‘Depth’: noun – degree of deepness, deep place, abyss, intensity of colour or feeling, profundity.
In addition to painting, towards the end of summer, I returned to drawing practice, as many artist friends have done in order to continue to develop observational skills, broaden mark making and expressive range and to practice theory in tone and composition. I also particularly love drawing with pencil and find it is a great way to spend an hour or so quietly in an evening when you don’t want to set up all your painting gear.
I most frequently use a 2H to draft out the initial composition, and then use HB, 2B and 3B to develop tonal shading and shaping. Finally I will use finer mechanical pencils to develop detail.
I draw from a range of photographs taken over the years and basically just go for what I fancy at the time! There is no real plan! Here are a few recent ones, some better than others, but my main purpose is to have some fun whilst steadily developing my skills.
We’ve recently just come back from a week’s holiday cruising the Norwegian Fjords – I know! How lucky are we! It is one of our bucket list! I just loved the time we had in the Fjords themselves. I did a little sketching whist away, mostly from life, although on the odd occasion it was really cold even though we were very lucky with the weather! Again it was fabulous to really spend some time ‘looking’ and considering the obvious depth in front of me. Although I do love pencil drawing, the sketches just couldn’t do justice to the amazing colours and atmosphere. However I truly believe that spending that time really concentrating on the scene in front helped to sear more of the detail in my memories!
Just to close, a rather useless but interesting fact we were told by the captain of the ship we were on: the north sea is not as deep as you might think! If the ship we were on were to sink and settle on the north sea bed ( what was the captain thinking of by suggesting that, especially when it was a bit choppy!!) we would still be above water if we were in the top bar lounge! The ship we were on was no way near one of the biggest ships.
‘Experiment‘: noun – a course of action tentatively adopted without being sure of the outcome.
I took this photo on a walk with my husband on Meltham Moor, near Huddersfield, on a path beyond West Nab towards Raven Rocks. It was a cloudy day with rain threatening any time, but I needed to get out for some fresh air and to clear my head and, as always, the moors are the place to do that for me!
Even on a dullish day, the colours on the moors were beautiful and frequently I stopped to take it all in, take yet another photo (!) or inspect some grasses or flowers. Indeed, some flowers were teeming with insects enjoying a last minute snack before the rains came.
Inspecting the photos back home this one of my husband silhouetted against the sky felt particularly poignant and, for me, says something about how insignificant we can feel on the vast moorland landscape but also how, somehow the moors still kind of embrace us. My husband was probably doing something typically little boy like such as jumping on the rock to see if he could make it move!!
For a few days afterwards I decided to just play with the image in different ways, without really having a particular goal in mind. I drew with pencil and ink pen, splashed about inks and acrylics, did a bit of stamping and collage, tried thick and thin lines, contour lines and washes, effects of simplifying, cropping and exaggerating……..basically having a play to see what I did and didn’t like.
I always love seeing how artists work from the start to finish of a piece, as it is fascinating seeing the progression of planning, thought and reflection as well as observing the technical considerations of producing a final piece, whether that be a painting, sculpture, ceramics etc. I wanted to share my own processes, partly in case anyone is interested but also, quite selfishly, because it makes me slow down a bit during the process and reflect and put into words what I am thinking and feeling when I make a change or decide not to. So, in a way, it is part of my own development and learning, and embedding what I am thinking.
I like to paint a view that embraces me at a gut level and this one did just that one early evening when we had a short walk up on Marsden Moor at March Hill.
I loved the sweep of the ridge of the valley, like an old sea cove, and the sweep of the land from the ridge down into the valley. In contrast March Hill in the distance is an interesting series of soft mounds ( I have tried, unsuccessfully so far, to find out some history of the area as I wonder if those mounds are the result of some old mining / digging works). And then at one point, very briefly, the evening sun cast a stream of light literally pouring down the hillside towards March Haigh Reservoir.
Because I didn’t have my sketch book at the time of taking the photograph, I started by doing a couple of quick sketches, exploring the shapes in the photo and trying to recall what it was like being there. During this time I was reflecting on what I wanted the composition to focus on, where my key points might be, and what I wanted to emphasise in each part of the painting. I decided to do a watercolour version as well as the oil, so next I did a more detailed drawing on stretched watercolour paper, firstly in pencil and then in ink pen (will post that painting when finished). This allowed me to reflect further on where I wanted detail and what to focus on in that detail. The more I do this sort of thing the more I realise that working from photos is not the same as drawing on site but quite frankly I don’t feel comfortable nor safe as a woman sitting on my own for a couple of hours out on the moors so I have to make do!
I chose to do the oil painting on a panoramic landscape canvas as that seemed to best represent that sweep of the bowl of March Haigh. I primed the canvas with two coats of gesso mixed with initially a red to produce a bubblegum pink! Don’t ask me why! I think I was trying to see what colours would work best. I notice that a lot of people use thinned burnt sienna but others might use a very hot red for example. I will explore a bit more what ground colour works for me later but decided that the bubblegum pink was really a bit too ‘out there’ so I toned it down with some white. I know! Chicken!! Maybe I should have just been brave and stuck with / to the bubblegum!
Anyway, I put my canvases onto a painting board using blutak (Oh no! The bubblegum theme is starting to haunt me!) for two main reasons: a) it means I can easily paint around the corners / edges of the canvas (which I want to do because of the type of framing I want to use) and b) it allows me to easily handle the painting in the early stages when still wet and sticky and I want to move it off the easel whilst I work on something else, as I usually have two or three things on the go whilst I wait for things to dry.
I sketched out the general composition with a thin bristle brush, using a lightish grey colour mixed with burnt sienna, ultramarine blue and white and thinned with a little water (remember I use water miscible oils) and I find that thinning with water for this part works really well.
This is the palette I usually work with: titanium white, burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, primary yellow light and primary magenta. In addition I will often call on permanent red violet, raw sienna. Sometimes I have used permanent green deep and light to start off mixing a green but I am moving away from that approach more and more to just using these to top up a colour mix. I prefer now to start mixing greens myself. And sometimes I use permanent yellow deep if I want a warmer yellow.
Using a fair amount of titanium white with little spots of ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, primary magenta and permanent yellow light I mixed up a range of colours using a palette knife and paint straight from the tube to use in the sky. I love this part of the process and take my time thinking about what colours and atmosphere I remember and want to represent. I then block in the sky area quite quickly, working intuitively and responding more to how it develops on the canvas rather than from the photos ( I usually have a range of photos available on a tablet which is set up on a mount on the easel). For this I start off with a relatively large bristle brush with which I can scrub the paint into the canvas. I could tell you what size I use but basically I just grab what looks and feels right at the time. The brush gets smaller as I start to introduce more shapes for the clouds and need a little more subtlety. Once the main areas are blocked in I then use a smallish soft brush to go round the sky gently blending in and softening where necessary. I find this works well when the paint has been on the canvas for about 15 – 20 mins, but I take care not to overdo it.
Some of the brushes I used in this first stage of the painting.
Next I started to block in the land shapes and forms. I like to cover most of the canvas in this first blocking in stage to check the composition and ‘feel’ of the overall painting.
I think in this first stage I used too much of the permanent green deep on the left which has a very cold, blue bias but decided to leave it as a base colour because my aim was to have a contrast between that area and the part of the valley with the warm sunbeam sweeping in.
For the rocks I blocked in mainly the darks (using ultramarine and burnt sienna) to plan in the shapes and forms. Using a mixture of browns, and olive greens I blocked in the key areas on the right hand side to suggest the different vegetation and shapes of the land, as the ridge continued to sweep across to the left.
By this stage I was tired and knew it was time to wash out my brushes and have a rest. But something was tugging at me that the painting wasn’t right, even in this early stage of blocking in. I kept popping back into my studio to stare at it every hour or so in between meals, family time and TV breaks (talk about a dog with a bone!) It struck me that it was the composition that wasn’t quite right – the sweep of the stones was too central and this distracted from the sweep of the whole valley ridge which was an important and key element to the story. So at 10.30pm, in my PJs (too much information) I took a rag to canvas and scraped off much of the middle section before it dried too much. That was very satisfying and instantly I could see it more clearly! I could sleep easy now! I then left the painting for several days to dry so I could re-do the middle section. And that is the beauty with oils – you can play about with the paint, moving the paint about, scraping back areas, and so let the picture ‘build’, ‘shape’ and ‘morph’ during the process.
When I took up this painting again I addressed this middle section moving the sweep of rocks more to the right, modify linking parts of the scene to work with the change, such as the far and middle distant hills, and start to address some of the issues I had with the colour in the near hill and parts of the valley.
By this stage the brushes get smaller, and more attention is made of the type, shape and direction of the marks. I took care to build back the shapes of the rocks but using a more brown colour this time as I felt the previous dark was too intense at this stage. I used marks to suggest the direction of shape of the valley and where the ridge tipped over into the bowl and the changes in direction of the land with adjacent hills / mounds.
For the rocks I continued to work in layers using colour to build up shape and form and, by working somewhat wet in wet, could blend and move the paint about to get the shapes right.
Leaving the painting to dry a few days allowed me to then build up layers in the near distant hills and bowl of the valley to suggest further form, being mindful of the direction of light. I was then able to start suggesting the sunlight streaming down the valley. On the right hand side I used scumbling to build up the forms of the plant life with the suggested land shapes underneath. I also used a palette knife to scrape in suggestions of grasses, which I felt was quite effective. At this point, I am taking things more slowly and doing a lot of standing back looking at the painting as a whole. I am referring less and less to the photos and responding more to the painting itself becoming live. I am looking at how it works as a whole but also how each section works by itself in telling the story of what appealed to me most about the scene. I am also looking more critically at tone, lights against dark, where the focal points are and how well the eye travels around the painting. I don’t consider myself an expert on these things but feel that the more I think about them in my work the better I progress.
I decided I wanted to warm up the right hand side a bit more to represent the warmth of the evening on the day, but also to provide some contrast to the cooler near distant hill and valley as the sun went down and to help provide more texture and variation in the vegetation so I scumbled mixes of reds, russets, oranges and purples into various areas in a semi-random way (i.e. small blocks, with different blends). I then suggested a few leaves and grasses in the foreground with a very light yellowy green – enough to give a suggestion without becoming too much of a focus as I wanted the eye to travel along the stone and across the ridge.
If you look closely at the original photos you will see that I have made quite a few changes to the scene in real life, again more to emphasise the story I want to tell about the view. For the far distant hills, which really were just beyond the ridge, I made them recede further with the cool blue tones and minimal detail. I have not suggested the road that ran along the ridge at all. And I think there are a building or two that I have also left out.
There are a number of painting techniques that I particularly like with oils and one of them is scumbling. Scumbling is traditionally described as applying a thin coat of broken colour to change the effect of the base colour without totally covering it. It is often advised to use opaque colours and lighter colours over dark, but, as usual, I seem to like breaking the rules (I must have a naughty gene!) so I thought I would share what I have learnt about scumbling so far.
So, I agree that scumbling is the application of thin paint over dry paint (safe ground so far), although (uh oh!!) I have found with oil painting that I can get away with nearly or touch dry paint, especially if I want a softened effect (the stickiness of the surface on ‘nearly dry’ helps to produce either a more marked effect or softening the effect in some cases). I use scumbling to create texture, break up areas of solid colour to imply form and structure or to suggest variations in surface and to break up areas of colour to provide interest and the suggestion of depth. I might develop several layers to achieve an effect I am most happy with, often leaving a few days in between so that the base layers become tacky or dry, and I have a chance to reflect on how it is working within the painting as a whole.
I use a range of my scrattiest, oldest, cheapest brushes, that have been battered and knocked about – the more battered the better! To apply paint thinly, I don’t use any mediums – just the oil paint straight from the tube, using a dry brush. To get the paint thinly on the brush I knock it about a bit on my palette to make sure there is just a tiny amount in the bristles. You can see where I knock or tap the brush on the palette further and further away from the original pile of paint so that it gets thinner and thinner.
One tip I would give is each time you take brush to painting start off working in an area where you know you want the scumbling to be thicker – the more you tap the brush onto the surface the more paint is deposited and wet paint already there is smudged together. Continuing like this can lead to nearly fully covering the base layer. Conversely a few taps dispersed over a wider area leaves more obvious tiny splodges of paint ( depending on the size of brush used). So, to help build up form and shape I would start where I want to scumble colour to show most, fading outwards in intensity towards the edges. The following two close ups show this I think.
Note – looking at the work really close up, ie whilst you are mid-scumble, can be misleading as it often looks just messy (as well as making you a wee bit cross-eyed after a while)! You need to keep standing back to look at the whole painting and how each area is working together.
I have found that I can produce successful effects layering dark over light as well as light over dark, using transparent colours over the base colour as well as opaque, layering different hues of the same colour, or layering complementary colours. It is true that with techniques you simply just have to try different things out to see what works for you.
In the image below, on the right is the stage where I had worked some different colours in to start to form the clumps of grass on the moor. On the left you can see where I have used more purples and reds to warm the areas up, creating greater depth and interest, defining that area of the painting within the whole piece.
In the images below, the lower one shows a mixture of using opaque colour, different hues, and complementary colour.
Again, both of these show a mix of approaches to scumbling. Sometimes, I will scrub paint into an area (more brush abuse!) or I might blend parts of the scumbled area to either soften the effect or provide further shaping to create form.
In the images below, the close ups attempt to show some of the detail as examples ( although it doesn’t always work successfully in a photo as the camera struggles to cope with the more blurry edges). The middle picture shows a stand-back view to see how it works in the whole painting.
Scumbling allows successive layers to help build up texture, shape and form. You have to be somewhat patient with it, steadily and slowly building up each section, maybe using a rather smaller brush than you might think and regularly checking how much scumbling is required. Sometimes I might just scumble a single colour on an area and then leave to dry, but more often that not I will work several colours in the same sitting so that I can do a bit a blending where required. But a big plus and beauty of the technique is that if you don’t completely like the result at first, subsequent layers can make all the difference with slight variations in tone, opacity, shape of brush etc, so all is not lost!
I generally prefer a softer effect, on the whole, although I have seen some paintings where the scumbling is very obvious and sharp – it is all a matter of personal preference and taking the approach that says what you want to say in the best way!
‘Impress’: verb – to cause someone to feel admiration or respect
Over the lovely sunny days of July I have enjoyed some grand days out on walks in beautiful Yorkshire! Now, whilst I totally get the benefits of drawing en plein air I really don’t like carrying lots of stuff when out on a general day with my family. I like to travel light! As light as possible! (I am not one of those ladies who always has a bottomless bag that carries everything bar the kitchen sink!). However, I get frustrated when out on such a day and I come across a scene I just have to sketch and I haven’t got anything with me! Demanding or what!!
So, I started exploring whether I could use a drawing app on my phone. I always have my phone with me, partly for obvious reasons, but also because my husband and I find that the camera on our Samsung is excellent and often nearly as good as an SLR for general scene photography ( I realise more professional photographers may be spluttering with indignation – but it works for me!).
I tried a couple of free drawing apps from play store and was quite impressed with how you can use an app with lots of different ‘tools’ and effects. I purchased a battery operated drawing stylus which helped somewhat with fine detail but often just resorted to my finger as the app allows you to choose the width and tone of the line. The app allowed you to choose pencil, pen, or different brush effects, and the more complex one had some texture effects too. In the end I preferred the simpler app which seemed to produce more the effect I wanted and which I could quickly navigate around. It is just for quick sketching after all! The thing I had to keep telling myself was that my purpose was not to produce a finished masterpiece but to spend some time noticing and recording the shapes of the land, the layers in the landscape and any particular colours that might not come across as well in a photo.
A big advantage of using the drawing app was being able to build up layers that are independent of each other so that you can edit each one as you choose. If you mess up one layer, you can delete that without affecting other layers that you are happy with. The range of colours was not too bad either – sometimes I found it difficult to get the colour right (for a colour study for example) but that could just be my lack of experience with digital art. I think what it did provide for me was a way to sit and observe the landscape closely for 10 – 15 mins to take in more visually than just snapping a photo. I am hoping that, combined with a photo, my memories will help when developing a painting back in the studio.
One of the disadvantages I found with using the app on my phone, especially on a bright, sunny day, was glare on the screen preventing me from seeing properly what I was doing. Not to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ as it were, I have started experimenting with carrying, as well as my phone, a small, home made sketch book, the same size as my phone but just a couple of pages, with a retractable pencil and a few small coloured pencils. I am determined not to be beaten in my quest!
Of course, if I was going out on my own specifically to sketch I would still prefer to take a larger sketch pad etc.
During my artistic journey to date I have found so many things interesting, fascinating, joyful, a pleasure. I love seeing other people’s work and have marvelled in their skill and the results. I have learnt so much by trying various different things with varying degrees of success. And whilst, not infrequently, I have been able to produce something fairly competent I have often felt something akin to disappointment. Maybe some of this is the ‘fraud complex’ that many of us feel at times but as I explored more about finding one’s visual voice I realised that I kept feeling like I was missing the mark somehow, but couldn’t put it into words to describe it.
I have spent quite some time reflecting on this and looking for inspiration that would help me understand what was going on. I have come to the place of explaining it in this way: for me it is about being ‘authentic’ in my art. But exactly what does that mean? Well, if I was going to write a book, I would want to write about something that was really important to me, something I really wanted to say. I think the same is about visual art – what is important to me, what do I really want to say or share with others, what feels really true to me? This is more important, I believe, in finding our visual voice rather than focussing on what type of medium, tool or technique you prefer or like to use. I realised I had become so distracted by so many things: different topics, styles, mediums, approaches – I was getting lost and my attempts were becoming random and therefore unfulfilling. How could I listen to the gut instinct inside? What was it trying to tell me? I think once we start to tune into these things we can listen closer to what our gut, our instinct is trying to tell us.
I realised that, at least for now, a hugely important thing for me is the land; the landscape itself, open skies, big spaces, the colours and the interactions of the shapes. Whenever I feel tired, stressed or pointless, I drive for the hills! I love the Yorkshire hills and in particular the moorlands. I love times when you go round a corner and have a ‘wow!’ moment with a view that fizzes in your stomach; rolling hills and valleys and big skies filling the soul and pinging that bubble of joy inside. I love the rough and scruff, stone, edge, bracken and ditch. I love the rugged coast line with hard rock and restless sea. Ok, and yes, I do love the softer rolling hills where fields form quilts and blankets jostling with each other, but oh the rough and tumble is where it is at for me! This is what I want to share! This is what I want to paint! This is authentic to me and who I am!
It was a ‘light bulb’ moment to realise this, that I needed to focus more on what really makes me fizz, and once I had that realisation things started to fall into place. Now I had a better understanding of what I really wanted to paint, I could then start to explore how I wanted to paint it, what approach would help me say what I needed to say, what approach ‘fits’ with me. I have become more directed in my purpose and understanding of my use of colour, line, tone, surface and so on. The following question has become my regular mantra: What’s my point? You could substitute ‘what’s my purpose?’ but ‘what’s my point’ is more direct and, well…………. to the point! When I am sketching – what’s my point? Am I doing the thing that moves me closer to that point or am I in danger of missing the point all together? What’s my point in needing to draw or paint outdoors? What’s my point in drawing or painting this particular scene? What will make my point best? What is my point in my decisions about scale and perspective? And so on.
This may all sound like the rantings of a mad woman but the result is that I am now producing more work that I feel really happy with; there is a greater purpose in what I am doing and I want to do more of it; and I am producing work I feel that I want to show people because, finally, I feel like I am really saying, authentically, what I want to say!
‘Commandeer‘: verb – to officially take possession of.
Once the children left ‘the nest’ I have been lucky enough to commandeer one of our bedrooms as a studio space.
This room has been re-jiggled many times to make it work for me with what I am currently doing but generally I am happy with it for what I want to do now. It is south-east facing which isn’t always great for working in the afternoons but I plan my time to work more in the mornings when I can and blinds help to reduce glare without limiting the light too much. I am currently working in this corner of the room as it gets the full glare of the sun later in mid afternoon which gives me a good working time in the early part of the day.
For my palette I am using glass which is great! It is actually a sealed, double-glazed window unit which I rescued from a skip so it is strong, the edges are sealed and not sharp and it gives me a large working area. Obviously it is heavy, but hey, it just sits there and that’s fine with me! I stand to work a lot of the time so the height is good, although I generally sit to mix colours if I am doing a few at the same time but I use a height adjustable office chair so I have no problems with posture etc.
Some of the things I really like about the glass palette, in addition to the large working area, is that the paint is really easy to move about and mix on it the paint doesn’t sink into the surface, and the palette is really easy to clean at the end of a session. I do sometimes have an issue with glare but the window blinds reduce this to minimal. If I have paint left from a session I simply cover it with cling film to reduce the oxidisation process so it remains workable for a couple of day (only).
I have a fairly large selection of brushes now, some really cheap and scratty but great for the way I work at times! I really love Rosemary & Co brushes and have started a collection of them, in particular the Ivory series.
Some of my brushes are short handled and some long. I know that some people prefer the long handled brushes to help promote looser, more fluid strokes. The main practical reason I have found a preference for the long handled ones is when using a mahl stick. As you can see my mahl stick is simply a 1cm diameter dowel which I can rest of parts of the easel (with a bit of careful positioning of things!) but I find it invaluable when needing to steady my hand.
I use Cobra water miscible paints – they were recommended by a painting friend and I am glad that I followed that recommendation as I really love their buttery consistency and the range of colours. I haven’t got a lot of experience yet with other makes to compare but these do what I want and I can easily source them on line. This paint only smells faintly of oil and I find it a pleasant odour. The other great thing is that brushes and palatte can be easily cleaned with water so not toxic solvents and nasty smells to worry about. When cleaning my brushes I use a basic soap bar and just water! Fabulous! For the initial sketching of a painting I will use paint thinned with a little water. Then after the initial blocking in layer, for subsequent layers I use the Cobra painting medium, mixed with varying % of water depending on the layer. This is to follow the fat over lean principle, so for the first layer the mix will be 1:4 water: medium; the second layer 2:4 and so on (roughly!). I haven’t got a lot of experience with the glazing medium so may write about that later, but I do know that it is more oily than the painting medium.
My easel is a watercolour easel which means I can tilt it right down to horizontal if I wanted to. It is on casters so is really easy to move around my space as required. The only issue I sometimes have with it is raising the height of the canvas to work on the bottom edge because of the low ceiling in the room ( a number of times I have had the top of the easel scraping interesting marks on the ceiling!) but, as usual, I can find ways to work round this, with a clever husband who can make me wood blocks!
My second en plein air experience was again with the Huddersfield Art Society on a painting day looking across the Yorkshire Sculpture Park from the Baking Club House and Longfield Gallery. The day was (mostly) dry and the scenery lovely.
I was captivated by the curve of the field (and the friendly cows coming to investigate what we were doing) so started pretty quickly, setting up my box and putting paint to a small canvas (20x25cm).
After my last experience en plein air I had made some adjustments to my pochard box and the ‘stuff’ I carried, but it quickly became evident throughout the day that I still needed to rethink a few things, especially when we had to make a quick dash indoors because of rain at lunchtime (water miscible oils and rain don’t go together – but the water streaks were quite effective!). The main thing I have realised from this is that you need to try a set up for working outdoors several times to gradually get it sorted out in the way you like to work but is still practical. I remember one friend saying it took her about 5 months to get everything how she liked and I can quite understand that now.
For the painting I followed an approach I had seen done several times on Youtube videos but I seemed to ‘faff’ about with the first canvas for a long time, layering the paint in an alla prima way quite thickly. I think partly because the canvas was small I got stuck too early on with too much detail and lost the key element of what had caught my attention in the first place – the curve and folds of the field and the gorgeous gold wildflowers.
Towards the end of the day I started a second canvas board, making much quicker brush strokes and completing it in about 40 mins.
But I just didn’t like either of them! In the end, back at home, I used a palette knife to scrape away most of the paint on both panels, which left a slightly ghostly image. Actually, that was a bit better, but neither still ‘said’ what I had wanted to say about the scene. When they were touch dry a few days later I reworked them a bit to see if they could be rescued….but they are still only just a little bit OK!
However, it was a good learning process and a chance to reflect how it felt after the ‘doing’. I have concluded that I want to experiment with changing my approach for en pleine air, spending more time at the beginning of a session just being in the space, listening to it’s sounds and really looking and seeing. When I go out with a group it might not always be to the sort of landscape I really want to paint, but I want to learn how to use these en pleine air experiences to help me look, and see, and connect with the landscape and then bring out from it the things that most caught my attention, rather than just copying a view in front of me.
Later on I did a quick sketch of a view that did speak to me and, for me, visually explains what I was experiencing during that day.