Monday Motivator: Ideas

Monday Motivator
Monday Motivator

“We all share a common misconception: that ideas pop into mind fully formed by themselves, fresh, new, and creative …

“Ideas are not new, as thoughts are not new. They come from the thoughts that came before them. We don’t really start thinking, we simply join the thinking that’s already going on. In other words, we jump onto the train of thought. Thoughts come from thoughts. …

“Finding the one you want to express is more about you than the idea.”

Gregory Manchess, “10 Things… Generating Ideas“, Muddy Colors

Procrastination can happen because we believe we don’t have any ideas to paint, we’re waiting for an idea we judge to be the perfect, or we can’t choose between all our ideas.

If it’s the first: reuse a previous idea. There isn’t a rule stipulating that ideas may be used once only. Imagine if Monet had decided to stop at one lilypond painting. And did you know Munch did more than one version of “The Scream“?

If it’s the second: go with the last idea you rejected. Give up on perfect and see where a less-than-perfect idea takes you. Would you do a perfect painting from a perfect idea first time anyway?

If it’s the third: put several in a hat and pick one. They’re all equally valid, and it matters more that you get started and persist.

When I picked each up, it was a perfect pebble for one reason or another. Together they become painted friends not competitors.

Photos: Old Harbour at Portsoy

The old harbour at Portsoy in northeastern Aberdeenshire, Scotland, was started in 1679. The different styles of stone show stories of rebuilding across the centuries, with intrigues such as now-inaccessible stairs in a corner.

After enjoying a treat from Portsoy’s renowned ice cream shop (there was a parking spot right outside when I went past, surely a sign to stop and support a local business!), I wandered around in the cool winter day’s sun.

There are so many possibilities for paintings before you even consider whether the tide is in or out, the sea calm or stormy, the day is sunny or overcast. On this occasion I mostly had another look at things that had stuck in my mind from previous visits and filled in some missing bits of info (such as where the stream emerges from under the road and houses).

A painting of Findochty harbour by Ian Fleming (not the writer!) has had me pondering what you might include of a harbour wall in a foreground, rather than starting the foreground with water. It might have to be a series of paintings!

I wonder what other colours that yellow door has been. I drew in a concertina sketchbook with pencil for about 10 minutes, but got cold. I’ll continue another day, and perhaps add colour to this in the studio.

I went to look at a stretch of coast near the harbour that I’m itching to paint (a stormier version of this scene is on the cover of my 2024 photo reference book). I still have to find a spot where I don’t feel too close to the edge or think about what erosion there may be hidden beneath.

Stormy Sea: My Biggest-Ever Print

This piece started when I found I had a piece of perspex that was just a little long for the bed of my printing press. Enter the in-house art critic, the Dremel and a tiny circular saw attachment, and it now fits, giving me the possibility of doing prints that are almost A1 in size.

The ink I’m using is an oil-based printing ink that can be cleaned up with water rather than solvent (Caligo Safe Wash). The colour is Prussian blue mixed into my “leftovers grey” (leftover ink I keep in a little glass jar) to make it a bit darker. I put some directly onto the sheet using a palette knife, then use a roller to spread it out, leaving an edge that would become a white border to the print.

To create the image, I worked into the ink using various things to remove parts and create marks, including paper towel, a coarse-haired brush, and scrim (a stiff, open weave fabric). I tried not to leave any area of ink untouched, having learnt that these print as very solid, flat colour, which I didn’t think would enhance the sense of sea. I was visualising the tempestuous sea I’d watched last month as I did this.

When I was happy with how it looked and found myself fiddling with little bits, I put it onto the press, placed a sheet of dampened paper over it (the moisture in the paper encourages the ink to transfer), put in the printing blankets, and ran it through the press. I got so caught up in in all that I forgot to take any photos until after I’d made the ghost print (a second print done to use up any leftover ink). The paper was a little too damp in places and created a watercolour-type effect where the ink has spread; another variable I need to remember.

Ghost print using a sheet torn into three long pieces, which I’m envsaging making into concertina sketchbooks. Doing a ghost print also makes cleaning the sheet of perspex easier as there’s minimal ink left on it.

This is the print as it came off the press, with my hand for scale. It’s hanging up to dry using clips with magnets, out of reach of the studio cats.

There were two areas where the ink had spread because the paper was too wet that I felt dominated the image. The most obvious is on the horizon above my hand. I left the ink to dry before trying to resolve this. I first tried scratching into the paper to see if I could reveal some white, but the ink had soak into the paper and it was blue beneath the surface too. So I took out some white acrylic ink with the hope it wouldn’t be too different a white to the paper, and added some of this.

Spot the ‘fix’

Here are a couple of close-up details, to give a sense of the variations in mark making. When I look at this, I’m trying to remember what gave me which mark.

This is the final piece, the biggest print I’ve every made. I like the dark blue, which I think conveys the sense of a stormy sea, and the sense of movement.

“Stormy Sea”, approximately 60x50cm (32×20″). Available from my studio.

Whether you’d frame it with the edge showing or not would be a matter of personal preference; I can’t decide which I prefer.

Monday Motivator: Hope

Monday Motivator
Monday Motivator

Hope has holes
in its pockets.
It leaves little
crumb trails
so that we,
when anxious,
can follow it ...

Poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, "Hope"

Picking up a pencil or brush to create a painting or drawing is an act of hope. Follow the bread crumbs of all the redrawn and erased lines, the overpainted and wiped off brushmarks, the smudged bits. These draft a map of where we’ve been as we draw and paint, whether or not a piece is finished, incomplete or abandoned.

As we journey, the map becomes increasingly familiar: paths we love, paths perhaps best avoided when travelling alone, and those not yet ventured down. Choose what suits that drawing session.

Watercolour and blind embossing

This Week: Frosty Pebbles

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.

Monday Motivator: Grab Teeny Bits of Time

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.

Belinda Del Pasco, “Practicing Watercolor Painting in the Evening

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.

This Week: Potter’s Pink in My Magenta

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.

Studio cat’s advice was, as ever, to sleep on it.

Photos: Tempestuous Sea

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.

Monday Motivator: Our Shared Identity

“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.”

Yuval Noah Harari, “The Dangerous Quest for Identity“, Time Magazine 12 January 2023

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.

Cross pollination makes life.

This Week: Sculptural Rather than Colourful in My Garden, and More Monoprinting

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.

  • LEARN:
    WRONG!: Mistakes, Inaccuracy and Failure in Drawing: Livestream talk by Edinburgh-based figurative artist Alan McGowan, Monda, 11 December 2023, 7pm GMT (UTC+0)
  • 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,