Monday Motivator: Paint the Shape of the Air

The human mind operates automatically in ways that often value identification more than perception. While we look with our eyes, we see with our mind … Our minds tend to make corrections …

If the goal is to paint what your retina sees and not what your mind knows … one useful strategy is to concentrate on painting the negative shapes (the shapes formed by background areas lying between the outlines of painted objects and figures). Because you don’t know the negative shapes conceptually, you will not be as prone to distortion of size or shape. Look and paint the shape of the air under and over the table, rather than painting the table itself.

“Painting as a Language”, by Jean Robertson & Craig McDaniel, page 18

A quick exercise in seeing negative space I like is to use a word as a starting point. Instead of writing the word, draw or paint the space around the letters. Such as this:

Negative and Positive Space in a painting

It’s something that gets easier with practise, but if you’re struggling to get your mind to ‘swap over’ to the negative space, you can ‘cheat’ the first few times by writing the letters down with pencil and then erasing them.

Painting Project: Negative-Space Vase of Flowers

Negative space is the part of a painting around and between objects and parts of an object. Thinking about negative space rather than the object itself requires a shift in mental gears, ignoring the “interesting thing” to focus on the “empty space”.

This painting project is about using negative space to create the outer edges of a subject. It’s about reversing your thinking and focus, finding the shape from the background not the subject. it’s a technique that works for all sorts of subjects, including figure painting and portraits, but for this project we’re going to use negative space to turn a chaos of brushmarks into a colourful vase of flowers.

You will need:

  • A sheet of watercolour or mixed media paper
  • Masking tape, to divide the sheet into two or four or six, depending on the size of your sheet of paper. (Doing multiple little paintings together removes some of the stress of getting it ‘right’ as it gives you several attempts.)
  • Your favourite colours. If you’re using watercolour, you’ll need some white gouache or acrylic to create an opaque colour. While I have done this with acrylic paint, the technique works with pastel too.
  • A mental image of a bunch of multi-coloured flowers in a ceramic vase with a strong single colour

What to do: This video explains it

What I enjoy about doing multiples on a sheet of paper at the same time is that every one is different. Here are the six little paintings in the video, and below this the six I did before recording the video.

Although in this video I’ve created the layers of random colour before painting the negative space, it’s also something you can do with a sheet of paper where you’ve brushed leftover paint from other paintings. Wipe off excess paint from your brush and over time the layers will build up until you’re in the mood for using it for a negative space painting or a warmup exercise. Here’s one I did in 2016:

REMEMBER: If you’d like personal help with creating your project painting and/or a critique on your finished painting, this is available to all my project subscribers via my Patreon site. Have fun, and do send me a photo of your painting for inclusion in the project gallery for us all to enjoy or share it in the Community Section of my Patreon site.

Monday Motivator: The Joy of Handling Paint

“Much of the joy of painting isn’t in matching colors–it’s in the actual handing of the paint, playing a thick area against a stained one, a wide stroke against a thin one, a curving line against an angular one. Remember: you’re a painter and should get pleasure out of the use of your materials.”

Emile Gruppè, Brushwork, page 15

If you don’t like the medium, don’t use it no matter how much you might feel it’s something a “real artist” would do. There are plenty of options, and you’re supposed to enjoy it. Before you’ve even put a brush into it or started applying it to paper. That spark of joy picking up a tube of a paint or bottle of ink, the feel of a particular brush in your hand, the anticipation of a sheet of paper. If you’re not, you’re using the wrong thing.

Monday Motivator: Creativity is a Muscle

“Creativity is a muscle. We often don’t look at it in terms of something that can be trained, but it can be trained. And I think that we did it naturally as children because we had to discover our world. Once we felt as if we’d discovered enough, we didn’t really keep working at it … Therein lies the biggest opportunity–to recognize that you’re in life-long learning mode.”

Kevin Carroll, interview in “Caffeine for the Creative Mind” by Stefan Mamaw and Wendy Lee Oldfield, page 56

Painting is a combination of enjoying the things you can do (“comfort zone”), the challenge of things you can’t yet do but know you want to (“stretching yourself”), and exploring the unknown by trying things and seeing what happens (“creative exploration” or entering the “here be dragons” region of the map).

Creativity isn’t all about huge ideas and innovation, it’s the small things too. Small steps into the (to-you) unknown. Adding colour pencil to a watercolour painting for the first time. Choosing a canvas that’s twice the size you’ve ever painted. Using a sketchbook on location. Taking an art workshop. Trying clear gesso.

A step outside whatever is your usual. You might find yourself stepping back. But what if you don’t?

lawn daisies in watercolour and ink

Art Project: Form Lines Not Outlines

Drawing a scrumpled up piece of paper with pen

This art project challenges you to draw a scrumpled up bit of paper without doing an outline first. The project is less about the subject and more about the technique and skills development. Though you’ll hopefully be surprised how interesting a scrumpled up piece of paper can become, more importantly it’ll help with brushwork in your painting (with which direction to make brushstrokes).


First, let me explain what I mean by outlines and form lines.

Outlines are the lines we draw of the “outer edge” of an object as we see it. We draw them because it gives us the overall shape of something, where it starts and stops against the background or other objects.

Form lines depict the “inside” of a subject, the lines we draw to show what’s going on inside an outline. These give a drawing depth (3D) and convey other things such as a sense of texture and direction. Form lines are like the slimetrail a snail leaves as it moves across an object, going up and down as the surface it’s moving across changes direction (though for this exercise you don’t want line to be wandering around at random like a snail, it wants purpose and direction like a snail heading for a tasty hosta leaf).

If you find form lines hard to visualise, try taking a length of string and draping it across the surface, then drawing the line of the string. Or run the finger of your hand not holding the pen across the surface of the object, and noticing when the direction changes, when it’s moving up or down rather than smoothly across.

It may feel that if we first draw the outline, it’ll make getting ‘the rest’ easier. But does it? Starting at one spot and working all the way around the object back to this point involves continual decisions about where we’re placing the line in comparison to what’s already drawn. You’re looking from edge to edge, ignoring what’s happening inbetween, whereas this could be helping if you were drawing using mostly form lines.


You will need: a piece of drawing paper, a piece of paper to scrumple up, a pen and/or paint marker, and a pencil.

The first few times you do this, use pen not pencil so you can’t second-guess yourself and rub out parts to redraw, but have to keep going. Give yourself permission to not aim to create a perfect drawing, but to spend time trying and learning.

What to do: Scrumple up a bit of paper and put it where you can see it easily. Pick an area to start drawing from, it doesn’t matter whether it’s on the edge or the ‘inside’ of the sheet. You’re going to use hatched lines (short, parallel lines) to depict the that area, its direction and shape. (Don’t use cross-hatching, only lines in one direction.)

Decide what direction you’re going to hatch and work your way across that shape. Then pick an adjacent area and do the same thing but change the direction of your hatching so it gives a sense of direction change between this and the previous area. Expand out from your first area until the whole scrumpled paper is done. Then add the outline as needed.

Draw in the ridges and shadow edges if you find this helps keep track of where you are as you look back and forth between your drawing and the scrumpled paper, along with lines showing the edge of the sheet. Don’t stress if you get lost, simply pick a point and draw from there. Ultimately the drawing lives by itself, without anything for comparison, so it doesn’t matter.

For areas in shadow, hatch closer together, and for areas in light, make the lines further apart. When using pencil rather than pen, you can also darken the tone of the pencil line as you make it by pressing harder or softer. Stick with pen initially as it’s one less thing to think about as you can focus solely on the form lines.


In my first example I’ve used red acrylic marker pen, which gives a consistent mark in terms of tone. (Red simply because I have a number of these sample paint markers which only came in red.) In my second I’ve used a propelling pencil so I wouldn’t need to stop and sharpen it.

Drawing a scrumpled up piece of paper with pen
Remember: the view of the scrumpled up bit of blue paper is different in this photo from the view I had of it when I was drawing. If you want a photo to compare what you drew to what you were seeing, you’ll need to think very carefully about the position of the camera when you take the photo.
Drawing a scrumpled up piece of paper with pencil and pen
Drawing a scrumpled up piece of paper with pencil

Suggestion: You might find it easier to use a piece of striped paper rather than plain. (For a printable stripey page as in the photo below, click here.)

REMEMBER: If you’d like personal help with creating your project painting and/or a critique on your finished painting, this is available to all my project subscribers via my Patreon site. Have fun, and do send me a photo of your painting for inclusion in the project gallery for us all to enjoy or share it in the Community Section of my Patreon site.

Seven example drawings of scrumpled paper done by an art group
Drawings done by members of a friend’s art group

Monday Motivator: Value the Learning Not the Performance

“I do not only grade the end product, but instead, value the process it takes to get there. I ask students to describe how and why they did certain things. I collect the work product that precedes the final document. …

If we assume students want to learn – and I do – we should show our interest in their learning, rather than their performance”

John Warner, “ChatGPT Can’t Kill Anything Worth Preserving

If we want to learn, we should show interest in our learning rather than only our performance.

Give yourself permission to spend time learning, be generous to yourself with how much time you allocate, and with your assessment of what you’ve done. It might be learning how a particular art material behaves, trying different things with it to see what happens. It might be getting more analytical and systematic in learning to paint or draw a subject, figuring out what aspects are eluding you at the moment and how to fill that knowledge gap.

The last couple of days I’ve been seeing what clear gesso does when applied over Derwent Inktense pencil drawn on an unprimed wood panel. Why? Because I like how clear gesso lets the grain of the wood panel show through, rather than obscuring it as white gesso does. It also then seals the wood panel surface and creates a grabby surface for paint. Inktense pencil because I enjoy the strong colours, the lines I can draw rather than paint with a brush, and that it’s water soluble so I can ‘dissolve’ some of the line into painted marks. And Inktense as the first layer because I’m enjoying using line in a painting.

My aim was to see was how much the line would change by brushing over with gesso (changing it from a dry to a wet line) and how much would ‘dissolve’ compared to brushing over it with water (with the intention of it dissolving). As the photo below shows, the Inktense line got that ‘wet’ look, but spread only in areas where the line was thicker. I was using a coarse-hair brush, and it will probably spread less with a softer brush.

Once the gesso had dried overnight, I ran a wet brush over the Inktense to see if it would dissolve, and it didn’t. I drew a bit further with another Inktense colour, and enjoyed how it worked over the gesso, which has a grabbiness to it (I’m using Holbein clear gesso medium grain). I ran a wet brush over this and it dissolved as I expected, without disturbing the sealed layer. So now I know I can work with the Inktense pencil and ‘secure’ it. A clear acrylic medium would probably do similar but I like the grabby roughness of the clear gesso when painting.

Clear gesso over Inktense pencil on wood panel
Clear gesso applied over purple Inktense pencil on wood panel. The white bits of gesso where it’s slightly thicker will clear as it dries.

Monday Motivator: Circular Time

“Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades. The gardener is not immune to attrition and loss, but is daily confronted by the ongoing good news of fecundity. A peony returns, alien pink shoots thrusting from bare soil. The fennel self-seeds; there is an abundance of cosmos out of nowhere.”

Olivia Laing, extract from “Funny Weather: Derek Jarman’s Paradise”

“Painting and drawing situates you in a different kind of time … Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades.”

We don’t plant an apple tree thinking it’s going to give us apples every month. We anticipate. Enjoy the blossom for itself and for what it might become. Wait weeks for an apple to ripen. Attempt to eat it too early and you destroy it. One day it all comes together and it’s sweet magic. Then it’s back to anticipating, nurturing what creates the magic.

If only we had the same patience with our art.

Monday Motivator: The Dual Purpose of Visual Brushstrokes

“The visible brushstrokes had a dual purpose. In one sense, they suggest the movement of the landscape, giving extra body to clouds and land, and indicating rain or the texture of thick grass. Secondly, they make the viewer think of the artist. … Each stroke represents a decision, a judgement, indicating something the artist has seen … The brush marks are analogues for a thought process”

James Morrison: Land and Landscape” by John Morrison, pp10/11

My decision to make a brushmark is sometimes careful and considered, sometimes instinctive and impulsive. The one may lead to the other: pent-up energy overrides precision and my brush goes wild, or the desire for some order from chaos makes me slow down to find and refine aspects.

Using a paint marker pen or splattering, adds another set of marks sitting alongside, on top of, and underneath brushed paint. For me it’s trying to capture in paint how a bit of landscape changes with the light, tide and seasons, never static and more than what you see at a glance.

Detail from “Over the Seas”

Monday Motivator: Practising Your Boldness by Painting on Paper

“Working on paper is an energising process. Sometimes with canvases, when they’re not going where you want them to go, it can weigh you down. Making a change to a canvas can feel like an extreme or bold move.

… by first experimenting on the works on paper, you are practising your boldness for when you move to canvas. You take more chances because you feel like it isn’t the end of the world if they go wrong.”

David Mankin, “Remembering in Paint” by Kate Reeve-Edwards, page 53

Another thing about a painting on canvas is that you can’t crop off a bit unless you take it off the stretchers. You’re stuck with the proportions and size of the canvas you picked. If it’s a painting card or paper all you need is a pair of scissors or a blade and ruler.

A year or so ago the in-house art critic bought me the safety ruler shown in the photo below so I can crop paintings and not my finger tips.

Sketching the Sea: Looking at Waves

Page from sketchbook with sketches of waves

Often when I’m sketching the sea, I’m not aiming for a beautifully finished sketch, but rather at looking at one element and improving my observation of this. It’s easy with shore rocks, as they don’t move. (Though they might get hidden by the tide — I remember trying to find a square rock at the beach at Staffin I’d seen previously, only to realise on a subsequent visit that it requires a very low tide to be visible.)

Waves are constantly moving, so sketching one is a combination of memory of a specific wave (looking and then quickly drawing a section of it) and observation of the relentless march of waves that have similarities whilst being individual. Looking at how a swell curves as it heads to shore, how long across it is, where it first starts to break, how far up the beach it comes, how the water receding from the shore interacts with the next incoming wave, the ripples between waves, how much white foam there is, how close to the shore the final section breaks, the shape of the ridgeline of the wave before it breaks.

If I’ve included some rocks on a page, the lines I’ve drawn for waves are easier to interpret. But if they’re merely sections of waves, it all becomes rather cryptic if you look at them without any context — compare the right- and left-hand pages of these two spreads from my sketchbook.

Page from sketchbook with sketches of waves
Page from sketchbook with sketches of waves

Such sketches entirely for myself, and I rarely share photos of them because they’re not much to look at really. If you were paging through the sketchbook you would probably not stop at these pages. But when I’m looking through a sketchbook, it’s these types of pages that often reignite my inspiration the most.

Below is a photo of the sea on the day I did these sketches. I take lots of photos but it’s far more fun to sit by the seaside to than sketch from photos, and I’m lucky enough that I can.