Interview with Artist Ian Ramsay

by Paint Tube 9 Minutes

Interview with Artist Ian Ramsay

Ian Ramsay was born in Farnborough, Kent, England. He spent his early years in Britain and Canada, and eventually settled in the United States. He received a degree in architecture at the University of Utah and is a licensed architect. In 1979 Ian left architecture to become a full time watercolor artist. Since that time he has traveled and painted extensively. His work has been exhibited all over the US, Japan and Britain.


What is it about the medium of watercolor that keeps you painting day after day?

Watercolor is magical… like no other form of painting or perhaps art. It can make you look like a genius or a fool. It all depends on the day, ones’ mood or perhaps the alignment of the planets. There seems to be a point early on in a painting where the painting and especially the paper have much more control than you do. It is an everyday challenge… the most exciting challenge that I can think of! For me it is truly an obsession.


Could you walk us through your process? What are your goals for each stage?

My process begins with finding a subject that interests and inspires me. It must draw my attention with a point of focus or an overall sense of composition.
I will then develop a quick layout sketch, placing the subject comfortably on the page and developing a pattern of values including light and dark areas. The dark values will help me define the subject and direct the eye of the viewer towards it.

Next, I attach good quality watercolor paper to a rigid board, usually with staples and tape. Then I carefully layout a pencil drawing (lightly rendered). I vary between Arches, Fabriano, Windsor Newton and Blick professional watercolor papers. I like them all under different circumstances...cold press, hot press or rough but always 140#. While drawing I will focus on carefully rendering form, perspective and proportion. The drawing must feel right in my mind before I begin painting.

Then it is time to stand back and evaluate the impending painting for a sense of mood, color, and an evaluation of the way I want to treat the sense of light…perhaps highlighting the points of interest in the painting and playing down the supporting cast.

The painting work usually begins by my applying general washes to the sky and the foreground keeping in mind a compatibility of colors…. Staying loyal to a warm or cool approach. With the same color scheme in mind, I will now apply washes to the intermediate areas of the image, allowing distant, receding areas to fade or blend into the background.

At this point I will start defining my focal point and directing the eye into the painting by adding a few of the darker areas of the composition.

Next I will put in a sense of color and secondary detail along with the all important shadows in the overall image. At this point and actually all along, I will be evaluating and placing consciously thought out hard and soft edges. Soft edges as the subject matter recedes and hard edges near the main subject and in most shadow areas. The shadows are most important in developing the sense of light and for reinforcing the perspective.



I will continue to develop the overall painting leaving the line work and remaining details until last.

Placing the final details into the painting is for me the easiest part of the work. Up until this point I have been using large or intermediate size brushes. But now I will use smaller brushes with a good springy point and perhaps a rigger / liner brush for telephone wires or ship rigging.

Detail like every other aspect of the painting is evaluated for its importance. All details are not needed. Many are eliminated. Those that enhance the painting and help direct the eye are included. Those that pull the attention away from where it is wanted are eliminated. At this point, I may use white gouache to reintroduce a highlight where it has been forgotten or for a small correction that needs to be made. I have no problem with using an opaque watercolor where I need to. I want the painting be a success in my mind. Keeping purely married to translucent watercolor is not important to me.

The painting is now basically finished and I place it against the studio wall with its’ wooden board back to me. I don’t want to see it for a few days. Later I will turn it around and view it with a fresh eye. Hopefully I will still be happy with it. Often I will see a point or two that needs to be perfected… perhaps a car looks awkward so I will rework it.



How much do you take directly from the scene or reference and what do you know you’ll adjust? Then how do you adjust it? (For example colors, composition or details, etc.)

The more that I photographically represent a painting the less I like it. I adjust the placement of the subject’s elements to work together better as a composition. I alter the colors to be more compatible with the overall scene. I try to create a mood that might not be there to make the painting more dramatic. I’ll add weather, lighting or color to make sure this is a painting not a photograph.

Even though I rely a great deal on detail, my aim is to create an interesting painted image not a photographic one. I will subtract elements to simplify a scene and add elements that seem as if they should be there to make it more interesting. The final painting is my impression, not an accurate representation of a scene.


How do you convey what you feel when you first get inspired to paint something? How much of that is a conscious decision vs an intuitive response at this point?

I look for certain things specifically to paint, sketch or photograph. I obviously like fishing boats, docks and harbor buildings, old farms, villages and buildings, interesting streets, people, cars, vans, telephone poles, dock paraphernalia, farm out buildings ,fences and more. All kinds of fun details that hold my attention or lead me into a scene seem to give me the desire to paint it… While looking for these elements, my intuition and experience take over and they seem to recognize what I need. It is so important to paint something that you really want to paint… the desire to paint it must be there or, I find, the painting will not be a success.


So many of us want to rush through the drawing. Why is drawing important both to one’s growth as an artist and also to an individual painting?

I have learned to take my time with a drawing so that I can start the painting in a comfortable place. The drawing sets up the mood and direction of the painting and it can never be underestimated. It seems as though one can’t really learn to paint unless he has learned to draw first. I find that while drawing the image on the sheet of watercolor paper I am developing in my mind where I want the painting to go and how I want to treat the various parts of the painting. Unresolved parts of the drawing become uncomfortable and unresolved parts of the painting.

One doesn’t have to be married to the drawing but it does give you a start and a direction even though the resultant finished piece might be somewhat different from ones’ original intent. Development of a good drawing technique and style enhances the chances of creating a good painting… never underestimate the value of learning to draw well.


What did you originally struggle with on the color front and what did you learn from those struggles?

Color has perhaps caused me more problems than any other aspect of painting. In the early days of my work the colors tended to be unnatural if I ventured beyond the blues and grays of the Pacific Northwest. I had to make them more compatible as a whole. The colors needed to be thought of more as a whole than as individual applications. I do a great deal of mixing now to create a sense of overall warmth or coolness in the painting. Practice in mixing color and constant self evaluation has made my paintings more comfortable in my mind and, I believe, more successful.


Your paintings have a lot going on but aren’t overwhelming. How do you create a level of intensity without overwhelming the viewer? Is that color? Is that value? Strong focal point?

I do like a lot going on in a painting. It suits my sense of detail and complication. I want the viewer to enjoy finding other things after being grabbed by the focal point. I define the focal point mainly with a sense of light offset by dark values that heighten the sense of light. Sometimes I will also use an accent color for this purpose, but the main trick is always contrasting value. More subdued detail is added in the areas beyond the focal point in order to make the supporting cast interesting but it is purposefully kept subordinate to the star attraction. I love detail but I do work hard to only include that which enhances the painting. Believe it or not, I do not want the painting to be too complicated… only interesting.



What kind of contrasts are most important to you? How do you use contrasts in your work?

Color contrast is a conscious effort on my part to create mood where value contrast is used to define the subject and direct the eye. Contrast of size and shape is also a constant concern. Objects need a variety of shapes and sizes or they become boring and make the painting uninteresting. Contrasting elements of all kinds add to the depth of a painting and draw the viewer down the road into a building or across the harbor to the distant shore. Without contrast there is no excitement to draw you across the room to even look at a painting. In my mind it is the most important element to keep in mind while painting.



You’ve said that you use your own mistakes to get better at painting. Could you talk to us how you’ve done this and why it works? Any advice for the self-taught artist on how to do this in their own work?

I believe that once an aspiring artist has learned the basics of drawing and painting that he must become his own best teacher. We have goals as to what we want to accomplish and if we don’t achieve them then we need to evaluate the image and ask ourselves why we have not succeeded. We know what is going on in our own heads… an instructor does not.

Put your paintings, success or failure, in front of you. Decide what you like about what you have done and what you do not… and ask yourself why. Study other peoples’ work and determine exactly what you like about it and figure out how they did it and how you may adapt that approach / result to your work… not copying but learning. At that point you are your own teacher. I frustrate over my own mistakes and inadequacies as a painter every day and I do my best to learn from them. I constantly look at what I believe is my best work and try to learn from it. It is impossible to recreate a successful previously done painting but it is possible to learn from it.



Along similar lines, how did you use (/do you use) others work to help you get better at painting? What questions do you ask when looking at others’ work in this way. How does this then inform practice and thinking?

When I view the work of other watercolor artists that inspire me I look at the simple purity of brushstrokes, the strength and comfort of the composition, the skill of the drawing, and the compatibility of the color. I marvel at the simplicity of the work of the great watercolor artists. I strive to understand how they are able to convey so much with fewer brushstrokes than I tend to use.

It is my goal to achieve my sense of interest and complication in a simpler way. I am, as I suppose most artists are, attracted to those works that I find interesting in that it is a subject that I would like to paint or perhaps have painted. I study these works and learn from them and I try to incorporate those approaches and techniques into my work.

My style is quite unique to my art but I have enjoyed and subconsciously borrowed the ideas and techniques of many and have adapted them to my own paintings… never copied, just learned… it is impossible not to do that!

Learn more about Ian Ramsay at his blog or on Facebook