Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Spontaneous Composition

From time to time friends ask me to paint a portrait for them, usually of their kids, my answer is always to send me a good photo and I'll do my best.  Maybe an artist greater than me could produce wonderful portraits from mediocre photos, but I struggle to turn out something interesting when the source is a boring photograph of person staring into the camera and grinning.  Luckily with the advent of digital cameras and cameras in mobile phones, people are snapping away constantly and I frequently get an inspiring photo to paint, and this often results in a painting even better than the source. See the Painting of a Friend´s Kid as an example of one I'm really pleased with.  When taking my own photos to paint from I always take hundreds, hoping at least one will give me that special feeling that it will make a good painting.  I suppose if I were a better photographer I could be more consistent with the quality of my portrait photos, maybe I should try to find a blog on the subject.  As it stands I rely on getting lucky with a nice photo, furthermore I have found that planning a photo shoot often results in stale, tense or contrived images.

The painting which heads this post, of Tatiana by the River Tormes, was from a spontaneous photo we took last summer with  the camera in my mobile phone.  We were walking by the river near a village called Villa Gonzalo and she started making a crown out of some flowers that were growing along the banks of the river.  Castilla y Leon is quite a dry place and there is not an abundance of flowers to choose from, lots of red poppies on wasteland in spring but this was around midsummer and the fields, sporadically populated by stumpy dark evergreen Encina trees, were already turning a sun bleached yellow. The only fresh vegetation and broad-leafed trees to be found were along the river. The shade of the tall trees provided a soothing escape from the intense Salamancan sunshine and the dappled light on Tatiana's face and shoulder inspired me to take out my phone which had a camera built in.  I couldn't hope to achieve the quality of images capable with my SLR camera, we had just been planning a picnic, not a photo shoot. However I'm glad I seized the opportunity because when I got home and had a look at the images on my computer I saw that this one perfectly captured Tatiana's delicate poise.

People often claim that painting from life is essential but there are many advantages to working from photos.  Here are some of the reasons why I use photos so much:
  • The light doesn't change.  You can paint all day and don't risk losing your initial inspiration by having to paint for an hour a day over a much longer period.
  • The sitter doesn't move or get tired.  They also don't insist on seeing the painting before it's finished, this always kills the magic for me, especially if they start looking disappointed at the half finished result.
  • The options for composition and background are greater.  You can paint an outdoors scene, or a beach scene without having to go to the beach every day.
  • You can zoom in for the detail.  I don't wear glasses and have pretty good eyesight but sometimes it is a strain painting from life if you are sitting too far from a subject to see some vital detail, the exact curve of an upper eyelid or the roundness of a nostril for example.  Maybe the detail isn't vital and the ability to see everything microscopically may provide a temptation to paint everything in such a way that you lose the objective view of the image and the painting doesn't have unity or looks overworked.
  • Spontaneous moments can be captured. 
Now we are living in a world where we are all used to seeing photos taken from every angle, in every possible location.  The traditional portrait of a figure sat looking out from a canvas looks stale and lifeless to us now, we have been spoilt by the profusion of images caught on digital cameras, smartphones or posted on social networks such as Facebook or Google+.  I think we should take advantage of these new developments, not keep claiming that there is some sort of magic when painting a person sat in front of us.  Artists in the past got very good at painting from life, if you go to any national gallery such as the British National Gallery in London or the Prado in Madrid you can see portraits of royals and important people of times gone by which would be hard to beat with regards to technique and realism.  As new paints were developed people started using paint in different ways, the impressionists for example had access to the innovation of oil paint in tubes and began to use paint in thick buttery impasto which held expressive brushstrokes.  They became more mobile and no longer tied to studios were able to paint outdoors to achieve their impressions of light and shade.  

Even this exciting exuberance soon began to lose its novelty and in the 20th century painting  went through a difficult time.  Artists didn't know where to go next so they got ugly.  There was some photorealism which I quite like but there is also a lot of abstract and aggressive art which often fails to strike a chord in me.  Jackson Pollock became fashionable when his drip paintings seemed new but he couldn't develop the idea any further and such art is easy to copy, he must have felt despair when he found no direction to go but back.  When I stand in front of abstract, expressionist or even naive paintings I often feel like the little boy in the story of The Emperor's New Clothes who could see that it was all a trick and I wonder whether the artist was fooling himself as well, putting a lot of imaginary emotion into each meaningless brushstroke.  But all this was just a failure to find anything new to do in painting, a feeling that everything had been done already.  

Although it might not seem like it, now we do have new vistas to explore in painting.  With digital photos and even more developments in modern paints there are things we can paint in ways impossible in the past, with techniques and a quality very difficult to obtain before now.  Maybe we should stop trying to be original and just concentrate on being good and then maybe we can take painting to a whole new level of beauty.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Two heads are better than one?

I just finished this double portrait for a friend of my brother, a commission of sorts.  I thought I would post a blog entry reflecting on some of the things to consider when accepting commissions for portrait paintings. 

I am quite a fast painter, some portraits I manage to turn out in a weekend or just an afternoon if there are no complications and it is just a head to paint.  My brother asked me if I would paint two children of a friend of his and I said no problem, imagining that it would be done in a week.  The photo he sent me looked quite nice, with light coming from behind the subjects, a challenge I thought!  This would be interesting.  In the background there were some beach umbrellas which looked a bit messy so I decided straight away to just paint the deck chair they were sitting on and a bright sandy yellow streaming from behind them.

I got started and painted in the main shapes, I could imagine how it was going to turn out and I was fired up with the prospect of exciting backlit faces.  Then I went on holiday for Easter along the Mediterranean Coast and my enthusiasm for this double portrait wanned, I began thinking about lots of other new paintings I could do.  By the time I got back to my easle it seemed less of an exciting project and more of a chore I just had to finish before i could paint anything else.  I began painting and did a little detail on their legs and had a rest, then some detail on their shirts and had a rest, then some detail on their hands and had another rest.  Then I left it for a week and painted nothing, over the next month or so I fiddled and procrastinated and I began to realise that although it may only take me an afternoon to paint a face with loosely suggested hair, it takes me considerably longer to paint two faces, hair, clothes, full length bodies, toes and fingers, and on top of this, complicated backlit faces!  

Part of the problem with a double portrait is that you cannot rely on each face looking real in relation to the colours of the clothes and background, it must also harmonise with the tones in the face of the second subject.  I have painted a few portraits where one child looks too pale in relation to their sibling, if they had been independent paintings then they would have been self-contained and balanced, but because their heads are right next to each other one looks like they have been out in the sun longer than the other. There is also the risk of getting lucky with one head and not with the other, when the muse descends and you catch the expression on one face perfectly with grace and ease, but then the muse goes off for a tea break and you are left struggling and over painting the second face and you begin wishing the first one didn't looks so good because the contrast really shows how badly you painted the second.  I find it's best to jump between the subjects, using the same palette but paying attention to the variation in tonal values.  In this painting it was quite difficult to capture the different shades on the kids' legs, the light was different on each one and I had to rely on just painting what I could see to try to get it looking real.

To conclude, when accepting portrait comissions you should take into account how much of the figures the client is expecting to be painted, it can be nice to include hands in a three-quarter-view portrait but even hands can really complicate things. Also, for the reasons I have mentioned, two subjects in one painting is a much more complex task than two paintings of individual subjects.  If you are not a very experienced portrait painter then maybe it's better to avoid painting group portraits and save yourself some frustration and time.  

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

BP Portrait Award

So this year I entered the 2012 BP Portrait Award, I have visited the exhibition of finalists in the National Portrait Gallery a few times and have always been impressed by the talent on show.  I had been meaning to have a go myself for the last few years and finally got around to it this year.  Although I had no illusions as to winning, I thought I might get in the top 50, I mean, how many portrait painters can there really be out there?  The logistics of entering were a bit complicated, I had to leave the painting with my parents in London while I was visiting them and my dad kindly took the painting along to one of the submission days. What with the entry fee and the price for the framing of the piece coming to just under a hundred pounds it wasn’t cheap on my measly teacher’s wage, I liked the portrait and although it was simple and had no background I was feeling lucky.  It is of a student of mine here in Salamanca, Juan Blanco Blanco, a guy I respect not only for being a spine surgeon and researcher into non-embryonic stem cells, but also for being a person of strong religious faith in these secular times.

It turned out that there are far more than 50 portrait painters interested in having their work on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, and no, I didn’t get picked.  The rejection letter goes as follows:

Dear BP Portrait Award 2012 Entrant

Thank you very much for entering this year's competition. The judges have now made their final decision and I am afraid that on this occasion your entry was not selected for exhibition. This year there were approximately 2,200 entries and only 55 were selected for exhibition, including the four shortlisted for prizes, so the competition was very strong. We wish you the very best with your continued practice and hope that you will consider applying to the competition again in the future.

So my dad had to go back into central London to pick the painting up, and I was left contemplating why mine wasn’t good enough, and whether I should give up on entering competitions completely and save my money.  Upon reflection and after having looked at the BP Portrait Award website I have come to the conclusion that I should have tried harder, maybe painted some more of the body, and included a luscious background to boot.  I won’t give up yet, but 2,200 entries is a lot to beat and I shouldn’t be so complacent next time.  At least I can reuse the frame… 

Thursday, 19 April 2012

A Tribute to Lucian Freud

I painted this self-portrait last year upon hearing the news about the death of Lucian Freud.  I was a big fan of his, especially as he was a figurative painter who was working successfully through a period where abstract art was dominating the world.  I painted this without doing a comprehensive review of his work, mostly because I didn't want to end up copying his style too much. I remembered the self-portrait of himself wearing boots and standing naked with some brushes and a palette and the general feeling my memories gave me were of paintings in electric light, maybe a bit gloomy or disturbing in some way.

I decided to paint myself in a similar pose, not naked as I'm not quite ready for that, and lit with a combination of an electric light above my head and daylight coming from my kitchen behind me, and to my left the living room.  I am in fact painting this in the bathroom mirror, not big enough to get my whole body in.  I remembered Freud's paintings as seeming quite yellow and in retrospect I can see that on the contrary a lot of his portraits contain very fleshy skin tones, I however followed the impression his paintings had left on me and painted my skin tones with yellows, greens and the occasional pink and violets.  As with most painting I left it unfinished, it took over a week (nothing compared to Freud's six months or more) and I was already getting bored of it.  In the bottom left of the painting you can see how I have left a pack of mineral water bottles unfinished and my trousers are just suggested with a flat wash of black.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Wide Angles

At the beginning of last year I decided that what I really needed to improve my paintings of cities was a wide angle camera lens.  I had seen some paintings in which scenes of an urban nature were bent and distorted as if painted from photos taken through a fish-eye lense or as seen in a convex mirror.  This seemed to really suit the nature of the subject: tall buildings loomed and long roads bent around the picture fitting in lots of interesting details.  I got myself the cheapest wide angle lens I could find and went off around Salamanca taking photos of plazas and churches, monastaries and parks.  As with so many things in life it wasn't quite as easy as it seemed as the distortion I was so much craving was just too much, if I tilted the camera too high the trees and buildings fell away in a very unreal manner.  I got home and uploaded the photos onto my computer to find that many of them weren't suitable for painting, as I have often found when painting spectacular sunsets, if a photo doesn't look real then a painting of it certainly won't.  As the year passed I found that I used the wide angle lens less and less, usually opting for the one I got with the camera.  In fact the function for taking 360 degree photos on my smart phone seems to achieve results more like what I was imagining in the beginning than this expensive camera lens

Anyway, of the photos I took I did do a couple of paintings, here is one of a church, the Iglesia de San Martin behind la Plaza Major.  I had the presence of mind to take photos of the painting process and here it is, step by step.  If you want to see the photos in more detail then click on the image and it will bring them up full size.  

After I finished this painting I kept it for a while and then eventually painted over it with something else, to be honest I'm not sure which painting I convered it with, maybe one day my work will become collectable and an art museum will x-ray each painting to find half a dozen other paintings under each one.  It's not that I disliked the painting but it was rather big and I could see an even better painting waiting to take its place on the canvas.  I paint as a hobby so I see each painting more as an opportunity to learn than something that will make me money, and my walls are already too full with my favourite paintings to fit any more.  My collection is a brutal example of natural selection, if I like something I have painted then it goes on the wall, but it has to be better than what is already there to replace something.  If there is no space for it then it sits on one of my easles until it is dry and then gets put in a pile of paintings in a corner or, if it's really bad and may be embarrassing if seen by a visitor it gets put in a cupboard.  If I don't have any blank canvases to paint on when I get the idea for a new painting then I just grab my least favourite in the pile and paint over that.  And so happened with this painting, now it only exists in digital form.  And so natural selection picks off the weak paintings and leaves my collection stronger.

I began with a yellowish undercoat, as usual I was using some old paint left over from another painting so the yellow went on in an uneven manner as I mixed it with more white and then more yellow.  As the strange wide angle was important I took time to get the lines of the building and the pavings an the floor at correct angles.


I approach the addition of detail differently in each painting, in this case I added all the shadows and dark lines first over the underpainting to preserve the pencil drawing underneath the undercoat.

Here I am adjusting the colour of the sky so that it doesn't look so muddy and I can get the rest of the colours correct in relation to it.
Next the lightest points on the painting went in.  I think I made the church too white and this was a reason for me eventually painting over this.  In fact most of the stone in the historical centre of Salamanca is a beautiful yellow somewhere between naples yellow and yellow ocre.
I keep adding blocks of colour, here the bottom of the church is being painted in.
As the painting begins to take shape I have to adjust some of the yellow underpainting as it was beginning to look harsh in relation to the rest of the tones.
I keep working to get everything balanced.
Here I've painted the pavings a more accurate tone. Click on the image to get a better idea of what is changing.
In this photo I am getting rid of more of the underpainting, filling in between the gaps.
Here is a close up of me adding some detail, I like to use a brush bigger than I think I can handle and then the final result looks less over-worked.

The finished painting, as seen on the easle.
As usual I try to take a photo where there is no light reflected on the painting, then I crop the photo on a photo editor and sometimes adjust the levels if the light I have taken the photo in is too yellow.  I always try to get it looking the same as in real life, sometimes it can be nice to up the contrast a bit, but it's easy to go to far and lose some of the subtlety of the actual artwork.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Backgrounds and Clothing

When painting a portrait I am always confronted with the question of how much background to put it, whether to keep the focus on the face and just suggest the subject's clothing and hair or to pull out all the stops and put detail in across the painting.  The background question is often dictated by the quality of the background in any source photo I might be using, sometimes it seems unsuitable for a portrait, or looks like it may distract from the main focus of the painting, and I end up just filling the background with one colour.  This choice of colour varies from painting to painting, I might try meditating on a colour wheel for a while to pick a contrasting colour, or alternatively choose something that is already in the painting in order to highlight it.  Sometimes I just pick a pleasant light tone such as a light green or blue, if it doesn't work then you can always paint over it, occasionally I end up trying various colours before settling on one.

In the case of the painting at the top of this post, All Hair and Elbows, the background in the photo was quite dark and a bit gloomy, a yellow-brown.  The grey I've used looks somewhat similar but a bit lighter and with the colour neutralized it makes the figure stand out more.  I also chose to show some brush strokes, I usually prefer to do this rather than paint everything in a flat plane of colour (as I did in the painting of my brother which can be found in the Family Portraits post) but this is a personal preference.

Flat planes can be very pleasing especially when painting with acrylics (as they tend to flatten upon drying anyway). If you do the whole painting like this then it has a cut-out paper effect or something which looks like it has been done on Photoshop using a filter.  I do quite like this style but if everyone is just using Photoshop and printing onto canvas with a giclée printer then I'd prefer to do something which doesn't look like it can be achieved so easily.  One of the beauties of paint is the texture and the possibilities of expression it has in every brushstroke.  Although I am not a particularly expressive artist, mainly because I can't really evaluate or appreciate my own paintings when they are too abstract, the human imprint on a painting is something which my soul delights in. I would like all my brushstrokes to be unlaboured and harmonious like movements in a dance and yet in conjunction to provide a window to a moment that is authentic and real.  I am always improving and working towards this ideal but usually fall short on both of these points to varying degrees, I suppose that is what keeps me painting: the desire to do it better next time.

Some painters choose to do a graduation of colour from dark to light in the background, maybe I'll try this one of these days but until now I seem to have unintentionally avoided this, either prefering to put in one tone or suggest the background as I did in Worried Maybe in the Creating a Scene post.  I seldom paint everything in great detail behind the subject although I think this might be a good idea as I've seen a lot of portraits by professional artists where they do this, although in these cases the background is usually relevant or reveals something about the subject's character or profession.

The same question applies when approaching the detail in the clothing of the subject, whether to go to great lengths to describe every fold and crease of their attire or just suggest it with a few loose brushstrokes.  In my experience I've found that although it can be nice to focus attention on the face and maybe hands with more detail than the clothing, a big difference can make it look unbalanced or like I got bored or ran out of energy (as is often the case).  Some artists of the past and present graduate the detail so that it becomes more hazy as it moves towards the edges of the painting, I've tried this but usually end up finishing it off otherwise it looks too much like a sketch.

In the painting which heads the post I meticulously painted all the little rings in the dress, each one has a slightly different tone and shape and the result is a 3D effect on the arms and chest.  I could have worked on it a bit more but I found myself going a little crazy staring at each circle and pondering how different it looked from its neighbours.  It took about three passes over the painting to reach this point, the first to get the shape and colour and and then two more to get everything the correct tone relative to everything else so that it didn't look flat.  It's always possible to keep working on a painting, getting it closer and closer to what is in the source photo, but you always have to stop somewhere, sometimes you feel that it looks finished or that any more work you put in will get you no better a result or sometimes you just feel bored and burnt out.

The best feeling is when you are pleasantly surprised at what you've achieved: the painting is better than you pictured in your head when you started out, you've taken the image in the photo to a whole new level by rendering it in paint, and you are afraid to touch it because you have no idea how you got it to this point, as if something magical had just happened when you were lost in concentration and the folds of a dress.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Painting Rainy Streets

Here in Salamanca it almost never rains, I suppose I should be grateful.  After painting a few cityscapes of the buildings of in the typical yellow sandstone called Villamayor illuminated by a bright blue sky I began to realise that yellow on blue can get boring sometimes.  Instead of waiting for a day with nice weather to go out and take source photos I began to get my camera out on gloomy days.  One great advantage of rainy days is that the light from the sky is reflected up off the ground, even if it is gloomy grey or white light, the result is that light is coming from everywhere and the ground becomes a mirror for the rest of the painting.  I had been looking at some paintings by Ken Howard and was extremely impressed by his depiction of wet city streets, it caught my eye how much green he used in the reflections.  When I looked at some photos I had taken of Salamanca in the rain I noticed that there was also a lot of green in the reflections, even though there weren't any trees or anything green in the images.  I decided to have a go and did this oil painting of Calle Toro, I never finished it and it's a few years old now, despite this it is still by far my most popular painting on Flickr.com, with over 1500 views!  I had intended to to more on it but got distracted by another painting and when I went back to this painting couldn't muster the energy to get into it again.

I followed the same theme of rainy streets by taking some photos of the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square when visiting my parents one Christmas in London.  In this one it is almost dark and so it is the floodlights on the facade that are reflected by the wet pavement.

Another key to both of these paintings is the people milling about in the streets, cityscapes without people tend to look spooky, no matter how nice the buildings are.  In the painting of the National Gallery they are little more than silhouettes, in the Calle Toro painting they are a bit more elaborate but still just blobs of colour, well worth putting in though.  I never wait for people to get out of the way when I am taking a photo to paint in a city, always mindful of the added value these strangers may give to my paintings.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

White isn't Always White - Painting Colours

There is much more to painting colour than painting the colour of the object in front of you.  In order to illustrate some of the factors to be considered I am going to write about painting white and how it can be altered in different ways in different contexts.

Firstly the colour of the subject will be under the influence of the light cast on it, not only from the principal lightsource but also the light reflected off other coloured surfaces around it.  In this painting above there were two sources of light, the electric light of the bathroom and also the cold daylight coming from the kitchen behind.

Next the colour of the light seen on the object will depend on the type of surface the object has.  In the painting the surface of the tiles to the right were very reflective so darks and lights were accentuated, the electric light was slightly yellow and somewhat blocked by the door, the door was also had a gloss finish but as it has been a few year since it has been painted this is not the brilliant white it used to be, this added to the tiles having a yellow tone.

Another thing which affects the colour of something being painted is the context which it is put in.  The white of the shirt in this painting looks so white because it is next to whites that look blue or yellow.  In the same way something dark will look darker if positioned next to something bright.  It is a good idea to approach a painting by first establishing on the canvas the darkest and lightest points on the painting, followed by the principal tones.  If you don't then a colour you put down earlier may look different when you start adding other colours and you might have to go back to repaint what you've already done.

A good general rule is to try to paint what you see rather than what you think is there, but you also have to take into account how the colours will be interpreted differently by your eye according to the colours around them.  Don't be dissapointed if you think you've got just the right colour for an object and then have to make adjustments later as the painting develops, for this reason it's usually better not to paint any particular part of a painting in too much detail before you have the other elements at least roughly suggested on the canvas.  The painting should evolve as a whole, your paintbrush jumping back and forth between areas as they develop in contrast to each other.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Self Portraits

Self portraits are a real treat to paint. Often when painting a portrait for someone else I can get worried about whether they will think it looks like themselves, or whether it is flattering enough.  This preoccupation can restrict my expression and sometimes make the painting look over done or too much like a photograph, or just a bit stale.  When painting myself I am not so worried about getting the features right and I feel more free to experiment with the style.  The oil painting which heads this article is the most recent in the post, there are others in the blog which are more recent, such as the one of myself drinking water, but even this is about a year old.  I painted this worried looking one from a photo of myself sat in the shade in front of a yellow wall, this has resulted in all the tones in my skin not being overpowered by direct sunlight, and the reflections all being true to how they would be for a person in front of a yellow background.  Sometimes I do a portrait and then pick a background colour of my choice, this always runs the risk of making the face jump out of the painting, not quite harmonizing with its surroundings, sometimes this can be a good effect, other times it just looks wrong.  I also painted this portrait of myself over another painting which had quite thick paint so there was no chance of trying to get any detail in as the surface was so rough, although you don't really notice this as the painting is quite large (61x80cm).  I am looking worried because I thought it might be more interesting than one of me grinning at the viewer.

One of the oldest self portrait I currently have in my possession is this one on the right of me on my balcony, it is painted in acrylics and to be honest I've improved quite a bit simce then, although I still like this painting.  The light is streaming over my shoulder and loses the shape of my head.  I had my hair quite short but not bald as it might appear in the photo.  Again a pensive look, trying to look thoughtful I suppose.  I remember I painted my finger far too long at first and didn't notice until a friend pointed it our to me.

Acrylics have their own charm and I used to use them a lot, they are great because they dry so quickly and you can put layer on top of layer without waiting for one to dry.  If you want to build up tones with semi-transparent glazes of colour then this can add a nice richness to the painting, especially if using a medium instead of just water.  The painting in the last post of the coffee pot with cherries is done in this way and looks quite good I think.

When painting in acrylics I often found myself trying to get it to look like an oil painting, with thick paint and visible brush strokes.  You can buy mediums which slow the drying of the acrylic paint so that you can paint wet-in-wet on the canvas, and also some acrylic lines claim to be able to produce impasto effects and hold the impression of the brush stroke.  Certainly the ones I tried about six years ago didn't seem to be able to achieve this, and as with normal acrylic paint the surface would flatten as it dried, maybe the products are better now.  I tried in oils and saw astounded at how perfect thick paint retains impressions, especially if it is a little dry.  I haven't really gone back to acrylics, except for underpainting, although I would certainly deny this is a permanent switch.  Here, on the left you can see another self portrait, this time in oils, using thick impasto. I painted it quickly and the photo was actually taken almost in the dark, at the opening of an exhibition in an art gallery, in front of a projector, hence the strong shadows.

Finally, the last painting was another experiment.  I had taken a lot of photos of myself shaving in a mirror and did a series of painting from them.  The intention had been to capture the steam on the mirror but as it was summer and there was no condensation on the glass, and the other paintings in this series look a bit ameteurish.  This one was an accident of composition as I wasn't quite sure where I was pointing the camera.  I liked the look of it in the photo so painted it along with the others and among the lot it remains my favourite and the only one I haven't painted over (yet).  The background was invented and my hair and eyebrow are darker than they are in real life (as a friend pointed out).  But that's the joy of self portraits, the extra licence to experiment because it's your own face you are painting.  Certainly it's a great way to practice and improve, some people are shocked at the number of paintings of myself I have when they visit me at my flat, and I get accused of being egotistical.  Well, perhaps I am, but that is an other issue.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Painting from Life or Photos

In this photo I am going to write about some of my experiences painting still life paintings from life and from photos.  I read a lot about how painting from life, with the subject physically in front of you, is the best way to learn and sometimes feel ashamed that I paint so much from photos.  I work a lot from digital photos on my computer and often get up on a Saturday morning and indulge in a whole weekend's painting, until late Sunday evening.  Sometimes I work for up to two weeks on a photo as I did with this acrylic painting of a coffee pot pictured above, which I painted years ago now, or the more recent one of me drinking from a glass of water a few posts back. I must admit that two weeks staring at the same photo and I start to go a little stir crazy, a weekend is nice and with a photo it's great that the light doesn't change and you can rotate the canvas upside--down to get a fresh look at it.

Sometimes while painting from photos it can be tempting to get bogged down in detail and spend a lot of time labouring over the shape of a blob of colour on the screen.  When I do it I seem to be under the impression that i need only concentrate hard on the photo it will work out well.  I am often disallusioned when I spend ages on a painting, copying everything in as much detail as I can, and the resulting picture lacks life or even realism.  There is a hauting and unattractive clarity to how they were produced, as if by numbers. Sometimes they work, and seem to click, at least to me, into the real world, better than the photo was, and bigger.

If you paint looser you can chose along a gradient of how expressive or abstract you want the result, from photorealism you slip into impressionism, into expressionism and then abstractions. In each type however you have the chance of looking obvious or cliquéd, but depending on your tastes, you may to chose to prefer that style.

Bad impressionism is better than bad photorealism to many people.  At least it doesn't have a fake, wrong look, like a badly copied photograph. An impression in expressive paint is often easier and less time consuming to a very realistic look, and the result can have somehow captured as much realism, made that magic step up into looking like the real thing, and not being blocked by flawed attempts to capture reality.

By the time you've got to abstractions and lost any connection to any visual reality, then you need to connect on some other level, emotional, intelectual, or worse, shocking level.  At his point painting somewhat loses its interest to me, maybe I can connect on an emotional level, but it won't enspire emotion not like a well painted impression of a real thing.  I don't know why I probably wouldn't sit looking at a lemon, but in a painting I might. It may inspire me, perhaps because I want to reproduce it, maybe I'm just thinking how I can adopt some of its techniques, wondering how this person is so much better than me.  But why does it give me such pleasure to leave it on the wall?  Good paintings seem to radiate energy, a hope in the human abilities to conquer reality, not only visully but emotionally. To look like the real thing on more than just one level, to capture the moment, the feeling being there.

So the question is whether painting from a photograph impedes the ability to capture the moment. Maybe being in front of an object helps you get this connection which a photo never could.  Maybe it can. You probably need to be a better paintier than me, for me, the advantages of time outweigh any other factor in getting a photo looking magical.  The colours of a photograph are not as good as the real thing, also seeing with two eyes has an effect because you decide which perspective you want to get on the picture. Maybe a blend of the two eyes can help create this elusive realism.  Last month I painted a still life of a bowl with some lemons and mandarins, after a week one of the lemons was turning green. Admittedly I had only done half and hour a few nights that week, maybe if I had shuttered the window and spent a whole weekend painting with an electric light I would have got something more better than I could obtain from multiple sittings, as it always takes a while to get into the flow of observing and painting each time you sit dowm.   Maybe with a litttle practice I'll get betterand be able to capture everything in less time, with fewer but more accurate brush strokes, and less mistakes with colour mixing mistakes.  I'll keep practising.

However if you paint from a photo you needn't be so loyal to the image.  You can always try to paint in a more relaxed fashion if the style of the painting demands it.  I quite enjoy trying to make a painting look photorealistic, but I equally get satisfaction from letting loose, as in this oil painting on the right which I did of some daisies from a photo last year. My intention had been to do a light, airy painting as as the subject was a bunch of flowers I felt I could hardly go wrong, as long as I got the impression of the light and the basic shapes and colours right. I painted it over an evening and the next day, the light didn't change in the image, I kept it loose and was not restricted by painting it from a photo.

I am sure that if you practice with either source, you will get better at interpreting that kind of source, either photos or real life. You will get better at using the advantages and reducing the restrictions of either way of painting. I am quite good at working from photos so I am going to practise more from life, any sort of practice gives you more insight into how to capture that real freeling.

I will leave you with another painting I did from life, this time in one sitting, it took me about an afternoon.  I did it a few years ago and in acrylic so the paint dried quickly so there was no problems with the dark outline of the bannana polluting the green or yellow.  It is actually very large so I didn't have to do any fiddling abround with small brushes and it ran quite pleasingly.  I painted it over another painting so I wasn't just painting over white.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Revisiting Unfinished Paintings

I am often reluctant to go back to unfinished, or almost finished paintings.  When my artwork is nearing completion and I am pleased with it I begin to worry that something I will do is going to ruin what I've managed to capture.  Not all my paintings turn out well and the difference between getting a painting looking ok and looking great is often a stroke of luck, some days it's as if the muse is with me and sothing magical happens, other days I seem to be just following steps and the painting ends up looking artificial, over-worked or contrived. Hence I begin to get a bit edgy when adding the finishing touches and sometimes rather leave a painting slightly unfinished than go over the top.

If after a few months I'm still not quite pleased with a painting I usually paint over it, it gives me great satisfaction to eradicate my failings and have another go at a completely different subject.  Sometimes the previous painting acts as an underpainting and adds some impossible-to-plan interest to the new work.  Quite a few of the paintings I have already posted on this blog have faced this end, even the one of the close up of my eye in the blog entitled A Painting of a Friend's Kid, which I turned into a much better painting of Tatiana at the Bathroom Door, which I have yet to include in a post.

Some paintings however I regain inspiration for and have a go at finishing off or improving in some way.  The still-life which heads this blog is one example, it was a whole year before I went back to it to add the detail in the glass and background, although I did quite like it as it was when it was only half finished.  It is acrylic on canvas, back when I used to do most of my paintings in acrylics.  Another example is the portrait to the right, of my friend and student  Carlos.  In this case I just couldn't get my first attempt at painting him right, it looked awful and I had intended to give it to him as a gift.  I just had to give up and go back to it a few months later.  Now I am quite pleased with the re-touched result and it is now hanging on his wall.

I have read that other artists leave their paintings a while to assess with more objectivity the result of their labours.  I would never touch a painting that I am already pleased with though, I am not confident enough yet that I wouldn't mess it up.  If I'm just going to paint over it though then what is there to lose, just a little more time and a bit more paint.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Not So Still Life: Running Water

One of my favourite things to paint are the reflections and refractions in water.  Similar to reflections on shiny metal surfaces such as stainless steel or chrome, apparently abtract forms are suddenly brought to life when carefully copied from a still life composition into paint.  While it may be difficult to capture the peel of a lemon or the delicate beauty or a flower petal, the human eye easily recognises water as water, no matter how inaccurate the shapes within it look, a lemon may turn out lumpy, but strange bends and distortions in water are just taken for granted.

A few years ago I had been itching to paint running water but my camera just wasn't good enough to capture the fast movement as a still shot, it kept compensating for lack of light by holding the shutter open longer than I wanted and the flow of water would result in a blurred column. I enlisted the help of a friend who owned an SLR camers and managed to get a few good images to work from over the following months, one of them being the self-portrait above of me spilling a glass of water down my chin, and the other of hands catching water to the right.

As you may be able to see, the hardest part of both of the paintings was the human skin surrounding the flowing water.  I seem to have been able to capture the hand a bit better in the self-portrait, I could probably have tried a bit harder in the other painting but I was getting bored after meticulously copying the cascade of bouncing water, which contained so many little abstract shapes which I wanted to get right to give the overall impression a realistic look, that I had had enough by the time I got to the hands.  The tap and the plug (yes, it's a black plug wound around the tap) were the easiest to capture, as long as the outline of the handles and spout were correct I couldn't really go wrong with the reflections themselves.

The self portrait is actually a much bigger painting than the one of the tap and I was using a small brush for the reflections and the hands.  For some reason I kept using this small brush as I began working on the face, although I would normally use a larger brush to cover bigger surfaces.  This has resulted in the face having a patchy, cross-hatched look which I ended up leaving as I quite liked it, and more importantly I didn't want to ruin.  Sometimes at the end of a painting I get worried about messing it up and will leave a painting slightly unfinished for fear of losing the effect I have managed to achieve.

I eventually got my own SLR camera and took some photos of a glass overflowing with water in my kitchen, for some reason I don't like this painting as much, maybe it's the composition or lack of colours, certainly the skin on the hands looks a little wrong, but here it is anyway:

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