My name is Aswin Sai Narain and I am a scientist. I currently work in Bangalore, India, trying to understand how the zillions of bacteria that dominate our planet go about doing their business. And I will, in all probability, retire as one in some thirty years. Doing interesting science is a creative exercise, but as a profession comes with its own pressures of discovering something worth announcing to the world at a decent frequency to justify one’s existence. So, it is not all that stress-free as many imagine.
It therefore, becomes imperative that a scientist finds an avenue to let go. I have been very lucky on that count. From childhood, I have been into music, the South Indian classical variety called Carnatic music, and this is a hobby that has kept me going all along.
Over time, other musical hobbies have come and gone. During my days as a PhD student in Cambridge between 2006 and 2010, I started photography, and thoroughly enjoyed making macros of the colourful beings at the beautiful Cambridge college gardens, and the easily accessible landscapes of Britain and Europe. This hobby has been on the wane now: as a family man in busy, crowded Bangalore, one needs a lot of mental fortitude to get out on the road with a camera, and I have struggled to find that.
I have never really been an artist. I can vividly remember drawing three triangles for mountains and a semi-circular sun peeping out of the gaps, as a primary school kid in Chennai (erstwhile Madras in South India). This remained my masterpiece for a few years before I started drawing ghastly superheroes.
My parents had enrolled me in a snailmail-based art course, which was a disaster: all my homework came back from the art school with nasty red markings all over. I was probably 10 or 12 then. That put a full-stop to my art adventure.
A brief break in this hiatus was when I happened to visit John Constable’s museum in Suffolk some 10 years ago. I loved what I saw, but did not go beyond photographing Constable country in bad lighting.
I became a father of twin girls some 5 years ago. When the twins were three, it became reasonably clear to me that they were obsessed with their own version of art. A year later, they were drawing nice cartoon faces and animals.
They had become big fans of Andy Runton’s wordless comic series Owly and were drawing Owly and her friends everywhere. As a good dad (self-pat on my back), I went around finding resources that will help them enjoy art more. Along the way, I found resources that ended up inspiring me, rather than my children.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching Colin Bradley patiently demonstrate his skill with pastel pencils and watercolours. I tried painting with some cheap pastel pencils earlier this year (February 2017 I think), and thought, “hmmm, this is fun”. And then a colleague – a high-level hobby artist herself – introduced me to the excellent collection of art videos by the late Bob Ross on youtube.
It looked easy – make many happy accidents and lo and behold, say “… there”..So I got a set of students’ oil colours and a bottle of oil. Imagining myself to be Bob Ross, I opened the bottle and nearly fainted from the impact of the horrendous smell that wafted out. So that was that. I love Bob Ross and his work, and I watch him, but not with any hope of emulating him with oils. Then I tried acrylics and made such a mess that was pretty complicated to clean up, and decided to give up. So watercolours it had to be.
All my early attempts were terrible. I was still trying to paint like Bob Ross with watercolours, and the result was unsightly. But, I knew I wanted to paint landscapes and seascapes, true to my interest in photography. I was not making much progress.
Until I took my children to a local art gallery called Chitrakala Parishath, which includes an art college offering degrees in art and an art shop – called Bhaskar Art Centre – with an extensive collection. The folks at the shop there are very friendly and helpful. They helped me find a book called “The Art of Watercolor Painting” (Walter Foster publication), with lessons from a variety of amazing watercolour artists. I especially loved the section on landscapes by Ronald Pratt.
The storekeeper also helped me with paper, recommending inexpensive handmade 270 gsm paper (a A3 block of 25 100% cotton rag sheets costs in the range of 3-4 GBP). And then I got myself a bottle of masking fluid, which is magical. Armed with my new resources, I did a seascape rather patiently, posted it to friends on Facebook, and a colleague asked if she can have it. It may or may not be worth putting on a wall, but it did give me the confidence to go ahead. I am now obsessed with watercolour, and paint almost everyday after work and weekends, sometimes with the kids for company.
I started off with Camel Artists watercolours, which are amazingly cheap and rather fun to use, but given the way I handle finished paintings, these fade rapidly. Some of the things I had painted in March have already started fading. So Camel for testing out stuff. I also tried Sakura Koi, but somehow did not like it. Bhaskar Art Studio has Mission Gold paints, which are beautifully saturated, as sets and open stock.
I love the pan set I have with me now (have already emptied my ultramarine pan and am waiting for fresh supplies to arrive at the store). I also got some house brand watercolour pans online from the UK-based Jackson’s art. These are honey-based like Sennelier’s and are lovely (I remember reading on Wetcanvas that these may in fact be made by Sennelier). I haven’t quite managed to get subtle, soft shades with the Mission Gold paints (I am sure I will with some patient practice), but this is so easy with Jackson’s. Importing from Jackson’s is not a very long-term solution considering uncertainties over customs duties and other local taxes. Luckily, a store in Kolkata called Creative Hands, which has an online presence, has Sennelier’s open stock and I look forward to trying these.
Materials I Use Now
- Paints: Mission Gold watercolours and Jackson watercolours, both as pans. Hoping to use Sennelier tubes soon. For the occassional B&W painting, I use Camel water soluble graphite. For trials, I use Camel Artists watercolour. I think I have mostly gotten over the expensive phase of trying and accepting / rejecting paint varieties.
- Paper: Local handmade (100% cotton rag) paper at 440 gsm. These are excellent and quite cheap. Each sheet (approx. 80 cm x 55 cm) costs me about 1 GBP. I buy these from Bhaskar Art Centre. Considering these prices and quality, I do not feel the need to go with bigger brands. However I use Fabriano for A4 and smaller.
- Brushes: I use a set of generic synthetic brushes that go by the brand name “Royal Art”. These I buy from Bhaskar’s. A set of rounds costs me about 3 GBP, and I replace them every 2-3 months. Royal Art sets do not have very fine brushes (0, 00 and 000), for which I have three precious Raphael’s Kolinsky Sable brushes. I have a few Daler Rowney Aquafine flats, for which I need better alternatives. I purchased a set of specialised foliage and fan brushes (inspired by Terry Harrison’s books) from Jackson’s. For large washes, I have some unbranded, low cost synthetics, which actually hold a lot of water, bought from Bhaskar’s. For the really cheap brushes for masking fluid I use what I can get from the local hobby store chain ‘Itsy Bitsy’.
- Masking fluid: Daler Rowney / Winsor & Newton.
- Pencil for sketching: Camel drawing pencils in the HB to 3B range.
- Watercolour pencils: I have a set of Derwent watercolour pencils that I use sometimes to fill in some fine details.
Up until last week, I would sit on the floor while painting. My dad got me a tripod-based metal easel last week and my paint-a-thon over the Diwali weekend tells me that the easel makes the painting experience more comfortable.
So far I have been taking photos of my paintings with my mobile phone. It is not great, and I should soon start investing in the effort to photograph them in RAW mode with my D-SLR and work them carefully on the computer.
I work off photographs as references. I certainly do not have the skill (nor the inclination) to be hyper-realistic, and am content ogling stuff by others on Doodlewash and elsewhere. And I do not have the ability to imagine an impressionistic version of the scene. So I find a middle ground.
The most stressful part for me is the initial sketch, and then the fun begins. Perspective was a major challenge, but a fantastic book on this subject (titled: From an Artist’s Perspective) by a senior pencil artist Manohar Devadoss sorted out many of my issues here. I am now loving perspective, not least because of the idea that the birth of modern science may be traced back in part to Brunelleschi’s development of this concept in the 14th century.
While removing the masking, I hold my breath – the paper I use requires some mollycoddling at this step. I almost always work from the back to the front – sky to the foreground, which is probably the norm anyway. The greatest challenge is to be patient and not spoil a few hours’ work with a hurried stroke somewhere. My wife is most helpful here reminding me to stop at the right time. And most of what I do has to have some flowers or other bright elements in the foreground lest I invoke my kids’ wrath. Apart from this, I do not follow any method, and go where the colours, brushes and paper take me. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but what is constant is the enjoyment I get out of it.
I am enjoying seeing posts here on Doodlewash (I started reading product reviews and after a few weeks of doing this, realised that this was in fact a forum) and on Wetcanvas, and occasionally posting my stuff. These will hopefully make painting a lifelong hobby. And thanks Charlie for having me on board to share my experience with watercolours.
Aswin Sai Narain