bookshelves

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More experiments with oils, getting to know their properties and how they behave. I wanted to get away from using an on-screen photo as a reference, but painting the bookshelves in the corner of the room presented the problem of continually changing light. Not only did the illumination in the corner of the room change during the few hours spent painting but the painting itself was in turn lit by overcast clouds, direct sunlight and sunlight through a drawn curtain – not ideal, but it underlined the importance of consistent lighting when attempting to get any sort of accurate colour.

I started with a perspective sketch and spent some time with a pencil held at arm’s length to get the proportions right. The various mistakes (such as the angle of the top of the books on the lower shelf) were going to be corrected the next day, but the paint had already become tacky and unworkable. Maybe the way round that is to let it dry even more before correcting, or use a slow drying medium so the paint stays workable for days.

I’d bought some low-tack masking tape to hold down the acrylic paper, hoping that would cure the problem of the paper ripping on removal. If anything, this was worse than the masking tape bought from the DIY shop. Perhaps I need to rethink the whole painting on paper technique.

head of Venus

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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.

speed

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This is a copy of a painting by James Gurney which he made while waiting for his breakfast to arrive. He painted the man at the bar in about 10 minutes with the rest of the scene completed later.

It took me over an hour to do this pencil copy, sat on a sofa in the evening with the TV on in the background, enough time for half a dozen Gurney paintings. But I think I need to stop being so concerned about speed as I think that comes naturally with regular practice and knowledge of materials.

I do find myself falling back to pencil much of the time as it’s the only medium where I can quickly render large areas of tone together with areas of precision. If only it didn’t look like pencil! For a painting I still need (for now) a table, a couple of tubs of water with access to a tap for refills, kitchen roll, space for the paper, brushes and materials, and lots of time.

thumbnails

After reading Color and Light by James Gurney, I’ve been trying to track down a copy of The Artist’s Guide to Sketching, an earlier book he co-wrote with Thomas Kinkade. Unfortunately it is out of print and the second-hand prices have gone crazy. Then I remembered we still have public libraries in this country and reserved a copy for a humble pound.

One of the tips he gives is to spend some time drawing small thumbnail sketches of the scene instead of beginning the drawing right away. This gives the chance to try out different compositions and experiment with areas of focus. But for me the most useful result of making these thumbnails is that it creates enough time to look at the subject before committing to a drawing. Once I’ve decided on a subject, the urge to start sketching right away is near irresistible, with the result that the composition often suffers. Just looking at the scene without drawing anything I find very hard, so scribbling thumbnails satisfies the need to be making marks immediately. By creating a number of empty rectangles you’re forced to reassess the scene a number of times, giving the eye a chance to discover the important features while giving the impatient hand something to do.

In the sketch above, I was drawn to the shapes between the three trees in the foreground, but only after the time spent drawing thumbnails did I realise that the empty sunlit space in the middle distance to the left, with the path leading off through the avenue of trees, is what attracted me to the tree shapes to begin with.

foxhole point

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Foxhole Point at the far end of Millook Haven in Cornwall, painted in gouache from a photo.

The colours of the sandstones, shales and slates (I looked it up) in the spectacular geology of Millook Haven are a beautiful mix of purples oranges browns blues and greys. I did attempt some on-location sketches of the rocks, but I envisioned a translucent multilayered watercolour to do it justice. This isn’t it, but I had fun with the gouache.

Compared to acrylics there seems to be much more of a colour shift as the gouache dries. It’s most noticeable at the extremes: the rich deep dark colours of wet paint can dry with a slight matt sheen and lose some of their vibrancy, and whites tend to fade considerably unless applied thickly. The wetness and consistency of the paint together with how well the brush is loaded affect the covering power and final result.

imitation in gouache

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I love James Gurney’s sketchbook portraits, often done rapidly with the subject in front of him. This was an attempt to imitate his style using gouache to paint from a paused videoI took heart from watching how he builds up detail from seemingly formless swirls of loosely applied colour using opaque gouache. He also uses casein, but I’m not sure if that’s available outside the US.

I found the gouache dries to a slightly lighter colour, and fresh layers can reactivate the paint below if they are too wet and worked for too long. As always, it’s hard to know when to stop: there’s always more detail to add or corrections to be made. Sometimes it’s useful to keep on painting, just to see what will happen. Other times it seems best to stop early and use later paintings for further experiments.

black and phthalo blue

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Copied from a photo and from life using oils on paper, this painting took a beating as I tried to get it in to shape.

The first problem was finding the right mix of paints to match the intense, saturated mid-green colour of the transmitted light passing through the mint leaves (yes, they’re mint leaves). I had ultramarine blue and azo yellow but really needed something like phthalo blue to get that high chroma acid green which could be adjusted with yellow and titanium white.

I ended up buying a tube of Winsor Blue which had the colour labelled as PB15:3. Only later did I realise that I’d bought Winsor Blue Red Shade when I really needed Green Shade (PB15). Also, the tube was regular oil paint, not the water-miscible oil I was using. I was hoping (after reading online forums) that I could clean up the brushes with just soap and water, after all it is just oil. It does clean up but needs a lot more working in to the bristles of a lot more detergent than is needed for the Holbein Duo Aqua oils, and phthalo blue being an intense staining colour doesn’t help.

Anyway, all that palaver resulted in the rather insipid green on the right-hand leaves.

The backdrop was a black shirt hung up behind the vase which was sitting on some white kitchen roll. (I thought a white surface would be an improvement on the imitation wood formica table top — am I ruining the mood?)

I managed to mix up the background black a little too well, and the first draft looked dead and flat. Closer inspection of the flowers showed they had more depth and variety of values than I had initially painted, so I decided to try glazing on some darker values to create more contrast.

Instead of burnt umber I used a mix of more translucent paints for the glaze, hoping I could build up tones while letting the colours beneath shine through. In my haste the glaze mixed in with the titanium white of the table top which I hadn’t allowed to dry. The resultant murky mess was nothing like the subtle glazes found in the paintings of the old masters, instead it looked as if I’d spilt something.

I used more kitchen towel to scrub off the ‘glaze’ and tried a few more times, with similar results.

Eventually I got to that point where I knew the painting was lost. So I patched up the table top and shadows as best I could and drew a line under the whole exercise. The murky grey brown lighting doesn’t complement the inaccurate greens. The lighting is flat, the arrangement of flowers too literal (what’s going on above the carnations?). Composition, colour, value, lighting — there’s a lot to learn. At least now I know some of the ways not to do it.

egg shell

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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.

hard hands

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Copy of a Leonard Starr panel.

Copy of a Leonard Starr panel.

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Hands are hard to draw, aren’t they? One slip of the pencil and a finger turns into a misshapen sausage, a thumb develops an extra joint. More than once have I tried to sketch a hand from memory only to find I’ve drawn five fingers and a thumb.

Andrew Loomis tells us to ‘get rid of the idea that hands are hard to draw. They are simply confusing to draw unless you know how they operate. Once understood, hands become fascinating.’

It’s helpful to keep the rules of proportion in the back of the mind while drawing, but the most useful advice from Loomis is more practical and vivid:

‘The most important fact to remember about the hand is that it is hollow on the palm side and convex on top. The pads are so arranged around the palm that even liquid can be held in the hand. The hand served primitive man as a cup…’

‘In the drawings above, note how the hollow of the hand has been carefully defined. Also note the resulting curve of the back of the hand. Hands never look natural or capable of grasping until the artist understands this feature of the hand. All these hands look as if they could take hold of an object. … A hand that does not look capable of clasping is badly drawn. Study your own hands.’

So, continuing the philosophy of ‘if you can’t draw noses, draw lots of noses’, I’m going through the process of copying drawings and photos of hands, hoping that something will stick.

 

gouache heads

Gouache heads

I chickened out of starting the freshly bound book and carried on using a spiral bound Seawhite sketchbook which contains “all-media” paper, a sized cartridge paper which I’ve found can take a watercolour wash or several layers of fairly dry gouache. Too much pen work with a fine nib will roughen the surface enough for water to get in and break up the fibres.

These heads were inspired by seeing the court drawings of Jane Rosenberg and heads drawn by James Gurney. Both artists manage to divide the head up in to distinct planes which are painted with confident strokes. In trying to imitate that approach I find I fiddle and blend too much, especially when I mix up the wrong colour, with a result that some of the vitality of the figure is lost.

The stone head was snapped in a church doorway near Stoney Littleton, Somerset. The portrait on the right was drawn from a paused video of a David Malan lecture. Paused videos can be a great way to find a specific pose or expression for a quick sketch.