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.
A statue over the grave of Constance Christian Hardyman (died 1892, age 25) in Smallcombe Cemetery in Bath, at least those are the details on the headstone. A search on the internet reveals that “Constance [Trueman] died in Bath in April 1892 after the birth of the couple’s first child, Constance Christian“, but that doesn’t match up with the headstone. As with many of the crumbling, lichen-covered headstones in that cemetery, who knows who lies below.
This was intended to be a figure study but I wanted to get it fairly accurate, so for the lay-in I drew a grid matching one over the photo. A rough watercolour wash was used to get the main dark shapes (using Ed’s homemade watercolour set, made from a converted mint tin with the half pans attached with magnetic tape).
After that it was trial and error with many layers of acrylic paint. The colour choices were based on the mid-winter frost-covered scene with its purples, russets, blue greys and whites.
I couldn’t settle on the background. I wanted it to be roughly true to the original scene rather than just showing a generic graveyard, but it looks rather contrived and gimmicky despite toning it down with white mixed with glazing medium. I think I should do more straightforward studies before getting too painterly like this, and develop skills in colour mixing, values and composition.
Some isolated clouds out to sea, viewed from a Cornish cliff top.
I’d like to say I made this postcard sized oil sketch on the spot as a pochade, but it was based on a series of photos. A quick underpainting of acrylics was overlaid with layers of oil.
The titanium white is the slowest drying of all the oils in this palette and only goes tacky after a few days. This can lead to problems if extra glazing is attempted too soon. I’ve heard that the slower drying walnut oil is sometimes used for whites instead of linseed oil as it is less yellowing, but I don’t know if this is the case with these Holbein Duo Aqua oils.
The finished painting was hard to photograph accurately. Subtle changes in the ambient light makes the colours and contrast look markedly different.
Trying out a Seawhite Kraft sketchbook, which has 40 pages of 175gsm brown ‘Kraft’ card suitable for wet and dry media according to the blurb.
The card is slightly rough but doesn’t have much texture. Despite the spiral binding the pages have a slight warp and don’t lie completely flat even when new, but I find this encourages more experimentation and quick sketches as I’m not daunted by a perfect blank page.
The main reason for trying this sketchbook was to experiment with a toned background. With the midtones already there, the paint mostly adds highlights and shadows. These sketches in acrylic were to practice mixing the right range of values in the various areas of reflected light and cast shadows.
A rough sketch copy of a painting by Fred Cuming to experiment with blending colours using acrylic paint.
Instead of using glazing mediums for the background, I used only water. By mixing the colours on the palette with a wet brush, the paint was already fairly thin when I applied it. After covering an area with wet paint, I would straight away clean the brush and re-wet it, then go back over the area to further dilute and stretch the glaze.
When it’s that dilute, the acrylic paint behaves more like gouache in that it doesn’t bind fully to the paper (at least if the paper is still a little wet), so it can be lifted and faded by scrubbing with a wet brush. I was using cheap hog hair brushes which allow for all sorts of rough treatment without having to worry about damaging the bristles.
The colours I’ve mixed are a little too garish. The original painting, which I copied from a scan of a greetings card, has a much more subtle palette.
The head of the Venus Callipyge outside the Pantheon in Stourhead, Wiltshire, painted in acrylics from a photo (most photos I take now are composed with a painting in mind). The ever-forgiving acrylics allow for repeated alterations. Blending of a sort was possible with glazing medium and working quickly with wet paint, but tones could also be built up by a kind of scumbling as the paint dried. There was a surprising amount of colour in the grey stone.
I found this egg shell on a walk in some local woods. It was caught in a patch of light which made it stand out from the surrounding browns, greens and greys. The outside of the shell turned out to be almost exactly the hue of phthalo blue except for a slight green cast from the light coming through the foliage. This gave me a chance to try some acrylic glazing medium mixed with flow improver. After spreading the clear medium over part of the shell, a small amount of dilute grey green paint could be dropped in then spread and blended with a large clean damp brush.
A blackbird’s egg perhaps, or a song thrush. I’ve no idea if the contents escaped or were eaten.
An attempt to copy the lighting in Phil Couture’s beautiful painting “Maiko Satohana“, using acrylics in a sketchbook. I went straight in with the paints as this was more about reproducing the lighting than getting accurate proportions (the face is skewed and distorted).
I’d like to know how he made his painting: Did he work from a model or a photograph? How did he decide on the background colours, the composition? It’s always interesting to hear about what is going through an artist’s head as they make these choices.
Painted in acrylic from an old magazine cutting taken from an article about Tibet. It looked like such a satisfying moment.
The photo in the cutting was so dark that the figure was just a silhouette. I had to take it into Photoshop to bring out enough detail to paint. In some ways this made it easier as the noise-filled image was already broken down into large blocks of colour, the digital equivalent of squinting – another example of how a poor reproduction can make a good practice subject.