December’s Painting Project: A Dark Foreground

This month’s reference photo was taken in southern Scotland on a crisp November morning with the sun relatively low in the sky, backlighting and silhouettting a scattering of autumnal leaves and branches. It’s is an excuse to get out yellow, orange, sienna, as well as explore strong darks. The challenge lies in the dark foreground: having it dark enough to have dramatic impact but still pull you into the painting.

In the dark foreground there’s a stream, path, bench, and autumnal leaves covering the ground. If you click on the photo to get the full-size version you’ll see these more clearly.

You might choose to mix a chromatic black (the darkest mix you can create, typically a blue/green/red) rather than use a tube black because it’s a richer dark. It’s also easy to create gentle variations in it by varying the proportions of the colour in the mix and/or by not mixing the colours completely before you use it.

I’d be telling myself to not go too dark too early but to also not be afraid of the dark. Better to need to glaze or add another layer of dark later on in the painting’s development, than to have a black hole. But not to be half-hearted about committing to having a dark foreground.

COMPOSITION THOUGHTS:

  • The tree isn’t right in the centre of the composition. The base of its trunk is to the right of centre and then stretches across the centre. Its branches lead your eye up and across. The tree on the right echoes this whilst providing a dark ‘frame’ on the right to keep your eye in the composition.
  • Use branches to lead the eye across the composition, not worrying to replicate them exactly as they are in the photo but for the photo to be a starting point.
  • Notice in the top left corner all the small branches going off the side and top edges in an open, lacey pattern. It’s not a single branch going into the corner, which would lead your eye in and off the edge.
  • The green hill runs down in an improbably straight line, creating a very hard edge that’s distracting. I would change it to a more irregular line, putting a curve into it. Just because it’s in the photo and like that in real life doesn’t mean it should be like that in the photo if it doesn’t work for the painting.
  • Put the houses in the distance or not? They give a sense of scale, and add to the story, but are they a distraction?
  • Consider the format: might you crop it to a square or a vertical rectangle rather than horizontal? The photo is a result of compositional choices I made when taking it,and I like the horizontal format with space for the branches to stretch out into, but that doesn’t mean it has to be this.

If you’d like to see your painting included in the project gallery, simply email it to me. And remember, it’s never too late to do any of the monthly painting projects or share your paintings of any of these. For some extra project-related content and one-to-one help, become a project subscriber on my Patreon here.

Happy painting!

Monday Motivator: Choosing Little Joys

Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote

“Choose joy. Choose it like a child chooses … the crayon to paint a sky.

“Choose it at first consciously, effortfully, pressing against the weight of a world heavy with reasons for sorrow.

“… Joy is not a function of a life free of friction and frustration, but a function of focus — an inner elevation by the fulcrum of choice. So often, it is a matter of attending to … “the little joys”; so often, those are the slender threads of which we weave the lifeline that saves us.”

Maria Popova, 14 Learnings from 14 Years of Brain Pickings

Little joys like comparing the yellows in my paintbox to lichen:

Seaside Yellows Watercolour

Like playing with shadows when I thought I was going to play with colour:

Like colour mixing for the sake of colour mixing not for creating a painting:

Warm and cool primary colours

Like the sun reflecting in the sea:

Photos Skye to Harris Ferry

Interrupted By a Caw

I was at one of my favourite, albeit rarely sketched, locations…

… absorbed by the colours and textures …

… and that blocked-up door …

… when I was startled by a loud, single “caw”, from above me. Glancing up, there was a crow sitting on the top of the wall, looking down at me.

I’ve probably watched too many programmes where birds are harbingers, but right now the photo below feels like it’s the image for the cover of a book I will one day write with the art and poetry from this year that I’m not yet ready to share.

Monday Motivator: Be a Late Bloomer (like Cézanne)

Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote
Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote

“The freshness, exuberance, and energy of youth did little for Cézanne. He was a late bloomer—and for some reason in our accounting of genius and creativity we have forgotten to make sense of the Cézannes of the world.”

Malcolm Gladwell, “Late Bloomers”, New Yorker 13 October 2008

It’s not too late to start, or pick it up again, and it’s too early to give up.

“Mont Sainte-Victoire” by Paul Cézanne. c1902–6, 22 1/2 x 38 1/4 in. (57.2 x 97.2 cm). In the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

The Long and the Short: Two Concertina Sketchbooks

Concertina Sketchbook closed

Remember my daisies in a concertina sketchbook from June? Well, it’s a format I’ve been playing with on and off over the past wee while. I came across a description* of a concertina sketchbook as a sketch that flows into a painting that flows into a sculpture, which I thought very apt. I am enjoying the tactile interaction of the format, holding it in my hand, turning over the pages, the sense of a story unfolding.

Shorter makes it easy to stand on a shelf, to display like a piece of sculpture. This four-page one features a Minch seascape, on 350gsm paper, with a cover made using some of my splatter fabric.

This is one, the pocket size from Seawhite, was done using pencil only, sitting in a friend’s garden. I did ponder adding some colour to it, especially the blue of the shed, but have decided I like the simplicity of the pencil, letting it be a story in line only. I am still fighting the need to add a note on it about the shed being a tiny one, it’s not a normal-sized shed I’ve drawn totally out of proportion.

*Source: “Ann Cowan creates the most beautiful A5 concertina sketchbooks. These are unique in character as sketches that flow into paintings that flow into sculpture.” Smithy Gallery, Instagram, 11/11/2020

Painting Project Photo Gallery: The Little Mouse

It’s clear the little mouse from October’s painting project generated great inspiration! Enjoy!

By Mark
By Mark

From Marion: A lovely sense of fur texture without over-describing it, and of it being the same mouse from two angles (essential to book illustration). A tweak I’d consider making is to add a few more whiskers to the side with four only.
By Eddie: my take on the mouse. Scraperboard 9×6”.

From Marion: The scraperboard works ever so well, the white pops from the dark background.
By Eddie, pen and ink.
By Karen: “I painted it using acrylic paint and ink using just my new 0 rigger. It’s painted on a sample of flooring. I loved doing this; as you know I like intricate detail.”

From Marion: “Brilliant idea to paint on a flooring sample! Very beautifully and delicately painted. Positioning of it in relation to the knot in the wood is perfect.”
By Karen: Mouse number two.
By Erika: “The little mouse…. taking it out of context…. this one had bigger ‘fish to fry’, not just morsels in a cat bowl! It looks a bit sinister with the cheese knife which I didn’t want to. And maybe it wants to express a certain love/hate relationship with those rodents: on one side they are very cute – but when they attack your flour and oats in a time or place when you depend on it, that changes the nature of things. 12×9″, acrylic on canvas/collage, mouse fur is real fur.”

From Marion: I do love that reference photo has taken you to this imaginative place, even as the splatter of red makes me wonder is that another mouse which has met it’s demise, or from the person wielding the knife? It left me with “Three Blind Mice” playing in my head.
By Cathi
By Cathi
By Cathi

From Marion: Really enjoying this combination of loose and expressive (the drips) with the detail, as well as the use of black negative space at the top vs the white in the bottom.

Marion’s paintings: I had great fun with this project, trying it in pencil, watercolour, and acrylic on watercolour paint. A friend sent me a concertina album book she made, which by happenstance was the perfect size. I also did a couple in acrylics on wood panel with a gold ground, which make me smile when I look at them as they’re so different from what I mostly paint.

Little Mouse paintings

Project instructions can be found here, and the list with all the projects and related content here. Remember, it’s never too late to do a project, nor submit a painting to share. Happy painting!

Monday Motivator: Playful Beginnings Develop Courage

Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote

“Experimentation skips over study and a playful beginning develops courage. … not to imitate, but rather to seek on our own and to learn how to find independently … the result is the student’s own experience and possession, because it has been learned rather than taught.

“Learning is better than teaching because it is more intensive: the more we teach, the less students can learn.

“We know that this emphasis on learning is a longer path, one that leads to detours and dead ends. But beginnings are never straightforward. And learning from one’s mistakes fosters progress. Deliberate detours and allowing oneself to become lost in a controlled fashion sharpen one’s critical faculties, lead by way of mistakes to that which is more intelligent, call forth the will to find the right and better way.”

Joseph Albers, “Teaching Form Through Practice“, Bauhaus, 2 no. 3, 1928.

Going outside your comfort zone without the desire for a good end result but simply to see what happens. Easier said than done but gets easier with repetition, in a safe and encouraging environment, and without other people saying unhelpful things like “what’s that supposed to be?”.

My Harbour Sketches

Following on from my blogs with photos of the little harbour in the Scottish Borders I was at last week (She Sees Seaside and Harbour Details), here are some photos of what happened when I got my paints out. Having multiple days of sunshine in November was a real treat.

The first day I walked about taking lots of photos, then ended up sitting at a picnic table watching birds you can’t see in the photo, including some swans. I got out my sketchbook telling myself that making just one quick sketch would be fine, to not worry about how ‘good’ it was as it’s impossible to do everything on single trip to a location.

Pencil first, then watercolour

The second day I got out my oil paints and had a go at a composition that’d been bouncing around my head all night. Yes, I could have done thumbnails and studies first, all that preparatory work that does help produce pleasing results, but my fingers were itching to paint this. So I jumped in at the point that was appealing to me, knowing that I might not do it justice but that it’s worth a try anyway.

The low winter sun of November means the hill behind me casts its shadow over the harbour from quite early in the morning. I was sitting on this convenient little wall running alongside a bit of road.

Below is the point at which I got cold and stopped painting. It has a few things I like about it, such as the sense of chain on the wall, the curved corner, and the green on the nearer harbour wall, and things I don’t. Mostly I am pleased I had a go at it, and I regard it as a “good learning painting” or study. The next morning I walked around a bit here having a closer look at elements of this composition, such as the width of the nearest wall (which is narrower at the top than the other walls, having a stepped top to it).

Oil paint on wood panel. 9×12 inches.

The next day I got out my favourite Payne’s grey acrylic ink and did some ink and watercolour paintings. The fishing shed with its row of colourful doors, the view through the harbour entrance to the old cottages, the stacks of creel nets. And, no, I never did get around to the boats themselves.

I stopped at this point because the shadow from the hillside caught up with me, and I moved to a new spot in the sunshine.
First attempt
Second attempt. The narrower format works better, I think.

The last day I spent using pencil only, making sketches with notes about things that had caught my eye. Information gathering for a studio painting.

When might I start creating some studio paintings based on these sketches? I don’t know. It may convert into something soon, it might sit and simmer, it might be never. I don’t have a plan for it, I was simply enjoying being in a very paintable location, with a friend who was also painting.

Monday Motivator: We Learn Courage From Art

Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote
Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote

“We come to know in art work that we do not clearly know where we will arrive in our work, although we set the compass, our vision; that we are led, in going along, by material and work process. We have plans and blueprints, but the finished work is still a surprise.

“We learn to listen to voices: to the yes or no of our material, our tools, our time. We come to know that only when we feel guided by them our work takes on form and meaning, that we are misled when we follow only our will. …

“We learn courage from art work … we are responsible for our actions. … We learn to dare to make a choice, to be independent … any decision is our own .”

Anni Albers, “One Aspect of Art Work“, Design, 46:4. December12, 1944

That very first pencil mark or brush stroke, that’s an act of courage, of hope for what will come, of belief in yourself, even as it’s surrounded by doubt.