Be Systematic & Aim Small

“I battle to create a really acceptable picture, I study as much as I can, and never seem to improve. Is it possible there may be a person that can just never learn?”– Jillian P

There are things each of us finds harder to learn, certainly, and things we’ll never master to our satisfaction (not least because the goalposts have a habit of moving as we progress). Sticking at it without getting caught up in frustration can be tough.

Make a list to break down what you mean by “improve”, taking it further and further until you’ve got bite-sized bits to chew on. Pinpoint exactly what you feel your drawings/painting lack, then tackle it systematically and from multiple directions.

For instance, if the top level of your wishlist is “paint more realistically”, take a subject, say landscape. Then take a single element of this, say a tree. What kind of tree? An oak, or jacaranda, or boabab… whatever species you have growing nearby that you can see with your own eyes. What makes a tree: the trunk, branches, leaves, texture of the bark, overall shape. Look at these individually, the components not the whole.

Sit with a sketchbook and pencil, draw a line following the direction of one side of the trunk from ground level up. Look at the tree as much as the page.? Then the other side. Wander the pencil line amongst the branches. Look at the negative space. Contemplate what mark making will convey the sense of the bark (this may take you off on a tangent for a while studying mark-making). Keep colour and light/dark for another day. Do not aim to make good drawings, these are drawings about observation, not about “it looks like an oak tree”.

Make notes about what you see and feel. These help build visual memories and develop observation. Some pages of my sketchbook have more words than sketchlines.

Move from line into drawings with a sense of 3D by adding light/dark. Tree trunks and branches are cylinders, so draw the tree like a series of tubes, and apply tone accordingly. Next day, combine character lines and tubes to convey more realistic branches. Break down the journey to a painted tree in similar small steps: colours seen, mixing these, tones, brushmarks.

Pencil portrait drawing
2B propelling pencil and 8B graphite stick, on A2 paper.

Sometimes it might be a shift in materials that helps. For instance I battle not to go in heavy-handed and dark too early on in a drawing. Starting with a 2H helps as it can’t produce very dark lines, as does using a propelling 2B or 4B pencil as this only produces lines of a certain thickness. Only late in the drawing do I swap to a “normal” pencil.

Be systematic, and aim small to build the bigger picture. Identifying what you’re aiming to achieve is a step along the path of getting there. You may ultimately never get where you want to be, but if you give up now you’ll definitely never getting there.

Work-in-Progress: Cliff Edge

This painting is inspired by the cliffs at Rubha Hunish, working from my sketches, reference photos and memories of the location. The top photo is where the painting was this morning; the second where it is now.

I had two aims when I picked up my brushes today: to increase the tonal contrast by adding strong darks and fix the shape of the lower cliff which was too perfectly curved. When I downed brushes I felt I’d fixed the latter somewhat, but it still needs further work. The tonal contrast I will ponder in better daylight, as well as consider whether I should add some blue back into the sky.

Work in Progress: Cliff Edge Painting by Marion Boddy-Evans
Work -in-Progress. Size: 122x60cm

Part of me is itching to change the weather in the painting to misty, to make everything more ethereal. Or perhaps have the weather coming in from one side. Doing this would involve titanium white and glazing medium, perhaps adding a little retarder to give me time to wipe it off should I change my mind. I think part of the desire to do this is the muted moodiness of my Trying to Snow painting, where I knocked back the colour with thin white.

If you’re wondering how I achieved the vertical dribbles in the sea (which I feel evokes a memory of rain as well as enhancing the sense of movement), it was by letting paint from the cliffs run all the way down to the bottom of the canvas over the still-wet sea area, removing the colour. Later, when it was dry, I’ve painted another layer over this area.

Detail Wet-on-Wet Acrylic Painting Technique

Another thing I want to add are lots of seabirds flying around the cliffs, as well as several more sheep grazing. If you look carefully, you’ll see these two above the lower cliff, at the right.

Detail: Tiny Sheep in a Painting

It’s Not a Question About Time

We don’t measure the quality of a meal only by the time it took to make, believing the longer it takes the better is inherently is. It’s the end result that’s judged, though the time is an aspect we may think about as we eat it and certainly plays its part in the quality of the end result.

When someone asks “how long did it take you to paint?”, don’t answer the question. It’s an invitation to engage them about the painting, and youself. Say a couple of things about what was involved in creating it, your inspiration, technique, favourite aspects. (Who doesn’t have a favourite bit in a painting that you’re particularly pleased about that you could point too?)

For many people the question is more a statement of enjoyment of the painting than anything, a safe way to talk to an artist without embarrassing themselves. (The underlying fear is that liking a painting isn’t enough, you must know something about art to appreciate a painting. Not true, of course.) If you answer the question straight away, the conversation is over and they’ll move on.

Would you ever ask “How long did it take you to make this cake?” or would you say “What’s in this cake?”

Art is Communication

Art is communication in some way, whether we want it to, plan for it to, or do not . Our thoughts, attitudes, emotional states while working, beliefs, and so on will impact our work. So even if we paint the same still-life as a bunch of other people, our own imprint will be on our image of it.”
Beth Peterson



The Joys in the Lack of an Undo Button

Watercolour by Marion Boddy-Evans: Sitting Figure
Pencil, watercolour and black ink.

That we can’t change our mind about a mark made in a painting simply by hitting an undo button teaches us persistence, tenacity, endurance, problem solving. “Keep going” is hardly the most inspiring of advice (especially in an era of quick fixes and instant gratification) but it is an artistic truth.

It also presents opportunities.

The fortuitous event, or happy accident, such as how the black ink has spread at the base of the jacket this model was wearing, suggesting shadow and adding a sense of movement.

Overworked, ‘mistakes’ in lower layers can become intriguing little details peeping through, and enrich colours.

On Seeing Bridget Riley

The floor shifting, as if a floorboard were about to give way. The horizon moving up and down, as if bobbing in a small boat at sea or driving along a corrugated dirt road. Migraine-warning visual interference, without the headache. These are memories of sensations on seeing Bridget Riley’s paintings. The huge ones, which fill your field of vision. As I look, suddenly, the lines and colours, which had been static patterns, start to shimmer, to dance. Artistic magic. Trying to read the words of yesterday’s art quote gives a glimmer of the shimmering sensation; to my eyes anyway.

Recharging My Creative Batteries in Edinburgh & London

I’ve been away from my studio for a while, attending an artist’s anatomy workshop in Edinburgh over two weekends with a trip down to London in between. Time to learn and see new things, time to recharge my batteries, time to ponder new horizons.

Waiting for a train into central Edinburgh inevitably feels like a lesson in perspective, looking at how the lines converge into a vanishing point in the distance..

Perspective in train track

If I add a cup of coffee, the art lesson then diverges into ellipses too.
Ellipses and parallel lines

You know that lingering doubt when you’re heading to a workshop, entering a strange building with your fingers crossed you are indeed in the right place at the right time? Well, standing on a fifth-floor landing in St Margaret’s House, after deciding I couldn’t face the stairs and would get in the lift with its “no more than four people or you will get stuck” notice, wondering whether to go left or right for the anatomy workshop, there was a skeleton pointing the way to the studio. It’s the second time I’ve done Alan McGowan’s Anatomy for Artists workshop, and I’m pleased to be able to say a lot more of the information has stuck and I found myself seeing/recognizing a lot more. (There are a couple of photos from the first weekend’s anatomy drawing here.)

Anatomy for Artists workshop

In London, my first stop was Tate Britain, with its relatively new rehanging “500 Years of British Art”. Four bus loads of school kids were waiting for the 10 o’clock opening too! Some of the gallery is still undergoing rebuilding, but there’s another, new circular staircase leading downstairs. With all the arches it felt like being in an Escher drawing. Nevermind the art, this architecture isn’t to be missed!

Tate Gallery downstairs arches

Tate Gallery downstairs arches

The coffeeshop area has been renovated too, and there’s one table with a view that lends itself to a geometric abstract.
Tate geometric view

Amongst the artworks that captivated me this visit was a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, titled “Corinthos”. The interplay of shapes, light, dark and shadow. What you see through it, depending on where you stand.
Looking through Barbara Hepworth "Corinthos".
Looking through Barbara Hepworth "Corinthos".

Next cultural stop was the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, for the Turner and the Sea exhibition (on in London until 21 April; travelling to Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts from 31 May to 1 September 2014). I particularly enjoyed seeing some of the paintings that inspired Turner. (I’ll be writing an exhibition review with some photos soon.)

Maritime Museum London
Turner and the Sea exhibition Maritime Museum London

I also popped into the National Gallery to say hello to Monet and Van Gogh. Outside, in Trafalgar Square, the latest Fourth Plinth is a giant, blue cockerel. Position yourself right, and Nelson’s column becomes a birdfeeder.
Fourth Plinth London cockerel

Last culture-vulture stop was the Victoria & Albert Museum (known simply as the V&A). It’s home to a mind-blowing, inspiring collection of cultural artifacts from across the world. I specifically wanted to see Constable’s cloud studies again (up in the Paintings gallery, where few people get to) and Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook.
V&A paintings
V&A paintings Constable clouds

The V&A has five of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, known as the Forster Codices, which you can page through online. The sketches on the page on display are shovels for digging. I find it a powerful connection across history, visualising him holding these sheets of paper, selecting what ideas to write down (and being thankful to live in an era where paper is an affordable item).
Leonardo da Vinci notebook in V&A London

Art Quote: What Made Turner Stand Out?

Self-Portrait c.1799 by  Joseph Mallord William Turner. In Tate Britain.
Self-Portrait c.1799 by
Joseph Mallord William Turner. In Tate Britain.

“What made Turner’s first seascapes stand out on the [Royal] Academy’s crowded walls? … Rather than competing with the works of other artists for size and eye-catching effects (a tactic for which Turner later became renowned), these temporal coastal scenes demanded a close kind of viewing. With an understated drama and subtle variation in light and colour, they [offered] a respite from the visual cacophony around them…”

— Richard Johns, “Charted Waters” in Turner and the Sea, page 25

Turner Painting Canaletto Painting Venice

This detail from a Turner oil painting of Venice, first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1833 over a decade after Turner visited the city, shows Canaletto painting one of his magnificent views of Venice. As the wall label in Tate Britain (where I came across it) pointed out, Canaletto’s canvas on his easel is “already improbably framed”. This tiny detail in the painting, so easily overlooked, makes me smile every time. The rest of the painting doesn’t do much for me; I prefer Turner’s wilder pieces where he paints mostly the atmosphere and weather.

Turner Painting Canaletto in Venice
“Bridge of Sighs, Ducal Palace and Custom-House, Venice: Canaletti Painting” by JMW Turner. Tate Britain. Oil on wood. 511 x 816 mm.