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Planning Retirement Online

Art Masterclass               July 2006

Each month presents a feature from either The Artist or its sister publication, Leisure Painter. 

Art masterclass

from The Artist, the monthly magazine for amateur and semi-professional painters, giving practical instruction in painting and drawing in watercolour, pastels and oils, as well as news of art events, exhibitions and competitions open to leisure artists;

This month: an Art Masterclass featured in the current edition of The Artist, the magazine for amateur and semi-professional painters.


The Renaissance in detail

Fascinated by buildings and classical decoration Gordon McDowall records their grandeur in carefully worked watercolours

In addition to their strong sense of design and visual appeal, Gordon McDowall's accomplished watercolours convey an intriguing, timeless quality that both excites and challenges our imagination. His inspiration is buildings, or, more accurately, fine architecture, and in particular the magnificent Renaissance churches, palaces and civic buildings of Italy. Within this theme he works in a sensitive, objective way to record the examples of our architectural heritage that most impress him and that he hopes will resonate with others through his paintings.

Gordon travels quite frequently, most often to Italy, to Florence, Lucca, Urbino, Assisi.





Florence Roofscape, watercolour, 193/4x153/4in. (50x40cm)

Cuba, watercolour, 231/2x161/2in. (60x42cm)


"The travelling is a team effort," he says. "My wife, who is also an art teacher, normally points me in the right direction. Often we get up at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning, when the light is good, so that we can assess the potential of different subjects. Light is always an important element. The play of light and shadows contributes to the sense of structure and drama within the scene."

Gordon also finds striking subjects nearer to home — in Newcastle, where he visits friends, and in the area where he lives, in Glasgow. Sometimes he concentrates on parts of buildings or architectural detail, but he also enjoys tackling very complex street scenes or city views, as demonstrated in Cuba and Florence Roofscape. "Whatever the subject, it is essential to have good reference material," he says, "and for me this entails taking lots of photographs, in both film and digital format. I spend a great deal of time exploring different viewpoints, lighting and compositional possibilities as well as photographing details and other information, so that I have plenty of information to refer to.


Tonal underpainting

"I paint almost exclusively in watercolour. I like the luminosity of watercolour, its fast-drying nature and, of course, the fact that it allows me to develop the necessary amount of detail. Once I have applied some general washes I can pick out the detail more or less immediately. In the main I exploit the drama of tone, rather than placing an emphasis on colour values, and consequently my palette is based mainly on earth colours.






Urbino, watercolour, 193/4x28in. (50x72cm)


Cloisters at Glasgow University, watercolour, 18x22in. (46x56cm)

"The basic palette consists of burnt umber, raw umber, burnt sienna, yellow ochre, raw sienna and French ultramarine.

Later in the painting I will introduce other, more vibrant colours, such as rose madder, depending on the needs of the subject matter and the effect I want to convey. "Because I like to include a lot of detail in my paintings I find that a smooth, hotpressed (HP) paper is the best surface to work on.

It is true that this won't help very much with textures, but I prefer to control the textures by using salt, cling film and other techniques, or by exploiting the granulating characteristics of various colours or mixing colours with granulating medium. Normally I use Fabriano Artistico paper, and I always stretch this. But I never soak the paper before taping it to the board. Instead, I give it a light misting with water on both sides, using a recycled kitchen spray container.

"I also spray the surface of the paper in a similar way at the start of a painting, before applying the initial colour washes. This helps with the flow of washes and prevents 'banding' — the effect when different wet-against-wet colours or tones hold to the surface and fail to blend properly. However, before dampening the paper in this way I focus on the drawing, which is often quite an elaborate, painstaking process. I use soft, technical pencils, keeping the marks as delicate and clean as possible. If I make a mistake I correct it with a putty eraser, being careful not to damage the paper surface.


"The reference for the drawing is invariably a cropped photograph, supported by other photographs of relevant architectural detail, plus a number of photocopies. The photocopies provide a useful guide for the main, simplified forms within the subject matter and also the tonal values. Usually I adjust the photocopier to give me three versions from the reference photograph: light, medium and dark.

"Once I am happy with the drawing I consider where I need to reserve the whites and whether I need to use any masking fluid. I always dilute the masking fluid with water before applying it to the paper and I soak the brush first. Next I start with the general colour washes, referring to the photocopies and aiming to establish a sound tonal underpainting.

On the Grand Canal, watercolour, 18x121/2in. (46x32cm)


Horses at St Mark's, watercolour, 16x173/4in. (40x50cm)

At this stage I mostly keep to a mix of burnt umber and French ultramarine, where necessary making the tones slightly warmer by adding more burnt umber, or cooler by adding more ultramarine.

Textures and details

"Usually, before committing myself to applying a tonal wash I dot some paint around the edge of the particular area and then step back and assess whether I think the tone will work.

If so, I block it in. If not, I adjust the tone darker or lighter.With all the basic tonal work in place, I take a small brush and begin adding the detail. Again, this stage can take many days to complete. In order to give myself some variety, as well as to keep the entire painting developing at the same pace, I chop and change from one area to another and also use different brushes to introduce a range of marks.

"Many of the buildings that interest me have fascinating textured surfaces, with stuccoed, or perhaps
distressed, flaking plaster, ornate stonework, and so on. I mainly use broad, granulating washes to suggest these types of texture and also to enhance, in conjunction with the earlier use of perspective, the sense of form and depth. This aspect of the painting is particularly enjoyable because it doesn't require the same intense approach; it is more relaxing.

"Other techniques that I occasionally use for textures include salt (sprinkled into the wet paint and rubbed off when dry); cling film (impressed into a wet wash and removed when dry); lifting out (wetting an area with a sponge and dabbing the surface with tissue paper); scratching through (using a scalpel to scratch through dry paint to create a broken colour effect); and dry-brush, scumbling and similar brushwork effects.

"I never use a technique purely for its own sake, and I try not to overdo the variety. The choice of technique has to be totally compatible with the character and quality of the texture that I need to represent.


"Periodically I stand well back from the painting to assess its development and in particular to check the contrast and balance of tonal values. A good way to do this, I have
found, is to turn down the lighting, and so view the painting in a dim light. This instantly helps to focus on the
strengths of the tones. Similarly, I sometimes turn the work upside-down or view it as a mirror image, again to check its impact from a compositional and tonal standpoint.



Gray Street, Newcastle, watercolour, 193/4x271/2in. (50x70cm)

Antony's Sage, watercolour, 193/4x271/2in. (50x70cm)

"Despite having carefully included quite a lot of detail in the painting, in the final stages I may decide to subdue some of that detail if I think this will improve the overall sense of form and design. Therefore I sometimes apply a late wash to 'knock back' an area.

When, eventually, I am happy with the work and feel that there is no more that I can constructively add, I finish by applying a wash of diluted gum arabic across the entire surface. This serves two purposes: it enriches the tones and it acts as a sort of varnish/protective coating for the painting.

"Finally, I consider the framing. I generally avoid the traditional wide, neutralcoloured card mount approach to framing. With the choice of framing materials and techniques available today, I
think there is an opportunity to be more adventurous and modern in the way that watercolours are presented. Mostly I like to experiment with close-mounting, perhaps using a canvas slip (as used for oil and acrylic paintings) and combining this with a modern gesso gilt frame."



Beginners please 

The second issue of StartArt, the magazine for people who want to paint or draw but haven't a clue how to go about it, is now in major newsagents.  StartArt has step-by-step demonstrations on acrylic painting, plus simple drawing exercises using water-soluble pencils, so you can make as many mistakes as you like, and still get results. 

And there's also a Summer Paint a Postcard Competition.   Issue No. 2 costs ?5.95




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