I was asked by someone who got married on Skye this summer if I would create a sheep painting for her in which the weather was sunny and the Cuillin were in the background. A few other details in the composition also relate to the occasion. This animated .gif is a sequence of photos taken while it was in progress:
Here’s the almost-final painting, and a detail from it showing the tiny flock on the hillside. The title the in-house critic and I agreed on: “Love View“.
If one of your artistic goals is to work in a freer, more painterly and expressive style, don’t focus on fighting against what you already do, but introduce new techniques and approaches that simply don’t allow for tight, highly controlled painting. Try everything, ideally twice (to get past the “this won’t work” and “this is ridiculous” thoughts). Find the approaches that work for you; as always different things work better for different people.
1. Use the ‘Wrong’ Hand
Our dominant hand, whether it’s our left or our right, is accustomed to how we do things. It’s built up muscle memory and does things on autopilot (that “I know what an apple looks like” thought). Putting your brush or pencil into your ‘wrong’ hand instantly reduces these. Yes, it feels awkward. Yes, things won’t go exactly where you wish. But this reduction in co-ordination is what will help you create expressive rather than rigidly controlled marks.
With practice it feels less awkward and you gain control. Do it a lot and you may even reach the point where you use both hands together, which is useful for working faster, or swap a brush from on hand to the other to reach the edges of a large canvas.
2. Reduce What You See
Don’t switch on a light, but work in reduced light where you can’t see every last bit of detail. Take off your glasses so you can’t see your subject or what’s on your canvas as sharply (depending on your eyes). Try lighting a still-life with a bright lamp from one side (oblique light) so there are strong cast and form shadows that reduce how much detail you see. If you can’t change the light, squint (half close) your eyes so the lights and darks in your subject become stronger. Don’t paint what you can’t see, even though you know on an intellectual level it’s there.
3. Leave Stuff Out
Not every petal is needed; our brains are adept at filling in missing details and interpreting shapes. Doing so engages us with a painting, so it’s in fact better not to put down every single bit of information and leave some for the viewer to ponder.
Take a hard look at your subject, trying to decide which are the essential bits (strong shapes, colours, tones) and put down these only, then add a little more suggested detail on top.
Exercise: Do it with line several times, each time reducing how much you had in the previous. 20 lines, 15, 10, 5 to convey the essence of the subject.
4. No Outlines
Resist the temptation to draw a precise outline and colour it in. Objects are three-dimensional, they don’t have outlines. Paint the “inside” at the same time as the “outline” and quit trying to have perfectly neat edges. What we see as an edge changes when we shift our viewpoint anyway; uneven edges adds a sense of this. And as you step further away from the painting the edge neatens up visually.
Outlines are like bicycle training wheels, they support and protect, reassure us we’ll go where we want to without falling off, but they also restrict movement, hold us back. Hold the composition in your mind’s eye, clarify and work it out in a sketchbook, then use guidelines not outlines, suggestions and reminders rather than prescriptive lines on your painting.
5. Leave the Drips
Resist the impulse to tidy up pain runs, drips and backwashes. They add a fluidity, “happy accident” moments, and mark making it’s hard to do deliberately. Work with drips, let them run where they will. Let drips dry and then layer over without trying to obscure completely.
6. Use an Awkward Brush
Take a piece of dowel or a stick at least arm’s length and tie or tape it to the handle of a ‘normal’ brush. Put a large piece of paper on the floor, tape it to the wall or canvas on your easel. Now paint… you’ll find the long brush handle exaggerates the movement of your hand and arm, creating longer marks on the paper than you’d usually make, as well as reducing your overall control somewhat. Don’t fight this by trying to make smaller movements!
Brushes with unruly hairs or stiff with dried-in paint will take you away from neat brushstrokes. Resist the temptation to tidy up the marks. If need be, sharpen edges in the final round with the painting, but not midway.
Check where and how you’re holding a brush. Don’t strangle it by holding down by the hairs but hold it higher up the handle. Shift your grip on it from how you’d use a pencil to how you’d hold a tennis racket (across your palm, four fingers folded over handle, thumb resting on fingers). This encourages you to work with your arm rather than wrist.
7. Try Unexpected Colours
Instead of obsessing about whether you’ve got accurate colours, worrying about mixing the perfect green before applying it, use unexpected, unrealistic colours and focus instead on ensuring it’s the desired tone (value). Our brains register tone strongly, and surprising colours will read “right”. The resulting painting can be a lot more emotive and dramatic. If the idea frightens you, try using something unexpected for a coloured ground and let small flecks show through.
8. Use the Invisible
First paint your subject with clean water only to familiarize yourself with your composition (okay, not if you’re using oils, for that you can do this with solvent or oil!). Then take some fluid colour and let it flow into the wet areas. Don’t try to stop the paint from spreading or worry about the colours becoming ‘wrong’. Wait until you’ve finished, then see if you like the result.
9. Get Protection
Masking fluid enables you to block out areas in a watercolor so you don’t have to worry about accidentally painting there, and masking tape does the same if you’re working on canvas. For example, instead of meticulously trying to paint around the petals of a white daisy in a watercolour, paint the petals in masking fluid first. You can then paint freely knowing the white of the paper is preserved.
10. Use a Brave brush
Use a brush that prevents you from painting tiny details. At least an inch wide, wider if you can get yourself too. Varnishing brushes are great, as are decorating brushes (if it’s too thick, cut off some of the hair with scissors). Use a flat brush not a round one as the aim is to significantly increase the width of the painting strokes you make. Use it side-edge-on as well as flat, dab down a corner for “dots” and end-on for speckles.
A big brush encourages you to use your whole arm rather than only your wrist, to make broad, sweeping strokes. The painting below, “Edge of the Cuillin” was done with a two-inch (5cm) brush, followed by smaller mark making on top.
“The cast shadow creates an effect just like a splotch of ink that is dropped on a subtly modelled drawing done in delicate halftones. For this reason artists generally eliminate, or soften, cast shadows by toning them down, so that the form beneath can be read.”
— Nathan Cole Hale,Abstraction in Art & Nature, page 17
A cast shadow is the one that “falls on the ground” when the sun or strong light shines. It is more like a dark glaze than a streak of opaque black; we still see a lot in a shadow. Yes we want tonal contrast in a painting for visual interest, a fair distance between the lightest and darkest tones, but tread softly, with colourful dark footprints, don’t stomp shadows in with flat black. A cast shadow isn’t the same throughout either, it gets lighter the further away it is from the object creating (casting) it, and the edges softer (less distinct).
A form shadow is the “dark side of the moon”, the darker tones on the opposite side of an object to where the light’s falling. These are even softer than cast shadows. They are essential for creating the illusion of 3D in a painting or drawing. How much form shadow you see depends on the light direction; if most of the subject is in direct light, there’s very little (unless you walk around to view the other side of it). If you find the thought of two types of shadow confusing, try labelling a form shadow as “lack of light” instead.
“When [Monet] reduced his compositions to horizontal bands or combinations of simple shapes, he relied on colour and brushwork to bring the painting to life.
“…every area of the painting is enlivened in some way… a sense of space and recession is created entirely by nuances of colour and inflections of the brush.
“…thick strokes of paint which were allowed to dry before surface colours where added
“…skip strokes, where a loaded brush is drawn very lightly across the canvas so that it skips, depositing paint where it touches, allowing the colours below to show clearly through these superimposed accents, and thus creating an active interplay between the success paint layers”
(Source: Monet: Nature into Art by John House, page 87/92)
The way we apply colour, which colours we use and how many are in a particular painting, all form part of our individual painting style. I was talking to an artist over the weekend who’d been working with some new colours, getting to know which had the degree of opacity she was wanting and which were too translucent. Adding titanium white came up; being so strongly opaque it can shift a transparent colour into translucent, but with the problem that it also lightens a colour.
Might this be counteracted by subsequently glazing over with the transluscent colour to enrich it? But that would add another round to the creation of the painting. More work and more time, as well as a delay in getting where you want to be. Ultimately the answer lies in trying each, in painting up a colour chart, in getting first-hand knowledge of the properties of individual pigments.
If you’re feeling jaded [colour pun intended], have a rethink about the colours on your palette. Do you use mainly transparent or opaque? Are there any you’re no longer using? When last did you try a new one? Do you layer it or physically mix? Are you using too many? In some of my seascapes I’ve used only titanium white, Prussian blue, and raw umber over a cadmium orange ground, though generally there are a few more colours involved, especially when it comes to mixing interesting darks.
I’ve had quite a few rounds with a second version of Listening to Earthworms over the last few days — layering, glazing, blocking out with opaque, wet-on-wet, wet-on-dry — but never getting it working satisfactorily enough. Looking at it today I reminded myself: if it’s not working, don’t tweak but do something drastic. So I took a colour I don’t usually use, black, and ended up with a painting I like.
The change from the beginning to end of today’s session with this painting is shown in the two photos below. I used Golden’s High Flow acrylic, letting it run and encouraging it to spread by spraying water on it. Previous layers had some flow medium in it, which helps fluid paint spread too. Colours: carbon black, titanium white, quinacridone gold and a grey I’d mixed. Scroll down for four detail photos and one showing the texture in the bottom half of the painting, the first two slightly larger than life. I’ve called it “Rooted“.
This possibly the most abstract of my paintings since Seeing Red. It came out of the pondering of my tree paintings I’ve been doing, and a title that popped into my head: “Listening to Earthworms”. It’s now at the leave-it-alone-for-a-while-and-don’t-fiddle-with-it stage. I’ve got another canvas out to pursue some of the ideas that doing this has generated (such as silver birch tree trunks rather than oak browns, stronger contrasts between light and dark in the band of trees, more muted colour overall).
“One of [English landscape painter]Constable’s ‘secrets,’ not lost on Delacroix and other artists, was his method of creating rich, vibrant greens in foliage and grass… by dabs and strokes of several greens. …
“The variations produce scintillation and ‘depth’ because of a certain amount of fusion in the eye of the observer.”
(Source: Calvin Harlan, Vision and Invention: A Course in Art Fundamentals, page 107
Or in Delacroix’s own words, the secret of Constable’s green:
“… lies in the fact that it is composed of a multitude of different greens. The lack of life and intensity in the greenery of the common landscape painters is caused by the fact they usually paint it in a uniform green.”
(Source: Delacroix’s Journal I, 5 March 1847, p281, quoted in Art in Theory 1815-1900, edited by Harrison, Wood, and Gaiger, p980).
Think of hatching for a pencil drawing, where you use tiny lines to build up an area, rather than a solid line or area of blended tone. To do it in paint, use various hues and tones of green overlapping and layered, with specks of what’s below showing through, rather than one ‘perfect green’ only.
If you zoom in on one of the photos of Constable’s paintings on the London National Gallery website, for instance Stratford Mill, you can see how much variation there is in a small area (and not only in the greens!).
The starting point for these three studies was quinacridone gold, a transparent pigment. Spread thinly over white it’s got a rich inner glow. Used thickly it’s surprisingly dark, and mixed with titanium white you’ve got an opaque earthy-red gold. It’s been a while since I’ve used it, and wanted to get familiar with it again. Other colours I used include perelyne black, magenta, ultramarine blue, and burnt umber. Here are the studies side by side for easy comparison:
These three small studies of the colours of the Minch, looking cross towards Harris, were done on 300gsm rough watercolour paper, three sheets placed alongside one another on a large board on my easel. The differences between them aren’t dramatic, but rather they’re studies focusing on the effect of small things, changes made after the initial laying in of colours of possibilities I want to consider. Here they are side by side for easy comparison:
I don’t have a favourite overall, there are pieces from each I will use in a larger painting at some point.