Awake early, I made a wirework bracelet with a few of the small pieces of seaglass I found yesterday. Going to wander down to beach again this morning to see if I can spot any more.
Second day of Alan McGowan’s “Life Drawing into Life Painting”workshop saw us start with three charcoal drawings, both as warm-ups and to increase the number of drawings we do overall during the week.
Next up, tonal painting with acrylics. My attempt went from “dubious but with a sense of light” to “decidedly dubious and now also dull” (my words, not the tutor’s!). I put this attempt into the “trying too hard” category, where I get so desperate for things not go wrong further that of course things do.
Then onto a colour acrylic painting. Colour…I can do colour, can’t I…?! Yes, but can I do composition, proportions, tone, considered mark making, warm and cool, colour and a living, breathing model…?
And finally the initial drawing in acrylics for an oil painting to be done over the next three afternoons. Idea is that if you end up in a murky oil-paint mess, you can scrape back to this acrylic start. The more I look at this photo, the more I see how his legs/arms need adjusting.
Notes to myself:
- Remember head and neck sit within the bowl of the shoulders, it’s not a lollipop stuck on top. Check position and check again! Think of dotted line joining the two shoulders, and what facial feature this goes through. For instance, bottom of chin or nose, or the mouth. Check relationship to spine and vertical relationships (with pelvis/feet) to check position.
- Follow the progression: composition, gesture (armature), add the destinations (head, feet, elbows/hands) in probable positions, find the road between the destinations (focus on mass not outline), cross-check the map (check relations between body parts), adjust and repeat, and only when this is sound start looking at tone.
- Add eyes, nose, and planes around eyes early on for a sense of scale overall.
- Be deliberate, decisive, find and loose edges with considered looking.
- Four considerations not two, especially with orange light on model from heater: warm highlights, warm shadows, cool highlights, cool shadows.
- Most of the painting will be midtone.
- Eliminate the unwanted light of the paper fairly early one, all the way to the edges; it distracts the eye.
- Traditionally a dark background would be done with glazed layers not thick paint, which is reserved for light tones.
- Turner’s known for his landscapes, not his figures.
First day of Alan McGowan‘s “Life Drawing into Life Painting” workshop saw us working with tone only. Started with charcoal, gesture line and block drawings, then longer charcoal drawing.
Next up: graphite stick, white oil paint and solvent on acrylic painted coloured ground. Graphite with white mixes to cool grey. Wiping off paint reveals warmish ground. Get highlights with white or by wiping off; darks from graphite.
Start with graphite drawing, then go over with big brush with solvent, remembering that lots of graphite will turn very dark. Then smaller brush with white paint (50:50 titanium:zinc to give something with properties like lead white ie opaque where thick, transparent where thin) and cloth for lifing off. First time I’ve done this, and really enjoyed it.
Next up: Reductive painting technique, working from dark to light. On cartridge paper primed with 50:50 PVA:water to give a less absorbent, more slippery surface, cover with dilute Van Dyck brown hue mixed with solvent and linseed oil to give an even, dark layer (not a thin, transparent, glazed layer). Use cloth to wipe off paint, lighter tones. Solvent on cloth will take you back to white of paper.
This is a bad photo, taken under strip lights which make contrast much greater and glare on wet paint. It’s a technique that can produce fabulously subtle, gentle tones.
Notes to myself:
- Make curvier lines on gesture-drawing (armature level of drawing), not so angular. Perhaps exaggerate somewhat to counteract subsequent straightening up of figure and check angle on torso more as working.
- Use gesture drawing as armature, building outwards; don’t start at outlines.
- Don’t be so heavy handed with the charcoal, being too dark too early and harder to rework.
- Remember to look for lightest tones, and more variations in midtones.
- Limit quantity of lightest/darkest tones and it can be more effective.
- Put in shoulders and feet in pairs, not separately.
- Balance gestural markmaking with small areas of detail.
- Anchor figure to surface.
I’m in Gardenstown on the east coast, at Creative Retreat, for a week’s figure painting workshop led by Alan McGowan, the artist whose Anatomy for Artists workshop I did in February. It’s a picturesque village on a steep hillside, a mixture of renovated, being-renovated and sea-worn. The buildings are crammed on top of one another, everything looks down onto and into everything, with numerous sets of steps inbetween.
Following on from Lower Your Expectations When Sketching, here’s a list of things I typically do with a sketchbook (besides sketching in it).
1. Start a new sketchbook by writing my name, email and website on the inside of the front cover, in case I forget it somewhere, in the hope that whoever finds it would return it. I haven’t yet lost one, and hope I never do, but be prepared and all that.
2. Never start on the first page. Nor the second. Nor the third. There’s too much pressure for the early pages of a new sketchbook to have “good sketches” so I start randomly towards the middle or back.
3. Regularly work from back to front, rather than front to back. After all, there’s no rule that pages must be done sequentially like a book, and it supplements #2.
4. Add the date and location to pages, a small note in the corner. It helps put me back into that time/place, and helps me keep track of where/when given I don’t work sequentially in a sketchbook.
5. Use words. Writing descriptions of what I’m seeing or feeling, something I want to remember I’d noticed. Sometimes it’s because it’s faster or easier than sketching, sometimes because I’m out of time, sometimes because the words come more readily to me.
6. Use large clips, top and bottom, to separate wet pages. That way I can continue working without waiting for paint to dry, or worrying about pages sticking together.
7. Never tear out a ruined page, but keep it as a reminder there’s a balance between not giving up in defeat too early and being ready to start anew before I get too irritated with myself, to risk overworking some sketches if they’re not working, to push them further and see if I can rescue what’s already a dud, even if it ends up a total mess.
8. Tear out and mount sketches I think work well and may sell (as ‘originals on paper’). Not every pleasing sketch; many I will always keep for myself and some I keep until after I’ve used it to paint a studio version. I do also take a photograph so I’ve always got a reminder of it.
9. Don’t worry about wasting pages by not working on both sides of each sheet if I am pleased with one overleaf. Sketchbooks aren’t really that expensive if you calculate it in terms of cups of coffee and slices of cake.
10. Don’t consider about how it might appear to others. I’m happy to let others look at my sketchbooks (these days; I wasn’t always), but my sketchbook is first and foremost for me. If it seems chaotic in places, well so is my brain at times.
Update 7 December 2019: The one thing that’s changed in the years since I wrote this list is #8, as I paint a lot more on location on loose sheets of watercolour paper than in a sketchbook. It enables me to work on 350gsm paper, and in turns eliminates the need for #6.
Update 3 April 20201: Instead of using one sketchbook for everything, I’ve started using one for general studio thoughts and experiments, and others for specific locations that I visit repeatedly. I’ve also been enjoying the format of concertina sketchbooks (see Long & Short, and Concertina Daisies).
I’ve been vacillating with “Magenta Trees” since I took it to the dark side (see What Happened Next With ?Magenta Trees?), some days liking it as it is and others thinking it needed something more still. In bright light you’d see the variations in colours, but on duller days it was very dark indeed.
Enter iridescent white…
While I like it more, it’s back into pondering mode again as I decide whether there wants to be a touch of opaque white (titanium) over the iridescent. I’m not sure if it’s what it needs or whether I feel like doing it because it’s what I’ve done with another forest painting I’m working on and I like it on there.
Forget all those perfect, pristine, magnificent, jealousy-inducing photos of sketchbooks and stop pressurising yourself by judging yourself against these, regarding these as what you ought to be achieving. The goal is to be sketching, drawing, paintings, visual-journalling. It doesn’t matter what you want to label it, nor does it matter what level of skill or success you do it with. What matters is that you’re doing it.
Anyone who claims every sketch they do is perfect is lying or self-censoring or doing only what they know works and not extending themselves, not continuing to learn. Photos of sketchbook pages are selective; you rarely see someone showing every single page in a sketchbook. After all, we like to appear competent.
Take the above photo of a sheep sketch for instance, snapped on location after I’d finished it (see “Sunny Summer Skye Sketching“). It was one of three I did of sheep on that spot, one after another; the other two were overworked duds. I resisted scratching through them in frustration and irritation; I certainly didn’t take photos!
Artist John Muir Laws compares warming up your drawing muscles to making “sacrificial pancakes“, the first few won’t be perfect and you know they won’t, but you also know you need to make them. One of his helpful tips in his blog “How to get started with Nature Journaling” is to move the goal post:
“Do not focus on trying to make pretty pictures … Open your journal with the intention of discovering something new … If you notice something that you otherwise would not have seen, remember it more vividly, or start asking yourself more interesting questions about what you observe than the journaling is a success. Embrace this idea and go. …Art is a side effect of the process of journaling.“
Sketching makes me look harder and longer. Serial sketching (multiple sketches of the same subject) helps me slow down, lets me try various ideas, and increases the odds I’ll end up with a “good sketch” rather than merely “recorded information”. You could call it hit-or-miss, but I prefer to call it visual exploration.