Monday Motivator: Paint the Shape of the Air

The human mind operates automatically in ways that often value identification more than perception. While we look with our eyes, we see with our mind … Our minds tend to make corrections …

If the goal is to paint what your retina sees and not what your mind knows … one useful strategy is to concentrate on painting the negative shapes (the shapes formed by background areas lying between the outlines of painted objects and figures). Because you don’t know the negative shapes conceptually, you will not be as prone to distortion of size or shape. Look and paint the shape of the air under and over the table, rather than painting the table itself.

“Painting as a Language”, by Jean Robertson & Craig McDaniel, page 18

A quick exercise in seeing negative space I like is to use a word as a starting point. Instead of writing the word, draw or paint the space around the letters. Such as this:

Negative and Positive Space in a painting

It’s something that gets easier with practise, but if you’re struggling to get your mind to ‘swap over’ to the negative space, you can ‘cheat’ the first few times by writing the letters down with pencil and then erasing them.

Monday Motivator: The Joy of Handling Paint

“Much of the joy of painting isn’t in matching colors–it’s in the actual handing of the paint, playing a thick area against a stained one, a wide stroke against a thin one, a curving line against an angular one. Remember: you’re a painter and should get pleasure out of the use of your materials.”

Emile Gruppè, Brushwork, page 15

If you don’t like the medium, don’t use it no matter how much you might feel it’s something a “real artist” would do. There are plenty of options, and you’re supposed to enjoy it. Before you’ve even put a brush into it or started applying it to paper. That spark of joy picking up a tube of a paint or bottle of ink, the feel of a particular brush in your hand, the anticipation of a sheet of paper. If you’re not, you’re using the wrong thing.

Monday Motivator: Creativity is a Muscle

“Creativity is a muscle. We often don’t look at it in terms of something that can be trained, but it can be trained. And I think that we did it naturally as children because we had to discover our world. Once we felt as if we’d discovered enough, we didn’t really keep working at it … Therein lies the biggest opportunity–to recognize that you’re in life-long learning mode.”

Kevin Carroll, interview in “Caffeine for the Creative Mind” by Stefan Mamaw and Wendy Lee Oldfield, page 56

Painting is a combination of enjoying the things you can do (“comfort zone”), the challenge of things you can’t yet do but know you want to (“stretching yourself”), and exploring the unknown by trying things and seeing what happens (“creative exploration” or entering the “here be dragons” region of the map).

Creativity isn’t all about huge ideas and innovation, it’s the small things too. Small steps into the (to-you) unknown. Adding colour pencil to a watercolour painting for the first time. Choosing a canvas that’s twice the size you’ve ever painted. Using a sketchbook on location. Taking an art workshop. Trying clear gesso.

A step outside whatever is your usual. You might find yourself stepping back. But what if you don’t?

lawn daisies in watercolour and ink

Monday Motivator: Value the Learning Not the Performance

“I do not only grade the end product, but instead, value the process it takes to get there. I ask students to describe how and why they did certain things. I collect the work product that precedes the final document. …

If we assume students want to learn – and I do – we should show our interest in their learning, rather than their performance”

John Warner, “ChatGPT Can’t Kill Anything Worth Preserving

If we want to learn, we should show interest in our learning rather than only our performance.

Give yourself permission to spend time learning, be generous to yourself with how much time you allocate, and with your assessment of what you’ve done. It might be learning how a particular art material behaves, trying different things with it to see what happens. It might be getting more analytical and systematic in learning to paint or draw a subject, figuring out what aspects are eluding you at the moment and how to fill that knowledge gap.

The last couple of days I’ve been seeing what clear gesso does when applied over Derwent Inktense pencil drawn on an unprimed wood panel. Why? Because I like how clear gesso lets the grain of the wood panel show through, rather than obscuring it as white gesso does. It also then seals the wood panel surface and creates a grabby surface for paint. Inktense pencil because I enjoy the strong colours, the lines I can draw rather than paint with a brush, and that it’s water soluble so I can ‘dissolve’ some of the line into painted marks. And Inktense as the first layer because I’m enjoying using line in a painting.

My aim was to see was how much the line would change by brushing over with gesso (changing it from a dry to a wet line) and how much would ‘dissolve’ compared to brushing over it with water (with the intention of it dissolving). As the photo below shows, the Inktense line got that ‘wet’ look, but spread only in areas where the line was thicker. I was using a coarse-hair brush, and it will probably spread less with a softer brush.

Once the gesso had dried overnight, I ran a wet brush over the Inktense to see if it would dissolve, and it didn’t. I drew a bit further with another Inktense colour, and enjoyed how it worked over the gesso, which has a grabbiness to it (I’m using Holbein clear gesso medium grain). I ran a wet brush over this and it dissolved as I expected, without disturbing the sealed layer. So now I know I can work with the Inktense pencil and ‘secure’ it. A clear acrylic medium would probably do similar but I like the grabby roughness of the clear gesso when painting.

Clear gesso over Inktense pencil on wood panel
Clear gesso applied over purple Inktense pencil on wood panel. The white bits of gesso where it’s slightly thicker will clear as it dries.

Monday Motivator: Circular Time

“Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades. The gardener is not immune to attrition and loss, but is daily confronted by the ongoing good news of fecundity. A peony returns, alien pink shoots thrusting from bare soil. The fennel self-seeds; there is an abundance of cosmos out of nowhere.”

Olivia Laing, extract from “Funny Weather: Derek Jarman’s Paradise”

“Painting and drawing situates you in a different kind of time … Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades.”

We don’t plant an apple tree thinking it’s going to give us apples every month. We anticipate. Enjoy the blossom for itself and for what it might become. Wait weeks for an apple to ripen. Attempt to eat it too early and you destroy it. One day it all comes together and it’s sweet magic. Then it’s back to anticipating, nurturing what creates the magic.

If only we had the same patience with our art.

Monday Motivator: The Dual Purpose of Visual Brushstrokes

“The visible brushstrokes had a dual purpose. In one sense, they suggest the movement of the landscape, giving extra body to clouds and land, and indicating rain or the texture of thick grass. Secondly, they make the viewer think of the artist. … Each stroke represents a decision, a judgement, indicating something the artist has seen … The brush marks are analogues for a thought process”

James Morrison: Land and Landscape” by John Morrison, pp10/11

My decision to make a brushmark is sometimes careful and considered, sometimes instinctive and impulsive. The one may lead to the other: pent-up energy overrides precision and my brush goes wild, or the desire for some order from chaos makes me slow down to find and refine aspects.

Using a paint marker pen or splattering, adds another set of marks sitting alongside, on top of, and underneath brushed paint. For me it’s trying to capture in paint how a bit of landscape changes with the light, tide and seasons, never static and more than what you see at a glance.

Detail from “Over the Seas”

Monday Motivator: Practising Your Boldness by Painting on Paper

“Working on paper is an energising process. Sometimes with canvases, when they’re not going where you want them to go, it can weigh you down. Making a change to a canvas can feel like an extreme or bold move.

… by first experimenting on the works on paper, you are practising your boldness for when you move to canvas. You take more chances because you feel like it isn’t the end of the world if they go wrong.”

David Mankin, “Remembering in Paint” by Kate Reeve-Edwards, page 53

Another thing about a painting on canvas is that you can’t crop off a bit unless you take it off the stretchers. You’re stuck with the proportions and size of the canvas you picked. If it’s a painting card or paper all you need is a pair of scissors or a blade and ruler.

A year or so ago the in-house art critic bought me the safety ruler shown in the photo below so I can crop paintings and not my finger tips.

Monday Motivator: Clear Dominance in a Painting

“A painting with a clear dominance among design elements keeps equals from competing. … the ones most important for creative an effective sense of mood, and therefore a successful plein air painting, include value, temperature, and chroma.

” … you might choose one value [tone] to dominate. If your scene depicts a sunny day, the light values should occupy more real estate in the painting than the others. You might choose to group both your lights and mid-lights … and let them occupy much more than 50% of the painting.”

Michael Chelsey Johnson, “Beautiful Landscape Painting Outdoors” page 55

If not tone, then maybe dominance in colour temperature? But living in a part of the world where the sun if often behind cloud, and thus everything is in ‘soft light’ rather than in sunshine and casting strong shadows, muting the contrasts, colour temperature isn’t something I think about much.

If not tone or colour temperature, what about dominance in chroma, the intensity of colour? Juicy, bright, intense blues and oranges and yellows and purples as flowered in my garden this year. But also the opposite, the muted but varied browns and greys that come from mixing blue and orange to give me seashore colours. As Michael CJ says a few pages on from the above quote: “For impact, either rich or dull color must dominate. Equal amounts of rich and dull colour will confuse the painting’s mood.

There’s a lot to be explored in the tertiary part of colour space, once you get past neutral greys into “interesting greys“.

Michael Chelsey Johnson sketching at Sligachan on Skye
(Photo from June 2018 when I had the joy of painting alongside Michael Chelsey Johnson on his art retreat to Skye. You can see Michael’s painting on his blog here.)

Monday Motivator: Know When to Quit

‘…being a maker,  I often have projects that don’t work out. I used to feel guilty about those projects, like somehow I was a quitter or I lacked grit or I was taking the easy way out. However, as I began to interview painters and engineers and filmmakers and architects and entrepreneurs, I found that this was a universal part of the creative experience. To be productive, you have to be good at quitting. You need to know when a project isn’t working and cut it loose. I’ve come to realize that every maker has a cutting room floor with a ton of work that didn’t make the “final cut.” We iterate and revise and put things on hold. And that’s okay. It’s part of the creative journey.’

John Spencer, “Always Teach in Beta

If a painting isn’t working, and refuses to go anywhere satisfactory no matter how hard or long you try, then give up on it. For today, for tomorrow, for next month, year, and maybe forever. One unsuccessful painting doesn’t make you a failure. Nor do ten, nor a hundred. There are many reasons a painting doesn’t work out, but your being a failed creative isn’t one of them. Maybe you’re simply irritated and distracted because you can’t find a favourite brush?

One of my favourite techniques — drawing with ink — has a greater chance of failure than success because it’s impossible to undo. I can overpaint it, I can crop the offending part off, I can add more ink to hide it in darkness, but I can’t rub it out like I could pencil. Yet it’s this very property that makes it exciting. I know not to try it on location unless I have several sheets of paper with me, so I can try again and again. Back in my studio I sort them into what’s worked (if any), what might become something, and the that’s-probably-never-going-to-go-anywhere-but-I-won’t-tear-it-up-just-yet heap. Most will be in the latter, but without these I wouldn’t have done the others.

Paper is A3 size.

Monday Motivator: Lighten a Colour by Using More Colour Not White

“An esthetic warning: always think twice before using white. It can give your pictures a chalky look. If you want to lighten a color, sometimes try using another color instead of white. If you want your pictures to have brilliance, think in terms of more color, not lighter color.

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

I think the default setting ought to be “as often as possible” try something other than white, not “sometimes”.

Also a combination of something else and a little white rather than only white.

Not forgetting that if you’re painting on a white ground with acrylics or oils this can be used with a thin application of a transparent colour to ‘lighten’ the colour as you’d do with watercolour and paper. Or if the whole canvas is covered, you can paint an area white and then glaze over the top with a transparent colour.

And remembering that when a subject is white, it’s rarely “tube white” all over. Not even daisies.