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.
Following on from my blogs with photos of the little harbour in the Scottish Borders I was at last week (She Sees Seaside and Harbour Details), here are some photos of what happened when I got my paints out. Having multiple days of sunshine in November was a real treat.
The first day I walked about taking lots of photos, then ended up sitting at a picnic table watching birds you can’t see in the photo, including some swans. I got out my sketchbook telling myself that making just one quick sketch would be fine, to not worry about how ‘good’ it was as it’s impossible to do everything on single trip to a location.
The second day I got out my oil paints and had a go at a composition that’d been bouncing around my head all night. Yes, I could have done thumbnails and studies first, all that preparatory work that does help produce pleasing results, but my fingers were itching to paint this. So I jumped in at the point that was appealing to me, knowing that I might not do it justice but that it’s worth a try anyway.
Below is the point at which I got cold and stopped painting. It has a few things I like about it, such as the sense of chain on the wall, the curved corner, and the green on the nearer harbour wall, and things I don’t. Mostly I am pleased I had a go at it, and I regard it as a “good learning painting” or study. The next morning I walked around a bit here having a closer look at elements of this composition, such as the width of the nearest wall (which is narrower at the top than the other walls, having a stepped top to it).
The next day I got out my favourite Payne’s grey acrylic ink and did some ink and watercolour paintings. The fishing shed with its row of colourful doors, the view through the harbour entrance to the old cottages, the stacks of creel nets. And, no, I never did get around to the boats themselves.
The last day I spent using pencil only, making sketches with notes about things that had caught my eye. Information gathering for a studio painting.
When might I start creating some studio paintings based on these sketches? I don’t know. It may convert into something soon, it might sit and simmer, it might be never. I don’t have a plan for it, I was simply enjoying being in a very paintable location, with a friend who was also painting.
How long it takes to create a painting is a measure of time and nothing else. Sometimes things flow; other times it takes considerable effort to get a painting to a satisfactory point. More time spent on a painting doesn’t inherently make it a better painting.
There’s also the question of what’s being included in the calculation: is it only when you’ve a brush in your hand applying paint or does it include planning and pondering and development work such as sketching? Every painting carries with it the history of every painting that came before. And there’s that some people wield a brush at a faster pace than others.
If you’re in a situation where time is limited, such as life painting with a model or plein-air painting at sunset, you might adapt how you approach the painting to the time available.
Yet “how long did it take” remains intriguing, something to measure our own painting skills against others and our previous paintings. Perhaps because it’s a tangible thing amongst all the intangibles of art.
I don’t often keep deliberate track of the time I spend painting, but a few days ago I did because I surprised myself when I paused for the first time and realised it’d only been 20 minutes. It had felt like longer and I was intrigued by how far I’d gotten already; my previous paintings at this location had taken me far longer.
When I got to this point, I was conflicted because I felt I wanted to stop but as it’d only been an hour I worried it was it too soon to stop but then would I overwork it if I continued? I took me a bit of pondering to decide it was okay to stop. The question then becomes, do I include this time in how long it took me to paint this?
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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.
Before the kelp-and-rocks watercolours I did (see video and blog here) I had sat in the sun looking at that big dark slab of rock that’s such a favourite of mine and done a few paintings. The session didn’t have an auspicious start as, when I turned from watching the waves over the sea wall, I dropped my pencil box with the bottles of watercolour; fortunately none broke.
I started with a line drawing using Payne’s grey acrylic ink, then used a wet brush to spread some of this around.
I added some hematite genuine and Luna black watercolour, and a bit more ink to re-establish the lines at the back.
I then wanted to add a little of the yellow lichen and greens on the rocks, and ended up overworking it (and I’m not showing you!).
I decided to have another go, this time starting with colour and adding the ink line afterwards, once the watercolour was dry. But that didn’t go quite to plan as I knocked over the bottle of ink. Splat.
I managed to pour some of the ink back into the bottle, and attempted to wash off as much of the ink as I could and dabbing at it with a piece of paper towel, without loosing the watercolour beneath. It ended up looking like this; I could possibly still rescue it with some opaque acrylic and/or oil pastel ( I didn’t have those with me).
I had another sheet of paper already taped along the edges and used the piece of paper towel I’d dabbed at the spilt ink to make the start of a third attempt. There’s a little inadvertent pattern (the same mark from stamping down on the surface without changing the angle of the paper towel, or varying the distances between marks) but I thought it a hopeful start.
I left it to dry and then added line using Lunar black watercolour (if you zoom in on the photo you can see the line is granulating, fragmented not smooth). I really like the result, and one out of three isn’t bad going in my book.
Here’s a view of the slab from the ‘other end’. When the tide is in, much of this is covered.
My aim was to capture a feeling of the washed-up kelp lying amongst the rocks on the shore at Camus Mor, glowing oranges in the sunshine. I used narrow masking tape to divide a sheet of A3 watercolour paper into four, and some DIY fluid watercolour (or watercolour “ink”). This video is in real time, and you’ll see I’m not spending very long on this. I think it’s essential with this approach to work quickly and just keep going, so you don’t second-guess yourself. Some attempts will work better than others.
(If you don’t see the video above, you’ll find it on my Vimeo channel here.)
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).
The setting: sheltered from the breeze in a small cutout in the hillside, overlooking a small bay, with the mainland in the distance emerging occasionally from the low cloud.
The problem: I’ve become accustomed to the speed with which water-based mediums dry and overpainting to fix mistakes. But of course with oil paint it’s not going to dry anytime soon and I can’t layer and overpaint in the way I would in acrylics, it’s all wet-into/onto-wet painting. When I realised I’d made a fundamental mistake with the perspective, and what it would take to fix it, I was rather fedup with myself.
If you look at the photo above, the bit of coastline in the distance on the right is what I was painting. If you look a the photos below, you’ll see that right from the start I’ve painted it as if I were at a higher viewpoint.
I’ve put the horizon line of the sea too high up, but I didn’t realise this until I painted the house. Then suddenly it was so <expletive> obvious. And that I’d made the distance between the shoreline and the top of the hill far too wide. I put the latter down to painting what I know the landscape does rather than painting the landscape as I was seeing it from this specific point.
The latter I could resolve by wiping off the rocks to the right-hand edge, then repainting. But to lower the horizon line I’d have to sacrifice the way I’ve painted the sky, with some of the board left unpainted. The clear gesso on the board is very ‘grabby’ and doesn’t wipe off cleanly back to board colour; it would take a lot solvent to do. And it’s messy.
Wiping an area also means the good is gone with the bad. I found myself being precious about the bits I really liked and having that conversation with myself about a painting ultimately living by itself not with its reference and thus would it matter. Fortunately the misty rain came in at that point and so I decided to pack up instead of facing the fact that I’d had a perspective problem right from the start. Next time I’m at this spot, I’ll hopefully remember.
Painting on location in a part of the world where the weather forecast is often “changeable” and “occasional showers” has meant I have, at times, had Nature add to a painting. Unfortunately, with watercolour or ink it’s invariably not a “happy accident” result. More like a “washed that off” result.
I’ve been thinking more and more about having a go with oil paint on location as rain won’t have an impact, and being outside means solvent won’t be a problem. It still leaves keeping wet paintings out of reach of the ever-inquisitive studio cat Ghost while they dry, but that isn’t unsurmountable with small paintings.
Cue the arrival of my first pochade box a few weeks ago, one with space for keeping two wet paintings safe as I stumble along a rocky shore. After a week of staring at it, I tried it out in the safety of my studio, then a few days later ventured out. This is me grinning like the Cheshire cat after putting the very first bit of oil paint on a panel (with orange acrylic for a coloured ground).
Bit further along on that first painting, when the sun came out and changed all the colours.
The point at which I stopped. Not too shabby for a first anxious attempt, I thought. Size 8×10 inches.
My second attempt with it was in the Uig woodland. I’d hoped the Little Tree That Could would still have some autumn colour on it, but it didn’t. I’ve also painted at the Rha waterfall, and at Camus Mor a few more times, enjoying myself immensely, albeit with mixed results. (And, no, I won’t be sharing photos of the dire ones! Just think “overmixed muddy colours”.)
This is the painting I like best, so far. It’s 30x30cm on wood panel primed with clear gesso (rather than white).
Using a shallow plastic container for a palette has contained the paint and made cleanup easy, the lidded metal container for solvent hasn’t leaked, I’m nowhere as anxious about it all, I haven’t dropped a painting, and Ghost hasn’t walked over a still-wet painting, yet.