Plein-Air Ink Painting of the Viaduct at Cullen

Artist sketching the viaduct at Cullen, Scotland

Searching through my blogposts I see it was June 2019 when I last tried to paint the viaduct at Cullen, and looking at my results they’re not as dubious as I remember (see this blog). I’ve been through Cullen a few times since we moved east a little over a year ago, but not to paint until yesterday when there was a meetup of the Moray Firth Sketchers (you’ll find the group on Facebook).

I tore an A1 sheet of watercolour paper in half before I left home with the thought that this extra-wide format would work for the long sandy beach or the viaduct, depending on which I felt like when I got there.

Looking along the beach toward Cullen, Scoland
Looking along the long sandy beach away from Cullen, Scoland
Cullen viaduct

Maybe it was because I’d painted the sea the day before, but when I got my materials out my fingers itched to have a go at the viaduct. So after a quick detour to the nearby foodtruck for a hot chocolate to warm me up, I sat at a convenient picnic bench with my back to the sea view and got out my Payne’s grey acrylic ink.

Artist sketching the viaduct at Cullen, Scotland

The pillar in my view wasn’t quite as intrusive as the photo suggests as a little movement of my head was all it took to see past it to the left or right. I spent a bit of time holding up a finger to judge the angles of various parts of the viaduct (such as the top edge, the tops of the arches, the alignment of where the arches join the pillar), comparing the widths of the arches, and also running my finger across the sheet of paper to plan the composition and where I would position things.

Having mapped it in my mind, I then used the pippette of the ink bottle to draw the top edge of the viaduct, then the parallel line to this, then the curve of the arches and the vertical supports. If you were watching only from when I put ink onto paper it might seem as if I did this out of thin air but, while I didn’t do a preliminary sketch in pencil, I’d effectively drawn it invisibly first.

I used an inch-wide silicone ‘brush’ to stamp the lines around the tops of the arches. The marks are a bit long but they give the sense of the brickwork rather than getting bogged down in detail. Next time I’ll take some card and scissors so I can get a similar mark in different lengths. I also used this tool to spread the ink on the house roofs, the bank behind them; it gives a more uniform mark, without lines like a brush can produce. I particularly like using it for pleinair as you can simply wipe it clean.

After I’d put in the houses, I used a brush to dampen the areas under the arches and added a little ink in there. Then with even-more-diluted ink I put in a sense of the cloud sky above and below the viaduct. I had thought I’d draw in the trees in view through the arches, but once I added the sky I decided trees would distract from the viaduct, make it too busy, and so decided to stop. I’m glad I did.

Ink painting of the viaduct at Cullen, Scotland
Acrylic ink on watercolour paper, 84x30cm

Negative Space (and Bubble Wrap Printing) as a Starting Point for a Painting

After I found a sheet on which I’d at some point* printed with bubble wrap pressed into paint, I wondered if I could use this to create a sea shore painting by starting with the negative space around the rocks. The video below shows what evolved.

(If you don’t see this video, click here. There is not any sound on the video.)

Below are a couple of close-up photos of the painting, as well as one of the painting at the point at which I stopped.

Mixed media: acrylic paint, coloured pencil, and oil pastel on 350gsm watercolour paper

Being on paper, the white ink that was the last layer I applied did sink on a bit as it dried. That’s something I allow for and if need can always add more white paint or oil pastel to it. The unpredictability of exactly how it’ll dry is part of the fun of the technique, coming into my studio the next day to see what it looks like when totally dry. I particularly like the way it’s sunk in around the texture of the paper towards the top.

*I think it dates back to meeting of my art group on Skye!

Plein-Air Painting Near Crovie: The Bad, the Good, and the Ugly

A combination of low tide and mild weather (for February) saw me sitting next to the coastal path between Gardenstown and Crovie with some paper, acrylic ink, watercolour, and coloured pencils.

Go along the path and around the corner and Crovie pops into view

I think I’ve found a new favourite perch, a large flat rock with enough space for me and having my supplies within reach. Bonus is that there aren’t deep cracks for pencils and brushes to fall down never to be found again.

Ready, steady, paint!

The headland isn’t as far away in real life as it seems in the photo, and the ruggedness of the rocks caught my attention.

But I felt an obligation to first have a go at the houses in the village, because it would be rude to ignore the postcard view wouldn’t it?

So I got that out of my system with a quick sketch of the wide view, and was reminded how for me to do anything satisfying with an architectural subject I need to be in a mood where I can slow down and be a bit lot more meticulous with it. This day wasn’t such an occasion. Time for some craggy rocks instead.

I was pleased with this, which I think has feeling of the ruggedness of the rock and the gorse beginning to flower. Also because I managed to focus on a relatively small area, resisting the urge to include “everything”, and didn’t get caught up in detail.

I then shifted my attention to my left, where the tide was coming in against dark rocks, creating interesting contrasts of pattern and texture. Starting with Payne’s grey acrylic ink, my thought was to use line on the rocks and wet-into-wet for the sea. That plan got ruined by my dropping some water from my brush onto the rocks area, causing the ink there to spread. Note to self: put the water container on the right-hand side next time! It became a dark puddle, so I used a piece of paper towel to soak most of it off, followed by a wet paper towel to see if I could persuade any more to lift.

It left a grey tone to the whole area but also some interesting darker dried-ink lines. I was too irritated to continue with it, though what’s there has possibilities and I might take it back to this spot on another day. Being acrylic ink, I can overpaint it with watercolour without anything lifting and, being on paper, coloured pencil will sit on top too. Maybe I could crop in a bit too.

I sat for a bit waiting for the sheet to dry, watching the waves and oystercatches flitting about. Then there was a bit of pebble pondering, before wandering back along the patch to Gardenstown.

Painting Project: Negative-Space Vase of Flowers

Negative space is the part of a painting around and between objects and parts of an object. Thinking about negative space rather than the object itself requires a shift in mental gears, ignoring the “interesting thing” to focus on the “empty space”.

This painting project is about using negative space to create the outer edges of a subject. It’s about reversing your thinking and focus, finding the shape from the background not the subject. it’s a technique that works for all sorts of subjects, including figure painting and portraits, but for this project we’re going to use negative space to turn a chaos of brushmarks into a colourful vase of flowers.

You will need:

  • A sheet of watercolour or mixed media paper
  • Masking tape, to divide the sheet into two or four or six, depending on the size of your sheet of paper. (Doing multiple little paintings together removes some of the stress of getting it ‘right’ as it gives you several attempts.)
  • Your favourite colours. If you’re using watercolour, you’ll need some white gouache or acrylic to create an opaque colour. While I have done this with acrylic paint, the technique works with pastel too.
  • A mental image of a bunch of multi-coloured flowers in a ceramic vase with a strong single colour

What to do: This video explains it

What I enjoy about doing multiples on a sheet of paper at the same time is that every one is different. Here are the six little paintings in the video, and below this the six I did before recording the video.

Although in this video I’ve created the layers of random colour before painting the negative space, it’s also something you can do with a sheet of paper where you’ve brushed leftover paint from other paintings. Wipe off excess paint from your brush and over time the layers will build up until you’re in the mood for using it for a negative space painting or a warmup exercise. Here’s one I did in 2016:

REMEMBER: If you’d like personal help with creating your project painting and/or a critique on your finished painting, this is available to all my project subscribers via my Patreon site. Have fun, and do send me a photo of your painting for inclusion in the project gallery for us all to enjoy or share it in the Community Section of my Patreon site.

Art Project: Form Lines Not Outlines

Drawing a scrumpled up piece of paper with pen

This art project challenges you to draw a scrumpled up bit of paper without doing an outline first. The project is less about the subject and more about the technique and skills development. Though you’ll hopefully be surprised how interesting a scrumpled up piece of paper can become, more importantly it’ll help with brushwork in your painting (with which direction to make brushstrokes).


First, let me explain what I mean by outlines and form lines.

Outlines are the lines we draw of the “outer edge” of an object as we see it. We draw them because it gives us the overall shape of something, where it starts and stops against the background or other objects.

Form lines depict the “inside” of a subject, the lines we draw to show what’s going on inside an outline. These give a drawing depth (3D) and convey other things such as a sense of texture and direction. Form lines are like the slimetrail a snail leaves as it moves across an object, going up and down as the surface it’s moving across changes direction (though for this exercise you don’t want line to be wandering around at random like a snail, it wants purpose and direction like a snail heading for a tasty hosta leaf).

If you find form lines hard to visualise, try taking a length of string and draping it across the surface, then drawing the line of the string. Or run the finger of your hand not holding the pen across the surface of the object, and noticing when the direction changes, when it’s moving up or down rather than smoothly across.

It may feel that if we first draw the outline, it’ll make getting ‘the rest’ easier. But does it? Starting at one spot and working all the way around the object back to this point involves continual decisions about where we’re placing the line in comparison to what’s already drawn. You’re looking from edge to edge, ignoring what’s happening inbetween, whereas this could be helping if you were drawing using mostly form lines.


You will need: a piece of drawing paper, a piece of paper to scrumple up, a pen and/or paint marker, and a pencil.

The first few times you do this, use pen not pencil so you can’t second-guess yourself and rub out parts to redraw, but have to keep going. Give yourself permission to not aim to create a perfect drawing, but to spend time trying and learning.

What to do: Scrumple up a bit of paper and put it where you can see it easily. Pick an area to start drawing from, it doesn’t matter whether it’s on the edge or the ‘inside’ of the sheet. You’re going to use hatched lines (short, parallel lines) to depict the that area, its direction and shape. (Don’t use cross-hatching, only lines in one direction.)

Decide what direction you’re going to hatch and work your way across that shape. Then pick an adjacent area and do the same thing but change the direction of your hatching so it gives a sense of direction change between this and the previous area. Expand out from your first area until the whole scrumpled paper is done. Then add the outline as needed.

Draw in the ridges and shadow edges if you find this helps keep track of where you are as you look back and forth between your drawing and the scrumpled paper, along with lines showing the edge of the sheet. Don’t stress if you get lost, simply pick a point and draw from there. Ultimately the drawing lives by itself, without anything for comparison, so it doesn’t matter.

For areas in shadow, hatch closer together, and for areas in light, make the lines further apart. When using pencil rather than pen, you can also darken the tone of the pencil line as you make it by pressing harder or softer. Stick with pen initially as it’s one less thing to think about as you can focus solely on the form lines.


In my first example I’ve used red acrylic marker pen, which gives a consistent mark in terms of tone. (Red simply because I have a number of these sample paint markers which only came in red.) In my second I’ve used a propelling pencil so I wouldn’t need to stop and sharpen it.

Drawing a scrumpled up piece of paper with pen
Remember: the view of the scrumpled up bit of blue paper is different in this photo from the view I had of it when I was drawing. If you want a photo to compare what you drew to what you were seeing, you’ll need to think very carefully about the position of the camera when you take the photo.
Drawing a scrumpled up piece of paper with pencil and pen
Drawing a scrumpled up piece of paper with pencil

Suggestion: You might find it easier to use a piece of striped paper rather than plain. (For a printable stripey page as in the photo below, click here.)

REMEMBER: If you’d like personal help with creating your project painting and/or a critique on your finished painting, this is available to all my project subscribers via my Patreon site. Have fun, and do send me a photo of your painting for inclusion at the bottom of the project page for us all to enjoy or share it in the Community Section of my Patreon site.

Seven example drawings of scrumpled paper done by an art group
Drawings done by members of a friend’s art group
By Robb McKenzie

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.

Sketching the Sea: Looking at Waves

Page from sketchbook with sketches of waves

Often when I’m sketching the sea, I’m not aiming for a beautifully finished sketch, but rather at looking at one element and improving my observation of this. It’s easy with shore rocks, as they don’t move. (Though they might get hidden by the tide — I remember trying to find a square rock at the beach at Staffin I’d seen previously, only to realise on a subsequent visit that it requires a very low tide to be visible.)

Waves are constantly moving, so sketching one is a combination of memory of a specific wave (looking and then quickly drawing a section of it) and observation of the relentless march of waves that have similarities whilst being individual. Looking at how a swell curves as it heads to shore, how long across it is, where it first starts to break, how far up the beach it comes, how the water receding from the shore interacts with the next incoming wave, the ripples between waves, how much white foam there is, how close to the shore the final section breaks, the shape of the ridgeline of the wave before it breaks.

If I’ve included some rocks on a page, the lines I’ve drawn for waves are easier to interpret. But if they’re merely sections of waves, it all becomes rather cryptic if you look at them without any context — compare the right- and left-hand pages of these two spreads from my sketchbook.

Page from sketchbook with sketches of waves
Page from sketchbook with sketches of waves

Such sketches entirely for myself, and I rarely share photos of them because they’re not much to look at really. If you were paging through the sketchbook you would probably not stop at these pages. But when I’m looking through a sketchbook, it’s these types of pages that often reignite my inspiration the most.

Below is a photo of the sea on the day I did these sketches. I take lots of photos but it’s far more fun to sit by the seaside to than sketch from photos, and I’m lucky enough that I can.

Painting Project: Sea Texture in Gesso

The challenge of this project is to use gesso to create texture in a seascape, to add an extra layer of mark making to the painting. The texture is used to enhance the sense of movement in the sea, of waves rippling, breaking or crashing on the shore.

Using white gesso gives the potential of letting paint flow into the depths of the texture and leaving the ridges white like sea foam. Also to wipe the ridges clear of paint, or drybrush over just the tips of the texture.

I used a silicone tool to create the stripes in the gesso, which is why there’re so uniformly spaced.

Because gesso is hard to remove once it’s dry (short of taking sandpaper to it), this technique requires a bit of planning of your composition so you don’t end up with texture in an undesired spot, or texture that contradicts what the colour is doing (the subject). You can, of course, add more, but because white gesso is opaque* it will hide what you’ve already painted. (*Transparent gesso does exist.)

Reference Photos for this Painting Project:
I’ve chosen three photos, and encourage you to create a composition that takes elements from all rather than work from one photo only. They’re photos I think have interesting wave patterns and shapes, strong lights and darks, with a sense of waves marching to shore but also a lot of interest in the shallow water. All three photos were taken on the coast nearest to me in Aberdeenshire, at Gardenstown and the rocky bay a bit further east.

ART SUPPLIES LIST:
• Acrylic gesso or primer (i.e. water-based gesso not oil-based primer). Acrylic texture pastes will also work, but may not dry to a surface absorbent enough for watercolour to stick
• A coarse-haired brush or similar to apply the gesso, something that will leave brushmarks in the gesso
• A sheet of watercolour or acrylic painting paper
• Watercolours and/or acrylic paint/ink
• Water in a spray bottle to encourage paint to spread (optional)
• Paper towel to wipe unwanted paint from the ridges of the texture


WHAT TO DO:
Start by doing a loose sketch in pencil or pen of your composition, where the shore is, where the waves are. Think about the direction of movement of the water, and how you’ll convey this through marks in the gesso. Maybe sketch the directions in with a pencil before you apply the gesso so the decisions have been made before you start applying it. Gesso doesn’t dry instantly, so you’ve a little time to rework it, but don’t take too long. A coarse-haired brush works well, but don’t use a good one as gesso is hard on brushes. What kind of marks will you make on the shore, whether it’s sand or pebbles? Might you leave some of this area without gesso?

Leave the gesso to dry, because you don’t want to flatten any of the texture by painting over it before it’s dry. It can be hard to see what’s where when using white gesso on white paper, but if you hold it at an angle to the light you’ll see it better. A workaround is to first paint the paper a colour, leave this to dry and then apply the white gesso, which will then show clearly. (I prefer not to do this because the degree of uncertainty in not quite being able to make out where I applied the gesso adds a sense of discovery and energy as I respond to what’s revealed and where the paint goes.)

Start with fluid or watery paint, not thick, so it spreads out into the crevices and dips in the gesso texture. While this paint is still wet, flick in some darker and/or lighter colours; the splatter will spread slightly where it hits damp areas and remain as hard edges dots of paint on dry areas. Tilt the sheet of paper to encourage drips to run in various directions. Use paper towel to remove paint from the tops of texture ridges and soak up excessive puddles of paint.

Consider the lights and darks in the sea, which bits of water are darker and which lighter (use the reference photos for this information). Watch out for every area being the same colour and/or tone.

When you get to a point you think you’re happy, or get frustrated, lie the sheet of paper flat and let the paint dry. This will encourage any still-wet paint to settle into the grooves. When it’s dry, take a look at the ridges of the texture and consider whether you want to try to remove any paint from these (a bit of aggressive rubbing with a damp piece of paper towel usually does the job for me, but be careful!) or use a dry brush to apply paint to the ridges only (that is a brush with only a little stiff paint on it, held quite horizontal to the surface and pulled across so it just touches or tickles the ridges).


REMEMBER: If you’d like personal help with creating your project painting and/or a critique on your finished painting, this is available to all my project subscribers via my Patreon site. Have fun, and remember to send me a photo of your painting for inclusion in the project gallery for us all to enjoy or share it in the Community Section of my Patreon site.


Planning a Painting: Drawing Thumbnails

Thumbnails for February 2019 Ram Sheep painting project

A quick and easy way to plan a composition is to draw a thumbnail of your idea. By thumbnail I mean a small drawing, simplified to the main shapes and elements that you’re thinking of including in the painting. I tend to draw thumbnails in pencil or pen, using line, as it’s fast and I don’t have to wait for anything to dry. You might prefer do it with shapes of tone, or using paint or ink. It’s a personal preference.

In the video below (link) I’ve done three thumbnails, one each as portrait, landscape, and square format, to give you an idea of how I’d draw a thumbnail. I’m certainly not going to win any prizes for the drawings, but for me it’s about thinking of the position of the face and ears in the overall composition, how much space there is around them. Studio cat Misty is helping.

For me there are three rules:
1. Work fast, don’t overthink it and don’t obsess about neatness.
2. Do more than you think are enough. I sometimes draw a page’s worth of rectangles in various formats (landscape, portrait, square), then challenge myself to fill them all. It’s surprising what can emerge if you keep going, and the ones you don’t use immediately can provide ideas for paintings at a later date or for a series. Often I do use my first idea, but by testing it against others I know that it’s a choice made from preference not from a lack of ideas.
3. If you don’t do thumbnails, be prepared to rework your composition as you’re painting, possibly multiple times.

Here are some other examples of thumbnails from my sketchbook: