Monthly Archives: October 2014

Season of fruit and mellow coffee pots – and terrifying heads

The weather has continued wet and gloomy here in the fells, so the still life campaign has carried on relentlessly, with many pieces of fruit called upon to perform in front of a loaded brush. The apples and bananas did particularly well, remaining absolutely still and full of mellow character while I seized their portraits for posterity (before they met their dreadful fate).

oil painting of fruit in mellow colours

mellow autumn colours, fruit in a handmade bowl, oil on canvas, 6″x8″

oil painting of fruit in diagonal arrangement

fruit arranged diagonally, oil on canvas, 6″x8″

Maybe it was the result of staring at fruit for too long but suddenly the coffee pot seemed to be glowing with colours as well and it, too, had to stand patiently while I attempted to capture a likeness.

oil painting of foreshortened coffee pot

coffee pot, foreshortened, oil on canvas, 6″x8″

After treating the fruit so harshly I thought it was only fair to do the same with myself, so I attempted to scrutinise the shape of my head. This is a difficult task, especially when it hasn’t been attempted for a while. I can’t work out why but being able to draw something in pencil does not seem to make it any easier to subsequently construct using paint, although I’m sure that once I found making drawn studies was a useful part of the painting process. Maybe it will come back.

Perhaps it’s fitting that it’s Halloween because the intense stare required to paint your own head can result in quite a terrifying image.

oil painting, staring portrait, 9"x12"

an intense stare, oil on canvas, 9″x12″

Then there are the self-portraits that really look very convincingly like someone, even though it isn’t you.

oil painting, self-portrait, 9"x12"

self-portrait with odd expression, oil on canvas, 9″x12″

I had hoped to write a bit about the George Rowlett catalogues I ordered recently but, as they have not arrived, it will have to wait for another post. So, this is a bit of a shorter one than usual (which is supposed to be a good thing because the internet, apparently, devours your attention span, leaving you capable of reading only around 250 words or so before lapsing into a coma or excitedly performing a jig).

You have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself

sink pencil drawing, A1

pencil drawing of sink area, on A1 paper

I’ve been looking through some old work from around the time I did my Foundation course, when I spent a year drawing and painting under the guidance of some fantastic tutors. I remember we started off using pencil and underwent a rigorous training in drawing, learning how to measure where we placed our marks (important marks that indicated where major lines intersected or the positions of vital points) and striving for accuracy in terms of proportion.

life drawing on paper

life drawing, pencil on A1 paper

Hours and hours of life drawing ensured that we eventually improved at the difficult art of ‘getting your eye in’ and, as we worked on huge sheets of A1 paper, it quickly became obvious if a leg was a bit withered or an arm was impossibly long. We learned to suggest how near or far things were using weight of line, sometimes using more than one line for added emphasis. Then there was tone, of course, and varying it not only to reveal where light fell but also to indicate how close or far away something was. Getting to grips with all of this would result in a drawing that was a convincing representation of visual reality (and I don’t mean ‘like a photograph’, as photographs distort hugely and veer crazily away from the experience of seeing with the naked eye, although we are all so used to them these days I’m not sure many people even notice any more) but it might be a bit ‘academic’ and lacking in expressiveness.

On top of all of these elements of drawing know how we were also taught to vary the marks that we made on the paper – adapting them in ways that would be more appropriate for the things we were drawing, rather than applying one kind of mark throughout a picture. This variety made works appear less ‘academic’ and more expressive and interesting. We were encouraged to use compressed charcoal (darker and more powerful than ordinary charcoal) and told not to worry if we had to erase what we had drawn and redraw it many times as this would add depth and richness to our work.

life drawing, charcoal on paper

life drawing of seated model, compressed charcoal on A1 paper

The most important element of any painting or drawing – composition – I seem to remember grappling with last of all, after we’d slaved away to master everything else, although it naturally comes first when creating a picture and, if you haven’t come up with a successful composition, there isn’t any point in continuing to labour away at a piece.

charcoal drawing of Holmisdale sunset

evening, Holmisdale, compressed charcoal on A1 paper

From time to time I like to remember all of the important aspects of drawing I learned during that valuable year and it certainly helps to write them down.

charcoal drawing of ruin, Glendale

ruined building, Glendale, Skye, compressed charcoal on A1 paper

When it came to painting I felt that we had really only just begun as the course came to an end and I would have preferred to carry on for at least another year, if not two, if that had been an option. As degree courses at the time seemed to offer little in the way of painting and drawing tuition this Foundation year offered something that was rare and precious and, although it wasn’t easy for me to attend, it was probably the best thing I ever did as far as training goes.

We ventured into painting gradually, adding white emulsion paint to our charcoal drawings on white paper and then on toned backgrounds. Finally we used acrylics to tackle a portrait before settling into several days of painting the figure from life using oils on huge pieces of hardboard several feet in length. I had no money for paint and remember hoping I would be able to cover the vast surface (sealed with white emulsion) using only a set of tiny, cheap Chinese oil tubes that looked as if they had come out of a cracker. Of course they ran out before the end but luckily I discovered a relatively affordable student oil set in the local art shop that got me through.

charcoal and paint, A1, Holmisdale House picture

Holmisdale House, Glendale, Skye, compressed charcoal and emulsion paint on A1 paper

As students it was marvellous gathering every day to work on our paintings together for hours, with breaks for 30p mugs of tea in the nearby caff (which seemed to have been made out of a local’s living room) and I still have the big life picture, which I am fond of even now, in spite of what my tutor dryly referred to as ‘a grey area’ in the background that doesn’t quite work (I think it is just a bit too warm and this makes it come forward rather than recede – but it was my first attempt!)

life painting, large, oil on board

large life painting measuring several feet in length, oil on hardboard