Starting Out

Welcome to my new blog about my journey as an artist. The intention is to document my evolution from where I am today through to, hopefully, something a lot more proficient and with something approaching my own style.

After not having picked up a brush since school, it was the collision of two things that made me reach for the pallette again. The first of these, chronologically, was taking up hill walking in 2005 and over the following years I developed a love of the mountains and wild places, that I increasingly felt photographs, and the occasional video weren’t quite capturing as fully as they could. I wanted more, and specifically I wanted to be able to bridge the gap between my memories and the limitations of my camera. If you’re interested in that sort of thing then please check out my other blog.

But it wasn’t until I discovered that my mother had taken up watercolours that the idea came. And even then it took a while to arrive. One day I visited my granddad and hanging over the mantelpiece was a large framed watercolour painting of Staithes in North Yorkshire, a mecca for artists. And the artist in this case was my mother. From being a complete non-artist to something hanging on a wall. If she could do it, then presumably I could too ?

The idea rested at the back of my mind until my next walking trip to the Lake District, and whilst out on walks there I found myself looking a bit differently at the landscape – not necessarily with a view to a specific actual painting, but looking beyond the 2-dimensional photo to the qualities of the hills that I really wanted to capture. The textures of the rocks, the subtle variations in the colour of the vegetation and the drama of the sky and the glaciated features. Looking in the various galleries in the villages and towns of the Lake District didn’t hurt either, and gradually I came to see that maybe watercolour was what I was looking for.

But how to start ? Well for me it was David Bellamy’s Watercolour Landscape Course, which is a beautiful book full of lovely works, but a trifle difficult-looking to the complete beginner. A number of other books followed, and a bit of experimentation, but I wasn’t getting anywhere.

I decided to sign-up for some classes, and was fortunate in finding a one-day watercolour taster class at Morley College in London. I enjoyed the day enormously, and although my skill was pretty minimal, I wasn’t alone in that. A study of some bottles as an exercise in tone by painting in monochrome seemed to work and it felt like I made some progress.

I signed-up for a term-long beginners class at the college, but on the very day of the first session, they contacted me to tell me they’d cancelled it due to lack of demand. The same happened the next term, although with a bit more notice, and I began to think I wasn’t going to find a suitable class that fitted in with work. So many art classes seem to be weekday daytimes, making them the haunt of the non-working or the older participant in the main.

The first lucky break came in the summer of 2010, when I found on the internet the artist Helène Burrow, an artist specialising in Native American and wildlife topics, but who runs courses in the Lake District, and also offers individual tuition. I booked her for two days and joined this onto a walking trip. The weather turned against us and the first day we spent sat in a field near Elterwater, with our paintings shielded by umbrellas – although watercolour depends on water, it’s nice to have some control over how much is getting on the paper!

The main thing I got from this experience was confidence in structuring a painting and some help in achieving the right blend of tones and subtleties of colour. Although at the time I thought my picture of the Langdale Pikes was a bit basic as there wasn’t a lot of layering of colours and you could still see the pencil from the drawing underneath, I now realise it was an important step in my artistic development.

The Langdale Pikes from Elterwater

The second day was rained off completely, but I’d learnt a lot on the first, and used the time for some hill walking instead.

I got lucky again when I had a career change, part of which consisted of a six month complete break from work. This allowed me the time to do a daytime course, and I found something at the adult education centre in Brentwood. Not wanting to spend half a term doing colour wheels, I went for the improvers course as I knew the basic techniques – I just wasn’t very good at them.

This course proved to be invaluable, but the need to earn some money meant I could only do one term, and it’s only now after a year’s break that I’ve been able to return to the course. I walked in the room on the first week, and it was all the same crowd from before. This also meant that our tutor already had an idea of my abilities (or lack of) and we wouldn’t have to go through that stage of her getting to know my flaws. All she needed was a progress update to see how little I’d progressed.

On my first go at the course, we painted a variety of subjects, and a few of them even turned out ok. A massive boost came from the week we did line and wash, and I saw a medium that could be of particular use to me out on the hill.

“Harvest” – pencil line and wash

In preparation for resuming the course this September, I felt I needed to improve my drawing skills, and enrolled in a Crash Course in Drawing at Morley College, with everything crossed that this course actually happened. Four sessions covering basic skills, perspective, tone and the use of negative shapes helped a lot, and to my utter surprise I found that I had a bit of an affinity for charcoal. Still not very good though, but I’ve tried to make myself carry a simple sketch book and a couple of charcoal pencils whenever I go out now.

Paper plates and plastic cup – charcoal

So what next ? Well, I’m hoping to carry on my watercolour class for at least another term after the current one, and over that time to build up my confidence and skills to the point where I can knock out passable mountain landscapes. If I can do this, then this will definitely help keep me going. I want to make painting and drawing a more integral part of my day to day life and avoid the year without picking up a brush, and consequent big regression in my progress, that I’ve just come out of.

I’m planning to blog my watercolour projects as I do them, showing the paintings at various stages in their development. Not in the sense of a step by step guide to allow others to follow (seriously, I don’t think the standard will be up to it for that), but principally as a record for me personally, and of course to encourage people to offer free tips! I found a similar approach, using my walking blog, really did help sustain my love for the activity itself, enable me to meet new people and develop my skills and equipment. So here’s hoping, it wasn’t a fluke and works again.


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