Readers of this, now rather occasional, blog will know that I don’t much go for the linear story laid down by many of our esteemed art historians and as taught to me at art college. This neat branching tree with pivotal moments and “discoveries” trying to shoehorn a cultural phenomena into a neat “progress of science” template. God help us soon someone will pen a tome on the sort of realism that I do, pick a few flag bearers identify some bogus trends and call it “Distracted Realism” or some such.
It takes very little consideration of the actual material produced by different ages to realise that the whole idea of progress in art is perhaps misguided. The earliest cave paintings so far are 40,000 years old and we understand them with no problem. If I did a sketch of a cat and sent it back in time they would in turn have no difficulty comprehending it either. Both I and the cave person are doing the same thing in much the same way.
So our early artist down in that cave with his flickering tallow lamp, what art movements could we associate him with? Well he is figurative… expressionistic… oooh… impressionistic too… oh wait a minute he is a realist… dammit some are a bit on the surreal side… some abstract stuff too… er and the figures are symbolic… oh hell… some have narrative… You get my drift, it was pretty much all there from the start.
Of course art “movements” are a new thing… ” artists” as a sort of druidic shamanic figures are pretty recent too. It was that rogue Vasari that started it all with his racily named “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects” published in 1550. Vasari though was of the football supporter school of art history. He was the cheerleader for Tuscan or more specifically Roman and Florentine achievements, though he grudgingly added the Venetian Titan (who would have been so much better if he had learnt to draw in Rome) to later editions. Early stuff was dismissed as barbaric and labelled “Gothic” in scorn. The classical Roman was exalted as the pinnacle of art and thus the Renaissance was born.
Of course art does have a history, but it is tied to ordinary history as it merely supplies what a particular culture or society requires. An icon painter for the Orthodox Church is not required to be an impressionist, but is required to be a realist with symbolist overtones. A painter of funeral portraits in Ptolemaic Egypt was required to paint realistically and because of the constraints of paint to some degree impressionistically too.
It is after the arrival of photography that things go bananas in the art history dept. With impressionism it was photographers who “discovered” a new way of seeing, not painters per se. Of course we tend to gloss over the fact that the impressionists were keen photographers and frequently painted from them, as that does not quite fit with the later mythology.
The other factor that had a seismic effect was the arrival of ethic art from the east and Africa. Our art arriving in Japan had similar result as the works of the Ukiyo-e artists attests. So suddenly we get all sorts of emulation of cultures far and wide both temporally and geographically. It is perhaps a European fantasy that things are discovered. We discovered America after all… we seem to almost forget that it was there all the time and people lived innumerable lives in the place before we arrived!
Now the picture has fragmented even more. Electronic dissemination of imagery has brought every kind of eye candy into our homes at the click of a button. So bearing this in mind what does our society and time require of us who produce imagery of various kinds? Well the answer may not be very flattering but it requires an image that gives a brief visual hit on a small screen. A tidbit that gives a quick mental reward and for a moment draws the viewer in. Success is measured in likes followers and comments… but not I have noticed often in currency!
There are of course the old uses are still chugging along, marketing, conceiving, decoration, supply of status enhancing objects to the rich. These still bring reward in the old manner thank heaven. Unfortunately due to spare time to follow art interests becoming more widespread the supply of art objects exceeds demand in almost every area. On the plus side the sort of person willing to put in the hard work over decades to master an idiom is still comparatively rare, so their work will always have a base level of desirability.
Will there be new art movements? Yes I suppose so but I feel they will become evermore fragmentary and irrelevant. Look at the list Here of art movements and schools in Wikipedia 97% are after photography stirred the pot! I also note I don’t quite fit any of them. I am a bit impressionistic but not divisionist enough really, I am not neo- anything, which is always a good ploy as you can reboot any old movement by slapping it on the front.
There are many now painting in much the same way as myself, I fancy Observationalist or maybe Lookist. Come on art historians watch the ball, we are a brand new movement and none of you have even noticed!
Right some of my offerings into a manically crowded market place. Rest assured that if you offer me large sums of money for any of the originals below I shall get a little richer, but you will gain hugely in prestige and your friends will be envious of your good taste and sophistication…
A visit to Salisbury. It is almost impossible to get a photograph of the famous cathedral that in anyway captures the feel of being there. If you get that iconic spire in you have to tilt the camera skywards and everything is wildly distorted, the same left and right. So this is an attempt to present the whole building in one image. In order to do this I have made many changes to the perspective, each of which I have tried to limit within the bounds of believability. I have not completely succeeded but I was pleased with the result as it gave me an idea as to how to get a better result still. 16in by 10in Oils.
Before I left I took a series of photos walking left and right for about 200yrds. I then once home I took a central strip from each and roughly joined them together. That done I did an averaged perspective layout over the top of the composite trying to minimise perceived distortion. That done I painted largely from my plein air sketch. the result would have benefitted from a more dramatic day but I can see several possibilities for more dynamic versions in the future. I could have done a wild curvy tilted job but for me that’s a bit too like what I used to do for work… still might have a crack at it as the subject rather suits such treatment. 22in by 12in. Oils
On my way home I did this very rushed sketch of another view I fancy. Salisbury has so much to paint so I must get back on days when the light and weather are being more interesting. The trouble with lovely sunny days is that you don’t tend to get those moments of magic light that can make or break a picture. 14in by 10in oils.
Last one of a busy day, this is my road home headed towards Stourpaine. The light was getting better and better but had only 20 min to get this down. The road is frequented by huge gravel trucks which makes painting from the verge interesting. 12in by 7in Oils.
A trip to Weymouth on showery day. Not much of a market for wet Weymouth daubs I’m afraid… no matter I had fun painting it! 10in by 8in Oils
The view over Weymouth from the Lookout Cafe. I could not quite see where this painting was going as I worked on it. Then the runner came along and it seemed to have a reason. Figures have a very strange power to transform an image. 10in by 8in Oils.
A very quick sketch looking over Bournemouth beach. Fun trying to get the subtle tones in the soft light. Strong contrasts are easy in comparison I think, maybe due to the greater room for error. 12in by 6in Oils.
This is the beguilingly named Bramblebush Bay on Studland. Very picturesque but I struggled a bit to find compositions I liked. Or maybe the lack of breakfast was telling on me! 10in by 6in Oils.
View from the other way. Much better this one I feel. I did two more but I cannot continue putting every thing up as I produce paintings quicker than I can blog them… and very much faster than I can sell them! 10in by 6in Oils.
That’s it for this issue. Blogging is yesterdays news alas and readers are far fewer now than when I started. I have stayed much the same in relative popularity compared to others who blog on the same subject, it is just that the format is perhaps on it’s way out. Instagram has become more the go to platform but no real use if your writing is slightly longer in form. Vlogging I am avoiding at present as my wizened beardy features and unfashionable attire would only put people off.
So what kind of house has a picture like yours? Is it posh? Is it sleek and modern, an apartment with views over the Thames? Is it a tastefully updated Georgian terrace with a gymnasium in the sub sub sub basement? Surely only people with discrimination would buy one of your works.
When artists and galleries display work they often put them on the wall of an ideal room. It always has a minimal sofa with a few swish designer goodies, the people who exist there do not do clutter. No mould in the bottom of forgotten coffee cups or abandoned crisp packets for any one who might purchase your oh so trendy wares. Here is one of mine in a designer penthouse… he is in marketing and she is an interior designer.
Is it only me? When I see one of my pictures inserted into such an aspirational setting I have to choke down the desire to snigger… So let’s have a go at some other potential hanging sites, maybe it is just the setting I object to and if I nailed the right context I would have to beat off potential buyers with a spiked club. How about somewhere grander?
Louis XVI might ring me up and say he had a spot in his country hideaway for one of my pictures. I’m sure Louie would be convinced by this… Ok Ok he’s dead and I’m getting delusions of grandeur. Anyway the super rich, as history repeatedly shows, have the worst possible taste. Those super-yachts have so much gold plate, general bling and marble aboard it’s a wonder they don’t sink.
How about the Waitrose set? Restrained, comfortable they aspire to an understated elegance. They buy pictures for this period rooms and my daubs would look better in a chic updated Georgian job with Farrow and Ball “Elephant’s Last Gasp” painted on the walls…
That’s more the thing, I could put an ad in Ideal Homes… but wait a minute maybe poor people could be lured into mortgaging their granny or taking out a payday loan to buy art… or grannies might sell off their grandchildren as chattels and snap up my painting of Christchurch… you have to appeal to a broad cross-section of society in this credit driven world.
See my picture adds a little bit of class to an otherwise depressing granny flat. I think that those gallery sites should offer all these options…
Hmm how low should I go…I need to research this. Is there an “Ideal Slums” magazine do you think?
I have some exhibitions coming up so I am trying to get some larger studio pictures painted. I find it so much easier to paint plein air that when I move to the studio to paint you can almost hear the gears in my head grinding. The two disciplines use similar skills, but are very different in process. With plein air you paint whatever the day brings and you are constrained by time. In the studio there is too much choice and you can linger over the work as long as you like. Both are fraught with danger!
So I have been trying to do the pictures I would have painted on the day but there was no way to set up. I nearly always take snaps of these in any case. So I have my reference and also whatever I actually did paint on the day.
This is Bridport market on a busy day. This view was great but only from the road so I ended up painting further down. One thing I soon remember with studio work is that it has to go through at least one “ugly” stage and maybe more. I scraped this one back twice and then brought it forward again. Once you have resigned yourself to the process it becomes less traumatic. You have to learn to set aside that, “If I do more I’ll ruin it.” feeling we all get. Actually if you loose something good you can nearly always get it back. This one is 27in by 20in which is the great thing about studio where you can stretch the size up a little. Oils.
Next up was Castle St Salisbury. I had done a watercolour but felt the scene would work well much bigger. For once I remembered to take snaps as I went along. This is my drawing out, it is really just notes of relative positions of things, I use different colours to remind me what things are. If I want to change things now is the time. Here I wanted to invert the curve of the perspective to sweep the eye down the road faster than otherwise. I tend to use oil to draw out as I can just wipe out with turps to redo an area. This is about 2 hours worth of scribbling and adjusting.
This is the most dramatic moment in any picture and in someways the most fun. Blocking in is quick and once done you get an immediate idea if your picture is going to work. Here I spent considerably more time mixing colours than applying them! With current ideas of art many people prefer this stage to the finished thing, but for me it is just a way marker.
The next stages are the donkey work, the dramatic transformations are done with. Here I am just making corrections to the drawing and tones. I really try hard not to get any area in advance of another. About 3hrs work from the previous image.
Here it is all brought forward a bit more. I left it for a few weeks to dry as I wished to do some general glazes. My darkest darks and lightest lights are missing from the buildings and road at this stage.
Here it is finished, I left it another couple of weeks then “brought the sun out” with the final highlights. This has made some of the distant darks a little sharp and over defined so I will do a couple of softening glazes to finally finish. 36in by 20in Oils.
Next big one… This is Richmond Bridge. I took the reference shot after I had completed a pen drawing of the same scene and the light was signalling time for the pub… The picture is 36in by 36in so quite an area to cover. Fun to block in with a 3in brush. The middle stage here was particularly ugly and I nearly abandoned the whole thing. I felt he “last light” mood was all important, so took a lot of work to get all the close hues and tones working together. Perhaps finished, a few bits of softening to do. Oils.
This is High East St in Dorchester. Learning my lesson from Salisbury I made the sunny side of the street softer, which I feel works a little better.
I find the boundaries between accuracy and mood fascinating, if you are over precise you loose mood and atmosphere, if you are too vague you loose structure and the narrative sense of place. It is technically easier to work at the extremes than trying to get them to play well together, the risk being that you achieve neither aim. 20in by 16in Oils.
This is the railway at Swanage. On the day I painted the contre jour view of the workshop that was to be seen from the other side of the bridge. As luck would have it they were testing a train or whatever and they kept going to and fro under the bridge. This allowed me to get lots of action shots and nearly got me run over a couple of times as I dashed from side to side on the narrow bridge. In the reference the locomotives merged more but I decided they had to dominate, so I gave them the strongest contrasts and suppressed everything else. 20in by 16in Oils.
That’s it. I shall catch up on the plein airs done in between next time.
Narrative content used to be a de-facto part of a painting. From biblical scenes to Ukiyo-e in Japan, even back to mammoth hunts on cave walls. Stanley Spencer, moments of moral tension in Victorian art, glimpses of sensual frivolity in France and everyday life in Holland. All these to some degree have narrative content at their core. Narrative content has fallen from fashion though. Even from the time of Claude Lorraine and later Turner you can see the narrative content withering. With the Impressionists it is there with the cafe scenes, but gone in many of the landscapes.
It has had a longer life in the niche of surrealism, naive and mystical painting. Illustration of course nearly always narrative in intent. The modern fad for formalism has mostly washed away desire to tell a story from the admissible ambitions of today’s painters. It is the the painting itself rather than any story it might tell that is the important factor to artists. This is of course not true of the viewers of paintings, who still love a story. It is just that artists feel that they are above such menial tasks and serve a higher and more elevated muse.
The result of this conundrum is a little perplexing, the fine art world is awash with artists who want to address important, serious and relevant issues, but are alas denied by fashion most of the tools by which they might do so. To have any chance of smuggling narrative work into the fine art arena you must have a quirk such as painting your cartoons on walls as Banksy does, being an international man of mystery helps too. Hogarth could comment on social issues in a direct manner in his work, but today’s painters do not have that option if they want to be accepted into the gated community of the contemporary art establishment. Some, like Paula Rego, sneak in under the cover of magical realism, but mostly the doors are firmly barred.
This subject was partly brought top mind by the reviews of Sorolla at the National Gallery. The reviewers only seemed to be able to comment on the content. They did not seem to see the abstract qualities of the paintings, they could not get past the narrative. Which shows I suppose how powerful an element it is.
So what is narrative and how do we exploit it? Like all the ingredients that can make up a picture we can add more or less to taste, or indeed none at all.
The smallest doses of narrative are signs of past activity or impending activity, either natural or human. So the hay bales in a field tell us of activity even though the farmer is not in view. A war painting might show destruction but no soldiers, merely the aftermath. The purple threatening clouds might hint at an oncoming storm. The unifying ingredient here is the passage of time, we are alluding to time before and after the moment in the painting.
To the other extreme we might have a comic strip where the whole image is narrative driven with the flow of time and even words and thoughts are included. The Sistine ceiling is another example of dominant narrative. All the other elements of painting are there, but their purpose is to serve the narrative.
So if your landscape painting has a dog walker it is quite different in mood to one where the scene is empty. The viewer’s eye will home in on the figure. If it is a figure on a wild moor we will ascribe loneliness, isolation or some other poetic notion. If we have two figures apart we might ascribe emotional separation too. If close then companionship, if arm in arm perhaps love. A group of three might indicate family. When we see isolated figures we cannot help but to attempt to decode social clues.
Interestingly if we have a crowd or a group of five or so then that reduces the narrative draw. If in a painting in a city square you have groups of inhabitants then the eye will be drawn to any single figures. Any people in groups are assessed as composite beings not necessarily individuals. If we bring our group forward and make the painting about them the a whole other set of narrative considerations come in to play. We immediately set too and try and assess the relationships between them.
If we have a single figure and slowly enlarge or refine it the composition, then at a certain point we attempt to determine the emotional state. There used to be manuals for artists about how to paint different emotions, which to our eyes look comically theatrical. If the figure has no clear emotion then it can attract more consideration than if overtly weeping or laughing. This is simply because the viewer has to work harder and is therefore more deeply engaged.
So narrative elements are powerful tools and not easy to use. They also are very prone to the whims of fashion. We find Victorian morality paintings heavy handed and crass, but at the time they were thought to be the bee’s knees. Care must be taken when adding incidental figures, you quite often see urban scenes where all the figures are individual, each a separate observation. Oddly this nearly always detracts from the unity of the overall scene, or gives the the feeling of a montage. I have seen crowd paintings where all the figures look like the moment just before the zombies in Thriller begin to dance!
Time to catch up with the watercolours…
I am so behind with blogging that this was last year! This was a whistle stop visit to Arundel. I was very rushed so didn’t do the place justice. I will return as it has some fascinating things to paint. 12in by 6in Watercolour.
I took a bit longer over this but still only about 30min before I had to leave Arundel behind. 12in by 7.5in Watercolour.
This is Pulpit Rock on Portland Bill, a studio painting which I did entirely with a 1in sable flat. More of an experiment than a finished work but fun to do. I notice by the date I have ignored the watercolours for nearly 8 months. 12in by 12in Watercolour.
This is a great view of Hambledon Hill from Bedchester. I really must do it in better light but have been unlucky so far. the scene is good in any light but that just means it would be better still on another day. 12in by 6in Watercolour.
This is another scene that has been frustrating me, but this time I was there at just the right moment. Slightly tricky as to make a decent composition you have to move Hambledon Hill about 300m West. No one complained as I put it back once I was done. Here the challenge was to get the brilliant winter light. To this end everything had to be made subservient to the reflected light in the road. 10in by 7in Watercolour.
A quick impression of Shaftesbury, didn’t want to get into too much detail as the shadow was the main event. Painted all with a flat brush again. No time to preserve all the lights so a few touches of opaque paint to annoy the purists! 8in by 6in Watercolour.
This is the River Stour from the bridge at Blandford. The willow has wonderful colour this time of year. Not perfect light as I was a bit late, I must manage to catch it in perfect light. Unfortunately the bridge is too narrow for plein air, I am happy to suffer for my art, but dying is going to far! 14in by 7in watercolour.
Snow! On the day I stuck to the oils but I had so many atmospheric snaps taken as we drove around I could not resist a couple of studio efforts. The studio is great for this sort of painting as you can leave the washes to dry and preserve all your lights. This is near Bulbarrow. 14in by 7in.
Last one this is the road as it drops off Bulbarrow. The snow bounces the light around and makes some wonderful contrasts. I thought this was a good image to show what adding a narrative element does. 12in by 6in Watercolour.
So if you hung these two versions side by side which would get commented on? Does the fact that the Rhino would draw attention make this a better painting? Or does the Rhino get in the way of appreciating the mood of the scene? Not questions I have answers to, but they are questions a painter needs to consider and it shows just how powerful narrative elements are.
Memory seems a simple thing. Something happens to you, it gets encoded in your brain and there it is like an entry into a diary. There is short term memory which is like taking a quick note that you bin after it has served its purpose, and longterm which is like your archive. For an artist both are important because you need short term to transfer the information from eye to canvas and long term to learn your craft.
However memory is not much like how I have described above. Which in turn makes what we do as artists less simple than it might at first glance appear. Both long term and short term memories are effected by our hopes, expectations, preconceptions and desires which in turn colours or filters the information being recorded. This is shown by how witnesses remember the same events quite differently. It also goes some way to explain why those photos of the scene look different to how you recall the moment at which the snap was taken. We blame the camera, but it is our method of making memories that is I think the more likelyl cause.
So there we are on a clifftop preparing to paint, what could be going on? Firstly you perhaps need to consider context. You have gone out seeking a subject and inevitably you have high hopes in that regard. The brain is forever applying rose tinted glasses to your perceptions: That person you are having dinner with appears more and more attractive. The painting you are working on seems better and better… or the reverse of course if we are depressive! So the scene you see is not only what is there, but a romanticised version of it overlaid by hopes.
In practice what happens is that if you seek colours in the shadows then you will see them. You photo will later show that they are actually just dull grey and you might exclaim that the camera is so poor compared to the eye. This however is unlikely to be the case. What is more likely to be happening in many instances is that the colours are invented by our internal image processing and not really present. In a different mood we might produce an alternate set of hues from the same scene. it is also possible that the colours are there in a subdued version which our visual system grabs and gives added zip to.
As we work the process continues. We want the developing picture on our canvas to look like the scene, evoke it, or fit a certain stylistic ideal and our minds helpfully alter what we see to make that appear true. Many times we struggle to manage this where the evidence is increasingly strong that we have painted a clunker. The process is often quite abrupt where the previously hopeful daub suddenly appears drab and worthless. The mind then helpfully fulfils our expectations and makes it look worse than it actually is and despair sets in! You might after bunging it in the car and taking it home, look at it next day say, “It’s not as bad as I thought!”
If we really painted what was actually before us our pictures would mostly be as disappointing as those photos can be once we have them home. We have to accept that what we imagine to be realism is in large part a fantasy, shaded in with the coloured crayons of our imaginations. I myself think this is a wonderful thing. It means you are free to imagine whatever you wish from the promptings that your eyes are transmitting. It also means that someone who views your painting of Portland with the lime green sky will be perfectly happy with it as their visual system is similar to your own.
Like most things once you have a better understanding of how you are doing a thing it allows you to exploit what might at first appear to be weaknesses and transform them into advantages and strengths.
So a few more delusions of my own distorted reality.
I have set about doing some larger studio pictures, this monster is 48in by 30in. After a day painting in Corfe I was, as described above, disappointed by the resulting photographs next day. As I came down West Hill I had thought how wonderfully romantic the castle looked and taken photos at regular intervals as I descended. Despite the lacklustre reference I set to and the block in flew off the brush, so I was optimistic for the next day. It did not go well, the reference took control and the painting went down hill. In the end I allowed my first impulse about how romantic the place was in an 18C way to take over and painted quite a different painting than the one I had originally intended. On reflection the above is probably closer to how I felt when actually there than my original plan. Oils.
A day out at Fontmell Gifford in Wiltshire. I expected a sunlit lake but all that was there was fog and an invisible lake! Still this was fun to paint with lots of subtle greys to enjoy. 10in by 7.5in Oils.
After a hearty breakfast nearby the lake had appeared! I have been enjoying this wide format of three squares. This might be fiddled with yet, I have perhaps over darkens the foreground by a notch. I’ll leave it like this for now though. 24in by 8ins Oils.
Last one of the day. This is Castle Rings near Shaftesbury. It is such a magical place but very hard to catch the feel of the place. I think the wider format might have been better, but I had used my only wide board. Also I think I could have allowed my inner Tolkien to have taken over and pushed the fantastical feeling that the place has. I shall return with that in mind! 14in by 10in Oils.
This is Anvil Point seen from Durleston. Tricky to find an ideal position to paint from so I settled for this. I shall add a little more punch to the sky once it is dry. 14in by 6in Oils
Here is one of Anvil Point where the scene was so immediate that I just had to have a go. I did manage to rein myself in enough to think properly about what how I would approach it. The tone layer with the lighthouse was absolutely key. Too dark and the foreground would not separate, too light and there would be no “dazzle” to the sea. I did three experimental patches first to get these three areas named down. Just as well I did as it took 4 or 5 goes to find the best balance. A problem you will always face is that your mind’s eye sees further into the shadows than you want. It was very tempting to add a yet lighter tone to the foreground but I stuck to my guns and resisted the devil on my shoulder. I had to refine the sea and lighthouse later as the wind was so fierce that no finesse was possible! 10in by 10in Oils.
Last of a very fine day This is looking towards Swanage from Durleston Castle. The light was going over very quickly, but as is often the case that added magic to the scene. I had to paint this very rapidly as a consequence. 12in by 7in Oils.
How immediately interesting should a painting be? Should it grab you by the collar and shake you up. Shout across the room to you? What do you do if all the other paintings by other artists are screaming at you too? Shout louder? For property they call it curb appeal. The risk if you don’t shout out is that you will be ignored. Your candle will only be lighting the inside of a private and obscure bushel. Does quality reach out across the room? I’m afraid not. Large size, strong contrasts, shocking content and primary colours are what does the trick. Of course one option is to promote yourself rather than the art, the celebrity option, if that’s you then read no further.
It is a problem there is no denying it. We all want to be noticed. We don’t paint pictures for them to be ignored. Then again if your picture is devoted to grabbing that across the room glance/instagram scroll past moment, then that is a pretty shallow reason to paint a picture in a certain way. Also as I said before everyone else is shouting too. There is a saying, “When all others are shouting, try a whisper.” Sound good, very zen like and that, great to drop into an arty conversation… but unfortunately not true. Some of my favourites in my own work are quiet mood pieces. Having watched visitors looking at my pictures they mostly don’t give them a first glance let alone a second. The distribution of Facebook “likes” seems to confirm this.
Maybe what we need is a better quality audience? That is not so silly. Putting your pictures before people who are keen on the sort of thing you produce is a pretty good strategy. Rather hard to carry out though, but with Instagram and so forth an easier project than in earlier times. I am not convinced that internet presence generates many buyers. They are consuming your images as momentary eye candy and all at your expense too. I pay good money to publish this blog, does it sell pictures? Yes a few but not as many as my galleries do.
This muttering has been provoked by Instagram. I had been ignoring it even though I have had an account for ages. You can trawl through an unending smorgasbord of paintings, many very good indeed. They do fall into categories though. There are the head studies with developed Sargent type features surrounded by loosely brushed block in. There are impressions done from snaps again with that all important brushy unfinished look. There are the academic wannabes doing saccharine Bouguereau impressions. There are the numerous contemporary impressionists who like myself trawl the waters stirred up by the arrival of photography in the 1850s. All the historical styles are there… except anything anything historical or religious. No Thatcher as Winged Victory with her foot on an Argentine neck! No Last Supper set in a Little Chef.
Much if not most is quite shouty, there are welcome islands of serenity, but mostly brushwork fireworks. As an ex 3D modelling man myself I keep an eye on the game design wannabes. Endless iterations or killer robots, zombies and scaled demons. Don’t let us not forget the swathes of “attitude” exuding girls wielding big swords who neglected to get dressed before teaching those Demon Killer Zombie Robots a stern lesson or two. I can’t help liking those huge vistas of post apocalyptic landscapes with vast spaceships and teeny tiny foreground figures to ram home all that vastness.
I may seem to be digressing here, but all of the above is designed to quickly zip through your eyeballs, give quick visual tingle and then be forgotten. Am I alone as an artist in finding the whole, post it and watch it slide briskly into the past with no trace, phenomenon a little wearisome? Is there any way for an artist to step back from feeding the social media beast and survive? I fear the answer is no. We are doomed for the beast in the machine to chew on us ad infinitum without even the hope of getting spat out.
Enough of dystopia, some daubs…
A difficult windy day to paint a rather wide canvas, it took a tumble or two and has a ton of sand embedded in it. Difficult light too, this is not the final as I repainted the left side as my drawing was a bit to wonky. It is from Swanage beach looking East. I am getting rather fond of the three squares wide format it seems to suit seascapes particularly. 24in by 8in Oils.
Off to Wales for the New Year. This is Llangrannog in Cardiganshire. The day had been quite stormy and was clearing as the evening approached, which often means lovely light. 16in by 10in oils
One of my favourite scenes near Sutton Waldron, it always seems to make a good picture whatever the light. 10in by 8in Oils.
The same day at Gold Hill in Shaftesbury. I was in a hurry so this is really dashed in. I intend to have a go at a cinemascope version… People say I shouldn’t paint Hovis hill as it is a bit naff… do I care? Not even a tiny bit! 10in by 6in Oils.
This is Llangrannog again I stood taking photos as the sun dropped and wished I had my paints with me! Still I enjoyed painting this. It was very difficult to get the feeling of tranquility that I remembered from the day. I ended up smoothing the tones more than I normally would to help the mood. 16in by 16in Oils.
An early visit to Portland, this is on the west side. Very breezy but excellent light. I then painted a truly ghastly one on the other side that I wiped off in a fury… 10in by 7in Oils.
SNOW!!! Everyone else in the country had it and here it was at last and a sunny day to boot. This was a lot to take on but could not resist having a crack at it. I will glaze it to give focus once it is dry. This is up on Bulbarrow. 24in by 8in Oils.
Went straight on to do this of the side of the ridge running up to Rawlesbury Camp. The sky tone was tricky a it had to be dark enough to give the snow punch. Snow has so many different hues, such fun to paint. 10in by 7in Oils.
There was no stopping, Bulbarrow again, it had been melting rapidly and more and more green showed through. A race to get this done as the light was going over very quickly. A grand day out painting though. 10in by 7in Oils.
I did this next day to try and catch the memory. Not quite what I want but I intend to glaze. Glazing is an odd process as you have to put your picture away for 2 months while it dries and then come back to it. It does things no other technique can though. I have quite a backlog of ones ready to do so I will try and put together a tutorial… a bit cheeky maybe as I am still feeling my way with the process. 16in by 16in Oils.
Loose and free, so so many voice the desire to arrive at this painterly nirvana. This transcendental moment when we express our selves in paint as naturally as breathing. Intuitive, expressive, instinctive… these words are often dancing in close attendance when artists convene to share their hopes and ambitions. I hear this mantra again and again… and in weaker moments I have supinely agreed. It is after all received wisdom that nearly all would accept. Except I don’t. It speaks to the part of us that would like hard things to be easy or at least become easy. My experience is alas that it never becomes easy, or even easier.
The dreadful thing is that to an external observer watching you do your thing it does look easy. Many artists make a good living churning out videos with tinkly music as they make paintings fly effortlessly off the brush and never ever go wrong. They never stamp on their daub and go off in a huff. They almost all, with a few honourable exceptions, recite the mantra of keeping it loose. They also raise the fear of the demon that hovers at the shoulder of many painters… the demon of overworking, the wicked being that lures you into making one stroke too many. If you make that evil stroke the painting will be ruined there is no going back.
Always there is the nagging, don’t put in too much, less is more, let the brushstroke lie and don’t fiddle. For beginners I feel this is a little cruel and also I suspect not entirely honest. I would lay money that all these super free painters have dark secrets in the bottom drawers of their plan chests… those early drawings where every leaf is defined, every root lingered over. There is also the heretical suspicion that maybe they gained the ability to appear loose and free via an extended period of drawing kittens with every hair defined! Maybe there is even that secret pencil drawing of Elvis done from a photo using an 8H pencil with a scalpel point.
Why is control and cool calculated precision so evil? If it is then we must avoid enjoying Breughel or Van Eyck. Escher is a no no. None of the beautiful books of hours are worth a candle. Chardin, Vermeer and so many others must be consigned to the dustbin. Degas because he fiddled for France, so much so that you can’t date many of his works as he fiddled with them over decades. He liked to comment that the just flown off the brush appearance is a lie and likened it to a crime done in secret. Which is interesting as it is about this moment that the myth of instinctual expressiveness was being developed. There was nothing Degas enjoyed more than tweaking the noses of other painters if they got too above themselves.
Really the whole unify, simplify, keep it loose mantra only refers to impressionism which is only a very small style backwater. It is essentially the art of painting something that looks like you did it while squinting when you left your glasses at home. This allows the viewer to squint in turn and marvel at how clever they are to manage to see the donkeys and holidayers frolicking on the beach with only a few well chosen blobs of paint as clues. I am being deliberately provoking here obviously as it is the area of painting I am involved in myself. What I do want to get across though is that it is only one avenue out of many to explore. Not a gold standard that needs to be stuck to or indeed a formula for good painting.
I have just trawled the internet for good how to do its. Most are unbelievably bad, but one thing that stands out amongst the ones I felt were good is that they were all very systematic. They always went from A through to J (X or Z would be over finishing obviously) there seems to be no getting it wrong knocking it all back and bringing it forward again. The watercolorists especially work from broad to key details and from light to dark. The oil painters patch areas together like a quilt over a mid tone block in. All in all not very free or exuberant even if the final result looks that way. This in turn makes me wonder about the anally retentive tinkly music… if you are free… really really free, surely you would be painting to the Pogues and pogoing while you splashed paint in the general direction of your canvas. I might float the idea with APV films.
There we go that is most of the painters offended, now for some of my own crimes.
I have a new development… I have always fancied having a painting wagon so I could overnight without getting cadmium red all over a hotel’s towels. So I could camp out near my scene and be up and at it before the sparrows had broken wind. So I finally bit the bullet and purchased a suitable vehicle with spartan but adequate internal arrangements to cook and sleep. This is my first outing… yes children it rained… oh God how it rained. In the middle of the night on the middle of Dartmoor I needed carry out a call of nature. The rain was horizontal so I decided that taking all my clothes off and just getting wet was the best option. Very bracing I have to say and now several sheep are in therapy. However as the rain was approaching I just about had time to paint this. 12in by 7in Oils.
Next morning Dartmoor was entirely absent and the rain and wind were rocking my little home from home. Bodily needs were nagging me again too. I had passed through Moretonhampstead on the way and noted a public loo in the carpark… which pretty much decided my next painting venue. After eating a breakfast that knocked at least a year off my lifespan I parked my van inconveniently for all the locals and painted this from under the shelter of the back lifting door. 10in by 7in Oils.
I decided to head for the coast but got distracted in Blytheswood by a let up in the rain… I got 30 min on this before the heavens opened again. I must fiddle with the trees on the left but painting the water was great fun. 10in by 7in Oils.
I was just getting near to Sidmouth when I found a cosy carpark with a great view. I have to glaze the right hand side to soften it but it was great fun perched on a narrow bank trying to get this wide view in. Then to bed in the van feeling a little more cheerful but still a little damp. 24in by 8in Oils.
Next day it bucketed down so I just drove home. The day after I painted this from a phone snap taken through the rain smeared windscreen. It sort of summed up the whole expedition… one of the sheep winked at me as it went by. A few days later I went shopping in Lidls, they had fold up buckets for a fiver… I bought one. 24in by 8in Oils.
After the trauma of Devon I went out to Shaftesbury and on the way came across this scene which I had painted before in less than ideal light. We had to wait for the rain to stop but the wet road made a wonderful ribbon of light as it led away to Twyford. 24in by 8in Oils.
Off to Wales next… but staying in a nice warm bungalow…
In 1827 through to 1885 the way we saw the world and ourselves changed. From Daguerre via Fox Talbot to Eastman selling film the photographic image had arrived. Slowly over the following decades it became the dominant way in which we see our ever-changing world held still for examination. We forget now that when such images arrived they were at odds with the way people expected the world to look. People were used to prints and paintings where the world was carefully composed and tidy. Photographs after the novelty was over did not at first really catch on as a medium to record everyday life. It was portraits where the sitters were arranged before painted backgrounds to mimic paintings that first became a commercial success. Once the cameras found their way into amateur hands that all changed.
At first due to the limits of long exposures groups of sitters still look contrived, but mostly gone is the attempt to ape the qualities of a painting. As the exposures shortened it was possible on a bright day to capture the hustle and bustle of a busy city, with the horses, carts, hawkers and jaywalkers making up the general hurly-burly. People were cropped off frame and caught in unbalanced poses. It was the Impressionists who first noticed it was a new way of seeing and many of those impressionist masterpieces you know and love were painted or refined from photographs. Monet, Degas and Renoir were all keen photographers.
After that the hand painted view of the world was in irreversible decline. In the following decades we see the majority of representation both private, commercial and public recorded by the mechanical eye. Hand drawn illustrations have become in the minority and such work has largely been pushed to the edges of representation where a thing is imaginary, does not exist yet, or does not exist any more.
Nowadays In am guessing the bulk of figurative artists probably work at least in part from photos, it being more convenient and cheaper than the alternative which might include hiring models etc. An important reason however is also that photographs are now how we see the world. None of us can help comparing any handmade representational image to the photographed image. Starting from an early age we all just see so many photographs that we cannot see any other way. It is hard to believe that when people first saw photographs of the familiar world they lived in they thought they looked wrong. We can never recapture how they saw or even recreate it by imagination.
Now we tend to accept all the distortions that photographs suffer from without even noticing. The tonal compression the distortions of form, colour and proportion. We accept the perspective warping in wide angles or when we point the camera up or down, without a thought. If we look at one of those pictures of a social group 20 people wide then we do not notice that the ones at the edges are twice as fat as the ones in the middle. Artists even emulate the photographic inaccuracies, lens flare etc, to give extra veracity to their pictures! You frequently see people watching video in the wrong screen scaling, either squashed or stretched, without being aware that something is amiss.
So where does this leave the observational painter of today? Well there seem to be several tactics. Firstly you might give your work a quirk that goes against the photographic grain. Do it in angular shapes in thick paint, incorporate dramatic drips and smears that cry out hand made. I often like paintings done in these ways, but there is always the uncomfortable feeling they are a bit like cheesy photographic effects applied to holiday snaps. Indeed Photoshop artists now regularly steal the quirks developed by painters in order to get that painterly feeling into a photo.
I have to end this little essay without a conclusion. We have perhaps still not finished developing our relationship to the mechanical image. Indeed with digital photo editing tools the photograph can become more “handmade” than many paintings on canvas. An observational painter such as myself has no alternative other than to play second fiddle to the captured image. I still wince when someone comments, “I thought it was a photo at first!” I know they mean well…
More catching up on the oils now.
Sometimes paintings are a real struggle. After one session I ended up with this widescreen take on Portland Bill. Working from reference taken with a few variations I was having trouble getting the whole lot to come to life. I find paintings that have some good bits but don’t quite all up to a whole the hardest to resolve. So much so that I put this face to the studio wall and promptly forgot it! Later when I came across it I decided to have a do or die bash at it.
Unfortunately I am missing a stage, the above is the final version. However on the second bash I changed the sky to give it more focus. However the general colour was still in the grey/ tan range. It still didn’t quite do what I wanted so I let it dry for a week or two and then glazed transparent colour over the top. To do this you must make sure you choose transparent colour and use a decent glaze medium. You mix down the medium 4 parts turps to one part medium and then add colour to taste. You don’t want to make the colour too strong and it is best to build up in layers. Son here I gad just two glaze colours a quinacridone red and ultramarine. Glazing is very much like doing a watercolour over a grey painting, with the added advantage that you can wipe off and redo as many times as you want. 24in by 8in Oils.
I did an earlier plein air of this and at the time wished I had brought a wider board with me. So I set about a wider version. I think as with the previous painting this is a first stage. I can see potential but it needs more “zing” and focus. Again glazes are ideal for this sort of adjusting as all the fresh underlying brushwork is retained so you do not run the risk of it all getting too overworked. I will post the end result and try and take some photos of the different stages. 24in by 8ins Oils.
This is a very quick but quite large sketch of Portland for a bigger painting. We had a series of days with wonderful skies so I wanted to do a large studio painting where the sky was the main event. This works OK but I didn’t really finish it as I felt that the land was still too important and could be reduced to a smaller scaled simplified strip at the bottom. I might adapt this one before setting out on a bigger canvas, we shall see. 16in by 16in Oils.
I had enjoyed working on the larger square format so I did a sea study on the other canvas I had ready. I wanted to use cleaner hues than I usually do so I exaggerated the colour a little. I had intended to glaze it later but having had it on the wall for a week or two I think I will leave it be. 16in by 16in Oils
After a string of studio paintings it was great to get out and do some plein air at Corfe Castle. We got up early to catch the first light, but alas still arrived an hour too late! I think for this view you need to be there before dawn and paint it as it happens. Still this was great fun, painting from real life is in some ways so much easier than photos! 12in by 12in Oils.
There same view a little bit later. I nearly always find the second painting of the day is better than the first, it takes one painting to get proper focussed perhaps. 12in by 6in Oils.
This was done as a demo for a local art group. It is always a little nerve wracking doing a painting live while an audience watches. I told myself before starting it would be educational for them if I made a dogs dinner of it… it would certainly have increased their vocabulary! I was in the end quite pleased with the result. I have to suppress the detail in the sea to the right with a glaze or two to focus the main interest on Golden Cap and then it is done. 24in by 8in Oils.
I am still not caught up so more waffle quite soon I expect.
In the 18thC Antoine Coypel, president of the French Academy and purveyor of syrupy classical scenes, complained of the “Vapid and bizarre jargon” used by artists and critics when describing paintings. A complaint that seems as appropriate now as it when it was first made. I might notice I suppose that both were said in an age of rampant academicism, however I suspect that Art Bollocks has a long and venerably tedious history. I am not going to amuse you with too many examples of art speak, almost every “artist’s statement” is a parody composed entirely of such waffle. My question is more why do people feel the need to descend into obfuscation and incomprehensible language when faced with talking about art. Is it just the art world that suffers?
The answer to that is a no. Wine critics seem to be badly afflicted too, philosophers and theologians as well to name but a few. A link between the differing areas is hard to discern. Up there with the most likely is perhaps that all of these topics are trying to express and describe the indefinable. Every bottle of plonk tastes different to each swigger and each one of these in turn will come up with some memorable bogus metaphor.
The cartoonist Thurber mocked wine speak in a 1937 cartoon:
Evelyn Waugh took a poke in Brides Head Revisited:
“It is a little, shy wine, like a gazelle.”
“Like a leprechaun.”
“Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.”
“Like a flute by still water.”
“And this is a wise old wine.”
“A prophet in a cave.”
and so forth. The link is plainer to me after reading an article on wine bollocks, it hit me like an alligator dropped on my head by a drunken protractor, the descriptor I am seeking is “Metaphor” Shakespeare’s example is the classic one:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances …”
Here we have things we are familiar with compared to other things we are familiar with so we can reflect on the similarities. With wine and art speak the problem is that the metaphors are assembled from things we cannot with any certainty know a great deal about.
So it is hardly a surprise that attempting to describe subjective qualities with objective and poetic terms results in word salad. The next mystery is why would any one take the texts seriously. Here is art writer and professor Carolyn Guertin writing in her essay called Wanderlust:
“The shuffling and unfolding of the information of her body in sensory space is enacted across a gap or trajectory of subjecthood that is multiple and present. Subjectivity is the lens and connector through which the spatio-temporal dislocation gets focused and bridged. The gap is outside vision – felt not seen – and always existing on the threshold in between nodes. Like the monster’s subjectivities, all knots in the matrix are linked.”
Would anyone care to have a stab at what the previous quote might mean. She is not really attempting to communicate, so what is the real intent. The text is composed in a way that feels like it is making an important point, but on closer attention the point or indeed any point appears not to be there. For those who think seeng the passage in context might help… believe me it doesn’t. However you could skim it quickly without interrogating the meaning and feel that something deep and thoughtful has been said.
Perhaps we might trawl further back into history to the Oracle at Delphi from which we get the word “delphic”. Horoscopes today deal with the problem of talking about things you cannot know about by phrasing in way that is as non specific as possible. They never say that at 10AM today all Libra folks will crash their bicycles into lampposts. They might however say, that they may experience accidents today but although the result may be uplifting or not they are not distracted by the positive feelings that the conjunction with Saturn encourages.
So in a way Art Speak is perfectly designed to fit with contemporary art. The requirement of the consumer of each is that they bring the meaning to the words or the art works themselves. Obfuscation in either area points to insecurity. The Oracle cannot foretell the future in any detail so must be vague. If the art critic has nothing to communicate but the copy is still required, then Art Speak is the answer. If an artist has nothing to say in their work the the same language is ideal for a statement that speaks of mysterious intent where there is none.
Well that was jolly.
On with the back log of paintings.
Here I wished to express the impermanence of form and explore the terminus of the shadow between resurgent reality and expectation. Or a quick daub of a bit of surf on Portland. 12in by 8in Oils.
Here I test the boundaries between individual experience and the transition to the ineffable isolation of the individual. Or some paint I smeared about to suggest a bloke on Weymouth beach. 14in by 10in Oils
Here I explore the dilemma of substance versus illusion, working on the periphery of dishonesty, I sought to enlarge the paradigm of truth and material. Or a moody old seascape with Portland lighthouse in it painted by a tediously boring painter on a bit of cheap reconstituted wood. 10in by 16in Oils.
This is a statement of ephemeral uncertainty described by using the innocuous safety of a historical modus operandi and delineating how the ego is juxtaposed with transcendent ignorance of a futile world. Or a plein air of Studland Bay done by a painter thinking more about breakfast than art and worried that unless he paints a bit quicker his feet will get wet. 12in by 8in Oils.
Here I reacted to the endless repeated depositions of the unreconcilable slimeaval past and its post structural decay in opposition to the semi-permeable crisis of the ideal self. Or a quick knock off of Old Harry by a painter desperate for a sale. 10in by 10in oils.
Here I investigate the inextricable interface between being and not being using ironic reference to the desperate cry of primeval man marooned in an age of mechanisation and home baking. Or it was a really wet nasty day so I painted a picture of Portland Bill in the studio to pass the time pleasantly? 24in by 8in Oils.
That’s it I am off to the studio to wrestle with imponderables for all you poor folk who aren’t artists, so you can see beyond your poor mundane existences and be uplifted for a brief moment nearer to the unreachable mysteries that underly our improbable incorporation into sentient flesh.
Much of painting is understanding things. Working out exactly what it is you are seeing and getting it down in an elegant a manner as possible. Or so I thought for many years. I understood that over resolving would make a picture dead and mostly I hope avoided it, but I never quite understood until fairly recently why that is the case.
I have touched on this before, but I wanted to do a post on it to organise my own thoughts on the issue. It turns I think around certainty. When you glance at a subject much about it is unclear. If you take a longer look then more things are resolved by understanding and interpreting the visual information. So you now have a composite image in your mind’s eye the visual input and the interpretive overlay of understanding and assumption. So the question is: which of these do you paint?
I have decided that for me it is just another choice. It is for me to decide how much of my understanding of the subject I transfer and to what degree. If I choose to do the first fleeting glimpse then the problem is to winnow out those elements. Easy to say but hard to do though! Painting inevitably involves looking for a period and that looking brings with it insights into what exactly is in front of you. It is very hard to regain that “first glance” moment. It takes a stretch of the imagination to unlearn things and recreate a simulation of an initial impression.
Life drawing helps me in this regard I find. If you cannot quite make out the bottom edge of an arm because it is in shadow then defining it will probably take away from the effectiveness of your drawing. If the side of a cheek is a little hard to resolve because it curves away from you in differing degrees, then your drawing should perhaps reflect that uncertainty in some way. This in some part answers my longstanding puzzlement as to why those 5min quick poses so often produce the most satisfying result of a session. People seem to wish to believe that it is the rush and the letting go that frees you up, cutting that pesky consciousness out of the equation, but I suspect not.
So, to try and put all that together. We are not painting or drawing elements we are sure of, we are painting degrees of uncertainty. Once you start to think of it that way then all sorts of possibilities come to mind. Not just in making things less resolved here and there, but in controlling the degree of resolution that you feel suits the various parts of your composition. So what you are doing is not just unifying and simplifying, which is the usual route and often removes delicacy and subtlety from any resulting work. It is choosing which parts of your observations to put on the canvas and at the same time varying the definiteness of the information.
Plainly this cannot reliably be done by splashing and hoping. I quite often knowingly over paint a subject. This means that when you are done you can erase, blur or knock back anything that is a bit to prominent. I might even when painting plein air deliberately over detail as I know that I can simplify later. If a painting won’t come together it is far from a bad tactic to knock the whole lot back and bring it forward again as many times as is necessary.
I am blogging less frequently at present, in some ways because I have covered a great deal of ground over the years so subjects where I feel I have something useful to say are inevitably getting fewer. However I made a new year resolution to do a post per month and not to put every picture I paint up here as I had originally intended. I do however intend to carry on posting the ones that go wrong as often they are the ones that benefit from a post-mortem.
So oils it is…
This is the bridge over the Stour at Blandford. I didn’t set out with many hopes as the day was flat grey, but this scene had some interesting contrasts. I always find bridges hard to work into a composition and this scene was no exception. What makes it work I feel is the punctuation the reeds bring by cutting through the water to bridge line. 14in by 8in oils.
This is my friend Sue Fawthrop who was exhibiting with me a selection of life paintings, so we decided to each do a painting of the other painting. A sort of brushes at dawn moment. I did one prior to this which still needs attention, but I had to stop as there was too much wet paint to continue. This one I did very quickly in 20 or so minutes and of course it came out better than the more worked version. However in such cases it is well to bear in mind that I probably could not have painted this without all the looking that went into the first effort! 12in sq Oils.
This was a fearsomely windy day above Golden Cap on the Jurassic coast. I had to hold on to everything while I painted. Not sure I quite caught the scene as it looks quite peaceful, perhaps a flying brolly or bullock would have helped tell the story! 10in by 5in Oils.
Another wrestling match with the wind later on in the day. This is Lyme Regis, 45 min of almost continual bad language as I strove to prevent my easel and painting from heading off towards France! Great fun though a more placid day would never have delivered the same results. 10in by 8in Oils
This is a franken-painting made up of two plein airs. It is also the first time I have painted the famous Durdle Door. Such iconic scenes always bring problems linked to the inevitable fact that everyone already knows what the place looks like. The first picture had a decent Durdle with a boring sky, the second had a poorly composed Durdle with a decent sky. So I wiped of the sub-standard cliffy bits and painted in the Durdle from the other. Finally I wiped off the first one to hide the evidence. I regret this now as it would have been interesting to compare the two before surgery. 12in by 12in Oils
This is Chesil as seen from Abbotsbury castle. The light wasn’t ideal but a great view that I will return to. I am more and more coming to like the idea of repeatedly returning to scenes I know are interesting. It makes sense that if you get an inspiring subject on an inspiring moment you will be more likely to paint a winner. 12in by 7in Oils.
Well that is the oils partially caught up with… only 20 more to go!
When you have learnt something to a certain standard you often forget what gave you so much trouble when you first started learning. Parts of the process become too obvious to mention when trying to help another artist who is struggling with a tricky scene. Typically it takes me about 5 to 10 min to do my drawing out. The process is so ingrained that I find it quite hard to break down the steps I take.
I certainly take a different approach to drawing out a cityscape than I do for a landscape. So that is my first step. What needs drawing out and to what degree. A subject consisting of hills and trees requires less precision, but still requires an understanding of general characteristics. Such a subject is also more mutable so we can easily make alterations to improve our composition.
A townscape with people and cars requires more careful drawing because the bounds, between which people will feel things look wrong, are narrower. If our perspective is out then the viewer has the choice of either thinking the building is distorted, or the artist got it wrong… I’m afraid they will always go for the latter. Moving stuff around also becomes harder and really an idea of the rules of perspective is required to carry it off in many cases.
Most pictures have a focus. Where the eye will come to rest. Usually it is the key thing in the composition, a boat on a beach, a tree on a hill, a figure on a cliff. The very first thing to decide is how big and where on your canvas this thing should be.
Rule 1 is put the most important thing, the focus, in first. Take time to get it in a good place and decide how big it needs to be. I frequently try 10 or so different places before plumping for a final position, time is never wasted on this stage and don’t move on until you are satisfied.
Rule 2 is similar find what you feel the next most important thing is. Once decided you need to get it in the right relative position to the first object. An example is easier than words at this point!
Here we have both buildings and shrubbery. It is easy to see our focus, the eye is always going to end up on Corfe castle. So that is no 1, we get to the castle via the track so that is no 2.
So no 1 is our castle. I find the turning point of the track (no 2) by holding up my brush to determine the angle from my castle base (grey dotted line) I know it must be somewhere along this line. Next I estimate how much to the left of the castle the turn is and drop a vertical. Where the two lines cross will get the turn roughly in position. Holding our brush up and transferring the angles will get the rest of the track in. The skill to learn here is being able to transfer an angle from the scene before you to the canvas.
The next line is the tree line (3). I have more leeway here and may want to adapt it to improve the composition. Also having the track and the castle in place makes it easier to draw in. No 4 is the hedge line and finally 5 is the foreground dark. For this scene that is all I would initially draw, perhaps 7min in total, 5min of which I would spend on the first two items. Which brings me to…
Rule 3 don’t over draw, put your time into the bits that will ring alarm bells in the viewer’s mind. People are usually the hardest to get right so time spent refining figures is never wasted. Cars, boats and buildings are also worth taking care with. Trees and shrubbery however are less crucial. Drawing details can be put off until later, indeed you might find many of them are not needed at all.
For a cityscape the process would be the same but there would just be more items and more angles would need to be checked. On the other hand there are lots of straight lines in such subjects which makes checking easy. Which brings me neatly to the final rule.
Rule 4 check and check again. Transfer an angle three or four times, don’t assume once will nail it!
You will often see people squinting at their brush held at arms length to work out relative sizes. If the person hasn’t dropped their head to put one eye down on to their shoulder then they don’t know how to use that method! It is in any case a very crude method, angles with verticals and horizontals is far more accurate and easier. However the holding the brush out and so forth looks really cool so I do it anyway to impress passers by.
A few drawings to finish, I am very behind with blogging due to trying to do too many things!
Here is one of Poole where I forgot rule 1! I didn’t settle on a firm focus… too late to add one now.
Another demonstration of rule 1 not being adhered to! The people were intended as the focus but I placed them dead centre… the best place would have been just coming through the arch… also not enough time spent on getting the figures believable. Pity really as the rest is good. It is Scalpen’s Court in Poole.
Here finally I remembered my own rules! I have wanted to do this road in Shaftesbury for a while. The gable end of the pub with its chimney against the sky is a shoe in for no 1 and the road leading us in for no 2. Once in the rest of the picture is fairly easy to assemble. Pen and Ink.
Not the easiest of pen and ink subjects, it is of course Durdle Door. I remember trying the arch in at least six or seven places before settling on its final position. Once in the Horizon was next, then the line of the beach. For the sea and sky I only draw soft lines as guides to directions of flow. These allow me to work fairly freely when hatching in the sea and sky. Pen and Ink.
The famous Gold Hill in Shaftesbury. Here our No 1 is easy if subtle, the Church tower needs to be in prime position. The curve of the steep road is a no brainer for No 2. It is the relationship between these two that sets the scene. With the road and church in I next did the roof and chimney line, with that in position I could find the gutter line and then extend down to separate the buildings. People are tempted to divide into buildings early on, but usually in this sort of circumstance that results in the building being stretched horizontally. Lastly I drew in the Abbey wall to the left.
To find the size of my church tower I held up the paper at arms length until it covered my desired composition then keeping my arm fixed and my head still I lowered the paper vertically until I could mark out the width and position on the top edge of the paper. While I was at it I noted the positions of the chimneys as well. Pen and Ink.
Here is the same street from the top… the classic “Hovis Hill” view. The little group of buildings at the bottom is my focus and the first thing I placed, but I then positioned the man’s head where the road passes from view so as to give it more weight. It also produces a pull between the distant turn and the nearer figure. This is just the sort of subject that foxes people as the many excruciatingly badly drawn versions you will find on Google will attest. If you are systematic though even this sort of scene with its extreme angles and unexpected relationships can be drawn out surprisingly rapidly.
I debated with myself about calling these tips “rules” so I will remind that rules are not there for every circumstance only as a general guide. I do find however that more paintings fail due to rule 1 being forgotten about in the excitement of getting going on a potential winner than any other cause.
That’s it oil paintings next blog, done the paintings I just need to pull my finger out with the blogging!