Updated: Dec 13, 2020
Summer has come and almost gone, ready to step aside now for Autumn. Kimmeridge Bay in Dorset is as good a place as any to witness the annual passing of this seasonal baton.
It has been a warm and pleasant day, and as afternoon gives way to evening I can feel a hint of coolness in the air. There is a day each year, quite unmistakable, when you step outside the door early one morning and for the first time all the senses combine to tell you that Autumn has arrived. We're not there yet, but there is a subtle hint today that it may be just around the corner; as temperatures start to ease off a little the light assumes greater clarity. I knew you'd ask why, and not wanting to tire you with a lengthy meteorological thesis it is simply that the air becomes less humid and there are fewer swollen aerosols to block the light waves, thereby presenting colours with greater purity. It is noticeable today and as evening approaches it seems as though a vast amber searchlight on top of Broad Bench, a substantial rock ledge at the western extreme of the bay, has been switched on, becoming increasingly intense as the sun's descent accelerates. This is the time I love to be in the landscape, watching shifting shapes of orange and ochre dance and twirl with their shady partners of blue, grey and mauve. It raises an interesting question - where should one stand to best appreciate the landscape at this time of the day? Confronted by this scenic splendour it may sound a little trite to ask, however it is a question that has exercised photographers and informed the style of artists for centuries, with particular interest to those painting in watercolour.
Watercolour is a transparent medium; if you paint over something already on the paper you will be able to see it through the transparent wash or glaze that you have just made. To the painter, this can be friend or foe in equal measure and it has promoted a method of painting where the palest tones and colours are applied first, building up a painting with layers of darker value. In order to simplify the painting process many watercolourists prefer to paint scenes with contre-jour lighting. Scenes that are contre-jour - 'against the daylight' - are painted looking directly into the light. This has the effect of desaturating colours and creates a simplicity of tonal patterns, rendering them light to dark from distance to foreground respectively. Contre-jour is tailor-made for watercolour and the delicate nature of the medium is ideal for such scenes. The painting below, looking West from Swyre Head across Kimmeridge into the late-afternoon sun is a good example. Notice how the colours are muted, and as you move through the scene the tonal contrasts flatten in the intensity of the daylight, distant headlands and promontories becoming nothing more than cardboard cutouts. It is beautiful, but the landscape has even more to offer than this; is this really Kimmeridge Bay wearing its Sunday-best?
The beauty of art is that absolutes do not exist - there are no right or wrong answers, simply opinions, preferences and subjective perspectives. I paint landscapes because they inspire me, and my style represents the times that I prefer to be in the landscape; early morning, or in the evening when there is colour, contrast and warm, sunlit drama. My style has evolved to accommodate this, and my work is recognisable because of it. As a watercolourist I have undoubtedly made my task harder; plotting adjacent combinations of light and dark tones throughout a painting is more challenging - but no less enjoyable - than working contre-jour. It requires careful planning and precise execution to ensure that the painting doesn't become a busy mosaic of overlapping shapes, where every corner of the painting shouts for attention. Many watercolourists prefer contre-jour lighting for its ability to remove detail, allowing them to focus on the broader concepts of composition, design and message. For me the opposite is true; the beauty of the landscape lies in its detail - I want to see it, I want to paint it. When you look at my work I am hoping to share my experience of those details with you and how they have combined to create a stunning location at a point in time.
Landscape photographers prefer to operate during the Golden Hour - an hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset (in reality it's often less than that, but Golden Thirty Nine Minutes doesn't have quite the same ring to it.) The reason is a simple one - directional light from a low sun falls across the landscape, picking out highlights and casting shadows, revealing details, textures and contrasts that are not present as the sun climbs higher during the day. Photos taken at noon often look flat and uninspiring, as do those taken directly into the light, or with the light directly behind. As a general rule, when the sun starts to rise look West, not directly, but with the sun angling across your left shoulder; when it starts to set, look East with it behind your right shoulder. You will see landscapes in a different way. You will notice the detail.
Today, standing on the ledges in Kimmeridge Bay, I am looking west in the direction of the setting sun. The scene is almost drained of colour, other than the electric-blue polka dots on my retinae, and from the distant headland to my feet all I see are increasingly darker shapes. It isn't that I dislike contre-jour scenes, but this cannot be the best way to view the landscape. Am I standing in the best spot, and does my orientation allow me to experience this wonderful place at it's very best? My reasons for being in the landscape and, by extension, painting it are sensory. I admire the aesthetics, I touch the textures. Sounds and smells complete the experience. This evening I am not here to paint, rather to observe and understand the nature of this beautiful, natural bay at this time of the year. Looking west is to miss a trick, so I turn through 180 degrees and blink sharply several times, allowing my eyes to readjust to the softer light. And there it is; sensational, sun-soaked Kimmeridge Bay. A riot of detail. The oblique angle of the setting sun behind me rakes across the landscape, asking questions and revealing secrets. The hot, glowing siennas of the cliff face and amber facets of the ledges are set against the immediate relief of dark, cool shadows, a fascinating range of deep umbers and violets. Vibrant, lime green seaweed draped across a shelf of steely-blue shale completes the picture. Colours and tones, small pebbles and wide vistas - they're all here and I want to see every little bit of them.
The ubiquity of contre-jour monochrome is not for me. Give me a chance to see the vivid detail of a favourite landscape dripping in the sun's golden varnish and I'll take it. It must be painted thus.