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

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

Painting Demo: Stormy Sunset Sky

This painting was inspired by a sunset a few days ago, where there’d been a storm blowing in from the north and blue sky in the south, as I looked west, out over the sea. I really enjoyed the colours, from light blue and yellow to darks, and the way the distant view disappears beneath the rain at the bottom of enormous cloud.

When it came to painting this, I reached for a canvas that had an unresolved painting on it, which I’d sanded down a few months ago to level off the texture paste. Although the texture on the canvas hadn’t been done with this scene in mind, I felt what was there would fit it. And it would save me having to wait for texture paste to dry.

This video is speeded up 10 times, and edited down to just over three-and-a-half minutes. Sometimes things just all come together in a painting!

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

The painting is a bit hard to photograph because of the iridescence and the low level of natural light this time of year. And it’s snowing today, so I’m not taking it out my studio to photograph in the garden.

Stormy Sunset Skye Over the Minch, 95x80cm, acrylic on canvas. SOLD.

Lines of Gold

Gold Lines on seascape painting

The backstory to this is my ongoing interest in the use of line in paintings, my little pile of wood panels with plein-air oil paintings that aren’t resolved for one reason or another, plus the thought of using wood-carving tools to cut lines into the wood panel. Enter a basic set of woodcarving tools, several weeks of them sitting staring at me while I pondered, then a few goes to see what kind of mark I might get, a bit more pondering, and I set about carving “rock lines” in the foreground of this panel.

With the thought that acrylic paint would (theoretically) stick only to the bare wood and not the oil paint, I then brushed over some Payne’s grey acrylic paint, thinking a dark line might work. But the painting still felt lacking. So I carved some more lines (trying to destroy some of the inadvertent pattern I’d created), brushed some fluid gold acrylic paint over the whole painting and wiped it, with it sticking to the areas of bare wood.

If you don’t see the video above, click here.

Gold Lines on seascape painting

I think the result has definite potential. The hardest thing was not following lines in the painting, but to ‘draw’ another fresh layer of cut marks on top of the area. Next I need to dig out my printmaking books to read up on woodblock carving and learn to use the tools better.

The Long and the Short: Two Concertina Sketchbooks

Concertina Sketchbook closed

Remember my daisies in a concertina sketchbook from June? Well, it’s a format I’ve been playing with on and off over the past wee while. I came across a description* of a concertina sketchbook as a sketch that flows into a painting that flows into a sculpture, which I thought very apt. I am enjoying the tactile interaction of the format, holding it in my hand, turning over the pages, the sense of a story unfolding.

Shorter makes it easy to stand on a shelf, to display like a piece of sculpture. This four-page one features a Minch seascape, on 350gsm paper, with a cover made using some of my splatter fabric.

This is one, the pocket size from Seawhite, was done using pencil only, sitting in a friend’s garden. I did ponder adding some colour to it, especially the blue of the shed, but have decided I like the simplicity of the pencil, letting it be a story in line only. I am still fighting the need to add a note on it about the shed being a tiny one, it’s not a normal-sized shed I’ve drawn totally out of proportion.

*Source: “Ann Cowan creates the most beautiful A5 concertina sketchbooks. These are unique in character as sketches that flow into paintings that flow into sculpture.” Smithy Gallery, Instagram, 11/11/2020

Experiments with Seascapes on Wood Panel

How to turn a ‘happy accident’ into a technique so an effect can be used repeatedly and built upon, that’s one of my thoughts behind this painting. The context is a smaller painting I did in a quiet moment when staying with friends last week, when I was supposedly tidying up my paints for the day: using acrylics in a watercolour-like way on unprimed wood panel, with the colour of the wood the equivalent of the white of the paper in a watercolour.

15x15cm, acrylic on wood panel. Sold.

I was in two minds about the headland so have left it off this second painting, though I hear my friend’s “it gives context” comment as I think about it. I also changed used a bigger wood panel, to an A3 size (equivalent of two sheets of printer paper).

Part of me thinks I have overworked it and part says it’s underworked. I might add more white on it as it’s disappearing into the wood, as I did with the previous painting. I’m also pondering the direction of the woodgrain and whether I should have used this panel as landscape (horizontal) not portrait (vertical).

Hopefully fresh eyes tomorrow will decide it for me. All else fails, I use it as a panel for a painting with thicker paint.

From Location to Studio Painting: “On Edge”

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:

“On Edge”. 30x30cm, acrylic on wood panel.

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.

I stopped painting on this because I got tired, so it’s more of a loose study or sketch rather than a finished plein-air painting. Closer-up photo further below.
Sea, mist, winding road, sheep, and wild yellow irises

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.

Painting-in-progress photo 1
Painting-in-progress photo 1
Painting-in-progress photo 3

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.