blobs in space


This doodle in oils started out as an experiment in blending thin layers of paint with a soft make-up brush. It worked quite well as a way of getting a smooth transition without brush strokes across the spheres, and the light and dark areas could be gradually pushed around. It helps to tap the end of the brush in the starting colour and then blend only one way. If you try and blend back the other way, it pollutes the opposite colour and you have to start again.

After that, the eye and ear were very loosely based on a photo reference, but the lighting and perspective had to be invented. The trouble with inventing objects is that there’s no quick way of checking if you’ve got it right. James Gurney often uses maquettes or makes a model of his imaginary scenes, and this can help solve the major lighting problems and perhaps make you aware of things you’ve missed. But I think he uses these models only as a starting point, and completes the artwork by relying on his knowledge of lighting on forms gained from many drawings from life—which is what I need to do.

Gurney challenge


A cartoon made for James Gurney’s six word story challenge, using a dip pen and Indian ink, dilute Lexington Gray ink in a waterbrush and watercolour.

It began with lots of pencil doodles of individual items and general layout. The monkey started out as some kind of fish creature, the buckets and mops moved around, and I had to make many adjustments to the Heath Robinson machinery.

It was all really an excuse to get the dip pen out again. The variation in line weight and the blackness of the ink is very satisfying. The index nib ran over the sized heavyweight cartridge paper quite well, and the waterproof Indian ink allows watercolour and ink washes to go on later. The greys were built up with multiple layers of dilute Noodler’s Lexington Gray ink (hat-tip to Ed.)

There’s no undo button with this kind of drawing, something that I became very aware of the further it progressed.

bare arms


An oil painting of a pencil copy of a drawing found in Risunok: Osnovy uchebnogo akademicheskogo risunka (Figure: Basic educational academic drawing) — a book full of beautiful drawings but with Russian text. I can’t read the words, but at least I can learn something from copying the drawings.

I’m trying to develop the ability to see things in terms of their three-dimensional form, as an object in space, as recommended by Robert Beverley Hale in Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters. He suggests visualising forms in terms of very simple mass:

…the block, the cylinder, the sphere; occasionally the cone; as well as simple combinations and modifications of these forms, principally the egg.

When we wish to create the illusion of reality on the surface of a piece of paper or canvas, nothing is more helpful than the ability to visualise in terms of simple mass. Troublesome problems connected with general shape, proportion, direction, planes, detail, light and shade, and line can all be solved by thinking in terms of simple geometrical masses.

In this painting, many liberties were taken with the lighting, which was developed and invented from the original line drawing. For instance, the light catching the muscle in the top left coming from the shoulder blade is lit too strongly, but I liked it as a centre of interest. I took a picture of the half-finished painting into Photoshop to experiment with the background glow and highlights, and then used that mock-up as a guide for finishing the painting. And the anatomy has no doubt become distorted through the multiple copies (final year students of Medicine & Surgery take note). I recommend as a great site to learn how to visualise and draw anatomy.

This was also an exercise in developing a method of creating a final painting. I quite like this process of starting with a pencil drawing then transferring it to the canvas, or in this case the usual gessoed paper. A scan of the original pencil copy was enlarged to the final size and printed out on normal office paper. The back of the printout was rubbed with charcoal then taped in place and the outline traced with a red ballpoint pen (red ink makes it easier to see which parts have been traced). I found it helpful to trace not only the outlines but also areas of shade. With the charcoal transfer in place I could quickly build up a tonal underpainting. After that, the experiments could begin with building up layers of paint, blending (or deliberately not blending) the tiles of adjacent colour, making many mistakes, and trying to correct them.

layers and glazing


Another painting in oils, going up in size to A4 acrylic paper covered with an extra layer of acrylic gesso. The still life was set up on a shelf in a cupboard, illuminated with a desk lamp.

A terra rosa underpainting was covered in a grey ‘dead’ layer (grisaille) and allowed to dry in preparation for glazing, which was the main point of this experiment — seeing layers of transparent glaze build up into forms, shadows and colour looked so satisfying when watching others do it, I wanted to try it myself.

But I had some problems. Thinned down with Galkyd Slow Dry medium and spread with a soft brush or rag, the diluted paint seemed to collect in the grain of the surface. So instead of a smooth layer of colour, it gave the underlying paint a dirty appearance. Maybe the previous layer wasn’t completely dry, or perhaps the surface needs to be smoother. Anyway, I ended up adding the final layers in opaque paint, which was quite satisfying as the work had already been done with the previous layers and I could follow the tones of the rough glaze below. I could probably have created much the same effect by painting the final colours directly over the underpainting — I’ll have to do some more glazing experiments.

I didn’t capture the subtle difference between the slightly grey-green jug and the warmer-toned porcelain of the vase (in the end I was just glad to get the shading roughly right). The red of the apple could have been more striking if everything else had a cooler tone. And the vase doesn’t pass the mirror test. But that’s the whole point of these studies: to test out materials and to get to know the pitfalls.

eggs first


The world is full of eggs and egg-shaped things, so I need to know how to paint them. It turned out to be quite difficult. Once I got over the apparent simplicity of an egg, I realised that they are full of shifts in hue, value changes, and variations in colour saturation. To add to the confusion, all these shifting variables change according to what’s around them. For instance, the high chroma oranginess of the egg only appeared when the background darkened and turned towards a blue-green-grey.

My aim was not to create a good composition or even an attractive picture, but to paint what I saw as accurately as possible. I used the Holbein Duo Aqua oils with a little of Gamblin’s Galkyd Slow Dry medium as an experiment in smoothing out the brush strokes. Sometimes the light rakes against the tiny ridges made by brush strokes in paint straight out of the tube causing patches of glare, which can make it hard to judge the colour. The medium evens out the surface and also makes the paint thinner and easier to blend. (Oil paint mediums are a rabbit hole of conflicting advice, I found out.)

The set-up was the egg placed on a slightly faded cloth-bound book with the light coming mainly from a desk lamp fitted with a daylight bulb placed a few inches away. I surrounded the back and sides with some black-covered sketchbooks to lower the reflected light and increase the contrast between the light and shadow.

There appeared to be a halo of washed out colour around the highlight, followed by increased saturation moving through the halftones into the shadows, but some areas of the darker halftones also seemed to have low chroma. It really was a case of careful observation then trial and error. Sometimes I would hold the mixed paint on my brush next to the part of the scene I was painting to see how they compared. Mark Carder has invented a colour checker for doing just this but it requires close attention to the lighting to use it accurately, so somehow I need to develop an intuitive way to get to the right mix of paint. This will probably involve painting lots of eggs.

apple to imp


Don’t ask…


About to be binned

This started out as an experiment with oil mediums. I wanted to see how adding extra linseed oil to the paint would affect its handling properties. I was hoping for a smooth, fluid application but the linseed oil is too stiff and viscous on its own and would need to be thinned down.

In my haste to experiment with mediums I neglected the painting itself, distorting the perspective and missing all the colours. It was meant to be a still life of two apples on some books. I was about to abandon the whole experiment and prepare a new sheet of acrylic gessoed paper when a friend saw a face in one of the apples and suggested I develop this and make my own Hieronymus Bosch.

The results are hardly Bosch, but it was an interesting exercise in inventing forms and deciding how they might be lit.

Hohenstein copy


A gouache copy from a poster by Adolfo Hohenstein, inspired by watching Jeff Watts copy the work of master illustrators in his Friday Night Workshop.

In the link above, Jeff Watts gives a three hour demonstration of painting in gouache, full of useful advice. All his demonstrations are well worth watching as they let you look over his shoulder as he works in real time while he discusses his technique and art training in general. Particularly useful in this episode are his thoughts on how the consistency of the gouache paint affects its properties. Thinned down it can be used as a light wash or stain, useful during the initial underpainting. But to take advantage of the unique ability for gouache to reactivate even when fully dried it needs to be applied much thicker, so edges can be softened and colours blended.

It’s one thing to make a copy of these illustrations but quite another to come up with the striking graphic design in the first place. This rather sinister figure is enticing us to buy matches.



Oil on paper, model courtesy of New Masters Academy.

I was pleased with this one, not because I think it’s a good painting (the anatomy is questionable, and the finish is more like a rough underpainting) but because it was done quickly and spontaneously while using up leftover paint from the previous oil sketch. The revelation for me was that the paint could be overlaid, built up, corrected and modified without too many of the problems I’ve encountered before, such as underlying paint being dug up and polluting a newly applied colour. I applied the paint fairly thinly and kept two brushes on the go at the same time, one for dark paint, one for light. If a major correction needed to be done, such as moving a light edge further out into the dark background, I loaded slightly more paint on the brush and just went over the top. Old paint could be wiped or scraped back if necessary, but generally it seemed that the workability of the paint was due to the confidence of ploughing forward and not getting too fussy.

It was meant to be a monochrome sketch, the leftover colours being mixed into a mud, but the permanent rose and burnt umber created a kind of flesh tone and I added a bit of blue to the shadows.

I’m posting this as a reminder to myself to do more quick oil sketches and to be bolder with the paint. To see someone who really knows how to play with oils and revise and modify a painting, have a look at this short video by Duane Keiser.



Painted in oils on paper, based on a photo of a farm near Rode, Somerset.

I was attracted to the various abstract shapes in this view: the vertical blocks of the building in light and shade, the horizontal stripes of the sky, trees and distant field, and the diagonals of the shadows. In his book Imaginative Realism James Gurney talks about a technique he calls shapewelding to link adjacent areas of similar value or colour to make a stronger composition. Even though I played around with the colours in the main shadow on the left, the values are similar enough to merge with the wall and form a single shape.

I also tweaked some of the details for better effect, such as darkening the right edge of the distant trees to provide more contrast with the white wall, and making sure there was something light behind the left gatepost so it wasn’t lost against the background.

basic values


Juliette Aristides talks about the importance of rendering accurate values in Lessons in Classical Drawing, an excellent book full of practical advice and illustrated with exquisite graphite and charcoal drawings. Of course there are many elements which go towards creating a successful drawing, but if the values don’t work the chances are the whole picture will fall. A white plaster cast takes local colour out of the equation and armed only with a pencil you’re left with the challenge of rendering the whole thing in values alone.

Some of the advice in the book is direct and practical. For instance, if your initial lay-in tends to become a dense dark mass of lines she advises to switch to a harder lead. It sounds so simple and obvious, but already I’ve seen how using a 2H instead of a 2B prevents an incoherent bird’s nest of lines forming before the sketch has really begun.

There is also much more subtle advice which only made sense when I was trying to make what I thought would be a simple drawing of a plaster face, such as paying close attention to the halftones, which can often seem invisible.

I was once invited by a friend to pick chanterelle mushrooms in a forest in the Northwest. When we arrived, all I saw were trees and a carpet of leaves. Yet after some time, my eyes acclimated. As I learned where to look, sure enough, there were mushrooms. Although I had walked through those woods many times, I had never seen half of what was there.

Halftones are a critical element for creating the appearance of believable volume yet, like the chanterelle, they are hidden in plain sight. They are everywhere, yet it often helps to have a guide to see them….

From Lessons in Classical Drawing by Juliette Aristides