Monday Motivator: Tom Phillips on Likeness in Portraiture

“Getting a likeness is not the problem: any professional should be able to achieve that in a couple of sessions. The problem seems to be in reconciling a set of possible likenesses into a unity that has the feel of the subject’s actually being there. The great test, as HWK Callom says, is to turn the picture to the wall and see if it seems that someone has suddenly left the room. …

“Portraiture, I grow more and more to feel, is a very special category of painting and a very particular art of art: it involves two people in a room one of whom is trying to be painted by the other”

Tom Phillips, “The Portrait Works”, National Portrait Gallery Publications 1989 page 13

Tom Phillips, who died on 28 November, is an artist who was defeats classification, “part of a generation who allowed themselves to work in all and any genres” (The Art Newspaper obituary). His Twitter profile describes him as “picturesmith, wordsmith & occasional musicsmith”. That he’s not as well known as Hockney defies reason.

I encountered Tom Phillips’ paintings through an exhibition of his portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 1989, not realising at the time how unusual it was for a living artist to have a solo exhibition there. I was captivated by his use of words in his paintings, as well as his series of altered book pages, published as “A Humument” in various editions. The online version lets you see all the different versions of the same page as well as the original page.

Monday Motivator: Lighten a Colour by Using More Colour Not White

“An esthetic warning: always think twice before using white. It can give your pictures a chalky look. If you want to lighten a color, sometimes try using another color instead of white. If you want your pictures to have brilliance, think in terms of more color, not lighter color.

Paul Strisik, “The Art of Landscape Painting”, page 13

I think the default setting ought to be “as often as possible” try something other than white, not “sometimes”.

Also a combination of something else and a little white rather than only white.

Not forgetting that if you’re painting on a white ground with acrylics or oils this can be used with a thin application of a transparent colour to ‘lighten’ the colour as you’d do with watercolour and paper. Or if the whole canvas is covered, you can paint an area white and then glaze over the top with a transparent colour.

And remembering that when a subject is white, it’s rarely “tube white” all over. Not even daisies.

Monday Motivator: The Attainable in Art is Technique

“It is only the amateur who expects success. It is not possible to succeed. The mastery of one’s means is technique, and this can be attained, but the exhaustive expression of the inexhaustible suggestion of nature can never be attained.

“Yet we may form a sort of grammar of standards by which we may judge the coherency with which the language of art is spoken. I know no other way of judging a picture than by three rules or qualities–the originality of the conception based on the possibilities of that subject, the sense of beauty, the technical achievement.”

Maria Oakey Dewing, “Flower Painters and What the Flower Offers to Art” in Art and Progress Vol. 6, No. 8 (Jun., 1915), pp. 255-262

Note to self: it wasn’t a dud flower painting, it was but another step in the “exhaustive expression of the inexhaustible suggestion of nature”.

If you’re striving for the unattainable, then what you judge to be unsuccessful results aren’t failures because you weren’t supposed to be able to do it anyway.

Monday Motivator: Landscapes We Carry

Monday Motivator quote

“I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me—and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with.”

Joan Mitchell, letter written in 1958
(in John I.H. Baur, Nature in Abstraction: The Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to  Nature in Twentieth-Century American Art, via David Zimmer)

Remembered from a single occasion.
Remembered from multiple occasions.
Remembered from visits years apart and remembered from frequent visits.
Remembered by telling someone else.
Remembered through listening to someone else’s remembering.

The layers of memory as layers in a painting.
Each memory in a different medium? A different type of mark?

Monday Motivator: The Three P’s of Painting

Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote“…there are three qualities you need to develop as a painter:  patience, persistence, and passion.

“Since painting is a complex process, you need to be patient with yourself as you learn to master the craft. Your persistence is important, in order to move past your failures and frustrations. And finally, it is your passion…that propels you forward.”

Suzanne Brooker, “The Elements of Landscape Oil Painting”, page 195

The Three P’s of Painting: Patience, Persistence, Passion

Passion, enthuasiasm, desire … perhaps the easiest to have in abundance.

Persistence, endurance, determination … it’s a long-distance event not a sprint. Pace yourself.

Patience … the hardest as we expect to learn in less time than is reaistic. Think about how many years it took you to learn to read and write, how we start one letter at a time not with five-syllable words such as phthalocyanine (aka phthalo, as in the blue).

Monday Motivator: Heading into Murky Territory When Colour Mixing

Monday Motivator Inspirational Art Quote

“By adding two primaries together we end up with the secondary colours: red and blue make purple, blue and yellow make green, yellow and red create orange. The addition of more colours creates tertiary colours, but every time more colours are added, the purity of colour drops until eventually we end up with browns and greys.

David Coles, “Chromatopia”, page 1

I added the bold to the quote. Purity isn’t a word I use when thinking about colour mixing, but it is key.

Keeping the number of pigments in a mixed colour to the minimum. keeps the result further away from an unintentional murky mess. This includes ‘hidden’ pigments in tube colours that are a mixture, such as an orange that is a red and yellow mix rather than a single orange pigment. The name won’t tell you; it’s in the small print on the side of the tube label or a manufacturer’s colour chart (and on the product info of some art materials shop websites).

For instance, looking at Golden Heavy Body Acrylics, the Cobalt Teal might be the colour you’re after but when you look at the price you realise it’s a Series 7 colour, gulp, so you might decide to go with the Teal instead or perhaps the Light Turquoise (Phthalo), because they’re fairly close in colour . But whereas Cobalt Teal contains contains only PG50 (a green pigment), these contain PW6, PB15:4, PG7 (white, blue and green) and PB15:4, PW6, PG7 respectively (blue, white, green).

Mixed tube colours aren’t inferior, they’re just mixtures. This becomes relevant when you’re then mixing colours using these as you’re mixing with mixtures and so have more ingredients (pigments) than you might realise. Knowing what’s in the tube when you’re colour mixing is one of the keys to not inadvertently end up at greys and browns.

Exploring Colour Mixing

Monday Motivator: The Creative Process is Not Linear

“When teaching the creative process, it’s important to stress that the process is ongoing … Students often think once they have completed … it’s time to toss it to the side and move on to the next.

“Instead … the process is cyclical as it continues by thinking about how we will apply what we have learned from the previous artwork to the planning and creating of our next artwork. … the steps are not linear

“… sketching is only one way to plan. Artists plan by sketching, documenting, collecting, researching, thinking, journaling, listening, experimenting, and so on.”

Janet Taylor, “How to Use the Creative Process to Support Online Learning


I don’t sit in front of my paintings and write notes about every millimetre, every brushstroke, every hard or soft edge, every colour mixture. I think about what works for me and what doesn’t, what I’d like to do again, what I might change, what I could have still done, and what annoys me.

I like to stick a newly finished painting or plein-air piece up somewhere and let it live there for a while so I see it in various lights and moods. I’ve learnt that what I like/dislike doesn’t always remain the same. Some paintings grow on me, and sometimes I fall out of love with a painting.

Below is a pleinair seascape painting that has grown on me over the past few weeks, as I’ve forgotten the irritation of leaving my brushes behind and really wanting a rigger brush to add some white to the edge of the sea. I had a one-inch silicone paint spreader and a plastic pipette.

Mixed media (coloured pencil and acrylics) on A3-size sheet of 360gsm watercolour paper

I got a surprisingly decent result with the white acrylic ink using a grassy seadhead, but it wasn’t as I’d envisaged (i.e. a technique I’ve used before with pleasing results).

Rather than fuss and struggle with it, I stopped painting after this layer of acrylic white ink, and sat in the sunshine watching the waves.

Looking at it now, I like the composition with rocks on one side only, which isn’t something I’ve done before though I’ve admired in other people’s paintings. And the white on the sea is okay really.

Monday Motivator: Paint the Best You Can That Moment

“In my beginnings, I thought that in order for a work to be worthwhile I had to care for it, coddle it, obsess about it. I had to ‘get it right’ and push for perfection. …

“What I really needed to do was treat the work as if it was the best I could do in the moment, with an eye on improving in my very next attempt. That approach forces one to realize that the exercise of growth depends on failed and discarded attempts that achieve at least a little something to carry into the next piece.

“… Let it go. Start again. Fail. Again. And again. Again. Again. Again.”

10 Things…I Wish I Knew Starting Out“, Muddy Colors

As the saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. Or “fail better“.

Redaction Blackout Poem
This is interesting for many reasons. I feel that not oo much has changed the time had come. We shall not fail. Fear. Flinch. So be it then. A sleepless night.

A Summer of Colour

I may have only painted sporadically in the five months since we moved (not counting all the metres of interior wall) but have had a colourful summer thanks to the wondrous flower garden. There are still new plants emerging, new flowers opening. One of the latest is this (an echinacea the PlantFinder app tells me):

I think it’s almost impossible to look at without tracking along the squirls and spirals in the centre, then out along the petals which seem determined not to touch one another.

In the photo below my camera blew out (overexposed) the colour in the petals. For me it’s become one of those “abstracts from nature” images, with the oranges and greens of the centre feeling as if they’re reaching out towards me, whilst the petals have become a gentle background rather than part of the flower.

Another flower that’s strongly grabbing my imagination with its lanky stems and blobby ends is Japanese anemome. I’ve had a go at painting the pink flowers (see this blogpost) but I also think that there’s something to be explored in the curves and lines without the flowers.

This could be minimalist, as lines against white paper, or a dominant layer of pattern/line/shape against a background of broken colour (like the out-of-focus colours in the photo below).

It’s not all about bright colour either. There are plants with grey foliage and flowers that have gone to seed where the colours are more muted, inviting explorations of “interesting greys and browns” along with line and pattern.

I’ve spent time watching various pollinators too. This globe thistle is such a favourite I’ve been able to get up close without them flying off.

Three of the apple trees we planted are “unknown apples”, ones at half price because the labels had blown off during a storm. Looking at the apples, they’re all different varieties of reds. Which creates possibilities for a “still life with red apples” investigation of reds. If they survive that long before being turned into apple crumble.

Giving the white tables and chairs that were in the garden a fresh coat of paint is on my to-do list, but they won’t rust to bits over another winter if I don’t manage before it’s too cold. The in-house art critic and I have enjoyed many a coffee sitting there.

Monday Motivator: Nature is Rarely Still

“The artist finds waiting for [them], not the trees, not the flowers, not the landscape, but the waving of branches and the trembling of stems, the piling up or scudding of clouds, the rising and setting and waxing and waning of heavenly bodies, the creeping of spilled water on the floor, the repertory of the sea — from ripple and wavelet to tide and torrent”

Calvin Harlan, “Vision and Invention”, page 171

If nature weren’t full of inherent movement, would the category of still life painting have been called thus?

Still life painting typewriter: "You're My Type"
“You’re My Type” 50x50cm