Which of these four photos shows ‘the truth’ of this painting?
Top left: Taken in my studio out of direct light (most of my photos are taken like this). Top right: Photo edited with ‘auto-adjust’ (subtle differences). Bottom left: Taken in my studio in direct sunlight. Bottom right: Taken in my studio with part of it in direct sunlight through the window
I think they’re all ‘true’ because what you see in a painting depends on the light. The more light there is, the more you’ll see down through the layers of colour; the less light there is, the less you see. That’s one of the joys of an original painting, what you see does change as the light changes through the day. One photo simply can’t convey it all.
Sitting in the sunshine at the shore looking out across the bay towards the Shiant Isles, that’s the inspiration behind this painting. It’s somewhere I often sketch, but haven’t done as a painting on a large canvas for some time.
If you’re wondering about the colour differences between these two photos, one was taken on my phone camera and the other on my SLR (“proper”) camera. In terms of which colour is truer to the original, it’s the first, but neither is perfect. What you see in a painting done with texture and multiple layers of paint changes with the light conditions too.
Here are a few work-in-progress photos from this painting:
This is the painting that’s currently on my easel, a sequence of photos taken while I painted, up to the what I will be facing when I head back into my studio. It’s 100x100cm (39×39″).
Looking at the photos, Jerry Fresia’s “complete at any stage” popped into my head: “… at each moment of the process a painting ought to have correct value and color relationships. It ought to be complete at any stage. … think of a painting … [as] something alive that grows and moves in unexpected directions, not unlike jazz improvisation“.
Having correct colour and tone relationships at each moment is something I aspire to, and not having it is often the ‘problem’. In this painting there’s a point at which I make the mountains too dark, as I refined the shape and made them more “mountain colour”. This was resolved by having some cloud drift in (glazing with thin whites and greys).
At another point I realised I was struggling with the water in the river because I was trying not to get “river colour” on the bridge. I could have prevented this, of course, by not starting on the bridge before I had finished the river, not having painting so much of it, or not worrying about preserving it. But liking what I already had, I opted to mask it off with some tape instead.
I’m aiming for a “river in spate” level of water, influenced by how it was when I took this video earlier this month.
I’m thinking of it as a companion piece to this more summery painting (which is at Skyeworks Gallery):
I’ve had a few comments from February’s project participants about not being able to paint horns like I do. Let me let you into a little secret: in my studio I have a pencil drawing of a horn the in-house art critic did for me several years ago as a ‘cheatsheet’ for the shading because I kept getting myself muddled and stressed.
It’s a bit cryptic, reduced to four elements — outline line, white highlight, shaded shadow, and twisted-form zigzag . It reminds me of the essentials, without the distraction of colour, pattern, or ridges, or position of ears. It’s been in the corner, within view though not consciously seen every day. Encouragement and reassurance, a reminder and incentive. It’s taken me ages to feel I can do horns to a level that consistently pleases me, but I feel I’ve got there now, probably.
If you scroll through my sheep paintings you’ll see how horns pop up now and again, but not often. That’s changed over the last few months, even going to this extreme:
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So having discovered my phone has a slow-motion option on its videos, I’ve been playing with it a bit. This short clip shows how I splatter paint, a technique I use a lot for my sheep and seascape paintings.
It’s a “happy accident” technique you learn to control through practice. The consistency of the paint is crucial, and that you learn through trial-and-error.
The quality of the video isn’t brilliant because it was done late afternoon in low winter light. And imagine my phone balance precariously on my tripod, held by various bulldogclips. Perhaps I ought to set a Patreon goal that relates to better video equipment?
Continous line is as it sounds, drawing a line without stopping. I think of it as a line tracking what my eyes are looking at, done at the speed I am looking.
You don’t close your eyes when you look from one part of a subject to another. So if you’re creating a drawing that’s foremost about looking rather than representation, then the line should be continous, not broken (though it could get lighter).
If you’re using pencil, where you don’t have to stop for a while before you “run out” (i.e. need to sharpen it), things can get really interesting as you loose where you are on the sheet of paper (and you didn’t stop to reorientate yourself). By interesting I mean abstracted and distorted. It’s worth doing a few times, giving yourself a taste of the freedom that comes when you’re concentrating on looking, not on the results nor perspective nor representation.
I had a search through my photos but can’t find an example from my own drawings, which doesn’t really surprise me as I don’t often do it with pencil except in a life-drawing session. Have a search online for “blind continuous line”, but be sceptical about all the ones that look like perfect contour drawings.
What I like doing most is continuous line with quick checks keep the drawing achored in reality, regardless of what medium I’m using. An ink bottle pipette lends itself to this as the ink runs out regularly. When I stop to dip the pipette back in the bottle, I look down at my drawing, then back at what I’m drawing, decide where I’m going to look/draw next, position the pipette at a suitable point, then draw again. As I’m drawing I occasionally glance down, to check what I’ve done and where I am and whether I’ve run out of ink, but mostly as looking at what I’m drawing.
This video shows what I mean. I’m look at the outlines and cracks in a slab of rock on the shore at Camus Mor, north Skye (see this blog post and this one for more photos, from the day before I took this video):
I do it with both my left and my right hand, especially working in the A3 landscape sketchbook I’ve been using the past few weeks.
This is what it looked like when I’d finished the line drawing, with a section of rocks I was looking at behind it.
This time, after I’d done the ink line drawing, I then used a small, flat brush and water to turn some of the still-wet line into ink wash. Plus some paper towel to lift off excess ink and create pattern.
There’s a risk to doing this, a risk of messing up a drawing I was pleased with, not least because how much of the ink is still wet is an unknown factor. On a cold winter’s day I know it’ll be more rather than less, though the wind does still dry thinner lines quite fast. It would be more sensible to let the acrylic ink line dry completely and then add a layer of watercolour, which could be lifted and changed without moving the dry ink. But I spend too much time being sensible, logical, responsible, practical (cue: Supertramp’s Logical Song).
That moment when everything flows, everything works, it feels effortless and the results, when you stop, surprise you. That Zone of Creativity, ever-elusive, ever-desirable.
I don’t have a fool-proof recipe for how to get “in the zone”. I do, however, know how to guarantee that I won’t, and that’s by desperately wanting to and trying too hard. The harder I try, the more I second-guess what I’m doing, and things go from bad to worse to dire.
It’s only by thinking less about the overall outcome, by worrying less about whether something is right or wrong, by allowing myself to trust that I’ll be able to fix mistakes as they happen and work through and over them, by not stressing about ‘wasting’ materials and time if I don’t because I can start again, make another attempt, that I begin to create the conditions for being in the zone. (And, yes, that is a ridiculously long sentence; welcome to the inside of my head.)
A pristine new page in a sketchbook holds so many hopes and possibilities. The moment you make the first mark, you’ve narrowed those. But if it becomes dissatisfactory, you simply turn the page and start again.
With the ink drawing I did this time, it flowed right from the start. It felt effortless doing it; I was delighted with the result. But it wasn’t the first sketch of the day, it was the second. And the day before I’d also been sketching at this location (see photos). I swapped from pencil to ink, I narrowed my focus to a specific element that fits with line, and I’d just munched some ginger biscuits with a warming cup of peppermint tea. Which of these was the magic ingredient? All and none.
My intention was to capture a sense of the rock, the solid slab and the vertical cracks. I started on the left, and did it by looking at a specific point, drawing until the ink ran out, then dipped the pippette back in the bottle, focused on a new bit of rock and drew again. I didn’t worry about exactly where I stopped and starting, I wasn’t trying to get an exact representation of the rock, so it didn’t matter if I skipped a bit or made them the wrong size or shape. Ultimately the drawing stands alone, not in comparison with its source.
I was thrilled with it. Now the question becomes: what will happen the next time I try to draw on this location? To Infinity and Beyond!
So having stared at my painting-in-progress on and off, pondered it and where I might go with it a lot, visited the location again, I decided I liked the brushwork on the painting too much to risk messing it up and so would not continue working on it. Just yet, anyway.
Instead, I would start another painting on the same subject, and push this further, using layers of line along with brushmarks. And while I was feeling brave and bold, I’d do it big, so set up two 100x100cm canvases on side-by-side easels. (It did mean the In-House Art Critic was temporarily unable to get easily to the chair in the Studio Reading Corner.)
These painting-in-progress photos are unfortunately a little out of focus (taken in the low winter light at the end of the day).
I liked where I’d got to, but felt I’d lost the energy of my original layers of mark making and it lacked line. So implementing my rule of “be dramatic, you can’t tweak a painting into working”, I took a handful of acrylic paint markers and worked a layer of line over the painting, trying to do it as freely as I would if I were drawing in an initial layer of continous line. It was both frightening and liberating, and the further I went, the freer I became.
I deliberately stopped to take a photo of the purple line I added to the waterfall rocks, which is where I started adding the line layers, so I’d have photographic evidence a reminder. It felt over-the-top when I started, but had additional line layers of darker colours on top of this.
Studio Cat Ghost also helped.
I don’t have any other progress photos, but it involved overpainting some of the line to knock it back, some glazing to enrich colours, and just generally “some more”, until I started to think I was happy with it. I showed the In-House Art Critic, who told me to stop. I was surprised as I’d thought he’d say I should hide more of the line, but he said that he liked how the painting reveals more and more mark making as you get closer.
A few detail photos:
And the full painting, showing you where the details come from:
The title “Never Still” comes from my friend Lisbeth in Australia who, when I sent her photos, said: “I think the lines, and the colours you’ve chosen for them, give the painting a dynamism that real life has — nothing is really ever still, even rocks. Nothing is still inside us as well.“
Let me start by saying this story has a happy ending, in the shape of the largest painting I have ever created 200x100cm (78×39″). A painting I love, as does the in-house art critic and and the close friends I have sent photos to, and my Mum.
The story starts with my intoxication by the double waterfall and River Rha tumbling through the rocks (see photos) which I visited for the first time last month and then did multiple times thanks to a stretch of dry weather. I enthused so the in-house art critic came along once, together with his pastels, to sit in temperatures <6°C in the icy fine spray off the waterfall. That’s love!
My fingers itched to paint the location, to translate my sketches and mental images onto canvas. But wasn’t I being over ambitious the voice-of-doubt kept whispering? How would I be able to convey the sense of water when the colours of the river were the same as the hillside? The only “water colour” was the white of the waterfall and rapids. Would I be able to get the layers upon layers of vegetation, the sense of the steep hillside, the stillness, the presence of the rocks? All these doubts, despite the fact that I had sketches that I was pleased with, that could lead the way.
What’s wrong with being over ambitious occasionally, I kept telling myself. I might just pull it off, and how wonderful wouldn’t that be. I decided to work over a painting that hadn’t gone anywhere, removing the pressure of a pristine canvas, whilst stimultaneously giving me a starting layer for the hillside. The long format also echoed the format of my sketchbook. Here’s what it looked like when I started adding the first reworking layer, in Prussian blue.
A bit later:
My palette, which will make more sense to those I’ve had conversations with about putting minimal paint out at any one time:
And a bit later still:
Problem now was that I really liked where I was with this, but could see various directions I could go with it. (Also known as the “don’t mess it up stage“.) Which would I choose? Stick with brushwork only? Add a layer of line, my current enthusiasm? Texture? How far towards detailed realism? Which would I be able to pull off most successfully, which would lead to disaster?
Unable to decide, I stopped. Time for pondering, and working up courage.
I’ve been pondering how you might define an “interesting place” in terms of a painting-in-progress, whether you could ever be reassured that it was a sufficiently interesting place. Or whether you just have to decide to decide and not contemplate what might lie further ahead this time. (I’m thinking of the story my Mother has about camping in desert dust because the sun was going down and what they found a little way further the next morning.)
It started with a comment on yesterday’s blog by Jim Meanders, who wrote: ‘Paul Gardner said, “A painting is never finished — it simply stops in interesting places.” I had this quote on the wall in the painting studio when I was teaching. I constantly tried to teach students to pay attention to every brush stroke.’
(The closest I have come to finding a source for this quote is an article saying it was quoted in “The Artists Way” by Julia Cameron. If you can verify this, do please let me know.)
An “interesting place” feels tied to what you regard as a “good painting” in terms of the level of finish/refinement (thinking how Impressionists were regarded as unfinished), but also in mark-making. Ever-moving as what interests me changes. Also inextricably tied to painting across the whole canvas, progressing every area simultaneously, not finishing one part while other areas remain blank.
You can’t ever know for certain that what’s interesting to you is to others. Trying to have certainty is a recipe for second-guessing yourself, and sucking out the joy in the making. Embrace the uncertainty and see what the response is.
At the moment I am enjoying exploring line as part of a painting. I added line using acrylic-paint marker pens to this work-in-progress.
It could have been interesting enough to stop here, but I had done it with the thought that I would subdue the hecticness of the line with further layers of paint.