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Diary of a Watercolour Artist

This diary is written to encourage other people to try watercolour painting. Taranaki across the fields © Pauline Curtis I had previously done a few paintings in oils, and have painted "Roses and Castles" for our narrowboat Corinna. But until November 2002 I had never done watercolour painting. The reason I began was because we were on holiday, a cruise on Cunard's famous QE2, and going to watercolour classes looked a fun way to spend an hour each day at sea. The example landscape of New Zealand here was painted after just 16 hours of classes - as with all images here you can click it for a larger version.

Our trip departed Southampton on 5 November 2002, to Cape Town and Mauritius, returning to Southampton on 12 December. The voyage visited Madeira, Senegal, Cape Town and Durban in South Africa, Mauritius, Cape Town (again), Namibia, St Helena, Tenerife and Spain. More details about QE2 and the ports we visited are written up as the The Cape Town Line. This cruise had 25 days spent at sea, and there are always a number of activities to keep the passengers busy. Indoors there is everything from bridge to ballroom dancing, an excellent library, and a range of fascinating lectures. There is an IT Centre for those addicted to computers. I had noticed watercolour painting as an option on previous cruises, but missed the introductory classes. This time I was determined to start at the beginning.

Getting started with watercolour painting

Between Southampton and Cape Town there were 10 days at sea, and 10 watercolour classes. Our teacher was Lucy Foley who comes from Las Vegas. Now retired, she has been painting for many years and is a regular teacher with QE2. She provided the paper, paint, and brushes. We had two sizes of brush, adequate school quality for beginners. The paint was squeezed from tubes each morning onto individual plastic palettes. Lucy said that she deliberately provided the best quality heavy paper, mostly 300g/m2, but some pieces were heavier. The first set of watercolour classes used very small pieces, just 7.5 by 5.5 inches. This was because there were too many of us, and it is not easy to buy extra paper afloat ! More paper was bought in Cape Town, and in later classes we used paper which was 11 by 7.5 inches, a better size.

Lucy was an inspiration to a beginner. Her philosophy, repeated often, was "Do not be afraid". We were encouraged to take the paper, put some colour on a brush, and do something. The course did not include basic drawing skills, or the use of a pencil to plan a picture. The emphasis was on getting colours onto paper. Indeed some pictures ended up quite different at the end due to the flow of the wet paint, or the change of colour when dry. For example, one of my views meant to be a lake became a field. Lucy had brought some of her own paintings along, and this gave extra insights into the art of composition and perspective. After a demonstration of the task for the lesson we were left to have a go ourselves while Lucy and her assistant Vivienne came round each table and helped us.

The 10 classes covered the following topics :

Getting started - We began by adding water to the paint and using the brushes, to get used to how the paint moved on the paper. We mixed colours in the palette and compared the effect with washes of the same colours. We learned that to make white you leave an area unpainted.

Painting Landscapes - Today's first task was My first landscape © Pauline Curtis to learn to apply a graduated wash. This led to simple approaches to sky, sea and land. We were painting from imagination, not from pictures. Comparing my first attempt here with later landscapes shows how quickly skills are learned, and how much progress can be made even after just 2 weeks of daily classes. It also helps to have a firm view of exactly what will be in the picture.

Painting Florals - The lesson was Poppies in a Red Jug © Pauline Curtis to paint flowers and leaves in a vase. It was easier than landscapes in many ways. My first attempt began with a vase, then added leaves and tried to put the flowers on top. This is not the best approach. I had a better result with Poppies in a Red Jug, where I started with the flowers and the vase, then added the leaves last. Finally and carefully I added the table and surroundings afterwards.

Painting Still-life - A wine bottle and mixed fruit in a bowl were provided. I had problems painting it; the fruit ended up floating in mid-air, not sitting neatly in the bowl. It made me understand the importance of planning a composition before starting painting.

Painting Trees - This lesson was an extension of landscape painting to include using wet into wet to make different types of trees, and adding the trunk and branches before or after the leaves. Clouds were made by lifting off colour with a tissue. Lucy showed us some of her own paintings of the West Coast, to give examples of American trees.

Glazes - This lesson involved two stages. Firstly we painted a picture. Then we let it dry and experimented with adding an extra layer of colour on top - a glaze.

Salt and Saran Wrap (Cling Film to us Brits). This lesson showed us these two special effects. The idea was to just paint some colours, then experiment and see what happens. I have not used either technique since.

Three Open Art Workshops - for everyone to paint what they wish. This quick picture of an albatross, The Royal Albatross © Pauline Curtis done in our cabin before breakfast, shows the style of painting the background and leaving the white bird unpainted.

From Cape Town to Mauritius Lucy taught 6 more classes.

My second Mountain view © Pauline Curtis attempt at painting the bottle and fruit bowl was no better than the first time. But I did learn to paint better trees and landscapes. The imaginary mountainscape here was based on one of Lucy's pictures. Korokoro Falls © Pauline Curtis

The waterfall is in the Te Urewera National Park, New Zealand. Both pictures use scratching out. Lucy used her long nails, whereas I prefer to use the end of a paintbrush.

Lucy and Vivienne disembarked in Cape Town, so to continue painting I had to go and buy materials. A free shuttle bus was provided from QE2 to the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, where I found an art shop and purchased three inexpensive Parker brushes (round sizes 6 and 8 and a 00 rigger) and a Dalon flat brush, a cheap round plastic palette, a box of 12 Reeves tubes of paint, and a pad of 10 sheets of Bockingford 300g/m2 paper. Looking back, this was a good starting point. I have a No 1 rigger at home so adding a 00 was complementary. The rigger is useful for adding fine detail.

The Bird Rock off St Helena Island © Pauline Curtis The final part of the cruise took us to Namibia, St Helena, Tenerife and Spain. Namibian Desert © Pauline Curtis A small group of us continued to meet every afternoon to paint together. The QE2 cruise staff were very helpful, setting up our tables and chairs and providing jugs of water, even though it was not a formal taught class. By the time of our arrival in Vigo in Spain I had used all my paper. While other passengers had coffee in Santiago de Compostela, recovering from a long tour of the famous cathedral, I dragged Pete around the shops until I found an art shop to buy more paper.

Mount Ruapehu from The Desert Road © Pauline Curtis The library on board QE2 is excellent, and there are many tabletop picture books, The Moeraki Boulders - New Zealand © Pauline Curtis which are ideal for ideas for painting. I found travel books about New Zealand which I used to paint several landscapes. We had visited New Zealand earlier and so the places were familiar. The library also sells a small range of books. I bought The DK Art School "An Introduction to Watercolour" by Ray Smith. It is a good starting point, reinforced the lessons from Lucy's classes, and is not expensive.

Carry on painting in 2003

Back home Tonga Island, Abel Tasman © Pauline Curtis from QE2 just before Xmas I was not able to organise to attend regular classes locally. So I Lake Tekapo © Pauline Curtis continued, painting scenes from books of New Zealand during the early part of 2003.

In April I started to paint views along the River Thames, Tiggers Field near Oxford, River Thames © Pauline Curtis once we could get out boating. It is harder to continue painting when there is no regular class, and when there is so much else to distract when back at home. Mainly I paint landscape pictures from postcards or from photographs taken at the scene, rather than in situ. I prefer to walk and get about when the weather is fine, then sit and paint indoors in the evening. I also have a few nice books illustrated with watercolour pictures - a selection is listed below.

Visiting relatives in Guernsey Pembroke Fortifications overlooking Pembroke Bay in Guernsey © Pauline Curtis Puffins off Herm Island in the Channel Islands © Pauline Curtis in July inspired me to paint more pictures, and I expect to do more when we visit them again. Guernsey is a beautiful island, with so many opportunities to paint landscapes, flowers and birds. We took a RSPB boat trip to the island of Herm and saw puffins, and I have done one painting from the photographs from that trip.

After a summer spent doing very little, I was pleased to start watercolour classes in the Autumn, organised by Newbury College. So most Wednesday mornings I drove to Tidmarsh, for classes by Jeremy Deacon. The course aimed to extend and develop skills in watercolour technique, looking at complementary colours, composition and perspective, and tonal range and colour harmony. I could only attend 6 of the 13 sessions but I did a number of landscapes including painting snow scenes. I also attempted still life but find these more difficult.

Mount Teide © Pauline Curtis In the middle of Beach in Herm at sunset © Pauline Curtis term we were away on QE2, this time to the Falklands, so I was keen to join their watercolour classes again. The teacher, Norma, wore spectacular hats with flowers. She used Cotman paints : just crimson, cobalt blue, lemon yellow, umber and payne's grey, squeezed onto disposable paper plates. She had been trained by Frank Clarke, but unfortunately was not as good a formal teacher as Lucy had been. She did not organise her sessions around particular topics, but just provided bags of postcards for students to try and copy. Nevertheless it was useful to learn to mix colours from basics and I did a nice beach scene during one of her early classes. But it was very crowded and our group from 2002 decided to leave the classes and paint together instead.

Some of my Concorde © Pauline Curtis results are shown here; each picture took 6 hours, spread over 2 or 3 days. To begin, our first port of call was Tenerife, so I decided to paint Mt Teide, the volcano in the centre of the island. Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel © Pauline Curtis Then I bought a book about Concorde, and recalling the last flights on 24 October, I wanted to do a painting in memory of the airplane. The picture of the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel was painted from a postcard.The chapel was built in Pangbourne to remember those who died in the fighting in 1982. We were en route to the Falklands and so it seemed appropriate to paint something which was relevant. In the event, the weather was too bad to anchor in Port Stanley and we could only see the outline of the islands in the dim distance.

Rio © Pauline Curtis The next port was Rio de Janeiro, and there are so many spectacular views and delightful beaches. I chose to paint the Sugar Loaf, in the sunset, with a beach in the foreground. The colours, taken from a postcard, are so vibrant.

The rest of the year was a period of consolidation.  © Pauline Curtis Oxford after Valerie Petts © Pauline Curtis I had a lot of new books to read and techniques to try. My next objective was to paint trees, and then to learn about perspective, shadows and reflections. The next two pictures are of English landscapes, inspired by the paintings of Oxford by Valerie Petts and of village buildings by Matthew Rice. It was only after seeing Matthew's pictures of sheep that I was brave enough to try and paint them myself. Next time I will think more about the position of te sun and the length of their shadows.

More painting

We enjoy traveling on QE2 and most of North Cape © Pauline Curtis my painting since then has been done on board, during the peaceful days at sea. The next cruise was to the Land of the Midnight Sun. This was a 14 day cruise to Amsterdam and then up the West Coast of Norway to North Cape. Fjord Sunset © Pauline Curtis There were just 4 days at sea, so 4 watercolour classes. This time the teacher was Neville Clouten. He came and introduced himself when I was painting by myself in the Queen's Room. Originally from Australia, he is now living in America. There was said to be a nominal charge for the classes, and it seemed that it was $50, so I decided to continue alone. Later I found out that the money was for a starter set of paper, brushes and pan paints, ideal for those who were beginners and had no equipment. This is an excellent idea, and I would have gladly paid for such a kit myself when I first started painting.

The scenery of Geiranger Fjord © Pauline Curtis Norway is so spectacular that I painted two views of fjords. Then we visited Bryggen in Bergen, The Bryggen in Bergen © Pauline Curtis and I decided to join the final watercolour class. Neville was painting a view of the old waterfront houses, and I attempted the same. For the first time I used pen and ink on top of the watercolour. This approach worked well, and was inspired by a visit to a temporary art show in Bryggen Museum.

We visit Guernsey Fort Grey, or the Cup and Saucer, sits on the chateau de Rocquaine at the end of Rocquaine Bay in Guernsey, © Pauline Curtis July 2004 every year and I wondered whether to do a painting course by Tony Taylor. We bought one of his oil paintings many years ago and he now advertises watercolour classes. In fact we were committed to going to Guernsey at the wrong time, but enjoyed looking at a number of his watercolour paintings in the Coach House Gallery. Perhaps I will join his classes another year.

On a later trip to Guernsey I had a spare few days to paint and decided to do Les Quatre Vents in St Andrews. It is Pete's sister's house. The main difficulty was getting the outline of the house right and I spent time standing outside with a blue watercolour pencil, getting the perspectives right. The outline shape was not difficult, and I could draw it by eye. I was then able to do the sky, a cheery bright blue colour which was not at all like the actual day, as you can see from the dull photograph. Painting of Les Quatre Vents © Pauline Curtis Photograph of Les Quatre Vents © Pauline Curtis 2006 The next day I painted the roof, and started on the windows. The first window was a bedroom window, on the right of the picture, and from that all the other windows were drawn by symmetry. I then had a few days rest before adding the lurid green grass, using a really small sable brush and doing the blades of grass individually. It seemed to set off the house better than the actual front wall and hedge. I then had another break before trying to do the black woodwork on the two gables. I was pushed into finishing it all because our holiday was about to finish. The picture was framed and left in Guernsey as a gift. It is the first painting which has left my possession.

The next trip in the QE2 was "Southern Delights" and it was a journey across the Atlantic along the southern route. Friends from the QE2 painting class of 2002 came too and we had a reunion.  © Pauline Curtis The highlights of the cruise were the maiden visit to New Orleans, as well as visiting the Caribbean islands of Curacao, Grenada and Barbados. All of these places gave inspiration for painting, especially the pretty lacework balconies of the houses in the French Quarter of New Orleans and the tidy pastel houses in Curacoa. Painting classes were by Henri and his wife and assistant Natasha van Bentum - Henri's philosophy is "Small is beautiful". It was back to basics, starting with only the 3 primary colours, then mixing them to get the secondary colours, then doing little paintings from our imagination. Each day at sea brought another simple exercise, sometimes a flower or a butterfly. I was making no progress and had to escape and painted this puffin with a mouthful of fish back in my cabin. Nothing from the formal painting classes was worth keeping, but it was nice to spend the time painting with old friends.

Just three months later and we were back on the QE2, this time taking the World Cruise segment from Hong Kong back to Southampton, via South Africa. Over half the passengers were doing the complete World Cruise, some 109 days, so when I joined the watercolour class at my first day at sea I found it full of people who had already learned the basics and were painting beautiful pictures. The teacher was Olga Moore and because of the mixture of brand new and experienced people she had a real challenge which was solved by giving demonstrations as needed, either to small groups or to individuals. She provided lots of images of all kinds for people to work with and copy. Each image was divided into 6 or 9 squares, and using these lines and a ruler helped get the initial drawing right. The first step was to make an exact size sketch of the image, and only then the watercolour paint was added. Most students used an ordinary black pencil, but I still preferred to use my watercolour pencils to make the outline sketch. One way Olga encouraged us was she took each completed picture and showed it to everyone. Her favourite phrases were "Look at this beautiful (flower) emerging" and "Use more water. More water. This is watercolour painting. "

The first day I joined everyone was painting flowers and I chose a difficult image of an orchid, which I did not complete, - © Pauline Curtis 2007 but I learned a lot from the attempt. The next day it was butterflies and I was determined to do better than with Henri. It took me two  - © Pauline Curtis 2007 days to complete the painting, including one afternoon spent working in my cabin. I first drew the outline of the butterfly and its body, then added lines to show the edges of the pale green markings. The butterfly was then painted totally in the shades of green, and when it was dry the individual black specks and lines were added. It was very slow work. Unfortunately my butterfly was never 'emerging', because I painted the leaves and pink flowers after I had finished the butterfly. If the butterfly had looked a mess I didn't want to waste all the extra time on getting the background right. On another day when I came to paint flowers I chose a difficult subject. I was feeling more confident. After drawing the outline I first painted the block of yellow colour, then when it was dry I used dark indigo on top for the background to let the yellow spikes of the flower "emerge". It is not easy to get a precise brushline on a moving ship and I was very pleased with the final result. It was also the first time I had any real success with painting a still life subject.

During the five weeks I did a lot of nice paintings, of which three more are below. When I asked Olga about her painting career she said that she was now retired but used to be a teacher. I found on the Internet that until recently she was a Professor of Fine Art in the USA. She was an excellent teacher and an inspiration; I hope to meet her again.

Picture - © Pauline Curtis 2007
© Pauline Curtis 2007
© Pauline Curtis 2007

Taking just one step at a time

I have lately been asked about techniques, and have just completed this cheerful picture of a twilight Twilight seascape at Whakatane NZ with the statue of Wairaka, © Pauline Curtis, January 2005 seascape at Whakatane in New Zealand. We visited the area several years ago on holiday. The picture took 3 days to complete and there is a logic to what has to be done each day. To begin I outlined the key pieces with a watercolour pencil, defining the horizon and the shapes of the islands. Then I painted the sky wet-in-wet, using vermillion, orange and chrome yellow on the left running into violet on the right. The sea was also painted with the same colours, but different deeper shades. Once everything had dried the islands and rocks were painted using payne's gray and black, remembering that the distance should be lighter in tone than the foreground. I started at the top and worked my way down the page. I was not happy with the colours but left it all overnight to dry.

The sky looked better in the morning but more work had to be done on the sea, and I wanted it to be a more rosy colour, so used a wash which was a mixture of rose madder and crimson. The central rock had a statue of the Maori maiden, Wairaka, and you will see from my earlier pictures that I don't paint people. My first brave attempt was too plump and seemed to face the wrong direction. The statue should be a young slim girl standing on tiptoe with her hair blowing in the wind and both arms reaching backwards. I quickly washed out the colour and then spent some time practicing on a spare piece of paper until I had the essence of the statue. Then I tried again. In order to cover the previous attempt the statue became bigger, but looked better. Finally I added the dark reflections to the water using indigo, prussian blue and payne's gray, with wet-on-dry streaks. To get the sparkles on the water I practiced on some spare paper so that the brush was the right dryness for the desired effect.

Which extras should I buy next ?

I began in South Africa with three inexpensive Parker brushes (round sizes 6 and 8 and a 00 rigger) and a dalon flat brush, a cheap round plastic palette, a box of 12 Reeves tubes of paint, and a pad of 10 sheets of Bockingford 300g/m2 paper.

Paper I always use good quality paper, 140 lbs/300gsm. I use paper which is between 9 by 12 inches and 14 by 10 inches. My first four blocks of paper have all been different sizes, and purchased in different countries. I started using a board and fixing the paper with masking tape, but found I prefer to work on my lap and have purchased a lap tray - a tray mounted on a cushion. It is light, and I can move it to whatever angle is comfortable. For painting on QE2 I use Bockingford watercolour paper which is already attached to a board, so I don't have to acquire a tray.

Brushes The next considerations are brushes and paint. Cheap brushes are no investment so I rescued my old brushes, mostly sable. It is frightening how much a new sable brush costs now. By January 2003 my collection of old round sable brushes was No 3/0, 2/0, 0, 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 8. In June 2003 I threw away the 3/0 which was too badly damaged, and bought a new 4/0 to replace it. I like to do fine detail work, so my old No 1 rigger was cleaned to join the 00 rigger.

Attending watercolour classes in 2003 required me to have a range of watercolour brushes sizes 6-18 including one large flat brush ! I didn't have any large brushes so bought a No 10 Sceptre Gold sable/synthetic and No 12 squirrel mix, and also treated myself to a nice little No 2 fan. I also bought a cheap 1 inch white hair wash brush, a special offer but not much used yet. I later splurged on a No 16 Prolene brush - the price of a nice bottle of claret but it should last longer. It replaces the nasty No 12 squirrel which is going to be relegated for painting the boat.

Paint I still have the original set of 12 Reeves watercolour tubes,but the ends of the tubes are getting broken and I would need to replace them all soon. So I have a new set of 24 Reeves watercolour tubes. Neither are expensive - £4 and £8 respectively. The lesson is to clean the ends more carefully before putting the tops on ! There have been a few Cotman additions to this colour palette : indigo, prussian blue, raw sienna, Hooker's green, raw umber and rose madder, and very recently a small expensive tube of green-gold. It will be interesting to try and compare the student quality Reeves and Cotman with this my first artist quality tube. With my tubes I use three cheap plastic round palettes which I keep filled with colour, and store each palette in a ziplock freezer bag. For safety I keep the tubes in a firm plastic box when traveling. I also have a set of 12 Reeves gouache tubes. I was going to just buy a tube of white gouache, but it was cheaper to buy the full set. I was given an old Reeves watercolour traveling set of 18 pans, last used over 30 years ago. I also bought a set of 12 Faber Castell Watercolour pencils. I had reached the stage when I needed to sketch a picture before starting painting, and didn't want to have the remains of a 2B pencil staring through the paint. I have a waterproof fine black pen, edding 1800 profipen 0.3, for signing pictures and adding pen lines.

Other useful items I have a few small natural sponges which I cleaned to use for sponging out areas. They were originally bought for make-up but never used. Mainly I prefer to use tissues or rougher paper towels, but sponges are a useful alternative for a different effect. I bought a bottle of masking fluid, but had very limited success with it. I have problems being precise enough with my use of the fluid, and it set on an old squirrel brush. I also had problems seeing the colour of the cream fluid against the white paper. But I have persevered and have used it successfully now that I have better brush control.

With all this painting, some pictures were good enough to frame. Frames have sometimes been found pre-owned from charity shops or 'antiques' places, although lately I have been buying the frame and glass from our local Hobbyshop. Mounts I buy from there too.

Finally I have been given a subscription to Leisure Painter magazine, which I hope will lead me towards new projects. For example, the May 2004 issue showed me how to paint blades of grass, using the green-gold. I also purchased a few more books.

My Book list

An Introduction to Watercolour by Ray Smith. Published by the DK Art School. ISBN 0-7513-0650-9

Marine Painting in Watercolour by W L Wyllie. Published by Cassell and Company in 1901 (No ISBN)

Watercolour (Step by Step Art School) by Patricia Monahan. Published by Chancellor Press. ISBN 0753707284

Techniques Sourcebook Watercolour painting by Mark Topham. Published by Eagle Editions. ISBN 1-86160-360-6

Learn to Paint Vibrant Watercolours by Hazel Soan. Published by Collins. ISBN 0-00-413397-8.

Perspective by Ray Campbell Smith. Published by Search Press. ISBN 085532939-4

The Watercolour A to Z of Trees and Foliage by Adelene Fletcher. Published by Search Press. ISBN 1-903975-73-5

Village Buildings of Britain by Matthew Rice

Oxford: Words and Watercolours by Eliane Wilson and Valerie Petts. Published by Shepheard Walwyn. ISBN 0-85683-090-9

Watercolour Landscapes by Keith Fenwick. Published by Select Editions. ISBN 1-84193-194-2

Beningfield's English Landscape by Gordon Beningfield. Published by Select Editions. ISBN 0-670-80202-6

Manapouri by Peter Beadle. Published in New Zealand by AH and AW Reed in 1971. ISBN 0-589-00673-8

Queenstown by Peter Beadle. Published in New Zealand by AH and AW Reed in 1972. ISBN 0-589-00713-9

Fiordland by Peter Beadle. Published in New Zealand by AH and AW Reed in 1973. ISBN 0-589-00802-1

Australian Landscapes in Colour by Ian Mundie. Published by Rigby. (No ISBN or date)

Before You Leave

I would be very pleased if visitors could spare a little time to give me some feedback - it is the only way I know who has visited, if it is useful and how I should develop it's content and the techniques used. I would be delighted if you could send comments or just let me know you have visited by sending a quick Message to me.

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