Amanda Cooper Landscapes, Houses and Gardens in watercolour

March article as part of a series for Leisure Painter magazine. 

Fig 1 ‘Troglodyte’ pencil sketch detail for later picture. 20cm x 18cm 4B graphite aquarelle on Saunders watercolour paper.

We like March- his shoes are Purple.

He is new and high-

Makes he mud for Dog and Peddler-

Makes he Forest Dry-

Knows the Adder’s Tongue his coming

And begets her spot –

Stands the Sun so close and mighty-

That our Minds are hot.

News is he of all the others-

Bold it were to die

With the Blue Birds buccaneering

On his British sky –

Emily Dickinson manuscript poem.


The beginning of March was heralded by a lapwing calling and tumbling in the ploughing just above us. I just hope he or she found a mate later on but there was sadly no evidence of this happening. My long suffering art group was forced out of doors like small children into the playground, where we attempted to paint a borrowed landscape which can be seen from our side of the fence. All the colours were on the upward turn; this is especially noticeable in the willow trees who are always a good barometer of the season - invariably the first to come and last to go.

Fig 2 Sketch: Borrowed trees. 26cm x 16cm. Keen to get on in the chilly wind, I made this hasty study on plain cartridge paper with a graphite aquarelle 4B pencil which runs when you add water. Instead of plain water I added an aureolin yellow wash which makes green…pretty much. I like doing a really informal sketch like this to get a feel of the day, plus if you are going to go wrong, you will go wrong in your sketch, i.e. too high , too low etc.

Fig 2b. Painting: Borrowed Trees: Watercolour on Khadi recycled rag paper. This painting was all about the shadows below and the branches overhead.

Shadows: Although the focal point is the small gate, the real nub of the matter here depended entirely on getting the shadow angle across the lawn. Draw the shadow shapes in as soon as you see them because they always change over the course of the day. But do make sure that they don’t end up with a hard outline; shadows don’t have an outline – whatever Peter Pan may have thought.

It is all too easy to forget that you MUST mix a shadow tone that is made up of the same colours as the surface upon which it is cast. If I had a formula for doing this I would go down in history. The last thing you want to do is mix some muddy grey or brown and keep dabbing away, as if it is somehow going to improve. One technique that I often use (with particular reference to trees) is to let the colour of the actual object, run down into its own shadow before it has dried. This is where it is crucial to have drawn the shadow shape in earlier, preferably with light pencil shading over it, so that you don’t forget where it is.

Branches: I drew in the basic shapes of the trees but then I relied on putting a light raw sienna wash down and then drawing and painting twigs back into it with a pencil and rigger. I quite like taking a pencil and drawing back into the wet colour. But beware getting carried away and doing far too much detail, when it becomes boring for both you and your viewer. So many branches came down over the winter, that most of these trees have now been severely pollarded, so this study is a nice record of what it looked like, pre-pollard. In these situations, this is where the quick sketch, however humble, is a better record of life than almost anything that we can do electronically.

Fig 3a and b. ‘Early Rhubarb’ pencil and subsequent watercolour sketch on the same page. 25cm x 16cm Saunders watercolour paper.

Fig 3c. The wash: I have tried to photograph the moment of laying in the water wash, to show how carefully I approached the edges of the rhubarb. I turned the page upside down so that my hand could pull the water towards me instead of pushing it away. Remember to have your colour wash ready so that you can followed on with it swiftly, as dark as possible the first time around. This saves over-working it later.

Fig 3d. Whilst applying the colour I allowed the wash to run down into the earthy bit and I then dropped stronger pigment to give the darker tone (in this case unadulterated burnt sienna) I made sure the paper stayed virgin white for the rhubarb later. Somehow doing it like this gives better results than mixing it all together like a pudding on the plate, because you can see the colours melding into each other on the page and this is much more interesting than a ‘pre’ mix. Melding and bleeding is what watercolour does best and we need to make the most of the huge range of possibilities that it offers. In this study I made a point of not drawing the whole of the pot, as I think it gives a more interesting effect if the brain is left to work a few things out for itself.

Fig 3e and f. Early Rhubarb Study (with gate sketch) full page. 53cm x 26cm Saunders watercolour paper.

Fig 4 Troglodyte. Preliminary underwashes. As you can see I started this small painting on a cold afternoon with a mad flourish of gold green, with burnt sienna interludes. My whole aim was to get the spring light onto the gate with the dramatic darks behind and some mossy lichen on the old gate. I left the wren untouched until the end, save for a light wash on its underside.

What does loose watercolour really mean? It may look like a series of happy accidents but these accidents don’t happen happily, unless you practise at home and just play around with paint. Don’t try to be perfect every time, just see what the paint does and how it reacts to other colours.Choose simple subjects to build up your own confidence and style. Obviously the more practise you have, the better you get - but it is not down to luck. It relies on accurate observation and foreward planning. You have to be a step ahead of yourself, so whilst you are applying one colour you are automatically thinking about the next one. It is also important to step away but if you can’t bring yourself to do this then sometimes I find that doing two paintings at the same time is a very good ploy. As your own fiercest critic you can make amends the second time around. When the art group is with me I don’t have time to labour over my paintings, which is a good thing for all of us in the long run.

4b detail of Troglodyte painting. 14cm x 18cm

I could not resist putting in the wren that sits on an ancient hunting gate that was clearly part of the old farmyard. So much so that we designed our garden round it! My husband has taken a photograph of his two daughters sitting on this gate every year of their lives until they were too teenage to consider it cool. If it ever crumbles altogether we will have to find an exact replica, unless my husband crumbles first.

According to the Celts, the wren symbolizes watchfulness and enthusiasm in life, so it is rather fitting for the painted diary of a garden through the year. I admit that I did cheat here and copied an archive photo….and yes! I should have been out there in the chill of a March afternoon chasing tiny wrens at knee height around the hedgerows - I am sure that Archibald Thorburn would have been doing just that. However in my own defence, many a wren is heard and seen in our garden and they are a vital part of life, so is this cheating? Towards the end of the month, having ridden the gauntlet of most weather patterns, the nights were frosty but the days were bright which was appreciated by other birds, skylarks and painters alike.

4c. The finished painting of Troglodyte. 34cm x 34cm. Watercolour, salt and candle wax on Sanders watercolour paper.