Coastal Scenes and Boats

Posted on Sep 4, 1999


” I must down to the sea again, for the call of the running tide, is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied “. John Masefield.

Ah yes, if ever there was a subject to get the blood stirring, the heart pounding and the spirits soaring, it would have to be ( for me ) harbours and coastal scenes. The smell of salt in the air, the cry of the gulls and the endless fascination of marine paraphernalia all contribute to capturing the essence of esturine and marine subjects.

They say you have to feel it before you can express it, so spending time taking it all in and soaking it all up, is essential before you can begin to digest what is all around you.


When attempting to capture a harbour scene you will usually find that there’s far too much to include, so you need to be selective. Now, the first thing to decide is what do I include and what do I leave out ? Well, to help you answer this question you need to ask yourself a more general and, in a way, a more pertinent question. What is my painting going to be about? Is it the interesting arrangement of positive and negative shapes in the composition? Is it the feeling of squally conditions building up on the far horizon? Is it about the silhouetted boats halloed against the bright morning light or does it capture a moment in time when the gulls have staked their positions awaiting the arrival of the next fishing vessel? Once this has been established you can proceed with a greater sense of purpose.

Planning ahead is so important when faced with the problems of painting on location in a harbour environment. Firstly you need to fully understand that the scene before you will radically change over the ensuing hours. Sea levels change and that boat in the water will be in a different position and at a different height by the time you expect to finish for the day. The sun moves around and lights up the scene from a different angle. Tides run in opposite directions when they ‘turn’, causing all the boats at anchor in the channel, to swing around 180
degrees and if there is quite alot of activity going on around you, as there usually is in a busy harbour, boats that are moored set sail and those on the shore get towed away. In fact, I have tried to paint a boat, under repair and being renovated, which has completely changed colour before my very eyes!


As a pastelist, I have a range of coloured supports available to me. Choosing a suitable colour and tone will greatly affect the way in which the painting evolves as the background dictates the paintings overall ‘key’.

I chose a dark toned paper which emphasises light colours for “Reflective Mood, “. Because the view looks directly into the morning light, I needed a paper tone to show the contrasting bright light against the dark silhouetted shapes of the boats. Conversely, I selected a mid-grey colour for “Pin Mill Morning”, which is ideal for the subtle tones of the boats and the delicate changes of hue in the sky. It was a wet, breezy day and the sky reflections in the puddles united the whole picture.

In the case of ” High and Dry “, the colour of the support was a mid-toned Golden Ochre. This choice has a number of advantages because the tone allows for the dark and light areas of the painting to have equal importance. The warm colour is ideally suited to the tones of the foreground and with the blue expanse of sky having an underpainting of its complementary colour, an illusion of depth is achieved naturally.


One of my old tutors once told me, ” A painting is only as good as its start”. Bearing that in mind, I generally find I need to establish a good composition with a focal point by doing a small drawing in my sketchbook. Sometimes I make notes alongside to help me stick to my original intention, otherwise I can easily be chasing the changing scene all day (and never catch up!).

I do like to start a piece of work using willow charcoal. It allows me to work quickly and broadly without getting bogged down with detail and doesn’t muddy the subsequent layers of pastel. Working rapidly, with a light touch so as to set up a momentum that will take me well into the painting, I try to establish the dark areas of the painting fairly early.

I invariably use Pastel Board for my support because it has a particularly versatile surface, capable of gentle blends of delicate transparent layers as well as strong opaque areas and more vigorously applied accents. For me its only disadvantage is that it must not, in any circumstances, get wet. So, a careful eye on the weather is essential, because any spots of water landing on the surface of the board results in the shiny white backing card appearing through the surface.

In the pastel painting,” Morning Patrol “, the distant river bank needed a delicate ‘soft edged’ application to suggest the feeling of it receding into the early morning mist with blue grey and raw sienna buildings looming through the hazy light.

The fishing boat, moored at its jetty, was treated with bolder strokes and darker tones, yet keeping the overall feeling slightly softedged by using the side of the sticks of pastel. The old wooden jetty and seagulls in the foreground were drawn in greater detail and I used my darkest autumn brown and purple to create a strong constrast against the muted background.The treatment of the gulls required me to use a bold, hard edged technique using the tip of the pastels,in fact, I had to make some sketches of the gulls as they rarely stay still for long. Gulls stretch themselves tall,then settle and snuggle down into crouched positions, yet remaining ever alert and watchful. Fortunately, if they do happen to fly off whilst you are in the middle of painting them, another inevitably takes its place.

Like most outdoor scenes, the sky sets the mood for the painting. This is particularly so in the painting, ” Afternoon Light “, painted on the banks of the River Orwell. The day was warm and hazy and the light was soft, making the colours slightly muted. Very much the classical ‘lazy afternoon’, if you are not an artist, that is! These two old boats left behind by the outgoing tide, just sat slumped along side each other like two old friends.

I chose a yellow ochre board and delicately covered the surface with gentle, transparent layers of colours to retain the soft feeling of the day. Virtually the whole of the picture surface, even the details , were treated with soft edged marks, using the side of the pastel.

It is interesting to compare the soft English light with that of the more intense Cypriot light in, ” Mediterranean Fishing Boats “. Here the brighter conditions brought both boats into clearer focus and sharper contrast. The stronger sunlight turned the shadows slightly mauve and the white changed to more of a lemon yellow tint. The ripples of abstract colour reflected in the water helped to balance the hard edged boats with the soft edged marks of the water and the heat haze in the distance.

One of my favourite places in this country to paint, is Southwold.

This is mainly because it is a nostalgic step back in time and there is a feeling that you are in a unique and special place, which allows all your senses to become highly tuned.The dominant primary colours in the painting, “End of the Promenade, Southwold”, caught my eye and I just had to paint these three brightly coloured, different man-made shapes which, in a strange way, fitted in perfectly with the relatively unspoiled coastal backdrop.

It is a slightly unusual composition with the blue chalet positioned slap bang in the middle of the picture. However, the diagonal line of the promenade takes the eye to the right hand side of the bathing hut allowing the figures to take the eye futher into the picture and round to the very bright horizon. The painterly effect of the distant beach is echoed in the treatment of the clouds , whose mauve grey and raw umber shadows are repeated in the horizontal lines in the foreground.


My materials and equipment have remained relatively unchanged for a number of years , except for some slight modification here and there. As I have said earlier, I use pastel card with a surface of fine pumice powder for my support. I prefer the very soft pastels, which include some of the Sennelier, George Rowney and Unison ranges, although I have odd colours, tints and shades from a number of different manufacturers, which I use for a variety of reasons.

I attach my pastel card to a sheet of 5mm. Foamcore, which is incredibly lightweight and an absolute godsend when I am having to lug my equipment any distance. Luggage straps have become essential items which I use to secure my board tightly to my easel, otherwise the wind can make my work chatter furiously like an unsecured jib sail.

As I always stand up to paint, my only other piece of equipment, besides my box of pastels, is a second portable easel. This I set up in such a way as to be able to fix a drawing board in a horizontal position, thus turning it into an impromptu table to hold my large box of pastels.

A question often asked is how do I transport my pastel work when finished? Well, after shaking the work furiously and blowing away any loose particles, I turn the work face down against the foamcore. Then using masking tape, I keep it held firmly in place so as not to allow any lateral movement which might smudge the work.

In next month’s issue, John Patchett will discuss his method of working in another of his favourite locations, – gardens, especially those gardens that include garden furniture.

Further information regarding John Patchett’s work can be obtained by ringing ( 01502 ) 710491.

← Return to News