Stockholm-based watercolour artist August Sandström paints landscapes of northern Sweden reminiscent of the Jämtland and Östersund regions he grew up in. August’s paintings feature moody, rainy-day wet fields and snow-covered forests, and he is often inspired by the everyday and ordinary parts of life.
You currently live in Stockholm but were brought up in a small community outside Östersund. How have both surroundings influenced your work?
We don’t have the biggest lakes, the highest mountains nor the tallest trees. It’s very average, and I like that. I feel that I know this landscape better than any other, so it feels more credible for me to paint it than something else.
The darkness of winter and the rural landscape has affected me. We have long, dark winter months and sometime the sun barely makes it above the horizon before it plunges back in to the night. During the winter day it’s a constant dawn or dusk scene outside, which brings a beautiful light over the landscape. During the summer nights the sun never sets and you have these long shadows sweeping over the landscape throughout the midnight hour. I didn’t really pay attention to all of this until I moved to Stockholm. It was only then that I could see the north with different eyes.
Why do you gravitate towards watercolour as your primary medium?
I love everything about it. Using watercolour means you face an endless sea of difficulties that you have to try to understand and learn how to use, and at the same time the medium gives you enough back so that you keep on trying.
What is it about landscapes that makes you want to paint them?
I like the natural state of landscapes, that they’re quite forgiving. The process is also very calming. As I currently live in the city it gives me joy to see a landscape develop on the paper rather than an urban environment. I try to travel back to the north of Sweden a lot, to recap and revisit the landscapes in which I grew up.
What interests you about the ordinary and mundane?
I like to paint a typical northern Scandinavian landscape – it feels more authentic. I enjoy the kind of scene that is unassuming and modest, maybe because that’s the character of the landscape I grew up in. I try to create a realistic landscape, and for me, that is often an ordinary grey day. There is not usually an elk standing against a perfect sunset when you are out walking. Instead you might notice a utility pole alongside some deforestation. And I think that maybe these scenes can resonate better with ordinary people.
How important is colour to you? Why are you drawn to the tones you use?
Colour is certainly very important, but perhaps not as important as tonal contrast and values, which I still struggle with. I usually test colour on a separate piece of paper before embarking on new scenery to try different combinations. I try to stay away from bright and vivid colours mostly to keep the feeling moody and subtle.
We notice distinct focal points in most of your works – is this part of a compositional plan or does it tend to happen by accident?
I’ve worked as a photographer and cinematographer for the last decade and it has taught me a lot about composition, focal points, perspectives, rules of thirds and colours. I try to use these elements when I paint with watercolour.
Focal points in particular are the most important thing when creating a cinematic image. In film you want the viewer to instantly and effortlessly undertand and interpret the image, before something else comes into the frame. I try to use this insight when I paint. If I paint the trees in the back wet and soft I might then feature something sharp in front that is more important.
I think watercolor is the perfect medium to blend the loose, blurry and wet areas with dry details to draw attention to a certain area of the painting. I believe that you only have a few seconds to capture someone’s attention – especially if you put your art on social media.
You don’t shy away from evening or night scenes, and don’t seem to be afraid of pushing dark tones. Are there any technical challenges that depicting these scenes presents?
I like to narrow down the dynamic range of the painting’s values – it’s the opposite to your HDR-function on your iPhone! If you see a lot of detail in the shadows of a forest, that would mean that the highlights of the sky are blown out, and if I have information left in the sky and clouds that means I have to make the shadows quite dark. It’s almost a way to imitate the look of an old analogue camera, and I think it adds a bit of realism. Technically, the trick is to fill those shadowy areas with as little details as possible, and to use a lot of pigment in as few layers as possible, so that you don’t mess it up too much.
Similarly, many of your works contain bodies of water. How challenging is it to emulate these features? Do you have any tips or tricks for doing so?
The main thing about watercolour, I think, is to let the water do most of the work. I like to use a lot of water to create soft areas and give the landscapes a wet look that’s like taking a picture of a rainy day with water on your lens. I think this adds to the moodiness of my pieces. One of my challenges is deciding on a focal point before I start painting, and trying to add wet areas to all layers of the painting and letting them dry completely between washes, not rushing it. But painting with a lot of water also means you lose a lot of control.
How important is light to your environment, both in your paintings and in your physical space?
I work with light every day as a cinematographer, and light is absolutely everything. Especially contrast. I always try to be aware of that when I paint. The relations between shadow and light is what makes a painting believable. I think one should almost try to think like a camera; to observe the light with a limited amount of dynamic range between highlights and shadows.
Are there any other artists who inspire you?
At the moment Marc Folley – he is absolutely genius. I mostly admire his interior still life paintings, but his landscapes are also amazing. I highly recommend his two books, Works on Paper I and II. Other creatives who inspire me are painters Michal Jasiewicz, Lars Lerin, Richard Vakil and director Roy Anderson.
Do you have any advice for artists starting out?
I’d suggest working with moodboards. Before I start painting I usually create a moodboard that contains maybe nine or ten different pictures of things such as other paintings, photos or frames from movies – photos that inspire me to illustrate a certain scene. It might not be a photo of the exact thing I’m going to paint, but perhaps a close-up of a tree by Lars Lerin combined with a sky technique from Jorge Corpuna. I can then start painting my own scene and be constantly reminded of colour combinations and techniques that help me create a particular painting.
All images are courtesy of the artist. Click here to see more of August's work.
More like this
Masterclass is our series of short video tutorials intended to guide every artist - created by artists and designers. Discover our selection of Watercolour tips below.
Featured Artist: Cécile Lobert
Cécile Lobert is a Belgian neurodiverse, non-verbal visual artist. Cécile spent her youth in the United Arab Emirates, France and Libya.
Seeing red: the world’s loudest colour
From star-crossed lovers to samurai armour, explore the cultural impact of red – the world’s boldest colour.