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.



20200623_184956.jpgRecently I’ve been experimenting with caricatures, something I’ve never really gone into. My ability to capture likenesses is pretty poor – I’ve never really been into painting or drawing portraits so that skill remains something of a locked door. During the lockdown I’ve taken up my pens and paper and sketched characters from the TV. My thinking is that if I can capture the main features of a face, it might help me improve if I finally decide to do a few portraits in the future. Maybe not…!!!


Art at Galleries at Home


Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul, Rembrandt van Rijn

It would seem to be the right time for settling down to do some artwork during this time of lockdown. Those who aren’t able to work from home might have quite a bit of time to kill, and all those occasions when we artists have moaned about not having enough time to paint have come back to haunt us! The problem is that now that most of us are stuck indoors and if you’re a landscape painter like me, there’s little chance of going out to roam around in the countryside or on the moors and setting up your easel. Even less chance of sitting out on the street and doing some urban sketching.

If you’ve watched his series on Channel 4, Grayson Perry thinks he’s got it sorted. We just stay indoors and paint portraits, or miniatures or something and that’ll keep us occupied through months of lockdown. The trouble for me is that I’m not that interested in painting portraits, or pictures of the garden, or views through my window. I’ve got plenty of landscape sketches that I’ve accumulated over the years but somehow doing something from these doesn’t seem to be quite as tempting now. The sketches I did on holiday last year, satisfactory as they might be, just don’t seem to be as appealing as going out into the great outdoors right now and drawing something in situ.

So I’ve spent a bit of time looking at inspirational paintings. Not just modern contemporaries but the real ‘biggies’! The real Masters. These are the ones I should be looking at and learning from, like the Rembrandt drawings above. There are many museum and art galleries around the world that show their exhibits online, some have been doing this for a while. So even if you can’t get to Amsterdam, New York or even London, you can browse the collections of some of the world’s most famous galleries. Now, because of the coronavirus lockdowns, it seems to be a great way of spending time and getting a bit of inspiration.

Of course, in every collection there are works that I don’t like, but every so often I come across a real gem. The other day I was looking at the exhibits of The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Its collection is almost too big to do itself justice, but whilst browsing its works I came across Christ’s Entry into Journalism by Kara Walker. The idea itself is so clever, yet Walker juxtaposes the complex elements of American history in a way that approximates a cartoon strip – on one level humorous and light-hearted, but at the same time serious and meaningful.

Christ's entry into journalism - Kara Walker
Christ’s Entry into Journalism by Kara Walker

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has a superb online collection. Obviously it focuses heavily on the Dutch masters but there are some fantastic works here. Also notable is their RijksCreative initiative in which artists create their own versions of Master paintings.

I’ve learnt a lot by looking at the drawings of Michelangelo, Albrecht Durer, Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and even August Rodin. As much of my inspiration comes from looking at famous works of art as looking at nature and there are plenty of inspirational collections around the world to draw from. Check out the following galleries and museums:


Why You Should Draw


When was teaching in schools, new classes of students would often groan when I said we were going to do some drawing. ‘I can’t draw, sir,’ they would say, or ‘I’m rubbish at drawing!’ It’s true that in order to be good at drawing you have to practice. It’s rare to find someone who has a real natural ability for drawing and can pick up a pencil and rattle off images that are astoundingly good straight away. Drawing, like learning to play an instrument or learning a language, needs practice. Personally, I don’t think of myself as particularly good at drawing; I’m still learning and will continue to until the day I die.

I would encourage everyone who has an interest in art to keep a sketchbook, even if they don’t think they’re much good. You only have to begin. The fear that someone will denigrate your efforts, or that what you produce doesn’t measure up to the work of Rembrandt is nonsense. I draw for myself. My sketches are for me. No one else sees them unless I choose to show them. All you need to do is pick up a pencil and paper and get drawing.

20200308_130944.jpgThere is a natural tendency to copy objects and views, to reproduce them exactly as you see them; if that’s your intention then perhaps it would be better to take up photography instead. By sketching something you look at the world in your own way, giving it your own slant. In the act of drawing you observe, carefully and intently, soaking up the sounds and smells of the place, its feeling and atmosphere. Try and capture that feeling in your drawing by working quickly. Don’t get bogged down trying to get every detail correct before moving on to the next bit of the drawing. Try setting yourself a time limit for each sketch, say ten minutes, that way you won’t have time to fiddle about drawing every brick or tile in a house, or every leaf on a tree.

20200425_141654.jpgIf you want some advice on the practicalities of sketching, equipment, sketchbooks and so on, there are a few books I would recommend, these are listed at the end of this blog. What I wouldn’t do is get a basic book that teaches you how to draw. Instead, have a look at the work of other artists and illustrators and try and learn from them. Look at how they capture form and movement, shadow and texture, rather than trying to copy someone else’s instructions on how to draw a tree or a person. Remember, no one is going to judge or mark your work unless you want them to (and most people usually aren’t qualified to do so). Never destroy any of your work. Keep drawing and you’ll be able to see your progress. I guarantee that with practice you’ll look back on your work after, say, a couple of months and be surprised at the progress you’ve made. The best thing to do is just to get stuck in and have a go. You’ll only get better!

Some useful books on sketching and drawing:

Gabriel Campanario: The Art of Urban Sketching. Quarry Books

Felix Scheinberger: Dare to Sketch. Watson Guptill.

Simone Ridyard: Archisketcher. Apple Press

James Richards: Freehand Drawing and Discovery. Wiley

David Gentleman: An Artist’s Life in London. Particular Books



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.


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 theĀ  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.

series pic4

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