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walking, painting, blogging - 'taking part in the existence of things'

Swanage - Before The Crowds Arrive

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

The medium of watercolour is notorious for its resistance to correction. It is a transparent medium and what has previously been painted will show through anything that is painted over the top, in varying degrees; the pigment of some colours is more opaque than others. A competent watercolourist will take a considered approach to their painting, not so much in the application of the paint, but certainly with regard to what goes where and by making decisions before committing ideas to the paper that cannot be corrected. This painting is a case in point.

In the summer, Swanage is busy. Busy in a good way. It is a charming and authentic seaside town that has resisted many attempts over the years to give it a more up-market and glamorous vibe. It is all the better for it. While many coastal towns in the West Country have embraced celebrity chefs, yachting facilities and TV crews, Swanage has continued to encourage bucket-and-spade adventures for the family, boat trips around the bay, and fish 'n' chips on the old stone quay, celebrating its heritage as a working quarry town for local Purbeck stone in years gone by. Without wanting to sound misanthropic, I love taking a wander down to the seafront at first light - there are fewer people around. It is quiet. The bay is often as still as a pond, but despite the tranquility there is just enough activity to remind you that this is a town waking up and preparing for another busy day. Seafront vendors starting to take down the shutters. Early morning deliveries, keeping stocks topped up. A photographer on the Banjo (a stone pier in the middle of the bay) waiting for the cloud to move on, opening up a lovely back-lit shot. The faint chug of a small fishing boat approaching, no doubt with the day's crab or lobster. Milky sunlight is easing through the thin cloud cover, draping soft shadows across the quayside. The cool, salty freshness to the air is pleasant, and you know it is going to be a good day.

This is where I encountered a problem in making the painting. It can be summed up in the strange phrase, well understood in the art community, 'To People, or Not To People.' Listen to the arguments for and against if you will. 'To People' - by including someone in the painting, opening the shutters on the boat hire hut perhaps, the painting shows exactly what I have just described; there is a story being told, the town is coming to life and it would lend a sense of activity to the scene. 'Not To People' - not everyone likes people in their landscape paintings; any activity would diminish the feeling of early-morning calm and the focus would become the action, not the landscape. There is a good argument for either option but I decided that I wanted to recreate the feeling of emptiness and the peaceful nature of the bay when I first arrived that morning, so figures were omitted. That said, I may paint a 'To People' version of this one day. A decision such as this must be made at the outset with watercolour. I would be unable to paint some characters in the scene, and then decide that I didn't like them and paint over them, or worse still, scrub them out. This is where the medium's transparency works against you. Watercolour requires precise planning.....and precise execution too. Take the shadows that are being cast by the boats and the hut as an example. When painting these there is just one chance to paint them correctly. Too light, and we can paint over them again but the transparency and freshness will be compromised, and trying to paint to the boundaries of an original, spontaneous, broken-edged shape never ends well. Too dark, and it will ruin the scene; the atmosphere of early morning, when shadows are softer and more gentle, will be lost and the scene would assume the feeling of late afternoon.

It isn't that the physical act of painting in watercolour is difficult - after all we are simply making marks on paper with a brush, and we have all become competent enough at making marks on paper with pens and pencils. What makes watercolour difficult is when we start to paint without planning - at the outset and throughout the painting. I always tell students that when you are not painting (and planning) it is just as important as when you are putting the brush to paper. Never approach the painting until you have resolved what you want to do, or at the very least have a good idea of what you are trying to achieve. Believe me, it will save you a small fortune in paper.


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