Monday Motivator: Landscape Painting is Landscape Interpreting

Monday Motivator

“Our goal is not to reproduce what we see exactly as we see it. Rather, all we observe–every color, shape, and detail–is filtered through an interpretive lens. The painting we produce may resemble a landscape, but it is now a painting, a unique interpretation of the world in its own language.”

Mitchell Albala, “The Landscape Painter’s Workbook“, page 11

Key to interpreting a landscape is ceasing to see it as “Landscape” and to deconstruct the completed jigsaw into its pieces. To see it as shapes of colour, lines, angles, tones, textures. As Monet is oft-quoted: “Here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow”.

Easier to say and understand than to do consistently.

Where do you start? Anywhere is the unhelpful answer, just pick something.

My personal preference is with line: the edges, outlines, cracks, shadows. Using Payne’s grey acrylic ink because it gives me a strong dark and counteracts my tendency to neglect tone for colour. Drawing with the ink bottle pipette gives an not-entirely controllable line, which stops me being too precious.

Next I will typically jump to a bright colour and put it down everywhere I see it or can imagine it being if I exaggerated reality. This time of year the intense yellow of the gorse generally grabs me, with some where there’s yellow on shore rocks or turquoise blue in the sea. Purple and dark blue for shadow shapes, and some into the sea for its darker colours. I may work wet-onto-dry or wet-into-wet, that is a matter of impulse or my mood.

Ink and water-soluble wax crayon on NOT watercolour paper

Monday Motivator: Object or Atmospheric?

“It’s not always necessary to have an obvious focal point in a painting. Sometimes, I find it better to construct an atmospheric field that the viewer needs to adjust to before they can start to make out any elements of interest. Think of this kind of picture as wandering through a swirling fog, attempting to make sense of the surroundings, seeing objects but not being able to define their exact shape or purpose. Isn’t that a reasonable reflection of how we truly experience the world, never quite knowing where one thing ends, and another begins? 

Because we are a material society, we’re inclined to be ‘object centric’, obsessed with individual things, when maybe we’d be better served by acknowledging that everything is part of everything else.”

Artist-writer Nick Bantock, Facebook 10 January 2023

Soft, blurry edges versus hard, definite edges.

Blended colour transitions versus sharp colour contrasts.

Suggested versus stipulated elements.

A composition to meander in versus one with a clear path to a focal point.

The choices are not binary: either one or the other. Pick and mix, use your favourites and occasionally try the others to see if you might now enjoy them.

If you don’t like colour fields or “busy chaos”, try compositions with a primary and secondary focal point.

Primary focus: the stairs, the part where the angles change. Secondary: the church on the top of the hill. The stone wall, tiled roof and white wall on the left provide three large blocks of relative visual calm.

Monday Motivator: Contemplating Collage

Monday Motivator

“Like grief and like composting, collage is slow, contemplative work. It is work that both wanders (invites us to pause on this word here and that image there) and wonders (asking, What is this image? What could it be still?) … Collage asks us to sit in the fragments that embody our losses as we find in them new combinations, perspectives, and ways of making art in the world.”

Mica Mahato, “Material Losses: Collage Comics as Elegy” in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Graphic Literature, p193

When we moved from the Isle of Skye to Aberdeenshire two years ago I threw my pile of not-quite-worked, never-went-anywhere, and dud paintings done on paper into the recycling bin. I had been telling myself I could — and would — use them for collage, but hadn’t yet. And now I am staring at a similar but new pile wondering why I still haven’t, yet.

I enjoy paintings involving collage by several contemporary artists. I’ve been thinking about ways to incorporate texture that don’t involve acrylic mediums. I love torn edges on sheets of watercolour paper. Studio cat Freyja loves playing with scrumpled paper. I have glue and numerous pairs of scissors. So why do I reach for a new sheet every time instead?

Maybe the answer lies in tearing up a painting before adding it to the pile, so it’s already something else to what I had been trying to make. Maybe just in half? 

What I have done is cut some up and fold them up to be prestarted concertina sketchbooks with fabric-covered cardboard covers. As creative catalysts, so you don’t start from a white page. Maybe it’s easier to continue with a background someone else started? I’ve been thinking about selling them through my webshop, so do let me know if you’d be interested in these.

Monday Motivator: Beyond the Checklist

Monday Motivator

“… the right way is the emotional way. Truly great performance isn’t rational. It’s not an exercise in project management, process improvement, or box checking. As much peace as there is in an instruction manual, that’s not where creativity and greatness lie.”

Gaping Void, “The Right Way is the Hard Way“, 6 Feb 2024

One of the things I try to do in my Higham Hall workshops is getting participants comfortable painting without a predetermined outcome, never a careful drawing that you meticulously colour in, more finding a path whilst heading in a certain direction with a set of techniques and materials. Having a few days means there’s time to wobble whilst being persuaded (occasionally a bit more like coerced) into continuing through the doubt and learning to trust yourself and the process.

It’s such a great joy to have a participant emailing me afterwards saying things such as this: “You have opened up in me the knowledge that pushing further with a painting doesn’t mean trying not to spoil it, you have taught me that it means allowing that painting to progress and develop and make way for happy accidents and to enjoy the process and not worry about the outcome.”

Monday Motivator: Comical Dreams

Monday Motivator
Monday Motivator

“Historically, comics emerged right alongside the painterly abstractions of the modernist era, serving as something of a populist counterpart.”

Nick Francis Potter, “My Kid Could Do That!”, Field Guide to Graphic Literature, p10

Like “someone” who decided that at a certain age the storybooks we read should no longer have pictures, so “someone” decided fine art in the Western world should not have words (with brief exceptions e.g. Pop Art). Comics possibly even sit at the bottom of the hierarchy: fine art, illustration, comics.

Some artists can’t even bring themselves to use words in a sketchbook. Who decides how many words there can be before it gets called art journalling and not sketching?

In 1992, Art Spiegelman’s ground-breaking work Maus was published, the first graphic book to win a Pulitzer Prize. Fast forward to today and there’s a category of comics labelled graphic memoir/narrative/literature, an intermingling of life and images. Powerful works such as Lucy Sullivan’s Barking.

As the in-house art critic knows, this is a long-held-but-never-pursued interest of mine, with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics periodically being pulled off the shelf and reread. I have a sketchbook where I write snippets for “the book” about our love and life, losing vocabulary and time through a rare dementia, creativity in the face of loss and fear, and our cats. It’s titled “Wordless”, because that’s a category of graphic literature and a fear. So if five, 10 years from now I publish a piece of graphic literature, it’s not out of the blue, it’s a long time coming.

Some dreams take longer than others to turn into reality.

Monday Motivator: A Few Hours Over a Lot of Days

Monday Motivator
Monday Motivator

“Making art quickly can be incredibly liberating. Don’t think, just do. Don’t agonise, improvise. But not everything can or should be done with time efficiency as its defining characteristic. And learning new things takes time and dedication. Do something. Keep doing it … for a few hours over lots of days.”

Rebecca Armstrong, “Too Busy for Dry Hands“, Artnest, 31 March 2024

It’s excruciating watching someone draw using a “hedge-your-bets line”, where you go back-and-forth on a small section and gradually move along rather than drawing one long line in a decisive manner. It may feel more controllable, but it’s a continual second-guessing of what you’re doing as you’re drawing. “Just decide and go for it already!” is what I want to shout.

Decisive isn’t the same as confident; it’s about making a decision in a drawing and seeing where it takes you. Embrace that it (most likely) won’t be perfect and that your aim is for “heading in the right direction”. You can always redraw the line, but you don’t want to be redrawing its entire length as you’re still getting it down the first time.

Like so much in art, it gets easier with practice. My ink drawing of a friend’s dog below wasn’t my first attempt at dogs, nor with water-soluble ink in a pen. It may look like a confident pen drawing, but if it hadn’t worked, you wouldn’t be seeing it.

Monday Motivator: Embrace Mistakes

Monday Motivator
Monday Motivator

“In creative work, sometimes the best way to reach a level of quality is through embracing quantity. You simply have to create quickly, iterate on the fly, and embrace mistakes as a part of the learning process.”

John Spencer, Making Time for Project-Based Learning (PBL), 26 March 2024

Multiple attempts or multiple failures. Your choice of wording predicts your longer term outcome.

Embracing mistakes is not embracing failure, it is acknowledging that learning takes persistence and practice. Doing something once and expecting perfect results is setting yourself up for frustration. It can happen, but what you are after is acquiring repeatable skill not mere happenstance.

It’s frustrating watching someone spend hours repainting something as they are unable to feel satisfied at any of the multiple occasions it could have been declared finished, yet also unable to articulate what it needed that was different from where it was before. If you keep painting on top of the same piece, you can’t compare and analyse. Paint several so you can put them side by side and figure out what differs, what you prefer and why. Take a step aside from painting “a real, finished painting” to learn.

Monday Motivator: Rejecting a Painting’s First Rendition

Monday Motivator

“Many artists consider art as a process of learning … [Richard Diebenkorn] considered the process of constantly reworking a canvas to be one of manifesting his ideas, finding it inappropriate to accept a painting’s first rendition. … looked forward to the moment when a work demanded rectification, enjoying this moment of change, considering this layering of ideas to be the process which generated his most successful work.”

Kate Reeve-Edwards, “David Mankin: Remembering in Paint“, page 75,

If an idea is good enough to paint once, why not twice, thrice, however many times you wish? Reworking it on the same canvas or starting it afresh. It’s a bit like doing thumbnails to pursue and refine and idea, but in actual size.

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Wisteria, 1917-1920, oil on canvas, 150,5 x 200,5 cm, Kunstmuseum Den Haag.

Monday Motivator: If You Want Your Paintings to Have Brilliance

Monday Motivator
Monday Motivator

“If you want your paintings to have brilliance, think in terms of more color, not lighter color. … Most students do little more than dirty their brushes with a little color and then try to wipe them off on the canvas. To mix color properly, you must have enough pigment on the brush in the first place.”

Paul Strisik, “The Art of Landscape Painting”, page 13-14

How much “enough pigment” is depends on the size of my canvas or sheet of paper. It’s one of the reasons I find changing the scale I’m working at takes me out of autopilot, as I’ve once again got to think about how much paint I’m going to need for an area. It’s a lost cause trying to remix a colour created from leftover bits on my watercolour palette.

Monday Motivator: Bad Drawing

Monday Motivator

The question “How old do you have to be to make a bad drawing?”, asked by cartoonist and teacher Lynda Barry on Instagram, had me thinking about how it is near impossible not to judge a drawing, yet it is possible to teach yourself to not be so emotionally invested in one piece. Give yourself permission to spend your time drawing and to use up your materials, to do another drawing and another and another.

What do you do with the drawings you judge to be bad? Turn the sheet over and use the other side. Draw into it with an eraser or paint. Keep drawing and see where it goes; you already think it’s bad, so what does it matter. Cut out a bit you do like. Don’t be too fast ripping it up but leave it a few weeks so you see it with fresh eyes.