Deciding What to Sketch: Cloudy Cliffs

Faced with a landscape with many possibilities, how do I decide what to sketch? Take this example, a picnic spot a little south of Struan, where I was on Sunday. To the right there’s an inlet with boats, to the left a sequence of headlands and a lighthouse, looking down a colourful rocky shoreline.

How to decide what to sketch

I’ll look around, but most likely go back to what got my attention initially, what do I find most striking or dramatic or appealing? That’s what I’ll sketch first; other possibilities might become further sketches, depending on time and the weather, or saved as a location to revisit another day.

In this instance, it was the tall, dark cliff in the far distance (not quite as far as the wide angle of this photo makes it seem), and the splash of white that was the small lighthouse in the middle distance. As the clouds moved, the light on the distant cliff changes; sometimes darker, sometimes lighter and revealing more. I’ll definitely come back here on a sunnier day for another look.
How to decide what to sketch

Sketching View near Struan, Skye

Monday Motivator: Touches of Colour

Art motivational quote“The freedom of Eardley’s gestural painting in her landscapes is contained within very well thought-out compositions. The use in all her paintings of brilliant touches of colour in key positions shows her schooled eye for balance and dynanism.”
Source: Joan Eardley by Fiona Pearson, National Galleries of Scotland p9

Brilliant in thoughtfully positioned and in intensity of colour. To take one example from the paintings Scottish artist Joan Eardley: look at the reds on the chimneys of a painting titled Snow. Then at the yellow in the bottom right-hand corner, which is echoed in the central foreground. Muted to an earthy, ochre yellow it dances across the landscape, ending mixed with the red as a touch of orange in the distant cloud.

Small touches of colour that change the whole mood of a painting, and pull your eye across the composition. Did Eardley plan the placement and choice of the beforehand or did it evolve? I imagine a bit of both. Ultimately it doesn’t matter when it was decided, only that it was.

Painting in Progress: Grazing the Loch (Part 2)

So, at the end of another day’s painting, this is how Grazing the Loch looks (this was it yesterday). The weather’s got a bit windier, creating white horses on the sea and blowing in a bit of mist. Some daisies have also popped up in the grass. You can’t see it in the photos, but the cliff edge in the distance has some iridescent silver and gold on it, part of an underlayer; it shows if there’s side light. It’s now at the “Am I there yet?” stage, where I ponder it.

Work-in-Progress: Grazing the Loch Shore. Size: 120x60cm
Work-in-Progress: Grazing the Loch Shore.
Size: 120x60cm

Detail: Grazing the Loch Shore sheep painting

Detail: Grazing the Loch Shore sheep painting

Update: I showed it to the couple who commissioned it, and they love it. So now just to tidy up the edges and varnish it.

Painting in Progress: Grazing the Loch

I’m waiting for the paint to dry on this before I have another round with it. My fingers are itching to fix the all-to-neat alignment of the shoreline and sheep heads, but first the paint needs to dry. I also need to decide whether to add a cloud in the sky to cast the shadow on the distant hilltop, or lighten it. Plus all the other additions, tweaks, adjustments, not-yet-put-in-ideas bouncing around my head. And deciding whether it’ll have daisies or buttercups in the foreground. Perhaps a few poppies for a splash of red? Are we there yet? Is it dry yet…?

Work-in-Progress: Grazing the Loch Shore
Work-in-Progress: Grazing the Loch Shore.
Size: 120x60cm
Commissioned painting

Part 2: Are We There Yet?

Two Mini Minches

I’ve been painting on a small scale again, on 7×5″ canvas (about 18x12cm). These two “mini Minch” seascapes are a memory of some of the wild weather I’ve watched blow across the view, where white horses churn up deep Prussian blue. Available from Skyeworks Gallery, ?35 each.

2 Mini Minch Paintings

Monday Motivator: Intentional Effort

Art motivational quote“Monet sometimes worked up to sixty times on the same painting…

“…building up his textures in stages, and then strategically scumbling, overpainting and glazing them

“…calculated and intentional effort

“…myth of Monet’s apparently mindless spontaneity

“…Monet’s painting was the product of a consciousness deeply committed to its own material and emotional resources and aware that viewers, to one degree or another, had resources as well.”
Source: Monet and Modernism page 136/7

A painting looking spontaneous, random, quickly done and effortless all too easily belies what’s gone into this result. As it should, because the artistic effort shouldn’t be what the viewer is most aware of as they look at a painting.

Rather it’s revealed by the painting changing as the light conditions vary, emphasising different layers and altering the optical mixing. By a painting seeming one thing from a distance and another at arm’s length. Rewarding close looking, showing you more the more you look. There are layers of thought, memory, experience, and time, as well as the paint.

Painting Techniques: Scumbling

Painting Techniques: Scumbling
Don’t be this harsh with a new brush!

Scumbling is a painting technique where a broken, thin layer of colour is applied over another, letting patches of what’s underneath show through. The result is visually stimulating and textural, producing a sense of depth and interesting colour variations.

Scumbling can be done with any paint, using a dry brush (very little paint on a brush, not a soggy, well-loaded brush), or by dabbing at the surface with a rough sponge or crumpled cloth dipped in a little paint. Also with dry mediums such as pastel, lightly dragging a soft pastel (the softer the better) held on its side across the top to add a broken covering of a new colour.

It might help to think of the technique as tickling the surface, or using up the last little bits of paint in the brush, leaving behind fragments of colour. Or if you prefer to be vigorous, scrubbing at a painting with a not-quite-clean brush.

Work on the top surface of the painting, the top of texture ridges, the tops of the canvas fibres, not filling in ditches. And on dried paint, not wet, so the scumbled paint sits on top rather than mixing in. Rather go over an area again than start with too much paint.

Scumbling Tips:

  • Wipe a brush dry after rinsing, dip it into a bit of paint, then dab it on a cloth to remove most of the paint. It can feel wasteful, but practice teaches you to get less on a brush. Remember you can also dip your brush into this wiped-off paint rather than fresh paint on your palette.
  • It helps if the paint is stiff as it doesn’t spread as easily when you apply it.
  • Holding a cloth around the brush hairs at the ferrule end will help pull moisture out of the brush without removing the pigment.

Passing Place

Passing on the way from the hairdressers?
(For those who haven’t encountered one, the diamond-shaped roadsign indicates a passing place on a single-track road. More modern versions are small white squares with the words “passing place”, which I find aren’t as easy to spot from a distance when driving. This photo was taken on the lower part of the Quiraing Road on the Staffin side.)

Passing place sign with sheep on Isle of Skye

Considering Canvas

  • I’m an artist and want to start selling my work, but I am on a budget. I want to paint on stretched canvas, but the artist quality ones are too expensive. I was thinking of buying a high quality student canvas and priming it more so it could become an artist quality canvas. Will this make a difference? Is there a difference between student and artist quality canvas? — Ruth

As with paint, there is a difference between student and artist’s quality canvas, but there are good mid-price canvases to be found. When buying ready-made canvas consider:

Weave of the canvas in a painting
A detail photo showing how paint gathers between the threads of the canvas (if you look closely)

What is the weight of the canvas? Economy canvas may be a lighter weight (thickness)s, 7oz instead of 10 or 12oz. With larger paintings and ones with a lot of texture paste or collaged elements added, heavier canvas will be more resistant to tearing.

How prominent is the weave? How thick or noticeable are the threads of the fabric? On smaller paintings, portraits, and detailed subjects you don’t want the grain to intrude, be one of the first things you notice when you look at a painting. It’s why portrait painters often use fine linen canvas which has a very tight weave. Primer will fill in the weave to some extent, especially if it’s several layers, as will thick paint.

How well has it been primed? Look at the quality of primer/gesso, how many layers and how smooth it is. At it’s worst it’s thin and rough. With oil paint, primer is essential for longevity as it protects the fabric from the oils in oil paint. With acrylics, you can paint directly onto bare, unprimed canvas, though paint does soak in more as it’s an absorbent rather than sealed surface. On cheaper canvas Using acrylics to create a coloured ground rather than adding additional primer is also an option, even with oils (provided the acrylic isn’t too glossy). I’ve encountered instances of acrylic not sticking in places (and, yes, it was one primed for acrylics), with white specks appearing; adding some glazing medium to the paint solved the problem. Ultimately it’ll all be covered with paint and no-one but you will know; experimentation will teach you what kind of surface you like.

Has the canvas been stretched straight, tightly, and evenly? Eyeball the fabric where it goes around the stretchers, to see if it’s been pulled skew or not. On small canvases it’s not really a problem if you’re going to hide it under thick paint, but on large it’s again a longevity issue as it adds extra strain to the fabric (and it may eventually rip). Is it pulled unevenly or sag at the corners?

Where are the staples and has the fabric been folded neatly at the corners? Is it stapled at the back (where you don’t see them once the painting is hung) or the sides (which will show unless you frame the painting)?

What wood has been used for the stretchers and how thick is it? Very lightweight and thin stretchers are liable to warp. Pine stretchers with knots may seep (though I’ve only seen this a few times). Are the stretchers flat or do they slope away from the edge so a brush doesn’t hit it as you paint? I’ve had problems with large (1x1m) budget canvases warping as the wood dried out in a hot summer, as well as with warping due to the canvas being stretch too tightly on a couple of mid-sized canvases that were supposedly artist’s quality.

On large sizes: how many additional struts to help prevent warping?

Always look for discounts on offer if you buy in bulk (a boxful) rather than only one or two at a time.When comparing prices, factor in the cost of extra primer and the time it takes to apply; it may be false economy.

You can also save money by stretching your own canvas, particularly if you make the stretcher bars yourself. Get a length of 2×1″ from a DIY store (check it’s straight!), mitre cut lengths, use corrugated nails (inch-long zig-zag bits of metal, a bit like a crinkle-cut crisp) to join them,?sand down the inside edge of the stretcher (so your brush doesn’t bump up against it every time), then stretch canvas over it. A pair of canvas pliers and staple gun are definitely worthwhile investments, and it’s considerably easier if someone strong is helping you. Look for a roll of canvas at a fabric shop rather than art supplies, it can be cheaper.

What I Use: Ready-made canvas in a few different sizes, mostly wide-edge rather than standard. The brand depends on the best offer at the time.? I also sometimes buy stretcher bars to make up larger canvases, and at one stage did make my own from scratch, but applying several layers of primer is even less interesting than watching paint dry.