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:

My First Attempt at Painting the Japanese Anenomes in My Garden

I’ve had my first go at painting the flower the in-house art critic and I have dubbed “The Alien” for its tentacles that stretch out and flowers that stare at you. At the end of the tantacles are spheres, like closed parts of a carnivorous plant. It’s some sort of Japanese anenome (I haven’t delved into the plant identification app to find out exactly what) that’s a beautiful Potter’s pink (PR233). When lit by the sun from behind parts are quite silvery.

Pink Japanese anenome flower
Bumble bees love these flowers

Potter’s pink dates back to English watercolor painting of the 18th and 19th centuries, and is also used in ceramics. It’s an earthy, muted pink, not a bright Barbie pink. It granulates magnificently but is also a reticent pigment so is easily to over-dilute with water and be insipid. Don’t be put off it: Artist Liz Steel calls it her secret weapon. For me it was love at first encounter.

I started by wetting areas where I wanted to place the flowers. I didn’t do any preliminary sketches or drawings or planning beyond thinking I wanted there to be a good amount of negative space (’empty’ white) and the flowers to be towards the right. Why the latter I’m not sure, but it could be so you’ve got to travel across the painting a bit before you encounter them, assuming you’re looking from left to right in line with reading in the West. I have a bottle of Potter’s pink in my collection of homemade fluid watercolours, so it was easy to drop in colour before the paper had dried.

I know it doesn’t look like much at this stage, just some random shapes of colour, but it was what I was after. Next I reached for my bottle of Undersea Green, a Daniel Smith watercolour that’s separates into green to brown as it dries. Using the pipette, I drew in stems and leaves.

The lines in the pink are where I used the back of the brush handle to ‘draw’ a line; it indents the paper and the paint accumulates in there

I wanted a bit of strong dark, so got out my watercolour set and mixed up some perylene green. I touched the corner of my flat brush into the still-wet Undersea Green, letting it spread as it desired. I dropped some gamboge yellow into where I thought the centre of the flowers would be, then some lemon yellow to create a bit of variation, and put it aside to dry.

I did another painting following the same recipe, then one where I started with Payne’s grey ink. I drew out the whole composition using the ink’s pipette, left it dry for a little in the sun, then lifted off the excess ink with some paper towel.

I sprayed water onto the areas of the flowers, then dropped in some Potter’s pink and encouraged it to spread with my finger (saves having to wash a brush). You can see some of the acrylic ink did spread, as I thought it would; if it’s newly touch-dry it usually will.

I added Undersea Green as in the previous versions, then yellows, and left it to dry.

These are the three paintings drying in the sunshine. Fortunately the studio cats weren’t about to walk over them.

Once they were mostly dry, I retreated to the coolness of indoors to add some coloured pencil for another layer of mark making, to sharpen some edges, hopefully making the overall result more engaging (but there’s always the risk of overworking it).

These are where the paintings ended up. I can’t pick a favourite; I like things about all of them.

I think the strong lines in the petals are too distracting and not well defined enough in terms of the petal shape. That can be resolved by having the patience to spend some time carefully observing and drawing one of these flowers so I have it “in my fingers” for next time. The accidental splatters middle right don’t bother me, but the big drop top right I ought to lift off as it’s distracting.
I think this version is dangerously close to being too abstract, but I chose to not define the flowers any more to see how I feel about it a few days from now as exploring the tipping point is on my wishlist. I can always add more to it.
The Payne’s grey ink changes the character of the painting completely, making a stronger impact. The green is possibly too lost or contaminated by the ink, and the pink possibly too overwhelmed by it. One to ponder.

My Attempts at the Furrow Patterns Painting Project

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.

Acrylic on board, 30x30cm

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.

Mixed media on A3 watercolour paper (watercolour, acrylic ink, acrylic paint, coloured pencil)

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.

Watercolour and acrylic on A3 watercolour paper

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.

Seascape Painting: Tempestuously

This painting came from walking along the sea wall and beach at Gardenstown, in northeastern Scotland, watching the tide coming in over the rocks. The title of the painting, “Tempestuously”, came from an early morning discussion I had with artist Liza Hawthorne, and it’s up to you to decide whether it applies to the weather, sea, or the artist.

This sequence of photos takes you from the beginning of the painting, where I started adding blues over the underpainting of magenta, orange, and yellow, to the finished painting.

The finished painting, plus a couple of detail photos

“Tempestuously”, 100x100cm (39×39 inches), acrylic on canvas, £795, available from my studio

My First Painting in My New Studio Space

Well that’s the studio cats, in-house art critic, and myself moved from Skye to the rolling wheat fields of Aberdeenshire near Turriff. To a village established in the 18th century with a name that is one letter off a favourite (printed) book typeface that has been used since the 17th century. It’s about nine miles from the sea at Gardentown, where I have painted several times in the past, which has rocks, white sand, red cliffs, big waves, quirky buildings, and a harbour.

Low tide at Gardenstown

When I get it all set up, my new studio will have space for painting with friends and doing workshops. Right now most of my stuff is still in storage, but my fingers couldn’t resist having a go at painting the flowers that unexpectedly arrived in the post, sent by a friend in Australia. (Thanks again, you-know-who-you-are, and to all my other fab friends who sent cards, books, messages, for very much helping with this big change.)

I pulled out the crate of art supplies I’ve got and set up on the floor in the sun in what is theoretically the dining room part of the kitchen but will be the afternoon-sun section of my studio. Studio cats Little Em, Freyja, and Misty participated. We all had fun.

Mixed media (watercolour, coloured pencil, oil pastel) on watercolour paper

Concertina Sketchbook at the Yellow Breakwater

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.

Plein-Air at the Yellow Breakwater

I woke up to pastel pinks and blues, a clear and calm (windstill) day that I let warm up for a couple of hours before heading out with my paints to have another plein-air attempt at the yellow breakwater at Camus Mor that’s been obsessing me lately.

Sunrise this time of year is around 09:00.

I set myself up on the same bit of wall as last time, but with the slash of yellow towards the right of the composition. I also had black on my palette, as I’d used this in studio paintings of this scene and was pleased with the result. There’s a risk with black of colours looking murky, but there’s also the interesting results when it’s mixed with yellow (it mixes to green).

Studio paintings. Oils on paper. A3 size.

When I started painting, my wood panel and palette were in the sunshine, and the sun was warm on my back. The tide was an hour or so off high, lapping in quietly.

Oils on wood panel, 12×9″

I decided to stop here for risk of overworking it, and set up with my second panel with the thought of doing a small section of rocks and washed-up kelp.

The temperature dropped when the sun went behind the hill, and my brush strokes speeded up, but I got the painting to a point I was happy to stop. Definitely my idea of a beautiful day.

Follow the Yellow Breakwater

I’ve sat on the yellow lichen-covered breakwater at Camus Mor many times, usually at the spot where the taller part can act as a backrest, to sketch and to stare out to sea, and occasionally enjoy an ice cream.

I’ve taken a lot of photos of it, yet never painted it, until now. Suddenly my head is full of the striking slash of yellow, of compositions that dance with large abstract shapes and bright colour, from the yellow being a small element to it dominating most of the painting. A few days ago I did three on-location studies using mixed media (watercolour and Inktense sticks on A3 paper):

I did a large mixed media painting (watercolour, acrylic, and pencil on A1 paper) in my studio, exploring the idea of a composition dominated by a large yellow shape against the slab of rock on the right and the broken boulders and sea beyond:

(Don’t adjust your eyes, this photo is a bit fuzzy)

On Sunday I did two plein-air paintings with oils, sitting higher up the wall than I would usually, in a spot where if I dropped anything down the left-hand side I would be able to retrieve it.

Oil paint on wood panel, 9×12″
Oil paint on wood panel, 9×12″

Here are the two paintings side by side, in the same light. I like both, but if I had to choose a favourite it’d be the one of the right, for the larger area of yellow and there being more on the left as the yellow slash leads your eye into the painting.

These are the colours I was using, on wood panel with a light blue ground (white primer mixed with Prussian blue). I don’t often put two yellows on my palette, I usually choose one, but I did for this as I knew that yellow would be a big part of the painting. They look quite similar in the photo, but the lemon yellow (on the right) is more transparent and cooler (bluer).

I didn’t put out black, relying instead on the Prussian blue and violet to give me a strong dark, which would then be more colourful when mixed with white or orange or yellow than a black. I didn’t use my beloved Payne’s grey acrylic ink as an underpainting, because it was too cold for it to dry anytime soon.

When I started, the sun was warming the spot, but by the time I’d finished the second painting it had dipped below the top of the hill. It’s not exactly high in the sky this time of year, which makes for fun shadows:

(I’m standing between two gate posts)

Thinking about why the yellow breakwater has suddenly become an obsession, it feels like several things joining together. One is a painting by a Fife-based artist Dominique Cameron called “Breakwater“, which could easily be pure abstract except the title suggested it’s somewhere specific. And indeed once you know about “St Monan’s breakwater”, you instantly recognize the zigzag. It’s a painting that’s stuck in my head from the moment I saw it, and I keep coming back to it. It also made me put the location on my to-visit list for a roadtrip I’ve got planned for May.

The second thing was discovering that another favourite contemporary artist Kurt Jackson, who’s based in Cornwall, had stayed in a cottage at Camus Mor in 2013, and painted scenes very familiar to me. Skip to timestamp 7:15 in his video for Skye, and then 9:46 for his painting with the yellow breakwater, or scroll down this page on Messums gallery to find the paintings (which were done in 2013 according to the dates on the individual paintings). It’s interesting being familiar with a location because it gives me a feeling for how much of an interpretation his paintings are. I did find myself counting the number of little white houses dotted around.

The third thing was a comment my Ma made about my needing to stop painting in black and white, to get back to brighter colour, and not turn into “one of those people who wear dark colours in winter”. Soon after this conversation I bought myself a bunch of roses, something I haven’t done this year as I’ve avoided going into the big supermarket. And this led to me painting daisies again, which of course involves yellow and orange. And then I was at Camus Mor and the yellow lichen glowed at me and compositions popped into my head, and now I can’t stop thinking about it.

One part of me wants to do a textured painting using black lava paste for the wall. Another wants to be very abstract and geometric. Another wonders whether about leaving out any suggestion of the sea and sky, or maybe only the sky. Another questions whether paintings with lots of yellow could possibly sell, but fortunately that little voice is being squashed by the others. Where will this lead? I don’t know, but I’ve got gesso on a 50x50cm panel drying…

Sitting at the sea side

Part Two: Plein-Air at the Yellow Breakwater

Painting at Duntulm

The rocky beach at Duntulm being so exposed it needs a relatively windstill day for it to count as “good painting weather” for this location. Last Sunday was such a day, with the sea flat and calm, small waves breaking on the shore.

The ground and rocks were very wet though, so I decided not to slide my way down the slope onto the shore because I’d have to somehow get back up again. Instead I set up on a relatively flat spot about halfway down to the beach, the sun reaching me before long, and set about painting a section of the rock slabs.

Oil paint on wood panel. 12×9″ (30x22cm)

It’s been a little while since I’ve been out with my oil paints, and I enjoyed painting this and am happy with the result, especially when I look at the brushwork up close.


For my second panel I decided to paint the row of bigger rocks in the foreground with the yellows on top. But I soon got distracted by my enjoyment of the ‘interesting greys’ on the top of the panel, the colour mixing and brushmarks with a rigger, and decided to see where this took me.

The in-house art critic said it looks more like something inspired by Monet’s haystacks than a sea shore, and I tend to agree. I think I’ll call it a plein-air colour study and leave it at that.

Oil paint on wood panel. 12×9″ (30x22cm)

Three Blustery Day Skye Sketches

With wind that’d blow much more than merely cobwebs away, I decided to do something I don’t usually and sat in my car to sketch. I somehow managed not to spill any Payne’s grey ink whilst drawing with the pipette, but did discover I’d left the bottle of white behind, so no splashy white foam bits would be happening.

Mixed media, A3 watercolour paper
Detail

This was the first painting I did, and the one I like most. I managed not to get too dark with the ink, and like the gentle colour from the coloured pencils showing through the watercolour. I was disappointed to discover I didn’t have the bottle of white acrylic ink with me, but did have a white pen, which I think works and it’s certainly easier to not overwork it than when using fluid ink.

Mixed media, A3 watercolour paper

This was the second, and I struggled for a bit as it was too dark in places with Payne’s grey ink that had dried too fast, and I didn’t have anything that would show on top of this except the white pen, but that I wanted for the sea edge. Breakthrough moment was when I realised there was no reason I could not use it for the lighter rock and the sea. It’s something I might do again deliberately.

Watercolour, A3 paper

This third one is watercolour only, no ink, and I regard it as an incomplete thought. I stopped because I got annoyed with the green and was scrubbing at it with a bit of paper towel, to the point of damaging the surface. I’ll work on it further on another day when the weather and my headspace are less blustery.