March Hill – a Work in Progress

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.

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