Painting Winter with Geoff Butterworth

painting winter geoff butterworth

painting winter geoff butterworth

I look forward to winter, not the wet dreary dark days that are here at the moment, but the bright sunlit days of snow that cover our northern landscape in such an inspiring way.

It is because I have such a great affection for our part of the world and the rarity of snow is really something to look forward to. We seldom get really snowed in like we used to do in the 60s, as I remember having to dig a channel from the back door of our terrace house in Littleborough, to the ginnel past our neighbours. It was about ten feet deep! I say I had to, but it was my parents and my brother really, as I was just a kid at the time.

We really did have some serious snow back then and it would have been good to have a digital camera to capture it on. Instead we had cine cameras capturing wobbly snatches of larking about in the snow.

When we do get the arrival of winter proper, I will be there with my camera to capture it. Over the years I have travelled a fair distance to get subjects to paint, as far away as Kent one winter and another occasion right into Snowdonia, which was really fantastic, apart from getting stuck in deep snow on a steep country lane on Conway Mountain.

I used to drive everywhere as I had broken my leg badly, years ago, and I reckoned that if I could drive somewhere it was better than walking. Not so, on that day anyway. Sliding backwards towards a twelve foot ravine on my own was something else, how I managed to get out of it is a mystery, but I did. Lucky beggar, I have always been the sort of guy that says ‘wow that was close…’ then forget about it and carry on. The pictures I did get were worth it anyway.

painting winter geoff butterworth

The subject for this issue is thankfully closer to home but has the same elements as the Snowdonia incident but on this occasion I walked… A steep snowed-up lane almost in the middle of nowhere leading off the main road, up into woods. The location… Cliviger, which is midway between Todmorden and Burnley, where the road cuts through some superb valley scenery following the railway line in a windy over and under competition to get from one place to another. The road wins in my opinion as you can’t leap off a train to take some shots with your camera, can you?

Through September and October last year I had a lucky break, in that I was offered a pop-up-shop which I used as a gallery for my paintings. To give the visitors something else to look at, and me, something to get on with, I set up a place to paint and completed our subject.

With any watercolour there are preparations that you need to adhere to. So after you have drawn out the picture onto a sheet of paper on the right side, which is the side you can read the watermark right way round, you have to soak it thoroughly and let it slowly drain till it is just damp, this can be about an hour or so.

Lay it flat on your drawing board and tape it down with two inch wide gum strip. Just sit back, have a brew, light your pipe, make a bacon sandwich or just nod off for about half an hour. This is the time for the whole thing to dry off and for the paper to start to tighten up. The process is called stretching and needs to be done right or your painting will buckle up when you are painting, this can be a right pain.

colour palette

The next stage is to select your palette. This being a winter painting our colours are Blues and Browns. Firstly Payne’s Gray, Vandyke Brown, Ivory Black, Mauve, Raw Umber, Yellow Ochre, Naples Yellow, Antwerp Blue and finally Cobalt Blue. Note that there is the absence of any White, the paper is the white which is left unpainted in the lightest parts. Soft washes tone down the white areas which fade to blues over distance. So the darkest darks and the lightest lights are in the foreground. I use a liquid masking fluid to splash on and write on with a pen highlighting the wet brightness on the tops of twigs and flecks of snow on the walls. All this work is the first stage as it can be pretty difficult to add in after or during the work. The next stage is to start the washes of colour in the distant parts of the picture, which in this case are at the top of the paper.

If you want a blurred edge you have to wet an area and let it sink in for a moment and then add colour in to the area. The edges will merge and create a soft blur.

If you want a sharp edge, paint on dry paper. It is to be remembered that the shadows and the solid objects are all fainter over distance so working from the top down allows you to keep a check on the strength of colour as you work. This is the rule and needs practice and it is essential to have a good faint drawing to work to as you have more than enough to think about in laying down the right colour at the right density. Details of sections of this watercolour show some of these effects, and notice that the trees show the recession of colour in the most dramatic way. From soft Payne’s Gray to almost solid black. The foreground trees are not just black but are washes of Vandyke Brown, Payne’s Gray and then Ivory Black used to paint the darkest areas in the bark.

These images show the details of my winter painting Four Days of Snow. The list of colours, although there are only nine, there is a great deal of graduation of each colour which watercolour can produce with ease. You can either wash strong colour away while it is wet, creating a blurred edge or add strong colour to a light wash, two was to similar end result. The use of a hairdryer speeds up the drying which can take several minutes and I often paint with a brush in my right hand and the essential hairdryer in my left hand. Putting all the pieces together below, the full image gives us a grand view of a wide valley after some heavy snow. With the absence of any sky the composition and the light and shade tells us that the day is one of those lovely winter mornings where the sun warms the air and before any thaw sets in, the snow is crunchy underfoot. I added the man and his dog for good measure and to give the painting some perspective and a focal point. Although we have the house across the valley which in a way does the same, they work together. Is the man making his way home from a morning’s walk or is he visiting a neighbour? The choice is yours.

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