Tuesday, 27 December 2016

John Everett Millais

Millais, the greatest Victorian Artist

Sophie Gray. 1857

My Christmas treat to myself is this wonderful monogaph of the life and works of John Everett Millais. The cover portrait of a young Sophie Gray (his sister in law) is a stunning yet surprising choice when the obvious cover photo would have been of his most recognisable painting "Ophelia," which I may write about later. The author is clearly in awe of the artist and his book is a necessary correction to many misconceptions about his art.

Millais was an infant prodigy in the true sense of the word, but although there have been many in history and art schools are always full of precocious talents who disappear, or just stop creating, or get stuck in mannered art, his story is unusual in that he realised his potential fully; he never stopped learning, he experimented when he could, and shifted his art right until the end of his life when he could so easily have stuck creating what sells best. The trajectory he followed wasn't that unusual: from highly detailed, technically superb painting full of narrative elements and symbolism, to a much looser and freer technique as he mastered painting totally. And he was the total painter. His draughtsmanship was faultless, his understanding of classical composition and colour understanding couldn't be bettered. Portraits and landscapes, children and animals were all tackled with absolute assurance and even when the proportions of a subject were not perfect, there would be a reason why not. Those artists born into his period were either blessed to see his work or frustrated that such a great artist was in their midst and comparisons would always be made. The Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) knew he was their most accomplished artist and when they went off on jaunts - ostensibly to research the old masters - and experiment in love, life and intoxicants, he was happy to stay at home in his studio and just work. He had little time and need to kneel at the foot of the masters; Velasquez and Rembrandt were enough for him.

So why was he later neglected, until quite recently? In his day he was the wealthiest, the most popular and most highly regarded painter in Britain. Critics admired him and acclaimed his works, and the public loved him. Then his popularity with critics and public waned. I think there are several reasons:

  • Fashions in art change - as they should do.
  • The enormously popular, commercially necessary (large family to support) portraits, such as "Bubbles" were seen as overly sentimental.
  • Ophelia! Probably the most popular and iconic image of the PRB, and yet in artistic terms and amongst many artists and critics, not his greatest painting by any means. He is now often judged, based on that one lesser painting.
  • Judging his work through today's eyes: it's too easy to miss how revolutionary his art was in his day. We are so used to his and the PRB’s art now that it no longer surprises us or even shock us as it did in his day. Remember too, that in some ways, the Impressionists may have not come about without some of his pioneering and revolutionary challenges to the academies in London and Paris. Monet and Manet certainly owe much to the foundations laid by Millais. Singer-Sargent can definitely be traced back to the master.
  • The painting of Sophie Gray above is an example of what I mean. We may see it as a great portrait of an exceptionally beautiful girl on the edge of womanhood, but it would have shocked the Victorians - even with their notorious double standards. The bright red lips and the slightly raised chin is very radical for the time, if not to us since about the 1960s probably. It could only be achieved because of the close relationship between artist and the model (no impropriety as far as we know though). The shock has gone and it can be appreciated as just one of the finest realist portraits of the 19th century.
  • Modern art appreciation. Millais was a very intellectual and "high minded" painter and totally the Victorian gentleman. He wanted art to make better people. His work had a story to tell and the viewer was required to make some effort to understand the background, or interpret the symbolism. Today, we are either ignorant of these elements or we are too mentally exhausted to make that effort, and why not; I sometimes want something that is immediately attention-grabbing, pretty and decorative. The quote below from The Book of Life website describes this state better than I can.

    "There is another reason why modern audiences are likely to sidestep opportunities for high-minded consumption: because they are so exhausted. Modern work demands a punishing amount from its participants. We typically return from our jobs, at the day’s close, in a state of severe depletion; frazzled, tired, bored, enervated and sad. In such a state, the products and services for which we will be in the mood have to be of a very particular cast. We are likely to be too brutalised to care very much about the suffering of unfortunates in faraway tea plantations or cotton fields. We may have endured too much tedium to stay patient with intelligently reticent and studiously subtle media. We may be too anxious to have the strength to explore the more sincere sections of our own minds. We may hate ourselves a bit too much to want to eat and drink only what is good for us. Our lives may be too lacking in meaning to concentrate only on what is meaningful. To counterbalance what has happened at work, we may be powerfully compelled towards what is excessively sweet, salty, distracting, easy, colourful, explosive, sexual and sentimental."

    Mariana. 1851
               She only said, 'My life is dreary,
          He cometh not,' she said;
        She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,'
          I would that I were dead!'

    Tennyson's poem of the character from Measure for Measure would have been familiar to the educated Victorian viewer, so this painting from Millais when he was just 20 years old (that is an incredible thought for starters) illustrates perfectly the aims of the PRB and his early style. Essentially it is full of narrative details and the technique of recording great details is necessary for this story telling. Her rutted existence and her posture was the subject of a rave review in The Guardian that described her as "writhing under the prolonged torture of hope deferred." The leaves scattered on the floor from the landscape outside are symbols of her slow mental and physical breakdown. The viewer has to be a reader. 

    For the modern viewer we don't necessarily have to know all of the background detail; we can create our own stories. Even without a story the superb colour sense is wonderful on its own and that blue velvet dress must still be the envy of every woman. The most common interpretation today would probably simply be of a woman who is stretching her back after spending hours working on her tapestry. Deeper still, she could be feeling trapped in domesticity, or a loveless marriage and seeks distraction through a tedious and futile exercise, or she could be finding fulfllment in her creative task. Either way, it's a situtation many of us artists can relate to. Whatever we choose, with or without the accompanying poem, it is a beautiful painting on any level.

    Sunday, 27 November 2016

    Autumn Leaves

    Autumn Leaves. John Everett Millais. 1856

    I visited Manchester City Art Gallery at the end of November, unfortunately I couldn't photograph this painting because the lighting was so dim. This reproduction is in the public domain though and is very clear. In my opinion it is one of Millais' greatest paintings, an opinion shared with Rossetti I've since discovered.

    It isn't a large painting and it was done at about the time he was becoming freer and looser in his application. The thing about Millais was that he was gifted with immaculate technique; he could do anything and it was so easy, so later on he could paint almost without thinking.

    This is a very unusual painting, because it doesn't really have a subject or a strong narrative element, or even the usual heavy symbolism of the pre-raphaelites (only the little girl's apple could be symbolic; not lost on the Victorians, who would be better at reading a painting than most of us). The detail is lavished on the leaves for some reason. The composition is almost religious and very harmonious. There is no attempt to prettify and one of the girls is even painted with a lazy eye when he could have made them "perfect." The rest evokes a feeling only, especially the capturing of twilight which has rarely been equalled. Everything is ambiguous and neither one thing nor another. It's neither daytime, nor night; neither summer nor winter; the girls aren't little girls or women; are they rich or poor? Are they happy and contented or sad? They offer up their incense at the passing of summer, but as the interpretation board described so well, this painting exists in a kind of limbo, and that's why I love it.

    Tuesday, 24 May 2016


    Olivia aged 3

    Oils on linen canvas.
    40 cm × 30 cm.

    A Private portrait of my daughter. 

    This one has taken longer with many stages and drying to wait for. I consider it finished now and it’ll be left for months now before varnishing. There may be the odd bit to touch up, but if I didn’t do anything else to “improve” it, I’d still be happy.

    The portrait is of a moment on a camping holiday in Devon in the summer of 2015. Olivia was singing (“For the first time in forever” from Frozen) and running in the meadow and exploring the creatures living in the grasses. She was absorbed in the antics of a ladybird crawling on her hand. My wife took several photos of her, but one formed the basis of the painting and a second one was used because the tilt of her head and the position of her hands was better and less awkward. So it’s really a composite of two similar images. Apart from that, few changes were made as the photos were so good and well composed - as I’d expect from Sarah. A main one is that I've made her fingers slightly shorter than they really are. If I'd copied them as they are people would always think they are too long. Sometimes truthfulness in portraits can be problematic! The sky is more detailed than the photograph as the camera washed out the background a bit. The likeness to my daughter isn’t perfect of course, but I’m happy that it captures her character and the moment. What photographs struggle with is recreating the softness of skin, and shadows are often exaggerated, so I did paint her face and arms as you would really see it in afternoon summer light, rather than as the camera records it.

    There are several things that I feel pull this together. There’s foreground and background interest and the composition helps the eye to move around. The yurt in the background gives a story and context. Her skirt and top are in harmony with the sky and of course the summer grass colour complements the blue sky. Her hands are so expressive here and she looks at ease and absorbed. Hands can intimidate, but although left to the very end, they came together much more easily than expected - without needing to paint too realistically. 

    The most difficult parts were the hair and grass. I puzzled over the grass for days, building up layers over shadows, scratching, adding negative shapes, highlights and more shadows until it came together. Her hair was even more of a challenge. Painting nearly white blonde hair was a nightmare. Again, many layers and for some shadows there’s ultramarine blue which seems counter-intuitive, but the red end made her look jaundiced. White is often too opaque and can look chalky, so small amounts of light yellow were added which can actually look brighter in sunlight than white.

    The rest was pretty straightforward to be honest. The yellow ochre underpainting gives a lovely warm glow to everything (the photograph really doesn’t capture that glow and accuracy in hues). The drawing was done with a grid as accuracy was paramount in this instance, although I have accidentally strayed in her head shape which has taken a little from the likeness. As with any portrait, any tiny deviation in line, shape or form makes a disproportionate difference to accuracy of likeness, but on the whole I’m pretty happy with this one.

    Just to say too, that painting on a higher quality linen canvas was a real pleasure. What a difference.

    Another portrait to follow in a couple of months time, which may be done in a looser style.

    Thursday, 7 April 2016

    Pitfalls for the artist

    What I've learned so far...

    The quick and easy alongside the classically styled.

    I was going to write one of those “12 common mistakes beginning artists make" type blog posts. People love these on the internet, but then I thought no; who am I to judge what is right and wrong when painting? The pleasure of actually making art and the appreciation of a finished piece is highly personal and subjective. And besides, I’m not particularly critical of art in terms of the aesthetics; technical aspects more so, but does that really matter?

    So, I will compose a list, but they are written to just provoke thought and hopefully help those starting out on this very long journey. If this helps people to make greater progress and avoid frustrations then all the better. Bear in mind that these are my personal impressions and I won’t be quoting or citing others, but I do refer to others to support.

    Be aware of the following then:
    • You are in this for the long term. A very long term if you have other work and life commitments. Don’t expect to be brilliant or even good at first, it takes years of practice and I don’t mean just repeating the same type of paintings constantly; the practice needs to be quality and quantity.
    • Draw, draw, draw. It may seem a bit dull (I don't find that personally) when you want to splash colour around, but if you want to be confident that you can tackle a range of subjects you need to learn how to draw. That means taking a systematic, programmed approach that breaks it down into components and mastering each aspect until it becomes almost second nature. Learn to really look at the subject like a tiger stalking its prey. Do a bit of painting as you go to satisfy that urge, but never, ever stop drawing and copying from the best.
    • Don’t just rely on - or wait for - inspiration,  or an idea each time you get out the pencils or brushes. The time may never be right and the wait could be long and not worth it in the end or you’ll find excuses for not starting, because you’re tired, not ready, distracted, sore, etc, etc, etc. Just do it or work on an exercise to improve your skills.
    • Be patient. This links to the previous two. Many students just draw too quickly -as though fast execution will wow people with their amazing talent. Yes, you will get quicker in some respects, but preparation and planning and just looking is vital beforehand and then when you are ready to execute it may happen quite quickly. You need to build up on previous experience and develop from a range of subjects and from using different mediums. There is the dilemma of whether you should keep doing different things or settle on a distinct style; certainly if you want to become commercially successful you do need to do that at some point. I do wonder though if there are other reasons for this because I suspect that some do this earlier for a number of reasons.
      • Impatience with the learning process.
      • Poor development in the early learning stages so that they become stuck in a kind of artistic adolescence where passion exceeds ability.
      • Lack of time, or a sense of time running out, so that key skills elements are skipped altogether or not fully absorbed. There are those artists who struggle with drawing. Many become very famous and successful - which shows that it isn’t critically important. I know myself that my works that are technically complex and well executed don’t always work as an engaging piece of art. This still frustrates a bit. But, I will still maintain that if drawing is your weakness, keep practicing, because if you are comfortable with it, you will be much more confident about everything you want to achieve. You will develop a “can do” attitude to painting. Remember, it takes years to get there.
      • Friends and family egging them on to "run before they can walk" leading to painting for the audience and getting stuck in habitual or mannered works.
    • Don’t be discouraged. Drawing is easy: drawing well is difficult. Anyway, who said it would be easy? We all produce work for the bin or work we are embarrassed by. Don’t be. Share some of it to sympathetic people and show them that it is about hard work. Above all, be self-critical and take something away from all works to inform the next one.
    • Art shop fetishising. So many aspiring painters amass vast collections of artist's materials. So much so, that they will be unlikely to ever use it all in their lifetime - unless they turn professional. Do try different mediums, but just get a bit of each thing and do get the best you can afford. In fact, get a bit of the best, rather than a lot of the 2nd best. When I started out, I bought the student grade paints because they were cheap - even though at the time I could afford the best (less so now!). They were fine - certainly good enough - but I’m still working through most of them years later, particularly tubes of watercolour paint. I wish now, I’d started with artists quality, because paints will last you a very long time - unless you work big often and most of us don’t - let’s face it. The artists quality pigments last even longer too, so that some colours work out similar in cost in the long term.
    • Too many colours, too much choice. I can't remember who said this, and some will disagree but I'll put up a good fight to defend this truism: there are 3 key components to painting. The most important is good composition (hardest to teach and learn), the second is good drawing and the last is colouring. We naturally love a bit of colour, but a painting that is about colour can end up being just about pretty colours if it doesn't do anything, and especially if contrast and tone and light is executed poorly (the surest way to spot a beginner is the lack of contrast in a painting.) Learn to master a limited palette of colours and know how to mix to get the colours you want so that it's second nature and work at tone and contrast. Then, and only then, slowly expand your colour range so that you can create more colours that would otherwise be hard to make with a limited palette.
    • Read about art and visit galleries in person. It will inspire and reinvigorate interest and teach. Websites are great, but there’s something slightly dispiriting about art on the internet, yet when you seen in person it somehow inspires. Treat it as your CPD (continuous professional development), and what could be a nicer way of improving your skills?
    • Actually do art. Don’t just amass a collection of books, materials and magazines (I NEVER buy magazines as I believe they are full of the pitfalls I’m describing). You have to take things out of the wrappers and do it.
    • Copying is good. If you don’t know what to actually paint or draw then copy others. I never have times when I don’t know what to paint, ever; I worry that I’m running out of time to paint all the things I’d like and am able to paint. Copying the best is never wasted; it is an essential part of developing.
    • The trap of feeling you need to be original. Forget it. It ain’t going to happen. It’s all been done before, so just accept that. You are doing it because you love it - I hope - and you have something to say, or a vision that is yours, and if you are lucky it will satisfy that need and someone else might connect with it too. I feel almost sorry for those that get sucked into a sort of juvenile enthusiasm for shocking or “experimenting” to get that originality. Sometimes it’s the fault of having preconceptions beforehand - which is deadly for the artist. They may enjoy it and there’s an audience for it out there for sure, but really? Grow up. Ultimately art is all about form in space. It’s about an honest, humble and sincere portrayal of the world, but one that reveals - without intention or deliberation - something about the artist and his or her relationship with this world. When that is achieved we get it and it’s a wonderful thing. It takes a long time to get to that point - unless you're lucky. Playfulness with materials and colours is all well and good, but - and here’s my personal opinion - after the initial superficial appeal, it becomes a bit boring for the artist and - ultimately - the viewer.
    • Watercolours! I left this to last because I am a bit in two minds on this and it’s a case of “do as I say, not as I do” (did). I bet most beginners start with watercolours. It’s easy to see why: they are good value, portable, with no messy and dangerous chemicals to contend with. The results can be sublime. But they are also - without a doubt - the hardest wet medium to master. I imagine they are the reason many beginners give up or don’t develop as they want. You have to paint counter-intuitively in many respects that I won’t go into here. Brushes are more expensive for quality ones. You really need to prepare by stretching paper - unless you buy very expensive heavier papers. You need to be brave because that little mistake could be impossible to rectify. You have to learn to control water and load brushes carefully (that applies to the others too, but it’s easier with oils and acrylics). You need to learn when to stop because there’s nothing worse than an over-worked watercolour; it cannot tolerate it like the other mediums. If, however, you are resilient and not one to give up and have a real desire to develop then they are the best medium in many ways and once you become competent with them, using the other wet mediums will be a breeze. My advice would be to start with acrylics; they can do everything oils and watercolours can do. Best of all you can correct most mistakes at any stage if you need to. The only down side is that they dry very fast, but if you want to get something half decent done and you don’t have a lot of time in your life, then they are perfect, besides there are ways around the fast drying, or just use it to your advantage.
    • Try not to paint for the approval of others. It’s nice when others do like your paintings, but if you want to be true to yourself, do what you like because that will come across in your painting. Even if you are copying a painting or just a detail to improve technique it’s usually better to copy something you really like because that still reveals something about you and people will see that it matters to you.
    • It takes hard work, not talent. Remember that above all else.

    Sunday, 3 April 2016

    Eye study

    Watercolour eye

    Eye study 4"x 6"

    An exercise from just after the bootcamp was to return to my beloved watercolours. It was so nice to go back and get out my pans and work differently. This was a small and quick study. Just moving watercolours around with one brush and some dabbing with a paper towel and here it is. The skin tone worked out well and the eye colour is very pleasing (it isn't me or my eye colour by the way).


    Figure in a landscape

    Jericho 2016 pre-varnish

    12" x 9"
    Alkyd oils on board

    During the February bootcamp (more in a later blog) my main project was this small oil painting. I'd seen a wonderful publicity photo for the ITV drama Jericho with Jessica Raine standing in a Yorkshire moorland. It was so perfect I had to paint it. The result was a very mixed experience.

    I started with a yellow ochre ground of acrylic and a carefully sketched drawing. The sky and landscape was very straightforward and done in a couple of sessions. Shadows came later and they needed to be fairly strong and crisp as it was taken in the summer I think.

    Her figure was OK, but then I hit a really big problem. First off I'd somehow made a mistake with the proportions of her head. That was fairly easy to overcome. The other difficulty was trying to get some representation of a hand. I'm not normally phased by hands (see this and this), but at this scale it was just too difficult. Twice I tried and then decided to hide it and then later had another go and decided there was just enough of a hint as you see. The even bigger problem was painting her face; bearing in mind her head was just over 1 cm in height it was really, really fiddly and I don't tend to work small or in such fine detail. Eventually after very many attempts I got fairly close to what I wanted. Lesson learned; when painting figures, just use larger papers, boards or canvases.

    The detail below shows some of the struggles and successes. I think the face was only a partial success, but the clouds and atmosphere turned out really well.

    Detail of Jericho

    A mixed result then. I wanted to really like this, but at the end of the day I don't believe I matched a perfect photo. There's still the story telling and mystery about the picture that appeals to me. So many questions could be asked and people will put their own interpretations on it. For me, I wasn't consciously aware of that; I just went and painted it. Something in me chose it of course and as with any painting aspects of me are expressed in it. This may be one of those paintings that demonstrates how a good composition can make up for some lapses in execution?

    Friday, 1 April 2016

    First oils portrait

    A portrait in oils: the agony and the ecstasy.

    Based on Carolina by Collins

    This was intended to be a practice painting for an eventual self-portrait. When or if that will happen in the near future is another matter though!
    I hadn't intended to go so far into a finished outcome but it went much better than expected - once I'd overcome a mid point crisis.

    This blog post is partly to show how we artists don't magic our work with a wondrous swoosh of the brush, instead it shows how it's just a lot of hard work, preparation, doubt, anguish and a systematic approach to the various stages. Plus thousands of constant decisions that can be critical.

    Here are the painters details:
    • 12" x 9" Alkyd oils using thinners and linseed oil
    • On paper
    • 2 brushes: no. 4 hogs hair filbert (long handled) and a no. 2 synthetic round
    • Mahl stick for the later stages
    • cotton ear buds
    • Cadmium yellow medium, burnt umber, ultramarine blue, cadmium red, titanium white and black
    I worked from a colour scan at sight size as you can see in the photo below (the tonal value card wasn't used as much as I'd intended). I then sketched it out - sitting - by marking the distances and dimensions as accurately as possible and then blocking in the shapes, before adding the lines with a 2B pencil. I did consider using a grid to transfer for greater accuracy, but one that is extra work and two it wasn't a difficult face or a fussy image, so I decided to just draw it. The finished drawing was as accurate as I wanted and I was more than satisfied, except that I'd made her breast a bit too perky and high (I even wondered whether I should start her higher and leave the breast out as it may distract). Standing at the easel I then painted over the lines with a thin line of dilute burnt umber with a short handled no.2 cheap modellers synthetic brush.

    The next stage was to paint in the background and the main blocks of tone with a thinned umber sometimes darkened with black and blue. This was to establish where the deepest shadows were (back of head and between arm and side), the main highlights (breast, shoulder, neck, cheek and forehead). Plus some mid-tones. Here it was at the "ugly stage" when you don't really want people to see it!

    Once these were painted it was time for a break and hide the hideousness from others and to tape it to the board ready for the next layer of paints. This consisted of the usual of adding a little colour (mostly the blue shades to shadows, yellow to the background and her skin and the red to the nearer parts of her body - with small amounts to lips, inner eye, nostril, nipple and arm).
    Oh it all sounds so straightforward but this was by far the worst part and the point at which I suffered a big crisis of confidence. For one I realised that it being my first portrait in oils I didn't really feel at one with colour mixing skin tones and temperatures. I was so close to just saying, "oh fuck it," and painting a big X over it. That's not me; I'm not a quitter and eventually my palette gave me what I wanted with so few tints and the glazes and layers mended things. One thing I really should've done though was to get those background tones and shadows right first time as the one thing you shouldn't do is have thicker (added fat paint) layers there; they should be lean in the background and opaque and right in the shadows early on. Fortunately, I think I just got away with it.

    At the stage you see here, I finally felt that the worse bit was over and I really could pull it off if I kept going and sorted out some bits and bobs. So the final stage over 2 days was to correct her eye (the shape was wrong), get the nose length and shape right which though different to the original was fine in the end. In fact I could now establish that she would never be a true likeness of the original, but she had a character and beauty of her own that I liked. More shadows and highlights were added and blended and the arm was made a little bit fuller and the background darkened.
    The end result can be seen at the start of the blog. In real life she looks better - whether in daylight or evening lamplight. All the family like it and I wish I'd done it on canvas or better still on board now. I'm even happy with her especially perky breast :)

    Sunday, 28 February 2016

    The right brain/left brain myth and drawing

    "I'm so creative and right-brained"

    left brain
    Just ignore this and take your time.

    There are many social media memes doing the rounds that perpetuate the myth of brain hemispheric types. They should be treated in a light-hearted fashion as a bit of fun and I suppose they satisfy the need people have to find easy ways of categorising personality types.

    It's easy to google the evidence that demolishes the theory, but here is a more straightforward article from the BBC covering this:
    Left brain right brain myth

    The otherwise excellent series of books on painting or drawing using the right side of the brain has helped to popularise the misconception amongst artists, but more so with those starting out. I get the impression that those who think about the process more and do it more are a little more circumspect.

    I'll leave you with an excellent quote from a contributor to Will Kemp's superb art website on this very subject. I couldn't agree more.

    I've made small changes to the layout to ease reading.

    painter33 March 22, 2013

    I discount all talk about the left brain-right brain mumbo jumbo because it can provide a hiding place for those who make excuses for not going slowly enough to allow the learning process to occur. “Oh, boo hoo, I’m just too left-brained to draw”. Phooey! When one is drawing from observation, “what” something is might be the most irrelevant element, whereas, “what does it do?” (structurally and literally) or more specifically, a series of questions that have a hierarchical order from the large to the smalls elements of forms must be constantly asked (internally) to begin to understand what is seen. 

    Knowing the questions in advance is actually absurd, just like believing that one has already seen something once therefore it will be the same every time, is naive at best and ignorant at its worst. Preconceptions can short-circuit the drawing process faster than stopping before beginning; that’s pretty much what’s happening by thinking that one brings more to a drawing situation than one needs to know/learn. An on-going dialogue of describing vertical and horizontal alignments, spatial distances, proportions, perspective (if you understand how to use horizontal and vertical determinants, perspective can remain a cosmic theory instead of poking its head into one’s head). In foreshortened forms, the perspective theory is trumped by how seeing (and measuring) how little one sees forms behind other forms as they “pile forward”. 

    Most people mistakenly believe that they can’t draw when, in fact, they don’t know what to look for or how to organize their questions. Every question has answers, usually the questions and answers are very literal – e.g. in drawing the figure, “how does the acromian process vertically line up with the right limit of the patella?” Answer: “It’s slightly to the left/outside of, or right on a vertical line drawn to touch that rightmost point of the patella”. Questions and answers have to be literal, but the drawing, a synthesis of information, doesn’t have to be a photographic reproduction and shouldn’t aspire to do so- it’s better, because spaces between forms are considered for their placement, relative sizes, distances, etc. yielding a better illusion of form or forms in space than a flat photograph. 

    Anyone can learn to think; drawing is an intellectual exercise more than it is one of the hand. A drawing is a graphic manifestation of thinking, clear uncluttered thinking, analytical and precise. Forget about “art” and concentrate on the reality of form in space. 

    I have opened up scientists and medical doctors to the ideas of analytical questioning, they do it naturally so that helped, and they have made remarkable drawings as a result, much to their surprise but not to mine. It’s pure joy to learn how to think one’s way through drawings, over and over the course of a lifetime. The “poetry” is in the honesty and humility before nature, not in some ultra sensitive (and often faux) “expression”. There are some rules however: only use one damn pencil, don’t erase anything until you’ve corrected the problem (“Those who choose to ignore history…” and all of that), go nearly into a trance by asking questions, and make sure to have fun!

     No one dies from making a bad drawing, and everyone makes bad drawings (sometimes). Sorry for the length, but drawing well is hard, drawing is not, and it shouldn’t be portrayed as mysterious or only for those who’ve been sprinkled by fairy dust. It takes hard work, not talent, to be successful in any endeavour."

    Monday, 22 February 2016

    Books on drawing

    Having previously stated that I neither buy nor know much about art books, or go crazy for equipment, I have recently succumbed. The reason may be down to the Art Bootcamp I've been involved in for February.

    It goes like this:
    • I get inspired by lots of great art from fellow participants in the bootcamp
    • Realising that the longer timescales of my main art isn't in the spirit of daily creations I decided that drawing was a better option. 
    • I think my draughtsmanship is fairly good, but I'm aware that some aspects of my drawing definitely could improve (don't we all?), so I thought I should look again at which books might help. 

    First off:

    Compendium of Drawing Techniques: 200 Tips and Techniques for Drawing the Easy Way

    This one had glowing reviews on Amazon and I can see why in a way. The price is fair, the illustrations are wonderful and inspiring. It's up to date and the text (not too much) is helpful and written in a nice tone.

    There were some nice tips and I learnt a few new tricks, but I doubt I'll be using it that much. If I was starting out, or curious about techniques, materials and ideas, this would be a great book. An important problem for me is that it's a thinnish paperback and tightly bound which makes it awkward to hold open.

    I should've known really as I've seen similar books and for me they are a bit like a shopping catalogue: lots of pretty stuff to buy and tempt, materials to check and a bewildering array of things one can do. Admittedly, this book is definitely one of the best of this type of book at this level

    Ultimately, not for me and maybe a waste of money.

    Second one:

    Thursday, 24 December 2015


    Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum

    A short winter break in Amsterdam and the good fortune to be staying at a nice hotel right next to the tram stop for the  Rijksmuseum. With all the walking and the excitement my 3 year old daughter found it too much and fell asleep as we approached the huge canvas for The Night-Watch. I won't go into detail about this selection of paintings as you can find that elsewhere - but I do want to write about some of my impressions and what I could take from the visit in terms of helping me with my painting. So it's not an art history blog posting.

    The Night Watch. Rembrandt
    Anyway, the crowd for their prize painting was large but manageable. It's a painting with so much of significance going on that it needed time to scan the painting (my now sleeping daughter gave me that time, thankfully). The handy interpretation cards helped and one thing I will remember - apart from wondering how he managed to work on such a huge canvas - was that even Rembrandt had trouble with one aspect: the foreshortening of a sword /spear held by one of the watchmen. Strangely comforting.

    The Jewish Bride surprised me because I'd forgotten it was one of his palette knife paintings. The impression of detail (close up it's quite rough) achieved is another example of his genius.
    The Jewish Bride

    The milkmaid. 
    Vermeer is both serene and breathtakingly accurate in his drawing. More symbolism than I'd expected and vibrant colours.
    A tired daughter being swapped between us

    Winter Landscape. Avercamp

    Avercamp was a new name to me, but it's a theme that was common to Holland: the winter scene. I loved spotting the little details of everyday life. The regional clothing and the mini dramas. He clearly had a lot of fun painting this one.

    As an aside I also learned that travellers were often struck by the quality and quantity of paintings on display in Dutch homes, even amongst the less wealthy.

    The ship one (artist unknown) was popular with visitors and difficult to photograph - hence the wonky framing by me. Perhaps ship paintings aren't as unfashionable as I'd presumed?

    The Dutch impressionist paintings were less inspiring to me - or perhaps I was just tired by this stage but I found them a bit heavy handed and sometimes the colours were close to being a bit muddy. I liked this one though because it reminds me of our village in the winter.

    Dutch impressionist winter landscape

    The Arcadian scene with its ship and classical ruins and that gorgeous light transports me to an impossible landscape. I definitely understand the appeal of this genre and how beautifully executed (less so close up mind).
    Arcadian imagery

    Thursday, 19 November 2015

    Woodland path

    Quick and basic painting

    Woodland path 2015
    16" x 12" Acrylic on paper

    I just had to do some painting. Anything. After a two week gap and feeling stuck and restricted by the busy and short days I finally had a brief moment to paint. My bigger project needs a bit more planning and preparation, but I had this one in mind anyway.

    About a month ago, at the start of Autumn, I went for a walk through our local woods (Chopwell). The old railway path can be very muddy and tricky sometimes, but the light in the distance and the regular dog walkers make for a more interesting view. It's a bit of a cliched painting subject, but why not have a go myself I thought? So, I could do a detailed and carefully considered painting, or this more impressionistic one. Being short of time and wanting to move on soon to a bigger and more complex subject, I opted for this less time-consuming style. I had no photograph and no sketch to work from; I just had to work from memory and removed elements that I know should be there, such as the much higher banks.

    Acrylics were chosen due to the speed of drying and to finish in one session. Paper used in case it turned into a reject and then I wouldn't feel bad about wasting money on canvas (it's better to have a go than worry about cost of materials and achieving perfection). Only 4 colours used: cobalt blue, cadmium yellow light, burnt umber and raw sienna, plus black and white. A tiny amount of oil and water for glazing. Two brushes only: 8 filbert and a 2 flat bright (I think, but the writing has rubbed off, but that's what it looks like). In the end I had too much black and far too much white on my palette! On the other hand, with all the different greens and yellows needed I should've squeezed out much more of the colours.

    At the beginning it really did look like the work of somebody in a state of deep depression or trauma with its crazy underpainting of blue and black and the tunnel effect. Gradually, the picture emerged. By the end, after adding a bit of shadow and light details, I decided to add the figure at the end and I think it brings a bit of interest to the focal point. In total, it took about 2 hours, but I think that is too quick for a painting of this size. Some of the application is a bit clumsy and heavy-handed in places. I can see that, but it served its purpose of putting paint on paper.

    Now it's time to move on to the next project.

    Thursday, 5 November 2015

    Oil Pastels

    Oil Pastel exercise
    I've owned some oil pastels for years and struggled a bit to understand how to get the best from them. This quick study was completed in under an hour and was inspired by a photograph. The photograph is very smooth with very defined boundaries and lots of grey/blue. I was going to paint it - and I may still do at a later date - but I thought it was a nice simple photograph to have a go with a medium I'm less familiar with.

    I may improve the wooden posts at some point. The lights across the estuary were simply achieved by roughly leaving bare paper. The clouds were softened by rubbing with a kitchen towel.

    Monday, 2 November 2015

    Daylight for painting

    Rembrandt's studio from Will Kemp

    Keep painting...

    I was beginning to notice that my output was diminishing. Two reasons - apart from non-art related issues, first of all, the room I paint in can only be used from about 1pm onwards on any day - even in summer. At this time of year, at these latitudes, the light is fading by about 3pm and it's impossible to mix colours accurately from 4pm onwards - even on a sunny day. By midwinter it will be 2pm and 3pm respectively. Secondly, the light is just less bright and it gets quite tiring to paint. So drawing is still possible and I can do that in any light, anywhere. Great, I could do with the practise. Sometimes though, it's just really nice to get in touch with paint and colours again. Try doing it under incandescent lights or halogens.... You think it's OK, but look at what you've done in daylight and it ain't pretty!

    A trip to Hobbycraft showed that there was a solution with various fancy clip on lamps, but at £100+ I wasn't prepared for that. Checking the wonderful Will Kemp website I learned so much and what to look for if you can't afford a purpose built studio! Some of his links may need a bit of updating as the technology moves at a very rapid rate and prices come down. Hooray! He gives a lot of detail, but here is the information you need if you want to work comfortably and get your colours right:

    • Look for a lot of light (you can probably get away with less light for portraits though). You'll never match the light offered - even on the gloomiest day outside, but try to get as much as possible.
    • You don't have to have pure northern light - but it does change less through the day than southern light.
    • Choose LEDs rather than fluorescents. Some people are sensitive to the spiking which some describe as a flicker that's common in fluorescents (the correct name is red-blue pupillary flicker). Compact fluorescents seem to be better, but LEDs are better still for complex reasons that I won't go into. Also they are cool running, last ages and are dead cheap to run.
    • Position the light correctly; I have mine just above and behind, but not so that I cast a shadow. Ideally I would have side lighting too.
    • Look for a daylight bulb. Daylight covers a lot of meanings, and it is a personal thing to some extent. You probably have warm white bulbs in your home and they will kill your colour perception. Go for 4000 - 6500Kelvin temperature bulbs. The higher figure is the light from a sunny day (you'll be amazed at how cold that light looks, but eyes adapt) the lower is a bit warmer and may be closer to how the painting will be displayed in some locations (but beware of thinking that you should paint in warm light!).
    • We are adapted to see in much "cooler" light than we have inside our homes when the lights are on and this cooler daylight and the greater intensity of sunlight can improve well being, maybe improve and control appetites, improve mood and restore natural sleep patterns too. Just remember to avoid using daylight bulbs and computer screens a few hours before bedtime though as it actually interferes with sleep to be exposed to it later in the day as it stimulates us; a warm cosy light to sedate is better in the evening .
    • The CRI (Colour Rendition Index) is just as important and you need it to be as high as possible; at least 80 and as close to 100 as possible. This makes the colours render as accurately as possible. The CRI is about to be superseded by an even more accurate index - but that's for another time.

    I opted for this bulb that I found on Amazon and it's just great; bright and accurate colour for around £10. Sorted.

    Daylight LED bulb for artists and hobbyists