Painting Project: Neptune’s Gold

This painting project is about using strong shapes and varied mark-making to build up an abstract inspired by nature. Specifically the shapes of a plant called Eryngium ‘Neptune’s Gold’, which is a type of sea holly with blue flowers, blue stems, and spikey golden-yellow leaves. The thistle-like flowers are clusters of tiny flowers packed together, surrounded by a wide ruffle, a bit like those a head in one of those huge lace collars in a Rembrandt portrait.

YOU WILL NEED:

  • A large sheet of watercolour paper (I suggest A3 in size)
  • A second piece of paper (or use the ‘wrong side’ of an old painting) for collage
  • Any fast-drying paint (acrylics, ink, watercolours, gouache)
  • A light-coloured opaque paint or ink or gel pen
  • A graphite pencil or coloured pencils
  • A rigger brush or round brush with a good point
  • Scissors and glue for collage

WHAT TO DO:

  • Doing some colour mixing to work out a ‘recipe’ for the blues and yellows as in Neptune’s Gold (more photos below) could be time well spent. Make a note of what you’ve used and colour swatches so you’ll be able to replicate it.


  • STEP 1: This project is going to be worked from dark to light rather than trying to add a background colour to complex shapes at a later stage. Cover the whole sheet of watercolour paper with a darkish colour. Don’t stress about getting a flat uniform colour; variation which will ultimately suggest things. As there’s yellow and blue in the flower, I’d mix a purple (yellow being the complementary colour to purple, and blue being analogous (sitting next to it on the colour wheel). Go fairly dark with the purple, maybe adding a second layer.

  • STEP 2: Take a closer look at the shapes at the top of this plants. Count how many leaves extend out in the ‘collar’ and how many pointy bits there are on each. On the sheet of paper to be used for collage, draw this shape with graphite or a coloured pencil (suggest yellow or a light blue). Trust yourself and do it freehand rather than tracing the photo; there’s variation in nature after all!

  • STEP 3: Brush some clean water onto the shape of the flower to dampen the area. I like using a flat brush for doing this because you can get the shape wet quickly. Add a little yellow onto the tips of each leaf (not too much, you don’t want it to spread all the way to the centre). Load up a brush with blue and touch this into the centre of each shape, letting it spread out along the leaves. Again, not too much as you don’t want it to mix with the yellow to make green. (Alternatively, let the yellow dry, then gently brush some clean water over the shape again, and then drop in the blue.) Work quickly and decisively.

  • STEP 4: Cut out the flower shapes with scissors along the lines you drew in step three. I suggest at least five. Place them on the sheet with the dark colour background and decide on a composition. Don’t glue them on just yet.

  • STEP 5: Using opaque colour, draw or brush similar shapes to form a layer of marks and colour that will be visible beneath the collage elements. (The ‘lower’ leaves and flowers in the plant.) I think it could be fun to use gold and/or silver for this.

  • STEP 6: Stick down the flower shapes from step 2. (If you’re using watercolour and a PVA white glue, be careful not to get glue on the front of the shapes as watercolour doesn’t like sticking on top of glue. Acrylics will do so happily.)

  • STEP 7: Add a whole lot of dots to the centre of each for the flowers. I would do this with a rigger brush or sharp-pointed brush, or splattering a bit of paint.

  • STEP 8: Consider whether you need to enhance the connection of the collage elements to the background, for instance by using some opaque paint on these that goes over the edges a little.

If you’d like help and/or feedback on your painting, this is available to my project subscribers via Patreon. Have fun, and remember to send me a photo of your painting by the end of the month for inclusion in the project gallery for us all to enjoy.

My Attempts at the Furrow Patterns Painting Project

The patterns of the ploughed fields that are the inspiration for this month’s painting project (details here) have continued to capture my attention even as in real life they’ve become a different pattern with the greens of crops growing and present all sorts of other possible paintings. I’ve had a few attempts, feel that I’m getting closer each time to a result that pleases me as a whole not only in parts, but aren’t there yet.

For my first attempt, I absolutely had to use black lava paste to convey the sculptural and textural sense, but neglected the perspective in my, urm, let’s call it enthusiasm. After applying the texture paste, and without waiting for it to dry, I dropped acrylic ink onto the surface and sprayed this with water to get it to spread, then left it overnight to dry.

Acrylic on board, 30x30cm

This is what the painting looked like when I conceded defeat, and lectured myself about why a bit of planning and thumbnailing can go a long way. I won’t repeat what the in-house art critic nor the peanut gallery had to say.

I like the effect the black lava paste gives, but need to have the patience to scratch in the perspective lines more carefully. Once it’s dry it’s not an easy thing to change. To help myself with this, I created a photo collage with various other reference photos, ready for the day I slow down with my sketchbook and make a considered study of the shapes, angles, and perspective. At the moment I’m procrastinating by calling it a project for winter.

My second attempt was mixed media on paper, trying to get a sense of the broken-up section adjacent to the furrows. The weather in my painting turned rather stormy, perhaps a reflection of my mood as things didn’t come quite come together for me.

Mixed media on A3 watercolour paper (watercolour, acrylic ink, acrylic paint, coloured pencil)

My third attempt was also mixed media on watercolour paper, but I started by applying some gesso to paper to help create texture. This is a technique I tend to forget about, maybe because my bottle of gesso isn’t next to my paint tubes, but can be very effective. I decided to make more of the hedgerow on the left so the composition had more colour in the lower area.

Watercolour and acrylic on A3 watercolour paper

Much of it was worked wet into wet, spraying acrylic ink to encourage it to spread, but also trying not to obscure all of the already dried Payne’s grey ink lines of where the hedge separates the two fields. I was pleased with where I got to with this painting, and stopped to let it dry overnight with the thought of adding a small farmhouse in the distance the next day. That hasn’t happened yet; I’m procrastinating by telling myself I need to practice some farmhouses first to ensure I don’t ruin this painting. Or maybe I’ll decide it doesn’t need it.

Painting Project: Furrow Patterns

It’s time for a new painting project and this month it’s a subject that’s got strong pattern plus the added challenge of making a colour not known for its vibrancy into something visually intriguing. That is, to mix “interesting browns”.

Here’s the reference photo that is the starting point (click on photo to enlarge). I took it on one of the numerous small roads between Cuminestown and Gardenstown in Aberdeenshire. The dominant element is the stripes of the ploughed field. But there’s also the splash of green fields, the yellow of gorse bushes along the edge, dots of sheep, and part of a farmhouse towards the right. Plus the march of fence posts, electricity poles, and in the distance a wind turbine.

Pattern of ploughed furrows in brown soil Scotland

COLOUR: How to make a large area of one colour, albeit varying tones, visually interesting? You might do it with variations of brown, all those earth colours, plus strong dark such as a sepia. You might exaggerate colour, using purple or deep reds for the darker tones. Vary the mark making as well as colours, to suggest texture. Maybe use some texture paste?

PERSPECTIVE: There’s the challenge of getting the perspective on the furrows working, with them narrowing into the distance and changing direction with the curves of the hillside. The pattern of light and dark on the furrows, as well as one of texture with them being smooth on the top and rough in the bottom.


COMPOSITION:

  • Maybe crop the photo top and bottom, eliminating some of the sky and foreground. Consider a square format as well as a vertical.
  • Might you leave out the poles and/or the wind turbine as these might distract the eye too much from the pattern of the furrows?
  • Give the green field on the left more space in the overall composition, letting it be a larger element to increase its colour dominance to balance out the browns

If you’d like your painting to be included in the project photo gallery, email me a photo with a few sentences about your painting or share it via social media by the end of the month.

For individual help with these painting projects, and feedback on your final painting, sign up on my Patreon page here.

Concertina Sketchbook at the Yellow Breakwater

It was perfect picnic, I mean sketching, weather today. I popped into the post office with a letter, and came out with picnic supplies, then headed up to the slipway at Camus Mor and that joyous yellow lichen slice.

I had brought a small concertina sketchbook, my watercolours, ink pen and coloured pencils. I found myself thinking about how both the breakwater wall and slipway are hard-edged slashes through the pattern of the shore, and pondering how abstracted this might be if I excluded the sea which connects them and gives them context. Whether I could make the parts feel connected across the pages of the concertina sketchbook or whether it feels like a jump.

I started with watercolour, then did a layer of black water soluble ink using a fude pen (the nib of which gives a variable width of line depending on the angle at which you hold the pen). First the yellow section, then the bit to the slipway wall.

Overall my sketching was a bit wild and woolly, fragmented and distracted, a bit like how I feel, but I think there’s potential in this composition, something to explore further, to refine and grasp hold of. It’s certainly not resolved with this attempt, but I am intrigued by the challenge of making it read across the length whilst pushing the focus on shape and pattern rather than on seashore. What will be added to the blank pages is currently an unknown. The “here be dragons” part of the map.

Coloured Primers: Dark to Light vs Light to Dark

Another thing I’ve added to my list for this month’s painting project is to have a go at painting from dark to light, rather than from light to dark as I usually do. It necessitates knowing which of your colours are opaque so they’ll show up on top of a dark colour, and presents the challenge of leaving bits of the shadow areas unpainted so the dark base layer shows through.

I was reminded of it when I noticed that “other than white” versions of the non-absorbent primer by Michael Harding are now available at Jackson’s (affiliate link). MH is a UK brand renowned for its quality of his oils paints and range of colours. Lots of traditional pigments in the range, some with prices in the “ouch” category.

I’ve been watching out for MH coloured primers because the range includes a clear primer, which will be less less grabby/rough than the one I have been using (Holbein, medium grain) on wood panel to let the grain of the wood be part of the painting.

I then saw the black and headed into “ooohhh” territory. The other colours don’t tempt me as they’re not colours on my palette and risk ending up with a ground that doesn’t fit well with the painting, and the neutral grey isn’t exciting. Some of the oil paintings I’ve done that I was happiest with I started with a Payne’s grey acrylic ink drawing. So a black gesso would do similar, albeit without gaps. I look forward to finding out.

One thing I do wish though is that the containers the Michael Harding ground comes in were narrower. The lid on the white one I’ve got is too big for me to get a grip across it to unscrew it easily. I wish it came with a narrower lid that had a flip/twist to squeeze some out nozzle and could be screwed off to access with a brush.

Painting Project: The Same But Different

This project is about using different drawing and painting materials to depict a relatively straightforward subject in order to remind ourselves of materials we’ve forgotten, neglected, not yet tried, been too intimidated to attempt, and love the most. To do a series of drawings/paintings either as individual pieces or together on a large piece of paper.

My suggested subject is a piece of fruit, something that will last for a while. Work from observation not memory because looking at it closely, and repeatedly, will reveal how much we don’t typically notice. Position it the right way up, upside down, on its side, cut in half or peeled, with a bite taken out, as just a core or pip or peel.

Do at least seven drawings/paintings, as large or small as you wish, with or without backgrounds. Dig out all your different materials and give each a go. For instance:

  • pencil (line only, tone only, line and tone)
  • pen (permanent and water-soluble)
  • black only (ink or charcoal)
  • black+ (black dominates but using other colours, as in traditional Chinese ink paintings)
  • collage (recycling failed paintings)
  • unrealistic/exaggerated colour (see Matthew Smith: Apples), a chance to use neglected colours
  • dark outlines (Georges Braque: Plate of Apples)
  • high key (limiting the range of tones in a painting to medium to light only, no strong dark tones)
  • low key (using mostly dark to medium tones, as in Van Gogh’s Basket of Apples)
  • palette knife
  • texture paste
  • loose wet into wet with line added afterwards to suggest detail

At the end of the month, email me a photo of your results for inclusion in the photo gallery. If you’re unsure of how to use any material you’ve got, feel free to email me and ask. For feedback on your results, sign up to be a project subscriber on Patreon, where there’s also an option for me helping you one-to-one with any aspect of your art. Happy painting!


MY PROJECT PAINTING: I’ve chosen a green apple because none of the red ones had a stem, the green gets yellower as the apple ages, the shadow areas invite the use of reds and purples (as complementary to green/yellow) and it takes me away from orange/blue that have become such fundamental colours.

I’m doing it in a concertina sketchbook, with each on a new spread (pair of pages) so that the result will be a book you can flip through seeing them sequentially or open out to see them as a row. Painting over the fold of the paper isn’t ideal as the paint tends to gather there and get the paper too wet and it tears, but a single page felt too squashed.

Water-soluble black ink and white pen (the apple has been moved from where it was when I was drawing to fit it in the photo)

December Project: Getting Resolution Before the New Year

This month the challenge is to go through your paintings from the past year (or longer) and sort them into three categories: to keep, to continue, and to destroy. The aim is to remind yourself of what you’ve painted and to give yourself a direction to head in January.

1 Go through the “to keep” pile and make a list (mental or physical) of what you enjoy about these paintings and what you’d like to do more of next year. It could be the medium, size, subject, mark making, colours, style, a lesson learnt or medium tried. Treat yourself by framing up one and hanging it on the wall.

A “to keep” painting doesn’t necessarily mean it’s something someone else would think was your best; why it’s a keeper can be very personal.

2 Gently look through the second pile of paintings-in-progress, abandoned, neglected and unfinished pieces. Write down your thoughts on where you might go with each, what you still want to do or change. If they’re done on paper, write a note on the back, like the next steps in a recipe, so that when you come back to it at a later date you’ve got a plan.

If you’re a Project Subscribers on my Patreon, you’re welcome to email me photos and ask for help with these.

3 On to the pile of duds and frustrations. If they’re on paper, it can be very cathartic to rip these up and throw them in recycling. But first check there isn’t a section that deserves to be in one of the other piles if you cropped it a bit. Or that would make a card, or gift tags, or bits for a future piece with collage. If they’re on canvas, consider overpainting with a transparent dark purple to give a starting point for a painting done from dark to light (rather than overpainting wth white or gesso).

If in doubt, put it in the “to continue” pile. Rather wait and live with a piece for a while longer. And by a while I mean like six months.

Don’t beat yourself up for what you didn’t do, didn’t achieve, didn’t finish. Celebrate what you did, and where you might head next year.

Painting Project Photo Gallery: The Tall Sunflower

It’s clear that the tall sunflower is full of inspiration!

By Bee, watercolour. Modified from the initial stopping point to make bigger centre and some more petals. As usual it is the quick ones that work for me.

From Marion: I love what you’ve done with this! The flower head feels like a glorious sunflower now, and the richness of the colours in the centre and yellows of the petals is glorious. I think it’s one to mount and keep! As for quicker being more successful, the challenge would seem to me to be to figure out what you’re doing differently between quick and more sustained paintings, I wonder if you slow down the pace you’re working at and overthink it?
By Cathi: Had great fun with my sunflowers. I even did a concertina one like yours, which I sent to friends going through a horrible time and it has taken pride of place in their sitting room!

From Marion: Delighted you’ve had such fun with this, and I think your enjoyment is evident in your paintings and that you were inspired to do it with different mediums.
By Cathi: Done entirely in coloured inks. I feel the dark ‘core’ at the base of the sunflower should be extended left and right a little  bit, but I haven’t got round to doing that yet.

From Marion: I agree that it wants extending as it feels like it fades out to the sides at the base rather than being a foundation.. But if you don’t get around to extending it, cropping with a mount might solve it.
By Cathi: Then I did an acrylic close-up version with mica bling (that doesn’t show up very well in the photo)
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From Marion: Nevermind the bling, which is so hard to photograph, I’m in love with the textures and layered colour. The leaves work particularly well for me, with such a sense of movement and the scratchiness of their hairy surface.. I do wonder whether the blue behind the flowerhead wants to be stronger, though it’ll be a fiddly job to add it now.
By Cathi: Next was using my fude pen and purple ink for the outline and acrylic to add colour.

From Marion: My first reaction was a bit of an ‘eek’ at the purple, but it’s grown on me and, of course, yellow and purple are complementaries. I wonder if reducing the amount of purple visible in the centre of the flower to just the edges of the area would shift the impact of the purple from in-your-face to serves-to-make-the-yellows-vibrant? Also, there doesn’t seem to be any purple in the grasses at the base, which makes the two parts of the painting feel a little disconnected.
By Cathi: And finally I had fun doing a collage inspired by my decorating in the sitting room – I call it “sunflowers and planets”.

From Marion: I can’t but smile at the thought that sunflowers crossed over with your decorating! The power of art to influence all aspects of our lives…
By Sarah, botanical leaf print on fabric: “I’ve hurt my right hand and don’t think I will be able to do much for a couple of weeks, so will this count as my monthly submission instead of a painting?”

From Marion: Definitely! Not least because it’s a tantalising glimpse into this printing technique.

My sunflower painting has been sitting nearly finished for some weeks now. I still want to tweak the background blue a bit, with some gentle colour and tone variations.

Thanks to Bee, Cathi, and Sarah for sharing your sunflower pieces. The full list of monthly projects and related content can be found here, and remember it’s never too late to give something a go. If you’d like individual help with your painting, sign up either as a project subscriber or for individual mentorship through my Patreon page here.

Three Blustery Day Skye Sketches

With wind that’d blow much more than merely cobwebs away, I decided to do something I don’t usually and sat in my car to sketch. I somehow managed not to spill any Payne’s grey ink whilst drawing with the pipette, but did discover I’d left the bottle of white behind, so no splashy white foam bits would be happening.

Mixed media, A3 watercolour paper
Detail

This was the first painting I did, and the one I like most. I managed not to get too dark with the ink, and like the gentle colour from the coloured pencils showing through the watercolour. I was disappointed to discover I didn’t have the bottle of white acrylic ink with me, but did have a white pen, which I think works and it’s certainly easier to not overwork it than when using fluid ink.

Mixed media, A3 watercolour paper

This was the second, and I struggled for a bit as it was too dark in places with Payne’s grey ink that had dried too fast, and I didn’t have anything that would show on top of this except the white pen, but that I wanted for the sea edge. Breakthrough moment was when I realised there was no reason I could not use it for the lighter rock and the sea. It’s something I might do again deliberately.

Watercolour, A3 paper

This third one is watercolour only, no ink, and I regard it as an incomplete thought. I stopped because I got annoyed with the green and was scrubbing at it with a bit of paper towel, to the point of damaging the surface. I’ll work on it further on another day when the weather and my headspace are less blustery.

What Colour is the Sea?

Uig to Stornoway Ferry Trip: Calm Sea

“Sea with waves does not have a universal colour, but he who sees it from dry land sees it dark in colour and it will be so much darker to the extent that it is closer to the horizon, [though] he will see there a certain brightness or lustre which moves slowly in the manner of white sheep in flocks

” … from the land [you] see the waves which reflect the darkness of the land, and from the high seas [you] see in the waves the blue air reflected in such waves.”

— Leonardo da Vinci, “Leonardo on Painting“, edited by Martin Kemp, Yale University Press, 2001, page 170

As frustrating an answer as it is, I think the true answer to the question “What Colour is the Sea?” always has to be “it depends”. There might be a single-word answer for what colour the sea is right now, from where you’re looking, but there is no single-word answer that is always right. (And certainly not living somewhere where the weather is as variable as Scotland.)

The colour of the sea depends on an assortment of elements, including the depth of the sea, how much wave action there is, how rocky or sandy the coast is, time of day it is, the weather. I’ve seen sea that’s dark near-black and sea that’s turquoise, sea that’s a mass of white waves and sea that’s white from reflected clouds. In summer, at sunset, I regularly see sea that’s purple and pink and yellow without a hint of blue or green. And in winter, at night, from my studio the sea a uniform blackness, with a handful of tiny lights from fishing boats and automated lighthouses.

Sea and sky

There’s no shortage of options available to a us when it comes to choosing colors for the sea. A colour chart from any paint manufacturer will provide you will the full range. But the reason I have so many ‘sea colours”‘ isn’t because a sea painting needs so many, rather it’s because I like colours and so have built up quite a collection of blues over the years, though I do have a core set that I use.

Sea Colours from Tsitsikamma

So although I searched through my paints for the various blues to paint the chart shown in the photo, I used only a few in a painting. Painting a colour chart makes it easy to compare the various colors and the opacity or transparency of each, and to remind you of options beyond favourites.

I hardly ever use ultramarine, a blue so many consider fundamental. If things aren’t going well, I’ll revert to my beloved blue, Prussian, and after that phthalo turquoise. But often blue isn’t the answer anyway, and then I’ll reach for colours to mix interesting greys, and orange, magenta, yellow, iridescent silver …