These four photos show this painting-in-progress I was working on yesterday.
Photo 1: Though you can’t see it in the photo, the sheep in the foreground and the cliffs in the distance had been ‘sketched’ in with texture paste, which is why I had put down colour on the sky, hills, and sea only. This having now dried, I started by adding yellow to the foreground, knowing the blue under this would show through, shifting it towards green. I applied the yellow directly to the canvas, then used a brush dipped in clean water and then some glazing medium to spread it around.
Photo 2: Without cleaning the yellow from my brush, I picked up some blue from my palette and let this run down, creating green. I added dark (perylene green) for the sheeps’ heads and legs, and applied a little to the distant hill. Then I started adding white for the sheeps’ wool.
Photo 3: I’ve added more colour to both the foreground and the distant hills. Permanent rose mixed with the leftover blueish colour on my brush/palette, giving a range of pink-purples, suitable heather colour. Then another round of white added to the sheep.
Photo 4: I’ve applied more dark to the faces (running the brush along the texture of the horns), and greens to the background. This wasn’t tube green, but created by mixing quinacridone gold with leftovers on my palette. Now it needs to dry completely before another round, which I’m hoping will get me to the “is it finished yet?” stage.
Given Monday’s Motivator to Keep Striving, I thought I’d share work-in-progress photos of one of the paintings I’ve been working on this week, one that’s been testing my resilience. Wildflowers are something that have bounced around my mind’s eye for some time, but a subject I’ve not translated into paint much. “Listening to Trees” was the first time I painted foxgloves to my satisfaction. My idea with this painting was for it to echo myforest paintings, but be only flowers. It’s a large canvas, 1×1 metre (about 39×39 inches).
The first photo shows where the painting was when I downed brushes yesterday. To my mind, very much still a work-in-progress that lacked oomph. It needed more tonal contrast, a stronger sense of sunlight, pinker foxgloves. The last thing I had done was to add a stronger dark tone using a mixture of Prussian blue, burnt umber, and perylene green. It was a bit streaky but once dry my plan was to do something similar with some “sunlight” and “blue sky”, then reassess.
How long would this take? Would it work? Doing it is the only way to know. I might make it worse, but ultimately that’s irrelevant as it’s not right now anyway.
Awake at four this morning thinking about this painting, I headed back into my studio to give it another go. I dug out some fluid medium, cadmium yellow, phthalo blue, and titanium white, then played around with very fluid paint and gravity. This photo shows where the painting is now. I like it more — it’s less static — but will reassess once it’s daylight. Studio cat seemed to approve though.
Update: I ultimately decided I did like what I’d done and made only minor tweaks.
If you’re to keep yourself interested in and stimulated by your painting, how do you combat routine and monotony? How do you get from blank canvas to “the interesting and challenging bit” without being bored?
1. Work Faster
Get through the initial blocking in of colour in as little time as possible. Use a bigger brush, paint faster. Focus on what you’re doing but also think about what you’ll be doing next.
2. Vary Your Approach
Don’t always paint the same size, on the same surface, or with the same medium. Add texture, use a brush that leaves strong marks.
3. Paint in Series
Investigate a subject in depth, don’t only do the one impression of a scene, but look to vary the lighting, the viewpoint, the style and the focus.
4. Add a Colour
If you fear monotony, then introduce a small segment of unusual colour to the painting. This will give the art work a bit of omph, and may well highlight where, in the rest of the painting, you are loosing interest.
5. Change Your Hand
Hold your brush in your other hand (the “wrong” hand). It will get you thinking more about the physical process of painting (because it doesn’t come so automatically), and free up that part of the mind which is worrying about aesthetics. Step back after a while and consider the painting from a distance, some of it will feel new and fresh for the simple reason that you mind has been concentrating on other things.
6. Swap Subjects
Whatever your ‘usual’ subject is — still life, landscape, wildlife — there’s no reason you have to paint only this. It is feasible to be successful painting more than one subject, whether you’re swapping between them or evolving from one to another. (As an example, take a look at the paintings of South African artist Peter Pharoah, who paints wildlife, abstracts, and figures.) If what you’re doing is feeling stale to you, the artist, what do you think the audience is going to feel?
7. Consider the Alternatives
Remember, you could have become a [insert: whatever you regard as the most dull of careers]. Now, doesn’t painting seem so much more exciting and fulfilling?
Some artists didactically insist black should not be used in a painting, often supported by the argument that the Impressionists didn’t. Do you ever hear it said about any other colour?
If you wouldn’t use black to darken a colour, then perhaps using white to lighten it shouldn’t be automatic either? The main problem is few colours are light in tone (though some do come in “light” and “dark” versions). You might lighten a red with a bit of yellow, but how would you lighten a yellow?
I think where “don’t use white” should be considered is when you’re working with the lightest tones on a painting. Don’t automatically use pure white, use very pale yellow, blue, red, green, purple first. Take a look at Monet’s snow paintings to see what interesting colours “white snow” can be (for example Lavacourt under Snow in the National Gallery in London).
A monoprint I made a few years ago has pale blue that seems lighter than the white of the paper (the top one in the photo). I think it’s the coolness of the blue that does this, against the warm white of the paper.
“My goodness this hit a really raw nerve! I so so soo want to paint. …But I never ever start. Why? I can’t draw/paint. Of course I’ve always desperately longed to. Can’t afford classes. And if I just ‘go for it’? Well, just what was said… I will be so upset if it’s a heap of rubbish.” — Jax
We need to permit ourselves the time to learn (and onlookers need to give us time too). Remember how many years it took you to learn to read and write fluently? Art is not instinctive like breathing, or inherited species memory like running from fire. It’s a learnt skill. It takes time to acquire. Time that’s hard to give ourselves.
Set aside the time as if you were going to a class and never skip a week. With a pencil and sketchbook work your way systematically and thoroughly through a good how-to book. Every week, as if you were paying to spend this time.
I recommend wildlife and botanical artist’s Katie Lee‘s book Fundamental Graphite Techniques — it’s practical, thorough, lacks arty-farty gobbledygook, and full of exercises to do. Katie’s a friend, and it’s her voice I hear in my head when I’m being too heavy-handed with a pencil (“layers of tone, Marion, not pressure”).
Don’t tear pages out of the sketchbook, keep every attempt, the good, bad and ugly. Week after week. Permit yourself the time. It’s the only way.
Failing to reach your painting aims? Perhaps it’s not that the destination is wrong. Try changing the starting point.
There’s that story about the tourist who stops for directions in the Scottish Highlands and asks for a famous beauty spot. He is told: “If you wanted to get to there, you shouldn’t have started off from here.”
Budding artists saying they are unable to achieve their desired results in a painting invariably assume the fault is somewhere in their ability to finish. But you should consider that perhaps you have started off from the wrong place, and this is why you’re unable to reach your destination.
So let us look at beginnings, starting points for paintings. A blank canvas is the starkest of all beginnings for a painting. It is a void which is often spoken of as having ‘great potential’, but often it causes consternation and procrastination. If there is no clear start, how do you take the first step. There are several, classic, methods for moving the starting point.
1. Preparing the Ground
Psychologists tell us colours are related to emotions. These relationships need not be the same for everyone, but by simply covering the canvas with a monochrome colour you have taken the first step on the path, created the first signpost, set the emotional quality of your art work in progress.
2. Creating an Ink Blot
Most people know about ink blot tests, those images used by psychologists to spur the imagination and access the deeper parts of your psyche. Well you can do the same with your painting. Smear one or more colours across the blank canvas. Not only does it remove that frightening field of whiteness, but you will start to see things in the abstracted patters of colour and tone. You will be starting your painting with a greater degree of creativity, the colours will act as a muse, getting those ideas sparking. Its easier to get to a destination when you start up high; you’re now rolling down hill and picking up momentum as the destination approaches.
3. Getting the Packing Right
The two ideas above take you forward in the journey, but what about stepping back slightly? If the problem in your final artwork is the composition, then you should take the time to work on thumbnails. Vary the shape and size of the thumbnail; it could be your initial choice of shape for the canvas is wrong, that it should have been an extreme landscape rather than a squat portrait for instance. Or the positioning of major elements in the painting didn’t quite come together, and the thumbnail gives you the opportunity to move things around. A thumbnail gives you the chance to ‘pour over the atlas’ a bit before stepping out on the journey.
4. Taking your Studies Seriously
The first step with any holiday destination is to look at the guide books and holiday brochures, right? So what about a painting? The first step for inspiration is to get out there and paint a few studies. This is not the same as making thumbnails, you are not looking to find the best composition, but at what inspires you to do the painting in the first place.? Studies are about form and colour and tone, capturing what you see and/or what you imagine. They should be done with a free hand, allowing the creative side of the brain to take over, and allow you to discover those little aspects of a painting which will enthral and mesmerise the eventual audience. And remember, once you have your masterpiece, there is also a market for smaller, modestly priced pieces of original work.
Next time you finish a painting and are dissatisfied with the result, think about where you started the process, rather than thinking your artistic skills are at fault.
Why is it some people are in love with the idea of painting and drawing, of being creative, but only ever talk (with great enthusiasm, and often at great length) about doing so, never taking the first step towards doing so? It’s too easily more comfortable never to try than face the possibility of failure (and success).
Fear your expectations won’t be met, that your paintings or drawings won’t be “good enough” (“What is it?“). Fear others will laugh at the results, or be patronizing (“That’s delightful dearest”). Fear of being perceived as wasting time and money. Fear you’re not as creative you think you could be. Fear you create something wonderful by accident and can’t repeat it.
There will always be a gap between what you’d hoped to create and what you do, something else you could’ve done to a piece. That’s not the same as never achieving paintings you’re really pleased about. It’s an idea/goal for next time.
There will always be people who don’t get it (neither the desire to do it nor the results) as well as the “my cousin thrice removed also paints pretty little pictures without any effort at all” brigade. Smile (in the British stiff-upper-lip tradition, not a manic grin) and move on. Their judgement of what you’re doing is inconsequential. It’s your time and money, you can decide how to use it. Someone criticising is wasting their own time.
Creativity, like most things, needs regular exercise and stimulation. Skills and techniques take time to learn, they’re not going to fall on your head like rain and soak into your brain without effort. Professional artists don’t display unresolved and failed paintings, that’s why it seems everything they produce is of a certain standard. The elephant in the studio is that these fears never go away completely, and new ones come along, you just squash them under a growing pile of artwork.
I’d headed out to recharge the batteries of my visual memory for my next cliff edge painting, a composition idea that’s been bouncing around my head but needed clarifying before I started. Sitting at the seashore listening to waves lapping and pebbles rolling, staring up at cliffs, in bright sunshine lulled me into looking and listening more than sketching (see short video of the scene).
It’s all to easy to worry about not getting good sketches done, and several of them, especially if it’s somewhere you might never return to, but these memories of a location are as important as sketches and reference photos. Back in the studio they pull you back into the joys of the location, and it’s this enjoyment of a landscape that adds the intangible extra to a painting that resonates with a viewer.
Sitting staring out to see isn’t “doing nothing”, though it may seem that way to onlookers. It’s part of the job.
The appearance of an egg box at a nearby croft has made me ponder trying painting with egg tempera again. According to Cennini’s Craftsman’s Handbook (first published in 1437 and still in print!) the yolks of country eggs are redder than town eggs, and good for making blue paint. So perfect for painting seascapes, as I’m wont to do.
“I battle to create a really acceptable picture, I study as much as I can, and never seem to improve. Is it possible there may be a person that can just never learn?”– Jillian P
There are things each of us finds harder to learn, certainly, and things we’ll never master to our satisfaction (not least because the goalposts have a habit of moving as we progress). Sticking at it without getting caught up in frustration can be tough.
Make a list to break down what you mean by “improve”, taking it further and further until you’ve got bite-sized bits to chew on. Pinpoint exactly what you feel your drawings/painting lack, then tackle it systematically and from multiple directions.
For instance, if the top level of your wishlist is “paint more realistically”, take a subject, say landscape. Then take a single element of this, say a tree. What kind of tree? An oak, or jacaranda, or boabab… whatever species you have growing nearby that you can see with your own eyes. What makes a tree: the trunk, branches, leaves, texture of the bark, overall shape. Look at these individually, the components not the whole.
Sit with a sketchbook and pencil, draw a line following the direction of one side of the trunk from ground level up. Look at the tree as much as the page.? Then the other side. Wander the pencil line amongst the branches. Look at the negative space. Contemplate what mark making will convey the sense of the bark (this may take you off on a tangent for a while studying mark-making). Keep colour and light/dark for another day. Do not aim to make good drawings, these are drawings about observation, not about “it looks like an oak tree”.
Make notes about what you see and feel. These help build visual memories and develop observation. Some pages of my sketchbook have more words than sketchlines.
Move from line into drawings with a sense of 3D by adding light/dark. Tree trunks and branches are cylinders, so draw the tree like a series of tubes, and apply tone accordingly. Next day, combine character lines and tubes to convey more realistic branches. Break down the journey to a painted tree in similar small steps: colours seen, mixing these, tones, brushmarks.
Sometimes it might be a shift in materials that helps. For instance I battle not to go in heavy-handed and dark too early on in a drawing. Starting with a 2H helps as it can’t produce very dark lines, as does using a propelling 2B or 4B pencil as this only produces lines of a certain thickness. Only late in the drawing do I swap to a “normal” pencil.
Be systematic, and aim small to build the bigger picture. Identifying what you’re aiming to achieve is a step along the path of getting there. You may ultimately never get where you want to be, but if you give up now you’ll definitely never getting there.