The Old Harbour from Town Bridge
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
Whenever I am in Weymouth, a visit to the the Old Harbour is taken as given. It is almost inescapable, being the location of the Cove Gallery that represents my work in the western half of Dorset. Paul and Geraldine do an excellent job of finding new homes for my work, and it's always a pleasure to see them to deliver new originals and prints and see the work of the gallery's other artists and makers, all curated and displayed with great skill. I never fail to be impressed.
More often than not I manage to park up on the marina quayside and then take a quick walk to the Old Harbour, crossing over the Town Bridge, one of Weymouth's most iconic landmarks. This bascule bridge opens every two hours, allowing boats from the marina clear passage to the Old Harbour and the English Channel beyond, while of course ushering home returning seafarers. There's a lovely view from the bridge: quayside buildings full of colour and character, fishing boats of all shapes and sizes, pleasure yachts at their moorings. As you take in the scene it seems that you are always downwind of the tempting smell of battered fish, chips and vinegar. No complaints on that count!
The River Wey, used from Roman times, has been a fluid fulcrum for the development of this landscape, important for the milling industry, flowing from its source at the foot of the South Dorset Downs to the Channel. But instead of diving too deeply into this, I felt that it would be a good opportunity to use the blog to show you a step-by-step painting, broken down into stages. Harbour scenes are complex and full of potential pitfalls for the painter: understanding the havoc wreaked by perspective on the shape of boat hulls, decisions to be made on what detail to keep and what to leave out. The way that I approach a complicated subject like this is no different to a simple landscape. I always try to break the process down into four stages: Decisions, Development, Definition, Detail. I took some quick shots on my phone as the painting progressed and if you are learning and developing your skills with watercolour then hopefully you'll be able to pick up some useful tips.
Use sketches - as many as you feel you need - to resolve the best composition. With a lot of detail it is almost certain that you will need to reorganise the image; leave some things out, include others, move the focal point of the painting, if necessary. In this scene, the two closest fishing boats were much further forward and I decided to push them back a little so that their reflections wouldn't interfere with the bottom edge of the painting. The reference photo I took a couple of years back was in bright sunshine at midday, and it just seemed to render everything a little too flat, so I imagined an atmosphere of clouds dispersing with some watery sunlight just starting to break through. It is a good time to also consider the style that you want to paint in; am I going to use a very loose technique, or will this be about the detail? I love painting detail, and I decided to make this a feature, and made a mental note that this style would need to be consistent throughout the painting. It is so important to take these decisions before you lunge at your freshly prepared piece of paper. Be clear in your mind of the direction that the painting is going to take, and try to visualise what it will look like when you have finished it.
Having taken the important decisions, the next step is to develop your ideas on the paper. With a subject like this I took time to ensure that the key shapes were well drawn. The detail on boats is difficult to render with the same freedom as fields or hedges and so an element of care needed to observed here. There is no hiding a badly drawn boat! Then, taking account of the highlighted areas that would be the white of the paper, I built up a combination of wet-on-wet washes that helped to establish the atmosphere of the painting and ensured that as much of the scene as possible was covered, which would give the painting a sense of unity even at this early stage, and help to prevent a 'colouring in' approach to each individual shape. At this stage I was looking at the edges that I wanted to be soft, and those that needed to be crisp. As the painting progressed through this stage every decision that I made, and every wash that I painted would have a consequence later on. Remember - watercolour is a transparent medium.
With most of the paper covered with my development washes I moved onto the Definition stage, which is often the longest phase of any painting. The key here was to start defining the important shapes, still paying attention to the hard and soft edges and preserved highlights, and being a complex subject it was essential to try and build up as many areas of the painting without paying too much attention to any specific area. It is always possible to add extra detail later in a painting, but it is very difficult to remove it, and if you're not careful it can be very easy to loiter for too long in one area, working away with a small brush and potentially damaging the balance of the painting. I knew that the main fishing boats would be very detailed and so was happy to ignore them while I defined the supporting areas of the painting. However it was essential that I avoided the temptation to overwork the distant yachts and buildings which would have killed off the sense of depth in the scene.
At this point I was comfortable that the Definition stage was complete - all the main areas of the painting had been defined and I was satisfied with the tonal values being correct, and the sense of depth had been achieved by muting the background colours and keeping that area as quiet as possible (difficult, given what a busy, bustling part of the Old Harbour it is.) The buildings on the left, the cars and figures would receive little or no treatment from then on. To continue working on them would have distracted from the main subject - the fishing boats. I made the decision early on to make this a very detailed piece and it was important to remain committed to that, but knowing what detail to include and leave out at this juncture would be the ultimate arbiter of success or failure. With it starting to assume the look of a finished painting, I started to put in the obvious details that couldn't really be left out: boat registration numbers, masts, mooring ropes for example. I then took a step back to identify other marks that needed to be made, adding highlights and accents where necessary, to help direct the eye around the painting, without straying too far from the focal point. Most of this stage was completed with a rigger brush, so named for its original use in painting ships' rigging, and I used a small amount of titanium white paint where necessary, and where it had not been possible to leave the white of the paper showing through unpainted. Don't overdo it - these should only be very fine lines or small areas, and I find generally that this is a preferable solution to using masking fluid.
Painting in watercolour is strategic and whether or not your subject is simple or elaborate it helps to follow a plan - it really is the best way to avoid confusion. Each watercolourist has a different approach and technique; for instance, compare and contrast the style of John Yardley with the technique of Joseph Zbukvic, both outstanding painters approaching the medium and the construction of their paintings in entirely different ways. It is not a science; both are right. My four-stage process -Decisions, Development, Definition and Detail - works for me, giving me a sense of structure and a working method that encourages a confident approach to painting. Why don't you see if it helps with your painting too?