When you’ve been painting for a few years, you start to see patterns forming. Cycles of interest, that keep coming back around. What at first seems like a linear path through various adventures and obsessions, one subject to another, soon ends up with you back where you started, albeit a little bit wiser and more skilful.
Ideas and processes long abandoned suddenly have relevance again – a bizarre thing to experience, especially after they were unequivocally denounced, 12 months prior. It seems that we have a sphere of interest that we explore through our lives and the only way to eke out every last drop from each area is to visit them multiple times over many years. What you learn in one place can lift you over the block you stumbled against in another, and when you realise this for the first time, it’s both baffling and comforting. “We’ve been here before…” you say to yourself, as you finish another lap of the globe.
Initially, I found this process disheartening. After the first lap, it really did feel like I was back where I’d started. “If only I’d just stayed put and thrashed it out longer, I’d not have wasted my time trying all those other things” But that’s the wrong way to look at it. Sometimes you have to hang out with a different friend to shed light on the behaviour of another, or leave a place you’ve had enough of, to appreciate it’s glory when you return.
Sometimes the studio actually does need tidying. Sometimes you should spend the afternoon doing your books, answering those old emails, shopping online for materials or doing an audit on your stock of frames.
More painting isn’t always the answer. Sometimes procrastination is underrated and it’s time to put the brush down.
Creativity is terrifying. It’s a lonely place, not a soft, fluffy, familiar bed, but a big dark forest, with no friends and a lot of monsters. Your lizard brain wants to keep you safe and it’s done that job very well for tens of thousands of years. It doesn’t want you to take risks, stray out of your comfort zone or challenge any preconceived notions, but we must do all these things if we are to move forward. And if we’re not moving forward, if we are stationary, then in reality we are falling behind.
Stay too long out of the comfort zone and we become traumatised, paralysed and useless. But if we never leave it, we shrink, stagnate and become weak. Striking that balance is a big part of the work we are doing on a daily basis. Push and rest. Strive and recover. Reach and recuperate. The longer we spend out there in forest, the scarier it becomes, the higher the sunk cost and the more depleted our resources, but there’s gold in them trees. In them caves, in all the really dark places. We stay fit and capable by running regular sorties to search for it and claim it.
Balancing order and chaos is a theme that runs through many aspect of our lives, but it seems to be specially relevant to painting. if every mark is deliberate, and obviously so, then the piece looses humanity. The accidental scuff however, can speak to our subconscious in ways that defy explanation. Too many accidents though, and the signal can get lost in the noise. The intention can get murky and simply looking at it can become stressful. Deciding what that balance is and controlling it, that is the Art.
How many brush strokes went into your last painting? Each one a tiny decision, be it subconscious, deliberate, or happy accident. How wonderful to create a visual record of a silent, internal thought process.
Time-lapse films of paintings being painted are a wonderful thing to behold. Frantic in their sped-up appearance, they take us on journey rarely seen. Like a “making of” DVD extra, we get a glimpse behind the curtain to watch how the sausage gets made. In a way, this ruins the magic – knowing how a trick is done is fascinating, we yearn for an explanation, but there’s often a part of us that regrets finding out. Part of the pleasure of viewing a painting is the sheer bafflement of “How did they DO that?!”
People often assume painting to be a relaxing pursuit. It rarely is, if ever. There’s a certaintranscendent bliss to be found when working “in the zone” consumed by creative tunnel vision and unaware of your surroundings, but acute concentration is never relaxing. You’re tuned in, not tuned out. Thinking, planning, making decision No. 987. The relaxation comes after, combined with satisfaction of a job well done and a day not wasted.
Going outside is important. It’s what drew me to plein air painting in the first place. I loved being outside before I remember loving Art and drawing, plein air just seemed a good opportunity to combine the two.
Do you need to be with someone to enjoy it? I’m happy either way, but I can highly recommend some solo endeavours if you haven’t partaken in while, if ever. When there’s no one to talk to, you notice more. You feel more. Our attention, so easily diverted, can reveal wonderful things when focussed on simply how it feels to be outside, in weather.
Go walk up a hill. A big one, if you can. Don’t wait for a sunny day – this exercise isn’t about drinking in postcard scenes of normal pretty things, it’s about feeling light rain on your cheeks, or realising that maybe you should’ve worn that thicker coat, or brought that torch now the sun has gone down and you’re still 30 minutes from the car.
Our ancestors didn’t live under artificial lights in heated cubes. They took on the elements and connected to them, like proper animals. Get out there now and again and contemplate that, it does wonders for the mood.
Painting small is easy. There’s something about the length of the human limb, the angle of articulation of the wrist and the length of a standard brush that makes creating gestural, exciting marks on a small scale natural and intuitive.
Scale that up. You can’t. Not in the way you think you can. what once was a wrist flick, has now become an arm sweep. That little dab that left that perfect little cat-tongue-shaped mark now requires a brush many times winder, so the spring rate of the bristles is now stiffer, it feels different, the marks aren’t the same.
It’s interesting to look at artists only through the lens of scale. How many can straddle the small to huge and how do they tackle it? Do the big pieces still look like the work of the same person that did the smaller ones? Many seem to find a scale they are naturally comfortable with and stick to it, be that large or small.
I like painting small, 18×18 or 25x25cm is a wonderful area to work in. You see the whole painting when sat and working with your face at a comfortable distance from the canvas. No leaning back (or walking back) is required. Your peripheral vision can take it all in. New marks (every new one affects the composition at every stage) can be judged and deemed either fit, or not worthy the instant they are made. you see everything, all the time. Paint on a 90x90cm canvas and you better be taking regular steps back, or risk falling into the “chasm of assumption” where all new marks are assumed to be safe and worthy, just because your instinct and current sight cone deemed them to be.
There are, thankfully, a few approaches to mitigate against the “chasm” Here’s a few that spring to mind.
If you want to see a composition in its entirety, sketch it as a thumbnail. Working ultra small like this (maybe 8x8cm) can be a super fast and consistent way to plot compositions that work. And trust me, if something looks good, solid and balanced at 8×8, it’ll still hold up at 90×90. Just grid up the scanned thumbnail in photoshop and grid up the big canvas with the same amount of lines and copy it over. You’re good to go.
If you normally paint small whilst sitting down, ditch the chair, get a floor easel and start painting standing. Try putting a box on the floor in front of you to stop yourself standing too close to the canvas and force yourself to regularly lean back, or preferably walk back to survey the progress. The longer you spend Zombie-painting, focussing on that tiny area of wonder, the more likely you are to be ignoring the whole.
The sooner you see the large scale for what it is and all the new possibilities it represents, the quicker you will move forward with the process as a whole. Stop trying to do what you did, the way you did it when you painted small and use this opportunity to try new things. You may be pleasantly surprised with where it leads you.
I took a big step forward in my working practise recently. I’ve been getting frustrated for a long time with the limitations, constraints and drawbacks on painting from life, plein air specifically, and have been trying to work out a way around it while still maintaining some core principles.
Painting on location, outside in the landscape is a wonderful thing. I maintain that there is no better way to learn. And by “learn” I mean everything – How to draw, how to pick a composition, how to see, judge and recreate the tones of reality with the limited range of paint, how to mix realistic colours with the correct levels of hue and saturation, and on and on…
Regular plein air painting builds skill, knowledge and confidence and was an essential part of my self-education as an artist. I owe almost everything to it. However, it can only provide the solution to a finite set of artistic goals. Here are the issues:
The sun moves and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. I paint small when I paint outside, because I don’t like working for more than 2 hours on a plein air painting. The sun has travelled too far in the sky after this time for conditions to remain consistent, so what you’re looking at by the end, no longer represents what you were looking at at the start. This is a problem when your aim is capturing reality. If the sky is very overcast, this rule extends, sometimes doubles, but like it or not, you’re not going to have 6 hours straight to match those colours to perfection. Returning to the same spot at the same time in the same weather/light can mean a long wait. Too long (a few months) and the sun’s arc has risen, meaning potentially postponing for another year until you’re back where you started. Are you still going to care about that painting then? I wouldn’t. I’m impatient. I want it done then and there. I never do multi-session plein air pieces as the inspiration is gone after a few hours, it’s all about that intense window of “capturing the moment” for me.
This is much an issue about painting sight-size as it is the practicalities of working outside on a large canvas. I have always instinctively painted sight-size so everything on my canvas is the same height/width as it is to my naked eye. This makes drawing significantly easier than when trying to condense a wide angle view down on a smaller board. The only check needed to see if your drawing is off is a quick series of glances to and fro from board to scene – whatever “jumps” in your composition is either too big, too small, the wrong angle or in the wrong place. It’s a wonderfully efficient way to work. Truth be told, the drawing/sketching period of a painting can take as long as you like as it’s only when colours are mixed that the changing light really becomes an issue. The objects stay where they are however the light is hitting them. (yes, you can call a defined shadow area an object, but let’s not get too pedantic. You know know what I mean)
Carrying a big board or canvas out into the field can be a practical nightmare. Especially if there’s wind, never mind the weight issue.
So I like painting small then. Big pieces for me are out, which is a shame. I want to paint big. It’s another aspect of painting that needs exploring and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my career sticking to 10 x 8″
The thing about nature is, it’s unpredictable. If I’m trying to capture some long shadows on a London street and the sun goes in after 40 minutes, this is a problem. If I’m painting some beautiful fluffy grey clouds and it starts hailing after 40 minutes, this is a problem. I’ve dealt with all these things over the years, many, many times. They make for notable memories and occasionally good stories, adding to the struggle and making the wins all the sweeter, but they are not conducive to an efficient working practise. You have to be comfortable with chaos to make a living working outside especially in the UK climate and as the years went on, that struggle has gone from acceptable quirk, to unacceptable irritation. I wanted more control, more time, less urgency and bigger paintings that I could plan. I wanted to start saying something specific, rather than recording whatever the elements threw at me that day.
When I was a kid, I drew. A lot. I drew from my head and my imagination was a constant explosion, cycling on specific themes – Zombies, aliens, cyborgs and machines, but all of it was made-up with no reference, other than my memory of things I had seen, or knew.
Plein air painting was the opposite in many ways. There was no imagination, there was just reality. That was the point. Could I capture it? Make an accurate record of that moment in oil paint and take it home? It was a technical challenge and a skill building exercise – how do I learn how to use these tools? Up until then I was terrible with colour. Most of my work as an adolescent was black fine liner pen on white paper – colour was limited to a red felt tip to flesh out the zombie’s guts.
I tried to put something of “me” into the plein air work, other than my personal style of mark-making. I tried “pushing” colour in certain places to accentuate a light effect or focal point but it always ended in disaster. If I was looking at something, if I had reference in front of me, that was all I could see and that was all that was going to get painted. The sheer amount of info available when working outside was so over-whelming, there didn’t seem to to be room in my brain for any subjective opinion of my own whilst recording it. Interpretation didn’t feel possible in the way that I’d have liked to do it. There was just “copy it, or don’t”
Trying to reconcile this issue of having a career as an Artist but not actually feeling that creative became a real problem and it was beginning to have a serious negative effect on my work and mood, so something had to give. I started the Mini Collection as a way to break the deadlock and try and work more decision making and personality in to my paintings, but I soon found myself back in the same patterns or recording exactly what I saw, regardless of whether I was painting on location, or from a photo I’d taken on my phone. The Minis allowed me to rapidly iterate on content and theme, but not, seemingly, how those images were being made.
The breakthrough came when I sat down and drew 6 small square thumbnail sized squares on a piece of A4 paper and just started drawing a landscape from my head. No reference, no images, just trailing lines with a pencil and feeling my way around. It really was a lightbulb moment as I instantly felt at home sketching out field boundaries, rivers, hills and cloud forms. Some of my best memories are from being outside, looking at a view or taking in a landscape and it felt I was drawing from all these positive feelings and creating something uniquely me. And that’s what’s so satisfying about this method – these pieces are mine, 100%. No one else can claim the spot, or say someone else went there first or painted it better. I own this work completely.
I remember certain plein air trips, over 2 or 3 days where I literally came home with nothing. I couldn’t find a painting out there. Something was always wrong – the light, the shapes, a partially obscured viewpoint and that drove me crazy. The wasted time, money and effort, all such valuable things, especially as a self-employed person with a mortgage and two kids.
So this new approach feels good. It feels like the right time and it feels like there is huge scope for development. I feel like I’ve done my apprenticeship and built my skillset and I now get to deploy it as I see fit, making the images that I want see. I get to create the things I wish existed. Now that’s a special thing.
I recently started a new project called the Mini Collection. The impulse came to me a few months ago when I was drifting off to sleep. I had become frustrated with painting just one theme for weeks on end, be it London or Bristol and wanted to find a way to stay motivated and excited about painting every day.
I get a lot of ideas throughout any given week and I’m constantly thinking “oh that would make a great painting” or “I’d love to explore how light breaks through trees at sunset” but have always been committed to doing something else. After my four recent shows were over, I decided to give it a go and paint one 18 x 18 cm painting every day and put it up online for comments and criticism. Rapid iteration is something that’s always excited me, testing new things in quick succession is a brilliant way to move ahead. Bite-sized attempts at problem solving with a reflective period thrown in between each one lets you progress fast. This daily painting practise is not a new thing, many Artists have done it and some make a living exclusively through it, but I hadn’t tried it yet and was keen to have a crack.
I made a wet carrier to hold eight 18 x 18 cm boards and went out to Severn Beach in North Bristol to start the project off. It was a windy, wild day and I had an absolute blast. I’ve always loved painting small, there’s something wonderfully intimate about a little painting. The small scale means you have more time to plan a composition and mix really good colour because you’re not worrying about trying to cover a large surface, you’re just focussed on making every square cm count. A storm brewed up a few hours into my painting session and my easel got blown over and the brushes and turps went flying, luckily I had my first finished piece in the wet carrier! You can actually see the rain drops in the paint film in the Severn Beach painting as I was furiously trying to get the second one finished as the storm closed in on me.
Another reason I wanted to do minis, was that it finally gave me a chance to capture all the day-to-day images I see while riding my bike, or out with the kids on a weekend. I can whip out my phone and grab a shot of a view in a few seconds which is great when I don’t have my painting stuff with me. I recently got a new smartphone that has a very good camera on it that shoots in RAW, so I can edit the pic back in the studio in photoshop and get something incredibly close to what I saw when I took it to use as reference. I’ve always had a very good visual memory and have enough experience of painting outside, that interpreting a photo with oils is not a struggle.
Drawing has been one new change to my working practise and it’s been so wonderful to get stuck into again. Coming from a background of illustration, the muscle memory just kicks in and I’m off, trailing lines around and varying the pressure and wobble. It’s another dynamic that just adds to the painting, as the pencil shows through the paint film and gives another layer to the story.
They are selling well so far and the initial reaction has been fantastic. It seems there’s a lot of people out there that feel £200 for a framed original is great value, plus they really hang well as a set so you can just keep adding them.
Making the packaging for the Mini Collection was also an integral part of the project. I got great satisfaction from designing a new logo and screen printing it onto my new boxes. Presentation matters and it just feels good to send work out knowing it looks awesome before they even open it.
I’m really excited about this upcoming show of paintings of the Clifton Suspension Bridge showing at the lovely Clifton Suspension Bridge Visitors centre. I’d really love to see you there. I’ll be posting more images of the paintings in the show over the next few weeks. Stay tuned.
There will also be a free prize draw to win a framed 28 x 22cm painting “Sunbeam in the Gorge”. All you’ll have to do is sign up to my mailing list at the show. I’ll draw the lucky winner at the end of the show. Here’s a pic of the painting.