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!

Going Digital?

‘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.

What’s my point?

Authentic’: adjective – real, true, faithful, genuine

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!

My Studio Space

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 Experiment En Plein Air!

faff’ : intransitive verb – dither, fuss (well ……….that says it all!)

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.

View of YSP from Longfield Gallery

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.

En Plein Air

Testing out my new pochard box to see what works and what needs modifying. A rather chilly early evening at Beaumont Park, Huddersfield with members of the Huddersfield Art Society.