Monday Motivator: No Empty Spaces

Art motivational quote

“The cubists arrived at the idea that there is a continuum between something solid and the surrounding space, so to treat the ’empty’ space as though it too were ‘solid’ would open up a new way of seeing.

“…A river, with such presuppositions, connects rather than separates the two banks, and through its quality of reflection it connects the sky and the earth.”
Wolf Kahn, Wolf Kahn’s America, page 128

The ’emptiness’ in the space between the ground and clouds in a landscape contains the oxygen we breathe, pollen particles, insects flittering, leaves dropping, birds hovering on the invisible, and the list goes on. If you’re painting, how inadequate isn’t a single wash of a single blue for the complexity of what’s there in this ’empty space’? How much more enjoyable the challenge of painting a “sky that tastes of rain” (poet Douglas Dunn) than a “clear blue sky”? But how do you know what to include, what colours and mark making to use? There isn’t a simple recipe, it’s something to experiment with, to explore and develop.

Take that the single “sky blue”, but apply it with a brush that leaves marks. Yes, create streaks in your paint. Embrace the overt mark making rather than fight it or blending it into smoothness. Use streaks convey a sense of movement in the air, or flightpath of a bird. Swirl the brush, don’t go side to side. Then you might let it dry and repeat with a different blue to add variation, to suggest rather than tell. Or before it’s dry dab at it with a scrunched up bit of paper towel or rag to remove random bits of paint to create “clouds”. If you think you’ve removed too much paint, then add some more and do it again. All gone horribly wrong, then wipe most of it off or if it’s dry, glaze over with a semi-opaque pale blue (mix in a bit of titanium white or use white gouache for watercolour) and try again.

Figuring It Out (aka Life Drawing)

I’m away for the weekend for a little creative R&R, on a life drawing/painting workshop being led by Alan McGowan for Art Lochaber. Besides the creative stimulation (and break from the varnishing, stringing and admin for my forthcoming exhibition), I was hoping to build on what I’d done last November. I printed out my notes to myself from that workshop, and did today find myself mentally referring to some points (e.g. positioning the angle of the head by looking at where the mouth was in relation to a mental line drawing across the shoulders). I’m pleased with what I produced, especially the tonal ‘lift-off-the-paint’ Rembrandty one, but as for being less heavy handed with charcoal, well that’s still on my to-be-improved list. Apologies, the photos are mere phone snaps.

3 minute figure gesture drawings
Three gesture drawings; three minute poses. Charcoal on A2.
5 minute figure gesture drawing
Five minute pose. Charcoal on A2.
10 minute gesture life drawing
10 minute pose. Charcoal on A2.
20 minute charcoal figure drawing
20 minute pose. Charcoal on A2.
Life painting with graphite and solvent
Graphite and solvent on acrylic primed paper, plus white oil paint. A2.
Life painting
Working from dark to light. Mixture of burnt sienna and Prussian blue (both transparent pigments) mixed with a little linseed oil to slow drying, on primed paper. Wipeaway with cloth and brush/solvent to get highlights.

A Day for Reflection

Crisp sunshine, ultramarine sky with fluffy white clouds, snow-dusted peaks, no wind… today was the northwest Highlands in tranquil mode. Calming, majestic, mesmerizing. Full of visual puzzles if you look at pieces rather than the whole. So many starting points for abstracted landscape paintings, using pattern and colour from reality rather than painting the postcard view.

Reflections Loch Lochy 1
Loch Lochy
Reflections Loch Lochy 2
Loch Lochy
At Loch Garry


Reflections Cluanie Dam
Cluanie Dam
Reflections Cluanie Dam
Cluanie Dam. Inset photo shows a wider view.
Reflections Cluanie Dam
Cluanie Dam. But for these two taking photos, I would’ve tossed a pebble into the still water; I waited a bit but they weren’t leaving any time soon.
This is my favourite photo from today. It’s taken standing on a bank of Loch Garry, looking down through some trees onto still water reflecting clouds. Inset photo shows the scene looking across the water to the hills on the other side of the loch.


Monday Motivator: Art Holds the Power to Dissolve & Mend

Art motivational quote

“I believe that all great art holds the power to dissolve things: time, distance, difference, injustice, alienation, despair. I believe that all great art holds the power to mend things: join, comfort, inspire hope in fellowship, reconcile us to our selves. …

“We stand before a work of art and our spirit is lifted by it: amazing that someone is like us! We stand before a work of art and our spirit resists: amazing that someone is different!”

Source: The Question of Light, Tilda Swinton speech at the Rothko Chapel when presented with Visionary Award in 2014

An artist friend and I were talking on the weekend about the inevitability of being influenced by the artwork of others, whether you fight against it or whether you absorb and make it something of your own, and how you might do either of these. We may differ in our approaches, but we agree that nothing lifts the spirit like art, both seeing it and creating it.

Paintings-in-Progress: What’s Beneath the Wool

It being so sunny yesterday, I went a’wandering a bit, taking lots of snapshots of snow-covered bits of the Trotternish Ridge, ending up at Skyeworks where I couldn’t resist removing the wool from the paintings in progress. The results are intriguing, and definitely something I’ll do again, not least to see whether I can replicate an effect deliberately. Here are some photos of the results (here are the ‘before’ photos):
Small Paintings in Progress (4 Flow Landscapes)

Small Skye Landscape Painting in Progress (detail)
I’ve brushed off the coarse salt, but haven’t yet washed the residue off with some clean water, so the final result may change.

Small Paintings in Progress (detail)

Paintings-in-Progress: Flow Meets Wool

On Saturday at the ‘creation tables’ at the back of Skyeworks, I experimented with placing a piece of wool onto the canvas to restrict the spread of High Flow acrylics. I put it in places where I’d have drawn a line if I were working in pencil, for instance the top of a ridge or divide between sea and land.

Why wool and not string? No reason other than Skyeworks’ box of crafting bits contains wool not string. I also put masking tape around the edge of the canvas to create a “dam”, so the paint wouldn’t pour off the side if the canvas wasn’t flat. (Note to self: double-check it is stuck all the way around!)

The wool did constrain the paint as I’d hoped, allowing a little colour seepage if the canvas is kept flat, and more if tilted but not as much as if it wasn’t there. Where the wool is the paint dries speckled, as some is absorbed, which adds interesting texture. Bottom right photo shows the result; this was the first canvas I worked on and the paint was just about dry (it being cold, the acrylic dries slowly). The other three I managed to leave to dry thoroughly; it’s a tremendous temptation to tweak and fiddle and? peak under the wool. Top right has some coarse sea salt on it; same idea as with watercolour, that some of the paint will be absorbed to leave interest effects. Bottom? left I used gloss medium along with the paint, and it’s spread differently.

What happens next with these will depend on how I feel about them until I see them again (I left them at Skyeworks) when they’re dry. Might like the result totally, might work a layer or two over the top, might do a lot. I won’t know, which is part of the fun.

Small Paintings in Progress (4 Flow Landscapes)

Monday Motivator: Creative Growth

Art motivational quote

?…the hand you?re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way ? in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments ? everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”
? Professor Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success via Brain Pickings


“With a growth mindset, you believe change is possible and even necessary. You don?t view failures as the end of the world ? you see them as opportunities for learning. You are comfortable with taking risks, and you even seek out calculated risk opportunities. You want to challenge yourself to try something harder, stretch beyond your perceived limits, and go for things others might not think you?re capable of achieving.”

– Barrie Davenport, Growth Mindset: 6 Keys To Unlock Your Potential

Or to quote from a favourite film, Galaxy Quest: “Never give up, never surrender!”

Hope and aim for results, but know there’s work and effort in getting there. Don’t let despair and setbacks prevent you from striving to get somewhere that may seem impossible. There will be wobbly and dark moments, but tomorrow’s a new day and all that, one for continuing on the journey. Some days it feels like you’re going backwards; occasionally you’ll leap like you were on the Moon and create those “wow, did I do that?” pieces.

Happenstance Hills

The setting: Big canvas lying on a plastic storage crate in the centre of the bit of open floorspace of my studio, so I could work flat on it with very fluid paint.

The problem: No space to walk around the canvas. Arms not long enough to reach top of canvas whilst sitting on floor.

The solution: Turn the canvas and paint clouds “upside down” onto the previously painted “dark sky” colour, starting at the top-but-now-the-bottom edge.

The happenstance: As the fluid paint spread it started to form a series of hills on the horizon, which could be the Outer Hebrides viewed over the sea or hills on the far side of a loch.

The photos: Top is how I was seeing it as I was painting it. Bottom is the canvas turned right way up. (Detail photos, not the whole width.)

Painting Clouds or Mountains

I was using Golden’s High Flow Acrylic paint, which I’ve really been enjoying the past few weeks. While it’s not cheap paint it is top artist’s quality (though some pigments do head up into the “gulp” range); the intensity of the colours is astounding and the consistency unlike anything else. It flows yet has a surface tension that holds it, so it behaves differently to acrylic ink. The paint also doesn’t create bubbles when you shake it, which I’ve found happens with DIY flow paint created using flow medium + water + paint.

I’ve been using the paint straight from the bottle, enjoying the intensity of colour and the interactions between colours as they spread and mix into one another. Spraying water over the top encourages the paint to spread, and rapidly shows how level a canvas is, or not! Sticking some masking tape around the sides creates a ‘dam’ to stop the paint dripping off the side.

I can also see great potential for glazing with High Flow acrylics. Some colours in the range are transparent, some opaque; not only do the labels tell you, but on the bigger bottles the nozzle is clear or opaque too, a clever bit of packaging design. But right now I’m entranced by it “straight from the bottle”, and mixing colours in empty bottles.

Remember the Little Yellow Tree Painting?

Remember the painting with the little yellow tree on the riverbank that had been in “pondering mode” for some time (see Does This Painting Need More Sunshine)? Well, it stayed in pondering mode until last week. In the end I did very little too it, only adding some extra white to the river. I found that as the days got longer and mid-winter darkness receded, the painting revealed more and more colour, and it was indeed nearly finished.

Now all it needs is a title; I’m hearing “The Little Tree That Could” in my head for not-quite fathomable reasons, but think that something like “Flowing Past” would be a better fit for my “Flow” exhibition. Any suggestions? But please not “A River Flows Through It”; when I worked as sub-editor at Getaway travel magazine photojournalists loved that almost as much as the word “experience” (as in “dining experience”, “bush experience”, “4×4 experience”).

Here’s a photo of the painting overall, and below that a detail that’s about lifesize (click on it to see the photo bigger).

Yellow Tree: Flowing Past painting
Size: Size 1x1m.
Detail from Yellow Tree: Flowing Past
Detail from “the little yellow tree” painting

Monday Motivator: Returning to a Subject

Art motivational quote

“Chaos in nature is immediately challenging and forces a good artist to impose some type of order on his or her perception of a site. When I find a scene that provides that type of challenge, I return to it over and over again, both physically and mentally in the studio, continually searching for new insights.?
— Wolf Kahn
Quote source: ?A studio visit with Wolf Kahn?, American Artist, May 1997

The position of the sun on its annual and daily geographical journeys, the density or absence of clouds, whether these are loaded with drizzle, rain, sleet, snow or merely threatening as they are driven along the Minch by wind, how fast the wind changes the patterns of light and shadow… the windows I look through every day may show the same bit of landscape but it is never the same. There are similar conditions and occasions, but never identical. Familiar but different, both in the looking and painting.

New images and emotional responses are added to my memories. My starting inspiration changes. In the icy weather we’ve been having I’ve seen a tantalizing cobalt teal layer on the sea, over dark Prussian blue depths and below clouds that become bottom-heavy with deep greys (Prussian blue + burnt umber + titanium white) then streak down, hiding the sea in a glaze of sleet. As I write this there’s low cloud hiding the horizon, the divide between sea and sky; if I were painting it’d be time to reach for some more titanium white to lighten the grey.