after Félix Thiollier

A copy of a photograph taken over a century ago by Félix Thiollier, possibly of his daughter, Emma. As far as I can tell from the translation of the French Wikipedia page, he developed his own prints and sometimes altered them using acid, or by drawing over them with ink or gouache.

This was a chance to just experiment with creating light effects using loose brush strokes and rough scraping with a palette knife. The cheap canvas surface was good resistance for the sharp corner of the knife and at times it felt like I was channelling Timothy Spall.

The original photograph has an unreal beauty and it’s hard to know how to add to it with paint. In being documentary, photography sometimes has the trump card over painting in that this moment actually happened. There’s a power to that which no amount of paint handling can recreate.


oil on charcoal

More experiments with aluminium composite panels, this time on the smaller A5 size. I wanted to see how a vine charcoal pencil would behave on the acrylic gesso surface. Sometimes it’s useful to draw using the precision of a sharp point. And sometimes it’s easier to draw with a pencil grip rather than holding a brush that can only be moved over the surface in certain ways. The question is how to transform that drawing in to a layer of oil paint.

Many people draw directly on canvas then use a spray fixative. Cesar Santos uses this method but has warned against using too much fixative as it creates a weak paint layer.

I found the charcoal draws quite well (albeit with a line tone effect due to the brush strokes in the gesso) and can be lifted off with a kneaded eraser. The paint can be applied directly over the charcoal, but to avoid the whole thing turning into a grey mess it’s necessary to work on only one area of tone at a time and to make sure those values are matched before moving on to the next area.

It’s a bit laborious to do it this way (without the fixative) so I’ll probably stick to using a transfer drawing for any precision areas or to get the overall composition placed correctly. After that, I’ll use a block-in with a brush directly on the canvas, or a wipe-out method for a more tonal drawing. But drawing in charcoal is so much fun, and this alone will make for a more dynamic picture.


live memory

The end of the Royal Crescent in Bath, painted in oils on the new aluminium composite panels.

This began as a pencil sketch made on location but was painted at home on the easel. I revisited the scene a couple more times at the same time of day to make further pencil sketches of details and light effects. The late autumn mid-afternoon light created some interesting edge lighting on the trees and columns.

Various sketch references and an acrylic colour study. The vine charcoal sketch below was useful for overall composition. The original pencil drawings and other notes are in the spiral-bound sketchbook. The aluminium composite panel was attached to the easel with tape and Blu Tack.

I took a reference photo which was useful for correcting proportions and details, but many of the important light effects in the scene were lost. The strange thing was that they were there in the photo, but somehow they had been flattened out and weren’t noticeable.

In the continuing debate about painting from life against painting from photo reference, I found this approach of doing both worked quite well. The most important thing I found was that drawing anything for any length of time has the effect of imprinting the scene on memory — not so much the overall composition, I still needed the sketch and photo for that, but the sense of depth, the subtle lighting effects and the overall atmosphere of the scene. For instance, there was a shift in the warmth of the stone between the crescent in the foreground and the buildings behind. And the road in the middle-ground has a steep camber which somehow added to the depth of the scene.

As I was making the first pencil sketch, leaning on the cast iron railings in front of the crescent, the late afternoon sun came out from behind the clouds and flooded the scene with golden light. The edges of the trees and buildings lit up, and everything else was plunged in to deep, warm shadow. It was a completely different scene and it only lasted a few seconds. It would have made for a more dramatic picture, and it certainly made me aware of how ‘light’ and ‘dark’ in our visual perception are relative to their surroundings.

All these memories played in my mind as I was painting, and it certainly made the process of painting much more interesting. Whether I can capture these perceptions using oil paint is another matter, but I certainly won’t be able to paint what I didn’t see in the first place.


portrait practice

Sometimes it’s useful to copy a photo as if it’s a Bargue drawing, paying close attention to proportion and accuracy. I found that copying Bargue’s schematic drawings makes me more aware of how the contours of the features have distinct directions and angles in relation to one another, and it is useful to look out for these basic shapes when observing the model. For instance, the structures of the eye (including the eyeball) slope backwards when seen in profile, and the stair-step of the mouth has its own distinct pattern of slopes, bulges and overhangs.

At the other extreme is full-on caricature, which is sometimes necessary to get the life and gesture back in to a drawing after too much chasing after accuracy. Court Jones has an excellent series of videos on this subject over at

Another benefit of caricature is that it emphasises the three-dimensional structure of the features, so the final picture becomes a construction of cylinders, blocks and eggs. This is the opposite of flattening what you see into an abstract collection of two-dimensional shapes, like the pieces of a jigsaw. Both these ways of seeing have their advantages, and I find it useful to flip from one method to another as I build up a drawing.

These pictures were made with charcoal or graphite except for the second one which was black and white Conté crayon on a background of gouache. Buried under that grey gouache background is a wiped-out attempt at a gouache portrait where I quickly found out how difficult it is to create smooth blends in that medium. It can be done but it requires some skill. James Gurney talks about it in this post, and has some general advice on using gouache here. Gouache is good for constructing forms from confident, distinct brush strokes. I find it much easier to build up forms with smooth blends and sharp edges using graphite or charcoal, especially when combined with a kneaded eraser.

Photo credits (including some very useful instructional videos):

On Air Video and Croquis Cafe Heads Up

Vincent Xeus

Bradwynn Jones Wake and Draw

Draw This

Alex John Beck

New Masters Academy


flat or round

When I’m drawing, I find I frequently change the way I interpret what I am seeing in order to get it down on paper. Sometimes, the scene is an abstract arrangement of flat shapes, and the drawing is an attempt to copy that collection of unidentified blobs and curves as accurately as possible. At other times, I see the object as a construction of primitive shapes, where an arm becomes a foreshortened cylinder or a torso becomes a rounded block.

The Betty Edwards classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain has a central message to draw what you see rather than what you know, and ignore the generic image of a cup, a tree, a face that we have stored in our minds and replace it with the collection of light and dark forms right there in front of you.

Of course, the labelling ‘left brain’ can have its uses, for instance to recognise that the eye is probably more important to get exactly right in a portrait rather than accurately drawing every last lock of hair. But once the important area has been identified, the ‘right brain’ can take over so that it is no longer ‘an eye’ but a collection of interlocking forms and shapes.

By contrast, using the construction method to draw takes what we see and transforms it in the virtual reality of our minds into a simple shape, and then we draw that shape.

One method isn’t necessarily better than another; they’re all useful tools to get an image down on a flat surface, and I find it useful to switch from one method to the other. So, as I draw, an abstract blob can turn in to ‘an arm curving around an elbow in to the forearm’, which in turn turns into a construction of cylinders, pyramids and elongated spheres leading in to the square block of the wrist. And as I draw that, the shadow shapes take over again.

[Photo credits for the three photos copied above: Martin Munkácsi, Neil Libbert, Pierre Parente via aucharbon.]


in search of the perfect panel

First layer of acrylic gesso on A4 aluminium composite panels.

I had been meaning to experiment with using aluminium composite as a support for some time as it has many useful properties:

  • It doesn’t warp much, even at fairly large sizes (up to at least a metre).
  • Takes up much less space than stretched canvas.
  • Doesn’t rot, split, degrade or otherwise fall apart (so I’m told).
  • Provides a solid surface (which I prefer) compared to the bounciness of stretched canvas.

A friend who works in a sign shop gave me an offcut to experiment with. This is 3mm aluminium composite (a sandwich of two thin sheets of aluminium with a polyethylene or polyurethane core). Some kind of polycarbonate surface is baked on at the factory and can come in a range of colours. It’s this surface rather than the aluminium itself which the painting ground will adhere to. Painting on bare aluminium can apparently lead to adhesion problems due to aluminium forming a thin (and crumbly) layer of oxide on its surface.


I basically followed the instructions given by Kate Stone in her very useful post More Apocalypse-Surviving Panels which gives all the details about how to prepare these panels. I suggest you go there if you need step-by-step instructions. I went with the ‘acrylic dispersion ground’ option as I’m used to painting on acrylic ground and it seems to be the simplest method.

So the trick is to lightly abrade the coloured surface enough for a layer of acrylic gesso to form a mechanical bond. I used a medium grit sandpaper to create an even scuffing of the surface, enough to take the shine off the surface but not enough to wear through to the bare aluminium. I did try using a small electric sander but found it created hot-spots of bare aluminium, so doing it by hand is the way to go.

After sanding the surface and smoothing down any sharp edges, clean the surface with rubbing alcohol (I used a bit of Gamsol) to remove the dust and grease. Then build up thin layers of acrylic gesso using a house-painting brush. Four layers seems to give complete coverage (see the right-hand section of the test panel in the photo). Allow each layer to dry before applying the next and alternate the direction of the brush strokes for each layer. Many thin layers will be mechanically stronger than fewer thicker ones. Add a little water to the final layer for a super-smooth surface if desired, but I prefer a surface with a little more tooth provided by the ridges from the application brush.

Testing on an offcut of aluminium composite. Left: Canvas sheet attached with acrylic gesso; Middle: gesso over a base of GAC100; Right: four layers of acrylic gesso.

I also experimented with attaching a sheet of loose canvas to the panel using either PVA glue or GAC100 (a type of acrylic used for extending acrylic paint and for sealing surfaces). I didn’t find either was a particularly good adhesive in my limited experiments.

Compared to the other two, the best adhesive by far was, once again, acrylic gesso. I sanded and cleaned the panel surface as before, and added one thin layer of acrylic gesso which I allowed to dry. The second layer of gesso was a bit thicker as some of it would need to soak in to the weave of the canvas. After smoothing out the canvas with a brayer to remove any wrinkles or air bubbles, I put a layer of plastic wrap from some old packaging on top, then weighed the whole thing down with a flat board and anything heavy I could find.

There is one problem at this stage, which is that the wet acrylic gesso is effectively sandwiched in an airtight layer between the non-porous panel and the plastic protective sheet on top, making it slow to dry. I conducted these tests in a damp midwinter, so dryer, warmer conditions might help. Once or twice I would remove the weights and plastic for half an hour to let the surface breathe before weighing down again.

It seemed to work well. The canvas surface was very even. As a test I peeled back the canvas from the panel and, although it wasn’t welded on, it required a fair amount of pull to remove it, and it peeled back evenly with no bubbles or weak points, suggesting a good bond.

Canvas sheet adhesion test.

Panel abuse with screwdriver and palette knife.

I then attacked the plain gesso surface with a screwdriver. I gouged in a crosshatch of lines a few millimetres apart then stuck on some adhesive tape as firmly as possible before ripping it off. Next, I scraped away at the surface with some force using the edge of a metal palette knife. The results of all this abuse can be seen in the photo. The gouged squares did lose some of the paint from the corners where I repeated scraped at them, but this was limited to the corners where the screwdriver had already broken the surface right down to the aluminium. The whole square didn’t come away and nothing suggested that this was a weak or flaky surface.

So based on my limited testing, either a plain acrylic gesso surface or canvas glued to the panel with acrylic gesso will provide a solid ground for oil painting.


Aluminium composite comes under many trade names (one of the original manufacturers sells it as Dibond). Many brands are cheaper Chinese imports and I’ve heard they can vary in the thickness of the aluminium layers and in the material used in the central core. It’s not always clear exactly which brand you’re buying, and some suppliers advertise as Dibond but say they may substitute for an equivalent brand. For our purposes, we just need a panel that won’t warp or dent too easily.

Some people buy large panels and cut them to size using a table saw, or even cut the panel with a craft knife and some determination. (See Amanda Teicher’s video on cutting panels by hand, which contains useful advice on preparing Dibond in general).

I shopped online for a supplier who would cut panels to any size. The single-sided panels are much cheaper (the reverse side is bare aluminium) but only come in white; a coloured surface would make it easier to ensure an even coverage of gesso. After including delivery costs and VAT, it worked out at roughly £1.70 for an A4 panel and £3.40 for A3. By comparison, the cheapest uncradled gessoboard found online costs around £5 for a 20 x 30 cm panel (roughly equivalent to A4 size) and around £9 for 30 x 40 cm (roughly A3). Of course, there’s still the time and effort needed to prepare the aluminium panels and the cost of a tub of acrylic gesso, but it’s certainly affordable.

On delivery, I found that the aluminium sheets in the composite sandwich were slightly thinner than the sample I had been working with. It felt slightly less rigid but was still almost free of any warp at A2 size (420 x 594 mm), and being non-porous there is less concern about the effects of primers or water-based grounds causing warping. So no need for sealing, or priming both sides, or bracing, which might be necessary for wood-based supports.

And there’s something to be said for preparing your own panels. Before you’ve even laid down the first brush stroke, you’ve invested some time, effort and care into creating this surface.

But what’s it like to paint on? It’s too early to say at the moment, but first impressions are good. I created this wipe-out underpainting using only burnt umber oil paint straight from the tube with no solvents. The paint could be easily faded back with kitchen paper, and the slightly toothy surface took the paint evenly from the brush.

To be continued…


frame up

It’s surprising how much a picture can be transformed by putting it in a frame. I wrote about these two oil paintings in previous posts (here and here) but at the time had no plans as to how to display them.

At first, I thought about varnishing them and then trying to find a frame that would fit. Varnish tests made me wonder if this was the right way to go. Varnish changes the overall appearance of the surface, with a gloss varnish creating a shiny glare if viewed at the wrong angle, or a matt varnish potentially dulling the colours. I did order some matt and gloss Gamvar as an experiment but didn’t have time to test them thoroughly.

My attempts to find an off-the-shelf frame from local picture framing shops met with frustration as both pictures were non-standard sizes and having a custom frame built would be expensive. Even if I could find the right size frame, I would still need to attach the picture to some kind of backing board.

Attempts to stick a test piece of scrap canvas to a hardboard backing using PVA glue didn’t really work. Maybe I was doing it wrong, but the glue didn’t form a strong, even bond with the canvas, and the hardboard backing started to warp.

In the end, I decided to display them behind glass (actually a good-quality perspex) with a matt board to hold the picture flat. This was also a good option as one picture was on gessoed paper and the other on a loose sheet of canvas. I ordered the frame online using a service which allowed me to enter the exact picture dimensions and size of the matt board to arrive at the custom frame size. There was also an option to add a hinged frame stand to the back (for smaller picture sizes) and there were many different frame styles and colours to choose from.

This gets around the whole problem of building the picture to fit the frame (which isn’t always how paintings are made). Instead, the picture can be constructed to the size and proportions which suit the subject, and then framed later.

That said, I’ve just bought a stack of aluminium panels of A-series dimensions (A5, A4, A3 and A2), thinking that it will be easier to drop them into standard off-the-shelf frames.


after Steichen

This charcoal sketch was inspired by watching an episode of Jennifer Marie’s Atelier Diary in which she talks about the book Camera Work by Alfred Stieglitz. Camera Work was a quarterly photographic journal which ran in the early 20th century, full of high quality photogravures. As she says in the video, some of the photographs in Camera Work look like charcoal drawings. So a quick image search lead to a photo taken by Edward Steichen and published in Camera Work in 1903, which had the tones and textures of a drawing rather than a photograph.

This drawing, based on the Steichen photo, was done fairly quickly with vine charcoal on the cheap printer paper I use for most of these charcoal or carbon pencil sketches. I wondered what it would look like with more of the tone and colouring of the original. So I took a photo of the sketch into Photoshop and added an orange/yellow gradient map which could be faded and selectively masked to create a more three-dimensional form. I also made some adjustments to the original sketch to alter the contour of the muscles attaching to the right shoulder blade.

The resulting picture only exists as a digital file. And that’s the lesson I learnt from this: to start as you mean to go on — a sketch will always be a sketch. To make a finished piece, it’s best to begin with the right materials and build it up with a proven method.


off the grid

I wanted to practice laying down oil paint in smooth, even blends, like in those classic pictures of old with their ceramic finish and no visible brush strokes. Bouguereau could do it, so why couldn’t I?

To practice this, I decided to do a straightforward copy in oils of a photo by Jérôme Bonnet of Loulou Robert. I liked the lighting and the classical pose. In the rush to get painting, I botched the initial lay-in, and after a number of failed attempts I decided to bypass the whole drawing phase and copy the photo directly using a grid. The grid was drawn on Bristol illustration board and a matching grid was overlaid on the on-screen photo reference. The tight grid ensured that the freehand pencil drawing would never stray too far. It was a shortcut to get to the fun part of the painting. I would worry about becoming a decent draughtsman some other time.

I’d read that James Gurney covers his initial drawings on illustration board with a layer of acrylic medium to seal the drawing and provide a base for oil paint. So I painted over the illustration board with a thin layer of acrylic gloss glazing medium (which was all I had to hand). The thin 220 gsm illustration board warped as it absorbed the water from the acrylic medium, despite being taped down. It did flatten back down later, and the result was effectively a plastic-laminated pencil drawing.

As I found out later, acrylic matt medium would have provided more tooth. The gloss surface is very slick and doesn’t grab the first oil paint layer; the brush tends to smear the paint around rather than being drawn evenly from the bristles by the tooth of the surface.

And this experiment brought to an end to any thoughts as to whether drawing a grid is ‘cheating’ or not. The pencil drawing quickly disappears below the first thin layers of paint, the guidelines are gone and you come face to face with the limits of your own ability to draw. I found that hairlines would go up, jawlines would go down, eyebrows would shift around. They were small inaccuracies, but they mounted up, until the face was no longer a recognisable likeness (or in this case, even recognisably female).

Successive layers of paint were easier to paint on than first slick acrylic layer. I used some Galkyd Slow Dry medium to smooth out the blends, but probably overused it as sometimes the paint would bead-up. The hoped-for ceramic finish began to look more like the surface of the moon after the repeated attempts to model forms and match colours.

I ended up printing out the reference photo and trying to copy it sight size. I was aiming for a close match to the original, both in layout and in colour. Of course, this meant that the best this painting would ever be is a replica of a printed photo.

Although this is necessary practice that highlights the many difficulties in handling oil paint, I’ve got to the stage where it feels like I’m trying to patch up a bad job, and I’m not sure the goal of replicating a print-out is worth aiming for. The foundations are wrong, and any improvements to the painting are mainly due to fixing mistakes rather than building up a picture with a process of progression and refinement. So, the picture remains half-finished on the shelf. I’ll take it out from time to time to experiment further or to try something new. But for the moment, I need to rip it up and start again.


fixed lines

A vine charcoal copy of a drawing by Ernest Laurent of Georges Seurat. (I thought it was a drawing by Seurat of Laurent until I realised I was reading the caption incorrectly, though Seurat has made some beautiful tonal drawings.)

I copied this from a full page reproduction in Juliette Aristides book Classical Drawing Atelier at almost sight size. Even so, this is a different face from the one in the book. The forehead is higher and the gaze more stern. The features in the original are more round and gentle. The tiniest change made to the shape of an eye with the tip of a sharpened stick of charcoal could transform the face dramatically.

Laurent gives the illusion of a rough sketch with his quickly drawn lines around the edges of the picture. The face in the centre, however, has a precision and diffuse softness which was hard to reproduce. For some of the background areas of the drawing I tried blending the charcoal into the laid charcoal paper with a screwed-up piece of kitchen paper, but this creates an even smudgy grey rather than the clean halftones of Laurent’s original. Laurent’s mid greys seem to be a clean black dot on an untouched paper background, much like the halftone dots of a newspaper photograph.

As I’ve mentioned before, vine charcoal is lovely to draw with, being very maleable and erasable, but the finished drawing is so ridiculously susceptible to damage that I think even the process of putting a drawing behind glass in a frame would risk some smudging.

One solution would be to use a spray fixative. Up until now, I’ve had two reservations about this: that the fixative would darken or shift any delicate tone changes in the drawing, and that individual drops of spray would create a coarse, blotchy mess on a smooth areas.

To test this, I drew tone gradients on charcoal paper (Strathmore laid toned charcoal paper), then covered the left half with a sheet of paper before spraying with fixative from an art shop (Winsor & Newton Artists’ Fixative). Here it is before spraying:

I copied the printed tone strip on the right as accurately as I could, though the toned paper meant I couldn’t go lighter than about a step 3 or 4. I drew the tones indoors in relatively dim light. When I took it outside, the printed tone strip seemed much brighter at the light end. (The effects of consistent lighting are something I need to experiment with in detail.)

The top block of tone strips were drawn by varying the pressure of the charcoal or by crosshatching. In the lower block, the charcoal was blended using a stub of kitchen paper.

You can see a slight darkening effect on the right half, especially at the bottom due to uneven spraying. You can also see my smudge tests to see if the fixative was working after each round of spraying. How you would do this on a finished drawing, I don’t know. Perhaps just give it many coats and accept the slight darkening.

Even though it was darkened, the blended charcoal tones didn’t seem to be blotchy or grainy.

After these tests, I found that:

  • The drawing did darken a little, with a slightly yellowish cast, and perhaps this was more noticeable in the lighter areas.
  • The darker areas needed as many as 8 or 9 coats to really hold down the thickly applied vine charcoal. Lighter areas were fixed with just two or three.
  • The spray was very even and did not cause any noticeable blotching or splattering in the smooth tones.
  • Getting an even coat on the paper was another matter: the slightest breeze would blow the precious spray to land anywhere except on top of the drawing.

So, when I create my vine charcoal masterpiece, I’ll be able to use fixative without being too concerned about drastically changing its appearance. (Concern about my bank balance is another matter — this stuff ain’t cheap.)