Thursday, 19 February 2015

From dark to light by painting tutor Kevin Dean - painting on location, as seen in The Leisure Painter magazine April 2015.

From dark to light

The watercolour of this modest church was painted in the early morning, just as the sun rose over the beautiful city of Orvieto in Italy. A few days before I had spied it as a possible subject for a painting, tucked away in a small piazza close to the city wall, overlooking the surrounding countryside.

Orvieto is full of the most amazing and often very grand architecture, but I am generally  more interested in subjects that are a little hidden, less obvious than more showy attractions, the neglected allotment rather than the manicured garden, the alleyway rather than the high street. Camile Pissaro  put this idea very well when he said ‘Blesssed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing’.

Whenever I reach a new destination, I like to spend time noting possible locations - where I might sit on my fold-away stool, my paints and water   pot at my feet, will I be in shade or sun, am I safe from traffic and how noticeable will I be to passers by? Surprisingly, most people, especially in Europe, barely notice an artist working in situ and those that do, are almost always very complimentary and kind. Beyond Europe the attention might be more intense, but again, well intentioned. In Malaysia a shopkeeper gave me a large rattan hat to shade my head, in Trinidad a man directed pedestrians behind me, allowing me an uninterrupted view of my subject!

It all makes for a better interaction with the people nearby and for the occasion to be even more memorable.

Light is also a consideration, as contrast created by strong shadows or colour is essential to give drama to a painting. Which is of course, one of the great advantages of painting in countries such as Italy, as the light tends to be very bright. The painter may have even more chance of creating something with lively contrast in the early morning, or at dusk, when the light can often be at it’s most dramatic. Of course the shadows are constantly changing, but that just makes me work more rapidly, which hopefully gives the painting an immediacy and a sense of place, something I value more than flat, even washes, or carefully rendered detail.

I began painting watercolour using the traditional technique of laying a series of pale washes, gradually building the right tonal values.  After leaving Art College I found some freelance work, producing watercolour illustrations for a large format book about the British countryside. The publishers asked me to follow the style of   another of the illustrators working on the book, Brian Sanders. Apart from his fresh, lively brushwork I guessed Brian painted all of the dark tones first, without using the preliminary washes that I had been using. Although I wouldn’t compare myself to the inimitable Brain Sanders, it is an approach that I have used ever since. It’s also a similar way to how John Singer Sargent worked, (1856 – 1925). Although probably best known as a society portrait artist, Sargent’s luminous watercolours are often thought to be his greatest achievement.


Fig 1.

After quickly drawing the main components of the scene with a soft pencil, I paint the darkest tones first. This gives me a dramatic starting point and the confidence to apply bright colours and rich tones in the rest of the painting. I was keen to paint the intense, Mediterranean blue sky, as this gave me another opportunity of creating contrast against the white fa├žade and statuary. 




Fig 2.

Colours were then applied to the walls and door. I try as far as possible to just put down the one wash, working wet on wet if more colour , or texture is needed, this helps keep the paintwork looking fresh and not overworked. More washes may be needed but as far as I’m concerned the fewer the better.  It was relatively straightforward to just use one wash of Rose Madder, along with a touch of French Ultramarine blue, on the walls of the church.  Other darker areas needed more layers but I always try to keep the number of  washes  to a minimum. I also began picking out a few details with a dip pen and dark brown, (waterproof) ink and scratched a few touches of candle wax on to the paving area to create a slight resist effect - once the paint was applied.


Fig 3.

With all the underlying colours painted, including a suggestion of the hills in the distance and what must have been hints of a waning moon in the sky, I mixed   French Ultramarine and Alizarin Red together with plenty of water, to paint the shadows.

The main shadow had probably moved by the time I came to add it, but I’d kept it’s position in mind, as I liked the shape it made.  Painting a large area of shadow using a very wet wash will invariably disturb the paintwork underneath, but if painted both quickly and without  ‘scrubbing’ the surface,   it should not cause too much of a problem.  

Fig 4

Something I like to do, is to make   monoprints based upon a one of my pictures, sketches or photographs, either making the print broadly the same, or changing the image completely. It’s a versatile and very painterly form of printmaking   and like watercolour, the results are often quite unpredictable, but using printing ink and a press, the colours and textures are always rich and satisfy.

In this example, I decided to isolate the church and surround it with what might be  an overgrown graveyard.

Fig 5.

The print is created on a perspex sheet/plate. I cut a paper stencil of the areas I wanted to keep white and laid this over the colours - already painted or rolled on to the plate. Once ready to print, the plate is put on to the bed of the printing press and a sheet of paper placed over it. Put through the press the image on the plate is transferred to the paper. It’s possible to paint more ink   on to the plate and to take further impressions, but each print is unique, hence the term monoprint . I often paint into the print further, using a mixture of watercolour and gouache.

It’s possible to make monoprints without a printing press, by painting or rolling paint onto a sheet of Perspex, or glass, using oil or acrylic paints. The print can be taken by hand burnishing the back of the paper laid over the printing plate.

Southsea Pier - woodcut 45 x 65cm. This was produced using another favourite printmaking medium, the woodcut or woodblock printing, cut from plywood and hand-printed using water-based printing ink.


A versatile artist, Kevin Dean has illustrated numerous books, magazines, designed textiles, wallpapers, ceramics and exhibited his paintings/prints all over the world. A graduate of The Royal College of Art, Kevin also designed much of the floral marble decoration   at   The Grand Mosque Abu Dhabi.

Kevin also tutors painting holidays for Authentic Adventures, this year he is leading a holiday in Cinque Terre, Italy 30th May – 6th June 2015.
 For further information contact 01453 823328 or visit