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Watercolor Artist magazine chatted recently with English artist Lucy Willis to learn what inspires her love of travel and amazing paintings. Find out the items in her travel toolkit and plein air setup she can’t live without, along with her best advice for creating art far from home.
Watercolor Artist: What do you love about travel? And what compels you to respond to the experience artistically?
Lucy Willis: It’s always a great joy and stimulus to find fresh painting subjects in places I’ve never been, amongst people and cultures I’ve never encountered before. The close observation and attention to detail whilst painting the buildings, landscape and people as they go about their business is my way of getting beneath the skin of a place.
WA: Of all the places you’ve travelled, tell us about one of your most favorite places to paint, and explain why.
Willis: I cannot choose a favorite place as so many come to mind. Some of my most memorable sessions have occurred when I’ve been far from home, usually with no word of the language, and I take a road or path away from the beaten track. In Kerala, South India, for example, I once found just such a rural path which led to a vibrantly turquoise one-story house. I gained permission to sit and paint it. As my picture progressed, figures appeared on the veranda and stood watching me, so I added them in, much to their delight. Then, before I had completed the foreground a young cockerel dashed across in front of me. I was able to catch a likeness of him in a just few strokes. It was the sort of serendipity that I love.
WA: Please describe your travel toolkit and plein air setup. Any favorite tips for the organizing, packing and/or transport of these supplies?
Willis: When travelling abroad, I take a portfolio to carry plenty of paper which fits in a large suitcase. This can double as a painting board each day when I take only a few sheets.
I allow two large sheets of good quality watercolor paper (usually 300 gsm Saunders Waterford or Bockingford) per day and divide it as required. I take a minimal amount of watercolor equipment, so that I can carry it easily, even if I am walking long distances in search of inspiration. When I set out to paint I carry the following in a small rucksack:
- Pencils and black ballpoint pens
- Paint box with pans or tubes of artist’s quality watercolor (I use Daler-Rowney or Winsor Newton). My palette consists of 3 blues (cerulean, French ultramarine and cobalt); 3 reds (cadmium red, alizarin crimson, light red); 3 yellows (cadmium yellow, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow pale); and violet or mauve, sap green and black (if required)
- Selection of sable watercolor brushes (including a couple of large ones)
- Water pot with lid
- Folding stool and inflatable cushion
- Wide-brim sun hat
WA: Is there one lesson that you have learned about painting on your travels that really stands out as a breakthrough?
Willis: Early on I realized that using watercolor in hot climates requires considerable planning. It’s essential to choose a position from which to paint that’s in the shade and—above all—it must remain in the shade long enough for a good painting session (about 1 or 2 hours). I’ve developed a good understanding of the direction and movement of the sun for this purpose.
WA: What’s one of the ways in which your goals and/or techniques for travel-painting have evolved over time?
Willis: I’ve learned to paint fast and to use varying amounts of water, depending on the temperature and humidity of my environment. It’s amazing how fast a wet wash will dry on the paper in a hot, arid environment. Conversely, it can take ages to dry if it’s a cold, wet day.
WA: Any last words of advice you’d like to offer?
Willis: I enjoy meeting and chatting with the people wherever I’m painting. But I’d caution against allowing a crowd of rowdy and curious children to grow too large. It sometimes helps to ask for help from an adult on-looker to keep order and to make sure your view is not completely blocked.
For more on Willis, check out her feature article, Painting Light and Shadow, in the special May/June 2020 issue of Watercolor Artist dedicated to the art of the sketchbook.
About the Artist
English artist Lucy Willis studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England. She then taught drawing and etching at the Aegean School of Fine Art in Greece. A painter and printmaker, Willis has shown her work in more than 27 solo exhibitions in London to date. Her work has won several awards, including a 1992 BP Portrait Award. In addition, her work is part of many public collections, including the National Portrait Gallery in London, and in private collections around the world. Willis has run numerous painting trips abroad as a guest tutor for the U.K. magazine The Artist. Her home base is Somerset, England.