I figured it was time to try direct watercolor painting on some complex urban subjects. My previous paintings had been somewhat easier to manage, being in more simplified settings. (Huge tree shapes, isolated, simple structures).
So I headed down to Montreal’s ‘painted ladies’ – the Victorians at Square Saint Louis. This first try was a bit of a shock – harder than I expected to capture these intricate rooftops. All the gingerbread and fish-scale tiles. You can be the judge if this one is a success. I’ll call it a learning experience.
Moving on to this view of Saint George Anglican church, in downtown Montreal, across the street from the monolithic sandstone block of our central train station, I find a more suitable view.
Still quite a challenge. In real life it’s a busy intersection, lots of traffic, and much of the important information in the church is covered by foliage.
Here’s a series of steps showing how I broke the view into ‘The Three Big Shapes’. I have a section in my upcoming book, in which I suggest a theory. An iconic, or 'symbolic' landscape painting could be made of only three shapes - Sky, Ground and Subject. So I say three big shapes, even though in reality it might be five, or seven or how ever many shapes you need.
Any scene, no matter how complex, can be simplified into these ‘puzzle pieces’. What I've been calling logical chunks’. The goal of the exercise is to see how FEW of these shapes you need to use. This is the essence of simplification. What can be merged into a shared silhouette? What internal details can be abstracted away?
I try to make each of the shapes I've identified with one continuous bead. Carrying a wash down the bell tower, stopping at a logical spot along the ground line. Or working across the roof line of the train station, infusing the whole shape with the grey-green tone of copper cladding. This gives the puzzle pieces an internal unity of color, and sharp edges between plane changes. Where you stop an edge is just as important as where you start.
The last step is the small dark details that turn the puzzle pieces into architecture. All the window ledges, lamp posts and traffic lights. What architects sometimes call ‘street furniture’.
So, thanks for reading all of this! That's the end of my project on direct-to-watercolor urban sketching. I hope that was interesting, and as always, feel free to send any questions you might have.