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.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Composition pitfalls

Away again only with access to iPad so please forgive lack of images!

I recently did a critique of painting of a village scene.  There was a cottage on the left of the scene which dropped down behind a big verge, so the doorway was partly hidden and the roof very low. The result of drawing this accurately was that the cottage looked far too small with a strange low door.  This is a common result of being too I explained to the artist, sometimes what looks normal in three dimensions, simply does not translate onto the flat two dimensional paper or canvas surface.  We need to be careful of this kind of pitfall. I believe there is a name for this kind of visual anomaly but it escape know what I mean tho...the telegraph pole sticking out of the walkers head and other similar visual fun things we often get in photos! Degas said "even in front of nature one must compose".

Design conviction.  It does take time for every artist to begin to see "design possibilities" rather than just  " lovely sunset" or "colourful buildings". But it really is a vital part of your development and I encourage everyone to take their learning about this very, very seriously.  You need to ask yourself questions about how you have placed the shapes within the rectangle. Not just the story, not just the content. To help yourself, turn your picture upside down, this helps enormously.  Does it split instantly into two halves? Does the subject matter "float" in a sea of emptiness?   Is it a picture with too many disparate shapes which have no relationship with each other?  What could you adjust to give a more cohesive look?  Try your hardest to see the image as a set of shapes.  Squint a LOT.

Also ...Mechanical Patterns.  It is easy to line up things like trees ...and other elements... like soldiers, spaces between all equal and boring.  Remember, you are not a camera and can move things so that they look interesting and not mechanical.

Bad Flow.  They artist needs to ensure that the viewer is not just directed around the painting carefully but is also pointed, in some way, to a focal area or centre of interest.  Sounds obvious but when caught up In The flow of painting, often the "visual flow" is unconsidered.

Too Busy.  Less shapes means more clarity.    Look critically at your picture when it is upside down.  Is it a mass of loads of random small shapes?  Can you visually join any of those shapes to make one larger shape?  You may be able to bring tones closer together and soften edges in order to do this.

Weak foreground.   All too often, the foreground is neither considered as an important shape, or as an important part of the design at all, be cause it is not the main subject of the picture.  But it IS an important element, even if it is a patch of nothingness, a tabletop. a road or an area of water or a field.  It is still a shape.  A shape at the base of the picture.  Don't leave it as a weak, unconsidered shape because you cannot think quite how to handle it.

Same applies to the dreaded "background", often the subject of much heartache for the still life or portrait painter.  Instead of thinking "background", think"shape" ...the background areas are just as much shapes as any other shape within the rectangle.

Friday, 21 March 2014


Girls playing on rocks, of course.........but do you feel the sunlight, the warmth, their intense concentration?
That elusive thing..............inspiration...............what inspires you?  And when you paint, do you focus on what inspires you or do you focus on techniques and materials and the business of "how" to?  

So many artists -and not all of them beginners - have a fascination with equipment and materials.  I have been approached so many times when demonstrating and asked what I was if having those items will ensure the production of a similar image.    Of course, what you use and how you use your equipment is part of the process..........but it is nowhere near as important as what inspires you.  It is NOT the materials which make a good painting, or good is what is going on in your mind and in your heart.  That particular brush, or pastel stick, will make no difference.

I recently "critiqued" an artist's work - she had painted a landscape, half of which was a large area of grey tarmac.  The road began at the bottom of the work, and curved into the picture, disappearing behind a central clump of of three clumps - one at the left border, one in the middle of the pic, and one at the right border.

She had picked up a photo and copied it.  yes, I know, I bang on about this...........but when I asked her what had "inspired" her about this particular scene, it stopped her in her tracks.  the answer is, of course, that she had not really been "inspired" at all.  the photo just looked easy enough to tackle.   The result was a picture of a road.  It was somewhat peaceful, because the road was empty, after all............but all I could think of was that it was the kind of road that big lorries and trucks would use, and any minute now the peace would be shattered by a large, smelly, noisy truck roaring along.  The composition was poor - the placement of those three clumps of trees was yawn-making, the sky was dull.  IF THE SUBJECT IS DULL YOUR PAINTING WILL BE DULL. 

nice shapes, pretty colours on the flowers...........flat, uninspiring light

So - inspiration.  What is it for you?  It varies from person to person of course.  I can only talk about what inspires me.  One of the elements of a scene which I inevitably find inspiring is THE LIGHT.  The particular details of the scene are often subordinate, for me,  to what the light is doing. 

The difference between the taking of a photo - ie capturing a particular picture-postcard "view", and being inspired by the subject as having potential for a painting, is how the scene makes you feel.  For me, I need that little frisson of excitement I feel when I suddenly get a sense of the scene's potential - and it is often the quality of light in the scene that does it for me.  I want to create a painting that shows not just the way the scene looked, but if possible, even the way it felt to be there too.

Aha - gorgeous light on the petals, interesting shadows and depths.....I can feel my inspiration bubbling to the surface!

This one is more about the light and atmosphere in the scene than it is about the dancers.  Of course, I worked from a photo...but I had been there, lurking in the wings alongside the dancers in the shadows, occasionally hit by brilliant light when the curtains parted and the dancers went on stage. I felt their nerves, their excitement.    I hope I managed to capture some of those sensations as well as an interesting scene.

Incidentally............"light" does not always mean SUNlight. 

Here,  daylight is filtering through the windows, giving a backlit scene;   colour is subdued, and shadows deep and dark, which adds to the intimacy of the atmosphere


Even a grey, rainy day can have some the light is just beginning to brighten on the right, and the wet ground reveals interesting reflections, courtesy of the light in the sky.  It was the softness of the light, together with the fun element of the umbrellas which echo the curving forms in the building, that inspired this scene.  the colours were not as seen, they have been changed for the sake of pictorial unity.

So - before sitting down to copy a photo, for no reason other than it happens to be handy - do have a think about what it is that INSPIRED you to paint.  See if you can communicate that inspiration to your audience.


Thursday, 13 March 2014

Fighting through creative blocks

At the present moment, I am struggling with what feels like a huge creative painting block.  I decided to admit this to you, dear readers, because I believe we all sometimes go through times in our lives when it is difficult to concentrate, feel relaxed, and be creative - for all sorts of different reasons.

At the moment, as I said in my last blog post, I am struggling with some family issues, which involve hospitals and treatments which are not going smoothly.  My mind is very preoccupied with worry and upset, so it becomes more and more difficult to concentrate on my work...........and yet, I do recognise the need to work because without it, I would have no other focus other than my current problems and difficulties, problems over which I have little or no control.

So - when it happens to you......and it might ....what to do?

Of course, coping strategies vary from person to person and I can only tell you about mine.  I find it helpful to do "practical" things, which do not require a lot of creative energy and input. Yesterday, I tidied my workspace.   Today, I spent time with a plasma cutter and some copper bowls, terrifying myself with a new bit of kit, bought before Christmas but I have been too nervous to use it;  Today I bit the bullet and spent time cutting interesting shapes in the metal while at the same time, trying not to cut interesting shapes out of my fingers!  THAT took my mind off my worries, I can tell you!     Then, I had to spend time filing off all the rough edges - pretty mindless work, but time-consuming.  Here is one I made earlier!

At other times, I have worked on creating some enamel panels, allowing myself to "freewheel", responding purely to the pieces as they developed and came out of the kiln with unexpected results. I have wrecked a few - but that's ok, we all create duds sometimes.  I like some of them but I suspect that they may not sell well at my forthcoming "Open Studio"- abstract works are not popular with my particular audience  -however selling stuff is something I cannot focus on too much or the stress levels will shoot right up - it has to be "Que sera, sera".  What will be, will be.
"Stormscape"  Enamel on copper, 6"x6"

"Summer Heat"  Enamel on copper  6"x6"
"Silent Path"  Enamel on copper 6"x6"
"Skydrift"  Enamel on copper 6"x6"

I recognise that agonising over NOT painting, NOT feeling inspired, NOT being creative "enough" will simply deplete what little energy I have right now.  I have to trust that gradually, as things in my life change, so too will my creative life-force.  In the meantime...........I will work on my craft items, they occupy me gently, in a quite different way to painting, somehow. I will do things which do not "matter" too much.    It is important, I feel, to take  lots of deep breaths, when the going is tough.  And to spend time doing other things..... tidying up in the studio - very rewarding - fiddling, doodling, experimenting,  having few expectations and allowing that to be OK.   

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

YOU are in charge!

Once again apologies for absence, I am dealing with a few family stresses.

However, I will just make a brief comment here while I have five minutes spare between appointments. Am working on an iPad so no ability to add pics sorry!

I was recently told off because I commented, on an art forum, about the ghastly frock painted by someone at a life class.  The artist in question admitted that the model had been given an old costume dress to wear which was really ugly. While the portrait was good...and I said as much...the dress took all the attention, being bright red and truly awful with huge bones down the front, bearing no relationship to a woman's shape.

My comments about the dress were taken by some to be too "harsh" yet the critics ignored my praise for the portrait face!  Luckily I was not the recipient of these complaints which were made secretly...but they were passed on to me.

One comment made was that perhaps the artist was disabled, could therefore not move position and was forced to paint a full frontal view even if the dress was ghastly.  While I take the point about some artists being disabled....this is not the issue at all. And brings me to the point of this story.

 Even if you cannot change your position, you always have a choice about what to paint.

Is there a filthy old dustbin in your scene?  Leave it out.  Too many similar spaces between a row of trees making them look like a line of soldiers?  Adjust the distances.  Model wearing an ugly dress? Zom in and paint a portrait, stopping at the neck!  I could go on and on with examples.....the point is you are an artist, not a camera, and you have a choice about what you paint the tones, the colours, the subject ...they are all yours to command.

Monday, 10 February 2014

thoughts about colour

Carnevale, Venice.  Colours chosen deliberately to emphasise the quality of drama and a certain air of sinister mystery
It is all too easy to get caught up in the subject, as a painter, without thinking too much about how adjusting the colours we see, could lead to a totally different response from our viewer.  It is difficult enough, isn't it, to reproduce what we see in the real world, using pigments on a canvas or sheet of paper, without having to think about the influence of the colour.

In my early days as a painter, I went on a painting holiday.  Then, I would try to paint the world around me, just doing my best to get the drawing right, and the tones and colours as right as possible.  The tutor commented that I was a "tonal painter" rather than a "colourist".  At that time, I really did not know what he meant.  I was painting what I thought I saw, surely that was enough?

It is only much later on in life that I have realised that I was making no artistic decisions about the colour - I was simply copying what I saw.  I did not recognise, then,  what a massive impact colour has on the viewer, but I do now, so I often adjust my images to take advantage of the psychological impact of colour.

Well, you may argue...all colours have a certain "duality" -  blue is a good case in point may speak of peace and the calmness of a clear blue sky to one, but it may also signify  depression to another!    So why not just paint what you see?

Here is a rather amusing little colour story for you :

Viagra, a diamond-shaped blue pill, was introduced in 1997. It immediately became an overnight sensation- one of the most successful prescription medications in the pharmaceutical history – with sales of the drug totalling $1.74 billion in one year alone. In 2002, the marketing groups of a rival product, Levitra, brainstormed the issue of colour for their brand. The purpose was to figure out "how to beat the blues," referring to Viagra's sky-blue tablets.

Extensive market research concluded that consumers didn't "resonate with the imagery" of Viagra. They found that the blue colour was too cool and was equated with being sick. The goal was to come up with an enticing color and logo for Levitra. After extensive testing, the team presented Levitra's colour: orange, an extremely vibrant and energetic colour. And the logo? An orange and purple flame.    !!

In conclusion, colour does indeed matter - 80% of visual information is related to colour. Colour is functional. Colour subliminally and overtly communicates information.
So do bear in mind, when you create a painting, that the colours you CHOOSE (which may not necessarily be the colours you SEE in real life) will almost certainly have an impact on the feelings of your audience.  There is plenty of information to be found in libraries and on line about the psychological impact of certain colours...and many colours may have more than one resonance.....but trust your instincts rather than follow set rules or ideas.  Turn your work - and reproductions of paintings in books - upside down...try to view the COLOUR as something quite separate from the subject matter, and see how the colour makes you feel.  There are all sorts of feelings the colour might engender....warmth, chill, peace, discomfort, power, sexuality, vigour, excitement, fear, confidence, unhappiness, optimism..........I could go on and on.  It can be interesting - and revealing - to examine one's own feelings in relation to the colour seen.
Take a look at this painting - I have reproduced it here in two different colour ways.  Do they make you feel quite different...or not?

Perhaps sensitivity to colour is rather like sensitivity to musical notes where some individuals can tune instruments easier than others, some folk dream in colour and some remember colour easily while others desire to train their colour discernment to high levels of sensitivity. Sensitivity to all elements of life is the key that opens a door to deeper appreciation.


Thursday, 30 January 2014


Well, I am back in the saddle, if a bit distracted!  So today I will just offer a few simple suggestions, learned along the way, which some may find useful. 


I recently completed a painting which showed three fellows dressed in black.  To give the impression of light falling on black fabric, I used a fairly dark purple for the "lit" areas.  Anything lighter would have taken away the integrity of the tone value of the black fabric. 

The same thing applies in reverse....let's say you had a person in a white shirt in your picture.  There are shadows where the person faces away from the sun.  You need to use a tone to depict the shadow on white...go too dark, and somehow you "lose" the whiteness of the shirt.  You may only need to use a couple of tones "down" from white, to suggest shadow.


Take a look at the light patches on the men's clothing in both pics, and compare to the shadows on the whites.

A photo may show these tonal changes to be far more dramatic.  DO NOT TRUST THE PHOTO!!!  As I say so very often, a camera cannot properly expose for both the lit areas, AND the dark areas of a scene.  It will give priority to one or the other.  Your eye is much more clever.


You may have been told to squint.  Perhaps you wondered why.  It is not an should be part of your arsenal of tools.  Squinting simplifies things, and gives a general feeling of the values and shapes you see before you.   A good way to use squinting, is to use it to compare areas.  Squint like crazy and see what still pops out at you.  This is really important information.  You may think that the lightest part of your scene is one might be something else entirely and will come as a surprise when you squint.   Also, squinting takes away certain unimportant complications - like how many bricks in the wall, how many leaves on the bush.  These elements may be unimportant in the grand design.  Try to make squinting second nature to you.


Trying to achieve a particular style is pointless.  It will happen anyway.  There is no right or wrong way to go about achieving a particular look to your work.  It is all about growth as an artist, and will happen automatically.  Relax about it.


You use them all the time.  Does this surprise you?  You might think of yourself as a totally figurative painter.  You may actively DISLIKE abstraction, and abstract paintings.  You may feel that abstraction is boring because it represents nothing in particular.  Well, actually, you are working with abstract shapes all the time.  The shadow on the side of the tree is an abstract shape - draw it without drawing the rest of the tree and what do you have?  An abstract shape.  Thing is, you need to observe that shape PROPERLY to get it right, and for it to "knit" with the rest of the shapes within the image, to create a recognisable form.  If you draw your shapes with accuracy, and sensitivity, you will find your work strengthened as a result.

In fact, a figurative and an abstract artist may have more in common than might be obvious.   As the figurative painter stares at his subject, he may, as his experience develops,  begin to notice subtle connections and rhythms , echoing shapes and forms, things which are invisible at first glance, but which reveal themselves to the sensitive eye of the painter.  It is these abstract shapes, balances and rhythms which will bring the painting to life.  For example, the way the shape of a group of trees echoes the shapes of the clouds;  the way the angle of a leg leads us into the picture, and the opposing angle of an arm prevents us from moving too quickly out of the picture;  the way our eye is drawn to a colour or tone contrast in an important focal area- subtle stuff, but there to be found and used.     The subject matter could be thought of as the "top layer", but at the same time, the abstract or formal pictorial elements can provide a fascinating further layer of interest.  The feed-back between subject matter, and these underlying pictorial elements, will give the image its unique inventiveness. 


I am often asked, by non-artists, if I could "always draw", as if any ability I have is therefore a "gift".  When I explain to them that actually, no, I couldn't always draw, that I have had to work hard to refine any skills I may now appear to have, they look quite sceptical.  "But surely it isn't possible to teach someone how to draw....I could never be taught, I cannot even draw a straight line" is the next comment............and so I patiently explain that if I told them a story in a foreign language, they would not understand the story.........but if they had learned the language, they would be able to understand the story..........and some comprehension, if not full belief, dawns.  Reluctantly. "Well perhaps you are right.  But....      (always comes the "but").   Then they say " It must be a wonderfully relaxing thing to do" .  No, I say, it is about as relaxing as bathing a cat. And  I leave them to chew on that for a while........
I wonder how you deal with these questions.  They seem unavoidable to me.

I will leave you to mull over these few little thoughts, and hope to come up with something a bit more meaty for the next post!!!


Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Apologies for absence

I have had a number of emails asking why no blog?

I am out of the country and rather preoccupied with running to and from a hospital for medical treatment for my daughter.  I will resume on my return... A week or two.

Sorry about the gap!

Apologies for absence

I have had a number of emails asking why no blog?

I am out of the country and rather preoccupied with running to and from a hospital for medical treatment for my daughter.  I will resume on my return... A week or two.

Sorry about the gap!

Thursday, 12 December 2013


I have just received the most disturbing email from the wife of Paul Millichip, the painter.

In a blog post, I used one of his paintings to demonstrate a point...and said, as I fully believed, that he was sadly no longer with us.

His wife says he is alive and well and still whoever told me he had died was very much mistaken, and now, of course, I feel dreadful to have repeated that information.  I cannot remember who told me, I just remember the content of the conversation.  It did not occur to me to double-check its veracity.....I could never imagine anyone giving out that kind of information incorrectly.

I can do nothing to patch up this horrible situation other than to say how very sorry I am that I should have reported incorrectly.............and HOW VERY DELIGHTED I AM THAT A TALENTED, IMPORTANT PAINTER SUCH AS PAUL is still alive and well.

If you are unfamiliar with his work, do look him up - his work is very interesting indeed, and very special.

Paul Milichip, Painter
My paintings carry through my idea of dynamic space; in my work I use the space surrounding objects and figures to exert reciprocal pressure throughout the picture. There are no negative spaces and I use this abstract concept in a figurative context. I use watercolour with collage and crayon to create the fluidity which my concept requires but I also use oils, mainly for larger works.
I have exhibited widely since my first London exhibition in Gallery One and my paintings have been bought for public collections, including The Arts Council of Great Britain, Leicester Museum, Liverpool University, Durham County Museum, Nuffield foundation, Buckinghamshire County Gallery and Milton Keynes Corporation together with many private collections.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Painting children - from photos

I just wanted to pick up this subject yet again.....since I have noticed recently that SO many people on the forums I visit are now working from photos, and they simply just don't understand many of the problem issues involved.

I had a bit of correspondence recently with one lovely lady recently, who listened to what I had to say when I pointed out that she was sticking rather rigidly to the photo, and not taking the anatomy of the figure into account at all.  The shadows on the figure were destroying the form, and the painting was suffering because she was copying exactly what she saw in the photo, without thinking it through at all.  She admitted as much to me, and thanked me  for my help,  but at the same time, told me that she had received messages of private support from other forum users, who felt that I was being a bit hard on her by even MENTIONING the word "anatomy" and for suggesting that she try certain improvements.

When tackling images of children, it is important to take into account things like anatomy...for instance, a child's head, in relation to its body, is much larger than an adult's head in relation to an adult body.  Also, working from a photo, where the child has stared into the camera, and perhaps smiled, will inevitably look rather unnatural, because it is UNTYPICAL.  Children rarely sit and stare rigidly at people. Or smile at them incessantly.  If caught staring, they usually start to look shifty, or distinctly uncomfortable!

A smiley photo might be fine for the family album, but looking at a smile in a painting becomes uncomfortable after a while, and it absolutely underlines the fact that the image is a copy of a photo - and is therefore likely to be less good than the photo !  it begs the question - why paint the image rather than blow up the photo and frame it?  

Once you begin to paint, if you are not a very experienced figure painter, you will soon realise that your lack of knowledge of structure and anatomy is likely to be a hindrance...because the figure is not there for you to check , so you end up slavishly copying the only thing you have - the photo - which is often inadequate.  Photos can distort features, flatten colours, and give you exaggerated contrasts of tone.  Sunlight can bleach out detail, making faces and hands and other uncovered skin tones, look like plastic.  Shadows can meld together, making dark shapes which make no sense if copied rigidly.  

My suggestion, if you want to paint kids, and paint from photos...
  • take, and choose your photos really well. 
  • Take more than one shot from different angles.   
  • Kids at play will give you a more animated scene than a staring face and will say lots about their characters too, a scene tells a story.  
  • Make sure the scene is well lit, light from one side is often best - 
  • flash straight into a face is an absolute no-no, it is just awful.

If you work from more than one photo, putting a figure into a different background for instance, check the angle and direction of any sunlight very carefully. You need to check proportions carefully too.

If all this sounds like hard work, well, so be it.  If you want a good painting, you need to do more than just take out a photo and copy it.

And do not always need the face to show.  None of my images here have faces....yet the parents would recognise their kids in a heartbeat.  And there are just as many memories, if not more, in a "scene" as in a portrait.  I look at the portrait photos of my children as babies, and they become almost anonymous after a while........whereas the paintings of my kids at play, bring back the moment, and the memory.

Monday, 25 November 2013


Firstly, apologies for my absence.  I have had to replace my studio computer, which holds all of my images.  Hopefully, my technician will be able to recover all the image files....a salutary lesson about having a good backup system!

So, today's blog post will concentrate on a couple of important things I have noticed when doing critique sessions for artists at local art clubs and what I have seen recently on line on art websites.

Beginners to painting ...and sometimes even more experienced painters....often complain of not having enough time to do anything worthwhile.   I remember well, when I used to teach a regular weekly class, that I would give everyone a little "homework".  One lady never, ever did anything outside of the class, she always maintained that she was FAR too busy...chairlady of the golf club, seeing her grandchildren, lunching with friends...there was always a reason.  At the end of a year, she complained that she was making far slower progress than everyone else in the class...looking rather accusingly at me as she said this, the implication being that it was clearly my fault!!!  When I pointed out to her that she never, ever, worked outside the classroom, so she did no more than 2 hrs a week, which meant that in a 30-lesson year, she had actually given herself only 60 hours in which to work....while everyone else had managed to find time to practice during the week, so they mostly managed about 10 hours a week =  300 hours in the year!!!  What a huge difference, and of course they were making better progress!  

Painting is all about experience, and DOING.  If you only give yourself permission to work for half an hour every so often, you should not expect to make great progress, and shrugging your shoulders and saying "well, I know it is only rough, and the proportions aren't right,  but I had no time to do better,  no time to do any more than a quick sketch"   just doesn't cut the mustard if what you want to see is development and improvement. 


When kids begin to draw, say, trees, they paint lollipops.  A stick, with a big bubble at the top.  Interestingly to me, I see adult beginners doing this too!  Even when they are sitting in front of a tree...they will paint what they THINK it should look like, rather than what they see.  It is possibly because they are rather nervous of looking hard, and attempting to put down the shapes that they can is all rather daunting and they resort to an approximation of a tree.

Their time would be better spent really looking hard at the shape of the tree, the way the light hits the tree, how the "clumps" of leaves group together and are seen as a shape;  how the leaves and branches part here and there to show sky;  how a tree has a filigree edge - here is a simple progression of a tree drawing:
Not a complex or particularly difficult drawing process, but this is a particular tree;  consideration has been given to its "portrait" ;   the way the trunk leans;  the way light hits the  trunk; the way the trunk branches, and where;  the effect of adding just tiny marks to suggest leaves, and then, at the very end, and few little specific leaf shapes on the right.  It is definitely not a lollipop on a stick!
So - the moral of the story is... give yourself TIME to practice.  And when you practice, sharpen up your observation, don't be sloppy and fall back on what you think is there, "feed" yourself with good experience - good food, which will make you develop in a healthy way, rather than junk food in the form of half-hearted practice which relies on lack of experience and childhood "memories".
It will pay dividends if you take yourself, and your dedication to learning, seriously.  It can be really fun as well as sometimes frustrating, but will give you much more satisfaction, that is for sure, than just doodling for half an hour and throwing it to one side, saying, "well, I know this is a bit rubbishy, but I just don't have any more time.  At least I did something".  Something, yes, but possibly a rather pointless something, imho.
Time is elastic.  The choice is yours how you spend your time.

Saturday, 9 November 2013


Well, ok, not IN the rain exactly......tho I remember well painting under an archway in Venice, when it was pouring with rain....I ended up with soaked legs, chilled body, and annoyance with wet people who would come too close and drip over my shoulder, and onto my kit....:(   But luckily my sketch was not too badly affected!
Flags and rain, Venice.  Gouache on tinted paper

The joy of painting in difficult weather conditions is that one has to plunge in and make the best of it before the conditions change and the scene alters dramatically.  No time for dithering.  While it might be really difficult at the time for any number of reasons, if you look back at your work later, you will find an authenticity about it, the essence of the scene will communicate itself to your audience in a subliminal way, it is quite fascinating.  Working from a photo in a dry studio is totally different  - while you may be lucky enough to get what you wanted, you may well find yourself rather dissatisfied without knowing quite why.   Turner maintained that only by experiencing the full fury of the heavens can an artist convey such atmosphere in his work. I am not suggesting you emulate him by having yourself lashed to a ship's mast in a howling gale ...but you can work from a doorway, a car (ideally with the window open) from under a bridge or archway, from a window.

This image below was painted from a hotel window, which overlooked this great scene.  I was comfortable and dry, luckily the room (which was the one used by Whistler in the dim and distant past) had big windows - and lino on the floor, so pastel dust was not a problem.  It is a full-scale picture rather than a sketch, I set up an easel, and had at it for quite a while.  Of course, the light was very "flat", but the wetness on the top edges of the bridge gave me a lighter tone to set the bridge apart from the rest, and the reflections in the foreground were such a gift.  I loved painting this and even tho I was cross about the rain,far preferring sunlit scenes,  in fact, it gave me a kick to paint something I would never normally tackle.
Rain on the Arsenale bridge, Venice.  Pastel on paper

The experience of painting "on the spot" in the rain, was helpful when I returned home from the trip, resulting in this image below, done from sketches and a variety of photos (seldom do people arrange themselves perfectly, in the right place, wearing the right colours!  Notice how the orange is echoed throughout the image - MY choice, not what was there):  Notice how the sky is lightening on the right - something I was aware of at the time and was able to employ in this image.  A flat uniformly-coloured sky would not have been quite so interesting.

St Marks Square in the rain, pastel on paper

Interestingly, I found I did not actually need to paint the rain itself.   A watercolourist can do marvellous technical things to give a sense of driving rain, tilting a picture so that dark pigment drifts down to suggest rain -a technique not for the faint-hearted incidentally -  but my scenes did not seem to need that at all.  The reflections and the umbrellas tell the whole story.   It might be different if I was someone who liked to depict long distance scenes with heavy sky and driving rain - I am confident this can be done with pastels, but would certainly practice a number of different techniques before committing pastel to my final piece of paper.

So, while I appreciate that you may be frustrated by my lack of instruction in how how "paint rain", I just want to encourage you to get out there and DO IT, overcoming any reluctance you may feel.    There is no set formula for painting rain anyway, you have to observe the scene and decide how you can make it work.  Be prepared....get some plastic over-trousers - legs somehow always end up drenched if you are outdoors - put on some sturdy waterproof shoes,  and allow yourself to really experience the whole thing! It is, actually, easier to work from an undercover position than from a car unless you can open the window...rain will splatter car windows and make it very tricky to see what you are doing.  Some artists use hatchback cars and sit inside with the hatch open, painting the scene from the back of the car - that can work well if you can get yourself comfortably into position.  The best place tho, is under a canopy or shelter of some kind -set up an easel,  ignore the watchers and get on with the fun.  And it IS fun. You will learn a lot more than just using a photo...nothing beats direct experience.

Sunday, 27 October 2013


Seated Girl.  Notice how the lines vary in presssure;  how "searching lines" are left visible; how the structure/musculature is explored.
Today I want to show you the work of an artist I really admire, Victor Ambrus, and share with you some of his writings.   I am picking out what I feel are a few important elements to take on board when you tackle figure drawings.

Victor makes a strong mention of the fact that he was taught anatomy at college, and it has remained with him always, as a basis for his drawing.  He believes it is something which should always be at the back of your mind when you are working, and should be evident "under the skin" in the drawings.  He says "whether you draw an arm or a leg you should ask yourself what is going on under the surface.  If you try and follow the muscles in your mind, it will help enormously".  If you are unfamiliar with the muscles of the human form, there are plenty of books to study - and fascinating they are too.

He also warns (as I always do) about thinking of the figure as a shape with AN OUTLINE.  In fact, no figure has an outline as such, and if monotonously drawn, it is like putting wire around the figure -creating an EDGE -  something my old tutor always warned against too, and it is something which sticks firmly in my mind.   Victor says "Tone should never stop at the outline, but move in and out of the background, as well as being used to describe and bring out the forms of the body". The biggest no-no, in fact, is to draw an outline for the figure, and then proceed to "colour it in" with tone. Producing purely a monotonous outline only would be much like drawing a flat, cardboard cut-out stage scenery figure without any 3 dimensional form.

You can see an "outline" of the figure here...but see now the line "comes and goes", in some instances, melting into the surroundings, in others, strongly emphasised, in others, lightly drawn.

Victor says every drawing should be carefully composed.  Don't just plonk your figure in the middle of a sea of white paper.  Composition starts with your selection of the angle from which you are going to work.  For instance, the model facing you full on may be much more interesting in half profile - if you are doing a class, move around, choose a good location - hold up a viewing rectangle and look thro it, to select your angle for the pose.  Think about how you will place the figure on the paper...landscape or upright?  Whole figure or just a part?  Where will you have the main, focal area, the punchy part of the image?  This could be a carefully drawn arm or leg, or just the dark black tone of a girl's hair.

Great masters like Holbein often drew in almost pure line, with very little tone.  But he did not use a monotonous line...the line would "come and go" by varying the pressure.  This allows for emphasis in some areas rather than monotony.  Becoming sensitive to where to use heavier pressure, and where to use lighter pressure, takes time, but try, perhaps,  to notice where the main weight might be in the pose, and in that area, it may be right to use heavier pressure, and if the light is bouncing off the figure, hardly any line at all might best describe this effect.  "search out" lightly in the early stages - Victor often leaves his early "search lines" in place.

This is a mostly- line drawing of a young man with long hair.  Notice the  x hatching on the arms and head, which show the structure beneath.  Also notice that the lines follow the form,  - he does not just sweep a line along to show an arm.....the intense observation of changes in direction help to show the muscles - and see how the weight of the line alters throughout.

Getting correct proportions is so important, it cannot be repeated often enough.  You need to know how to measure, and you need to check, check and check again.  Do this in the early stages of your drawing, and it will save much heartache later on.

Victor's drawings are done using carbon pencil, charcoal pencil or charcoal - for a reason.  He finds carbon pencil a more definite medium than regular graphite lead pencils.  It gives a rich black, instead of the silvery tone of graphite.  It mixes well with charcoal and black conte crayon.  However, it draws very dark unless held lightly (which takes us back to weight of the line - you may need to practice drawing both lightly, and more heavily).    Victor never works on a smooth surface, he prefers a paper with a bit of texture.

Here we can see the texture of the paper, and the way the pencil is used on its side to create tone.  We can also see how carefully he has observed his subject.

How do you hold your pencil?  There are two ways, believe it or not.  Victor will use the point for more precise, descriptive areas....but for quick sketching, he will hold the pencil on its side to apply a softer, bolder line, and also to apply areas of tone, which can be lightly touched in, or can be heavily applied.  If you have never tried this, I do recommend it.  Instead of holding the pencil in the normal way, between forefinger and thumb, you hold it as you might hold a brush for oil painting - with all your fingers over the top or underneath of the pencil..  It is worth practicing using the pencil differently, if you have always held it in the same way - the "tripod" method shown here:.
holding the usual way
Holding like a brush - and incidentally...notice how monotonous the outline is, by comparison with the drawings above?  It is a perfect example to show how sensitivity of weight of line can make all the difference!

I could go on an on - but a blog post would be boring if it went on for pages.  This should be enough to get you thinking a little about a few aspects of drawing the figure.   I will come back to you with more thoughts on this subject at a later date......

Monday, 14 October 2013


CROPPING is, arguably, a rather drastic way to "correct" an unsatisfactory image, particularly if you have
finished that picture!  However, finding a new image by cropping can feel very creative, and rather satisfying too, particularly if the picture is bugging you, or doesn't meet the demands of your "inner taskmaster".

Of course, if you had started with a good thumbnail sketch, you probably would never need to resort to such drastic action - but then again, even with the best will in the world, we sometimes find ourselves (I am talking about myself here, I realise.........) dissatisfied and wanting to make changes.

As you can see, I did finish this image, called "Fixing her hair".  But I was never really happy with it. Although I rather liked all the interesting echoing angles within the image,   I just did not like the girls on the right of the picture.    So I have tried a crop.  The resulting image pleases me more, but I still do feel I should have spent more time on my original thumbnail!   It is an image which will never see the light of day.   It is quite fascinating and revealing tho, as an exercise, to see what a crop can achieve and the change it can make to the atmosphere of an image..

Here is another example.    This time, it involves the use of TRACING.    I had a model at home, did lots of sketches, took photos, and eventually put together this image, as I particularly liked the idea of two dancers together -  so I asked my model to pose in different ways, wearing different dresses.  I composed from my reference material, starting with a rough thumbnail:

I went on to produce a full-scale painting.

I really did not like it at all.  I kept hoping I would........but I just didn't, I felt it was all WRONG.  I liked some of the elements of counterchange (dark against light, light against dark) and I liked the feeling of light in the image and some of the echoing angles throughout the image, but the girl on the floor bothered me a lot, the drawing wasn't right, the pose stiff, I suspected that two different camera angles didn't help one bit.    There is no connection between the seated and standing dancers.  I had to either bin it, or rescue it.

I tried a rescue.  Since I disliked the girl on the floor so much, I decided to get rid of her.  But to make sure I might like the end result, I decided to use some TRACING PAPER to test a new image.  Cropping alone would have been difficult because of the seated dancer's legs- so I used Schmincke pastel tracing paper- and replaced the seated dancer's legs with chair legs and floor.  I worked over the tracing with colour, cut it out and tried it in situ:

here is the section of the painting, with the tracing paper positioned over the top:

I feel this could possibly make a successful image -  unless I can find a better way to sort out the seated dancer.

And so I tried the tracing paper technique again.  Rather than fiddle with the painting, I tried out a different rescue tactic, changing her head so that she looks up at the standing dancer (I would not crop off the standing dancer's head like this, incidentally).  The result gives, I feel, considerably better emotional content, and therefore could be an alternative "fix".

I cannot say that I achieved total satisfaction with either image, to be honest.....but at least I found some options for change.  If you find that you produce some images which just don't feel right, then perhaps it is worth trying out some rescue tactics, to see if you can find alternative images within your first attempt, so that you do not feel you have totally wasted your time.  Sometimes, you will discover a more concentrated, intimate composition, with a good strong balance of shapes and tones, which can be a lovely surprise.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013


This week, I have to confess to standing on my soapbox. Possibly I may be accused, by some, of being a spoilsport, or pedantic, or lecturing.

But it is something I feel quite strongly about, so I will plough ahead and if my words resonate for someone, somewhere, I will be satisfied with that.

Lots of beginners yearn to paint portraits of their loved ones.  While I understand the impulse to leap into the deep end, and just do it, in particular if they have a photo they love and want to copy, nevertheless, I want to persuade beginners to realise that the best way to discourage yourselves is to set yourself up for disappointment.

I recently spotted someone asking for help with a portrait painting.  This person had no experience of drawing or painting in their chosen medium, yet they decided to jump straight in with copying a photo of their child.  The drawing was a reasonable attempt, but without any knowledge of the underlying anatomy of the human head and how to draw particular features, without any understanding of the possibilities available with techniques, without any appreciation of the need for good tone values ...the end result is likely to be a huge disappointment, since there is no way it will be an improvement on the photo.  The image above is a good case in point and I do not think I need to go into details about why this is not a particularly good drawing despite the artist's valiant attempts.
Jumping into the deep end like this, can be compared to attempting to play a complex piece on the piano, to an audience, when you have only just bought the piano and learned the basics of piano playing, and are still unpractised with reading music!

I know this sounds a bit hard, because everyone needs to start somewhere...but all I want to make you understand is that if you find yourself disappointed with your results, it is not necessarily to do with any lack of talent on your part, it is purely to do with lack of learning, and experience.
Portraits are arguably the most difficult of subjects to paint. I, with all my years of experience as a painter, avoid them because of their difficulty! They require enormous accuracy, and a thorough understanding of anatomy and structure to achieve success. Some  artists do seem to be able to capture a likeness effortlessly but they are the lucky ones. Others, like me, have to work slowly and carefully, measuring all the time, checking and double checking and yet still failing, and often failing to do it all effortlessly except on the odd occasion - usually when it isn't important. If you are trying to do a portrait of someone you love, you will want it to be good, to be right, to be recognisable.

So what is the answer if you REALLY are determined to get to grips with portraiture?

I seriously recommend that rather than simply picking up a photo and copying it,  you start by finding out all you can about portrait drawing and painting. there are good books out there, perhaps in your library. One I really recommend :


He will show you how to understand value and tone, shadow shapes and edges, the form in light, the main principles of drawing the head including perspective, proportions, what to look for when tackling all the individual features of the head, structure and anatomy, highlights, and more, how to draw hair, putting it all together and the end section moves you from drawing to painting. Now perhaps, after reading this, you will see how much there is to learn about, and you will learn masses from him. It is an enjoyable journey.     Take a long, hard look at his drawings of eyes, ears, noses etc, and try copying them before you begin working from your own reference material - or model.  This is terrific practice - as an art student, I was recommended to copy master works regularly.

  Also, try looking at books on anatomy of the human head...understanding the underlying structure is very helpful indeed.

Find images which show how the features fit onto the underlying skull, seen from different angles and directions.  Look at these angle changes:

Then, if you have to work from photos, take good ones.  NOT with full face, and flashlight.  Flash flattens form.    Try lighting which is more natural, from a window to one side, for example.
Good portrait photo to work from, see how the lighting clearly shows the depth of the eye socket, and the form around the mouth, and the side plane as well as the front plane of the forehead.  Look at how the light beautifully describes the nose too.

classic difficult portrait to work from.  See how the lighting is flat and even, and there is little or no "form", showing the side planes of the face as well as the front plane.  Look at her nose...just a flat blob with a tiny bit of shading each side. SO difficult to work from something like this..almost doomed to failure before you begin.

  • Make sure you are comfortable and familiar with the techniques of your chosen medium.  This involves techniques practice. It is a good idea to practice quite separately from "doing a painting".  Practice with a purpose, perhaps making notes as you go along to remind you how you achieved certain effects. 
  • learn and absorb all you can about proportions, and how to measure accurately. 
  • Also ensure you have a good understanding of how to translate colour into the right tones. 
  • In fact, it is a good idea to begin with working just with charcoal or conte - in just one colour.  William Maugham will show you how in his book - as you can see from the illustration above.
  • When starting with colour, it is not good enough just to equip yourself with "flesh"-coloured paints and pastels. There are books on skin tones in portrait painting  and how to work with paints and pastels.  How to recognise what light does to skin tones, and what sorts of colours to use in shadow areas.  All useful info, it will help enormously.

I know this all sounds like a lot of work on your part, but I believe you will find it pays off in the end.  You cannot make a cake without breaking eggs, my mum used to say!

I hope these words will encourage you to keep trying, but to keep trying with your eyes wide open and with a willingness in your heart to learn and grow and achieve success in due course.