Every drawing should tell a story, the tale of the looking, the seeing, and the making. …the drawing is as much about the artist as it is about what is being drawn.”
Drawing Projects by Mick Maslen & Jack Southern, page 20
The “tale of the looking” are the lines/marks in a drawing that have led to the final drawing. The lines in the wrong places, the imperfections, the hesitations. Don’t erase to eliminate, but leave an echo which will add to the final drawing. Drawings that show how they were created, what the artist looked at and how they progressed, end up far more interesting than neat, clinical, faultless drawings. Drawings with individual personality rather than drawings with bland facelift perfection.
Drawing Tip: If you can’t help but desire that every wrong mark is eradicated, then work without an eraser. Start with light pencil marks and move slowly towards darker as you find the “right lines”. Try working with a hard pencil, such as a 2H, initially, then swapping to a 2B.
I spent yesterday sketching in the sunshine at various locations on the north of the Trotternish Peninsula. Starting at that favourite of spots, the slipway at Camus Mor, looking westwards, towards the rocky shore and cliffs:
Then north a bit, to a viewpoint looking towards the ruins of Duntulm Castle. When the tide is out, the distant part of the shore is flat slabs of rock rather than pebbles.
Then round to Staffin beach, sitting where I could see the river running into the sea:
Watched, as ever, by some munching sheep:
Then over the Quiraing to a viewpoint overlooking Uig/Idigrill, focusing on the sea and distant cliffs(but just look at all those variations of green!):
And for those interested, a photo of what I was using. My palette with Sennelier watercolours (which I love for the saturated colour but are honey-based and in the hot sunshine it’s crucial to keep the palette flat or the paint seeps out of their allocated slots making a sticky mess!), water container, pencil box with black pen, pencil, few watersoluble coloured pencils, and brushes that fit into it. Not shown: bottle with clean water for both me and rinsing my brushes. Also not shown: quite a few less satisfactory resolved sketches!
“Hi Marion, how do you put texture on your paintings? All my paintings look like an illustration, flat. I´m a graphic designer, so I want to learn how to paint with textures. Do you use gesso or paste?” — Giulianna C.
I use acrylic texture paste, most often applied it when I plan the initial composition but not always. My current favourite is Golden’s light modelling paste. I like it because it dries as an absorbent matte rather than gloss, so further layers of paint adhere well to it. Also, as the name implies, it doesn’t add much weight to the painting, which is important when it comes to hanging large canvases on a wall.
With this particular texture paste there’s not much shrinkage as it dries, which is important, otherwise you end up having to apply several layers. (I used to love Winsor & Newton’s matt gel, but had a couple of tubs of it that shrank to almost flat when dry, so have stopped using it). I use acrylic paint over it, but it’s suitable underneath oils too.
Sometimes I’ll mix in a colour before I apply it if it’s at the start of a painting, which does help you see where you’ve applied it! If it’s a later layer in a painting I always mix in colour as the paste dries white not clear.
I apply it either with a knife or cheap, rough-haired wide brush, spreading/brushing it around, tapping against the surface, scratching into it — anything goes really to create an effect. Don’t use a good brush as it’s hard on the bristles and tedious to wash out thoroughly.
Drying time depends on how thickly it’s used and how hot it is. In a breeze on a sunny day it dries in a coffee break. Midwinter, I leave it overnight. How do I tell if it’s dried yet? Nothing scientific, I poke at it.
“There are always new emotions in going back to something that I know very well. I suppose this is very odd, because most people have to find fresh things to paint.”
— Andrew Wyeth, quoted in The Helga Pictures, page 94
Being familiar with a subject isn’t the same as knowing everything about it. On the contrary, I think the more you paint it the more you discover. In landscape painting, weather, season and time of day all have an impact on what you’re looking at. Your own mood influences your perceptions on that day. It’s never identical.
A painting need not be one moment in time, but various moments, combining observations, experiences, and memories into one image.
One of the first things we learn about colour theory when starting to paint is that mixing a yellow and a blue produces a green. Followed quickly by the discovery the result depends not only on the proportions of the yellow:blue mix, but also which specific yellow and blue pigments are involved. Thus begins the quest for the perfect green, which I think ends only if you decide not to paint verdant landscapes.
1. The Easy Mix: Adding a Blue or Yellow to a Green Adjust an existing green by adding another blue or yellow to it. (It’s not cheating!) Take some of the blue you’re using for the sky or sea or yellow from the sun to shift a tube green to better fit that particular landscape painting. Tip: For a sense of early morning and late afternoon light, make your greens more golden yellow.
2. The Physical Mix: Blue and Yellow
Mix a blue with a yellow and you’ve a green. Vary the proportions and you’ve variations of that green. Mix the same blue with another yellow, and you’ve another green and yet more variations. Repeat through all the blue and yellow pigments we as painters have available to us, and you’ve all sorts of greens that become tricky to keep track of without creating a colour chart. Stick initially with a few blues/yellows until you know exactly what they’re going to do in a mix, then more onto other pigments; let the knowledge become instinctive through practice. Tip: A little blue with shift the colour of a yellow more than the equivalent yellow in a blue.
3. The Optical Mix: Glazing
Glazing with blue over yellow or yellow over blue will also create green. An optical mix, where the layers of colour mix as we look at them, rather than a physical mix. The result can be richer, with more depth, than a single layer of a mixed colour. Tip: Glaze over a mixed green if it turns out not to be exactly as you want it rather than trying to remove it.
4. The Secret Mix: Black and Yellow
Instead of a blue, use a black with yellow to mix earthy dark green. It seems unlikely, but you’ll be surprised at the result! My favourite is perylene black (Pbk31) which is often called perylene green because it has a strong green undertone to it. Remember, as with blues and yellows, different blacks and yellows produce different results, so experiment and make notes of what’s in the mixtures. Tip: A little titanium white can help make the green more evident in a black:yellow mixture.
5. The Neutralizing Mix: Add Anything and Everything to a Green
If you add a red (the complementary colour to green) or a purple to a green you get useful grey- and brown-greens, which have all sorts of uses especially in landscape paintings. If you’re not feeling adventurous, first try using orange instead of yellow with blue. Tip: Try it for greens in shadow areas.
Know What You’re Using
If you want to be able to repeat what you’re doing, check the paint tube label to see what pigment(s) is in a colour. Especially if you’re using different brands where the same colour names may not contain the same pigments. Check whether it’s a single-pigment green or a mixed green. It’s important because the more colours you have in a mixture, the sooner you end up with your brush in mud (brownish rather than vibrant mixtures).
On Saturday someone asked me what gouache was. As I was explaining it’s like watercolour but opaque paint not transparent, they got stuck on “how can paint be transparent when it’s a colour?” It’s not the first time I’ve encountered the misunderstanding that transparent means colourless (like reading glasses) rather than having colour but still allowing what’s beneath or behind it to show through (like sunglasses).
Watercolour is a transparent in that layers of watercolour paint allow what’s beneath it to show through. How much shows varies, depending on the properties of a pigment and how thickly/thinly you’re using it. The more water you’ve added to the paint, the thinner the colour will be and thus the greater the transparency.
Traditional gouache is used with water, like watercolour, but is inherently opaque and matt, covering over what’s been painted underneath. The result has quite a different feel to it: flatter, more solid colours. The exception is what is sold as white watercolour paint, which has opaque properties; it’s often called Chinese white, sometimes titanium white.
It’s the transparent nature of watercolour that enables you to build up rich colours with a sense of depth, layer by layer. To darken tones by applying another layer of the same colour. To ‘mix’ colours on the paper rather than on your palette, such as creating a green by painting blue over yellow or a purple with red over blue. (To put it into artspeak: optical mixing rather than physical mixing.)
The opaque nature of traditional gouache enables you to add detail to a watercolour late in its development, for instance grass in the foreground, or for overworking areas that have gone wrong. Do have a go at a complete painting with gouache alone at least once as it’s a different beast to watercolour. Or “fake it” by adding some white to all your watercolour colours; the colours will be less saturated but it’ll give you a feel for it.
These two lines have been generating images in my mind since I came across them on the Scottish Poetry Library’s website. (Poetry is visual and emotional life put into words; it helps show the world anew. Like art, you have to hunt around for the bits that’ll resonate with you.)
In paint, there’d be a some “rain colour” in the sky, and some “sky colour” in the rain. Or perhaps a “mother color”, which is a color used in every mixed color in a painting (it may itself be mixed or a single pigment colour). I’m mostly seeing is as combinations of two favourite colours — Prussian blue and burnt umber. Together with white, these produce beautiful greys.
Adding a fourth colour will give a sense of season and time of day. Sounds like a series… Prussian blue, burnt umber, titanium white plus one other until I’ve worked my way through all my paint tubes. Or perhaps “plus one other and whatever yesterday’s other was”.
Delving into the tweeds my fabric stash I was reminded how mesmerizing the subtle colour variations in the threads and patterns are. I had to keep telling myself I was supposed to be in sewing mode not colour-study mode.
I ended up creating a handful of small tweed zip bags and a larger bag featuring a patchwork kitty I rediscovered. Most of my tweeds come from Harris, a few from Skye Weavers, and some from the mysterious depths of my stash.
As for the fluorescent zips, these and using different tweeds on either side are an attempt at a point of difference, rounded off with my new studio metal tags and fluorescent orange sew-in labels. Definitely not subtle colours.
Whenever you find yourself thinking “I can’t do it” or “I don’t know how” add a three-letter word to your mental dialogue. Add the word “yet”. Say “I can’t do it, yet” and “I don’t know how, yet“.
Give yourself permission to spend time learning, as well as to stumble and fail while you strive. Abandon the expectation that it ought to come easily (whatever that “it” is) and use the fear of failure as motivation to continue rather than quitting or not trying at all. Learn to “Fail better”1, be open to “what if I…” curiosity.
In the same interview that yesterday’s motivator quote was taken from, artist Alan McGowan mentions the Zen philosophy of a “beginners mind”, saying it is
“not easy to do and it’s quite scary because there’s always the chance that it will not work at all, that it will turn into a big mess… There can be an expectation from others that one should always be successful, that a picture should in some way be an expression of expertise, especially as I teach as well. But that’s a bit of a trap. The risk of failure is for me an important part of the whole process of painting (and drawing) and so you want to keep that possibility open; that it could all collapse.”
Stop caring so much about it looking to others as if you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re busy learning and discovering as you go along, so you do indeed not always know whether what you’re doing will be successful. But the end product (a “good painting”) isn’t the sole objective, and often not relevant at all. Having an intriguing and interesting journey is also an objective. A drawing/painting that’s about observation, about the process and techniques, not about ending up with a pretty picture.
A beginner’s mind means: 1. Focusing on the moment. What might be the next step in a painting’s creation. Not obsessing about what the finished painting will be.
2. Endurance. Sticking with it, layer after layer. Don’t be preciously protective about any “good bits” in every single drawing and painting. (Ideally none, but that’s near impossible.)
3. Embracing uncertainty and working through it. Don’t habitually erase and restart; go forwards not backwards.
4. Enjoying the journey. Enjoy the art materials you’re using and try different paints, papers, brushes, colours etc. to find new favourites and fall in love anew.
5. Being patient and impatient. Grant yourself time to learn while being constantly eager to learn more.