At best, painting is an intuitive, emotional affair. Nevertheless, in order to develop and evolve as an artist it’s essential to adopt an analytical approach from time to time.
I always build in review sessions into my teaching. It’s easy to keep churning out stuff but this can lead to complacency, lack of progress and no direction. This week we looked at all the plein air paintings, sketches and drawings completed over the summer. Looking at all the work laid out in front of you is always a positive and rewarding experience. Together we talk about what’s worked, what could be done differently and how to move forward.
The paintings were a fabulous reminder of summertime and some great days out – especially pertinent now autumn has firmly established itself! The above is a sketch I did of fishermen on the pier. It was done extremely quickly but I think it captures the essence and energy of the moment.
One of the many benefits of outdoor painting and photography is a heightened sense of the changing seasons. At the moment the north Norfolk countryside is peppered with straw bales. Undoubtedly they create great visual interest.
This is a quick sketch I did a few days ago while out walking along the cliffs between Sheringham and Weybourne. Peering through a gap in a hedge, I was entranced by the contrast of the distant field and the bright blue sea.
Foxgloves in Cornwall
Sketching opportunities on a “normal” holiday (as opposed to a designated painting holiday) can be limited. However I was determined to come away with some sort of visual record of my recent break in Cornwall.
Visiting in June, what struck me was the abundance of wild flowers – foxgloves in particular. This 10 minute sketch was carried out on a glorious day walking from St Just to Geevor. I think the Tin Mine in the background places the scene firmly in this part of Cornwall.
With my sketchbook always to hand, I grabbed every chance I could to sketch the unfamiliar including sitting on a platform in the rain waiting for a train and boats and equipment in busy Newlyn.
A fan of the work of Sheeler and the photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher, I am drawn to architectural and industrial subjects. So I was delighted to come across the above towering structure when visiting a mining museum.
A highlight of my stay was going along to a drop-in evening life drawing class at St. Ives School of Painting (with a certain amount of trepidation as I hadn’t done any for a very long time). It was very intensive – all short poses in a 2 hour session – but it’s such a good discipline. The above reclining pose was a 5 minute sketch, charcoal on A2 paper.
It was certainly invigorating to challenge myself with such a variety of subject matter while I was away and encouraging too how easily it fitted in with holiday activities.
In my view, the key to a successful painting is the rendition of light and dark. Without a strong tonal contrast paintings are flat, formless, dull and totally lacking in sparkle. As everything is relative, dark tones next to light enhance the brightness and lightness considerably.
People new to painting often lack the courage to work in such a bold way or fail to notice the darks in objects or shadows – all crucial elements in depicting a 3D world on a 2D surface. Looking through squinted eyes emphasises the variations in tone wonderfully. It is this version of the world which needs to be depicted.
Last week’s painting class was devised to help focus exclusively on the darkest darks. This was a new approach as usually with watercolours you work from light to dark. Working from black and white photos or those with a strong contrast I asked students to paint the darkest tones only. They used burnt umber, prussian blue or ultramarine or a mixture of these colours and left the rest of the paper blank. It was also a good exercise in grappling with negative shapes.
The unusual paintings produced seemed to be a good starting point to continue in an abstract way. Students were free to complete their works as they wished – perhaps using a complementary colour for extra zing. It proved to be a hugely enjoyable session with great, original results.
I have several sketchbooks and love them all. I love photos too, but when you’ve spent time drawing or painting a subject, you have a much deeper, emotional connection with it. As the work is not precious (which can be the case with a “proper” painting), you have the freedom to work quickly and instinctively. More often than not, you end up with a lively, dynamic interpretation of your chosen scene which has a much greater visual impact than a more studied version. These sketches, which may be pen and ink, watercolour or anything you have to hand, provide a great visual record of places visited. They are valuable in their own right but sometimes are used as reference for a later studio painting. Above all, they are great practice pieces.
I have sketched extensively around and about north Norfolk where I live as well as on holidays in Cornwall, France and Morocco. Time is often short so some of the pieces are executed in minutes. It’s certainly good to challenge yourself with an unfamiliar location or subject and get out of your comfort zone (as with the camel above!)
Recently, I went on a 2 hour sketching trip around Cley with 2 students. Each sketch was timed to last 20 mins before we moved on. It proved to be a great learning exercise for them – having to work quickly, attempting to portray the essence of their chosen subject along with experimenting with different viewpoints. They ended up with a wonderful pictorial record of a summer’s afternoon in a pretty Norfolk village.
For more examples of my work can be found at http://www.margaretstudley.co.uk
From an Artist’s point of view, an immaculately kept garden has limited appeal. Broken plant pots, haphazardly abandoned gardening tools, old bricks and stray pieces of wood all add character and interest to a painting or sketch. With this in mind, I spent a happy half hour or so sketching the above scene. A good excuse to sit longer in the sunshine after lunch!
But if your garden is super tidy, don’t despair. A still life outdoors can swiftly and artfully be arranged.
Acrylic – box canvas 12″ x 16″
On a dreary, drizzly day it was a real pleasure to conjure up the warmth, vitality and colour of Morocco in this painting. I was there on a painting holiday in October and spent a happy hour or so painting a water colour of this scene. Ever since, I have been itching to paint another version using acrylics.
While I love the immediacy and freshness of plein air painting, I have also come to appreciate the value of carrying out more considered studio work – especially so if you have to hand a collection of your own reference material to draw upon.
Some artists of course never set foot outdoors and work from their imagination, memories or photos. But for me, the perfect painting year is a combination of working outdoors when possible followed by studio work in the Winter months.