Painting: What it’s Really Like

There are times when I believe I can paint anything. I’m so full of confidence and bravura that I feel I could paint the most complicated picture and it be good. Only when I get behind the easel and I’m faced with, not only the subject, but my own deficiencies and imperfections as a painter, that I realise that in reality I’m lamentably poor. Others will protest and say ‘No, Geoff, your work is marvellous!’ But what these people are doing is comparing my talent to theirs. Any artist worth his salt must  strive to improve, and that means comparing himself to those he sees as superior. Personally I look to Rembrandt, Durer, Turner, Constable, Stanley Spencer and Lucien Freud – they are my thunderbolts. I know I will never be as good as they are, but isn’t it worth trying? If you have no real desire to improve, you won’t. I know painters who don’t have such a hunger; they’re content to settle for the lucre when they sell something and that is their only goal.

A painting done a few years ago in the Dark Peak area of Derbyshire. The sky and far distance work, showing the atmosphere of the day, but the foreground is rather derivative and lacks significance.

I’m very self-critical about my work. Painting has never been an easy thing to me. I have always struggled; it has always been hard work. I recently read a biography of the Austrian artist Egon Schiele. He was one of those rare individuals who seem to have been born with talents fully-formed. He died aged twenty-eight, having produced hundreds of drawings and watercolours all showing a mastery of form, line and composition. And he wasn’t alone. One doesn’t have to search far in the annals of art history to find others who were similarly gifted. I’m afraid I don’t have the self-confidence of someone like Schiele. There may be parts of my paintings that I think just about work, and that’s the only reason I keep them. Most of the time I’m dissatisfied with 90% of what I produce, and the canvases that I consider total rubbish are recycled and painted over.

Drawing is really the key skill in art. Drawing is observation. It is of the utmost importance. When I draw or sketch I am looking for things that no one else has seen. Finding something new in a subject is the real aim in my work. Most of the time I don’t find it and my drawings are lacklustre and uninspired. My sketchbooks are really a catalogue of mistakes, which is one of the reasons I don’t like people looking at them! I know artists who never draw, or their ‘sketchbooks’ are little more than cursory representations made outside to take back to the studio to be enlarged or copied with little thought to designing a finished work where composition, form and colour are manipulated towards producing a painting that shows the hunger for improvement I spoke about earlier.

A self-portrait by Egon Schiele, painted in 1910 when he was just twenty years old.

As I said, art is really difficult, well, producing good art is. And unless you’re extremely gifted or a genius, most people, even good artists, will find it so. So, dear reader, if you’re an artist, keep struggling on. And if you’re one of the shallow ones who isn’t bothered about getting better, I hope your sales bring you joy.

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The Seasonal Palette

I know some artists who never change the colours on their palette. They squeeze out a dollop of colour from a tube of every colour they possess and don’t think about varying the colours much from painting to painting. But selecting colour carefully before starting a work can alter your perception and interpretation (and therefore that of the viewer) of a subject by adding a bit of a twist to your normal way of thinking. Introducing a new or unusual colour into you palette can alter our impression of a painting and transform the way we understand it how we feel about it.

Allotments at Langtoft, November. A work painted using my basic Winter palette with the addition of violet.

Personally, my palette is made up of five colours – white, black, a blue, a yellow and a red. These are changed or added to according to the season and/or the subject. Winter consists of black and white, Prussian blue, alizarin crimson and yellow ochre. Sometimes I’ll paint with just those five, at other times I’ll augment them with raw umber, some kind of purple or mauve, perhaps Naples yellow or Indian red. Very occasionally I change the Prussian blue for cerulean. I hardly ever use Ultramarine or cobalt blue unless I’m painting abroad as I find them too ‘Mediterranean’. Prussian blue gives a lovely shade that is more typical of British skies even in Summer.

Once Spring arrives I’ll start to change the colours on my palette. I add a green, usually sap, sometimes chromium oxide, and perhaps add cadmium yellow and, depending on what I’m painting, I may decide to change the umber from raw to burnt. The only real change to this palette for the Summer months is to substitute alizarin for cadmium red.

Red Field. Painted in Summer with cadmium red and Naples yellow in the palette.

Autumn brings quite a few additions. I tend to keep the burnt umber and add Naples yellow, burnt sienna, sometimes Indian red or light red too, swap back the alizarin crimson instead of the cadmium and sometimes use raw sienna instead of yellow ochre. These latter colours are very similar in hue but the ochre tends to be slightly more opaque, depending on the manufacturer.

Of course, these decisions aren’t written in stone. Sometimes I go rogue and throw in a colour I don’t use very much just for the hell of it: Payne’s grey, Hooker’s green or viridian, lemon yellow or Cadmium orange. Moreover, the palettes I’ve listed are strictly for oils, acrylics and gouache paints are something else and have their own set of guidelines which are much less rigorous!

The Big Think

Bolton Abbey II. Mixed media on paper.

I haven’t been very active during the last few months, as you can see from the frequency of these blog posts. I’ve found the lockdown period to be very depressing. Long stretches of time with little to do has been very disheartening for me. But, I hear you say, it’s the perfect time to paint; why don’t you get the brushes out and get to work? I’m afraid my modus operandi isn’t quite like that.

The inability to get out and about into the wilder landscape has seriously dampened my creative spark, and only in the last week have I started work on a few paintings from older sketches.

Wooded hillside, Derbyshire. Mixed media on paper.

This would seem to be the perfect time to think about what I want to do artistically when the lockdown is lifted and where I want to go with my painting. My latest work has taken on a more abstract and incisive quality – scored lines with knife and pencil, paint gouged on with brushes, and perhaps I need to follow this through. Perhaps not.

Anatomy of a painting

abandoned croft at LonbainBecause some of the painting workshops I’d planned this Spring had to be cancelled, I decided to do a mixed media painting in stages. I used some sketches of an abandoned croft at Lonbain on the Applecross peninsular, Scotland. I often use sketches like this, reworking them into new pieces – one of the reasons I never throw any of them away.

Stage 1.

I began by taping a piece of heavyweight (200gsm) cartridge paper to a board and sketching out a rough outline of the building onto it, marking in walls and a track.

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Stage 2.

Next, I washed in a sky. For this I used gouache but at this stage I’m not too fussed about getting the right colour. It’s enough just to put something down. I’m more concerned with tones in these early stages. I usually draw some of the main blue tint of the sky down into the foreground to homogenise the whole thing. For this I used a cerulean blue.

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Stage 3.

As with the sky, it’s important just to put a tone down onto the paper, not worrying too much about whether the colour is right or not, as it can always be altered later. I roughly brushed in a yellow ochre with a touch of black added to it. I can never exact about colour as much of the stuff I use from my palette has bits of other colours accidentally mixed with it. Similarly with brushes – my technique involves a lot of scrubbing both on paper and board, so I tend to buy cheap brushes as they don’t tend to last long!

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Stage 4.

I began adding some soft pastel into the sky – light grey and white, to tone down the blue which I now thought was too powerful. I scuffed in some green and ochre pastel tones over the foreground and added a few hints of Prussian blue pastel as a foil to the cottage, which I drew in with various grey pastels. Much of the  ochre tone of the previous stage was covered up now as I began to suspect that it was a little too bright. As I mentioned earlier, it’s good to just put a colour or a tone down; it can always be altered later.

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Stage 5.

 

I decided to darken some of the areas of the painting to add drama. By doing so I was also adding some composition lines to draw the eye up the page to the cottage. I decided there was too much green in the lower left portion and added some grey areas to harmonise with the hues of the stone cottage and the boulders and crumbled walls. I darkened the path leading up to the building with some burnt umber and Prussian blue. I’m not an advocate of blending pastels too much because the results can be a little too slick and wishy-washy. I like to keep my pastel marks crisp and well-defined. Pastels are a wonderful combination of painting and drawing and I’m happy if my work shows this in some way.

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Stage 6.

 

All that was left to do was to add some details – windows, shadowed areas in mauve, black and Indian red, fence posts and stones and boulders in black pencil. The temptation is to keep adding bits of colour and detail, but part of completing a painting is knowing when to stop and not overwork it. I decided that at this point that it was finished.

abandoned croft at Lonbain

 

Artistic Manoeuvres and Lockdown

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Part of the main exhibition space at The Green Man Gallery and, to the right, the shop.

It’s been a while since we last posted anything on the blog, but a lot has happened in the months since our last missive. The most important change of course, is the fact that we have moved the studio across Buxton to our new home at The Green Man Gallery, a former hotel in the town. It was something of a gargantuan task – a lot of heavy equipment to be moved, not to mention dozens of boxes of ceramic ware, both our own and that of our students. This wouldn’t have been so bad if we were moving to a ground floor studio. Hell, no! Our new venue is on the first floor… and there’s no lift! Everything had to be lugged up several flights of stairs – the wheels and equipment, workbenches, storage shelves and the rest. But we now have a great place in which to work, full of light and space.

Overall, the new venue is great. The Green Man Gallery is a not-for-profit art hub run by its twelve member artists, of which Amanda and I are two. The main ground floor exhibition gallery contains work by the members as well as hosting frequent guest exhibitions by other artists from the area. There’s also a shop which sells smaller items by the members, cards and smaller pieces of ceramic ware. Guest designer/makers display their work there too. The resident artists each share a studio on the first floor which means extra hanging space, as well the chance to see and chat to the artists while they’re working.

Many of the resident artists run workshops and classes in different kinds of art disciplines; a new influx of members in the last year has meant a whole new exciting schedule of courses were due to begin in the first few months of 2020. Our own programme of events began in mid-March with the first meeting of the Buxton Sketching Group.87178521-2567052223423793-7310827412093140992-n This was really well attended with over thirty people meeting up at the gallery before venturing out to the area around Buxton baths to sketch for a couple of hours. What was most encouraging was the number of beginners wanting to learn to draw. In fact, there were so many requests I had to plan a tutorial workshop on urban sketching before the second meeting. Unfortunately, the coronavirus lockdown was enforced before we could do this and we were forced to postpone. Also postponed were two mixed media painting workshops I was planning to run, and an expressive drawing workshop. Be assured these will run once the Green Man Gallery reopens. Workshops by the other member artists have also been affected. My colleague Jenny Mackenzie was planning to run several watercolour workshops which, sadly, had to be postponed. The Green Man’s annual Spring Gathering was cancelled and our pottery classes were affected too. Our students are now forced to wait until the end of the lockdown to complete their sessions.

All in all the gallery has suffered from the unfortunate consequences of the lockdown, but the miracle of cyberspace has saved it from being a complete washout. The Spring Gathering was shown online and there are several creative tasks which have recently been launched which visitors are welcome to participate in. Check out the Green Man Gallery website and Facebook page for details (www.thegreenmangallery.com). At least the lockdown has given all the artists a chance to produce some new things. I’ve been working on some mixed media paintings and have a series of instructional videos in the pipeline. My work is exhibited and for sale online at The Green Man Gallery and here on our own website. Take a look and see what you think.