Pondering Whilst Painting: Underworked vs Overworked

How little is too little to convey the essence of a location, when have I stopped too early and where does it tip into being overworked? These are questions I found myself pondering on as I sat painting in the sunshine on the beach at Thorntonloch.

First attempt was with Payne’s grey ink.

I was tempted to add some colour to this, as it felt too uniform in tone, and I lost the white on the wave edges, but decided to let it dry, and then look at it again later. I suspect a little pale watercolour may be what it wants, and/or some coloured pencil lines, and/or white acrylic ink. I’ll decide when I look at it with fresh eyes.

Second attempt started with phthalo turquoise and Payne’s grey.

I stopped here because I liked it, but do wonder if it would benefit from a little colour in the sand in the foreground. Maybe a granulating watercolour like hematite genuine. The lack of drips and runs are because my spray water bottle stopped working, so I didn’t have to resist using it.

Third attempt I decided to use colour from the start. All was going well until I got too heavy handed with the rocks in the middle, (with tone and indenting the paper with the stick I was using to draw). I was using transparent colours and didn’t want to add white just yet

I decided to see if using more colours and making it a band of rocks would resolve it. So out came some purple (in addition to phthalo turquoise, Payne’s grey, and transparent orange).

I stopped here to let it dry, with the thought that I would have another round with some coloured pencil on the foreground and rock band. But that’s easier done on a table than sand.

Fresh off my Easel: Incoming Rain Shower

The starting point of this painting was a rainshower in the distance over the sea that I watched one morning whilst walking with a friend on Thorntonloch beach near Dunbar in the Borders. Then, contrary to what the weather forecast had said, it swept inland and soaked us. That wasn’t quite as enjoyable, though it did make the colours of the rocks and pebbles more intense.

It’s painted on two wood panels that I primed with clear gesso, rather than the more usual white gesso. This enables me to let the woodgrain become part of the painting where I’ve used transparent colours which allow the patterns of the wood to show through. The closer you get, the more it reveals itself.

Seascape Painting: Memories of Scottish Beaches

I painted this seascape for a friend in London who loves the sea, for a specific spot in her house where it’ll get some side lighting but couldn’t have too much blue in it. Which meant it was ideal for iridescent colours and the fun of mixing “interesting greys and silvers” whilst having a pop of colour in the foreground.

“Memories of Scottish Beaches: West and East”. Mixed media on wood panel. 59x84cm. (Don’t worry, it hasn’t been framed skew, it was still loose in the frame when I took this photo!)

Working on a wooden board primed with clear gesso, which lets the wood grain/colour be part of the painting, I started with Payne’s grey acrylic ink, for rocks in the foreground and islands on the horizon. I sprayed this with water, letting it drip, then swapped to oil paint to start adding colour to the rocky shore. The acrylic ink dried quickly as it was a relatively warm day.

The oil paint colours I used were Prussian blue, orange, lemon yellow, violet (PV23), and white. These mix to create beautiful grey, shifting from blue-greys to brown-greys (orange dominant in the mix) to pink or purple greys (violet dominant) and green greys (yellow).

At this stage the sky is still too bitty and busy, with too much of the same sized brushmark. But being oil paint I knew I could come back to it later to blend this and add more white.

I brushed some grey into the sea before moving outside as I wanted to thin some oil paint with solvent and splatter it. (Solvent needs good ventilation and I try never to use it inside my studio.)

This photo shows the splattered paint more clearly. I’m trying to do with oil paint what I do with acrylics. One big difference is the length of time I have to wait for it to dry before continuining, but I’m getting better at having the patience for this. You can also see that I’ve added colour to the islands on the horizon.

I don’t have any more in-progress photos, but what I did next was decide there needed to be more dark in the foreground and so added some more Payne’s grey acrylic ink to the area and sprayed it, knowing it would stay only where there wasn’t oil paint.

The vertical lines you can see are from the clear gesso, applied with a coarse-hair brush.

Lastly I splattered some iridescent silver acrylic over the sea, then ran a brush through sections of it.

I like the way the dripped ink from the very first layer shows through; to me it gives a sense of movement and weather. Lastly, when it was all dry to the touch, I added a layer of gloss Gamvar varnish to protect the painting.

“Memories of Scottish Beaches: West and East”, 59x84cm. SOLD

The Tale of Two Allium Paintings

Sitting in friends’ garden in southern Scotland, I kept coming back to the purples in one border, particularly the alliums, which are one of my favourites. These were about twice the size of the ones in my garden.

So I moved a table a little closer and got out some paper and my watercolours.

A blank sheet of paper hold such possibilities and dreams, with the potential to go right or awry from the start, for things to flow or require persistence.

I started with mixing colours that I thought would give me “allium purples”. The darker swirly marks in the photo above are where I indented the paper with the brush handle while the paint was still wet; the paint accumulates in the dents and thus is darker.

For the foliage I used some of the greens that dry as a varied colour from Daniel Smith — Undersea Green and Serpentine Green — and again scratchd into the still-wet paint, this time to create a sense of the stems. Overall it wasn’t working for me, so I introduced some pen and then coloured pencil.

The photo below is where I stopped.

I decided to have another attempt, aiming for the sense of delicateness of alliums and the space within them. I thought splattering paint might do this, so tore a stencil in a piece of watercolour paper, hoping the rough edges would give an organic or softer edge.

I tried to avoid inadvertent pattern repositioning the stencil and not worrying about paint that flicked off the sides.

I then torn a strip to use for the edge of the stem, running the brush in a series of short sideways strokes off it.

I also flicked a little of the green within the purples, as you do see it in the flowers.

I am very happy with this second attempt, with the colour variation, the feeling of openess and movement, and even the unintended bits of purples (middle towards the bottom) don’t bother me (being watercolour I could probably remove it). It’s an approach I will try again at some point.

My Stormy Camus Mor Painting

I took these painting-in-progress photos whilst having a go at this month’s painting project: Stormy Camus Mor. It’s on a sheet of A1 watercolour paper, 350gsm, using acrylic inks, tube acrylics, and oil pastel. I have been thinking about this painting since I wrote up the project, it’s just taken me a while to settle down to do it.

Starting point: Payne’s grey acrylic ink. It was hot in my studio so the ink was drying quite quickly — on the right-hand side you can see some dried lines beneath the ink that I’ve spread with a wet brush. It becomes a fun juggle with speed of painting and speed of drying.
Enter some lemon yellow, using the same brush. It’s not really that big a brush if you consider how large the sheet of paper is.
Looking back through my photos, part of me wishes I’d stuck with using only the grey and yellow. Being able to see a photo of it at this point and ponder it is a good reason to take quick snaps as I paint. While I was doing it, I didn’t think about stopping at this point at all as I was already adding the other colours in my head.
Some of the paint is applied by brush, some by splattering. The latter technique means I can add colour to the surface without disturbing what’s already there, whereas applying it with a brush will mix the new and existing together. As I’m painting vertically, gravity gets involved too, pulling down fluid paint and mixing things as it happens. Spraying with some water encourages this, as you can see bottom right in the next photo.
Adding transparent orange
Adding blue to the sea, and then the sky
A bit of magenta added to the sky, to mix with the blues and create purples. Then I mixed what was on the brush with the leftovers on my palette and added this “murky dark” to the shore. Sprayed with water to encourage it to run and drip, propping the board the paper is taped to up at an angle so the drips happen at an angle. Yes, that is the tub of magenta paint that I’m using for this.
Looking at a painting from the side so it catches the light shows me where areas are still wet. Sometimes it’s really obvious, other times less so.
Sometimes it’ll only be a small area, or single drip, that’s still wet. Dabbing a finger into the paint will, of course, also tell me, but it does irreparable damage to a drip.
After everything had dried for a bit, I added some white to the sea. I’m using Schmincke’s SupaWhite acrylic ink, which is fabulously opaque.
If you’re thinking “that’s not a Schmincke dropper”, you’re be right, it’s a Daler-Rowney FW one, which I prefer as it’s got a sharper point
I’ve sprayed some of the white acrylic with water to encourage it to spread.
Need to keep an eye out for unwanted drips and effects; it’s a dance with the unpredictable, unwanted and desired, chaos and control.
Letting colours run together on the painting can create beautiful “happy accidents” with an organic feel. Painting water by literally letting the water run.
Too much can be a bad thing though! Here drips from the sky have run into the sea contradicting the direction of movement in that area. Something to be fixed before it’s dried. Responding to what’s happening is all part of the excitement of this approach to the painting.
It’s time for a two-jar propping of the board, with pthalo turquoise joining the magenta.
One thing about this approach to painting is that I can’t be too protective of any area, no matter how much I love it. If I am desperate to preserve it, then it’s time to swap to more controllable technique.
To change the direction of the drips of paint in the sea, I turned the board 90 degrees, then sprayed it with some water.
In the bottom left corner of the painting (when it’s vertical!), the drips weren’t co-operating, so I intervened with a brush to get them to go in the direction I wanted.
This is the painting vertical again, left for a bit to ensure the paint dried. When I came back to it, I decided it wasn’t where I wanted it to be yet and that I would add some oil pastel to it. Swapping mediums is a change of pace, as well as type of mark.
Detail showing how the oil pastel catches on the ‘bumpy’ texture of the watercolour paper.
I had started questioning the half sky to half land/sea composition, so only added oil pastel to the lower part of the sky, to where I thought I would crop the painting.
This is the stage the painting was at when I took it to show the in-house art critic.
At Alistair’s suggestion, I brought the rain down further, using white oil pastel. I may still work on the rain a bit more, possibly seeing if some acrylic paint will stick between the streaks of oil pastel, or maybe with some oil paint. I have cut off the top of the sheet just above the masking tape in this photo, so that composition change is decided.

Studio Painting From a Location Study

At Staffin there’s no shortage of boulders, but there’s one that’s become a particular favourite, sitting on an eroded slab with a gap beneath it that you can see the sea through. If the tide is in, it’s surrounded by water; at low tide the bigger rock slab emerges. I first painted it on a gloriously sunny day in May 2019 while my Ma plein-air knitted (see My Pebbles Got Bigger). On that occasion I used ink and watercolour on paper; this time (a sunny day in April) I used oil paint on wood panel.

The tide was going out when I arrived, and I knew from previous visits here that the water closest to me disappeared fairly quickly. In anticipation of it doing so, I took the photo below as a reminder, once I’d decided where I was going to position myself to paint.

I found a convenient rock to sit on to paint, because I know standing on loose pebbles can be hazardous if I get too absorbed with painting.

This painting had a different starting point for me, with a darkish ground (some Payne’s grey acrylic ink over the white non-absorbent primer of Michael Harding), and my initial lines plotting the elements done in orange. A lot of my previous seascapes have started with an orange ground (orange and blue being complementary colours).

The lack of inbetween photos is because I got absorbed in what I was doing and forgot to take any!

9×12″ oil on wood panel

I was pleased with the result: the colours, the mark making getting looser to the foreground to move the painting into a slightly more expressive feeling, leaving some of the ground to show through.

A few days later the location was still bouncing around my brain, and I decided to have a go at painting a larger version in my studio, which was also something new for me as I don’t usually do direct studio versions of on-location pieces. I used the same colours except for black, which I felt had muddied the colours somewhat. Instead I started with Payne’s grey acrylic ink, thinking this might give me the darks I was after. I sprayed it with some water when it was partially dry and held it vertical to let the ink run.

And once again there’s a lack of photos between it at this stage and where I stopped.

“Balance”, 59x84cm (A1 size, approx 23×33″), oils on wood panel
The studio painting and the plein-air

My Plein-Air Painting at Skateraw

The end of my week in the Borders saw a perfect plein-air painting day, with sunshine warm enough to just about counter the breeze. My first painting was a slice of the rock slab that’s revealed at low tide. There’s a lot to choose from; I chose a sittable boulder with a view that had a bit of the green seaweed in it.

No, I’m not painting with extra long brushes, this was me pondering my painting with a bit of distance.
Oils on wood panel
Oil on wood panel, 9×12″

For my second painting, I felt compelled to paint the lighthouse, and Bass Rock peeping into view to the left of it.

Part of me wishes I’d stopped here, with the foreground left sketchy and loose.
This is my plein-air kit for not-too-far-from-the-car locations: pochade box, tripod, backpack. How far is too far depends on the terrain!
The happy artist heading home…
Wet painting panel carrier
The in-house art critic made me this nifty box for safely carrying still-wet plein-air painting panels.

Photos: At Skateraw

I’m in the Scottish Borders for a few days, and have been looking forward to seeing the rock slabs at Skateraw on a really low tide. My two painting friends weren’t entirely convinced by the joys of plein-air painting in a nippy wind off the North Sea, but I have been looking forward to this for weeks so was determined to get out my oil paints and tucked myself in behind a rock shelf.

This is as far as I got with my oil painting before I gave up because I was too cold, and walked over to the other side of the headland which was more sheltered from the wind. There’s an enticing layered bit with a tumble of rocks beneath.

And a bit further to the right the concrete rectangles of a nuclear power station. The brutal lines of this building have a beauty of a very different kind to me.

I have also done two ink sketches in my new Octopus sketchbook, which has fold-out pages, adding colour later in the warmth of indoors.

Video Demo: Painting a Pebble

Before you watch this, let me point out that the ‘action’ is speeded up five times actual speed and has the bits where nothing was happening edited out, which is a roundabout way of saying: I don’t paint this fast in real life and I don’t think you’d be interested in watching paint dry.

If you don’t see the video above, click here to see it on my Vimeo channel.

I painted this after I’d painted “Nine Pebbles” so I already knew exactly what I was going to use and a strong sense of where I wanted to go with it.

SOLD Nine Pebbles, 30x30cm, acrylic on wood panel

See Also: Pebbles Project Photo Gallery