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:
This painting project challenges you to paint portrait of a dog with expressive brushwork, against a background dominated by a single colour. To use visible, loose brushwork on the body, getting more detailed in the face.
This trio of photos are provided for inspiration, from a friend of mine on Skye. (Click on photo to get a larger version.) If you’ve your own favourite four-legged friend, you will likely find taking a reference photo is easier than painting from life unless they’re sleeping, or if you really like a challenge, first do a painting from memory, then compare the result to reality.
SIZE AND MEDIUM: The format (portrait or square or landscape) and medium are up to you. If you use pastels or coloured pencil rather than paint, think about the different sizes of mark you’ll make depending on how you hold it.
BACKGROUND: As it’s to be a portrait, keep the background simple. Use colour variation, but avoid having the background look flat and even, it wants some energy to it through some gentle colour variation. Use a colour that’ll enhance the colours of the fur and/or eyes. For example, a blue will make the golden oranges of eyes brighter, blue and orange being complementary colours. You can then use blues in the shadows and blacks, so the background connects with the subject.
Watch out for the background feeling like it’s painted around rather than going behind the head. With longhair dog this can be solved by painting fur so it goes over the background at the edges of the face and body
BRUSHWORK: For an expressive style, leave brush strokes visible and don’t blend them out. Use loose brushwork that suggests things and leaves our imagination to fill in the details, rather than telling us everything. Use ‘streaky’ brushmarks where the hairs of the brush are spread out giving a broken mark rather than a solid one. Use a big brush for the fur on the body, at least an inch — pick the one you think you want to use, then swap it for a bigger one. Use a brush half that size for the ears and sides of face, again keeping it loose. Then smaller mark making again for the face, but don’t paint every single detail; remember to leave some things suggested.
COLOURS: Add life and energy by using colour, going beyond what’s “real” for poetic effect.
Don’t use pure white except at the very last layer. Think of “almost white”, using warmer tints in the areas catching the light (yellow, orange, pink) and cooler in shadow (blue, green, purple) as well as areas the light doesn’t fall (such as below chin). Remember to think about two different aspects to the colour choices: tone and separating warm/cool. (I don’t do much with warm/cool in my own painting, but it’s an interesting way to approach colour. What’s warm and cool is relative, depending on context. So a yellow-green can be warm whereas a blue-green is probably cold.)
For black, either mix a strong dark so it’s not pure black and makes a more interesting grey when you mix in white, or use Perlyne black because with white it’s such a lovely earthy black with green tinge (perfect for a sheepdog). In terms of adding a dark blue (Prussian) or purple into areas so it’s not only black, I’d possibly start by painting the areas black, then overpainting with blue and purple that aren’t quite as dark.
COMPOSITION: think about how much space there is around the head and body, doesn’t want to feel squashed in. Also whether you place it centrally or to one side. Another option is to let the ears go off the top, though you loose the lovely sharp points.
FUR DIRECTION: look closely at the direction the fur grows, and have brushmarks follow this. It may be worth taking the time to draw a fur map so you know what direction to move your brush across each part of the body and face (see this article of mine from Painting.About.com days).
FOR INSPIRATION: It’s a subject contemporary artist Sally Muir paintings beautifully and tenderly. Sally has two books of her paintings: “Old Dogs” and “A Dog a Day“, and posts photos of her social media.
Painting a dog’s portrait not a modern idea. This painting is attributed to 19th century English artist Joséphine Bowes (1825–1874), in the Bowes Museum in England.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.