Sunday, 30 November 2014


I am not a portrait painter, but occasionally I am asked for advice about particular when the likeness is good, but the picture is still rather dull.     We have a wonderful programme on our televisions here in the UK right now...Portrait artist of the Year...and watching the artists work got me thinking.

I am not about to go into details about portraiture here, this is a blog post, and the subject is far too huge to go into details.  What I will say is that it is more than getting the likeness right.  There is a lot to consider.  for instance, You need to think about the way the sitter is "lit".     you need to think carefully about the temperature of the prevailing light, as well as the kind of skin tone that individual might have.   You need to think about how to position the portrait on the canvas or paper.  You need to consider the background.     

  If you find yourself thinking "what is she on about?  Surely I just need to get a good likeness" I hope you might feel that this blog post will show that a good likeness is only part of the effort.    Of course, a good likeness is to be applauded...but you want it to be a good painting TOO, I am sure.

Lots of artists pick up, or are given, a photo to work from, and they crack on with it.   I would like to encourage you, if you decide to try portraits, to be prepared to spend time studying how other artists work, before you leap into the water and start frantically paddling upstream.  

Today I came across a painting which I used when trying to help someone who had painted a portrait using a palette of simple flesh tones...every shade of peach and apricot they could possibly mix.  She had achieved a good likeness....yet - that portrait looked dull.  How can this be?  She had used skin tones.......and had a good likeness....isn't that enough? 

Well, you can go out and buy flesh-coloured paint.  And you can get boxes of pastels in "portrait colours".  So why don't they do the job well enough?

This is the painting I showed. I normally do not like smiley portraits ....but this one is painted so well, and the artist has such a wonderful palette, I want to share it with you:

  • The artist has stuck closely to the rule "warm light = cool shadows". - although it is not very warm light, just enough to give us SOME cool colours in the shadows.    Just look at those lovely blues, lavender, and cool blue-pink. 

  •  And see how the artist has remembered that where skin folds in on itself, deep warms the ear, and inside the nose, and in the corner of the mouth.

  • Look at the eyes.  We really "feel" the roundness of the eyeball, and the fact that there is an "eye socket" in the skull, which the eye sits in.

  • Look at the colours in the hair.  touches of brown, lavender, pink, raw sienna, burnt sienna, pale cream.  

  • And notice how soft is the edge of the cheek on the right, even tho it is set against a lighter background...there is one particular area where the artist has perhaps "softened" the edge with a there is no hard, dark line to bring that cheek forwards.

  • Finally, look at the pose.  So nice to see something rather unconventional. This "glancing over his shoulder" is a pose which captures a moment in time, which we all know will only have lasted for a second or two and is thanks to a camera, but in this instance it works because it really captures the cheekiness of this little chap.
  •  Also look at how the artist has cropped right in, bringing the portrait right up to the edge of the rectangle at the top, rather than positioning the portrait in the centre,  with loads of space/background all around.  As a result, there is a lovely sense of intimacy here. 

It is a beautifully painted portrait,   modern in approach yet so sensitive. The artist is Talya Johnson.

A browse on line, or time spent in a library, studying the work of good portrait painters, to see how they handle light on skin and analysing what they did and why, is time SO well spent.  Also, do spend time learning about the underlying structure of the skull and the muscles of the will make all the difference to your work. 

PLEASE don't just imagine that all you need is a good photo to work from - and that if you get all the features in the right place, and get a good likeness, you will have a good painting.  there is more to it than that, as I hope I have been able to explain.



Saturday, 8 November 2014


Firstly...I must apologise for a long absence from this has been down to what has been called "a temporary disability" which is still with me, and I may not be back on form for a little while.

In the meantime, I have an important thought I just want to share.

I recently gave some advice to someone about a painting.  I commented that the drawing needed some refinement...the shapes were wrong, wrong for proportion, wrong for shape.  So the object in question simply did not "read" as it should.

The response given was "I cannot draw things in correct proportions or shapes.....sorry...I just cannot do it".

MY response was.......  Oh yes you can.  When you say the phrase "I cannot", what you are saying is "I will not".  It is as simple and straightforward as that.

When I was a student, my drawings were often out of proportion.  I was told by a tutor "Jackie, you will never be able to draw with accuracy, so you might as well resort to distortion".          !!!

This infuriated me, and I resolved to work harder at getting things right.  I knew I could "resort to distortion" at any time.........but to do so IN PLACE of getting things right?   Not for me.  I knew I had to work harder at measuring and comparing.  So I did.

It was not easy.  For ages, my drawings were stiff, and looked laboured.  I found measuring tedious and difficult.  BUT eventually, miraculously to me,  my facility to "see" better began to improve.  I found the drawings becoming stronger, better for accuracy, more fluent.  I will always have to double-check measurements;  I do not always hit total accuracy and perfect proportions right off - I avoid doing portraits for this very reason.  (I feel a portrait which is too "fiddled with" loses spontaneity, so I'd rather try something else.)  But I have certainly surprised myself by NOT having to resort to distortion! 

I do recognise that sometimes, we need to accept certain limitations - - and at this moment in my life, I am having to do just that as my body presents me with challenges - but rather than produce failures as a result, I am teaching myself to overcome disability and adjust my methods of being creative.

If you want to draw and paint, and recognise that you are WEAK in certain areas - and that is all it is, weakness, not inability - then be prepared to grit your teeth, and put in the work to become stronger.  You will never regret it.

ok getting off my soapbox now..........................

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Heads hanging on a line......

I recently read a post from a beginner, on an art forum.  He said that he had recently read that "all heads hang on a line", in a room scene.  He was slightly baffled by this statement, since, as he rightly said, people are different sizes, so he questioned how can it be right that all heads in a scene would be on the same level?

I find it worrying when I read things like this.  Perhaps the student mis-read the quote..or didn't read on for the explanation, which can be the only excuse for such a sweeping generalisation.  We all like to have nice, simple "rules" like this to tuck away in our memory banks. BUT they can let us down if we do not fully understand them and use them willy-nilly.

When you begin to include people in your pictures, there are lots of things to bear in mind.  The most important one is YOUR EYE LEVEL.  This will vary, depending on whether you are standing, or sitting, to paint/sketch.      Then, after that,the relative heights of the individuals in the scene can be taken into account - children, for instance, will be shorter than adults obviously......but relative heights MUST be a secondary consideration.  Understanding your eye level fully is essential.  To find it, put a small sketchbook horizontally onto the bridge of your nose, make sure it is level, not tipped up or down, and look out across it. Where it visually "touches", that is your eye level.

Here is a sketch I found in an old book - look at the clothes, you will get a sense of how old the book is!!!  I was most amused. However,  It really explains, visually, why the eye level is so important:

The bottom sketch illustrates the "heads on a line" idea.  Clearly, the painter was standing, so HIS head, and eyes, are on the same level as the other standing people in the scene.  Perspective comes into play....the road lines converge on the VP, the vanishing point, on the eye level line.

In the middle image, the painter's eyes are at chest level, and in the top image, the painter would have been sitting down, because his eye level cuts across the skaters' KNEES!  There are two vanishing points....but both are still on the eye level.  Notice that the heads of the figures marked a and b are on the same level;  this is because they are approximately the same distance from the painter.

If you put people into a scene, particularly if you are taking them from different sketches or different sources, or if you are sketching outdoors and people are coming and going,  you need to be very careful to ensure that the eye level is taken into account and your figures remain true to it.

I stood to sketch this scene, so all except the kids are more or less the same height, heads on a line!  My eye level is where their heads are.  Looking at it now, I am a bit suspicious of the lady in the orange coat......?? ( Maybe she was very tall.......and just a smidgen closer to me....that's my excuse and I am sticking to it)

Here, I sat to paint, so the closer people are larger and heads higher, the ones further away much smaller and their heads are lower in height - so this means that my eye level was much lower for this scene, probably about the height of some of the central boxes.  Of course, if someone is bending, that's a whole different matter.........

Keep the eye level firmly fixed in your mind - and perhaps mark it on your canvas too - you should find it helpful.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Landscape painting - Being enchanted.

George Innes , who painted the wonderfully atmospheric landscape scene above, "Pool in the Woods" in 1892, said:

"I don't illustrate travel guide books, madame, I paint paintings"

Lovely, isn't it.  Learning to paint good landscapes is so much more than running around with a camera, snapping picture postcard shots, and then, subsequently trying to reproduce that image as a painting.  WHAT FOR?  You have the photo.  Do you also need to paint from it?   If so, why?  Do you have something more to say about the scene that the camera was not able to capture?  I hope so.

Having something personal to say about the scene, is, in my opinion, what makes the difference between a landscape painting which grabs your attention, and a landscape painting which could be used to illustrate a travel guide book.

It is the reason why I often recommend to students that they BEGIN WITH A TITLE.   Giving "voice" to your thoughts helps you to find out what it is about the scene that caught your attention.  After all, the world is full of gorgeous views and wonderful corners - you can sit and drink in a fabulous scene without too much thinking about it, just feeling admiration.  It isn't enough, if you want to create a painting with more meaning to it than a photo.    You might as well get out your camera and just use that.  As a painter, you can do, and say,  more than a camera ever can.

Look at these images.    Loriann Signori's atmospheric images lean towards abstraction but are recognisably landscapes. She confesses a fascination for fields - for this picture, she said "the fields in Washington always enchant me".  She was ENCHANTED.  And so the painting is enchanting.


Sarah Bee - "Totness Storm Approaching" - this is not just a topographical landscape painting - there is a very strong feeling of storm, from the specific quality of light, to the interesting and unusual treatment of the foreground which speaks to me not just of a tree line, but also a dark, brooding presence, much like heavy storm clouds.  The concept for the painting is very clear indeed.
I could show you many more images all of which have a strong message...but I think I have made the point well enough for a blog post.  If you find yourself sitting with a group of painters one day on a landscape course,  wondering what on earth to choose from all the glory around you, or at home, picking up a photo to work from, and seeing it as a shopping list.....3 trees, 1 valley, 6 bushes, 4 cows....PLEASE think again. Think how you felt when you spotted that scene.  What was IMPORTANT about it, or perhaps, if not important, then at least fascinating, interesting, eye-catching.    Decide on the TITLE for your painting.  Write it down.  If you cannot think of a title, then just write a whole paragraph about the scene, putting down everything you can think of, all the memories.     Then a title will come to you.  The title should have some meaning beyond just the name of the beach, or valley, or part of the world in question.   Consider the weather.........the temperature...........the atmosphere...........the unique whatever-it-was that you found enchanting.
I do not consider myself a strong landscape painter.  I do not enjoy solitary excursions into unpopulated landscape - far too nervous -   so people inevitably creep into most of my images, and take over from the landscape.  But I really enjoyed painting in Venice;  I particularly loved the special light of early morning, and the way that the canals always reflected the skies and the light in the scene - water in a landscape always fascinates me.  So this could have been called "Venice Grand Canal View"....but actually, it's name is "Light and Reflections, Venice".
I was enchanted by this scene.  Be enchanted, and then perhaps your paintings will enchant others.

Sunday, 17 August 2014


I have been thinking a lot about this lately, having become suddenly more aware of it.  Of course,when you become aware of something, you notice it all the time!

I like to analyse paintings that I admire, and try to discern what it is about those paintings that make them special for me.

I have recently come across the work of a lady artist, who is now President of the UK Pastel Society - Cheryl Culver.  I saw her work at Art in Action for the first time, and found myself standing in front of her paintings for ages, enjoying them thoroughly.  Here is one:

and here is one of the sketches, done in the landscape, that she works from:

What fascinates me about these images is that Cheryl clearly "sees" in 2D, rather than 3D.  She sees SHAPES in the landscape.  The negative shapes, between branches, and trunks, are just as important as the positive shapes of branches and trunks.  On close inspection, the tree trunks and branches are not drawn with huge attention given to conventional three dimensional FORM, are they?   And I suspect that somewhere between the drawing, and the painting, a further transformation takes place, as the artist exaggerates and stylises the shapes within the rectangle, to make a strong design statement.

As a result, the painting works, for me, on a number of different levels.  I enjoy the colours.  I enjoy the shapes.  I enjoy the composition, the flat, two-dimensional pattern. 

There is a sense of recession in the painting, and in the drawing, achieved by changes of scale, but it is not the same kind of recession we see in a rendering of the landscape painted in a more literal way, like this, for instance:

This lovely gentle Marc Hanson painting has all the same elements as Cheryl's - trees, fields, distance....but what a different approach.   It has an equally powerful presence, to my eye...but is much more conventional.  It is more about the world as we see it, rather than about the patterns we might discern in the landscape.

Working with 2 dimensional pattern and shapes, rather than 3 dimensional form, is nothing new of course.
Henri Matisse painted this image using only flat shapes, no form at all other than perhaps the form suggested by the stripes on the sofa (sofa?):

 and of course, Japanese woodcuts often make little use of conventional three dimensions either - this Hokusai woodcut from the C18 or C19, is so modern-looking, and reminds me very much of Cheryl's Culver's painting above with its stylised forms and shapes:

It certainly makes me think a bit.  My own work, generally, follows the same path as Marc Hanson's. And - often, people have said to me "oh my goodness, that could almost be a photograph".  Which aggravates me, because I have to ask myself why I should bother to try to depict the real world faithfully, when mostly, a camera does a better job of depicting the real world, than I can do?   

I think it is time for me to try harder to see more patterns and shapes in my subjects.  Or maybe at least try, even if I do not succeed, in order to stretch myself somewhat.  I am not sure I will be able to make the shift, but it could be fun, and challenging to try. After all, if we stretch to try something new - with a purpose - we  may make some marvellous discoveries.  If you always do what you've always done, you will always get what you've always had.


Tuesday, 5 August 2014


In an earlier blog post, I talked about WHAT'S IN THE SHADOWS and showed how to use the Photoshop levels slider to lighten a photo and find out what is in the shadow areas.  Shadows often look black, or very dark, in a photo, because the camera cannot expose for both light and shadow correctly at the same time.

Today, I'd like to talk a little about what you are actually SEEING when you look at light and shadow in a scene, and how you need to THINK as you paint.

Light is created by the sun.  If the sun is obscured, the light is still there.....but is obviously less bright!   (ok, I can hear you - duh - does she think I am stupid?)
But what you need to be aware of is that it is not only less is also a COOLER light.   Think of the light as a paintbrush, not just illuminating what it falls on, but painting it too.  And the warm light from direct sunlight will warm everything it touches.   Cooler light from an overcast sky will "paint" the scene with quite different colours.

I have recently critiqued the work of a painter who took his photo very literally.  The lights in the photo looked white...even on a dark tree he used white!   But this means he was just copying the photo without thinking about what might be happening in real life.
 Using pure white did not give any feeling of warmth. Even a white wall, washed with sunlight, will be more golden-white than pure white.

So -you need to become aware of the colour of the light.  We may not be able to physically "see" light, but when it lands on something, it colours that something in a particular way.

Sunlight is warm.
Electric lamplight is warm.
Candlelight is warm.


Fluorescent light breaks the is a cool light.  and
Obscured sun - overcast days - will provide cooler light, so a green apple on a windowsill on an overcast day will actually change  colour if the sun suddenly comes out and hits it!  And that white wall can be painted with white on an overcast day!

 If you are working from a photo, and the camera has not taken all of this into account,  you have to use your brain, as well as your eyes. 

 Another little rule of thumb (where did that expression originate, I wonder) is WARM LIGHT = COOL SHADOWS, and COOL LIGHT = WARMER SHADOWS.


Shadows are LACK OF LIGHT.  They are rarely black, as they might appear in a photo.  They have soft edges.   And observation with your own eyes is vitally important.  Your eyes are FAR more powerful than a camera's lens, and they see more colour. 

 There are theories about the colour of may read that a shadow colour will always contain the "complementary colour" of the object that casts the shadow.  Theories like this are worth considering....but there are so many things that can affect the colour of a shadow, that often, the theory doesn't fit.  Close observation and consideration of what is happening in the scene is the only way to be sure you get your shadows right.  You must use your brain, and your creativity.  You are a painter, not a camera, so there is no excuse for black or yuk grey shadows.  Or uniformly purple shadows.    You need to be careful to ensure that your shadows "work" for the painting - you may need to modify slightly to make them look right. 

The important things to remember are these:
  • SHADOWS ARE TRANSPARENT AND WILL BE INFLUENCED BY THE SURFACE ON WHICH THEY ARE FALLING, (study the floor of the picture above)  and sometimes, surrounding colours may affect the shadow too.   Just ask yourself, when you are painting a scene, "how does this patch of colour compare to that one?" and keep comparing time and again as you work.
  • Shadows are seldom flat areas of colour, they will have variation within them - look out for these, so that your shadow areas are not too monotonous.  however, beware of over-exaggeration of colour, particularly purples. 
  • Also, an interesting thing to observe is that the farther a cast shadow has to travel, the softer or rounder its shape will become.  Also, it will become gradually lighter at its distant edges.
  • Shadows have soft edges.  this is important. 
Shadows need to be considered as important elements within your painting.  They can add colour, contrast and drama. They help to emphasise the light.  They can be important compositionally, providing pathways thro and around an image, contributing in a very positive way to the dynamic quality of the painting.  Dappled light, and shadow, can be a subject in itself, and will create a feeling of life and movement in a scene. 

Enjoy the light, and celebrate the shadows!


Saturday, 19 July 2014


Learning how to draw is as much about learning how to SEE, as how to manipulate your chosen material.  After all, you can "draw" with anything........charcoal, pencil, brush, crayon......the choice is endless........but if you are to draw well, you need to sharpen not just your pencil, but also your observational muscles.

Before I go any further, I do want to say that I am afraid there are no short cuts to excellence.  You can be given endless numbers of short cuts and hints about how to draw  but at the end of the day, it is only by copious amounts of practice of many of the basic principles of drawing, that you will achieve good quality in your drawing skills.

So - let's just take another look at the business of using PLUMB LINES plus a couple of other pointers - I have highlighted them in bold for you.   I have touched on plumb lines before - the idea of working with a mental grid - but it was a while ago, so I am going to mention it again because I keep seeing students' work which does not take them into account, yet they are so very, very useful.

Here is a quick, student line drawing of a dancer:

On the face of it, not too bad...the weight of the dancer seems to be on her left, standing leg, which seems logical and right;  her head is tilted forwards;  there is a suggestion of three dimensional form.  The arm on the barre looks a bit thin and there is an odd bulge on the other arm, but in general...not too terrible.

But let's look at the original source photo.

Aha...we can see quite a few errors now.  The head is not just tilted forwards, it is turned too.  And is bigger than in the drawing..which helps to show that it is a child. In the drawing, it looks like an adult - children's heads are proportionally larger than adults heads are, in relation to the body.   So...the head, and the arm, have problems with proportions.
And let's use PLUMB LINES to re-see the two images, to find out where the other problems are.  The natural inclination for most students is to draw the outline of the figure from the photo, and then "fill in" the shadows. But the problems seen in the drawing will become clear when I use plumb lines which have nothing to do with outline, and everything to do with seeing with more accuracy.
1. Take Line A.  See how, from the side of her head, the line drops down well outside her knee.  But doesn't.  That leg is further over to our right.  This affects the distribution of weight, and balance of the figure.
2.  Now look at line B.  The side of her head is in line with the centre point between her legs.  But in the drawing, it isn't.

3.  Line runs from the strap of her leotard, to the back of her heel.  In the drawing, we can see that there is an inaccuracy.
4.  Now let's use a line going across........from the back of her raised heel, the line cuts her other leg just below the knee.  It doesn't in the drawing.
5.  Finally - another shift in vision for you...I want you to look at the negative shape between her arm on the barre, and her body.  I have outlined it in brown.  In the drawing, the shape is elongated.  In the photo, it is a tiny triangle.
I think I have shown you that there is a need for honing the skills of observation, and sometimes, it is helpful to use some extra "seeing tools" to help us find greater accuracy.  Eventually, accuracy will combine with artistic feeling to enable you to produce drawings with sensitivity as well as accuracy. 
Having looked at a student drawing, now have a look at this beautiful drawing below.  Notice the use of plumb lines, but also straight lines which help to define angles and changes of direction. You can hold up a straight edge, and compare it against a curve to see the irregularities of the shape in relation to the straight line.
  See how the artist (Harold Speed -  from his book published about 70 years ago!) has so very carefully observed all the subtle changes in the curves of the form, where muscles bunch, and tendons pull straight -  and the subtle changes of form within the body as well as throughout the outline... it is a very fine piece of work, amazingly well observed and not the least bit slapdash or hoping-for-the-best.  This chap knows his anatomy, as well as how to draw it.
 I really recommend that you use these extra visual tools to improve your work, particularly if you have the luxury of time, for example, when working from a photo, as so many do these days.  It may take a little while to achieve the kind of sharpness of observation you can see clearly in Mr Speed's work - but you will get there if you train your eye to see more than just an outline and a bit of shading.  
  • Check proportions carefully
  •   use plumb lines in both directions to check positioning,
  • observe curves, and changes of direction, by using a straight edge for comparison
  • observe the play of light which gives us the form. 
  • observe negative shapes around the body and between forms - these often give us extra clues to us.
  • spend a little time studying the anatomy of the human figure.  This can only add strength to your drawings, both of the nude, and of clothed people (you often have to envision the form beneath the fabric of clothing),  and will help enormously when the photo is inadequate and needs some reinterpretation. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Colouring (or coloring) - that what you do?

Do you find that the "drawing" stage of a painting means that you feel you must paint, carefully, the shapes you have drawn?   You feel satisfied with the drawing;  you are careful with tones, and colours........yet somehow the painting looks stiff and rigid when you have finished.

This may be because you are "colouring-in".  It is not surprising.........if you have been careful about your drawing, you don't really want to spoil the lines of the drawing become the guide for the subsequent applications of colour.

Why, then, would this lead to an unsatisfactory result for some of us ?    I say "some of us" because those who like to paint photographically might be delighted with a perfect, photographic result - and there is nothing actually wrong with painting in that way - I am simply addressing those who do NOT like the end result of their efforts!.

Colouring-in can lead to  similarly-painted edges everywhere.  The lines of the drawing become OUTLINES.  Outlines are fine if we are drawing cartoons...........but that is not the way we see the world.

When we look at our subject -be it landscape, still life, figure - we do not see any "outlines". I am aware I may have said this before, but it is worth repeating, I believe.    A figure has no outline around it.  An apple doesn't have an outline.  Sure, both figure and apple have a point at which the form "turns a corner" and is invisible to our eye...but sometimes, at that precise point, the so-called "edge" may be almost indiscernible....or sharp as a knife.  It depends on what is next to the shape at that point, and what is happening with the light.   

Let's look for a moment at this painting, Book Fair Group:  I apologise for the brilliance of the blue - lousy photo - but nevertheless it is helpful in the context of this article.

Look at the figures.  Notice how the light offers us one side of their bodies, nicely "outlined".  But the outlines "melt" where the figure turns away from the light.  The tall guy's front almost melts into the striped sweater of the figure next to him;  her head and face melt into the figure next to her.  The chap on the far right is only really visible at all because of the light hitting one side of his figure - otherwise, he is just suggested.  .His right side "melts" into the background beyond.

Given that I was working with an opaque medium, pastels, I  used a range of blues, greys and other dark colours for the figures AS A WHOLE LARGE SHAPE, not worrying about "going over the lines", and then I went back into that mass of dark tones, to pick out some of the medium tones, and then the lighter tones until finally painting the lightest, sharpest marks.  There was no need to "colour-in" each one separately....and had I done so, I might have lost some of the visual "flow".
For this garden "still life", I HAD to draw carefully - without a good drawing, those chairs might have been a disaster........but then, chair legs and shadows were painted together, so that the shapes were not too separate. the colours used were repeated in the foliage to the right.   The chair in the background also half-disappears;  the dark tone of the foliage behind it was painted right across the drawing of the chair (leaving it faintly visible in parts, but only just), and then the slightly lighter tones used for the backrest were put in.
When I was a student, my tutor warned me against always painting within the lines. Always allow yourself to paint OVER the lines or edges, if those lines or edges are not sharp and visible clearly in real life, he said, (as did other tutors after him).   Where a shape melts into another shape, allow the colour to bleed from one into the other. 
 PAINT FROM THE GENERAL, TO THE SPECIFIC, he said.  What that means is squinting like crazy, to discern the general pattern of light and dark shapes in a scene.  Get those down first.   Then, and not before, work towards the details.  In this way, you will avoid that whole business of your image looking too stiff and coloured-in.
Here I am working from the general to the specific:(admittedly, not much drawing involved, but hopefully, you get the point!)


This was not quite the finished piece;  I altered some of the larger sky holes, but as you can see, I did not begin at the top and work my way down the painting, finishing off each section piecemeal.  I know some people like to work this way, but I just couldn't imagine myself ever doing that.  For all the reasons given above!


Sunday, 22 June 2014

Painting reflections in water

Ok a little "teaching" blog today.


During the summer months, it is lovely to get out and about, and few locations are nicer than the bank of a lake, or pond, or a canal.   Not only are you surrounded by lovely landscape, you also have that landscape reflected in the water - a delicious subject to tackle.

However, dealing with reflections in water does require a bit of careful handling, so here are a few tips to help you on your way.


Reflections are generally darker nearer to you, and lighter further away.  This is because the water which is further away from you is being seen at a flatter angle to the sky, and therefore the sky will "lighten" the surface of the water.  When you look down into water, colours and tones are stronger.

Also, a good rule of thumb to remember is that generally, all tone is less intense seen in water...lights are darker, darks are lighter.  Colours are more muted than the landscape around you.  The Venice canal pic above shows this, I feel.  (although I apologise for what looks like a bent parallax problem...just look at the reflections!)


Half close your eyes to cut out detail, and look for changes in large shapes from front to back, as this will help with the impression of recession.    Running water will distort shapes - study the water for a while to see if you can see any kind of pattern.  Choppy water, as in the top Venice pic above, will break up reflections - notice how the poles are reflected but their reflections are broken up by lighter "surface" ripples and eddies.  

Reflections are cast onto the surface of the water, so it is tempting to simply paint an upside-down version of what is on dry land - using horizontal marks or strokes , because the surface is, after all, horizontal....but .....
In fact, your reflections will work far better if you use vertical strokes -this will still convey the flat surface of the water - or try to avoid any sense of directional stroke for the reflection, keep it as a flat shape - and then you can hint at the water's actual top surface by picking up ripples, or lights, as small horizontal marks over the top of the vertical strokes, or flat reflected area.

In general, most reflected edges are softer than the edges of whatever they reflect.

I am not really a landscape painter so do not have a big variety of images to show you, so I have selected one of Richard McKinley's lovely pictures, which absolutely does the job!  And another below it,  by Albert Handell.   Do study them with my comments in mind.


Wednesday, 18 June 2014


My Open Studio has finished now, and my house is back to normal.  Doing an Open Studio is fun, but be prepared for a lot of upheaval - and exhaustion!   Joining forces with an "Open Studio Trail" is a great way to show your work, and sell from home.  If you decide to try this one day, here are a few pointers:

  • Start well in advance, there is nothing worse than a show which looks thrown together at the last minute.

  • Use decent framing - don't put shabby frames on your work, it cheapens the look of everything. TIP:   If you have a local Ikea, you can pick up very inexpensive, modern frames from them, which make the work look great!  I believe presentation is important.  I provide beautiful little boxes, with tissue and ribbons, for my bowls, in case people want to give them as gifts.  Not everyone wants to have these, but it is nice to provide them just in case. 

  • Even if the organisers claim that they do lots of advertising and publicity, be prepared to do your own.  I put out posters galore all over my neighbourhood - they brought in lots of people.  Spread out leaflets in shops, garden centres, libraries, restaurants - printing these days can be done quite reasonably.

  • Price your work visibly, people don't like to have to ask the prices.  Type little labels, these look more professional than hand-written labels. 

  • make sure your lighting is good, so that the work can be seen at its best.

  • provide some snacks and drinks, visitors appreciate this

  • Try to find a way to accept credit cards.  A friend of mine processes credit cards for me.  I give people forms to fill in, check everything, and then type out a list for my friend the next day.

  • KEEP A VISITORS BOOK and ensure everyone fills it in.  This is vital, to help you build a mailing list for future events.

It is the little things like these which make a difference.  A number of people who came in to see my Open Studio, commented on some of these things, and said what a pleasure it was to visit me, as a result. 

I sold lots of work..........but do have three of my best paintings still. They can go into a gallery, but before I start driving around ,  I thought I might offer them up here, as I can send them out, unframed, for a fraction of what a gallery would charge for them.  They were much admired but of course were the most expensive items on offer, and people found cheaper alternatives!  I gave them too much choice, obviously!!!

So you have a chance to pick one up at a bargain price --- mounted, ready for framing at your end. 

The Craft Market - £200  ($300)  NOW SOLD

The ones below are $250
"sorting out the flower stall"
"Where shall I put this one?"

If interested, please send me an email, I can send you sizes, and shipping costs.


Tuesday, 27 May 2014


Not a teaching post today - instead,  an invitation.
If you live in the UK, you are more than welcome to pop along to my


Although the official Open Garden day is JUNE 8, I am also open for HARROW OPEN STUDIOS trail, on June 8, 9 and 15, and any day in between by appointment.  Please send me an email if you would like further information, directions, anything.  Send to jackiesdesk at

It is chance to see a really lovely garden, with 6 ornamental ponds with colourful fish (photo opportunity?)  and lush, mature planting...........and to see examples of my current creative works which include painting, ceramics, enamelling on copper - bowls and framed panels, and glass in various forms - dishes and jewellery.

All are welcome;  we are "wheelchair" friendly here too.  Please come, bring friends, it is an opportunity not just to see work but also to buy direct from the artist at artist's prices.  The sun might even shine on the day you come!!!!!!  If not, there will be shelter from the rain.

Here are a few examples, to whet your appetite.  People travel from all over the country to see gardens chosen by the National Gardens Scheme, so although I am 15 miles outside London, don't let that stop you if you live further afield.

trinket bowl, enamel on copper, cut to an organic shape
"Where shall I put this one?"
ceramic trinket bowl, glass interior
"The Craft Market" 
Fused glass pendants


a small corner of the garden

Sunday, 11 May 2014 do I get my pictures to sparkle?

It's a slightly strange word to use when talking about paintings, isn't it.  Why SHOULD a picture "sparkle"?  It is not a shiny piece of metal.........yet this elusive quality is something many people want to achieve, yet they find themselves producing images which seem somewhat dull and lifeless.

Actually -  there is nothing whatsoever wrong with a quiet, subtle image which relies on soft, muted tones - those tones which provide a very different kind of atmosphere, more contemplative perhaps.

I like strong contrasts of tone in my images, lots of drama and interest - I think I am a tonal painter at heart really, more than a colourist.  I find it quite difficult to make colour "speak" in the way that some artists are able to do, without using strong tonal contrasts.

For me, light (and shadow) is the key.  If I work with a wide range of tone, from very dark to very light with plenty of intermediate tones in between, I find that the picture automatically has the light and shade in it that gives me the element of sparkle - drama - call it what you will - that I might desire.

It amazes me how many people work from uninspiring subject matter, giving no thought to the light in the scene - only concerning themselves with the objects which make up the scene.

I also find that working on a dark ground is really helpful in this respect too.  When working with pastels, with marks which are not blended, but instead allowed to show underneath layers, a dark ground instantly provides deep, dark areas for my darkest shapes in the image, I do not have to build up layers of dark colours right from the beginning.  Try it for on a light ground, pale grey for instance, and then create the same image on black paper.  The result will be stunningly different.

Here is a new image, painted for my forthcoming Open Garden/Studio event next month.  It was worked onto black paper:  The sun plays an important role, illuminating the figures and the front part of the scene.  The dark interior of the flower stall was easy to achieve, allowing the dark of the paper to do its work, with very subtle, dark colour blocked in to suggest interior shapes.  It is a typical "Jackie Simmonds" with strong colours,  colour harmony and a hint of colour complements in there too, and above all,,  plenty of sparkle.  I am showing it in large form, so that you can really see the marks, and can see how the colour of the paper influences those marks.  Laid on thickly, one can disguise the colour of the paper.........but allowing it to show through even slightly, makes an impact. 

If you are someone who yearns for more punch in your images, why not try a dark ground.......and choose your subject matter for its contrast and drama..............and see if you can produce something which will sparkle and glow!

Send me a jpg of your finished piece.......I will do a follow up blog post to show the best ones.  If you can send it together with one you did earlier which did NOT have sparkle, it would be interesting to see, and show both.   Send them to me at jackiesdesk at

Monday, 28 April 2014


I have been sent a few questions lately about backgrounds, and I usually send people to my blog post here:

But I came across this post on WetCanvas, which offers excellent advice on backgrounds for portraits in particular.  It is well thought-out, and illustrated carefully to explain each point.

Given that I am under pressure for all sorts of reasons right now, rather than offer no blog at all, I thought I would at least offer you the opportunity to read some things about backgrounds that you might well find useful.  It is better than silence, methinks!

And to  stimulate your thoughts,  here are a few portraits with unusual "backgrounds" (and poses too).  Makes one think - why settle for a conventional head shot and a "neutral" background? can you "involve" the background with the character of the sitter?..and what do these choices make you think and feel?
Harold Pinter, by Justin Mortimer
J K Rowling by Stuart Pearson Wright

Johnathan Miller by Stephen Conroy

Alan Bennett by Tom Wood


Friday, 18 April 2014

COMMISSIONS............AND "how to feel miserable as an artist"

"Michaelangelo.........I am quite sure I told you that I wanted the ceiling to be magnolia........."

I recently spent an afternoon with an artist friend, who had been given a commission to undertake.  She was shaking like a leaf about the whole thing, really worried that whatever she did would be unacceptable.  
It is flattering to be given a commission based on someone's faith in you, but always, there is this hidden agenda with a commission ..... that whatever you produce will not be what the commission-er has in THEIR mind. 
 It may be best to explain to someone who gives you a commission, that you are an artist, not a machine, and therefore the results may slightly differ from what is expected, and that needs to be taken into account when the work is delivered. 

Which brings me to the thought that perhaps, with a commission for a client, rather than a chum or family member, it is a good idea to ask for some kind of non-refundable deposit. 


I failed to do this once.  I did the painting...showed it to my client when finished, she loved it, and asked me to have it framed.  When I eventually took the framed piece to her, she told me that her husband had refused to give her the money, so regretfully, she could not buy it.  I was a bit stunned.  But clearly, there was nothing to be done - she simply did not have the money.  I told her not to worry, I did not want to cause a row between husband and wife, so I would put it into my next exhibition.  "Oh no" she said  " you cannot do is MY garden in the picture and I do not want someone else to have it".  I am afraid I became irritated at that point, and explained, with some grittiness,  that the copyright was mine, and I would do with it as I saw fit.  If she did not want me to sell it, then she had to get her husband to buy it.  He refused, and that was that.  It was sold at the next exhibition.

So - when someone give you a commission , think fairly carefully about the fact that they just may refuse the finished work, for any number of reasons.    If you do not mind - no problem.   If you think you have an alternative audience - also perhaps no problem.  But if you have lots of inventory, and do not need the work for yourself, then having a safeguard in place could be very sensible.  If someone asks for a painting to be created specially for them, why not give them a small thumbnail sketch to show the idea for the image, and if they think that is acceptable, then ask for a sizeable non-refundable deposit before embarking on hours of work on their behalf.   This should be perfectly acceptable to your buyer, if they are honest and straightforward.  Be professional - and remember to value yourself properly.

Sable the greyhound.  Commission done for family birthday gift.  I rarely paint either portraits or animals - not my thing really - but I was caught on a good day and said yes.  Sable is rather gorgeous, so slim and lithe.

After the stress of trying to achieve what would be an acceptable "portrait" of Sable  (it was, luckily, accepted and loved), I created this little enamelled copper plate for myself:

Below - I recently spotted this.     You might find some of these things quite revealing!  And possibly a good fit in some cases.......
With thanks to Melissa Manley for these useful thoughts. (
The bowing to outside pressure, No. 7,  fits me right now...this year has been a bit of a nightmare and I apologise for blog absences.  I have done my best to find some thoughts now and then but it has not been as regular as I might have wanted.