Workshop with: Hazel Soan

A glorious day greeted the first workshop of the season and we all rather thought we ought to be painting plein air! A good turnout for this – in fact a full house, which is excellent.

Hazel, as always, is wonderfully informative and generous with her knowledge. She started with general comments about watercolour materials: the finer the materials, the better the watercolour (the best watercolours are made of true pigment rather than dye). It is also wise to splash out on sable brushes because both they, and the water colours, will last a very long time. She has arranged with SAA for a pack of sable brushes sizes 12, 10, 8, 6, a rigger and a flat for £99. (And, by the way, the SAA is good for insurance of artwork as well.) Sable hairs have barbs in them which is why they hold the water so well – no doubt, nylon will eventually develop this property.

You need to really learn about your pigments – are they transparent or opaque? Do they refract the light? You are floating the watercolour across the paper and the microparticles sit on the paper, so respect the medium, use as few layers as possible and have ‘happy pigment’!

In the morning we worked on a tonal picture, using an image supplied by Hazel. We used the earth pigments for this: yellow ochre, raw umber and burnt umber; and for the sky, Prussian or winsor blue. The next important rules are to have a clean palette, clean water and really clean your brushes between colours to avoid any muddiness creeping in. The bigger the brush, the fewer the number of brush strokes required. With a large area of sky, wet the paper first, but it is not a hard and fast rule, as the conditions you are in also have a bearing on how you apply the paint. Out of this palette you can also get some good greens using Prussian blue and raw umber (lighter) and Prussian blue and burnt umber for a really dark green. Tone is ‘king’: if you photograph a painting and digitise it, turn it into black and white and you will soon see if it is correct!

After lunch, Hazel was looking at the use of white. The first ‘tone’ on a paper is where it is left white, so if you miss this, you have already reduced your range by one. (Most papers are in fact an off-white shade and you can now get a high-white paper if you prefer.) If colours are not dyes, then they can be lifted off the paper so a mix of ultramarine and burnt sienna, which makes a lovely black (and granulates rather well) can have details lifted out with a brush and some tissue. Be sure to clean the brush each time. You can apply white pigment using either titanium white or Chinese (zinc) white. Titanium white is an opaque, ‘warm’ white and is a strong white good for high-lighting. Chinese white on the other hand is a ‘cool’ white and mutes colour, knocking it back and is no good for highlights. Finally, if you have finished the painting you can scratch off the surface of the paper and get back to the original white but don’t try painting over it as it has lost its size and will become blotting paper.

Again we worked to an image Hazel brought along: a sunny piazza with strong shadows including figures in the foreground (so we also learnt how to approach painting people without too much detail). Burnt sienna is excellent for skin tone and as they were in shadow, put an ultramarine wash first and then the burnt sienna as that will dominate the blue but still look correct.

So an excellent day with not nearly enough time – and don’t forget: ‘Less is more’!

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