Three of my large paintings — a landscape, a seascape, and a sheepscape — are now available at Skyeworks Gallery in Portree. Pop upstairs and you’ll see them.
The connection between the sketching and painting I do on location (and the sitting just looking) and the painting I do in my studio isn’t always direct, but sometimes the dots that need to be joined are fairly evident, as with this studio painting finished a few days ago:
Its path started last week when I painted at Duntulm (northwestern tip of the Trotternish Peninsula on Skye) at low tide on consecutive days, ending up with two watercolours and two studies in oil paint.
If you’ve looked up Duntulm on a map and seen the word “castle”, don’t get overly excited as there’s not much left.
The first day it was misty, clearing as the morning progressed. I started sitting on the grass, looking down over a stretch of rocky shore (there’s quite a drop where the grass ends in the photo below), painting with watercolour. The mist slowed the speed with which the watercolour dried, making wet-into-wet easy and an interesting change of pace with the paint.
I had my big set of pan watercolours, along with bottles of fluid watercolour and my beloved Payne’s grey acrylic ink (which I didn’t use for once). The red fabric is the corner of my raincoat which I was sitting on.
Then I moved along and down a bit, to a grassy bank, and got out my oil paints.
These two photos give a wider view of the location, and how the colours of the sea change with the light conditions of the two days.
Back in my studio, I put the watercolours and two oil paintings up on my easel as I painted at my table on a wood panel (with a layer of clear gesso on it).
Texture paste was applied with a palette knife, both Lava Black, which is a coarse-grained texture perfect for sandy shores, and Golden’s Light Modelling Paste which dries to an absorbent surface on which watery acrylic behaves a bit like watercolour.
The latter can also be scratched into with a sharp edge fairly easily when it’s relatively newly dried. If you look at the lowest band of rock in the next three work-in-progress photos, you’ll see how I abandoned having a band of rounded slabs of rock and scratched into it with the point of a palette knife so this section looks more like the others.
Here’s the final painting, plus several detail photos:
Where next? I’ve already started another studio painting based on this location, again using texture paste and acrylic but this time on an unprimed wooden board. Without gesso on the board, thin acrylic sinks in and the woodgrain is revealed, as you can see below:
It having dried overnight, I’ve started adding some colour to the rocky shore. Trying not to lose the woodgrain on the right-hand “sea section” is inhibiting me as I’m painting, as are my favourite bits of my just-finished painting because I keep comparing the two. The “sea area” surface is very absorbent any any stray paint will soak in and dry almost instantly, so I’m second-guessing what I’m doing before I do it, rather than responding to what’s happening as I paint. It’s what I mentally label as “trying too hard”. The photo below is where I stopped struggling with it and left it to dry again; I will give it a break for a couple of days.
A few weeks ago I did an on-location painting of an old croft house. There were some issues with perspective (which is something I have to really think about) but overall I was happy with it. And I thought I’d internalised where I’d gone wrong with the perspective, having consulted the in-house art critic for whom perspective is easy.
I’ve been thinking about this old house and doing it on a bigger canvas. A few days ago I got out a 100x100cm canvas and put it up on my easel.
I didn’t do thumbnails in my sketchbook (even though I encourage you to do so!) but just played them through my mind as I sat looking at the canvas. And then all of a sudden yesterday afternoon I was struck by a desire to start, and sketched in the composition with an acrylic marker pen, then added orange and yellow to the “not-sky” area.
I then painted in the “sky area” with blue and white, cleaning my brush of the blue into the foreground (where it’ll create a colour connection across the composition and work as a shadow colour) before adding some yellow (which with the blue on my unwashed brush and the still-wet blue on the canvas mixed to greens) and then some white to get the lightest green.
And this was when I realised I’d made an error in the perspective on the cottage. Not like a little mistake, but totally the wrong way around. At least I’d noticed before the in-house critic came along. So I forced myself to slow down (no point getting the sky and foliage working before the house), to think it through from the basics and redraw the perspective.
I edited one of my snapshots on my phone to draw some lines on it to help me. The lines aren’t straight because they’re done freehand; if I’d been using editing software on my computer I’d have used the straight-line tool. (Click here for the original photo if you’d like to have a got at painting this too.)
Using a rigger brush and Prussian blue (which is what I’d used in the sky), I redrew the house.
And then I continued to “just add paint”.
The “rusty roof” colour is created with Prussian blue, titanium white, cadmium orange, and magenta i.e. I added some magenta to what I had already been using. Notice how I’ve also used some of this elsewhere in the painting so the colour doesn’t sit isolated on the roof only.
This is where I stopped painting for the day and went to check my perspective with the in-house art critic, who saidthe back wall of the house needs straightening but overall only a little bit awry.
This photo is to show you that I had my on-location painting in view whilst I painted.
So, that puddle with the dried grass and reflected tree trunks that I first noticed a couple of weeks ago (see Late Afternoon Walk in Uig Woodland), that has stuck in my mind and become the inspiration for February’s Painting Project, that I’ve painted one-and-a-half times in my studio (the half being unfinished as I’m writing this). Well, I’ve now had a go plein-air painting it.
Part of my hesitation about doing so has been because my favourite viewpoint would mean setting up right next to the path, so no hiding from anyone walking through the woodland. I tried to hide in plain sight by wearing my beanie down low and my coat pulled up. One person said she’d thought I was a photographer. Another looked at me, looked in the direction I was facing, then looked at me with a befuddled expression, and moved on.
I was painting on a 9×12 inch wood panel, with a layer of clear gesso on it. I was quite happy with where I got with it and beginning to ponder whether I needed to add some paint to the area at the back between the trees where there was a lot of bare wood (negative space) when some determined drizzle set in so I stopped painting.
I think the rain shower stopped me from overworking the painting, both in the foreground and background.
This photo gives you a view of the painting in context:
And here’s a close up view that shows you the texture of the wood panel and, if you look closely, the rain drops.
Colours used: Titanium white, atrament black (Schmincke), pthalo turquoise, magenta, azo orange (M Graham, PO62, cheaper than cadmium orange and not as red as PO73), brilliant green (Langridge PG7+PY3), and a yellow (can’t remember exactly what it was and don’t feel like stumbling across to my studio in the dark to check).
There’s one little tree in the Uig woodland that wears its autumn colours later and longer than the rest. I call it the “The Little Tree That Could” (context: the children’s book The Little Engine That Could with the lines “I think I can, I think I can … I knew I could“) and first painted it in 2014 (see this blog). On Monday I went to say hello again, taking my watercolours and some acrylic ink (video link if you don’t see it below).
This video was taken when I started moving the colour around with a rigger. (It goes a awry for a bit as I open a bottle to add more orange, just skip that bit. Video link)
My fourth painting is my favourite, ending up a bit like Moses’ burning bush. Watercolour only.
I was sitting on a convenient rock next to the stone wall.
1 = Watercolour set.
2 = Painting drying.
3 = A bit of waterproof padding to sit on.
4 = Plastic folder with paper that also serves as a ‘drawing board’.
5 = Inks and fluid watercolour in plastic box.
6 = Water bottle (for me before my brushes)
7 = Backpack with raincoat, biscuits etc.
This is a timelapse video of me creating a painting for October’s painting project of part of the bay at Camus Mor. It’s acrylic and oil pastel on watercolour paper.
NOTE: Be warned, the light in the video flickers somewhat as the camera tries to deal with my moving around. I might just have to do video on overcast days only. And, yes, at one point Studio Cat Ghost is riding on my shoulders (around 03:51)
If you’re not seeing the video above, this link will take you to it on my Vimeo channel.
You’ll see I initially sketch the cliffs to far to the right, but don’t bother erasing the incorrect lines as I know I’ll be painting over these with opaque colours. Then I start covering all the white, or blocking on areas Colours used: cadmium yellow, quinacridone gold, phthalo turquoise, cadmium orange, magenta, Prussian blue, perylene green, titanium white. Plus oil pastel. Medium and small flat brush; rigger brush.
The phtalo turquoise is a bit intense; my thought was that I didn’t want too dark a dark at that stage and that a green-blue would give a sense of the green on the hilltop and reflected in the sea. After I’d done it, I then worked at subduing it hrough layers without obliterating it
At 04:44 i’m using oil pastel to fix the edge where I’d torn it taking off the tape (I really should be more patient and careful doing this!).
When I looked at the painting the day after with fresh eyes, I realised I’d aligned the sea horizon with the edge of the headland, and that the sea was pouring off to the right. I used some oil pastel to move the horizon up a bit and straighten it. The yellow-orange in the foreground could be more golden, and I might still glaze some quinacridone gold over this.
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):
(You’ll find Part One here.)
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.)
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.
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.
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 practising for next week’s workshop at Higham Hall near Cockermouth. I’ve been trying to get a bit more systematic and specific about what I do so I can explain it, making a list of what individual layers are or might be because “be intuitive” isn’t a sufficiently helpful instruction. Also with the aim to have some examples of “layered paintings” “informed by” (based on) the photos in my new photo reference book (which workshop participants get) as well as some that combine elements from various photos.
Here are two of my paintings. Each has bits I like and things I don’t think are resolved, yet, or I would do differently next time. When I was telling the in-house art critic how I felt about them, when he finally got a word in edgeways, his response was that I was being way too harsh. He
might be is right, and only I can see the gap between what was in my head and what’s on the paper.
Here they are with the reference photos alongside. 350gsm, A3-size, NOT watercolour paper, using pencil, coloured pencil, acrylic ink, acrylic paint, and oil pastel.