I'm not going to bore you with long lists of materials which you must buy. I find that life is much easier if you have just the bare essentials. The fewer materials you have, the less you have to worry about, but do always try to use everything to its utmost potential.
For years I've taught watercolour painting using a mere seven colours, regarding them as good friends rather than just acquaintances - you quickly learn how they react together. Having said that, in producing this specialist book on skies, I realized that I needed a few more friends! My old faithfuls are raw sienna, cadmium yellow (pale), burnt umber, ultramarine, light red, alizarin crimson and Payne's grey. To these I've added cerulean blue, Prussian blue and burnt sienna. These can be bought in large (21 mm) Winsor & Newton tubes of Cotman colour. I find that these tubes, which are much less expensive than the Artists' Quality ones, are conducive to squeezing out paint with greater abandon - something I'm constantly trying to persuade my students to do. So many people seem to turn into misers over their paint!
Let me tell you a little about my seven original colours.
This shows my plastic tray, large tubes of colour, three main brushes, collapsible water pot and Bockingford pads, which I always have in two sizes.
Raw sienna. This is my 'banker'. It's very versatile and I use it on every painting, beginning each sky with it. It's an 'earth' colour - one of the oldest colours known. I much prefer it to yellow ochre, as it's much more transparent.
Cadmium yellow (pale). Probably the brightest, purest yellow you can find.
This is my outside set-up. Metal easel, art bin and palette, all of which 1 can carry under one arm. Note how the collapsible water pot hangs on a hook near the pad.
Although I have a large studio where I do my teaching, I often prefer to work at this personal work station, which I've set up in the gallery overlooking the drawing room. It has a large overhead skylight and to the right, as you can see, there's a north-facing 5.5 metre (18 foot) window overlooking the Forest of Dean. I've been using the same low trolley and large glass water jar for years now. The trolley is just the right height for mixing paint and there is plenty of room underneath for spare palettes, paper, etc.
Burnt umber. Another earth' colour. It is very useful for making a whole range of greys when mixed with ultramarine - so necessary for clouds.
Ultramarine. This is a very strong, warm, rich blue. I hardly ever use it straight, as it can look crude, but tempered with other colours it's delightful. For example, mixed with light red it makes lovely warm, mauvish cloud shadows.
Light red. This is a very fierce 'earth' colour - a little of it goes a long way. Never use it without adding another colour, such as raw sienna.
Alizarin crimson. Again, a tube of this lasts a long time. It's a cool, intense red and very useful for tempering down Payne's grey for clouds - a combination I probably use more than any other.
Payne's grey. Some artists wouldn't be seen dead using this colour, but I love it. Never use it by itself, though: it looks too cold and dead, and can easily dominate a painting. But applied sensitively and warmed up with colours like burnt umber, it's valuable. I use it also with yellow for my dark greens. It dries much lighter than it appears when wet.
Now to the three newcomers to my palette for skies. In the past I always used ultramarine, which is basically a warm blue, but now I feel the need of a couple of cooler blues. Cerulean is excellent - its name comes from the Latin for sky blue. And Prussian blue, although fierce, when watered down is very useful indeed. Finally, burnt sienna is the reddest of the 'earth' colours; it is permanent and a marvellous mixer.
As to the paper, this comes in a large variety of surfaces and weights, and every artist has a favourite surface. For the last twenty years I've painted on Bockingford paper — 140 lb weight. I find that this never needs stretching — an irksome task as far as I'm concerned. Available in five weights, it has a single, unique 'Not' surface (i.e. not hot-pressed). It has a good 'tooth', which I find suits my style. It also takes kindly to correction, whereas some of the more expensive papers seem to be rather unforgiving. I usually buy the spiral-bound pads, as they're so handy to carry around. I'm not keen on the blocks, as they're inclined to cockle and can be a pain to cut out.
My choice of brushes may seem somewhat eccentric, but they've served me well over many years. Originally I used the 2 inch Japanese hake made of goat hair. However, my own English Pro Arte inch hake, also in goat hair, is more comfortable. This brush covers the surface quickly and its size helps to avoid that awful 'fiddling'. In fact, I seldom use any other brush for skies. For the rest of the painting I use a combination of hake, 1 inch flat and rigger, and have sometimes found a large round useful. The 1 inch flat is synthetic fibre and has a knife edge when wet - ideal for buildings, boats and sharp edges generally. The No. 3 rigger I use for branches of trees, grasses and figures. The round brush is a size 24, of synthetic fibre, and is also from Pro Arte.
Sponges are useful; you'll find natural ones are far gentler than synthetic types and disturb the paper less. They're good for softening and modifying cloud shapes. I normally hate using masking solution, but it can be useful on some skies, especially if you're attempting a free sky round a complex object such as a church or a windmill. A word of warning: don't try to remove it until the paint around it is completely dry. This may sound obvious, but believe me, I've ruined many a painting due to impatience.
A word about charcoal. This is ideal for making rapid impressions of skies. The willow sticks are thin and snap easily, but this will help you to develop a light touch as you try not to break the stick! It's a beautifully expressive medium, capable of delicate blending and strong contrasts. Use this with cheap drawing paper as a preparation for your watercolour painting.
Erasers are useful in sky painting too, especially to get those rays of light below clouds which every student wants to produce. They come, of course, in various grades. Putty erasers are softest and kindest and can be used to take out pencil
marks after the painting is finished. You'll also need a soft pencil eraser and, finally, an ink eraser, which is the most abrasive. These all need gentle and careful use to avoid destroying the surface of the paper. Another essential aid, as far as watercolour is concerned, is a supply of absorbent cloths and paper tissues to blot and modify your skies.
Although I am essentially a watercolourist and most of the illustrations in this book are water-colours, I'm very aware that some of you may prefer to capture skies in other media, and you will find a few examples of these throughout the book. While I don't want to go into detail about oils and pastels, you will see on this page some of my own equipment for working in these media.
My metal oil painting box, which I bought in a church jumble sale, holds everything I need, including wooden palette, brushes and canvas board.
These are the various boxes of pastels which I'm using at present. For skies, one needs to buy soft greys and blues, individually, as these more subtle colours are not found in the boxed sets. I use the charcoal sticks to draw skies, and find the paper stump useful for softening. They are also excellent for tonal sketches. Also shown is the pad of variously coloured pastel paper. You'll find a putty eraser useful too.
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