My thanks to all participants in my workshop at Higham Hall for your enthusiasm and to everyone at Higham for all you do to make it happen in such a special venue. I thoroughly enjoyed the week, and look forward to next time.
The week started and ended with blue sky, with beautiful sunrises, hail, storm winds, and snow inbetween. Felt just like Skye!
It’s up to tutors to decide how to use the space. I like to set the studio up with an area with tables where we work together as a group on specific activities I set, and then use the three alcoves as areas where people work alone if they wish. All those hours playing Tetris came in useful to fit in 10 of the high-adjustable tables so everyone could have one to themselves.
Many things come up during a multi-day workshop, and last week’s at Higham Hall was no exception. It’s part of the fun. That said, though I could possibly have anticipated imposter syndrome being discussed, I certainly didn’t anticipate emotional vampires.
Imposter syndrome is that nagging voice of doubt that someone is going to expose you as not being a “real artist”, to point a finger and declare that you clearly don’t know what you’re doing and you should stop pretending that you do. (Quite who that someone might be is never clear.)Thing is, it’s the doubt that makes you question and assess what you’re doing, and thus grow artistically rather than stagnating. Embrace it, but don’t wallow in it, and use it as a motivator. (See here too.)
Emotional vampires are those folk who suck the energy and joy from you. That person who’s always insisting how you ought to be painting something for it to be right (and almost always this means “detailed realism”), the one always after reassurance that their painting is good (by which they mean better than other people’s), the one perpetually armed with two L-bits of card to crop your composition to fix it. Your opinions and preferences are not invalid. Different is not inherently wrong. An urgent need to wash a paint brush will get you away from emotional vampires.
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.
One of the (many) joys of painting is exploring the properties of all the different pigments we have to use. Each has its own personality, and some we’ll like more than others. A few will become best friends, some drift in and out of our lives, and some forever kept at arm’s length.
For yesterday’s workshop I took along a dozen or so different blues from my stash. We started by creating a colour chart with all the blues, making notes of what pigments were in a colour and a opacity/transparency line on the edge.
We discussed what was meant by hue, specifically Prussian blue hue, and compared different versions which have different pigment combinations in them. Consensus was that Schmincke’s version, which has black in it, was suitably moody for a Skye winter. We also talked about how many blues you really need, and why I have so many.
We had some debate whether turquoise was a green or a blue, or a bit of both. The ultimate question was: if you were sorting tubes of paint out into boxes labelled “green” and “blue”, which one would you put “turquoise” into? I’d put it in blue.
In the afternoon we looked at working in layers, focusing on shapes of colour (rather than “it must look like XYZ” or “I’m painting an XYZ”) and patterns. An approach where no one single mark or layer makes or breaks a painting.
There were two layers of in pencil/coloured pencil before the first paint layer. It’s an activity that also gives a feel for glazing — transparent layers of paint over one another — vs blocking bits or breaking shapes using opaque colours.
A great day all round!
If you’d like to join me on a workshop, the dates for scheduled workshops on Skye and for when I’m at Higham Hall in the Lake District can be found here. (Last I heard there were four spots left for my April workshop at Higham.)
Not being systematic in learning has its drawbacks, but it makes for a more interesting journey. I believe that if you’d like to draw and/or paint you should jump in at whatever point appeals to you, then find your way out from there.
You need not first learn to draw to perfection, spending two years working in black-and-white as if you were in a 19th century Parisian art school before you got to play with colour. Who’s got the time or patience for that? (That’s rhetorical, I know some people do.)
What you do need is a willingness to try. Or to use the term I learnt from one of the participants in a recent workshop: “behavioural flexibility”. Sounds a lot more focused and dedicated than “being out your comfort zone”.
It’s a mindset: accepting what you can’t do right now; not beating yourself up for not instantly succeeding; granting yourself time to explore, discover and learn; trying new things and see what happens; telling the nagging critical voice that says it’s too scary and you may fail to shut up and wait and see.
Working with black ink and dip pen you have to keep going forward with it, you can’t stop to erase, rethink and redo like you can with a pencil. At one point in my recent workshops at Skyeworks, there was a “try it with both hands” moment:
Without this out-of-comfort-zone yet playful moment, would the free mark making with the black ink and pen in this subsequent mixed media painting have happened? It’s impossible to say, but I do think it’s part of why there’s such a sense of joy in this painting (enjoyment in exploring the mediums and the exploration of the subject, some rosehips in a glass jar).
And while this next painting (work-in-progress) may look like a graphite pencil and watercolour drawing in the middle of a realist painter’s comfort zone, in fact it was out of comfort zone because it’s graphite and acrylic ink. What’s reassuringly familiar to one person is unfamiliar to another. What’s scary is relative and individual, and changes as we progress on our artistic journeys.
It was a joy watching both of these paintings being created and develop, the enthusiasm, and tenacity.
The sunflower painting below was done by the same person who did the rosehip pencil drawing, after a weekend’s break. It’s mixed media, started with soft pastel, then acrylic inks and paint, and black ink. Much further out of comfort zone but at the same time easier because of the time spent earlier in the session just trying out? materials without worrying about results, being a kid again and enjoying pushing colour around.
Parts of it are still work-in-progress, less resolved, but I think it’s beautiful and painterly — a celebration of both the joy of sunflowers and paint — particularly the top left sunflower.
The next painting was done by someone who started the session never having been near acrylic paint. We were focusing on looking at a subject with an eye towards abstraction and impressionism rather than realism, suggesting rather than telling, reducing detail.
I enjoy all sorts of things about this, such as the sense of a surface in the bottom right, which starts my mind on a journey of “is it a table cloth or…?”. The suggestion of shapes in the background, the sense of depth behind the centre top. And something, which you wouldn’t know unless you had been there: the last-minute joyous adding of a glaze of magenta to the vase because it’s a favourite colour, and ties into the magenta in the flower centres, changing the overall dominance of yellow in the painting.
I had my own version, started as a demonstration piece (e.g. “this is how dark a shadow I’m thinking you might add, yes, really, this dark”) then continued a bit as I tidied up at the end of the session, using up the little bits of leftover paint. Parts were still wet when I took this photo and I’m interested to see how much the last layer of acrylic ink on the petals has sunken into the paper.
But I left it on the table in the workshop area of Skyeworks Gallery, so it’ll be a couple of days before I see it again. At the moment I’m thinking: “that jug is awfully tall!”
A few last photos from my recent painting workshop at Higham Hall, and my thanks to everyone — workshop participants and the team at Higham — for an inspiring week.
I’ll be doing another “Capturing Skye in Expressive Acrylics/Watercolours” workshop at Higham Hall next April, and possibly something in October/November 2018 too. Contact Higham Hall to ‘register an interest’ and you’ll be amongst the first to know the details.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard photographers bemoan grey days because grey is supposedly uninteresting. Grey days are beautiful in a different way, sometimes for the gentle gradations in tone, sometimes for narrowing the range of tones, and sometimes for strong contrasts between dark grey skies and sea.
When painting, grey doesn’t mean simply “black + white”. We’ve a bounty of “interesting greys” at our colour-mixing fingertips, which is one of the things we’ve investigated during this week’s workshop at Higham Hall.
We’ve also looked at using coloured grounds, such as orange beneath a seascape (which plays on the fact orange and blue are complementary colours):
And, of course, the joy of splattering paint around to add that final layer of energy to a painting:
The art studio at Higham Hall is off the courtyard at the back, a bright, quirky space that’s got an area for group work and lots of nooks for individual working.
The first full day of my “Capturing Skye” workshop started with an activity designed to put the focus on colour and shape, as building blocks for a layered painting. As always, it’s fascinating and inspiring to see what 10 people do from the same set of instructions, how our individual inclinations, preferences, hesitations influence us. And how it changes and develops when repeating the activity once you know what the elements of it are, rather than following an instruction without knowing where it’s leading. Great work, and inspiring pushing with the concept to develop it individually.
In the afternoon we explored ink and stick (aka “st-ink”) using a bamboo pen/brush that is cut to a nib on one end and has a brush at the other (buy here: affiliate link). I find black ink dramatic to work with, easily overdone and all too easy to drop a bit where you don’t want it. But it can be oh so beautiful and expressive.
My new long-handle big brush was also inaugurated, used to add drama to a sky in a few big sweeps across the top of a painting.
It was one of those perfect sunny days when I arrived at Higham Hall on Sunday: bright blue sky, crisp light, and greens upon greens in every direction, often even overhead as lanes twist and turn beneath trees. Wandering through the beautiful gardens was filled with patterns of light and dark and colour, reflections in the pond that make me feel like I’m channelling Monet, and punctuated by a vibrant splash of brightness that will bring joy to any colourist’s heart.
I’ve been to Higham before as a student, in 2011 and 2012, doing life drawing and then pastel/acrylics landscapes with the inimitable Patrick Oates. If was from the latter workshop that my tree paintings started to develop. It’s a delight, and also nerve-racking, to be back again this time as a tutor, with 10 students. Happily, as I’m writing this on my second morning here, I can report that the first day’s teaching was a joy. Photos will follow.