Amanda Cooper Landscapes, Houses and Gardens in watercolour

MAY: Goodbye brown earth - hello spiky greens and greys and longer days.

'Ne'er cast a clout till May is out' has been part of our vernacular for centuries. Commonly thought to mean, don’t take your vest off until the end of May- although other versions suggest that it is the May flower of the Hawthorn that we have to wait for before casting any off any clothing. In my own garden diary the words ‘not warm’ herald the beginning of this merry month. Notwithstanding and spurred on by the promise of warmer weather, I strategically positioned some chairs in front of this old trough for the more robust members of my art group and a very chirpy thrush as background accompaniment. I do whole heartedly support getting out of doors as often as you can, even if it is only for half an hour to grab a quick sketch or photo.

Fig 1 Tulip Trough; watercolour and sepia ink on Khadi rag paper which I find gives a more spontaneous result because of its rough and unpredictable texture. Never feel that you have to ‘depict’ every single detail with your paintings, be observant in what you do put down, but leave the eye something to work out for itself.

Fig 1 a) Tulip Trough; Pencil detail

This is the time of year for tulips and don’t you just love their structure? However, like most flowers they practice to deceive and you might find it helpful to imagine an egg underneath the petals while you are in the process of drawing them! This will help give the impression of a solid form; otherwise they run the risk of looking a bit one-dimensional. Because of the fact that my view of the trough was square on, I thought it would be more interesting to employ colour on roughly two thirds of the painting. I sparingly picking out a few lines in sepia ink to enhance rather than dominate. Towards the end of the painting, I still had to add more layers of watercolour than you might think in order to build up the tones, especially on the deep purple tulips (aptly named ‘Queen of the Night’) where I used French Ultramarine, Permanent Rose and a touch of Burnt Sienna. An additional extra to this painting was the watering can – I know I have a thing about them – but their unusual shape makes for a sturdy companion in many a sketch.

Tulip Tip; Tulips make an excellent still life if you just pop them into an old jug on the window sill. They will keep their shape for a long time if you drop a penny into the water!

Fig 2. Garden studio: Rough pencil sketch in a lined note book 18cm x 24cm. If you are making a thumbnail sketch it is very important to make it tonal i.e. with lots of pencil or charcoal hatching. This will help you to visualise the composition and act as a catalyst to stimulate the brain from the hand /eye coordination that you are employing. We would not expect ourselves to go for a run without warming up nor should we expect ourselves to be able to draw brilliantly for the first half hour. Draw around your subject for a bit and let your pencil take you for a walk as they say.

Fourteen years ago we converted an old pigsty into a studio at the bottom of our garden and it does not owe us a penny (well…not quite) Weekly art group sessions, open garden teas - it all happens here. Having sketched the other angle I decided to stick with this view up the path, as it gives rather more perspective and interest. The odd shape to the right of the door is a fantasy bird that I have been making out of box hedging. Like many a minor garden or painting success this has happened slightly by chance.

Fig 3 Up the Studio Path. 34cm x 40cm Pencil sketch on Saunders watercolour paper. For this drawing the door needed to be in exactly the right place to create a focal point - too close to the centre of the page and it wouldn’t have nearly the same effect. Too big or small and it would be plain dull - scale is everything.

Fig 3a) Midway painting with first layer of watercolour and Sap Green acrylic ink. This palette consisted of Winser Blue (for the spring sky) Raw Umber, Burnt Umber and French Ultramarine. I allowed the green ink line to bleed back into the wash which you have to apply as soon as the lines have hit the page. When I am laying down the first wash I like to leave selected shapes as virgin white paper because it helps me see the ‘whole’. However in this instance, I did use masking fluid for the wisteria flowers. Saunders paper is a bit like blotting paper and although nice, is a bit too absorbent for the masking fluid which has a tendency to stick to it and becomes a bit tricky to remove (will I ever learn?)

Fig 3b) Finished Painting. In which I have gently removed the masking fluid with a putty rubber, revealing the white blooms as a treat for the artist at the end of all the hard work. It is imperative to wait until the paint is bone dry before you do this. When using any kind of ‘resist’ make sure that you tone the background down enough to make the white shapes effective. They don’t stand a ghost of a chance against a wishy washy background. So if you are going to use masking fluid (and the jury is still out as far as I am concerned) then really go for it with background tones - you can be braver than you think.

Fig 4. Photograph: Shadows with Cow Parsley. I am using this photograph of the bottom of our garden to demonstrate that you don’t always have to stick to the exact format to create an atmosphere. This is a view that we often see in the early evening with all the lines leading down to the little stream. Using the long evening shadows as challenge I thought I would pick up the gauntlet and try a swift experiment of a glimpse through the cow parsley which is so prevalent at this time of year.

WORKING FAST: To maximize spontaneity do make sure that you have all your colours ready, mixed and waiting on the palette. There is nothing more stultifying than to return to the paint box, fumble about to select the right tube only to find that your wash has half dried disastrously in the meantime. Mix up enough! Launching in here as fast as I could, bordering on insanity, I did not pause until I had the basic spiky blue-green effect down on paper; at which point you have to be ready to lay in the dark shadows. My grey- green palette was made up of: Winser Blue for the under wash, French Ultramarine, Hookers Green, Raw Umber and a touch of Burnt Umber for the dark darks.

After the initial frenzy, let it all dry and stand well back to have a long pause and walk about. Then I carefully picked out some tree trunks in a more controlled manner and I removed the masking fluid from the cow parsley in the foreground. However I had noticed that the rather blue tint of the masking fluid looked quite good, so I painted this tone back in with a light wash of Winser Blue to remain in the rather bluey colour world that I had created resisting the huge urge to make the cow parsley bright green! As a finishing touch (but don’t use the word ‘finishing’) I gently revisited the dark edges of the left hand borders which formed quite a nice shape next to the lawn. Mood is everything in a painting.

Fig 1 a) Finished watercolour of Shadows with Cow Parsley by Amanda Cooper:

Loose watercolour painting is a sort of controlled anarchy and if I had kept account of the times someone has said to me ‘Oh well we never drew in my last class...’ not true! It is vital to practice drawing structure and form - whether it is still life or figure drawing - before you can let rip with the paintbrush. Only then can you know what to leave out, but it is not something that you can expect to achieve overnight. Keep practicing with simple subjects so that you can concentrate on paint consistency whilst avoiding getting too bogged down in extraneous detail. A very good example of this is the wonderfully anarchic palette of Percy Kelly a Cumbrian watercolourist whose draughtsmanship was immaculate under the moody washes that he created of his beloved fells.

Watercolour by Percy Kelly