This Week: Expressive Painting Workshop at Higham Hall, and Getting There

A few moments from my week.

I undertook my longest journey in my e-van since I bought it in the summer, to the Lake District for my workshop at Higham Hall; it’s about 300 miles. This recharge point not far off the motorway in a village had gorgeous autumnal colours. So much calmer than a motorway service station.

I had fun kicking through the autumn leaves and taking photos of the colours. The black rectangle is the top of a rubbish bin, with the sky and a tree reflected in it.

Being at Higham Hall to lead another “Expressive Scotland Mixed Media” workshop is as enjoyable as ever. The new door from the hall to the courtyard means there’s now step-free access to the studio. All sorts of beautiful paintings being developed by participants, and the copy of Henry Moore’s sheep sketchbook in the studio library being passed around with the consensus that his proportions are a bit dubious in places.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, “The Librarian”, c1566

I discovered that the veggies and fruit portraits artist had done one with books called “The Librarian”, and I think it’s as clever and amusing as his paintings I am familiar with. It was one of this week’s images on the Pictdle daily art puzzle.

Monday Motivator: Peripheral and Occupied Space

Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote
Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote

“…negative space is more subtle, beginning wherever positive space ends. It is the peripheral area, the space surrounding the occupied space. …

“When you are composing negative space, remember that negative space is limited by the format of the painting surface. The shapes of the positive space, in contrast, as usually centrally located. Negative space also often needs to be broken up into smaller shapes and then integrated with the balance of the painting.”

Albert Handell and Leslie Trainor Handell, “Intuitive Composition”, page 34

Think of space in a painting the way Monet advised us not to paint objects (tree, house, field) but instead paint shapes of colour (a square of blue, an oblong of pink, a streak of yellow). The composition of a painting is not “important space” — occupied by the subject — surrounded by “empty space”, it’s all crucial to the result. Some parts may take less time to paint, but that’s a measure of time spent not importance to the composition.

When last, when a painting wasn’t working, did you contemplate the negative space in your composition?

Negative and Positive Space in a painting

This Week: Life Line Exhibition and Workshop Planning

A mixture of moments from my week.

The Life Lines online group exhibition curated by Fife Contemporary is now live. Thank you to friends and family who attended the online opening, and to all involved. Take a look at my work here… All my paintings are for sale, including the concertina sketchbooks; email me and I will let you know the details. Some are on my website with prices, but not all (yet).

I wrote out a plan for my “Expressive Scotland” workshop at Higham Hall next week, mixing things up to keep it fresh for myself and participants who’ve done workshops with me before. My next issue was deciphering it as I typed it up into a daily plan, but it’s done now and I have test-driven the new activities to try to ensure the instructions work for what I have in mind.

Studio cat Juanita waiting for the rain from Storm Babet to stop, and demonstrating how powerful backlighting can be. Fortunately we were on the edges of the storm, though it was still very wet and windy.

I became a curtain-twitcher when a neighbour had fancy new “tractor” delivered. But not that curious that I went out in the rain for a closer look.

The mail-order bouquet a very special friend in Australia sent has had me colour mixing in my head, both the red-oranges of the big roses and the white versus not-quite-white carnations. Or is that cool white vs warm white? Thank you again, you-know-who-you-are!

Invitation: Life Lines Online Exhibition Launch on Thursday

Fife Contemporary invites you to join the online launch of Life Lines, an exhibition bringing together artists affected by the long-term impacts of COVID-19, opening up their creative practice on an online platform.

Marion Boddy-Evans | Sasha Saben Callaghan | Kathryn Hanna | Kirsty Stevens | Gosia Walton | Tumim and Prendergast

Spanning work in sculpture, printmaking, painting, drawing, digital illustration and bookmaking, the artists brought together in this exhibition are based across Scotland, and exemplify the great variety and quality of creative practice being produced by artists in studios across the country.

Life Lines: Online Exhibition Launch Thursday 26th October 2023 at 11am (Edinburgh time).

Book a free ticket here…

Monday Motivator: Freezing the Gestures of Making in Time

Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote

“A painting or drawing is an accumulation of marks made over time, a process that the viewer may be able to decipher or that the artist may emphasize. The layering of the image visualizes temporality as unfolding, in process, almost geological.

A monotype, though, is printed at a particular moment in the development of the image on the plate. The artist must work relatively quickly, before the medium dries, and can make wholesale changes right up until the plate goes through the press; as an index of that final instant, the resulting impression is a kind of arrest, a way of freezing the gestures of making in time.”

Jodi Hauptman. introduction to “Degas: A Strange New Beauty

Delayed gratification: you don’t know what the print will look like until you lift the sheet of paper. Serendipity being part of the result generates excitement and anxiety. Committing to the moment — now I’ll print it — and learning acceptance for whatever results.

With a painting you could work on it further tomorrow and no-one else would be able to tell that you’d stopped and restarted. With a monoprint the dynamic is different. Degas on occasion continued with pastel.

This Week: Yellows, Degas’ Monotypes & an Invitation

A mixture of moments from my week.

Stepping out the front door I encountered a swirl of leaves from trees who’ve decided it’s autumn. The yellow of the salt box made the yellows in the leaves seem to pop out. They’ll pile themselves in the corner there and wait for the spring garden tidy.


On a perfect blue-sky autumnal day, the in-house art critic and I had a picnic at the beach watching waves marching in across the bay, listening to pebbles rumbling, and enjoying the turbulence between the incoming and receding waves at the water’s edge. There were patches of yellow on the hillside where gorse is flowering.

Don’t listen to the wind, don’t look at the wind, don’t talk about going out in the wind to rescue the clematis

Yesterday a red-warning level storm hit parts of Scotland; fortunately our little corner of Aberdeenshire avoided the worst of the wind and rain. This morning I put out food for the birds and straightened the clematis tower (there are some big stones holding the base).

Continuing my explorations with monoprinting, I discovered Degas did monoprints and that there was an exhibition of them at MoMA in 2016. You can read an extract of the catalogue here and see photos of the exhibition here. (Link to video if you don’t see it above.)

A4 size print

I did another set of monoprints featuring the in-house art critic, exploring how what seem subtle marks in the ink translate into more evident marks in the print. This is because I’m using an etching press, and the pressure from the roller lets these transfer. There are bits I like in each, and bits that don’t work for me. Overall they make my fingers itch to try again.

You’re Invited: Next Thursday Fife Contemporary is having an online launch of Life Lines, an exhibition bringing together artists affected by the long-term impacts of COVID-19 and opens up their creative practice on an online platform. Beginning 11:00am, Thursday 26 October 2023 the online exhibition will launch alongside a virtual tour of the exhibition and discussion with some of the artists. Book your free space at the online launch event here. My part of the exhibition features my pebble paintings, many of which I haven’t shared online. Please sign up even if you’re not sure you will make it as it shows support for the organisers.

Monday Motivator: The Nourishment Artists Need is Encouragement

Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote
Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote

“Prioritize friendships with people who encourage your art, because they know how important it is to you. Let them know, gently but firmly, that encouragement is the nourishment you need, rather than expectation or pressure. Because you already excel at expectation and pressure. It’s the gentle stuff you need help with.”

Belinda Del Pesco, Beginner Artist Mindset Tips

A friend of mine joined an urban sketching group meetup this month for the first time ever, and has found herself thinking about sketching outside during her lunch break. I’d been hoping she might, but hadn’t said anything because going along to your first sketch meeting is stressful enough. I was impressed it only took one meetup; I’d thought it might take a few.

Sketching on location is a combination of so many of the things we both enjoy: being outside, drawing, looking, people/nature watching, tactile interaction with materials, creating something from nothing. But if I’d told her I was thinking of the next step before she’d even done the first, what she might/could/should do, then she’d have felt so pressurised she might have backed out of joining the group’s meetup and how guilty wouldn’t I have felt then.

Now we’re talking about “going for a walk around and looking at the trees with sketching eyes instead of gardening eyes” . About ways to reduce the pressure on herself, such as picking one tree and doing a series of sketches of this. Setting the aim to be not “every lunch”, but “once a week”. Not “sketch the whole scene” but “pick a detail”.

I’m really excited to see where this will take her, but also that it’s already taken her this far knowing what the starting point was. It also reminds me to look anew at trees, and to be gentle on myself when I am trying a new subject (i’ve been putting off sketching fishing boats) or revisiting something I haven’t painted for a while (thinking of figures for the online drawing workshop I’m doing).

No Message in the Bottle on Skye
Sometimes the message in the bottle is that there isn’t one, it’s about the bottle.

This Week: A Nasturtium & Monoprinting

A mixture of moments from my week.

A running joke my Ma and I have involves the time my Ouma, who had extremely green thumbs, complained about how nasturtiums insist on spreading everywhere whereas we have been only too happy to have them grow at all. Seeing one tiny flower from the seeds I planted made me laugh about this anew. The grass gives a sense of scale.

I was determined not to let the wind get hold of my paper this week. I took only a brown pencil, an indigo Inktense pencil, a sharpener, and a waterbrush because I knew it was going to be windy. I will either take this concertina sketchbook again another time or add colour onto the headland drawing section in my studio.

My two favourite pebbles on this day:

I also found a U for my pebble alphabet:

In the studio I had a go at monoprinting for the first time, using the A2 press I bought from a Banff-based printmaker earlier this year when they upgraded. Monoprinting involves inking up a smooth surface (I used a large piece of perspex leftover from when I made my roadside tiny gallery on Skye), wiping into this to create the image (working dark to light), putting a damp sheet of paper over this, and running it through the press. Lots of variables and a lot to learn, but I had great fun.

The inked plate

The idea to try this was prompted by this week’s homework from the online Expressive Drawing workshop by Edinburgh-based artist Alan McGowan I’m doing.

The atmospheric results make me think this could well be the technique to use for imagery relating to the in-house art critic’s brain that I keep thinking about. My favourites I hung up on my print rail (there are magnets glued to the clips, which then stick to the was-for-curtains metal rail).

The A4 one was done with graphite ink.

I’m using oil-based printing inks that clean up with water, thus avoiding solvents, but made the mistake of thinning it with water on the perspex not extender, so it lost the tackiness that makes it transfer to wet paper and smeared with the pressure of the press. The effect is interesting, but doing it wasn’t deliberate. All part of the learning curve.

“No, I wasn’t sitting on them a moment ago,” said Little Em.

Printmaking is delayed gratification mixed with the unpredictable; lifting the sheet of paper to see the result is a bit of a birthday-present moment every time. Studio cat Freyja who sat on a chair watching me isn’t entirely convinced.

Monday Motivator: Fix Things by Avoiding Fixation

Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote

“Switching tasks helps reduce something called cognitive fixation, the tendency to get stuck in one particular approach to a problem. Turning to another task gets us out of this rut, seeing different possibilities.”

Russell Davies, “Do Interesting“, page 87

Applying this idea to painting, don’t change the task (making a painting) but change what you’re using to do the task (the medium you’re using). With oil paint you could use oil sticks or oil pastels. With acrylic paint, you could use ink or acrylic marker pens. With watercolour you could use pencil. With pencil you could add in a wash, or collage. The list goes on and is limited only by what you have to hand (and the fundamental rules about what sticks to what).

The first time I encountered the suggestion of changing medium but to keep working on the same spot in order to solve a problem was in a still life workshop in 2017 in Edinburgh at the Leith Art School led by Kittie Jones. I don’t recall her exact words, but it was along the lines of if you’re struggling to make something work, don’t shift your focus to another part of the painting but change mediums and keep working on that spot.

It’s like changing gears, a fresh start whilst still moving the whole painting forward. It’s become something that’s part of the way I paint, sometimes switching what I’m using to apply paint rather than the medium.

The other thing I remember well from this workshop was tearing a hole in my sheet of paper and solving this by simply sticking another piece behind it and keeping going. What we learn from a workshop often isn’t what we expected!

From the workshop: mixed media: focusing in on a section of the large still life setup
From the workshop: printmaking abstractions from my still life drawings

Photos: At Pennan

Pennan is a tiny, historic, postcard-perfect Scottish seaside village around the corner from my favourite pebble beach. The access road is a steep single-track with blind corners down the hillside, popping out between houses at the sea. What Pennan is famous for depends on whether you’re into cinema or geology; let’s just say I didn’t take any photos of a red phone box.

But it’s not a historic fishing village entirely stuck in a timewarp:

At one side of the bay, it’s conglomerates and pebble allsorts. (For geology enthusiasts: more info here.)

After spending quite some time hereabouts, I then wandered across to the other side of the bay.

At the harbour end, the cliffs are that distinctive red sandstone.

Back home, I discovered most of my photos were in what might be called “urban concrete and rust” category, rather than “picturesque seaside village”.

This last is my favourite: my horizon is straight, for once, and the wall edge perfectly aligned by pure chance