Grounded

Ground’ : noun – surface, reason, motive, coating, background, special area

Grounded’: adjective – run ashore, not permitted to fly!

I must admit that I prefer the mindful use of grounded as being more self aware and well balanced – maybe my dictionary is rather old and outdated!

Anyway, I have been reflecting on the grounds I want to use in my paintings and from that reflection feel more grounded as in self aware and balanced in my approach to grounds in painting! At one point I was quite uncertain about the whole thing but decided that I had to try different approaches to see how it ‘fit’ with me and the way I want to work.

My understanding of a ground, particularly in oil painting, is preparation of the surface you intend to use to allow the paint to stick to it and not be absorbed too much into the surface material. To this end I have been using two coats of Gesso on the stretched canvasses. My initial urge was to leave the Gesso white as I am one of the apparently rare breed of artists who just loves the white, blank page and the promise of great things to come. I have never had the urge to mess up that lovely white expanse with random splodges and marks!

Having said that I wanted to understand why some artists always used a deep burnt umber ground, or a grey or a hot red. Straight away I dismissed using a hot red as, although my body does like a bit of warmth, my soul tends to opt for cool, calm and restful. I have seen some great paintings with the hot red or a cheeky bright orange ground peeping through the paint layers which certainly does give the finished painting a lot of life. I did try bubble gum pink in a brief nod in that direction as a trial but even that was too much for me, so it was quickly toned down with more white!

One thing I do concede is that a coloured ground does work better, especially on canvas, because with a ground left white, as you build up the paint layers, you are always battling to get rid of little white dots of the canvas as the paint skims over the surface, particularly with the way I paint. For some, the little white dots might add a bit of ‘sparkle’ to a painting but it wasn’t really my thing and meant that I was scrubbing the paint on more in some areas where I really did want to ‘skim’ it.

For colouring the ground some suggest applying, on top of the two coats of Gesso, a thin coat of burnt sienna with a rag – a traditional approach that is used to establish tones and composition for the painting. I found this too dark for me and I subsequently struggled to get the light I wanted. Some people find that such a ground helps the artist to establish the right colours in the painting but I didn’t particularly find this helpful. For me the more important thing was setting for me, as the artist, the mood of the painting. So, I am not completely ruling it out and may come back to it later.

Some will use a thin layer of colour over the Gesso to provide a ‘ glow’ underneath subsequent layers. I tried this with a thin layer of French Ultramarine Blue acrylic. I was not sure that the transparency of the colour aided me with anything and was not overkeen on the colour used in this way (although it is a fab colour in general).

I found that I preferred to mix a small amount of acrylic colour into the second coat of Gesso creating a flat matte ground. This gives me some colour to cover the white of the canvas but a matte surface which I feel I need at the moment. I quite like using a cool bluey- grey or, for a warmer tone, have recently tried a lightish raw sienna.

Getting to Grips with the Knife!

‘Reveal’: verb – make known.

Recently I have made some new discoveries using the palette knife that are challenging the way I paint the ground and build upĀ  layers. I think more traditional oil painters will throw their arms up in horror but this approach is really working for me and I want to explore it more.

It is my understanding that traditional oil painters start off using fairly dark layers, gradually getting lighter as the painting progresses, using the lightest lights ( and the darkest darks) in the foreground. I have veered away from this approach, partly because I don’t like to start off too dark anyway, but more because I have started using the palette knife to suggest fine grasses and scrub land by scraping back a layer to reveal a lighter layer underneath.

Many painters use a palette knife to thickly apply paint but my interest is more about using the knife to scrape back and take away.

I paint a lighter tone first and let it dry. This is followed by darker tones which again are left to dry. Then I use the palette knife to scrape very fine lines suggesting the foliage.

I will then go back in with a rigger brush to further suggest foliage with flicks of paint and fine lines in between the knife marks. This is developed further with a small round brush putting in spots of really dark colour in between the clumps of grass to create depth and suggest the base of the clumps of vegetation. I may scrape off more paint to add to the suggestion of depth.

It means I have to plan a bit more the order I build up layers and what colour and tone I use at different stages. As well as using this technique in the foreground foliage, I also want to explore more use of the palette knife in other parts and at earlier stages of the painting to create line, suggest shape and form, and to change tone, maybe moving to more semi-abstract which will be really exciting!

Scumbling

Complementary‘: noun – companion, completing, correlative, corresponding, fellow, interdependent, interrelating, matched, reciprocol.

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!