JMW Turner’s “radiant effects, obtained with mere paint, remain unique even after Impressionism. … replaced the old technique of light and dark contrast with the finest gradations of colours, all–or nearly all–very light in value.
“While rejecting traditional chiaroscuro, Turner also rejected representation of solid bodies compactly arranged… he created resplendent effects of colour permeating atmosphere and deep space.
“His sketchbooks reveal a background of experimentation with bands and blocks of colours placed side by side in various combination.”
Source: Vision and Invention by Calvin Harlan p85
I’ve often thought of the colours in the view from my studio across the Minch as being part of a colourfield painting by Rothko or a seascape done in greys with a narrow tonal range by Whistler, but there’s also plenty of stormy weather and dramatic atmosphere to relate to Turner. Creating a sense of distant islands, with the sun forcing its way through fast-moving clouds above a wind-whipped sea, that’s what’s on my mind today.
Never let the belief that you can’t draw stop you from learning to paint. A painting is not a drawing waiting to be coloured in and, conversely, a drawing isn’t an artwork waiting for paint to be added to it.
While traditionally an artist studied drawing for several years before starting with paint, if you want to get straight into paint, then do. You can always acquire drawing skills at a later stage; in the meantime you won’t have wasted time sitting around wishing you were painting (see: Never Moving Beyond Liking the Idea of Being Creative).
I strongly believe that if you don’t like or are afraid of drawing, for whatever reason, then forget about drawing and jump straight into painting. Ultimately, it’s that you’re doing it that’s important, not the road you take to get there.
Painting involves its own set of skills, which complement but are different to those for drawing. Learning to use tone, perspective,the illusion of depth, etc. can be done while learning to paint. The advantage of doing so while learning to draw is that you don’t have the distraction of colour and pencil is easier to ‘undo’ to fix errors. But if you don’t like graphite or charcoal, don’t let this stop you. Get stuck straight into the wet, colourful stuff! Even if you were an expert at drawing, you’d need to learn how to manipulate paint.
Drawing is a different way of creating art. Having drawing skills will definitely help with your painting, but if you hate pencils and charcoal, this doesn’t mean you can’t learn to paint. Drawing is not merely an initial step in making a painting. You don’t need to do a detailed drawing before you start to paint; while many artists do, many others don’t. I typically do a minimalist drawing of my intended composition before starting to paint (take a look at this step-by-step video demo to see an example).
There is no rule that says you must draw before you paint if you don’t want to and no approval committee checking your process. Never let a belief that you can’t draw a stick figure or even a straight line stop you from discovering the enjoyment that painting can bring. Besides, straight lines are easy…use a ruler!
“Painting embraces all the 10 functions of the eye; that is to say, darkness, light, body and color, shape and location, distance and closeness, motion and rest.”
— Leonardo da Vinci
“I tell myself that anyone who says he has finished a canvas is terribly arrogant. Finished means complete, perfect, and I toil away without making any progress, searching, fumbling around, without achieving anything much.” — Monet, 1893 (Quoted in Painting Outside the Lines by David W Galenson, p49
It can be terribly demotivating when you feel like you’re constantly struggling to create satisfying paintings while those around you seem to have it come easily. But are you seeing the artist’s process and progress, or looking only at the end results? The few selected pieces the artist shows the world are not the full story, they don’t tell you how many paintings were never finished, how many hours were spent pondering a pristine canvas. Doubts and fears are part of the process; reconcile yourself to this, then use them as motivation to keep pursuing the impossible.
This workshop day was spent creating a tree painting under my guidance, using techniques I include in my own forest paintings. It’s partly about mastering the techniques involved (torn strips of masking tape being key) and partly about learning to be patient, building numerous layers to create a sense of depth rather than stopping at the first layer (and not to be precious about it). It’s an approach that takes a faith in the process (especially the first time you do it!) so I demonstrated each step on my own 25x25cm canvas before we tackled it.
We started with a coloured ground done in dark turquoise, then all used the same set of acrylic colours on our palettes: Prussian blue, cerulean blue, burnt umber, green gold, Sennelier primary red, cadmium yellow deep, lemon yellow, and titanium white. The results speak for themselves; one of these four paintings is mine, but which one?
Focusing on drawing techniques: pencil control, different ways to hold a pencil, working from light to dark and dark to light, quality of line, continuous line drawing, spatial awareness through blind continuous line, working from memory and observation…
[Kahn] “…plays with imaginary color in an otherwise commonplace landscape. The simple image of a river bend becomes a chromatic fantasy ‘so entirely about color that you don’t even think about dark and light’.”
(Source: Wolf Kahn page 90)
How realistic does colour need to be in a landscape painting? How far can you intensify it before it becomes unreal, and does that necessarily mean it doesn’t work? How much can you enhance what you see to create an emotional impact or to convey the strength with which you experience the landscape?
If you let colour overtake everything else in the composition it becomes a painting with its roots in realism. A painting about colour rather than landscape, but the roots give viewers a way into the painting. A way to relate to it and feel you’re able to understand it (or some of it) rather than being completely lost about what you’re looking at as often happens with pure abstracts. Whether you limit the realism to ‘roots’ only, or add a few more aspects of the landscape (‘branches’ and ‘leaves’), that’s when an interesting dance can happen as you juggle realism and abstraction.
3. Two unused tubes of Green Gold, one Golden, one Winsor & Newton. The Golden version is a Series 7, so not an insignificant find (read: it’s an exquisite but expensive colour).
4. Postcard sent by a friend from Tuscany in 2011 featuring a painting by Pierro-della Francesca, Madonna del Parto, that she said had its own museum in a hilltop village.
5. Postcard from National Portrait Gallery in London of one of my favourite paintings in their collection, Justin Mortimer’s 1992 portrait of Harold Pinter, which is two-thirds red negative space. (Both postcards had got shifted from the front of a shelf to between books.)
6. Exhibition catalogueMonet et l’abstraction/Monet and abstraction, which delayed the tidyup for some time as I flipped through the pages. Monet’s late paintings, where he uses nature as a starting point but it’s mostly about pattern and colour, as some of my favourites. “The object no longer defined the pictures subject, which was now subject to the painterly gesture … The image is no longer a hermetic snapshot of reality, but a place where sensations are assembled in a duration that is also a state of harmony, an even expanse in which memory is fed by the simple pleasure of seeing.” (page 95/6)
7. A note in my handwriting that says: “I have the beret of awesome artiness.” I’m still pondering this; I imagine it came from a conversation with the In-House Art Critic about different hats one wears in life.
When you’ve finished a painting, take all the “what if I” and “maybe I should” thoughts and apply them to a new canvas. Do another version of the painting, aiming not for an identical twin but a sibling, similar but not exact. It helps you develop ideas further, see what results if you do try something you didn’t before for whatever reason, gets things out of your system for better or worse.
I don’t believe “Art is never finished, only abandoned”.* There are definitely paintings and drawings in which you reach a point when it’s as clear as a road sign: stop now, it’s finished. More often though, you get to a point where you begin to wonder whether it might be, whether doing more will enhance or overwork it. Here are some things I use to help me decide if it’s time to down brushes or not.
Am I Tweaking?
If I find myself tweaking a little thing here, and another there, fiddling and fussing about with random small changes rather than doing something definite and decisive, then it’s time to stop. Put the painting aside for a while, overnight at the least, so I can look at it again with fresh eyes. Sometimes I’ll immediately see what it still needs, other times I’ll decide it was indeed finished, and, yes, there will be times when I’m still unsure so I leave it to be pondered.
A paintings I think is almost done, but not quite, I like to put somewhere I can see it often during the day, from different angles and distances, in changing light, as I go about doing other things. Not to forget the looking at it in a mirror and turning it upside down options, both of which help you see it anew.
Am I Bored?
Tweaking a painting also happens when I’m bored with or tired of it or just not in the mood for it. Never mind why, perhaps I’ve struggled too much with it, it doesn’t change that I am not fully engaged with it, so it’s time to put the painting aside for now. I’ll decide on another day whether to continue with it or overpaint it.
Am I Protecting a “Good Bit”?
If I’ve stopped working on a section of the painting because I really like it, protecting a “good bit” for fear of messing it up, then it’s time to check it’s integrated with the rest of the composition. There’s the danger the “good bit” ends up feeling like it doesn’t belong and it may be the very thing that needs additional work.
There’s a balance between stopping before you overwork a painting and stopping because you’re too scared you’ll mess something up. If you always stop, you’ll hinder your artistic development. When I hit this point I may well stop working on that particular painting but immediately start another using the same idea. Not to create a duplicate, but to push the idea further, using what I’d learnt from the previous one without the fear of messing it up. Think of the paintings as cousins rather than twins, a series rather than copies.
Am I Finished for Today?
Amongst the numerous things I’ve learnt from friend who’s a wildlife artist, Katie Lee, is the mantra “as good as I can paint it today”. That a painting may not be as I’d visualized it or wish it to be, but to allow myself to stop as it’s as finished as I’m able to make it today. A year from now I may be able to take it further because my skills, style and preferences will develop over time, but today I’ve gone as far as I can with it. There’s no rule you can’t at a later date paint further on a canvas you once thought was finished.
Have I Consulted the Dark Side?
Does the painting want a stronger dark or lighter light? Is there sufficient tonal contrast, or have I been seduced by colour (again!) and it’s all too mid-tone? Is there a focal point or pattern (for more abstracted paintings) that pulls the eye around? Are there any stray bits of colour that sit awkwardly in the overall composition?
Stop Sooner Rather than Later
You can always add to a painting; it’s a lot harder to undo something. Tomorrow is a new day. Decide then whether to continue rather than now.
______________________________________ *Note on the Quote
The quote “Art is never finished, only abandoned” gets attributed to both Leonardo da Vinci and Picasso. As far as I can ascertain it’s a paraphrase of the French poet Paul Valéry (1871–1945), from his 1922 poetry book, Charmes ou poèmes:
“In the eyes of those lovers of perfection, a work is never finished—a word that for them has no sense—but abandoned; and this abandonment, whether to the flames or to the public (and which is the result of weariness or an obligation to deliver) is a kind of an accident to them, like the breaking off of a reflection, which fatigue, irritation, or something similar has made worthless.”
“If you persist instead of giving up, then comes the one moment at which there is a chance of going forward a little. And not only do you have the impression of going forward a little, but sometimes you suddenly have the impression — even if it is only an illusion — of a tremendous opening.”
It can, undoubtedly, be hard to keep at it. I don’t always, and sometimes when I do things go from bad to worse. I tend to persist for a bit (a “bit” being anywhere between 10 minutes and a few hours), then put it aside for another day. For a time when I’m able to think of something specific to do with it or willing to let go of what I’ve already done and be dramatic or willing to be more patient with it. Some of the paintings I’ve been most pleased with had frustrating starts. (The converse applies too.)
How do you keep at it? You just do, in the knowledge it’s a marathon not a sprint. The memory of those times when suddenly you know what a painting wants, or you inadvertently do it, provides the motivation when you’re struggling uphill. Persistence creates endurance; endurance enables persistence.