Thursday, 31 December 2009

Family portraits

Original oil portrait of my brother
Today I thought of contrasting two portraits I did of the other male members of my family: my dad Mike and my brother Daniel. There are plenty of contrasts to highlight: my dad I painted about two years ago, in acrylics on board; the one of my brother I did over the last two days, in oils on canvas.  I painted both paintings from photo references but I painted my dad freehand and with the painting of my brother I did a careful drawing underneath with a grid reference to get everything in the right place.  Drawing a grid helps me to cut down on the time I spend replacing noses and resizing eyes, though sometimes it is nice to paint freehand and it can bring more expression to the painting.  When I do, and as I did in the case of my dad's portrait, I often like to flip the canvas and photo upside down so that I can see the shapes better.  It's amazing how interferring the consious mind can be sometimes: we all have preconcieved notions of the shape of facial features: noses, and a portrait can easily turn into a collection of stereotype eyes and cliche mouths.  There's certainly a place for art that uses symbols but I am trying to achieve a more representational work.  Turning the canvas upside down has been a useful tool to help me see beyond the veil of what we are expecting to see, to the real subject matter.  Of course the paintings often need reworking when you flip them the right side up again, some of the facial features can really en up in odd places when you are painting upside down.

Original acrylic portrait of my dad
I like both paintings. Although I think my painting tecnique has improved since the first painting, I have managed to capture something of the character of my dad in the acrylic one.  I painted the one of my brother with his living room in mind so I tried to make it look modern, I chose oils because I'm painting a lot in oils at the moment although acrylics would have suited this style of flat planes of colour very well.  Likewise the one of my dad could very well have been painted in oils, the acrylics are nice because colours can be laid down on top of each other very quickly without waiting for the paint to dry.

Painting from the old masters

copy of monet paintingI find myself back home in England for Christmas. Enjoying time with my parents and brother in suburban north London.  I thought I'd take this opportunity to take some photos of a few of the older paintings I have at my mum and dad's house.  These two are copies I did in oil on board of two Monet paintings I like.  I like the impressioninsts very much and have copied various Monet paintings to learn from his style and brushwork.  The white I used had been lying around our house for years so it was a bit solid coming from the tube, this made it hold the brushstrokes really well and I got some interesting impasto effects.

copy of monet paintingI have painted a few Monet copies before and as with the haystacks, these umbrella-wielding ladies are caught at distinct times of year. In the one with the little boy to the right it is springtime and the grass is fresh green and lush.  In the second it is late summer and the grass is dry and bleached yellow in the sun.

The skies also call for different renderings.  The spring sky looks earlier in the day and is fresh and animated, the summer sky is warmer and lazier. Interestingly we see the effects of a breeze in both paintings. Either day would be good kite flying weather I recon.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Los Arapiles

Across the Castillan planes of the Inner Plateau of the Iberian Peninsula, hills spring sporadically from the flat grassland and low Holm Oak forests. Mini-mesetas on the great surface of the Meseta Central, a plateau whose surface covers a large area of northern Spain and whose elevation varies between 610 and 760 m. These hills stand alone or in groups of two or three, defying erosion and encroaching upon the dominion of the sky.

15 km south of the historic city of Salamanca in northwestern Spain are situated two such hills: the Arapiles, just outside the urbanizaciĆ³n where I live (below the sun on the right-hand side of the photo above) they have become a popular subject for my landscape paintings.

In 1812 they were chosen by the Duke of Wellington as an opportune place to attack an over-stretched French army and win the most impressive military sucess of his career. It was a key turning point in the Peninsular War, a war which played a major part in Napolean's downfall. In the Battle of Salamanca about 13,000 French, 3,129 British, 2,038 Portuguese and 6 Spanish died between these two hills.

The battleground remains as it was 200 years ago and is largely unnoticed by most tourists and disregarded by most Charros (the name for people from Salamanca). I happen to live almost in the next field so over the six years I have lived here I have often walked between the two hills and up the big hill (there is a monument on top). I have sketched and painted the Arapiles many times, they are really quite difficult as there is not much to them: two lumps on the horizon from a compositional aspect. I have seen them cycle through the seasons and weather conditions, at dawn and dusk and under the bright midday sun. In this way they continually surprise me with their ability for expression.

Here are two square format paintings of the Arapiles. I did the summery one first and was happy with the blocks of colour and the harmony they brought to the composition. I did it in acrylics and had originally intended to paint in oils on top to add texture but was so pleased with how it looked with the yellow ochre under painting showing through, I decided to stop there.

In the stormy painting I was originally trying to imitate the success of the summery painting on a slightly bigger scale and with a cloudy sky to express more complex pensive emotions. However, the result was a very artificial cubic rendering.
I left it on my wall for a year, contemplating its failures, until I had the idea of using translucent glazes of paint to give a complex depth to the earth and a luminosity to the sky. I painted it upside down, keeping in mind Rothko's bands of colour, some of the ochre in the earth ran up into the sky and gave it that final touch.

For more information of the Battle of Salamanca, and the Peninsular War in general, see:

It has maps and a blow by blow account of the battle, I found it surprisingly interesting.

For a closer look at these paintings, see my photostream at flickr:

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