Monday Motivator: Brighter Not Darker

Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote
Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote

‘There is a bit of an issue with semantics afoot: when many people say they want to mix a “darker” color, they in fact mean more intense, brighter, higher chroma, etc. Black is dark, but a lighter shade of black is grey. Mixing in black to darken a color will make it more grey. If your object is to tint your color or knock down the chroma, then black is a perfect choice. However, if you wish to maintain chroma while darkening a color, choose a pigment with a similar hue but a wide value range to do the trick’

Jess Greenleaf, “Understanding Value Range for Watercolours

The rule of not using black in a painting, blamed on the Impressionists, ought to have an accompanying rule of not automatically reaching for white to lighten a colour. It’s somehow easier to get to grips with black dulling a colour than realising white does the same. I think it’s because when we’re thinking of a colour we’re got three things simultaneously: the hue (the colour of a colour), chroma (its intensity or saturation) and value (or tone, how light or dark).

It’s simple to lighten the tone of a colour by adding white, and to darken it by adding black, and this is where we generally start. Forgotten is that we’re simultaneously reducing the chroma, or intensity of the colour. It’s perhaps easiest to demonstrate with red. Add titanium white, and you head into pinks, getting lighter and lighter as you add more white. Add yellow, and you head into orange-reds rather than paler reds. And this “not white first” is where colour mixing becomes more complex and interesting discoveries lie.

Monday Motivator: You Can’t Learn Without Making Mistakes

“When we’re making mistakes, it’s a clear sign we’ve moved beyond our comfort zone and are at the limit of our abilities – exactly the place we need to be in order to learn and improve our skills. Unfortunately, for many of us, making a mistake often triggers a cascade of emotional angst and self criticism that shuts down our objectivity … It’s not a tragedy to make bad paintings. It’s only a tragedy when our fear of failure and our rampant self-criticism prevent us from learning from them”

John MacDonald, Newsletter Nov-Dec 2021

That overused quote attributed to Picasso about taking a lifetime to learn to paint like a child, it isn’t about the expressive mark making, it’s about the fearlessness in approach. You pick up a pencil and you draw something. It’s that simple. You don’t prejudge the outcome, you don’t plan to the nth, you create a drawing (noun) by drawing (verb), then move onto the next one.

Lets have fewer “what is it?” questions and more “tell me about your drawing” conversations. Why and how, rather than what.

Ink trees done in the rain

Monday Motivator: Landscape is a Template for Experimentation

“I don’t do landscape art. I use landscape as a means to create a template and a subject from which I can experiment in the studio. … You have to learn things about your own work and question what you’re doing. And so, in order to solve problems in a painting I have to go through a list of questions and analyse it. But the main thing is you have to just keep on working. There’s always risks involved but you can’t be static. You’ve got to attempt something different to move forward. The person that you’re competing against is yourself.”

Barbara Rae, judge’s video for Scottish Landscape awards 2023

We’re typically our harshest art critics, so how about we turn our picky judgements into a list of challenges for ourselves rather than a lament? Along with a longer-than-we’d-like timescale for tackling them, because we typically underestimate how much time we need to put in too. Compare your art today with your art last month, last year, not yesterday.

Don’t let sleeping dogs lie when it comes to your painting

Plein-air Painting at Spey Bay

I’d so enjoyed using pen and water-soluble ink again earlier this week that I decided to be optimistic about the forecast for showers as I decided on what supplies to take with me to a plein-air meetup at Spey Bay with the Moray Firth Sketchers. So I packed my pen with water-soluble ink, a few coloured pencils, and my bag with bottles of watercolours and inks. Besides, I remember that time I was in the woodland in Uig and the raindrops improved did interesting things to my drawing.

It was my first time at this location, and what a friend had said was indeed true: “You’ll like it there — lots and lots of stones and pebbles!” There’s pebble beach as far as you can see, with small enough pebbles for it to be relatively easy to walk on.

The nearby Dolphin Centre cafe had three choices of homebaked gluten-free free cake, so another level of happiness came with the purchase of takeaway cake and hot chocolate. The rain came in not long after I’d sat down to paint, so I quickly ate my cake to stop it getting soggy. After all, cake doesn’t dry out like watercolour paper or clothes.

The river provides another range of painting options
Are those clouds getting darker and heading this way…?

When the rain persisted, I retreated beneath some scraggly trees and did a drawing of branches instead, with the rain assisting in the mark making. Then Phil, who’s an accomplished watercolourist, had a go, heading with enthusiasm out of his comfort zone.

My drawing when it dried. A3.

The end result is quite abstract and expressive. My plan is to add some colour to re-find some trunks and branches, with watercolour and/or coloured pencil so it’s a bit easier for viewers to fathom what’s going on.

The rain stopped and I returned to where I had been sitting with a view of the river.

I started with an ink drawing, using artistic licence to move some elements closer together. Next time I must get a much wider sheet of paper. Then I used a waterbrush to spread the ink, added some watercolour and coloured pencil.

Water soluble ink in a fude pen (the drawing pen with the bent nib)
Mixed media. A3 size watercolour paper, 350gsm

I next decided to have a go at the dramatic clouds, turning the sheet vertical to give me lots of space for sky. I started with Payne’s grey ink, then decided to add some purple to increase the drama. A bit of back and forth with extra ink and dabbing with paper towel, pulling it down at the bottom for the rainshower, and I got it to a point I was happy with. As I’d been doing this a family had started their picnic lunch next to a nearby log, their warm coats giving a splash of bright yellow and blue. I don’t usually add figures in my landscapes but couldn’t resist being able to add the colour and sense of scale.

When I was packing up they came across and said they noticed I’d put them in my painting and asked if they could buy it. So to my delight it’s going to French Canada.

My smile says everything about how much I enjoyed the day and my hair everything about the weather
A first for me: swans in the sea. Also saw a seal in the river and a duck with a string of ducklings swimming behind her

Monday Motivator: Add Paper to Regain Light

Paper doesn’t play its usual passive role in the watercolors of [Alexander Nepote] … “I don’t fear losing the white paper,” Nepote explains. “I just put more on. By adding paper I can regain ‘light’ lost …

— Lawrence C Goldsmith, Watercolor Bold & Free, p151

Collage is usually adding in something colourful, patterned or textured to advance a painting. And regaining white areas is typically done by painting with white or gesso. Collaging with bits from another sheet of your original paper not only regains the white but also the qualities of the original surface. And now I’m wondering why I haven’t ever done this.

Monday Motivator: The Artist as Conductor

Ink painting of flowers with watercolour added

“Translating what you see into a painted image is a complex process, combining perception and the technical language of paint. … Your job as a painter is not to be literal, especially when working from photographic sources in the studio; instead you should think of yourself as a conductor, arranging, editing, and elaborating on the elements that present themselves in a scene.”

Suzanne Brooker, “Elements of Landscape Oil Painting”, p1

Just because something’s in your reference photo doesn’t mean it has to be included in your painting. It’s in the photo simply because of where the photographer was standing when the photo was taken and where they pointed the lens.

Take the two deck chairs in my photo below, in the walled garden at Castle Fraser, where I was last Friday. If my painting’s composition were people sitting in the chairs enjoying the garden, then including them would make sense, though not their position on the right-hand edge. If I were painting the flower border, why would I include chairs?

Part of a flower bed in the walled garden at Castle Fraser, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, with two deckchairs on the right

I took this photo as a reminder about how, as I was sitting on a nearby bench painting foxgloves, the gardener mowing the lawn moved the deck chairs, placing them looking out across the expanse of the newly shorn grass rather than at the flowers, which were far more interesting to me than the meticulous lawn and topiary. A reminder that we have different motivations.

I did subsequently turn one of the chairs around and sit in it to paint, being very careful not to spill any ink on it. When I left I felt compelled to return the deck chair to its original position, probably that rural “leave a gate open or closed as you find it” thing.

Ink painting of flowers

The alliums aren’t as purple as I’ve painted them, but they’re also not as brown-pink as in this photo. Other photos I took from different angles captured the colours differently. I was less focused on colour and more on the sense of the spiky pompom-ness of the aliums and their upright stems, contrasing with the curving, dancing stems of the tiny pink pompoms. I very nearly didn’t add colour at all.

Ink painting of flowers

Monday Motivator: Direction of Movement

Talisker Bay Skye

“Simply stated, each of the four major directions in movement behaves differently. Horizontals, almost by definition, can be considered earthbound, solid, comforting, and stable. They move only left and right. Conversely, vertical, moving up and down, induce a feeling of growing, striving, even exaltation. Diagonals have a cutting, slashing, impetuous quality … Swirling, curvaceous movement has a repetitive grace. Used profusely, it can personify restlessness. … Generally you gain by relying mainly on one direction … and using anything else for purely subordinate purposes.”

— Lawrence C Goldsmith, Watercolor Bold & Free, p25

In a seascape, is it the horizon line that’s the dominant direction or the curves of the waves at the shore? It all depends on how I position myself, and what the sea conditions are like.

The photo below was taken at Talisker Bay on the Isle of Skye, on a day where there was a strong wind blowing into the oncoming waves, spreading spray up above the horizon, leaving only sections of the horizontal line.

Talisker Bay Skye

One of the paintings this day inspired had a composition from a higher viewpoint, not at sea level. The horizon line is dominant if you’re looking at the top third of the painting, enhanced by the fairly uniform sky colour. It creates a context for the more abstract lower part of the painting.

Talisker Bay: Spring Colours 70x70cm (approx 27×27″) Acrylic on canvas. Sold

Foxgloves with Blind Embossing

Detail from Foxgloves painted in watercolour with blind embossing

I’ve had my first go at an idea involving foxgloves, blind embossing and watercolour. Blind embossing is a printmaking technique where you “print” with the aim to create indentations in the paper rather than printing an image using ink. (The appeal isn’t simply that there’s no ink to clean up!)

My thoughts behind using blind embossing are about how white space can be a crucial part of the composition of a watercolour or ink painting, about having something in that area that doesn’t reveal itself unless you look closely, which will add to the overall painting whilst not detracting from the sense of white space.

The results are hard to photograph because it’s about the play of light across the surface. I still need to figure out a good setup for doing it, but the photos below will give you a sense of it.

I started with a bit of cardboard from a catfood box, drawing a foxglove on it to give me a reminder of the overall design I had in mine before cutting out shapes for individual flowers. Studio Cat Freyja had fun helping me with this; she does love to shred cardboard.

I arranged the pieces on a sheet of paper on my new-to-me Gunning printing press that I bought from a printmaker in Banff who was upgrading their press. With a printing bed of 50x100cm it gives me the chance to work considerably larger than the little A3 press I bought I with the proceeds from the first art workshop I taught on Skye.

I didn’t stick down the cardboard shapes, so was hoping a studio cat wouldn’t come to investigate!

In order for the paper to bend around the cardboard and not tear, you dampen it beforehand. Failing to find something that was big enough, I repurposed this unused kitten litter tray which was just wide enough for an A3 sheet.

After blotting the damp sheet on a towel to remove excess surface water, I placed it over the cardboard pieces and ran it through the press. It took a few tries to get the pressure (“tightness”) of the press set so it embossed nicely.

The stripes in the embossing come from the cardboard. The pieces without are where the cardboard was the other way up. A happy accident as I hadn’t realised the cardboard would produce texture within the shapes.

By the fourth sheet the cardboard was quite flattened and I decided it wouldn’t produce much of an effect on a fifth sheet of paper. Part of me likes this limited number; another part wants to try next time with something that won’t flatten as fast, if at all, such as lino or perhaps mount board.

I clipped the embossed sheets to a board on my easel, then spent several days pondering them. Where would I paint, how many foxgloves, would I overpaint any of the embossing knowing from my previous experiments with pebbles and embossing that this tends to make it disappear? Would I start with the sheet that was embossed the best (the first sheet) or worse (the last sheet), knowing that I might well mess it up but also that sometimes the first attempt is more successful as I’m not trying so hard.

In the end I went the second sheet I’d embossed as there was slightly less pressure (no pun intended) not to ruin it. I tried to put aside my doubts and overthinking, and just jump with watercolour in a pipette (magenta, purple, green) without any preliminary drawing. I let the watercolour dry overnight before drawing onto it with coloured pencils.

Overall I am pleased with this. The foxgloves are a bit upright and stylised, and the scale of the embossed foxglove is bigger than the painted, but I like the feel of it and how the embossed element echoes the painted but you only see it if you look closely.

As for the other three sheets, well one is still unused, one I played on to see what would happen if I let the watercolour spread into the embossed area (there’s also some Inktense pencil in this, see bottom right in the photo below). This in turn led me to play with the third sheet to see what would happn if I applied watercolour onto the embossing when the sheet was damp (wet-into-wet) and let it spread. I was wondering how much it’d accumulate in the lines/edges.

PS: I’ll be sharing a “behind the scenes” photo from my studio related to this with my Patreon supporters. If you’d like to see it, and more, sign up now using this link (there’s a special seven-day free trial at the moment).

Monday Motivator: The First Few Brushstrokes

“…the first few brushstrokes to the blank canvas satisfy the requirements of many possible paintings, while the last few fit only that painting–they could go nowhere else. The development of an imagined piece into an actual piece is a progression of decreasing possibilities, as each step in execution reduces future options by converting one–and only one–possibility into a reality. Finally, at some point or another, the piece could not be other than it is, and it is done.”

David Bayles and Ted Orland, “Art and Fear”, page 16

Being decisive in making a brushstroke isn’t the same as being confident it’s the best possible brushstroke, or will give me the most desirable result. It isn’t done with any kind of certainty other than knowing that if I want a painting to progress, I need to get paint onto the surface, and this is my best guess as to what to do next. And again, and again.

What I can feel confident about is that I can adapt to what it’s turned out to be, overpaint it, or wipe it off, Or abandon the painting and start again.

On the best of days, a painting seems to suggest what wants to happen next from the ingredients and techniques I have to hand, that is the medium(s) I’m using and the marks I know I can produce. The rest of the time, I paint along in the hope I end up somewhere satisfying.

Monday Motivator: No Areas Untouched by Pastel

“[Berthe Morisot] used pastel on paper in a way that justified the eighteenth-century term ‘peindre au pastel’ (to ‘paint’ in pastel). Common during the Louis XV period, the expression described a solid technique, like painting, leaving no untouched areas of the sheet of paper visible. Morisot used dry and semi-hard pastels, which she worked wet with a brush, or using both techniques: dry and wet.”

Dominique d’Arnoult, “Morisot’s Craft: Concealing Knowledge with Grace” in “Berthe Morisot: Sharping Impressionism”, page 64

I’ve come across various definitions about whether you’re painting or drawing when you’re using pastels, but none have ever related to how much of the paper was covered. It’s interesting to me that this could be the distinction given how in watercolour you might also choose to not paint over parts of the sheet of paper, so it’s comparing pastel painting to oil painting.

That pastel is an inherently dry medium is an argument for it being drawing. That you use line to apply it is another, countered by using a pastel stick edge on to block in colour, which could be regarded as a painting technique. On and on, round and round, ultimately it doesn’t matter what you call it, neither term is an insult to the maker.

I now find myself wondering if the difference between a sketch and a painting might also be related to how much of the sheet of paper is covered with paint (plus ink, pencil, and everything else that can be used in mixed medium).