Haida Gwaii Watercolor, Part 1

I paint occasionally in watercolor, pastels and acrylic, although not as much lately as I would like. I started late, a few years ago, and although I’ve sold a couple of small things, I still have an incredible amount to learn.

Painting watercolor is what I keep coming back to, partially because it was the first medium I started to get serious about and partially because it’s so challenging. I keep wanting to get it right. It’s like the game of go to me: there is great simplicity but that simplicity allows a complex concatenation of choices that lead to either failure or success.

It’s just water, pigment and a brush or some other applicator. No varnishes, lacquers, gessos, thinners, thickeners, rabbit-skin glues or fixatives. But the paper you choose for a watercolor is as important, or more, than the other ingredients. It’s got to take a lot of moisture and abuse without falling apart like wet Kleenex.

One’s inadequacies in the medium are too easily laid bare. There’s a tempestuous relationship here, after you tear up a few messes in disgust. But I keep returning to bang my head against the wall once more!

In this attempt, I am spurred on by a request by my Chinese brother-in-law, who is an official in the Chinese government’s scientific bureaucracy. (He can be seen in a non-speaking role apparently greeting Al Gore in Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth when the ex-vice president visits China.) He is a gentle, intelligent, thoroughly hard-working person, and I was flattered when he asked me to do a painting for him.  He has visited us in British Columbia and loves the landscape here.  He asked for something of that.

My two brothers live in the Queen Charlotte Islands (or Haida Gwaii, the native name, which is gaining currency), a major group of islands off the northern coast of British Columbia.  Its climate is surprisingly mild considering how far north it is, although subject to major ocean storms of wind and rain.  A little snow, but not much, falls in the winter.  Anyway, the subject for my painting is there on the north coast near Masset, at a landmark knob of rock called Tow Hill, named after a battle in the legends of the native Haida.  North Beach runs along here, which is where Raven first brought people into the world by coaxing them out of a clam shell, making North Beach the site of creation.  This is a mythic landscape, ordinary looking though it may appear to you and me.  Seems like a good spot for a painting.

towhillrev.jpgI have two source photos taken there. There are a few things here I find attractive as subjects for a watercolor painting.  The light on the trees.  The wave front and receding perspective.  The shape of the hill.  The reflective pools of water in one photo.  The mist very importantly, including in what will probably be the focal area, where a small dark figure stands out in one photo.  The shore birds, both in flight and on the ground.  The foreground large cobble-sized rocks in the second photo.  The slant of the beach in the second photo.  The distant line of rock creeping along the horizon from the hill.

towhill2rev.jpgThere are problems though.  How best to combine both photos?  What is the best composition?  One major problem is the unbalanced mass on the right side.  I have to balance it better somehow on the left.  I propose to better place the flying gulls.  Another technique is to have a strong sense of space or distance, illusory though it is, as a counterweight.  Finally, I have to make the sky more interesting, and by making the upper left a stronger blue with a defined line of clouds through the middle of the sky, I hope to help solve two problems.

The next stage for me is to play around with the shapes and composition.  I did a bunch of these, ink on index cards, just fooling about.  Here’s one:


That’s starting to get there, although I’m not totally happy with it.  I’ve got to settle on the size of the figure in front of the mist.  Smaller but distinct is better, I think.

Time to move on to the next kind of thumbnail sketch, the value study.  Here’s a rough one:


The point of this is to start to figure out where the light, the dark and the mid-value tones might go without the distractions of colour.   And you don’t want the same extent for each broad value class — the painting becomes too static and boring.  That’s the meaning of the little diagram on the right side, indicating that light values will predominate, then mid-tones, and then the darks as smallest total area.

I have a little more work to do on these two aspects of shape and tone until I’m happy with the final composition.  But I’m almost there, and I’ve settled on my colour palette: Prussian Blue, Venetian Red, Quinacridone Gold, Green Gold, Cobalt Turquoise Light, Ultramarine Violet and Transparent Yellow.

Prussian Blue is an old-fashioned pigment favoured by the watercolor greats like Winslow Homer which has been replaced by near dyes such as Phthalocyanine Blue.  But I love what Homer did with the older colour.  In fact, combine Prussian Blue and Venetian Red and you get a beautiful gray called Homer gray.  One other nice thing about Prussian Blue is that you can make a wide variety of greens with most of the orange and yellow pigments, unsaturated in colour or not.  Quin Gold and the Yellow will find uses in the tree lighting on the right as will the Green Gold.  Prussian Blue is not a very natural sky colour so I will mix it with the Turquoise in a gradient for the upper left.  The Violet will have its uses in shadows and accents along with the blues.  The water will have traces of blues and violets and greens.  That’s the plan.

I have to think out more the distribution of warm and cool colours, hard and soft edges, detail and ambiguity.  I’m going to use about a half sheet (15″x22″) of Opus European 200 lb. watercolour paper.  (Opus is a local great, and reasonably priced, art supply store on Granville Island in Vancouver right next to the Emily Carr School of Art.)  I’m emotionally preparing myself to mess up and have to waste the paper and start over at least once.  This paper is over $6 Canadian for one 22″x 30″ sheet, but that’s not bad for good watercolor paper.

A lot of the work in watercolor seems to be the preparation before you first rub a colour-smeared brush on paper.  Get that all clear in your mind and the painting itself is not so overwhelming.  With a little more work, I’m ready to proceed.


Note: For what I ended up with as a painting, see Haida Gwaii Watercolor, Part II.

Explore posts in the same categories: Art, Cascadia, Environment, Painting

10 Comments on “Haida Gwaii Watercolor, Part 1”

  1. Eliza D Says:

    The scenery you selected is stark and beautiful. I hope you will post a photo of the finished product as my curiousity is piqued.

    I always admire people who can paint in whatever medium. From schooldays, my watercolours and oils always end up looking like primary school material (the bad ones). But those watercolour programmes (there was one British one that my husband and I particularly liked) make it look so easy.

    All the best with the painting…

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Eliza,

    Thanks for your encouragement. Just hoping I’ll get something out of it that’s not too bad.

    Those painting programs on TV do make it look easy. Always much tougher than it looks, I’m afraid.


  3. Eliza D Says:

    Fencer, I have no tips to pass to you, I’m afraid. But with all your discussion of colours and all, don’t forget to have fun….

  4. fencer Says:

    Aye, fun!


  5. qazse Says:

    Thanks fencer. I am not trained in art and found your discussion of the preparatory considerations fascinating. The beach reminds me a bit of Maine. Nice work. I share Eliza D’s hope that you post the finished product. Take care and don’t wear your Sunday clothes while painting.

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi qazse,

    With some trepidation, I must leave the preparation and actually paint soon!

    However it turns out, I will post something…


  7. Eliza D Says:

    So how’d is the painting going?

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi Eliza,

    Thanks for asking! I think I will post again about it in a week or so. (I’m on kind of a books about writing kick at the moment…)


  9. bloglily Says:

    Hi Mike, These preliminary sketches and thoughts are so interesting. And they’re very inspiring. Thank you for showing them to us. xo, BL

  10. fencer Says:

    There you are! Welcome back to blog land, BlogLily… You’ve been missed!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: