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Art Masterclass - 117

Painting in the Park - John Somerscales is inspired by Capability Brown at Blenheim Palace

I am fortunate enough to live within a few miles of Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire’s World Heritage Site, with its magnificent grounds landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, whose tercentenary it is this year.

The parkland, lakes and architecture provide wonderful year-round opportunities for both plein-air and studio painting. As the grounds stretch across 2,000 acres, seeking out the best views usually requires a lot of walking, so lightweight and portable equipment is essential. I use a simple lightweight sketching easel for watercolour and a pochade box with camera tripod attachment for the oils and acrylics. My palette is the same for both media: cobalt and ultramarine blue, cobalt violet, viridian, raw sienna, burnt sienna, cadmium and lemon yellow, light red and cadmium red.

Colours and perspective
There are thousands of trees in the park, including a rich variety of species, and with seasonal variations this provides an almost limitless source of material for the landscape artist.

Inevitably the colour green is going to loom large, and handling and mixing greens is an aspect of painting that often troubles beginners. I encourage all my students to create a chart showing the range of greens created by mixing all their yellows (lemon, cadmium, raw sienna) with all their blues (cerulean, cobalt, ultramarine) as well as lamp black and Payne’s grey – see my green colour mixing chart (see below). This will show the contrast between warm and cool variations and the various degrees of colour saturation.

Understanding and perceiving temperature variations within colours is a great aid to creating depth, or aerial perspective, within a landscape
I work in watercolour, oil and acrylic, always trying to use the varying qualities of each to best effect. To create dappled light by continually adding light over dark or dark over light paint, I find the quick-drying quality of acrylic to be very useful.

Slow-drying oils, on the other hand, are great for plein-air work as areas can be continually blended or adjusted without overworking the picture and losing its original feel – and there are no worries about the brushes or palette drying out!

How long you spend working en plein air, and how successful the results are, often depend on practical considerations such as accessibility, wind and weather conditions, distance from your car, et cetera.

Bridge Study, Blenheim, oil (25.5 x 30.5cm)

I sat at my pochade box to make this plein-air study in the month of February. Winter colours are usually more interesting if you can find a bright day, and the denuded trees enabled me to see more of the bridge and concentrate on the textural interplay between branches, ground, architecture and shadows.


Demonstration Tree Study - Stage one

I stretched a piece of Bockingford paper and sketched out the main elements, concentrating on the shapes between the trees as much as the trees themselves. I applied a weak wash of raw sienna to act as a warm base; when this was dry I added some touches of masking fluid.



Stage two


I re-wet the paper and dropped in various greens made from cobalt blue mixed with raw sienna, cadmium and lemon yellow while the paper was still wet. The sky was neat cobalt, and the dark areas were cobalt mixed with light red and some burnt sienna.



Stage three

I removed the masking fluid and, using a sponge, began to create some of the foreground foliage. I continued to intensify the background greens by adding stronger colour and including some cobalt violet and viridian. I darkened the tree trunks with strong mixes of ultramarine, light red and burnt sienna, making sure I did not overdo the mixing and create black.


Finished painting

Tree Study 2, watercolour on Bockingford paper, (25.5x25.5cm).
Finally I worked up the background bushes a bit, added the shadows under the trees and, using gouache, reinstated some of the sky I had lost.




John Somerscales

John worked for over 30 years as a designer and illustrator in educational publishing. Now retired, he concentrates on painting in watercolour, oil and acrylic. John also teaches individuals and classes, and gives demonstrations at art groups. He is a member of Oxford Art Society, has exhibited with the Pure Watercolour Society, and has had work shown in Oxfordshire, London and Normandy. His work has been shown in the Sunday Times watercolour exhibition and the Anglo-French watercolour exhibition at St Marguerite-sur-Mer, Normandy. You can see more of John's work on his website:

This feature is taken from the summer 2016 issue of The ArtistClick here to purchase your copy.

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