Violets no longer shrink against the wind
Wood anemones, sensing spring,
Start carpeting the woods with white
And celandines spread golden rays
To meet and match the sun
Rob Stepney ‘Spring at Cae Gwernog’ taken from Spirit of People and Place, Charlbury Poets write again.
“April, come she will…” April is the cruellest month….April is in my mistress’ face…” the list goes on and I can’t help myself. This is a month of artistic and horticultural inspiration, ruthlessly out with the old and in with the new. Somehow the fresh greens that you get in springtime cannot be bettered at any other time of year. Soon after the middle of June everything in the garden just seems a tiny bit drabber until we go into the free-fall of late summer and autumn. The arrival of the swallows during April is an event in our house – we keep an eye out for days and this year were rewarded around the third week of the month when they were spotted one evening barrelling through our garden en route to next door. Unfortunately their numbers have depleted greatly in some areas which is cause for grave concern, so we long for them to nest here and have tried to tempt them by leaving our shed door ajar for nights on end, risking summary removal of the mower, but to no avail. (No-one fancied the mower either)
Fig 1 Spring arrivals. Swallow sketch with watercolour 15 x 15cm
The light at this time of year makes me want to get the paints out and I am definitely inspired by evidence of spring all around, even on the gloomiest of days. With the summer art group in mind- we have tried to improve our garden structure with a couple of randomly placed arches and pergolas. I confess that this sketch was done looking through the window because it was a bit too chilly on the hands to consider drawing out of doors. The sharp lines that this rose arch made on a bitterly cold, bright morning really stood out. Attracted by the long shadows on the stone slabs, I also tried to concentrate on their specific shapes and tones. (Remember they don’t have an outline as such!) I tried to make only the most essential lines, in particular the quirky shapes of the old rose, quickly realising that it would be a mistake to try and include all the curlicues on the metal arch, choosing a few that hopefully work within the composition. After the initial sketch, something made me opt for green ink and a fat nib - followed swiftly by a wash of either tinted or plain water so that the thick green line bleeds back into the wash. I also used a smidgeon of French ultramarine in the foreground, however the shadows remain as green as the box ball itself. When you are making this sort of study, it is important to keep the background very muted - if it becomes too fussy and detailed it can lessen the impact of the foreground. You need just enough to suggest the essence of place, but no more.
Fig 2 How Green was my April? First a very rough pencil sketch on cartridge paper which initially included a watering can, however I omitted it for the main picture, as I wanted to concentrate on the shadows instead.
Fig 2 b) Ink and wash sketch midway 25x 34cm.
Fig 2 c) Finished study of the rose arch. 25 x 34cm
Fig 3 Butts and Bluebells: Here is my palette for this picture. It is a lovely A4 size enamel tray that my son gave me to go with a teapot, but as he is a much better artist than me I knew he would understand! Laying the colours out from dark to light and from left to right Permanent Rose, French Ultramarine, Green Gold, Raw Umber, Burnt Umber, (Raw Sienna) and Aureolin yellow.
Fig 3 b) Preliminary pencil study: Due to the proliferation of tiny white flowers (Pulmonaria or Lungwort flowers so called because of the spotty leaves that are said to resemble a lung…) in this study I did use some masking fluid so that I could be looser with the washes later on. If you find that the area which you have covered with masking fluid is much too bright after the ‘reveal’ then it is always possible to put a light wash over the bright white, as I did with the blue bells.
Fig 3 c) The underpinning wash of French ultramarine, just to set a basic tone. I find this to be a true and honest blue - translucent and warm. I also concentrated on the ellipses which form the lower half of the old oak water butt and watering can. As you know - these can be tricky- but if you get them right in the drawing it makes a very big difference to the look of the picture- don’t rely on a casual swoop of the pencil to get it right first time!
Finished Painting: 26cm x 30cms Watercolour on Arches 140lb rough paper. I love how this paper allows you to keep adding more pigment without mushrooming too much. Sometimes you need to add neat pigment to the paper to get a really zingy effect on the dark areas - this only really works when the paper is wet. The tulip in this picture is aptly named Tulipa ‘artist’ and the watering can really is this colour.
Fig 4 Spring Teapot: ….40cm x 52cm Watercolour on Arches 140lb rough paper. I am always amazed by the humble daffodil and how it survives the worst of weathers - even deep snow- to emerge unscathed and yellow as ever. However, I don’t think the ‘narcissaea’ family are at all easy paint and yellow flowers in general are difficult to get right. There is probably a scientific reason for this as all painting is basically alchemy, so I felt rather mean when I decided to make this little still-life for my art group last year.
I often try and do a demo at the beginning of the lesson and during the process I discovered that the only way to make the cadmium yellow sing out was to drop in a very dark background of French ultramarine with a touch of Alizarin crimson, and repeat the process until it was dark enough. Otherwise the palette was much the same as usual, except for the addition of cadmium yellow, a pigment that I still find difficult, so I tend to opt for softer hues, such as the translucent Aureolin and quite often Lemon Yellow. I always draw first, it never matters if you can see your pencil workings and quite often it is an enhancement. You can always rub out unnecessary lines afterwards. This was a little spring arrangement straight from the garden with some purply/pink hellebores to offset the yellow. Try one of your own at home; it lifts the soul to paint something live.
A similar mind-set seems to be a requisit for both gardening and painting - a certain amount of patience is needed for the groundwork but also a certain amount of impatience to see what the outcome will be. You put bulbs in over autumn and wait till spring to see what (if anything) emerges from the cold ground. In a similar vein, we mix up the paint and start putting it on, always optimistic about the final result. Quite often we have a midway crisis where the picture isn’t going as planned – this can be a low moment - but if you have got the energy to salvage and soldier on, you might feel a surge of satisfaction if you leave the picture facing the wall for a week and then have another look. I don’t know many artists who think their work simply superb from beginning to end. Actually I lie: I did have the pleasure of knowing a splendid lady who came on the painting holidays until she was ninety two and who often announced to anyone within earshot that this painting really could NOT be any better!