Rajasthan is like an artist’s dream. Scarcely a day goes by that I’m not browsing through my sketchbooks and photos from my visits there, and frankly it’s all too rarely that I get to paint large studio pieces from my times there.

So it was with much anticipation last month that after almost two years I was able to dedicate myself to completing a watercolour of the horse market that I spent a week or so exploring in 2011 (part of the much larger Nagaur Camel Fair, discussed in an earlier blog entry).

20130605-080342.jpgPhoto of the horse market, Nagaur Camel Fair
February 2011

During that week I sketched-out a number of possible compositions for paintings, in an A4 layout book that I always carry with me. Over the years I’ve roughed-out thousands of these little thumbnail drawings, only a fraction of which I’ll ever paint, but they’re an important part of the process. They’re a way of storing ideas and problem-solving compositions, and sometimes a colour version is necessary as well

20130605-081342.jpgHorse Market – Rajasthan
Layout sketch

Once the composition is decided on, I begin work on the drawing. Before this though I’ve ‘stretched’ my paper(Arches 356gsm medium cold-pressed) onto my drawing board. This traditionally involves wetting the paper, spreading it onto the board and applying special gummed tape to the edges. As the paper and tape dries it is stretched taut like a drum, and allows for water and paint to be applied without buckling the paper. Ideally. However, I’ve never been any good at this…I’ve wasted days and days, and reams of paper attempting, mostly unsuccessfully, to get it right, so these days I cheat – pva glue around the edges of the dry paper and a dozen or so heavy art books placed on the paper while the glue sets in 2 hours…presto!

20130605-082525.jpgI’ve found over the years that the more time I spend on my initial drawing, the easier things will be for me as I’m painting, and so in this case I spent a solid two days drawing a quite detailed outline of the whole piece.

20130605-082758.jpgThe drawing

When time allows, I take a day off after completing the drawing, or half a day, avoiding my studio, and so I return with fresh eyes to adjust any elements that stand out – these are difficult to see after one or two solid days of focusing on the piece. Once the initial drawing is ‘tweaked’, I need to start making decisions about what gets painted last – these elements often need to be masked out, in order to keep the paper white. This isn’t an issue with oil or acrylic painting, but with traditional watercolour where white is only attainable by keeping the paper free of pigment it’s very important.

20130605-122450.jpgDetail after the first wash. Small streaks of masking fluid are used for more delicate areas.

Once the horses were masked – wide-gauge masking tape, with a scalpel to cut around the outline – I washed in the under-colour, in this case a rich golden-magenta combination. The sky is lightest, then darker down towards the foreground. A bit of wet-in-wet here to get that beautiful graduation that’s such a feature of watercolour. Then as layers dry(if I’m in a hurry with aid of a hair dryer) I begin to slowly build-up tone – the trees, canopies, etc.

20130605-121536.jpgAfter day one of washing-in. The scrap paper to the right is my testing ground – I go through at least a dozen per painting…

Background colour study
I do a small, actual size colour study of the background before tackling the tricky lighting.

(detail) Background
Once I’ve got my head around how to get the effect I’m after, I tackle the horses and canopies in the left-hand background.

20130605-123004.jpgAt this point I’ve established the basic tonal scheme of the background, and I begin adding detail and colour. Always keeping on the lighter side – much easier to add pigment than subtract in watercolour. I’m almost treating it as three different paintings which I complete in turn – background, middleground and foreground. I’ve begun working on the tent and black goat here.

(Detail) The goats

I spent a day working on this little patch, the two lovely goats that were pegged near the tent. Again, the white you see is the paper, so I’m careful layering in the colour, leaving an outline of back-lighting around the goats, particularly the spotted one, as well as the white of his face. I tweak little elements all the way, in my reference photos both goats’ faces were hidden from view, but I wanted to show at least one of them, so I lowered the pile of hay the spotted one was munching on.

20130606-084104.jpg(detail)The family

I spend another day working on the family. At the start of the day they’re painted as a solid block of colour, I then begin to model the fabric and faces, giving them depth and texture. I use the two or three base colours that I’ve used from the start, which are mixed in little plastic containers from my tube paints(Art Spectrum watercolour). For the more localised colour(fabrics, etc.) I use one of my Windsor & Newton travel sets of half-pans(solid pigment). The faces are particularly tricky at this scale – the girl’s face is the size of my fingernail – and it’s a prolonged process of adding and subtracting colour to get the highlights right. Pigment is removed with a daub of water and a tissue, while the white’s of her eyes have been very carefully left un-touched from the initial underpaint.

20130606-090119.jpg(detail) The horses de-masked!

Happily my masking worked well here – all too often paint manages to seep through overlapping tape and leave hard-edged ‘stains’ on what should be pristine white areas. Watercolourists can become very good at hiding mistakes – adding elements to cover mishaps, scraping back, and on occasion, even sand-papering the surface. So I’m presented here with my two main horses to meld into the piece, and the first step is to marry them to their surrounds by washing-in their tone and lighting with my original golden and magenta washes(note; this being an intense dusk scene, the uniformity of colouring is more important than a more neutral daylight scene).

20130607-085507.jpg(detail) The white horse, first wash.

(detail) First wash on the pinto.

At this stage I’ve almost finished the white horse, and I’ve got to carefully paint in the strong lighting on the pinto. He is almost ‘spot lit’ in the scene, the only place where direct sun is hitting. This, almost theatrical, effect is at the heart of this piece, and the strong contrast will draw the eye straight to him, and from there around the scene. All the while I’m tweaking elements, areas and overall tone and colour, important in such a complex composition.

20130608-093341.jpgThe Horse Market, Rajasthan