Support: Canson recycled drawing paper 160g/m², 98Ibs
Colours: red ochre, ultramarine blue, white, yellow ochre, medium yellow, magenta, lemon yellow, brilliant red, Prussian blue, cobalt blue, burnt sienna.
Brushes: Daler Rowey System 3: 1” short flat, No. 4 round, No 2/0 round
Size: 38 cm x 28 cm (15” x 11”)
The brief for this exercise was to choose a view of the world from a window or doorway and decide the main focus of the picture and how much of the interior to include.
Initially, I did a number of sketches looking into the back garden as well as the neighbours’ gardens from the front bedroom window. I had being wanting to try using gouache and decided that the view from the back garden might lend itself to the medium.
After some consideration I decided not to frame the image using the patio doors as I felt this would detract from the view. I wanted to focus on the design aspect of the subject using the lines of the fence for perspective and emphasising the lines and textures of the garden and plants. In the neighbours garden to the right is a willow tree with twisting branches which hang over the fence. In the sunlight the branches are a golden colour while the thin cork-screwed ends of the branches appear maroon.
In our own garden a Japanese maple has echoing curves and branches which are of a grey-purple hue.
Against these shades I wanted to bring out the complementary colours of the other plants especially the range of greens in the boxwood, grasses and castor-oil plant.
Across the fence is a nursing home and, while including this, I did not want to detract from the foreground.
Not having used gouache before I spent some time playing with colours in my sketchbook. There were a number of ready-made greens in the set of paints but I used mixes of cobalt blue and ultramarine along with lemon yellow, medium yellow and yellow ochre to create a range of potential colours. I also worked on a range of more earth-based and purple tones for the brickwork of the nursing home and branches of the trees.
For my first session I decided to block in the colours using pale washes and avoiding mixing with white. My thinking was just to cover the paper and get some idea of the balance of the colours. It didn’t take me long to realise that the paper I was using was buckling considerably. I decided at this point to leave it to dry and see if I would need to re-work the drawing.
After the first session the paper dried well and had flattened out. I began to work on the nursing home, by mixing colours with white to create a more traditional, flat, gouache surface. My aim was not to have the building dominate the painting and to use blocks of colour with just enough detail. For the brickwork I used a ‘Q’ tip to lift out areas of the paint to suggest individual bricks. Similarly with the roof I felt that it was better to use areas of light and dark rather than focusing on individual tiles.
To finish the session I added a little more detail to the hills in the background and worked up the fence to the right using an opaque version of the original wash.
Over the next couple of sessions I worked on the fence to the left using a mix of crimson, yellow ochre and white, adding shadows at a later point with a mix of Prussian blue and magenta. Using the ochre-based colour would, I hoped, contrast with the grey-purple of the maple tree. Again, I was aiming for enough detail without detracting from the shape of the tree.
I blocked in more detail of the branches of the willow tree using a mix of brilliant red, lemon yellow and white with touches of yellow ochre. To define the branches I used some magenta and yellow ochre to add in some shadows. My concern at this stage was that the branches didn’t really stand out against the background. Similarly, for the Japanese maple, I had to considerably lighten my original mix of ultramarine, burnt sienna, white and magenta.
I also blocked in the small boxwood and the lavender and grasses beside it. By now I felt that I was beginning to struggle a bit with the gouache. Not being used to using it I was working against an inclination to treat it like acrylics and assuming that it would be easy to paint over previous layers if required. What seemed to happen was that one layer dissolved into another.
The grass plant was also proving problematical. I had suffered from the heady idea that I could paint it in a stylised way showing individual grasses but, despite using a small brush, this was proving difficult. It might work with a larger version of the plants but not at this size.
Finally, I added another layer of colour for the lawn and also to the strawberry planter in the right-hand corner.
For the final session I worked on more detail on the trees and plants.
To create more definition of the willow tree I added a darker colour to the hills. For the branches themselves I used magenta and Prussian blue straight from the tube to add in shadows and smaller branches that were in silhouette. The tree, in reality, has a more ethereal feel with the smaller branches creating elegant, twisting tendrils. This was a look I was finding difficult to achieve with the gouache. To create some sense of it I used yellow ochre to create the thinner branches adding the shapes at random over the other branches.
Using magenta I worked up the branches of the Japanese maple. Again, I found it difficult to create the delicacy of the smaller branches.
It was a similar situation with the other plants. I tried to create a bit more detail but the soft, chalky effect of the gouache worked against this. With the castor-oil plant I created more definition by using a fine line of Prussian blue to outline the leaves.
Finally, I added the trellis to the fence, a darker layer of colour to the soil and texture to the grass. At that point I decided that I had probably taken it as far as I could.
- Overall, I don’t think I achieved what I had set out to with this painting. My initial aim of focusing more on the design aspects of the scene came a bit unstuck though it may have worked better if the painting had been on a larger scale.
- The foreground, where I had hoped for more definition of differing shapes, has lost focus and the background has become more dominant. With hindsight this is, perhaps, an obvious conclusion as the large blocks of colour in the building lend themselves more naturally to the gouache paint.
- I enjoyed using the gouache but found myself fighting against my natural inclination to treat them in the same way as acrylics.
- I didn’t take into account the effect that the initial washes of colour would have on subsequent layers. If re-working the exercise I would be more inclined to paint directly onto the white paper – though painting onto coloured ground may work in other circumstances.
- In my haste I didn’t take into account the weight of the paper and this caused some problems initially. If re-doing the exercise I would use a more robust paper.
As a postscript to this exercise I subsequently came across a useful book in my local library, Jack Buchan’s Landscapes: Step-by-Step Art School . One of the paintings demonstrated in the book was created with gouache and gives helpful advice. I’ve made notes on this in a separate post, Working with gouache.
- Buchan, J. and Baker, J. (1993) Landscapes: Step-by-Step Art School. London: Hamlyn, 88–97