Monday, 20 June 2011

No Legwork

After the thorough preparatory work for the last blog entry, a still life with melon, I decided to just paint wet-in-wet (without doing any thorough thinking, detailed drawings and value and colour studies) and see where it would take me. Paul had just bought two bags of braeburn and gala apples, and I thought that the deep red of the apples would make a great painting. So, like a headless chicken I just went on with it.

I set up some lighting and the only plan I made was to make a chiaroscuro-type painting, using a classical palette of cobalt blue, ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, permanent rose, scarlet lake, lemon yellow, cadmium yellow light, and the earth colours burnt umber, yellow ochre and terre verte. I did take 30 minutes or so to think about and premix several colours. I decided on a rich dark background (ultramarine blue + burnt umber) turning to an airy green in the foreground (cobalt blue + yellow ochre; a colour Vermeer liked as it provides depth). The red of the braeburn apples was close to permanent rose, which replaced the usual cadmium red in my palette.

To stay in a fast frame of mind, rather than a detailed drawing, I did a quick sketch of the apples.

Still trying not to think too much, I painted fast and two hours later I ended up with a near-finished painting. I'm pleased with the result as I managed to keep the brushwork free which is a contrast with my usual style. I ended up with a refreshing piece of work (for me anyway), feeling I had achieved something. This surely was a breeze compared with the weeks I worked on the melon painting, and this freedom clearly shows I think. Perhaps I should do more of this more often - will need to see whether people prefer this style to my slow-moving usual style.

At least I can now give back those apples to Paul.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

A new still life painting

I decided to do the proper preparation legwork to produce my new still life, that is, making thumbnail sketches, followed by a detailed sketch and then painting value as well as colour studies before doing the 'real' painting work on linen. This is very much a classical method and allows me to break down the painting into various stages, plan the painting and therefore produce a better result.

Step 1. Idea and Composition

First I began with deciding on, looking at, and arranging my subject matter. I picked a melon, some walnuts and two plums because of their colours. The plums were dark blue with bright purple on the outside and yellow when sliced, which would nicely offset the bright salmon colour of the melon. I had already decided on a theme of chiaroscuro so I could play with light vs dark, and bring out bright colours in fruit. I let this idea brew in my head for a week or so as I noticed that I paint my best pictures when giving the whole process some thought!

Since one of the things that makes a painting 'look good' is the play between bright and muted colour (in addition to warm and cool colours, hard and soft edges etc), I added some walnuts to provide muted colours. The only thing I didn't quite like was that all objects were round which would not provide much variation. Slicing the plums (revealing the yellow flesh) and cracking one of the walnuts provided this variation.

I tried different arrangements of the fruit, keeping in mind a few rules of a good composition (division of the image into thirds, diagonals to suggest movement, balance of elements etc). I also set up my lamp to provide a classical lighting direction at a 45 degree angle from top-front. The main sliced plum would be the focal point, placed to point to the melon. The walnuts completed the elliptical composition; one crushed walnut pointed inwards to keep the eye in the picture. It was also important to check how few objects were needed to convey the message and the mood of the painting. Each element in a painting should contribute to the overall idea, if an item is unnecessary, it should be removed.

Step 2. Thumbnail sketches and detailed drawings
By doing quick thumbnail sketches I could check potential pictorial problems. I also explored the subject matter by doing more detailed drawings. Once I was happy and had thought long enough, I copied the set up onto the linen canvas, producing a detailed drawing.

Step 3. Value study
To explore the play of light and dark and to determine whether this setup would work, I spent 2 hours preparing a 1:1 scale value study in mars black and titanium white. I made sure I used about 4 values from black to white, since I wanted my painting to have a limited number of values in addition to a few simple, large abstract shapes. This study would be a guide when painting the grisaille on canvas. I enjoyed this step in particular as I was not afraid to make mistakes on an expensive canvas, I could paint freely and focus on ending up with the best possible idea.

Step 4. Grisaille

Although the 'real painting' should really start once the colour study has been completed, I couldn't help myself and painted the grisaille on linen. The colour study would involve more time to pick and mix the best colours and I wanted to get started on my canvas before the plums and melon dried up! It's quite incredible how quickly fruit goes bad.To follow Gainsborough, I painted a cool grisaille using cobalt blue (a cool blue as opposed to a warm blue - for example ultramarine blue), titanium white (to built a foundation for bright layers of colours later) and mars black (a quick-drying black to avoid a layer that was too oily at this stage). The blueish effect would be a good complementary layer for the yellows of the sliced plums, and, if needed, I could let this blue background shine through and feature as the blue of the plums later. Furthermore, since my lamp happened to give a warm light which created cool shadows, a cool background could feature in the thinner shadow parts of the painting.

The overall value of the grisaille should also be lighter than that of the finished painting: compare this grisaille with the darker value study above, which I painted with the painting's end value in mind.

The canvas itself was a portrait linen (Belle Arte), French linen processed in Italy. I have been looking for an extra fine weave for a while and I'm happy I found it! This particular brand canvas is also oil-primed as opposed to the universal gesso priming most brands offer, which suits oil painting better. After I received it in the post, I applied a wash of raw umber to cut the white of the canvas and left to dry.

With the grisaille completed, the painting was left to dry until after the colour study was completed. For a successful multi-layered painting, each layer should be dry before painting the next.

Further steps to the completed painting:
Step 5. Colour study
Step 6. The first layer of colour on linen
Step 7. Applying glazes.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Trying my luck

Yesterday I dropped off two paintings at the Royal Academy of Arts at Piccadilly in central London, hoping I’ll be allowed to participate in the RA Summer Exhibition. This is an exhibition open to anyone and has been held every year since 1769, without exception. Around 10,000 works (including paintings, sculpture, photography, film) representing some 5,000 artists are entered each year, of which around 1000 pieces are selected.

Now, 242 years after the first Summer Exhibition, I decided to be bold and submit my paintings. Considering that great artists such as JMW Turner and Thomas Gainsborough participated in this very exhibition in the past, it would be an honour just to be accepted. So off I went, having wrapped two paintings in a combined 10 meters of bubble wrap.

Fortunately I managed to fit the fairly large paintings (the largest is just short of a meter) into my car and, to avoid the congestion charge of central London I parked near a tube station and dragged the paintings into the Piccadilly line. The rain, when poking my head above ground at Green Park station, was not much of a problem as the bubble wrap protected my paintings nicely.

Living just outside London I noticed that I had missed the hustle and bustle of central London, black London taxis and people in suits running about Piccadilly and the curved stately architecture of Regent Street. The rain made everything look silvery black and sleek. Looking around I spotted other people carrying paintings, hurrying along to the east entrance of the Royal Academy. They seemed to be wearing blinkers, jogging nervously, almost pushing their way through to get their precious paintings to the drop off point in time (which was funny since the deadline for submission was still one and a half days away).

On my way through Burlington Arcade I ended up chatting to a man who had travelled from outside London to submit his abstract painting. He was wearing the most fantastic green/pink knitted hat. While queuing at the east entrance, I told me that he had submitted a painting two years ago which had been rejected. I wonder how many of us in the queue would be disappointed this year; it probably best to expect to be rejected. Interestingly, at that point flyers were being handed out inviting us to submit our works to an on-line gallery if the RA says NO! ... Keeping our spirits up, we made jokes about the great JMW Turner possibly queuing up right here for the 1790 Summer Exhibition, while shuffling along below statues of the royal academicians Linnaeus and Galileo.
Not much later we entered the submission hall, which resembled an ants' nest and was packed with wanna-be artists like us, unwrapping their paintings. RA staff then scanned each piece and the art handlers took the works away. And, just like that, we found ourselves outside again.

The RA will complete their selection at the end of May. Fingers crossed...!

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Life Drawing Activities

23 March 2011
I go to a life drawing group on Saturdays. Typically there are about 10 of us with some people attending every week; some are professional artists and others, like me, hope to fit in the category emerging artist. We sit together in a bright tall room in a big Victorian house in the leafy St Margarets suburb of London, and a different female model turns up every week. We draw and paint, while listening to the BBC Radio 3 classic music station. From time to time you can hear music filtering through from a room down the hall where young girls attend ballet lessons. The light dappling in through the big windows is magnificent, especially on a sunny day.
When we're done shuffling about the room, making cups of tea and looking for milk in the community fridge, Alan calls out and we gather in the drawing room. The model, beautifully lit by the sunlight, typically starts with two 5-minute poses. This is a great warm-up exercise and pushes us straight into putting the gesture of the model onto paper quickly.

The model rarely poses for longer than 10 minutes, which is great if the pose doesn't work for you (for example due to the angle from where you are working), but a race against time to record what you want if it is a perfect pose.

The group has a preference for classic poses and the models are experienced enough to know what we're looking for. Last Saturday, our model was an actress and was obviously aware of aesthetic ways to stand and twist her body. As each model visits us every few weeks, we get used to their bodies (shapes, curves) and after a few sessions it becomes easier to draw them.
Time to choose which drawings can be put onto canvas! The drawings and work in progress can be seen on the Dutchoils website.