Sunday, 22 March 2015


One of my India pastel PAINTINGS

Someone I know, who paints beautiful pastels, sold one of her images to a customer, who informed her that he was looking for an opulent frame for it, because it would make it look more like a "real" painting.

In other words, more like an oil painting.  In his mind, only an oil is a "real" painting.

I am afraid that although pastels have become more accepted in recent years, there are still many people who know little about art, their understanding of what makes a "proper painting" is coloured by preconceptions about what makes good art.  Those preconceptions must somehow have been established in childhood and had been carried with them all their lives.   In their minds, the only "proper" paintings are oils.  Watercolours perhaps are considered almost as good...but still, they need to be cheaper because they are "easier" to paint.  

  I find this attitude quite amazing, given that most people today must have had SOME art education...even if it was only rudimentary.  I do know that when I was at school, we were expected to learn to draw, and we did a bit of painting.  That was the extent of my art education up to the age of 16.  But my young Aussie cousins learned far more than I did, having had art history on their curriculum even at age 12. 

Many people also place a value on the length of time it takes to produce a painting.  They admire difficulty of execution.  The more highly detailed a painting, often the more many of you have heard those dreaded words "so how long did it take you to paint that?"  Proof positive that the viewer places a value on the time and difficulty involved.  This is something the artist finds hard to avoid, unfortunately.
There should be art education in schools, not just how to paint, but how to appreciate paintings, art history, all sorts.  World history could be told through art!   People need to place value on elements other than time taken, difficulty of execution, medium used.  They need to learn to appreciate uniqueness of vision, originality, emotional content, pure many aspects could be taught and learned.    Art is such a valuable part of society...imagine a society without any art in it!!! 

People today have access to so much information via the internet, there are hundreds of galleries to visit in person, and there are books galore in libraries.  Yet, these extraordinary preconceptions do still exist.   I have lost count of the number of people I have come across who sniff at pastels as a medium.  

One of my favourite landscape painters today - a pastel by Richard McKinley

So, whenever I show my work,  I always put up a card which explains what pastels are, how they have been used by Masters of the past, how they are pure pigments, unadulterated by oils which help them to darken -  or by the gum tragacanth added to pigments to make watercolours, plus water...which means they fade.  Pastels are pure pigments mixed with small quantities of natural binders.  They are not made with chemicals or plastics. So in fact, they often have greater longevity and integrity than most other materials in use today.

A Master of the past....Mary Cassatt

Some years ago, I produced a series of ballet images.  The parents of a girl I painted standing at the barre, really loved my finished piece.  They wanted to buy it.  When they learned it was a pastel, however, they insisted it was not worth its money, because it was not a "proper painting" and they refused to buy it.   They were not prepared to listen to my explanation of pastel as a medium.  It was their loss - someone else snapped it up, and they were really upset.  So how foolish was that?  Their determination that pastels were not "proper" as a medium was unshakeable.

Sadly the world we live in is full of people with unshakeable beliefs, beliefs which are about as solid and permanent as "pie crusts".  Wouldn't the world be a better place if we were all more open to the idea of learning and expanding our horizons, using our intelligence, and the amazing resources we have today,  to educate ourselves, and shift away from entrenched ideas which may be inaccurate, and are based on nothing more than built-in prejudice and lack of information.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015


I read somewhere "Life is too short to learn painting only by trial and error".

When I visit art forums on line, I am often confronted with people picking up a photo, doing their utmost to copy it, but sadly,  never doing anything more to learn about painting.  They clearly expect, by trial and error, to learn as they paint.....well, they may learn SOMETHING as they paint, but all too often, they will repeat "learned mistakes".

We all have to make mistakes, yes.  But to keep on repeating those mistakes because no attempt has been made to discover what they are, and how to correct them, seems a bit daft to me.

So what is the answer?  You live miles from anywhere;  there are no decent classes to go to;  you are too old to start going to classes anyway;  you have no alternative.

I would argue that yes, you do, actually.

There are libraries everywhere.  There are books galore out there.  There is the internet.  You have to make the time. While it is fun to sit down with paper/canvas and paint, or to spend hours browsing the internet, working out what next to buy in terms of art materials - all that is the easy stuff.   But the harder stuff....the learning....can only be done, if you have no nearby class to attend, (or even if you do, depending on the skill of your tutor) by reading.  Lots of reading.

Let the writers of those books be your teachers.  Let them inspire you, and motivate you.  Learn about :

TONES - and value patterns

COLOUR - learn the colour wheel, colour temperature, and how to make colours "work" for you in a painting.

DESIGN - try to find out what makes good design, and why.  If you have a good underlying design for your painting, it will stand out from the crowd.

EMOTION - Think of it as a treasure hunt.  It will take you quite a bit of time to find out what it is that makes a painting special, makes it memorable, makes the viewer feel the artist's passion.  Painting what you feel - delight, despair, love, anger, awe - all of these are emotional responses to your subject, and you need to BEGIN, at the very least,  to find out how best you can express something of your feelings in your work.  Why bother otherwise?  Copying photos?  Most of the time, you just end up with a second-rate version of that photo! 

Learning about tone, colour, and design - these are things which truly can be "learned".  There are rules to follow which will help you - how great is that!

Learning about how to express your feelings is something else again. And not easy.  But the good news is that as we gradually learn, we begin to find out what satisfies us as artists...what challenges us....what excites us.   Take time to think about what it is that is most important to it particular subject-matter?    Others are driven by colour, and/or design, or the prevailing light....while their subject matter is varied.  What matters is your sense of commitment.  Learn to recognise your passion, and that will give each day more meaning, and your paintings will reflect that.  Try finishing this sentence:
"If I only had one day left to paint, I would paint..............."   

Finally let me introduce you to an artist who is passionate about painting, and about landscapes in particular. He is a bit of a hermit, tucked away painting every day with absolute passion and commitment. He has no interest in painting "for the market ", or in copying photos.  He is not worried about whether his work is "in fashion".  His work has deep emotion, with a dreamlike quality  - simple, but powerfully emotive.
Steven Outram :  I recommend a visit to his website:
He made it his business to learn, thoroughly, from the Old Masters.....yet despite their influence, or perhaps because of it... he is absolutely his own man, he emulates nobody.  He understand the craft of painting really well - and he produces beautiful, sensitive work revealing his emotions and feelings....and has this ability because he left nothing to trial and error.

‘I want to create a reality that the viewer feels they can step into, even to lose themselves in. My works are imagined,   but have their origins in how I’ve felt about something actually seen. Themes that run through my art are transience, the sustaining power of the forces of nature, and an elusive beauty which can be seen if we care to look

Sunday, 18 January 2015


They say "you never know until you try".  And in my current creative mode, there is a lot of trying going on.

Henri Matisse said "An artist should never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of style, prisoner of reputation or prisoner of success".

I find it hard to change, and after many years of painting, had begun to feel a little like a prisoner of my own well-established painting I have taken a few leaps sideways. 

 I am currently using alternative mediums instead of paints or pastels. I use powdered glass to create drawings and images .....enamel powders, which are glass, were used to create this landscape on a sheet of copper.  I have to sprinkle the powder onto the surface of the copper, and move it around to create shapes.   I have had to learn how the material will react to both metal, and kiln.  Some enamels are opaque, others transparent.  Seconds make all the difference inside the kiln.  Lots of unusual things can happen!  But that makes it all really fascinating.    I call this image "Melting off".   As you can see, there is a great deal of simplification going on here...a lot is left to the viewer's imagination........and after many trips to the kiln, I have ended up with a form of semi-figurative image - or semi-abstract if you like, looking much like a painting:

And here is another work in progress.  I am quite new to the medium of glass.  This "drawing" was created with black glass powder - very fine indeed.  I sprinkle this onto the surface of a piece of glass, and working in a similar way to the piece above, I move the powder around with brushes, sticks, rubber shapers, fingers - all sorts.   This has yet to be fired, it is just the "raw powder" onto clear glass.
In both instances, I really had to work hard at allowing myself to respond to a new medium, while at the same time, remembering and using many of the traditional principles I have used for donkey's years!
In so doing, I have almost come full circle.  Through working with enamels, and now glass, I have found myself returning to figurative imagery...but in a rather different way.  It is really exciting.  I have always liked the idea of semi-figurative art pieces, where reality is gently manipulated and abstract elements combine with illustrative ones to create a piece where suggestive illusion and viewer interpretation both play a part.
I once read this, and wrote it in a sketchbook:  "there are countless ways of creating a good painting, but there is one certain way of creating a bad one;  depicting precisely what you see".  This is because we "see" too much.   A painting - or creative image such as those above - needs to be more than just an imitation of objects.
So - if you are feeling a bit stuck, and have a nagging sense of dissatisfaction with what you are doing - why not try a change of medium -not necessarily the ones I have chosen - there are plenty of alternatives -  you never know what might happen as a result.
"Art only begins where imitation ends".  Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, 14 January 2015


I recently tried to help someone with a painting.  The artist had complained  that the painting had brought forth no nice comments from people who had seen it, and he thought that perhaps he should have handled it differently.

I pointed out to him some of the reasons why I felt that the painting had perhaps not been as successful as others he had done.  I explained why I felt that the composition of the painting was rather weakened by certain elements,  - most of my reasons were based on the "geometry" underlying the image.

This clearly did not go down very well.  The response I received was "well, that is far too complicated ,  I cannot see myself ever thinking about echoes, horizontals, diagonals and stuff like that".

A classic bit of inflexible thinking.  While I can understand that some concepts are tricky to comprehend, and perhaps "see" at first glance, nevertheless surely it is worth trying rather than dismissing the whole idea instantly?

I do get it that people like to paint something that excites them.  It is the subject-matter that hits their conscious mind, first and foremost.  But there are times when what appears to be super subject-matter, turns into a rather boring painting.   And then, it is necessary to search for reasons why. 
I personally believe that often, the reason why that painting disappoints is because many of the underlying important elements of "what makes a painting work" have been ignored, misunderstood, or simply overlooked.   

Painting isn't just about accurately portraying a glorious sunset....or a cute-looking dog ....or an interesting building.

Painting is about all of those things, PLUS loads of other things......amongst them things like this:

  • Pattern - the arrangement of light and dark shapes within your rectangle
  • Directing the eye - the path of the viewer's eye, which depends upon visual connections
  • The Focal Area - a centre of interest
  • Colour - creating colour relationships, using colour theory concepts
  • Design - the basics of an attractive "layout" for your image
  • Shapes and Edges - thinking about how to create rhythm, balance, emphasis where needed
  • Key - thinking about the mood you want to create, and how this can be achieved
Not one of these things will show you how to paint a tree, a background, a portrait.  But without at least taking on board the fact that all of these things, and more,  are part of learning to paint, and having an open mind about TRYING, gradually, to learn something about these powerful tools which help to build a good, strong image,  your paintings will simply be an attempt to reproduce reality, without any of the underlying, secret messages which make a painting good enough to stop a viewer in his or her tracks.

OK I will get off my soapbox now.

Here are some images which were painted by a favourite artist of mine - Tony Allain.    His work always stops ME in my tracks.  And the reason it does, is nothing to do with the subject matter.  I love the energy of these images, the confidence of the big shapes, the dynamism, the surprising, exciting colour. I wish I could be half so bold and brave.     If you like these, do take a look at more of his works.



Sunday, 4 January 2015


Happy New Year to one and all!

I started my New Year on a happy note, watching the engaging artist Christian Hook win the Sky Portrait Artist of the Year award 2015.  This is the self-portrait which resulted in his selection as a competitor:

  He has prompted me to get back up on my soapbox once again, and even to re-examine my own processes along the way.

Any artist who watched those trying to win the coveted prize would have found the programme particular, I was fascinated by how many used the camera quite openly - in fact, I was, perhaps because I am somewhat old-fashioned about some things, slightly horrified to see them taking pictures of the sitters on their ipads, and then, with hardly a glance again at the sitter, they worked directly from those images.  I felt it was rather rude to the poor person sitting for them for 4 hours, quite frankly - if I had been that sitter, I would have been not only rather upset, but also rather irritated, I think - what on earth is the point in sitting, painfully - because it IS painful to sit still for four hours - if the artist doesn't even look at me!  However, in each episode of the programme, there were several artists at work, and some of them did work from the sitter - so the sitters had to suffer I suppose. 

Christian, the winner, works partly from photographic reference material...but in his case, the photo is purely a starting point. He said - and I am paraphrasing here - that he feels the camera produces a finished piece of work, and it is the artist's job to take things further, in order to express his creativity.   This earned a huge round of applause from me and is the main message of this blog post.

Christian likes to create a mess on his canvas...for quite some considerable time.  He then begins to "find" the portrait in the mess....but even then, he will regularly ruin what he creates, in order to deliberately make mistakes, and come back strongly again from those mistakes.  He likes to have a sense of movement in his images - and achieves this powerfully.

Here is his portrait of Ian McKellan. What a brilliant likeness, and what an exciting image, created within just four hours.

And here is, alongside Ian McKellan, a commissioned portrait of Amir Khan, the boxer.  Khan asked Christian to show, somehow, within the portrait, that he is not just a fighter, but also a compassionate man who does lots of work for charity and with children.  Notice the moving forward arm, at the base of which is Amir's hand, enclosing the small hand of a child.  
Christian Hook shows that he does not slavishly copy his photographs, instead, he used them purely as a vehicle for his creativity.  At some point, although the portrait is anatomically correct with every measurement of the face absolutely spot on, he shifts into a different gear, and the paint is moved around, pushed, pulled, scraped, bullied sometimes, responded to with sensitivity at other times,  every brushstroke helping towards a finish piece which is not just lively but also uniquely creative.
If you live in the UK and can get the programme on catch-up TV, do watch Christian working with actor Alan Cumming to produce a portrait for the Scottish National Gallery, it is quite an extraordinary programme.  Christian was allowed to do three "warm-up" portraits before embarking on the finished piece.  The camera crew filmed those pieces and we were able to see a most unusual creativity at work.  His first warm-up was fairly straightforward;  the second one was a collaboration with Alan Cumming, who was encouraged to do some painting on the canvas, and Christian then painted over some of the resulting image to produce a fabulous portrait piece, leaving some of Alan's work still there.  The third warm-up was rather mind-boggling.  Alan was encouraged to DANCE to a piece of operatic music, and Christian tried to copy his movements - so as Alan moved an arm out to the left, Christian moved his brush in exactly the same direction.  Somehow, a portrait sketch emerged during the process.  It was quite something to watch.  You can watch some of this last warm-up here:

if you would like to see more of the portraits painted for the competition, you can Google Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year, and I believe there are also some time lapse youtube vids to watch too - tho I could not find the recent ones. 

Maybe this time of year is a time for contemplation of our process, to see if we too can become more uniquely creative. 

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

FUSION in more ways than one

Occasionally I introduce you to an artist of note, someone whose work has interested this case, AMAZED me.  I am completely bowled over by this brilliant lady, whose draughtmanship is outstanding, and method is breathtaking in its originality.  I hope you really enjoy this short, pre-Christmas blog.

I am stretching my wings yet again, and making a foray into the world of glass.  It began with the use of enamel on copper - you may remember my bowls and panels - and I decided to take the use of the kiln a little further, and try working with glass.  Enamel powder is glass, so the two forms of craft seem somewhat linked, in my mind. 

I spend a great deal of time on line, researching methods and approaches for this new world of activity....and yesterday, I came across Catharine Newell, an American artist, who works with glass.  She DRAWS with glass.  With glass powder.   !!!  Moving the powder around manually,  on a surface of sheet glass, she creates extraordinary drawings of power and beauty.  

I called this post "FUSION in more ways than one" because what she does is perhaps the most remarkable fusion of craftmanship and draughtmanship I have seen in a long time.  There is also a slight play on words in there too, since the work, when completed, is fused in a kiln.  The image then becomes part of the glass surface. 

Her work speaks for itself, so I will simply share it with you.  Think of it as my gift to you this Christmas.    Just remember, as you look at these images, that they are created not with paint, pastel or charcoal, but with POWDER sprinkled onto the slippery surface of a piece of GLASS:

Ok now are you amazed?  Well be more this video for 6 wonderful minutes:

I feel privileged to have found her.  I hope you will feel the same way.  

Perhaps next time, I can show you my own attempts to work with this medium.  Maybe.  I feel so inadequate right now.....

Wishing you all a very happy, peaceful and joy-filled Christmas and best wishes for 2015.

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.