The Cley Mill Project

So, I’ve been back at my watercolour class 4 weeks now and in contrast to the first time I was part of this class nearly two years ago when we did different exercises each week, we’ve just completed a multi-lesson project to paint Cley Mill in Norfolk. Essentially this was following one of those step by step paintings that you find in many of the “teach yourself watercolours” type books. Which book this project was from I have no idea though.

The first week of term we spent painting a coastal scene to, as our tutor said, “see how much we can remember of what we’ve been taught”. In my case, I didn’t even need to paint the picture to answer this question – I already knew that the 15 month break from classes was going to make my effort look pretty ropey. Which is exactly what happened. I mention this so that readers will understand how much catching up I’ve got to do and take that into account when scrutinising the efforts below.

But things started to look up in Week 2 when we began this project. Although it took a couple more weeks for this to become apparent.

Stage 1 was drawing the scene onto watercolour paper, and painting the sky, wet in wet – something I struggle to do to my satisfaction. I tend to overwork my skies, not knowing when to stop and let the process of drying magically transform it into something respectable. This was my first attempt:

First attempt

This was going ok (a few unwanted hard edges aside), until our tutor pointed out that the sky needed to be darker. I mixed up a darker wash to lay over the top and this was a disaster. Yes, you guessed it – I overworked it so that whilst suitably dark, the brush strokes were very obvious and no amount of blending was improving matters. My Cotman 425gsm NOT paper had had about all it could take, and I left the class that week with “do it again on rougher paper” ringing in my ears. Apparently, my paper was too smooth and that was why you could see the brush marks. And the mill itself ended up a bit too central as a “feature” of the drawing process.

I tried again at home and screwed up the sky, although I was much happier with my base drawing on that one – sods law! I then gave it one final attempt on Bockingford 425gsm Extra Rough, carefully measuring the drawing out and taking a bit more care with the sky. I ended up with this:

Second (well actually third) attempt

The sky wasn’t quite as dark as I would like, but I knew I would mess it up if I tried to do any more. So I moved onto the grassy and reedy foreground and the trees behind the buildings:

Sky, foreground and trees now done

The third week of the project, and now it was time to paint in the buildings and darken up the foreground a bit:

Pretty much done

I knew it was time to call it a day, as whilst this is no masterpiece, I knew that I wouldn’t make it any better by continuing.


Given that I haven’t done any painting since my last watercolour class in June 2011, completing a picture felt like a real achievement. And given my weakness in skies, I was satisfied overall with what I ended up with, although I lost a bit more of the sunlit patch than I’d have liked and there is what looks like a bum print to the left of the mill.

I always seem to mix up some pretty rank greens, so the various shades I got on this one I was happy with, although I don’t think I quite got the effect right. Still I’ve done a lot worse.

The initial wash for the foreground went ok, and there were some pleasing patches of white paper left by the technique of dragging the brush horizontally across the paper. I need to work on the wet in wet technique more as the foreground started to deteriorate with each wash. And I wasn’t happy with the detailing on the reeds front right.  Again, there is a light patch in the middle of the foreground that doesn’t look quite right.

Despite being told to produce a strong pencil drawing as the paint would cover it up, this didn’t seem to happen, so there was a bit more pencil showing through at the end of the painting, giving it a bit of an air of a painting by numbers exercise. Clearly some stronger painting on the buildings would have eliminated this, but this is watercolour, and I don’t like my colours too strong.

The bit that worked best was the mill itself and at last a wet in wet darker wash over a lighter seemed to work. But I then ruined the effect with too dark a tone on the sails and railings on the mill, and found myself dabbing these out to de-emphasise them a bit.

So I know I’ve got things to work on – after all that’s why I’ve signed up for the class – but at the end of this project I feel like I have made some progress. So onto the next project.

The finished painting

…and on the wall with the others


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