminder that we had all started on a journey to abstraction that would, if we worked at it, help us to see the world a little differently, and as a result, to painting it differently. Artists get to choose just how far they take a paintings before stopping. Sometimes we get that bit wrong and it’s too late to pull back, but even if we do go to far, it’s only a piece of paper – and we’ve learned so much along the way.

Despite the fact that my brain feels stretched in so many directions with the new ideas that keep swimming around in my skull, I found the process and the end results both visually exciting and thought provoking.

Just for those who’d like to see the original and abstract juxtaposed – here they are again without the steps in between:

Retreat Watercolour landscape painting.
Retreat (watercolour 21 x 21 cm)


Abstracting the Landscape (watercolour 28 x 38 cm)
Abstracting the Landscape (watercolour 28 x 38 cm)

Gone quiet

watercolour sketch
Putting the garden to bed (watercolour sketch)

I’ve been quiet for the past few weeks and that may last a while as I’ve got a lot to get through at work right now. But I will be back to my old pace of blogging some time and in the meantime I’ll try to post whenever I can manage it.

A couple of weeks ago we went across to West Point Military Academy to watch Nic compete in the Sandhurst Military Skills Competition as part of the team sent over by RMA Sandhurst. I know. It’s confusing having a Sandhurst team competing at West Point in a US hosted competition named after Sandhurst – but that’s just history. It all came about in 1967 when Sandhurst gifted West Point an officers sword which became the top prize in their competition.  This year 58 teams competed from 10 countries in what is considered the toughest military skills competition in the world. And it was fantastic to be there and to be able to watch them all in action.  Our photos of the day are in this drop box file.  We were hugely proud, when Sandhurst Blue Team came in first place.

This post has a military theme overall as that’s been quite high on our activity list recently. I wrote a while ago about supporting charities.  I have always chosen to support charities that I feel connected to in some way, if not personally, then because they are important to someone I value.

For almost a decade now, I have been a supporter of Starfish Greatheart Foundation (more about them in another post some time). And a little while ago I mentioned the fact that I support Care for Casualties because Nic is now in Rifles Regiment – so it’s a very personal choice for me.  When I delivered a commission last week and Marc sold some of his greeting cards, it was great to be able to put the first £70 into the charity page.  I’m now in the process of adding more paintings to my Red Bubble page as all the profits from any of my Red Bubble sales will go to my Care for Casualties page. Unfortunately, Red Bubble doesn’t have a way of making a payment directly to Just Giving, so I’ll need to make the transfers when I receive payment from them. It’s a bit of a clunky process, but worth it for the cause and a nice way of supporting a charity I think is important.

So if you know anyone who is in the market for a red shoe iPhone cover, or some greeting cards – please point them at my Red Bubble page.  And I hope you will forgive me if I post about my chosen causes from time to time.

A snippet about the image on this page – I’ve started a monthly sketch diary in my lovely watercolour paper book. It’s running a bit behind (what a surprise) but I will catch up in time. This little winter grass sketch is from the January page – we were very late putting the garden to bed this year and were still cutting things back in the freezing cold weather so we would have less to do in spring. I have vowed to do it on time next year.  It’s just gone up on Red Bubble and is available as a greeting card or print.


Sketchbook: Butterfly study

Sketchbook: butterfly study
Sketchbook: butterfly study

Over the last few weeks my spare time has been consumed by cleaning up the house after our building alterations. We’re not quite finished yet, but we’re almost there.  It’s marvellous having our home coming back into shape, but the down side  has been no studio time for the past few weeks.

When I’ve not painted for a while I can find it difficult to get back into the right frame of mind. This is one of the times when my sketchbooks really play a role. I’ve carried a small watercolour moleskine for over a year now. It’s great for little studies, particularly when I’m away from my studio.  Last Christmas I was given a wonderful big book made from gorgeous 640g Saunders Waterford paper. This one is ideal for more complex studies, some of which are done over a few sessions.

When I got back into the studio for a precious hour this evening, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to paint a full picture. I reworked a painting I wasn’t entirely sure of – and will see if it worked when I have another look at it later. And then went back to work on a study I started in January and hadn’t gone back to for a while.

For many years Marc has collected framed butterflies. Sadly they do dry out, especially in a home with central heating, and eventually some of them deteriorate enough to start to break apart.  The entire collection had to come down from the wall in preparation for the builders’ arrival, and it was apparent that at least five of them are no longer in a good enough condition to be rehung. Rather than throw them away, I rescued them to use as subjects in the studio.

This page in my sketchbook captures some ideas for painting butterflies. Their colours makes them ideal subjects for watercolour painting. In many cases they are intricately patterned, and colour schemes can range from vibrant to subtle depending on the particular specimen.

Urania Leilus (watercolour sketch)
Urania Leilus (watercolour sketch)

In some of my sketches the goal was to document the colours and patterns fairly accurately,

Butterfly - pink
Butterfly – pink

but in others, I  aimed to grab a quick essence of butterfly wings.

Urania Leilus in two styles (watercolour sketch)
Urania Leilus in two styles (watercolour sketch)

Or even juxtapose two styles in one creature. (The loose half is the winner in my view).

The shapes and colours of these glorious creatures constantly captivate us.  Great subjects for breaking a bit of painter’s block.

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Colour theory again

Watercolour Exercise 2
Watercolour Exercise 2
Yellow ochre in your palette.

Yesterday was my last day in the studio before getting back to work. I’ve spent most of my holiday time just dabbling and decided it was no time to change that habit. Full blown paintings are coming soon, but in the meantime, I’ve been reading books, magazines and blog posts about colour. My time doing the Hundred Wash Challenge taught me the value of really getting to understand the interactions between pigments and also the way they react on paper. This sort of activity also appeals to my analytical and experimental nature.

Yesterday I decided to experiment with yellow ochre in my notebook. It’s not a colour I’ve used a lot but In my reading I found a reference to it’s value as a toning down colour. So I picked 3 bright hues – Winsor blue, cadmium red and Winsor violet to see how they would interact with Yellow Ochre. The colours were mixed on the paper, and also on the palette to see the difference.  It’s obvious how they tone down the blue and the violet, creating a soft green and a mid brown. The cadmium change is less obvious, but still there.

Watercolour exercise 1
Maggie Latham’s colour exercises

Then I moved on to do Maggie Latham’s first colour exercise for January. She’s posting one each day this month. I was really pleased she picked two of my favourite colours. Although, as I didn’t have any Winsor yellow so substituted Aureolin. I know the effects will be different, but I can repeat the exercise when I’ve got some Winsor yellow – and it will be interesting to evaluate the differences. Heeding Maggie’s warning about the staining properties of Winsor blue, I decided to use different brushes for each of the two colours, and separate water containers too. It helped to make sure the colours stayed pure.

These don’t have the practiced elegance of Maggie’s samples, but they were great fun and I’m looking forward to following her suggestions for the next steps.  I may just have to play catch up over the weekend now that we’re all back at work.

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Advent 8 – Snow day

Watercolour sketch - snowflake wash
Watercolour sketch - snowflake wash
Snowflake wash (watercolour)

It’s been an icy week and my advent series of sketches are an opportunity to do quick washes as well as more complete images. Today, the ice has melted and the sun has come out – at least for now. But a little snowflake wash in ultramarine and prussian blue appeared in my notebook.


Detail on the Royal Copenhagen building (watercolour - small sketch)
Detail on the Royal Copenhagen building (watercolour – small sketch)

Another post about the weekly sketches – my notebook comes in particularly handy when I’m travelling. It’s rather nice to capture elements of a new place while I’m there.

On a long weekend in Copenhagen, I noticed the detail on the lovely old building which houses the Royal Copenhagen shop. The top of the windows just had to be captured.

Rosemary, Olive and Thyme (watercolour - small sketch)
Rosemary, Olive and Thyme (watercolour – small sketch)

Sitting having a coffee and chocolate cake at our favourite coffee shop, I noticed a charming trio of baskets next to the door. They contained a little olive tree, a thyme plant and a little rosemary bush. They were perfect for a little notebook sketch.

Upcoming Exhibition:

I will be exhibiting with the Royston Arts Society in the Royston Arts Festival from Friday 28th September to Sunday 30th September. If you’re in the area on Saturday or Sunday afternoon I will be doing desk duty and it would be lovely to see you.


Weekly Sketches

For so many of us time is the major constraint when it comes to developing our skill in painting. If you’re a weekend painter like me, there sometimes just aren’t enough hours to pursue all the ideas you want to work on.

Inspired by a post from Michael Bailey some time ago, I bought a small watercolour moleskin and started carrying it with me along with a small box of watercolours. My theory was that it would be a good way of capturing those elusive ideas and at the same time, practicing translating what I see to the image on the page.  Before I started painting I believed that the skill of an artist lay in their dexterity with a brush. Now I know it really all starts with the ability to really see what’s in front of you.

watercolour sketch - eye spy
Eye Spy (watercolour sketch)

It took many months to get into the habit of painting little sketches in my book. Finally, after my last trip to France I determined to do a regular sketch – I intended to make them daily and started out quite well on that frequency. But I now realise that with my work life, that isn’t a realistic goal and I must be satisfied with doing a few each week.

watercolour - lavender fields sketch
Lavender field sketch (watercolour – small sketch)

But I’m happy with being able to do a few each week. The beauty is that because they’re quick and intended to be rough sketches, I can use them to try out effects, techniques, and as much free style experimentation I want to.

Lysanthum perspective (watercolour - small sketch)
Lysanthum perspective (watercolour – small sketch)

I’m becoming quite attached to my notebook. I will be getting back to working on bigger paintings this weekend.

Apps for Artists: Evernote

Continuing on the notebook theme – while I love my paper notebook and will always have one for the ideas that have to be captured in real ink, pencil and paint, Evernote an electronic version, has also become part an integral part of my kit.

I use Evernote for all sorts of notes – not just for my painting references. From business notes to shopping lists, it’s a useful way of gathering and organising the information I need in my life.  Notes are grouped into virtual notebooks so I can make individual notes within books about specific work projects, or general categories (like ‘painting ideas’, family history research, information for an upcoming trip).

There are some specific features that make it great as an app for artists. In Evernote I can:

  • type in text notes, add audio, or video to my notes,
  • add a plug in to my web browser which makes it easy to copy entire sections of a web page, just the URL, or clip an small part of that page,
  • attach a file from my computer to any note,
  • take a photograph directly from the Evernote app which automatically goes into the notebook I allocate it to,
  • synchonise Evernote on my phone, my laptop and my iPad so I can use it on the go.
It’s not just a text or sketch repository – it can be filled with visual references too. That flexibility is the key. I find my work notes tend to be predominantly text, tables and web links, while my painting reminders are filled with photographs and sections of web pages which include images.

I’m using it to build my own reference library for my painting. I have lists of artists whose work I’d like to spend more time viewing. I have images and ideas I’m considering using as subjects for paintings one day. I’ve started a section on colour notes based around Maggie Latham‘s series of blog posts on exploring colours. 

So often in the past I’ve found myself reading a blog post or a website and thinking, “I must remember to go back to this” only to find that when I do need it, I can’t find it.  Either its lost in an endless list of bookmarks, or if I can find the page, I spend ages trawling through it to find the specific nugget of information I wanted. As long as I remember to clip it to Evernote, I don’t need to do that any more.

I had Evernote downloaded on my computer for ages and just didn’t get into it. Finally, the need to collect images for a commission persuaded me to try again – and this time I really found it useful and I’m using it more and more.

Oh, and one more thing – it’s free, which means its not going to bite into the paint budget.

Notebooks: Little Gems

Notebooks can become real little treasures. Despite the fact that almost everything I do at work is electronic – spreadsheets, databases and a variety of apps have made our ability to process information so much more efficient – there is still a place for the good old fashioned paper and pen/brush notebook.   I do use an electronic notebook for capturing ideas for paintings, but when I read Michael Bailey’s post about his watercolour Moleskine, I set myself up with a portable pack for painting ideas too. Thank you for the inspiration, Michael.


There are some things that just can’t be replicated by the electronic version:

My notebook is a way of recording colour combinations I want to try out.

It’s a place I can do a quick sketch in situe if I’m painting en plein air and need to finish the painting later.


And sometimes it’s just somewhere to satisfy the urge to play with a bit of colour, or create a little reminder of the image of a particular day or place. There was a beautiful glass vase of agapanthus flowers on the patio table where we had lunch last Christmas. This brings back the memory of the colours and the relaxed atmosphere of the day.


Some notebooks just have to be shared:

David Melling’s comment on rediscovering this image in his sketchbook is wonderful and very funny.

A whole series of fascinating notebooks revealed on the Brainpickings blog.