I didn’t go outside much this week because the conditions were far too icy, but did put my Yaktax onto my wellies (think: snow chains for shoes) to put food out for the birds. We get robins, sparrows, green finches, chaff finches, tiny coal and blue tits, plus starlings and magpies. The latter we also call flying penguins because of something the in-house art critic once said.
I watch them from my studio, the kitchen, our bedroom, and one day will put pencil to paper and make a drawing of their flitting about rather than drawing it in my head only. Swoop in onto the top, jump down onto the seed tray, hop and hold on the fatball feeder, everyone scattering as some danger is perceived. A drawing about movement and interaction. Perhaps different colours for the various species.
To get to the birdfeeder I had to step over some pebbles that edge the grass, covered in a layer of frost. Without the greens in the grass, it looks quite different, more like tinsel.
I hadn’t really make a nest in a wire basket to keep some of the smaller pebbles warm.
This is frost on the back of an outdoor chair, reminding me of barbed wire spikes on the top of a wall. Look also at the spiky shadow on the table cloth.
It’s worth a moment to contemplate the wordplay on phrases like “I’ve got no time to paint.” The word “got” implies inventory — like painting time is something you found in your pocket, or at the rear of the pantry.
… I do feel like painting for a little while in the evenings is akin to posting a flag titled “Mine” into a teeny part of the day that would otherwise get away from me, without any art in it at all.
More days with something creative than not, however small, that for me is the aim. Keeping the definition open, because all sorts of things count. It’s a joy to have a studio space where my art supplies and works in progress are always waiting for me, and I can sit surrounded by it on days I can’t paint because I’m out of spoons. The studio cats are ever encouraging, moving brushes from the table to the floor so I get to enjoy the feel of a brush in my hand as I pick them up.
A few moments from my week, starting with the high tide at Banff.
That’s Macduff looking postcard-picturesque in the distance. I took a number of photos, but in this one the waves in the foreground have created a triangle that echoes the triangle of blue in the sky, with the triangular slice of land as a counterpoint. It’ll probably feel contrived if I put this in a painting, but for second I took the photo it was ‘real’. The angles of the waves at this point can get quite chaotic as they’re influenced by the sea walls to the left and river to the right of where I’m standing.
I’ve been looking at drawings by Egon Schiele again, and having a go at my version of the ones where he’d used minimal line, with the hands drawn but not arms, leaving the viewer to ‘see’ the ‘missing bits’. This drawing is the one I like the most, of the in-house art critic sitting in his chair in my studio.
I moved the bright and cheerful flowers my friend Lisbeth sent me onto my studio table and started a mixed media piece. When I got to this point, and saw that what was supposed to be magenta was rather dull, I took another look at the bottle of what I thought was magenta watercolour, and noticed I’d changed the label to say “magenta + potter’s pink”. I then remembered I’d done this after reading that potter’s pink will make a mixture granulating without shifting the colour too much as it’s a weak colour, but guess it was a bit much. Lesson learn: make the label clearer!
Studio cat wasn’t impressed by the work-in-progress. (It was dry at this point!) I’ve since added some unadulterated magenta to it, but it’s still very much a W.I.P.
The now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t children’s book on the table is “Enormous Smallness“, on the poet E.E. Cummings. I was intrigued by how his life’s story and poems would be conveyed in an illustrated book. Read: interview with the illustrator Kris Di Giacomo.
The sea forecast for Fraserburgh, with waves over four metres heading straight-on to the shore, enticed me to the northeast coast amidst the sleet showers, though not with oil paints and a big canvas to lash down so as to channel my inner Joan Eardley. It was hard enough keeping myself upright in the gusts! I haven’t yet looked at the photos I took on my ‘big camera’ to see if I managed to hold it still enough in the wind, but these snaps on my phone give you a sense of how tempestuous the sea was.
There’s such minimal colour the images are almost black and white, but using a photo editing b&w filter in the photo below shows what subtle greys there are and the variations in white.
Will I translate it into thick paint, or wet-into-wet watercolour, or with mixed media, or might I try monoprinting? I don’t know, yet.
“From food to philosophy, from medicine to art, most of what keeps us alive, and most of what makes life worthwhile, are things that were invented not by members of my specific nation but by people from across the whole world. … Every human being is heir to the whole of human creation. People who in search of their identity narrow their world to the story of a single nation are turning their back on their humanity. They devalue what they share with all other humans.”
The sharpenable pencil as we know it, a core of graphite mixed with clay and water that’s baked to harden it before being wrapped in wood, goes back to Conte (the person, not the brand). Before this pieces of graphite, and the reasons why we still call the core of a pencil “lead”.
The paper we use a pencil on, once a rare luxury item, but which in this era can be bought in a supermarket by the ream, for not very much at all per sheet, labelled as “printer paper”. Yet also as a specialist item from papermakers still using traditional methods and creating sheet after sheet by hand.
Why lapis lazuli was used so sparingly in Western European painting for so long, then the creation of a synthetic version of ultramarine let it become a blue so many contemporary artists consider indispensable.
A few moments from my week, starting with a few things that caught my eye as I wandered around the garden this morning.
The colours in the garden have changed to their late autumn palette, and sculptural shapes become evident as leaves have fallen. Decidedly frosty mornings, with the sun is sitting low in the sky (geographically I’m at around 57°N). When I’m not wandering around the garden, the tops of the hedgerow often have lots of little sparrows sitting in them; I counted around 30 yesterday.
Inside, in the warmth of my studio, I’ve been doing some more monoprints based on a photo of the in-house art critic sitting in his comfy chair in the bay window. I’m ignoring that it prints in reverse for the moment to make things simpler for myself.
The top two are ghost prints of the lower two monoprints. The inadvertent mis-inking on the top of his head which has led me to thinking these should be titled “I’ve a hole in my head”. I was not consciously channelling my inner-Munch “Scream” but rather exploring different backgrounds to the figure. I like the softer one (bottom left) done with a cloth rather than the more graphic (bottom right) done with a scraper.
I dug out a watersoluble graphite stick pursue the idea of creating similar tones through different mark making. I didn’t push this drawing very far because I liked it so much at this stage.
There’s dry pencil on dry paper, water brushed over the pencil to create a wash, wet pencil (the point dipped into my water pot) on dry paper and on wet. It was a 4B so is quite dark though not quite as black as the photo suggests. The paper having a slight texture rather than being smooth increases the range of marks I could make.
I also discovered viscosity printing, where you deliberately make one ink less ‘sticky’ than the other and can then print two colours simultaneously. My results were dubious but did give me a sense of the technique and that it suits my impatience.
READ: “Our species’ failure to eradicate war is a failure of the imagination, a failure to imagine what it is like to be anybody else, without which there can be no empathy and compassion — those vital molecules of harmony, the other name for which is peace.” Maria Popova, About War, The Marginalian 16 Nov 2023
READ: “History teaches us that time can bring about reconciliations that seemed at another time impossible, but only when violence has ceased, whether by agreement or through exhaustion” Kathleen Lonsdale, “Is Peace Possible?”, quoted in “The Building Blocks of Peace” by Maria Popova, The Marginalian 6 March 2022,
I spent most of the week south of the border, at Higham Hall in the English Lake District, leading my “Expressive Scottish-scapes” mixed media workshop. Once again it was a rewarding week, with great results from everyone. My thanks to all participants for your hard work and enthusiasm, and to all the staff at Higham.
This time I was in room 24 overlooking the courtyard, which may not be ensuite but its bathroom has the hottest shower I’ve ever encountered at Higham. I shouldn’t mention it also has a double bed, reasonable wifi and cellphone signal because then you’ll all be requesting this room.
The studio is in the old stables off the courtyard behind the hall. With my workshop being limited to 10 people (or occasionally 11 if there’s a request to ‘plus one’) there’s room for everyone to spread out.
My workshop is a mixture of activities to explore my approach to painting — layers being a core concept — and favourite colours, mixed with time to paint your own choices with my input. So many inspiring results! One of my favourites was a Talisker Bay piece which wasn’t entirely successful at the end the very first activity but that through the week became more colourful and layered through accidental colour additions and bits of demonstrating/trying materials, ending up with all sorts of interesting mark making.
Heading home was a constant reminder of the colour changes of autumn. I don’t usually include figures in my paintings or photos, but this one gives scale to the oak.
Back in my studio I made a big note to put at the top of my Higham notes that you-know-who-you-are requested I do a session on concertina sketchbooks in next November’s workshop. My next task is to unpack, but what’s the rush?
“You have the potential to create infinitely more fluid work using the process and imagination of the poet, rather than that of the geographer. You have so many tools that you can use to image, on the floor of your studio and inside your head. You are never condemned to paint only what you see; you can paint anything you want to.”
Gareth Edwards & Kate Reeve-Edwards, “Painting Abstract Landscapes”, page 114
“It was in the photo” is one of the most disheartening reasons I hear in workshops for including an element in a painting. There’s no reason to include something if it doesn’t make sense for the painting. You’re interpreting, not transcribing, being painterly not a photocopier. Adverts for photo editing software and fancy phone cameras are full of “look how easy it is to delete things you don’t want in a photo” (along with “sequence has been shortened” in the smallprint). With a painting you simply leave it out from the start.
I undertook my longest journey in my e-van since I bought it in the summer, to the Lake District for my workshop at Higham Hall; it’s about 300 miles. This recharge point not far off the motorway in a village had gorgeous autumnal colours. So much calmer than a motorway service station.
I had fun kicking through the autumn leaves and taking photos of the colours. The black rectangle is the top of a rubbish bin, with the sky and a tree reflected in it.
Being at Higham Hall to lead another “Expressive Scotland Mixed Media” workshop is as enjoyable as ever. The new door from the hall to the courtyard means there’s now step-free access to the studio. All sorts of beautiful paintings being developed by participants, and the copy of Henry Moore’s sheep sketchbook in the studio library being passed around with the consensus that his proportions are a bit dubious in places.
I discovered that the veggies and fruit portraits artist had done one with books called “The Librarian”, and I think it’s as clever and amusing as his paintings I am familiar with. It was one of this week’s images on the Pictdle daily art puzzle.
“…negative space is more subtle, beginning wherever positive space ends. It is the peripheral area, the space surrounding the occupied space. …
“When you are composing negative space, remember that negative space is limited by the format of the painting surface. The shapes of the positive space, in contrast, as usually centrally located. Negative space also often needs to be broken up into smaller shapes and then integrated with the balance of the painting.”
Albert Handell and Leslie Trainor Handell, “Intuitive Composition”, page 34
Think of space in a painting the way Monet advised us not to paint objects (tree, house, field) but instead paint shapes of colour (a square of blue, an oblong of pink, a streak of yellow). The composition of a painting is not “important space” — occupied by the subject — surrounded by “empty space”, it’s all crucial to the result. Some parts may take less time to paint, but that’s a measure of time spent not importance to the composition.
When last, when a painting wasn’t working, did you contemplate the negative space in your composition?