Notes from a “Colour and the Figure” Workshop

After four days’ life painting in Edinburgh in a workshop by Alan McGowan I found myself repeating “build a bridge between the orange and the blue, build a bridge between the orange and the blue“. Or more fully, create a colour link across the figure between the orange-warms bits and blue-colds parts through desaturated mixes of these.

Life Painting Workshop
“Build a bridge between the warm and cool…”

It had been a rewarding follow-up to last November’s Life Drawing into Painting Workshop. As always on a workshop, I learnt a lot and met interesting people who I wish I’d talked to more (my head is often so full during a workshop I find it hard to chat). My thanks to Alan, who is a generous, patient, encouraging, and understanding tutor. Thanks also to models Topaz, Nicky, and Alistair.

I feel I’ve made progress mixing “interesting greys”, and (finally!) created a figure painting where I didn’t inadvertently put a “warm” mixed colour onto a “cool” part of the figure (and vice versa).

A few of the notes to myself*:

  • Saturation as purity rather than intensity of a colour.
  • Create light by darkening other areas; dim the lights elsewhere.
  • Strongly found vs lost edges.
  • Don’t start dark and definite. Work from the middle outwards.
  • Avoid using white in shadow colour mixes. Don’t block in with white (or mix with white) early on.
  • Relate shadow to shadow to judge the tone, not shadow to light (e.g. shadow beneath arm to shadow beneath chin not to light on top of arm).
  • Don’t paint reflective light as bright as direct light; if it’s equally bright it’ll flatten the figure.
  • A small colour shift has great impact amidst desaturated colours.
  • Add white to a background colour to make it opaque; it’ll demand less attention than transparent colour.
  • The face colours on Whistler’s Mother are cold; it’s the rest of the painting’s greys that make it seem warm.
  • Coolness of Ken Currie’s The Three Oncologists
  • Used caput mortem (very opaque oxide violet red) for drawing into a work in progress; sits strongly on top of wet oils paint. Isolate it on palette so don’t accidentally include it in other mixes.
  • Colours I used: Prussian blue, cerulean blue, Payne’s grey (Sennelier’s, which is very blue), vermillion, alizarin crimson, magenta, primary yellow, yellow ochre, burnt umber, raw and burnt sienna, titanium and zinc white. On Alan’s workshop colour list that I didn’t use: ultramarine, viridian.

*Written in a pocket sketchbook during the workshop, because I know I’ll forget too much otherwise.

Figuring It Out (aka Life Drawing)

I’m away for the weekend for a little creative R&R, on a life drawing/painting workshop being led by Alan McGowan for Art Lochaber. Besides the creative stimulation (and break from the varnishing, stringing and admin for my forthcoming exhibition), I was hoping to build on what I’d done last November. I printed out my notes to myself from that workshop, and did today find myself mentally referring to some points (e.g. positioning the angle of the head by looking at where the mouth was in relation to a mental line drawing across the shoulders). I’m pleased with what I produced, especially the tonal ‘lift-off-the-paint’ Rembrandty one, but as for being less heavy handed with charcoal, well that’s still on my to-be-improved list. Apologies, the photos are mere phone snaps.

3 minute figure gesture drawings
Three gesture drawings; three minute poses. Charcoal on A2.
5 minute figure gesture drawing
Five minute pose. Charcoal on A2.
10 minute gesture life drawing
10 minute pose. Charcoal on A2.
20 minute charcoal figure drawing
20 minute pose. Charcoal on A2.
Life painting with graphite and solvent
Graphite and solvent on acrylic primed paper, plus white oil paint. A2.
Life painting
Working from dark to light. Mixture of burnt sienna and Prussian blue (both transparent pigments) mixed with a little linseed oil to slow drying, on primed paper. Wipeaway with cloth and brush/solvent to get highlights.

Monday Motivator: Focus on the Core not the Outline

Monsieur P Artiste Monday Motivator from Marion Boddy-Evans Isle of Skye art Studio

Art motivational quote“The Greeks don’t start from the outline, they start from the centres, from the cores. …

“This question — Millet draws like that too — more than anyone else — is perhaps the root of all figure painting — is extremely closely related to modelling by drawing directly with a brush — conceived totally differently from Bouguereau and others, who lack interior modelling, are flat compared with G?ricault and Delacroix, and who don’t go beyond the paint.”

— Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo, c.28 January 1886

This week’s challenge: Going beyond what you know you can do into the as-yet-unknown yonder. Or put more plainly: try something new, whether it’s an approach, subject, or medium.

At the End of Day 5: Life Drawing into Painting Workshop

Day five of Alan McGowan‘s “Life Drawing into Life Painting” workshop saw us start with four five-minute poses, followed by three 10-minute poses, an hour pose, and the long afternoon pose. We were free to choose which medium/technique we wanted to use and what we worked on. I put acrylic onto A2 cartridge paper to use with graphite, solvent and titanium white, something I really enjoyed when we tried it on the first day.

I did all four of the five-minute poses on one sheet; it eliminates the need to change paper and as I suspected model Michael shifted from one pose to the next without a break. Tricky part is composition, as you’ve no idea what the poses may be.

Four Five-Minute Life Paintings
Four five-minute paintings on acrylic-primed A2. Worked from right to left, using graphite stick, solvent, and titanium white. (Photo is a bit too blue.)

It’s amazing how much longer 10 minutes feel at the end of week’s focused life painting than at the beginning.

Day 5: 10 Minute Painting
The drawing back in with graphite of the hand has gone a bit wobbly elongated Egon Schiele-ish.

Day 5: 10 Minute Painting

After these, an hour-long pose with a break after 30 minutes. I wanted to move away from the desaturated colours I’d been using in the long afternoon pose. Parts work for me, others not, but I was left feeling that with more time I would indeed have resolved more.

One Hour Life Painting

In the afternoon, I wanted to try another, again with more saturated colours, rather than continuing my long-pose painting from the previous afternoons. Not that I consider it finished, but I felt I could learn more by painting something else, trying things that painting wasn’t. Alan resolved the eye (middle photo), showing me (again) how to carve out the sense of the deep socket the eye sits in, the planes around the eye, nose and chin. Ever so helpful being able to watch it develop stroke by stroke, colour by colour. Another valuable thing he reminded me about was the light on the two anatomical landmarks on the arm, which help a lot in the sense of form changing direction in space. The joy of life painting: it’s all in front of you, it’s merely (!) looking and decisive placing of a brushstroke.

Longer pose life painting
The afternoon’s painting, oils on acrylic-primed (white + Prussian blue) A2 paper.

Notes to myself:
— Colour and tonal changes on planes.
— Eye sits deep in socket.
— Watch distance to farside brow.
— Drips can be problematic if running from face. Especially watch out for drip from end of nose.
— Instead of trying to paint thin tonal change on nose, paint broad and then cut back in with background.
— With a relatively dark ground, if left exposed it’ll read as an edge.

At the End of Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4
What I Found Walking Along the Seashore at Gardenstown
Wirework: Memories of a Walk on Gardenstown Beach
Lost Your Marbles?
Photos: In Gardenstown (afternoon before art workshop)
Photos: Walking on the Beach at Gardenstown

At the End of Day 4: Life Drawing into Painting Workshop

Day four of Alan McGowan‘s “Life Drawing into Life Painting” workshop saw us start with two 10-minute charcoal drawings, followed by a 20-minute one, then onto some colour theory and a painting with a palette to which magenta and cyan were added, followed by the long post in the afternoon again.

Charcoal Life Drawing
Two 10-minute drawings. First, on the left, has its moments. Second, on the right, went all angular and stiff.
Charcoal Life Drawing
Third charcoal drawing, lying down pose, 20 minutes.

I added magenta and cyan to my palette for the long pose, for purples in shadows, as contrast to the yellow light. But overall stayed with mostly desaturated colours. It’d be great to have another week to work this pose again, with the same colours on my palette but used more saturated.

Long pose life drawing
There’s a long way it could still go, and perhaps the colours and too desaturated, but I had a lot of enjoyment working on this long post painting. I’m feeling much more aware of warm/cool colours and colour (de)saturation than before this week.
My position in the studio
My position in the studio. Painting on easel is the long-pose one; on floor is this morning’s study. Palette is on a high barstool, so at a good working height.
My working oil painting palette
My palette at the end of the afternoon. Colours: burnt sienna, golden ochre, magenta, cyan, Payne’s grey, mixed titanium and zinc white. Plus a tiny dab of cadmium yellow.

Notes to myself:
— Highlights in reflected (indirect) light will never be as high in tone as highlights in direct light. The difference is crucial for getting sense of body turning in space.
— Range of colours produced by limited palette. When adding additional colours, consider what it’ll produce when mixed with what already using, whether it’s close to colours you’ve already got or opening new areas. E.g. with palette palette of muted primaries: burnt sienna (?red?), golden ochre (?yellow?), and Payne?s grey (“blue”) adding magenta introduces purples and cyan increases greens.
— With highly saturated colours, such as Matisse used, tone of the colour is still fundamental.
— Use the background to focus on negative space around the body and between sections, to carve in more accurate shapes.
— Check tone of background and put it in relatively early so it doesn’t distract the eye. (Look at “background” beneath stool above.)
— Use 50:50 mix of zinc:titanium white for a white with properties of both (transparent:opaque) akin to properties of lead white.
— Consider and cross check overall shape of figure, e.g. triangle from head to hands to feet.

At the End of Day 1: Life Drawing into Painting Workshop
At the End of Day 2: Life Drawing into Painting Workshop
At the End of Day 3: Life Drawing into Painting Workshop
What I Found Walking Along the Seashore at Gardenstown
Wirework: Memories of a Walk on Gardenstown Beach
Lost Your Marbles?
Photos: In Gardenstown (afternoon before art workshop)
Photos: Walking on the Beach at Gardenstown

At the End of Day 3: Life Drawing into Painting Workshop

Day three of of Alan McGowan?s ?Life Drawing into Life Painting? workshop saw us start with three 10-minute charcoal drawings, then onto limited palette painting with oils and an afternoon-long session.

Charcoal life drawing

Charcoal life drawing

Next up was painting with oil, using a limited palette of muted primaries: burnt sienna (“red”), golden ochre (“yellow”), and Payne’s grey (“blue”). Alan emphasized doing the initial drawing (with brush) in neutral colours, so that it didn’t overwhelm subsequent blocked in colour. Part of this painting was getting familiar with working with oils: getting consistency right (not too thick too early and not too thin), mixing even colours (no stray, unmixed bits), planning ahead for working wet on wet. Given my landscape painting involves fluid paint, encouraging paint to run, and I often work with only a single colour at a time (to eliminate the problem of acrylic drying on a palette), I found myself hesitating and second guessing. By the time the model took a break, I was still stuck in “muted colours” and the only light in the painting was the cloth against the chair. But I felt I’d learnt a lot by identifying some things I do habitually in my studio painting that I might do differently (on occasion, if not always).

Limited palette life painting
Halfway point in the pose.

With model Michael back in the pose, it was time to explore the possibilities of these colours, mixed clean rather than muted. At one point Alan demonstrated on the eyes/nose/chin what he meant by laying in the darks first, then cutting in with lights over this; I preserved this bit of painting, other than adding the light blue highlight as suggested, extending the nose a little and adding a bit of Michael’s beard, telling myself it was because there was more than enough else to be done within the time. Final change was to narrow the width of the head by adding background colour.

Limited palette life drawing
Even though, by the end of the pose, there was a long way this still needed to go, it’d come on a long way.

After lunch we started with oils on the long-pose painting, for which we’d done the initial drawing using acrylic yesterday. It doesn’t particularly look like it, but lot of time spent thinking “warm/cool” with the colour mixing. Looking at painting during model’s last break, I realized the angle of the shin didn’t relate to the bent knee; work-in-progress photos reveal how long I’d missed seeing it. Ended with realizing the forehead needed to be bigger, shifting the eyes/nose/chin down, so I put in darks ready for continuing tomorrow afternoon. Overall, a tremendously rewarding and satisfying day.

Long pose life drawing
An afternoon’s work (2.5 hours with model breaks).

Notes to myself:
• Think planes, changes in direction. Use for brushstrokes.
• It’s not a coloured-in drawing; apply deliberate brushstrokes where colour/tone occurs, working across whole composition all the time.
• Judge which surface is flat and which has the change of direction; shadow is on this. It may be the part in front e.g. bent leg against a torso.
• Put down darkest tones before light. Exaggerate/overemphasise somewhat, then carve into this with light. Reads far better than dark over light.
• Using a muted primary palette means you’re already part of the way there with skintones, gives a faster in to painting, rather than having to mute-down primaries.
• Include width of head vs width of torso in cross-checks.
• At end of painting session that will continue, leave it somewhere specific so know what you’ll start with next time.
• All parts of the painting must be contributing, even if not yet resolved.

At the End of Day 1: Life Drawing into Painting Workshop
At the End of Day 2: Life Drawing into Painting Workshop
What I Found Walking Along the Seashore at Gardenstown
Wirework: Memories of a Walk on Gardenstown Beach
Lost Your Marbles?
Photos: In Gardenstown (afternoon before art workshop)
Photos: Walking on the Beach at Gardenstown

At the End of Day 2: Life Drawing into Painting Workshop

Second day of Alan McGowan’s “Life Drawing into Life Painting”workshop saw us start with three charcoal drawings, both as warm-ups and to increase the number of drawings we do overall during the week.

Workshop Day 2: Charcoal
This suffers from “head sits above shoulders” problem — straightening the neck and putting the head too high. You can see Alan’s light charcoal marks where he’s shown where it more likely is.
Workshop Day 2: Charcoal
A lot unresolved, but I like the mood of this drawing. I do wonder if it’s because it’s dominated by line, rather than tone.

Next up, tonal painting with acrylics. My attempt went from “dubious but with a sense of light” to “decidedly dubious and now also dull” (my words, not the tutor’s!). I put this attempt into the “trying too hard” category, where I get so desperate for things not go wrong further that of course things do.

Workshop Day 2: Tonal Figure Painting with Acrylic-two-acrylic-tonal
So much for introducing light into my tonal study. The left-hand photo is where it was when the model took a break; the right where it ended up.

Then onto a colour acrylic painting. Colour…I can do colour, can’t I…?! Yes, but can I do composition, proportions, tone, considered mark making, warm and cool, colour and a living, breathing model…?

Workshop Day 2: Figure Painting with Acrylic
Oodles wrong unresolved in this, and model’s beard definitely too blue, but a few aspects I like.

And finally the initial drawing in acrylics for an oil painting to be done over the next three afternoons. Idea is that if you end up in a murky oil-paint mess, you can scrape back to this acrylic start. The more I look at this photo, the more I see how his legs/arms need adjusting.
Workshop Day 2: Initial Start

Notes to myself:

  • Remember head and neck sit within the bowl of the shoulders, it’s not a lollipop stuck on top. Check position and check again! Think of dotted line joining the two shoulders, and what facial feature this goes through. For instance, bottom of chin or nose, or the mouth. Check relationship to spine and vertical relationships (with pelvis/feet) to check position.
  • Follow the progression: composition, gesture (armature), add the destinations (head, feet, elbows/hands) in probable positions, find the road between the destinations (focus on mass not outline), cross-check the map (check relations between body parts), adjust and repeat, and only when this is sound start looking at tone.
  • Add eyes, nose, and planes around eyes early on for a sense of scale overall.
  • Be deliberate, decisive, find and loose edges with considered looking.
  • Four considerations not two, especially with orange light on model from heater: warm highlights, warm shadows, cool highlights, cool shadows.
  • Most of the painting will be midtone.
  • Eliminate the unwanted light of the paper fairly early one, all the way to the edges; it distracts the eye.
  • Traditionally a dark background would be done with glazed layers not thick paint, which is reserved for light tones.
  • Turner’s known for his landscapes, not his figures.

At the End of Day 1: Life Drawing into Painting Workshop
What I Found Walking Along the Seashore at Gardenstown
Photos: In Gardenstown (afternoon before art workshop)

At the End of Day 1: Life Drawing into Painting Workshop

First day of Alan McGowan‘s “Life Drawing into Life Painting” workshop saw us working with tone only. Started with charcoal, gesture line and block drawings, then longer charcoal drawing.

Charcoal life drawings
Some proportions are awry, and needs an area of detail for focal point, but bits I like. Time was 30 minutes, I think.

Next up: graphite stick, white oil paint and solvent on acrylic painted coloured ground. Graphite with white mixes to cool grey. Wiping off paint reveals warmish ground. Get highlights with white or by wiping off; darks from graphite.

Start with graphite drawing, then go over with big brush with solvent, remembering that lots of graphite will turn very dark. Then smaller brush with white paint (50:50 titanium:zinc to give something with properties like lead white ie opaque where thick, transparent where thin) and cloth for lifing off. First time I’ve done this, and really enjoyed it.

Graphite and oil paint
Loved this technique. Solvent over the graphite is like watercolour pencil, but it “dissolves” more readily and the oil paint means it stays workable, which makes the lifting off of colour an ongoing option. Time was about 45 minutes.

Next up: Reductive painting technique, working from dark to light. On cartridge paper primed with 50:50 PVA:water to give a less absorbent, more slippery surface, cover with dilute Van Dyck brown hue mixed with solvent and linseed oil to give an even, dark layer (not a thin, transparent, glazed layer). Use cloth to wipe off paint, lighter tones. Solvent on cloth will take you back to white of paper.

This is a bad photo, taken under strip lights which make contrast much greater and glare on wet paint. It’s a technique that can produce fabulously subtle, gentle tones.

Reductive life painting
Can’t remember how long we had, but at least an hour.

Notes to myself:

  • Make curvier lines on gesture-drawing (armature level of drawing), not so angular. Perhaps exaggerate somewhat to counteract subsequent straightening up of figure and check angle on torso more as working.
  • Use gesture drawing as armature, building outwards; don’t start at outlines.
  • Don’t be so heavy handed with the charcoal, being too dark too early and harder to rework.
  • Remember to look for lightest tones, and more variations in midtones.
  • Limit quantity of lightest/darkest tones and it can be more effective.
  • Put in shoulders and feet in pairs, not separately.
  • Balance gestural markmaking with small areas of detail.
  • Anchor figure to surface.

Related: Photos: In Gardenstown (afternoon before art workshop)