I’d headed out to recharge the batteries of my visual memory for my next cliff edge painting, a composition idea that’s been bouncing around my head but needed clarifying before I started. Sitting at the seashore listening to waves lapping and pebbles rolling, staring up at cliffs, in bright sunshine lulled me into looking and listening more than sketching (see short video of the scene).
It’s all to easy to worry about not getting good sketches done, and several of them, especially if it’s somewhere you might never return to, but these memories of a location are as important as sketches and reference photos. Back in the studio they pull you back into the joys of the location, and it’s this enjoyment of a landscape that adds the intangible extra to a painting that resonates with a viewer.
Sitting staring out to see isn’t “doing nothing”, though it may seem that way to onlookers. It’s part of the job.
I had promised the in-house art critic I wouldn’t touch this painting for a week (this is where I left it) but looking at it at lunchtime I knew what I would do next, and we’d discussed it extensively, so I played the exception card. (The rule being: don’t fiddle with a painting that is unresolved, wait until you have something definite in mind.)
First up, I darkened the sea, particularly the lower section, using Prussian blue mixed with varying quantities of glazing medium. I wanted what was already there to still show through, hence the glazing medium. Then I added a bit more white on top again at the shoreline. Using leftover white mixed with glazing medium, I introduced some mist. I did this in two rounds, starting cautiously, asking the in-house art critic’s opinion, then adding some more. There are also a few more sheep and some birds, though too small to see in this photo.
I’m now back into “don’t touch it mode”, pondering whether it’s finished or not. I suspect it might be.
The appearance of an egg box at a nearby croft has made me ponder trying painting with egg tempera again. According to Cennini’s Craftsman’s Handbook (first published in 1437 and still in print!) the yolks of country eggs are redder than town eggs, and good for making blue paint. So perfect for painting seascapes, as I’m wont to do.
“I battle to create a really acceptable picture, I study as much as I can, and never seem to improve. Is it possible there may be a person that can just never learn?”– Jillian P
There are things each of us finds harder to learn, certainly, and things we’ll never master to our satisfaction (not least because the goalposts have a habit of moving as we progress). Sticking at it without getting caught up in frustration can be tough.
Make a list to break down what you mean by “improve”, taking it further and further until you’ve got bite-sized bits to chew on. Pinpoint exactly what you feel your drawings/painting lack, then tackle it systematically and from multiple directions.
For instance, if the top level of your wishlist is “paint more realistically”, take a subject, say landscape. Then take a single element of this, say a tree. What kind of tree? An oak, or jacaranda, or boabab… whatever species you have growing nearby that you can see with your own eyes. What makes a tree: the trunk, branches, leaves, texture of the bark, overall shape. Look at these individually, the components not the whole.
Sit with a sketchbook and pencil, draw a line following the direction of one side of the trunk from ground level up. Look at the tree as much as the page.? Then the other side. Wander the pencil line amongst the branches. Look at the negative space. Contemplate what mark making will convey the sense of the bark (this may take you off on a tangent for a while studying mark-making). Keep colour and light/dark for another day. Do not aim to make good drawings, these are drawings about observation, not about “it looks like an oak tree”.
Make notes about what you see and feel. These help build visual memories and develop observation. Some pages of my sketchbook have more words than sketchlines.
Move from line into drawings with a sense of 3D by adding light/dark. Tree trunks and branches are cylinders, so draw the tree like a series of tubes, and apply tone accordingly. Next day, combine character lines and tubes to convey more realistic branches. Break down the journey to a painted tree in similar small steps: colours seen, mixing these, tones, brushmarks.
Sometimes it might be a shift in materials that helps. For instance I battle not to go in heavy-handed and dark too early on in a drawing. Starting with a 2H helps as it can’t produce very dark lines, as does using a propelling 2B or 4B pencil as this only produces lines of a certain thickness. Only late in the drawing do I swap to a “normal” pencil.
Be systematic, and aim small to build the bigger picture. Identifying what you’re aiming to achieve is a step along the path of getting there. You may ultimately never get where you want to be, but if you give up now you’ll definitely never getting there.
This painting is inspired by the cliffs at Rubha Hunish, working from my sketches, reference photos and memories of the location. The top photo is where the painting was this morning; the second where it is now.
I had two aims when I picked up my brushes today: to increase the tonal contrast by adding strong darks and fix the shape of the lower cliff which was too perfectly curved. When I downed brushes I felt I’d fixed the latter somewhat, but it still needs further work. The tonal contrast I will ponder in better daylight, as well as consider whether I should add some blue back into the sky.
Part of me is itching to change the weather in the painting to misty, to make everything more ethereal. Or perhaps have the weather coming in from one side. Doing this would involve titanium white and glazing medium, perhaps adding a little retarder to give me time to wipe it off should I change my mind. I think part of the desire to do this is the muted moodiness of my Trying to Snow painting, where I knocked back the colour with thin white.
If you’re wondering how I achieved the vertical dribbles in the sea (which I feel evokes a memory of rain as well as enhancing the sense of movement), it was by letting paint from the cliffs run all the way down to the bottom of the canvas over the still-wet sea area, removing the colour. Later, when it was dry, I’ve painted another layer over this area.
Another thing I want to add are lots of seabirds flying around the cliffs, as well as several more sheep grazing. If you look carefully, you’ll see these two above the lower cliff, at the right.
We don’t measure the quality of a meal only by the time it took to make, believing the longer it takes the better is inherently is. It’s the end result that’s judged, though the time is an aspect we may think about as we eat it and certainly plays its part in the quality of the end result.
When someone asks “how long did it take you to paint?”, don’t answer the question. It’s an invitation to engage them about the painting, and youself. Say a couple of things about what was involved in creating it, your inspiration, technique, favourite aspects. (Who doesn’t have a favourite bit in a painting that you’re particularly pleased about that you could point too?)
For many people the question is more a statement of enjoyment of the painting than anything, a safe way to talk to an artist without embarrassing themselves. (The underlying fear is that liking a painting isn’t enough, you must know something about art to appreciate a painting. Not true, of course.) If you answer the question straight away, the conversation is over and they’ll move on.
Would you ever ask “How long did it take you to make this cake?” or would you say “What’s in this cake?”
“Art is communication in some way, whether we want it to, plan for it to, or do not . Our thoughts, attitudes, emotional states while working, beliefs, and so on will impact our work. So even if we paint the same still-life as a bunch of other people, our own imprint will be on our image of it.”
— Beth Peterson
That we can’t change our mind about a mark made in a painting simply by hitting an undo button teaches us persistence, tenacity, endurance, problem solving. “Keep going” is hardly the most inspiring of advice (especially in an era of quick fixes and instant gratification) but it is an artistic truth.
It also presents opportunities.
The fortuitous event, or happy accident, such as how the black ink has spread at the base of the jacket this model was wearing, suggesting shadow and adding a sense of movement.
Overworked, ‘mistakes’ in lower layers can become intriguing little details peeping through, and enrich colours.
The floor shifting, as if a floorboard were about to give way. The horizon moving up and down, as if bobbing in a small boat at sea or driving along a corrugated dirt road. Migraine-warning visual interference, without the headache. These are memories of sensations on seeing Bridget Riley’s paintings. The huge ones, which fill your field of vision. As I look, suddenly, the lines and colours, which had been static patterns, start to shimmer, to dance. Artistic magic. Trying to read the words of yesterday’s art quote gives a glimmer of the shimmering sensation; to my eyes anyway.