Friday, 28 November 2014

Painting the Bristol Harbourside for the SOTA competition

I have spent most of the last month getting ready for The SOTA Prize exhibition at the Harbourside Arts Centre in Bristol. It is an art competition with multiple prizes for paintings depicting the Harbourside area in Bristol. I have just delivered my 4 paintings yesterday, so fingers crossed!

I spent two full days painting in Bristol and did some studio work too back home. Below is the first painting I did on a sunny Friday morning. I set up at the Waterfront Square, trying to capture a vibrant mix of boats, buildings and people. 

Waterfront Square, Bristol Harbourside  16"x9"  oil on board


The view I was painting

As you can see below, I primed my board with a pink background colour as I found the crisp autumn light had touches of pink in it and I wanted this to show through the finished painting.

I'm still wearing my Norfolk 'Brush with the Broads" competition cap!

First stage = blocking the colours in

Second stage= refining the edges

I didn't manage to finish the painting on the spot because the sun then disappeared and all the colours, values, contrasts are different when it's cloudy. Fortunately I had made good progress and the only things needed were details (such as the boats ropes, a few extra people, a couple of sails, etc...) which is easy to add in the studio from photograph references and memory.

Below here is a little trick if you have a wet painting but didn't bring your wet painting carrier: just clip a bulldog clip to a blank painting of the same size, and attach them together with a rope or tape so it doesn't move. This leaves just enough space for the painting to be protected.

After a nice break at a local café - where I got the chance to show off my french accent by ordering a 'pain au chocolat' - I went back outside looking for a spot for a second painting. On my left was the famous Brunel's SS Great Britain ship. It surely would make a great painting but I decided to go for something simpler and settled for this view of boats looking towards the Pump house. 

View towards the Pumphouse / Bristol Harbourside  14"x11"  oil on board

By then it was quite overcast but the colours in the water and trees had lost none of their intensity and I had great fun painting the details on the boats. As you can see below, I decided to prepare my board with a muted beige background to go with the cloudy atmosphere.

Quick drawing

Adding the colours

Starting to add the details

Detail of the finished painting

I came back two days later to produce an other two paintings. For my first one, I set up on Princes Street Bridge looking towards the Waterfront Square, painting the same boat as I did on Friday morning, but from the other side.

View from Prince St Bridge, Bristol Harbourside  16"x9"  oil on board

There was such a wonderful light. But gosh it was windy! I had to keep one hand on the board to prevent it from being blown away. One guy looked at me and said "you know it is only going to get worse, they forecast even more wind this afternoon!" That's the kind of supportive comment every plein air artist needs! :-)

The view from where I was

The first stage - the pink background is still showing through but it will gradually disapear

Holding my painting so it doesn't end up in the water!

Before adding the details

Again, I simply couldn't add the details of the boats here because it was too windy to do so. I usually finish my paintings on the spot but it is simply not always possible. In those cases, what matters to me is to get the essence of the place, the right tones and colours, and only focus on details at the studio.

Detail of the finished painting

For my second painting of the day, I painted the view towards the M Shed (a museum located on Prince's Wharf beside the floating harbour). I did find a good shelter from the wind so I managed to finish this one without interruption. I was quite pleased with the result.

The M Shed - Bristol Harbourside  14"x11"  oil on board

The view from where I stood

working on a pink background again

The sun came out and brought great highlights to the scene

Detail of the finished painting

I have always been told I don't paint enough on large scale canvas. So, I thought this might be a good opportunity to do so. Indeed I decided to do a studio version of the first painting I did. (Waterfront Square). As you can see below, I reproduced the drawing on a larger canvas and kept looking at the original painting (on the bottom shelve) and the computer which had the same image with a grid.

Then I started blocking the colours in (you can see the original plein air painting on the small easel):

Towards the end:

And below here is the result. I have entered this painting for the show instead of the small one. This is for me the best way to work on large formats. I couldn't have painted such a large painting in plein air, but I couldn't have achieved this result from only a photograph. 

Waterfront Square, Bristol Harbourside (studio version)  60cmx40cm  oil on board

Here are below my three smaller paintings ready for the show. I'm extremely grateful for my father in law who prepared the beautiful frames for me!

The show opens on the 6th of December in the afternoon at the Harbourside Arts Centre (Millennium Parade, Bristol BS1 5TY) and will run until the end of December. Click here for more info.
So do come along if you are in Bristol!


  1. I am not, but man do I wish I was, ... Looks great all of them, but I like the story along as well, it's like being there a bit.

    Good luck with the show, ... the work is ready for it, that's the main part ;-)

    1. Thank you René! I was just wondering if anybody ever read my blog and if it's worth it so glad you liked it!

  2. Lovely work Valerie - good luck!

  3. Really nice paintings Valerie and a very successful scaling up of the Waterfront Square too. I particularly like the M-shed and the way you've used the birds to add a bit of movement. I can see you doing very well in the competition with these :)

    1. Thank you David! Glad you like them. I'm not keeping my hopes up for the prizes, but just happy I got the chance to paint in Bristol and fingers crossed for a sale or two. I hope all is well for you!