Painting: St Martin’s Down, watercolour on paper, plein air

Howard Oakley, St Martin's Down (2015), watercolour on paper, 30.5 x 45.5 cm, © 2015 EHN & DIJ Oakley.

Over the last week we have had more stable and sunny weather, so I seized the opportunity to go painting plein air at last.

My choice of motif was almost deliberately perverse. The most paintable motif for miles around here is the shell of a huge stately home, Appuldurcombe House, which had 52 bedrooms and 365 windows. So I parked myself right in front of the house, and looked in the opposite direction, where St Martin’s Down rises above our village.

This time I wanted to develop a painting with care, rather than rushing it off in the couple of hours before the light changed. So my strategy was to paint over a succession of days, at the same time each afternoon. In total I think I must have notched up around 10 hours on motif, before the weather broke today.

Although it is allegedly summer, it hasn’t been as easy as it should have been. Mostly fine and dry, it has also been very windy at times, and quite cool. One day I could only managed 90 minutes of my two hour slot as the wind was wrestling the palette out of my hands, and my fingers were starting to go numb with cold.

Because I was sat at the leeward end of a field of grass in full flower, by the end of my two-hour sessions my eyes felt as if someone had put pepper spray into them. But at least I was painting with the sun behind my back, and not contre-jour, for once.

When I looked at the all-too-familiar view, there were several features that I wanted to use:

  • In this light, there was little in the way of aerial perspective to give depth. In fact at the moment the colours tend to confound and not strengthen depth. So I would be reliant on other cues, particularly texture gradients.
  • Thinking of texture gradients, my motif was a classic example of very contrasting textures, in the sky, the downs and fields, trees, houses in the village, and the field immediately in front of me. Inspired by Ravilious’ wonderful textured watercolours (themselves the result of his print-making experience), I wanted above all to capture those textures.
  • The combination of lots of trees, houses and textures required time and attention to detail, but I did not want to be a slave to meticulous detail, or too mimetic.
  • I love the near-horizontal lines of trees and houses alternating through the village.
  • I did not want to use graphite or get bogged down in preliminary drawing. However my usual replacement of drawing with the brush and grey paint could be streamlined if I used some Winsor and Newton watercolour sticks.
  • However my main paints would be the superb QoR watercolours.
  • I wanted to go fairly big, but with a pad which I could readily manipulate on my lap, so I chose a Fabriano Artistico (traditional white) 300 gsm (140 lbs) block, 30.5 by 45.5 cm (12″ x 18″), which has a lovely texture to key the watercolour sticks on.

I started with a quick but light drawing-in using appropriate watercolour sticks, then wetted the sky area and put the cerulean blue wash in, capturing the hazy white clouds which were prevalent on the first afternoon. I then started to wash in the downs and fields, which I progressed on the second day. By the end of that I had started work on some of the textures and detail in the upper areas, and took a quick photo to record progress.

stmartinsdown1On the third day I brought those details down further, and concentrated on the task of putting the houses in. To maintain the contrasting textures, those were worked using the watercolour sticks. Although the QoR watercolours are always a joy to use – they are so intensely coloured, easy to re-wet and re-work, and free of all vices – the W&N watercolour sticks are more idiosyncratic. When wetted, the colour pours from them; when dry they are not always so keen to leave a mark.

One trick which I have found helps their use in the dry is to wet them first and allow to dry. This seems to activate them somehow, perhaps by removing a surface film from the stick. I took a second photo at the end of that day.

stmartinsdown2The focus of my attention on the fourth day were the trees around and within the village, which were first painted using QoR colours, and then when that had dried, worked over with watercolour sticks to bring their texture. This left me with a little final work on the village, to integrate it and tweak shadows and fine detail, and the field in front of me.

stmartinsdown3My final outdoor session allowed me to make a start on the field, capturing the colours, before my eyes finally became too irritated by the grass pollen and dust to make it wise to continue. This took me to the final day, Friday 12 June, which was overcast and wet off and on through the day. I therefore made the final touches to the village and field indoors, and am fairly happy that I achieved most of my initial aims.

Howard Oakley, St Martin's Down (2015), watercolour on paper, 30.5 x 45.5 cm, © 2015 EHN & DIJ Oakley.
Howard Oakley, St Martin’s Down (2015), watercolour on paper, 30.5 x 45.5 cm, © 2015 EHN & DIJ Oakley.

Would I use the same techniques again? Yes, I think that they are effective. With a motif like this, you have no real option to dash a few washes over the paper and think the job done. Although it lacks that loose and fresh look, this sort of finicky view has too much detail, and too rich textures, to ignore. However I hope that it remains loose and painterly, albeit at a small scale.