‘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I prefer the mindful use of grounded as being more self aware and well balanced – maybe my dictionary is rather old and outdated!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.
Recently I have made some new discoveries using the palette knife that are challenging the way I paint the ground and build up 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!
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.
‘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.