Since all difficulties these days are called ‘challenges’ (which, incidentally, is rubbish because life is full of colossal Difficulties in my experience, but, never mind, let’s call them Challenges), I decided, when thinking about how I might survive two weeks, half way up the Andalucian sierra, in the company of five children, that I needed a new challenge – a really Difficult one.
The challenge I decided to set myself was to ‘master’ (i.e. become reasonably competent at) the art of watercolours by the time I came home. How hard could it be? Even Ladies-who-lunch and Prince Charles do watercolours. However, I reckoned it would keep me out of mischief and give my poor tired brain something to tussle with (when I say, “keep me out of mischief” what I really mean is keep me away from children because I had expected Spain to be populated by swarthy dangerous toreadors and women who looked and behaved like Carmen.)
Why watercolours? My system for working in oils has become studio-bound – if you could see it in action you’d know why, and my sketching/drawing technique has, since the 1980s, involved oil pastels and a special shiny silky-coated paper; so the only challenge would be varying a long-standing practice. No, I needed a greater Challenge: something that would keep me engaged and, as I say, away from the children (as much for their benefit as mine it has to be said): so watercolours it was. My only previous attempts had been futile and derisory.
Since I hate being encumbered in the countryside – I’d had enough of that for 4 years when tramping around the cliffs of Wales and Cornwall festooned with a walking laboratory plus binoculars, tripod and telescope – and I’d fondly imagined I’d be spending my days in the high sierra with only lizards, snakes, toreadors and dusky señoritas for company, I didn’t want to be lugging trays of paint, palettes, water bottles and a variety of brushes about.
It so happens that a couple of years ago, I’d been given an “Art-Kure”™ watercolour brush pen – a lovely sepia coloured one. I confess I hadn’t used it much because I like scratchy methods and this was too much like watercolours (see last sentence a couple of paragraphs ago). But now, seeing I was going to enter upon a challenge, perhaps this was the moment the brush had been waiting for.
Cautiously I tried it out. Yes, if I approached the thing this way rather than trying to draw per se with it, suddenly there were possibilities. To the art store then for more colours. Predictably, the line had been discontinued: all they had left, hidden away in a cabinet at ground level, were a few examples of colours no-one else wanted. So, since I love a challenge, I chose a bilious yellow (of a shade which any 1950s teddy boy would have wanted socks in), a brown – much darker and more sombre than my nice sepia one, and a rather depressing blue – somewhere between Prussian and Black.
Well, there are challenges and there are stupid quests that even a Hobbit with Gandalf by his side wouldn’t take on, and this is my first attempt to use these colours.
Is a pen & ink drawing washed with colour really truly a “Watercolour”? I have no idea. Either way, not a very auspicious start to this new new career, I needed more colours if my challenge wasn’t going to end up like a donkey confronting Beecher’s Brook for the first time.
Those old-fashioned colouring pencils, of the Derwent™ variety had always been around, and suddenly here was my salvation – my one ring to rule them all (perhaps I shouldn’t continue this Tolkein theme) – of course, watercolour pencils! So I bought a tin of 12 – my daughter had a tin of 24 she was prepared to give me, but a tin on its own minus the pencils would have been a challenge too far. However, if Titian could work with a very limited palette, then 12 colours plus my 4 watercolour brush pens would surely suffice. As a safety net, I also took a bundle of ordinary colouring pencils and my tin of scruffy oil pastel stubs with sketchbook of shiny paper, just in case I really was the feared donkey.
Years ago I’d been given a stack of lovely watercolour paper by artist and tutor John Weston’s widow. I’d given most of it away but since I always make up my own sketchbooks (unaware there’d ever be a need) I had nevertheless kept some back on the off chance that one day I might feel the need for a challenge such as this, so I made up two sketchbooks: one to fit in my bag, and a much larger one, which I could carry under my arm like a proper artist. I know you are supposed to soak and stretch paper for watercolour to prevent it cockling but this seemed far too technical for me and one helluva fag. Moreover, certain my efforts would not warrant such investment, I tried the paper first and found the quality to be so good that lengthy messy soaking and stretching was unnecessary. All it needed to prevent curling was a generous water laden brushed diagonal cross on the reverse side.
Trying out the paper first was also a sensible precaution in establishing I wasn’t going to suffer two weeks of mind-numbing frustration. My faltering efforts, poor, as they were, at least gave me enough confidence to carry on. My next post will be about the Andalucian adventure, and I’ll tell you how I got on.