Thursday, 29 April 2010

Loosening Up

Sometimes I can get too tied up in detail and lose the bigger picture.  It can be nice to relax a little and forget about getting averything in exactly the right place.  When I am in a  mood obsessed with detail I find myself counting leaves on trees even though I am sure no-one will ever know how many leaves there were in my souce photo, somehow it puts my mind to rest to get them right.  I sometimes stumble across painting tutorials on satelite tv channels where an 'artist' is showing how to give the impression of bushes and trees with just a few brush strokes, I'm sorry but I detest this style of painting.  The result is something you might find frescoed on the wall of a tacky mediterreanean restaurant, at best.  At worst the result is a clich├ęd and over-stylized image which insults the observer with an assumption that they don't know what a tree really looks like.

On the other hand too much detail can make a painting look amateur if it isn't done well.  I sometimes find myself trying to get all the detail of a window frame in when in reality such detail wouldn't be noticed at such a distance.  This is especially a waste of time if you want the eye to be drawn to some interesting interaction between figures in the mid-distance instead of some wonkey windows in the background where the frames are almost as thick as the panes of glass.

I was getting a bit fed up over agonising over detail in my last few paintings so I decided to have a bit of fun painting over an old one of a raindrop which I didn't  really like.  I've included a photo of the original canvas, as you can see it's loaded with texture.  As it was it was impossible to get any fine detail so I had to focus on the big picture and do a lot of squinting to try to get the overall balance of colours and tones.  The result is that close up it looks a little messy but from a distance it captures the light and reflections.  I almost got sidetracked trying to draw all the lines in the straw mat the glass is sitting on but I realised before it was too late and loosened up a bit.

Another thing I would add as a final point is not to be afraid of using grey in colourful paintings, as you can see I used a lot of grey in the reflections in the glass and it fits perfectly with the brightness of the image.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Negative spaces


One of the great struggles in drawing and painting, for me at least, is the conceptual mind interfering with what I see in front of me.  Instead of painting what I see I end up painting what I think I see, not what is really there. A face may become more stylized or a shadow lose its uniqueness.  Maybe this is good for some art if you want to express yourself or part of your personality, but what I find beautiful in a painting is to see the light and form of a moment interpreted in paint. I'm still learning so half of my painting turn out awful and the thing I paricularly don't like is when they look amateurish and cliched, this is normally a result of me going on autopilot and painting what I thought was there instead of what really was there. 

To compound this mind trickery I find that if you stare at a painting long enough it begins to look correct no matter how bad the proportions.  In the past I have on occasion spent hours going into the detail of a portrait to wake up the next morning to find the face tortured with grotesque features, and what makes it worse is the haunting but distorted likeness to the person, it sends a shiver down the spine. Loose portraits can be nice, especially in my opinion if the light, shadow and colours are right. The more detail you put in, the more accurate the proportions need to be or it just looks freaky.  For this reason if I'm going to try to do something with a photo-realistic quality I grid up the paper and it saves a lot of wasted time.  The painting I did on the left of Mari Cruz involved a very careful preparation with a grid, then all the layers were added very gently so as not to obsure my original markings.  Although it is an oil painting there is very little texture, only the highlights where I have raised the white to catch the light.  However, all this work can be very boring and there are some tricks which are useful if you are painting more freely and want to avoid interpreting your subject too much.

The point is to see your painting as it really is and this can be done in various ways. Looking in the mirror is a great one.  Sometimes I'm amazed at how odd my painting looks when held in a mirror: massive jaw, wonky eyes, it's embarrassing. A hand held mirror can be useful to see both the picture and the subject at the same time.  A computer can be used to flip the image or simplify it in various ways: if you are having trouble seeing the tones you can increase the contrast until it's almost black and white, or you can apply a filter to try to get a different view of the picture, with limited layers for example. You can even apply a filter to imitate the image in paint and then paint the computer's painting.  I used to do this more but to be honest the more you paint the easier disctinctions are to see, plus there is something to be said for a human's interptetation. Now I like to get everything in the right place and I let my eye interpret the hues and tones. Everyone seems to use Photoshop but I found the completely free PhotoScape was fantastic and the things you can do with the hues can help with any electrically lit photos you have that may look yellow. Play with the sliders and curves too much though and you will end up with something that looks very artificial, use with caution but a little boost on the contrast never hurt anybody.

Another useful trick if you are working from a photograph is to look at your painting and the photo upside down.  This can help you to see the shapes you are working from rather than what your mind thinks they should look like: it can be easy to make the eyes too oval or the whites of the eyes too white.  The painting of my dad I posted earlier I painted completely upside down at first. When I flipped it I had got some of the features a bit wrong (the size of the forehead made him look a but like Homer Simpson) but it had captured something special about my dad. It's a kind of magic to project somebody's character through the careful placement of colour and form.

The final tool I can think of for the moment, and the subject of the post, is the very useful observation of negative space in viewing a subject.  Look at the spaces between the shapes as much as you look at the shapes and things will slot together better.  It's a meditation on the Taoist duality of fullness and emptiness, existence and non-existence, but not really, I'm just being pretentious.  It is actually just trying to see what is really there.

Friday, 29 January 2010


I have been painting a lot this month. At the moment I am experimenting with underpainting. I frequently paint directly onto a white canvas but applying a wash of colour mixed with turpuntine can have a great impact on how the painting develops. In this painting of my old friends Sandy and Rebecca I painted the canvas with a wash of burnt sienna. It had to be transparent so as not to obscure the pencil drawing I had done underneath (when painting people I almost always carefully draw an outline in pencil first, it can save a lot of time later when you are trying to obtain a likeness). I mixed the burnt sienna with turps and used a rag to wipe back the paint when the pencil underdrawing was not clearly visible. I had previously fixed the pencil underdrawing with cheap hairspray, this stops the graphite from muddying the underpainting, I am surprised the turpuntine doesn't dissove the hairspray, but it seems to work fine.

Other colours can be used as a wash, I read recently about an artist who does wonderful portraits first covering the canvas with a mixture of flesh tone and grey. As you can see from the painting of Sandy and Rebecca, the underpainting enabled me to leave spaces between subsequent blocks of colour, saving me time and also unifying the colours in the painting. If you look closely you will notice that Sandy's shirt, hand and pint glass are captured very simply. I actually got a bit bored at this point and decided that if I put too much detail in the hand it might detract from his face...excuses, excuses. Even Sandy's face reveals a lot of the underpainting showing through.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Back to Salamanca

The Christmas holidays are coming to an end and I will be flying back to Salamanca via Stanstead and Valladolid tomorrow.  Two weeks at home with my parents has been relatively fruitful: I painted my brother, got lots of photos of central London, painted my brother's ex, and painted this painting of the National Gallery in London.  I had done a painting of Calle Toro in Salamanca which has been very popular on flickr for its reflections in the wet pavement so I thought I would try to do something similar of some of the sites of London.  Conveniently for me the day I went round with my camera it was raining so I got lots of great photos wet streets.  The painting took me about a day and I used oils on paper.  I think it could have done with a little more work but it is still wet so won't be travelling with me in my hand luggage.  I'll do another better one when I get to Spain.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Drawing people's children

People seem to highly value classic portraits of their children, even if they are not particularly interested in art.  I do a lot of drawings for friends from digital photos given me, for me they are good practice and save me forking out on Christmas and birthday presents.  For me children all look very similar but I'm sure their mothers don't see it this way.  For this reason I always draw a grid on the piece of paper and on the digital photo and transfer the image square by square.  It doesn't take very long and I usually draw the grid while I'm watching something on tv or listening to the radio, then it's very easy to transfer the photo onto the paper and one doesn't have to worry about making the baby look like sombebody else's baby, or worse...ugly and yet recognisable enough to be the couple's offspring.  I can see the parents going around for days worrying 'Does everyone see him like that?'.  All this lining up the paper does remove some of the expressive quality but there are plenty of other things to worry about after you've got the proportions correct: too much shading can give that horror movie edge to the child.  I find turning the photo upside down and squinting at it can help me see the overall areas of shading and avoid over doing bits.  Saying all this, it isn't really hard to achieve a likeness and I would imagine almost anyone could achieve something they could be proud of.

To shade the drawing in I begin with a hard pencil, maybe a HB, I then work in progressively softer pencils, becoming increasingly careful not to smudge the graphite.  By the time I'm using a 8B I usually have to put a sheet of paper between my hand and the drawing so as not to smudge it, by this time the harder pencil lines (and the grid) are almost invisible.  I use a putty rubber to remove the remaining grid lines and add the occasional highlight.  Finally I fix the painting with hairspray. 

Of the two drawings I've provided in today's post, the first is of my English student Mariana Galan's granddaughter, and the second is my driving instructor Oscar's baby.  I just passed my driving test in Spanish so as a thank you for putting up with me I drew his baby.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Pencil portraits

I enjoy drawing in pencil very much: there is so much less to worry about regarding colour and tone when using graphite than working in paint.  My friends also seem to appreciate my drawings more than my paintings: maybe they look more professional, maybe, like black and white photography, they just look classier.  Either way I get lots of people asking me to do black and white pictures of their children and grandchildren, as well as the occasional grandmother and grandfather. 

Here are two old men I drew freehand from photos in the newspaper. The first is actually of the owner of Harrods, Mohammed Al Fayed, but I wasn't interested in getting a likeness.  I had seen some interesting cross-hatching in a gallery in Edinburgh and I wanted to have a go at it.  If you look closely you can see I employed wavey cross-hatching to build up the shades, I think it turned out quite well.  The second was also an interesting photo I found in a newspaper.  I like to start a pencil drawing with a hard pencil and then move step by step to softer pencils as the drawing requires deeper and deeper tones. In this way I usually don't have to use an eraser as the hard pencil lines are almost invisible when you get to the 6B-9B.  However, I do like to use a putty rubber at the final stages to add highlights.  In these two drawings I wasn't concerned about achieving a likeness, but if I had been drawing someone's child I would probably have started by drawing a grid on the photo and paper to get the proportions exactly right, I don't want to offend any parents by making their babies ugly. I'll post some photos of children later this month.
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