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St Flour coming to vibrant life

I’ve been working on the second version of the village of St Flour (in the Avergne, the centre of France) since I realised that the first version I did of it in watercolour wasn’t good enough. I was a good working painting to help me move on to improve on it, and I’m not going to show the first version to you as its not up to my normal artistic standard (which is the polite way of saying – its shit!). It would have worked ok if I hadn’t been out of practice with painting due to all the upheavals of moving house and working on the house in Kent to get it straight. Artistic creativity is like a rubber band I think, it needs to be stetched to keep it taught, and getting out of practice means it takes a while to train the artistic brain back to the talented one it was. Plus, just to make me work harder and raise to the challenge I had purposely chosen a photo that is difficult to paint. The reason I liked it so much is because it is looking down on the ancient rooftops of the hillside village of St Flour but it is also showing the valley opposite with all the trees and sloping fields, that are typical of that part of the Avergne area, and the valley beyond with another village lit up by the afternoon sunshine, it has some colour in the sky from the sunshine and captures St Flour in just one photo – it was an amazing place to explore! 

I’ll just talk now of how I did it and ignore my first working picture as really I was starting from scratch for the new painting, particularly as I had put the first painting out of sight under my work table so I wasn’t reminded of it, and was working fresh. 

The painting was a watercolour on watercolour paper stretched onto board, and measured 28 x 20 inches. I had done a smaller A4 size thumbnail picture with the tones and colours done in crayon so that I had that as my source image, and not the photo below, which it was based on. I didn’t want to get caught up in the photo, I wanted to get caught up in the art.

I drew out the picture with pencil onto the paper, and that took a good half day as there are so many roofs to consider, and also I wanted the twin towers of the church on the left hand side of the picture to be the main focus, with the eye leading up to them through the roofs below, and using the balcony with the white railings in the bottom left hand corner as a reminder that it has fabulous views, even though I wasn’t on that balcony myself, but standing looking out from a window above it. If I had ignored that balcony it would have looked like an aerial shot. If I had exaggerated the balcony and what was on it you would have been looking at it and ignoring the wonderful view. I loved the typically French blue roofs of the church and what might have been municipal (?) buildings compared to the ochres of the more domestic buildings. This whole picture is about the roofs. But as well as that I wanted the sky to play an important part as it was so high, stretching so far into the distance above those wonderful hills and mountains. I made a point of keeping the far trees and hills on the right hand side of the valley out of focus to keep the eye on the interesting architecture.  Also I wanted the sky to show the subtle colours of the pales blues and pinks, the golden cream and gold and the darker blues and pinks in the top right hand corner but not make them so overpowering that they took over the picture. 

Since I was painting all of this in watercolours and using my new studio watercolour easel I had to paint bits and wait for them to dry before I could paint the next parts. Which in some ways was made it frustrating that I had to wait for bits to dry but it also made me wait, and think, and plan, and then to the next part. Also, because of the time of year and the natural daylight fading from my studio window by 4.30pm I had to wait until the next day for the new painting installment, which also kept me excited, as an artist! That’s the joy of painting, when the painting part takes over, and you think about it all the time, even when you’re not doing it! I love that feeling of being an artist, when the art talks to you and is in your head last thing at night, and first thing in the morning. It makes me smile, big time!! 

So, first I painted the sky in three parts, the part above the creamy horizontal clouds, then the creamy horizontal clouds, then the duller blue below. Then I painted the far hills on the horizon, including the golden part where the sunlight lit up that hill, and then coming slightly nearer to the veridian and pale purple of the valleys to show that its in the mid ground and to exaggerate the feeling of distance. 

Then I painted the valley on the right side of the picture, painting lime green for the meadows at the top of the hill and down into the valley, and a darker green for the trees depicting them as clumps. I also worked down to the row of houses in the valley below, which are important to show the way the village meaders down the hill, and that they are a nice contrast to the trees in the valley but again not putting too much detail into them or else you would be looking at them, and not the more interesting houses nearer to you. And then the clumps and rows of trees as they came up the hill, 

When that was all done, I could concentrate on the more important half of the painting, the buildings. I did the far line of buildings to the right of the church, as they merge quite happily into each other with what looks like shared roofs, and only hints of window. I then painted the deep purple of the twin towers of the church, as I wanted them to be starkly dark against the golden clouds, behind them, and the paler houses infront. I didn’t need to put in much detail for them. I continued with the houses as they curved around to the ochre roofs of the buildings on the left as I wanted to make sure I had the gaps between the buildings as much as the buildings themselves. I then did the two roofs in the bottom right hand side, the ochre one, and the blue steeper pitched one, as they also had to be painted loosely to show they were there but not overly important. By this point I had done everything except the interesting buildings in the middle of the picture, and the balcony in the lower left hand side which was the last thing to be done, and I kept the tiles of the floor loose and also the large pot with the plant in it, I painted that only in simple greens to keep the eye within the picture and not in a corner. There aren’t any white painted parts in it, if its white its the bare paper, with the colour of the paint painted in a negative colour around it. I loved using Windsor Blue for typical French roofs with the dormer windows in them, and merging Burnt Sienna into the wet wash as it dried. And I loved putting in the old stone walls and showing the darks between them to exaggerate the feeling of vertical depth. There aren’t that many windows painted but I painted what I saw and loved the interconnection of the buildings, it was that that excited me! 

When it was all done I fine tuned the interesting parts and exaggerated some whilst softening other bits. There aren’t many bright colours in it but those that are are harmonious, which is why the pot on the balcony is the same purple as the twin towers of the church, and the red of the shuttered windows below the balcony are painted in the same pink as the sky and far buildings, just a deeper version of them.  When it was done, I knew that I had got the focus right in it, the eye of the viewer looks at the roofs and the way the walls and lines of them are, they lead the eye up to the twin towers of the church, because of the golden creamy cloud line being horizontal leading the eye into the picture, but again because of the line of the trees it brings you back in again. There is a lot to look at! That’s why I chose this photo to do. Its not just a simple landscape. Its a complicated one. and those roofs are so diverse and have their own characters, which is why the picture is called “St Flour rooftops” – what else could it be??

So do you think I’ve captured the essence of the place in this painting?