“Books are frozen voices, in the same way that musical scores are frozen music. The score is a way of transmitting the music to someone who can play it, releasing it into the air where it can once more be heard. And the black alphabet marks on the page represent words that were once spoken, if only in the writer’s head. They lie there inert until a reader comes along and transforms the letters into living sounds. The reader is the musician of the book: each reader may read the same text, just as each violinist plays the same piece, but each interpretation is different.”
Paintings are frozen voices, crossing time and distance. The brushmarks are a way of transmitting the artist’s interpretation of a vision, lying there inert until a viewer comes along and transforms the brushmarks into a story. Each viewer may see the same painting, but each interpretation is different.
Blooms, washbacks, backflow, cauliflowers … whatever you call it when you’re painting wet-into-wet watercolour and the colour you just applied pushes out the one already down, rather than making friends and sitting with it. There’s one rule to avoiding it (or to use if you deliberately want to get this result, much as watercolour purists might shudder at the thought). In the words of that skilled Australian watercolourist John Lovett:
If you are painting a soft edge into a wet wash, make sure there is more pigment in the color you are applying than is in the underlying wash or obvious blooms will be created.” Source: John Lovett, Watercolour Edges
So how do you know whether you’ve got more pigment or not? Like everything, practice. It starts by deliberately considering it, and eventually it becomes ingrained knowledge, instinctive. If in doubt, add more pigment (“thick paint”). Or pull some of the water from the brush hairs by holding a piece of paper towel to the ferrule end of the hairs, a tip the artist Katie Lee taught me.
There’s now one less thing to worry about when painting, and it’s how much water you can or should mix with acrylic paint without ruining its adhesion. Golden Artist Colors (a USA employee-owned company renowned for its artist’s quality paint and techical info) have updated their advice:
“For years our standard advice was that a 1:1 ratio was very safe for most of our paints and mediums; plus, it had the advantage of being easy to remember while greatly erring on the side of caution. However, our current testing shows you can go a lot further than that before encountering significant issues. Just how far? We think you will be surprised.”
The article gets into the specifics, but for me this is the takeaway:
“We got no adhesion failure of any of our paints, no matter how thinned down with water, when applied on top of acrylic gesso.”
In the FAQ on thinning acrylics I wrote for Painting.About.com in 2006 (my original version, as here, not the current surreal rewritten-by-who-knows-who version) I’d said this:
“When it comes to thinning acrylics, the only ‘rule’ is to not mix acrylic paint with more than 50 per cent water. Any more than this and it may loose its adhesive qualities and peel off at some stage. You can mix in as much acrylic medium (glazing, texture paste, etc) as you like because it’s got the acrylic resin in it that acts as the ‘glue’ that makes the paint ‘stick’. (Golden describe their mediums as ‘colorless paint’! )”
If painting on a large canvas, I tend to use glazing medium as well as water to thin paint because in addition to adding “glue” it also increases working time (slows drying). Mostly I simply don’t think about it, and merrily spray paint with water to make it drip and run.
Where I have encountered adhesion issues is with water-thinned acrylic ink lifting as I brush over it, despite being touch dry. Leaving it overnight helps, presumably as the paint binder then cures. I sometimes then also apply a layer of glazing medium with a soft brush, leaving this overnight again, before continuing on top. But mostly if I find it’s lifting — you see the colour appearing on the brush — I just keep going and deal with it.
“Successive stages of work can be tracked … abrades the surface to reveal the original white of the paper then makes further marks … This alternation of layering and tearing back suggests that he is not simply reducing an experience from three dimensions into two but also reaching for the fourth dimension — a sense of passing time.” — Claire Rendell on the artist David Tress, in a catalogue from 2002 “David Tress”, p46
I like the thought of layers in a painting conveying a sense of the passing of time. I’m going to have to try tearing the surface of the paper — deliberately rather than accidentally — and see where that takes me. Wonder if my April workshop participants will be in for a milion-miles-from-comfort-zone activity?
It’s evident that a lot of fun was had with February’s ram, in all sorts of mediums! Thank you to everyone for sharing your photos; it’s been a joy to look at them.
MORE PROJECT SUBMISSIONS:
I’ve created a new page with links to all the projects; you’ll find it here and in the menu under “blog”. Reminder: It’s never too late to do a project nor submit your photo(s), they’ll get added to the next project photo gallery.
This month I’ve selected a photo that offers the option of going wide with a broad landscape view or zooming in on a detail. Plus an extra photo with some other elements you might add into your painting, or all if you prefer it. There is one requirement for this month — your painting must include a passing places sign, however small. The road in this photos is single-track, and where you get such roads, there you find passing places signs. The older signs have a diamond shape, which is easy to identify at a distance; the newer signs are boringly square.
Here’s the wide view, with mountains disappearing into the distance, a road to lead your eye into the middle distance, and a couple of sheep alongside a passing places sign to give a focal point.
I would edit out the electricity poles and wires, and the raindrops on the camera lens. The grass in the foreground is quite blue to my eye (blue-green rather than yellow-green) and with the aerial perspective (that distant things get lighter in tone and bluer in colour the further away they are) it could be interesting to paint this with a warmer blue-green in the foreground and cooler, paler blues in the distance. (Have a look at Michael Chelsea Johnson’s paintings for this warm/cool near/far colour shift, he does it beautifully.)
Alternately, exaggerate and emphasise colours, be playful and emotional. Turn a hint of something into a rich version of that colour. For instance the browns in the tufts to sienna-golds, the grass greens to sunlit yellows. What about starting with brighter-than-you-think colour and subdue it with subsequent layers, rather than mixing restrained colours.
Another option would be to focus on a smaller section of the painting. What catches your attention or interest? Might you change these sheep into ones with horns inspired from February’s project?
How about adding some other elements into your composition? This photo was taken further down the same road, giving you a passing place sign, post box, red phone box, wheelie bin, gate, and a croft house (plus multiple electricity poles and wires). You might prefer this stretch of road, curving around the corner.
The video below (click here if you don’t see it) was taken while I was working on one of my paintings inspired by the photos I chose for March’s project. It’s about 20 minutes of real-time painting (I know this because of the playtime of the original video not because I keep track whilst I’m painting) sped up to two. A couple of things I noticed when watching it was how the board wobbles, something I’m not aware of when painting, and how I shifted the position of the brush in my fingers when I started using the rigger to do the letter, to how I would hold a pen for writing, with the control in my fingers rather than wrist.
I’ll post a photo gallery of February’s project paintings on Sunday, so do send me yours if you haven’t already. Also any from January. Happy painting!
My thanks to all the Project Patrons who help keep my blog advert free and enable me to spend the time on the monthly projects. Project Patrons get access to exclusive extra content on my Patreon page, as well as the option of a critique of their project paintings. It works like a monthly subscription, find out more here.
This is the painting that’s currently on my easel, a sequence of photos taken while I painted, up to the what I will be facing when I head back into my studio. It’s 100x100cm (39×39″).
Looking at the photos, Jerry Fresia’s “complete at any stage” popped into my head: “… at each moment of the process a painting ought to have correct value and color relationships. It ought to be complete at any stage. … think of a painting … [as] something alive that grows and moves in unexpected directions, not unlike jazz improvisation“.
Having correct colour and tone relationships at each moment is something I aspire to, and not having it is often the ‘problem’. In this painting there’s a point at which I make the mountains too dark, as I refined the shape and made them more “mountain colour”. This was resolved by having some cloud drift in (glazing with thin whites and greys).
At another point I realised I was struggling with the water in the river because I was trying not to get “river colour” on the bridge. I could have prevented this, of course, by not starting on the bridge before I had finished the river, not having painting so much of it, or not worrying about preserving it. But liking what I already had, I opted to mask it off with some tape instead.
I’m aiming for a “river in spate” level of water, influenced by how it was when I took this video earlier this month.
I’m thinking of it as a companion piece to this more summery painting (which is at Skyeworks Gallery):
“Keep pushing yourself to try and to learn new things, no matter how they turn out. You’ll find yourself growing stronger, more capable, more resilient and courageous. Failure is an option. Especially if you succeed at it.”
Last week I had an email exchange with Erika about there being so much to learn and try and do. She said: A lifetime isn’t enough. And even though our logical mind knows that, we tend to dither and hesitate to go for it. What can be lost but a bit of paint and canvas or paper. Actually, I shouldn’t say “we”, I should say “I”.
My response was: It’s definitely “we”. I still dither and hesitate and doubt and second-guess. Particularly when I’ve got a painting where I like part of it but not all, then it’s a dance of do I keep going but what should I do or should I just give up. I try to be brave and bold, but sometimes it takes me weeks to work up to it, sometimes it never happens.
It takes confidence to fail, but with practice we get better at it and more out of it.
I’ve had a few comments from February’s project participants about not being able to paint horns like I do. Let me let you into a little secret: in my studio I have a pencil drawing of a horn the in-house art critic did for me several years ago as a ‘cheatsheet’ for the shading because I kept getting myself muddled and stressed.
It’s a bit cryptic, reduced to four elements — outline line, white highlight, shaded shadow, and twisted-form zigzag . It reminds me of the essentials, without the distraction of colour, pattern, or ridges, or position of ears. It’s been in the corner, within view though not consciously seen every day. Encouragement and reassurance, a reminder and incentive. It’s taken me ages to feel I can do horns to a level that consistently pleases me, but I feel I’ve got there now, probably.
If you scroll through my sheep paintings you’ll see how horns pop up now and again, but not often. That’s changed over the last few months, even going to this extreme:
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