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.)


too many photos

“Draw from life.” It’s advice I hear all the time, from the web, from books, from friends.

There is something different about seeing a real three-dimensional thing in front of you. Compared to a photograph, there is so much more information to draw from. In many ways, this makes it easier to pull out what you need for the picture. In other ways, you have more work to do: What do you do with that bright highlight when all you’ve got to represent it is the dull white of the paper you’re drawing on?

Playing here with some grey wash watercolour pencils, softened with a waterbrush and a touch of fountain pen black ink.


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.