all at sea

I took one of the value studies from the last post for this experiment. This painting in oils is a work in progress, based on a slide taken by my grandfather many decades ago. I’m experimenting with textures, colours and perspective.

Perspective has proven to be the biggest challenge. I thought I had a reasonable understanding of the basic theory — vanishing points, horizon lines, fields of view — but the practice of actually drawing objects in space threw up some problems.

Even though I was pretty much copying directly from a photo, I wasn’t aiming for a completely accurate copy. Instead, I wanted to be able to move things around a little or even invent things completely but still be able to make the objects and figures work together believably in the final composition.

Despite the charcoal value study, the first attempt was just a bad composition. Even though all the elements that I wanted to paint were included in the picture, there wasn’t enough space at the bottom and the composition looks cramped.

I pretty much erased this completely by scraping back and painting over.

Next, I had trouble in making the rowing boat sit flat on the water. It’s almost perpendicular to the harbour wall, but not quite, so it almost shares the same vanishing points as the harbour wall, the steps and the boat (which is moored parallel to the wall). Boxes in perspective are relatively simple, but this rowing boat has all sorts of curves and bulges which complicate things.

The most important angle to get right, I found, was the shadow shape at the rear of the boat. It has an acute angle going off to the left vanishing point, then a curve down, following the near side of the boat. This doesn’t look right in the picture above, and the overall size of the boat is wrong.

The boat is sitting better on the water now, though I think the reflection on the right needs some correction. Even though the brush strokes are fairly rough, I’m reminded of the Stapleton Kearns neck tattoo: “LOOSE HANDLING WILL NOT DISGUISE WEAK DRAWING!

Next, came the figures on the left. Again, they’re based on the slide, but I wanted to be able to move them around and change them at will. The main problem is that the man on the left is too small compared to the woman and boy. Andrew Loomis has some useful illustrations in his book Successful Drawing (available in print, but I think there are some PDFs floating around the internet somewhere). He states the rule for scaling figures on the ground plane:

All figures of the same height, when standing on the same ground plane, will be crossed by the horizon at the same vertical point on the figure.

In other words, if you’re looking at a number of figures on the harbourside who are all of the same height but standing in different positions relative to the viewer, the horizon line will cut through all the figures at the same point. In this case, the horizon line cuts through the figures at roughly hip level. So if they are all the same height, the horizon line should pass through all the figures at hip level, no matter where they are standing.

In this painting, however, the figures aren’t the same height — the man should be taller than the woman and boy. So, I’ve drawn a very small man!

Here is the original with a perspective grid overlaid. (Click the image for a larger version.)

And here’s the figure on the left at a more believable size, corrected in Photoshop.

Ok, enough theory. Time to get the brushes out again…


value studies

Inspired by a post by Terry Miura and the striking composition of Ed’s recent sketches, these are quick value studies of various photos. Value studies are a useful way to see if a picture will hold together as a composition before committing to a larger painting. Terry Miura’s post explains the process and thinking and is well worth a read.

I used vine charcoal on cheap printer paper for these studies. It smudges very easily which can be an advantage as you can lighten or even erase an area just by touching it. Large areas of tone can be laid down by quickly scribbling over an area then smoothing it over with a finger. Very often this process will erase or blur something you want to keep, so the darkest darks will need to be reapplied. Once you get used to this smudging-then-reapplying dance, it’s a very quick and satisfying way to draw thumbnail sketches.

Don’t wear white.

mind the gap

This camellia was painted fairly quickly from life in oils. I thought the direct sunlight glowing through the leaf would only last for half an hour or so at most, but in the end it lasted for a few hours and the subject didn’t change dramatically as the sun moved across the sky. I didn’t really have a plan for what to do if it did disappear apart from following the rule ‘Don’t chase the light.’

These A4 canvas sheets are temporarily fixed on a board using masking tape, and often the edge of the tape gets lost as I paint the dark background. This gives the impression (as I’m painting) that the edge of the picture is farther out than it really is, and this can lead to problems of the composition appearing too cramped when I finally peel off the tape.

One way around this would be to retape the edges to make the boundaries clear again. But perhaps the best solution is to decide in advance how a picture like this would eventually be displayed, taking in to consideration the size of mat board or overlap of a frame, and then work back from there to find the working area. A temporary mat board cut to size and placed over the work in progress can help with this.

surface tension

I’m always impressed how different materials make for different types of drawing. With a large mop brush in your hand, you’re not going to make a delicate mark. A sharp pencil on silky, hard paper tends to lead to delicate lines and more detail, with smooth tones from teasing the graphite around.

This is perhaps why I haven’t been attracted to making digital artwork, despite its many advantages. A plastic stylus on a graphics tablet lacks the tactile joy of feeling the paint crush under the bristles or of a dip pen gliding over plate illustration board.

I keep this small concertina sketchbook in my bag for sketching when out and about. It’s a Moleskine, but only cost £1 in a charity shop. It has one long continuous sheet of folded paper, ideal for panoramas, and it has the advantage that the facing pages fold flat. The paper is more like thin card and feels wonderfully smooth under a pencil. My favourite weapon of choice is a clutch pencil with a 2B lead, but a thick, buttery Croquis 6B retractable pencil allows for more expressive lines and can take the graphite as dark as it will go.

The image immediately above can be scrolled left to right. It’s a cheat really as the pages aren’t in the correct order and I’ve rotated the horizontal ones, but you get the idea.

endless paper

Sketchbooks are great, I love them. They keep all your masterpieces, all your mistakes, all your experiments, all together in one place — a record of that time in a self-contained book. For better or worse, that is what you saw, and how well you could draw, at that time.

But sometimes you just want to experiment and not worry how this new page will compare to all those previous pages. When you manage to make two or three decent drawings, the next one has to be at least as good. That’s a pressure that can stop you from starting the next drawing. A pressure that can stop you from drawing altogether.

There are ways of getting around this expectation (in your own head) that you have to live up to the quality of the last drawing. One is to fill a page full of scrawls of pen testing — squiggles of run-out ink or freshly sharpened pencil. This spoils the page. The bar has been lowered. You no longer have to live up to that golden run of fine artwork. You are free to experiment and, possibly, fall flat on your face with a lemon of a drawing.

Sometimes you don’t even want to lower the bar. Sometimes you just need to scrawl, scratch and belly-flop your way through a whole bunch of drawings that will never be seen. This is valuable. It is important to practise, to get it wrong, again and again. The results will be a mess, arms will be drawn too long, heads will look like deflated footballs, hands will be stunted stubs, but it doesn’t matter. You have to make mistakes, takes risks, try things out, and do it all away from the public gaze. If every piece is for show then there’s a tendency to play safe and only use methods you’ve used before.

There are parallels to sports training or mastering a musical instrument — endless repetition, making the awkward and difficult rewire into muscle memory. And most importantly (otherwise you’ll never do it), you have to love the process of training.

Some time back I found a box of printer paper in the back of the garage. It was that perforated printer paper with holes in the side — one long, box-deep piece of seemingly endless paper. It was smooth on one side and rough on the reverse, much like shop-bought artist’s newsprint.

Lately, it has replaced the sketchbook. That’s not quite true: I still have a number of sketchbooks on the go — one stuffed in a rucksack for those moments of sketching on a park bench or waiting in a car park. Another, with thicker paper, has paint thrown at it. Yet another contains watercolours or gouache or ink. This computer paper isn’t a replacement, it’s a place to experiment.

Of course, the ones shown here are a selected batch — many of the sheets are filled with unremarkable 1 minute gesture drawings. quick sketches, warm-ups, or overworked dark-grey multi-lined smudges — a necessary graveyard of lemons. They all end up being stuffed into a corner of a cupboard, so I take a snapshot of some of the ones that have something interesting about them, or sometimes I’ll take a photo just to record the way I draw at the moment. Hopefully, I’ll be able to look back in years to come and see an improvement.

When this box runs out, I’ll go online and order a ridiculous amount of cheap paper, probably not intended for artists but sold to wrap ornaments for a house move or to wrap fish & chips.

Someone once said, to become good at drawing you need to encircle the world with newsprint. I haven’t encircled the world, but I’m approaching the Ilfracombe & Barnstaple section.

flying by instruments

This should have been straightforward — I was drawing from a photo (from New Masters Academy) on to a prepared ground of leftover mud from a previous painting, smoothed on to a sheet of acrylic gessoed canvas. The surface was smooth enough that the raw umber underpainting could be lifted or modified with a rag. I went straight in with the brushes and no initial drawing, knowing I could move the paint around at will.

At first I fell in to my usual mistake of making the drawing progressively bigger as it expanded out. I hit the right edge of the canvas, erased that, then ran out of room at the top. Then began the real problem of constructing a believable figure. No matter how much I moved lines around, it just didn’t look convincing, and I couldn’t work out where the problem was.

Finally, after a few hours of chasing paint around, I gave up and literally went back to the drawing board. I had to be able to make a decent drawing if I was to have a hope of making a painting worth looking at.

After multiple attempts with charcoal and crayon, I found I just couldn’t get this pose down on paper. It’s not a complicated pose. There is some foreshortening from the base of the spine up to the head, but nothing extreme. But I just couldn’t get a convincing pose by eye.

In frustration, I ended up tracing over the photo with my basic graphic tablet, just to get the feeling of what it would be like to draw the right lines. The results of this tracing, despite the scratchy, rapidly drawn contour lines, look way more convincing than my freehand drawing by eye.

This made me realise that getting an accurate, believable figure is essential. If the basic shapes are in place, you can get away with any kind of treatment of line or tone or paint — the figure will be convincing.

Back to the painting — I ended up taking photos of my painting revisions, then overlaying them on the original photo in Photoshop. By doing that I could work out that I needed to raise a curve here, lower a line there. I had given up being able to do this intuitively by eye. Instead, I was flying by instruments, relying on this feedback from a computer overlay.

I’m happy with some of the edge treatment — bringing things in to focus or losing them in a kind of abstraction was fun. But the figure still isn’t convincing to me. Something isn’t quite right, despite all this Photoshop intervention. I need another pair of eyes to tell me what’s wrong.

Ingres received ridicule and criticism for this painting La Grande Odalisque because of the unusual proportions. HIs contemporaries used to tease him by guessing how many extra vertebrae were needed for that spine to be possible. But Ingres was a superb draughtsman and knew what he was doing. If he needed a longer spine to create a more elegant figure, then that’s what he would paint. There’s a world of difference between deliberately distorting a figure for a particular effect and not being able to draw accurately.

black and white


Charcoal and white Conté pencil on Strathmore toned charcoal paper, roughly 15 x 10 inches.

The process for this drawing was a little different in that I started with an image in my head and then went in search of the subject, rather than starting with the reference then deciding to draw. I still need to draw from something I can see — I can invent forms and lighting from my imagination to some degree, but all the detailed forms and textures of the subject and the many unexpected quirks of the scene just don’t appear clearly in my mind’s eye. In fact I find it hard to visualise anything with any clarity in my imagination — it’s more like a fleeting collection of fragments. I can get a mood, an appearance, but not a solid image which I can transfer.

So I went out with my camera, hunting for withered leaves. The photo this is based on was full of strong russets and oranges, but I took it in to Photoshop to make it easier to see it in black and white. I used vine charcoal, charcoal pencil, charcoal dust rubbed with paper and white Conté pencil. It was tempting to use sanguine and bistre Conté crayons as their colours were similar to the original leaf, but I decided that monochrome would be less distracting. Even the white pencil clashed with the other tones and I had to fade it back with a kneaded eraser. Just as with paints, I find it useful to think of white as being on the blue side of the colour wheel, and to be aware that sometimes it can cool and deaden, as well as lighten, the warmer tones.

blank pages


The blank page can be an intimidating thing, especially when it’s a large blank page of good quality watercolour paper in an expensive A4 Moleskine sketchbook. The solution, of course, is to fill it with exquisite, delicate drawings of your best work. And that is why this sketchbook sat untouched on a shelf for many months… until I decided to strap it to an easel and attack it with large, cheap brushes loaded with acrylic paint.

It turned out to be ideal for these bold experiments: the large size gives some room for manoeuvre, and the thick watercolour paper can take the abuse without buckling.

The top picture is a rather dark version of a portrait of Louis Betts (without his glasses) by William Merritt Chase. The one below is based on a snapshot taken at a wedding. I often use photos for reference, but this somehow feels like it could never look like anything but a painting of a photo, no matter how I handled the paint. There’s something about the crop and angle of the picture which gives it away.

Comparing Louis Bett’s collar with the front of the wedding suit reminds me of a lesson in James Gurney’s book Colour and Light where he demonstrates how black surfaces in light can often appear lighter than white surfaces in shade.

one session



This one was deliberately completed in one session in an attempt to make me focus on the important elements of building up a painting. It’s so easy for me to get locked in to one particular area which grabs my attention rather than concentrating on developing the entire painting systematically. So the goal of finishing the painting in one go wasn’t so much to speed up the process but rather to get rid of woolly thinking and to have a plan, at least with regard to the mechanics of painting: laying-in, mixing colours, building up the lights and darks.

A large synthetic filbert was useful for creating the sage leaf shapes, and I used the end of the brush handle to scrape out some of the rosemary leaves. I’m sure there’s a whole range of these Bob Ross techniques that I’ve yet to learn.

The crop of the picture makes a big difference to the final effect. Left as I painted it on the A4 canvas, the subject seems lost and flat, but is improved by a tighter, more square crop.

And to continue the efficiency drive, the laborious clean up of brushes after oil painting can be avoided by dipping the brushes in safflower oil with a few drops of clove oil added. Wipe off any excess paint before dipping, then either leave them on a brush holder or put them in a plastic bag. The slow-drying oils keep the bristles supple and in good condition for days if not weeks. At the next painting session, just remove the excess oil with a rag and continue painting. Full instructions for using brush dip and brush care in general can be found here.

training tiles


This is a copy in oils of a painting by Felicia Forte which impressed me with the way the image was built up of flat tiles of colour. Copying this style was an exercise in making deliberate strokes with plenty of paint (it was surprising how much paint was needed to make a solid tile) and was a good antidote to my tendency to apply paint thinly and then dab and fuss.

Instead, it ensures I make a decision, mix a colour, load the brush, apply the paint with one stroke. Then leave it. Assess what needs to be done, then repeat for the next stroke.

I think this would apply to any style of painting. The most valuable lesson for me was to not make a mark until I’d made a decision about the very next stroke, which sounds obvious, but it’s so easy to just dive in and hope for the best.