Amanda Cooper Landscapes, Houses and Gardens in watercolour

SEPTEMBER an article for a series in the Leisure Painter 

Oh, it's a long long while
From May to December
But the days grow short
when you reach September. Willie Nelson

This is definitely my favourite month because the weather is usually favourable for both gardening and painting and there is a feeling of getting everything ready for winter – back to school in horticultural terms. Some of the more subtle colours are emerging before the autumn splurge and the temperature is fair without being too hot to take part in either activity. For this reason artistic inspiration has been known to strike! In my diary record (Fig 1) I couldn’t resist including the purple parasol which coincidentally is the identical colour to the smoke bush nearby. I have noticed that parasols, whether open or closed, make very good compositional tools, both in the garden and on the page. They can lend a bit of vertical height or colour interest where there is none. Like most country gardens ours consists of grey stones, wood tints and grungy greens, so a splash of purple is welcome. Once again I have employed a shadow across the foreground as a compositional tool - otherwise the gravel yard would have been completely empty. I don’t like the idea of stippling gravel in with a dry brush because this usually ends badly. It is far better to rely on shapes and form - remember - if your composition works then your foreground should look after itself.

Fig 1 Purple Parasol. Everything is on a slope in our garden, so a view up or down hill is almost inevitable. Normally I advise students NOT to look directly up or directly down for that matter, as this makes the perspectives all the more challenging. That said, there are some circumstances where the artist has no choice, so if you find yourself out and about with either of these options the very first thing you need to do is find your eyeline.(Fig 2a) Whatever you do don’t fall in to the trap of guessing. This is not the point where land meets sky – no! This is the imaginary horizontal line that you find if you hold your pencil directly out in front of you, parallel with your eyes. NO higher - NO lower. Obviously it will be different whether you are standing up or sitting down but once you have settled into position, keep your arm straight and stay in the same position each time you line up your pencil. If you do not trust yourself, try holding your pencil at both ends as if you were hanging out washing! This ensures that it is parallel with your body which is vital if you need to make more angled measurements for perspective lines - it is all too easy to point your pencil vaguely in the direction that the line is going rather than keeping it parallel to yourself. Imagine that you are looking through a window and holding your pencil up against the glass.

PERSPECTIVE TIPS: It is always an idea to mark your eyeline on the page with an “eye mark” and even a horizontal pencil line. (See fig 1b)The reason for this is that you can guarantee that ALL perspective lines will lie absolutely horizontal on this line. I did this picture standing up, so you will see that my own eyeline was on the top rung of the small gate. You will see from the diagram that all parallel lines BELOW the eyeline are running up hill to meet at an invisible vanishing point, which in this case, is way off to the left of the page. Likewise, all parallel lines above the eyeline are running down to that same vanishing point. I have tried to make this a bit clearer by shading the north facing ‘planes’ (in green biro!) because they have their own set of perspectives. All lines on the front of the cottage are running away to the vanishing point on the left of page. All lines on the side of the house (i.e. facing north in this case) are running away to their own vanishing point to the right of the page. This vanishing point will ALWAYS sit on the eyeline, even if it is inches off the actual page.

Fig 1 b) Purple Parasol perspectives

Fig 2. September Shadows 3pm.  I was attracted to these early autumn shadows which somehow float over the low hedge and down across the path to the grass in one long swoop. I used the old crab apple tree, the upright yew on the left and the purple wheelbarrow (nearly true, we do own one!) in the distance as three verticals that just happened to be hanging around for the purpose. As an additional extra I popped some lavender flower shapes in the foreground to liven it all up a bit. You would be amazed what floriferous effects you can get by making a few considered marks on the page. It is the overall shape and flow that you need to capture, to hell with the type of flower that is irrelevant really. Once again, colour is important but tone is vital.

Fig 2b) Detail of distant barrow

Fig 2 c) Photograph includes ‘Teabag’ the Norfolk terrier as per usual. I am using this photograph to demonstrate how you can interpret the landscape. I did not ‘colour in’ the lawn in case it spoilt the effect.

And finally I couldn’t finish without including this still life of our small lavender harvest which happens about now if you are brave enough to hack off what appears to be a still flowering bush.

Fig 3 Lavender Chop.  Secateurs are a challenge but work well as a little perspective ‘hit’ in a floral still life. In this painting which I did as an art group demo’ I started out with a completely Raw Sienna wash adding a little Green Gold for interest. I also used Hookers Green and Burnt Sienna for the pot and French Ultramarine and Permanent Rose to make the faded mauve colour of dry lavender. The three colours of Blue/Green, Raw Umber and Red/violet are all split complementaries on the colour spectrum. It was important to get the ellipses on the pots right in order to counteract the spikiness of the lavender stalks. It would have been very easy to get pernickety on the lavender flowers, so I tried to keep them loose and impressionistic.

Fig 3 b String detail.

September has a lot going for it in artistic terms and the en-pleine-aire painting season is far from over - in fact - some would say that it is only just beginning. The structure of trees and shrubs becomes increasingly visible as leaves begin to drop and a completely new palette emerges as fields are gradually ploughed up after harvest. It is a good time to collate all your sketches and ideas for use in the studio when the onslaught of winter means that some of us can’t get outside as much as we would like. We are all going to be experts at this by the time you receive this edition.