Monday Motivator: Direction of Movement

Talisker Bay Skye

“Simply stated, each of the four major directions in movement behaves differently. Horizontals, almost by definition, can be considered earthbound, solid, comforting, and stable. They move only left and right. Conversely, vertical, moving up and down, induce a feeling of growing, striving, even exaltation. Diagonals have a cutting, slashing, impetuous quality … Swirling, curvaceous movement has a repetitive grace. Used profusely, it can personify restlessness. … Generally you gain by relying mainly on one direction … and using anything else for purely subordinate purposes.”

— Lawrence C Goldsmith, Watercolor Bold & Free, p25

In a seascape, is it the horizon line that’s the dominant direction or the curves of the waves at the shore? It all depends on how I position myself, and what the sea conditions are like.

The photo below was taken at Talisker Bay on the Isle of Skye, on a day where there was a strong wind blowing into the oncoming waves, spreading spray up above the horizon, leaving only sections of the horizontal line.

Talisker Bay Skye

One of the paintings this day inspired had a composition from a higher viewpoint, not at sea level. The horizon line is dominant if you’re looking at the top third of the painting, enhanced by the fairly uniform sky colour. It creates a context for the more abstract lower part of the painting.

Talisker Bay: Spring Colours 70x70cm (approx 27×27″) Acrylic on canvas. Sold

Monday Motivator: The First Few Brushstrokes

“…the first few brushstrokes to the blank canvas satisfy the requirements of many possible paintings, while the last few fit only that painting–they could go nowhere else. The development of an imagined piece into an actual piece is a progression of decreasing possibilities, as each step in execution reduces future options by converting one–and only one–possibility into a reality. Finally, at some point or another, the piece could not be other than it is, and it is done.”

David Bayles and Ted Orland, “Art and Fear”, page 16

Being decisive in making a brushstroke isn’t the same as being confident it’s the best possible brushstroke, or will give me the most desirable result. It isn’t done with any kind of certainty other than knowing that if I want a painting to progress, I need to get paint onto the surface, and this is my best guess as to what to do next. And again, and again.

What I can feel confident about is that I can adapt to what it’s turned out to be, overpaint it, or wipe it off, Or abandon the painting and start again.

On the best of days, a painting seems to suggest what wants to happen next from the ingredients and techniques I have to hand, that is the medium(s) I’m using and the marks I know I can produce. The rest of the time, I paint along in the hope I end up somewhere satisfying.

Monday Motivator: No Areas Untouched by Pastel

“[Berthe Morisot] used pastel on paper in a way that justified the eighteenth-century term ‘peindre au pastel’ (to ‘paint’ in pastel). Common during the Louis XV period, the expression described a solid technique, like painting, leaving no untouched areas of the sheet of paper visible. Morisot used dry and semi-hard pastels, which she worked wet with a brush, or using both techniques: dry and wet.”

Dominique d’Arnoult, “Morisot’s Craft: Concealing Knowledge with Grace” in “Berthe Morisot: Sharping Impressionism”, page 64

I’ve come across various definitions about whether you’re painting or drawing when you’re using pastels, but none have ever related to how much of the paper was covered. It’s interesting to me that this could be the distinction given how in watercolour you might also choose to not paint over parts of the sheet of paper, so it’s comparing pastel painting to oil painting.

That pastel is an inherently dry medium is an argument for it being drawing. That you use line to apply it is another, countered by using a pastel stick edge on to block in colour, which could be regarded as a painting technique. On and on, round and round, ultimately it doesn’t matter what you call it, neither term is an insult to the maker.

I now find myself wondering if the difference between a sketch and a painting might also be related to how much of the sheet of paper is covered with paint (plus ink, pencil, and everything else that can be used in mixed medium).

Monday Motivator: Stumbling into Ideas

Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote
Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote

“When I am actually drawing, and not just thinking about drawing, I stumble across much more interesting concepts. I use that word, ‘stumble’, very deliberately, as it often seems to me that the best ideas are accidental and I just happen to be witness to them.

“… what I choose NOT to draw becomes just as important as what I choose to include.

“The process of physically drawing something engages not only your mind, but your eyes and your hands as well. It seems to me that all of this additional sensory input can’t help but to inspire you better than just thought alone.”

Dan dos Santos, Thinking On Paper, Muddy Colors

A drawing doesn’t have to start with a predetermined endpoint, a vision of exactly how it’s going to turn out, or even an idea of how it might turn out. You can, and may, let it evolve and develop as you draw i.e. make it up as you go along. Think of it as heading into the part of the map where it used to say “here be dragons” i.e. we don’t know what exists here but some of us enjoy going here to find out.

Monsieur P big pencil

Monday Motivator: The Purpose of Plein-Air Painting

“Remember, the purpose of working en plein air is to learn to see better – to note value [tone] relationships and colour nuances that you only can only see when painting from life. It’s wonderful to be able to bring this knowledge into your studio practice. Painting en plein air is also about the experience of being in the moment in your painting environment. What it’s not about is a brilliant result! Nice by-product but not the purpose of painting en plein air.”

Gail Sibley, Packing for a Plein Air Trip to PACE

Plein-air isn’t only about landscapes or cityscapes. It could be a drawing of your mug in a coffee shop, the chairs in a waiting room, the inside of a building, a flower pot … it’s anything and everything that’s not in your “comfort art-making spot”.

Why do it? For me it deepens what I notice about somewhere, slows my brain’s running about and focuses that energy into creating something on a page. I get to listen to the birds and bugs and sea. The results vary from intensely pleasing to uh-oh, usually somewhere inbetween. Even if everything I paint is a dud, it’s not like that doesn’t happen in my studio on occasion.

What am I aiming for when I’m painting on location? It varies, depending on what I feel like, what else I’ve been doing, and if it’s a new spot or a regular one. Sometimes I focus on a small detail in a landscape, sometimes it’s the overall scene. To paint a sense of it, not a photographic likeness. To explore pattern and texture, shape and colour. Shape conveyed by line done in ink or fluid watercolour (whereas in my studio I’ll “colour in” the shapes).

Tone or light/dark is rarely a focus for me until mid-way in a painting. I know it’s something I don’t see strongly, instead I get seduced by colour and texture, so I have learnt to stop to assess and adjust it rather than fight against this natural inclination. On location, I often don’t bother because I’m having to much fun in the moment.

Monday Motivator: Painting from Life vs Photos

Monday motivator art quotes

“I believe that I do not experience the world in the same way that a camera does; that the technical precision of a photographic view of the  world offers a seductive but basically false rendering, one which is based on an idea of the world as understandable, containable, defineable, precise, whereas my feeling is that the world is full of ambiguity, doubt, compromise and guesswork. … To work in a life situation is to directly experience this mobility of experience

… Further I believe that the creation of an artwork – the materials, surfaces, processes and attitudes is somehow analagous to the processes of perception so that the making of the thing becomes in some way an exploration or example of the partiality of our engagement with the subject/sitter. This whole terrain is to me the stuff of living perception; the interpretation and creation of our own version of the world — nearly all of which is absent from a photograph, so all that is lost before you even start.”

Alan McGowan, Art History News “BP Portrait Award” 17 July 2015

A photo is but a sliver of time, it’s not the beginning and end of what could be seen. Why would you let it dictate what you include in a painting. Please, a gazillion times over, never, ever give me the “but it was in the photo” reason for doing something in a painting. Use photos in a way that you can see say, “I thought I wanted to include it as an element in my painting which uses this photo as a starting point”.

Reference photo tree rings

Monday Motivator: Drawing Enjoys Not Being at the Centre of Things

“I think drawing enjoys not being at the centre of things. It is traditionally seen as preliminary, a generator, not an end in itself. It comes first, with something more ‘important’ to follow. Because it isn’t at the centre it becomes the weapon of choice to explore more elusive or marginalised areas of expression, experience and consciousness. Drawing is more portable, affordable, resilient, and direct.

“… It’s a practice, which means you have to practice, and do it again and again.”

Tania Kovats, “Why I Draw

What is it that stops us from creating a painting on a canvas with the same relaxed vigour that we’d start drawing with a pencil? When does the “this is a serious activity” switch get thrown?

Sunflowers, Vincent van Gogh, 1890, pencil on paper, 13.4 cm x 8.5 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Monday Motivator: Brushwork and Colour Take Over the Role of Composition

“Monet chose … a rejection of the orderly perspectives of traditional landscape, by denying the viewer any imagined entry into the actual space depicted, and by emphasising the patterns of forms and colours within the painting itself. … the role of composition is increasingly taken over the brushwork and colour

“… the brushstrokes never establish a hierarchy of importance among the elements depicted; each is equally integral to the whole scene.”

John House, “Monet: Nature into Art“, pp54,76

In traditional Western landscape painting you are supposed to have a focal point and a path for the viewer’s eye into the painting leading towards this. You’re supposed to position this according to the Rule of Thirds, and the painting have a foreground, middle ground and distance. You would’t put the sea cliff so it fills the canvas, not to mention painting the shadow side of it. But fortunately Monet did.

The Manneporte (Etretat) by Claude Monet, 1883. Size: 65 x 81 cm. In the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Monday Motivator: Circular Growth

Watercolour rocks with blind embossing of pebble outlines

In a linear model of personal growth, you can only go up or down. By design, there are people below and above yourself. This model can be falsely reassuring, as it seems to offer a clear path to success. …

In a circular model of growth, nobody is more advanced than anyone. There is no “up” or “down.” People are at a particular point of their own, unique growth loop. Everyone only competes against one’s self. The circular model can be more daunting, as there is no predefined direction — you need to design your own personal growth process — but it can also be infinitely more rewarding

Anne-Laure Le Cunff, “Growth Loops“, Ness Labs

I have favourite subjects I come back, each time at a slightly different point, sometimes the medium I’m using, sometimes how widely or closely I’m focusing. In the past fortnight I’ve been exploring something new to me — blind embossing* on my A3 etching press. I’m using string to try to get a sense of the continuous ink line drawing I enjoy but it being indented into the paper itself. I know where it comes from, what the loops were leading me to this. Some of these are techniques/mediums, e.g. printmaking, and some are subject i.e. looking closer and closer at seashores down to individual pebbles. It’s not a conscious looping, it’s driven by curiosity and enjoyment in art techniques and materials.

(*Blind embossing is printing without ink, creating textures in damp paper.)

Watercolour rocks with blind embossing of pebble outlines
Watercolour and blind embossing

Here are a few of the loops that have taken me to the painting above.

2009: Copper etching plate from a workshop at the Highland Print Studio in Inverness, which introduced me to printmaking and presses

Copper etching plate done with hard ground with line and aquatint

2015: Monoprinting with feathers, after a workshop with Kate Downie

Feather Monoprint Leave Some Things Unsaid
Leave Some Things Unsaid. 10×10″ mounted size.

2018: Acrylic ink and continous line

Watercolour and ink drawing seashore

2019: Acrylic ink on wood panel

Wearing my new shoes that are supposed to not gt near wet paint!

2019: Watercolour

2020: Watercolour and ink pen

Drawing pebbles in an octopus sketchbook

2021: Acrylic on canvas

Painting of a row of beach pebbles
Row of Pebbles V. 50x20cm. Acrylic on canvas (background is an iridescent grey)

2021: Carved oil painting on a wood panel, with gold acrylic paint

2022: Watercolour in a concertina sketchbook

Pebbles painted in watercolour

Monday Motivator: Talent is Merely Stubborn Pursuit

When we see a painting, we see countless years of work that went into understanding color and line and form, the creation of our own aesthetic languages, not to mention the hours the painting may have taken to make, in an instant. Often the most effortless looking works took the most amount of years of learned “looseness” – a lightness of touch to which so many painters strive.

Talent is merely the stubborn pursuit of something amazing.

Kimberly Brooks, “What is Talent?

We see a painting in an instant, and aim expect to be able to jump in at this point of painterly achievement ourselves straight away, rather than looking at everything that’s gone before to get the artist to this particular painting.

Monet’s early paintings and his later paintings aren’t only far apart in time, but also in what he’s trying to achieve, what he’s no longer wanting to do. Compare his Green Wave from 1867 to how he painted the sea in The Manneporte (Étretat) from 1883, and how his final water lilies series of paintings are all about patterns of colour rather than subject and focal point.

Believing it takes talent means you believe you haven’t got the inherent thing that’ll make you good at it, so you give up before you even start. Besides the issue of whether talent exists or not, there’s also the issue of believing that something is worth doing only if you’re going to excel at it. This belies the tremendous enjoyment to be had while you’re learning to do something, in the discovering, exploring, playing and experimenting, to see what happens and what there is. This doesn’t disappear if you never get very far up the perceived ladder that stretches towards “good”.

Certainly there’s frustration when what you’d like to be doing isn’t yet achievable, that gap between what you see in your mind’s eye and what your fingers translate onto the paper. Instead of giving up, use this to figure out what you still need to learn, where the gaps are, and see if you can fill this.

Black ink and a big coarse brush