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.
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.
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.
Trying out vine charcoal and a PITT soft charcoal pencil on Strathmore toned paper, model courtesy of On Air Video.
Vine charcoal is so soft it will darken to pure black and as there are no waxy binders it will erase back to plain paper with a kneaded eraser making it unexpectedly versatile to play with. It can be also be lifted with a soft dry brush or a chamois leather. I haven’t tried the chamois yet though I’ve heard it’s good for the wipe out technique on a ground of charcoal dust. Charcoal paper has a tooth which holds on to the grains; smooth papers run the risk of the line disappearing into a cloud of black dust though there are beautiful and delicate drawings made on hot pressed paper.
The toned paper makes a satisfying mid tone, though the lightest light can only be the light grey of the paper (white chalk or pencil will be future experiments), so all the values are compressed into a small range and the success of the drawing is going to depend on whether I’ve pitched those halftones right. Some license can be taken with reflected light, but getting the values right is key, (along with anatomy, proportion, composition, gesture… ) — it’s like being addicted to spinning plates.
A copy in oils of Spring by Juliette Aristides. I love the way she makes vibrant colour stand out in a mostly neutral painting.
I copied this painting from the back cover of her book Classical Painting Atelier. In writing this post, I looked for an online version to link to and was surprised to find the original has a different crop (I didn’t realise that was a patterned column on the left) and lacks the red cast of the printed version which turned the original vibrant greens towards olive. It also has darker clouds in the background, making the flowers stand out even more, though this could be partly due to the glowing pixels of the screen. Paintings are notoriously hard to photograph, and I wonder if the true original looks different again.
So besides the overly-large blooms and the colour shift, one of the main differences that I can see between my copy and the book version is the handling of the edges. The original achieves a softness in both the background and the receding blooms which adds to the pop of the central flowers. The original is roughly twice the size of my A3 copy so paint handling at that scale might be slightly different, but I need to get more control over that final finish. Much of the beauty of a painting depends on the handling of edges: it’s not enough to just put down roughly the right colour in roughly the right place.
I was trying out two new tubes of paint which I hadn’t used before: cadmium yellow and pyrrole red. Up until now my palette used permanent rose (PV19) and imidazalone yellow (PY180), both of which are transparent and the yellow in particular gets lost in a mix, even though it’s a bright mid yellow on a white background. Cadmium yellow seemed to be the yellow on everyone’s palette and I couldn’t work out why it was so popular considering it’s often two or three times the price of other yellows. Now, after seeing how powerful it is when mixed with other colours and how sparingly it needs to be added, I see the value of having an opaque yellow. This might be a new way of creating a colour palette: as well as warm or cool versions of each primary, I could try transparent and opaque paints. Paint handling in mixes seems to be as much of a factor as the colour itself.
The pyrrole red (Winsor Red, PR255 and PR254) is much closer to orange than the permanent rose and also holds up well in a mix. In the past, I’ve sometimes found it hard to hit a bright mid red, so this is a useful addition.
I still prefer a limited palette, but it’s useful to see how shifting around to different pigments can change the way I think about mixing colour.
I wanted to work entirely from life for this one. A watercolour pencil with a water brush was useful for the thumbnails. I did use a photo to roughly check the colours and layout in the gouache sketch but I couldn’t quite get the perspective I wanted, and working from a photo seemed somehow artificial and dead after the sketches done in front of the subject. So I went back to draw from life a more accurate pencil layout for transfer to canvas.
I like this method of repeated drawing — thumbnails, studies, sketches — before attempting the main painting. Each time around, the problems could be worked out, so by the time I began the final painting many of the features of the composition felt familiar through all these revisitations.
Mixing colours from life is more accurate but also more satisfying, despite the technical difficulties of changing light conditions. And a true sense of depth makes it easier to play with hard, soft and lost edges to make things recede or to snap them into attention.
This week the room was redecorated, so I painted those walls a final time with a larger brush.
A self portrait is a strangely narcissistic affair, spending all that time looking at your own head, but the benefits are undeniable: the model is always available, and you’re drawing from life, not a flat image with all the problems already worked out.
I took the often-heard advice to start with large brushes — a size larger than seems necessary — and then keep using these large sizes as long as possible. Also, I was mindful of not being too worried about destroying part of the painting that had gone well if that’s what was needed to repair or progress another part. This was a revelation to me, that oil paint can be reworked and corrected as long as you have the will or the patience. As Terry Miura said: if you found it once, you can find it again. I kept this as a mantra during the times when it all dissolved to mush. That said, I’ve left it in a state of half finished roughness, knowing that if I built up one area I’d have to revisit the others. And the near-monochrome brown is a bit much. When to stop?
I also need to work out a way to light the canvas as I’m painting. Working with no medium, the raking light on the brush strokes throws off the values, especially on the left side of the face.
A copy in oils of Pink Azalea—Chinese Vase by William Merritt Chase, trying out a new pad of A4 gessoed canvas.
I was attempting to copy three things from the original painting: the colours and texture of the glazed porcelain, the impression of the flower shapes and the play of light on the whole scene.
Some things I found:
Adding titanium white makes colours much cooler and can result in a chalky appearance. I had to glaze over with a warmer mixture to reverse this effect.
It’s very easy to overuse white. In the original painting, the flowers appear bright and show their three-dimensional form only by making the receding ones look much duller. Much of the success of the original comes from this subtle handling of the value and chroma. There’s still not enough variation and control in this copy.
It’s hard to make a loose impression of a petal shape based on someone else’s loose impression. I had to reverse-engineer the loosely brushed shapes made in the original painting in order to guess the form of the original flowers, and then redo it while attempting a similar handling.
I was working without an underdrawing, and at one point had to place some tracing paper over the half-finished painting in order to work out the correct perspective for the bottle. I did use the mirror test for the symmetry of the vase, but in bumping the background around at the end I’ve knocked it out of shape again.
So, lots of room for improvement, but a worthwhile exercise as every time I copy a master work I learn something of value.
Painted in oils from a photo (thanks Aunt Joan!) of a snow-covered drumlin.
The soft make-up brush had another outing for the blending of the snow colours, but many of the textures were the result of trial and error with a palette knife—either smearing or scraping away the layers of paint.
Decisions had to be made about how much detail to describe, or whether to give just an impression. It’s always tempting to add more detail, especially as I’m one of those people who like to get up close to a painting in a gallery and have a good peer at the brushstrokes. Mark Carder talks about resisting this temptation to add more detail, and instead suggests we ‘paint ugly‘.
More blending experiments, this time using stand oil as a medium. The portrait is based on a photo by Randall Hobbet.
Stand oil has the consistency of honey, but can be thinned with a little odourless mineral spirits. (I used Gamsol.) Besides helping to make smooth, fluid transitions, the stand oil levels out any brush strokes, making it easier to judge the colours. (See Mark Carder’s demonstration of the advantages of levelling paint.) It dries with a glossy finish which can make these paper sketches look patchy. A layer of varnish would even this out.
I made the underpainting with thinned-down burnt umber, then used the wipe-out method to remove areas of tone with a rag. This quickly builds up the basic light-dark structure of the painting without any initial drawing.
It was also a chance to try out a tear-off paper palette, which is basically a pad of white greaseproof paper. Clipping the medium holder on one end and putting a loop of masking tape underneath the other end helped to stop the palette sliding around on the table top. (It does have a thumbhole, but I’m waiting for my beret and smock to arrive before I try that.) A piece of cling film taken from junk mail wrapping kept the main blobs of paint workable for a couple of days.
As for the portrait itself, I was trying to make the finish as tight as I could make it, just to see how it would look. I had trouble with the perspective on the mouth and chin—I’ve got a tendency to draw this area out of proportion, with the jaw jutting out rather than curving back in. It’s one of those recurrent drawing errors which I need to be aware of, like my tendency when drawing figures to draw everything progressively larger as I work down from the head, resulting in pyramid people with large feet and small heads. This is where a second pair of eyes is helpful, to point out my blind spots.