Saturday, January 27, 2018

Trees – Litovsk

oil on canvas 61x51cm

This is sourced from yet another google streetview trawl through Russia, this time from outside Litovsk, a village not far from the Belarus and Ukrainian borders. The late afternoon light was very important, but also the way the central tree masses recede in a line along the direction of light. There’s been a little editing of the shadow line at the left and right edges, and I’ve got rid of the small stream between the front bushes, but otherwise the main elements of the source image remain unchanged. 

Very early on I found some mood-setter music for this - ‘He shall feed his flock like a shepherd’, from Handel’s Messiah. I was just at the organizing stage, and we were watching the film ‘Manchester by the Sea’ on the telly, when this music came on. I glanced across at the painting on the easel - and it just fitted. It’s possibly more suited to pastoral rolling grassland and big skies, but - what can I say – it just felt right. There’s no link to the film soundtrack’s recording by Musica Sacra, but the one above will certainly do (nicely paced, and sung by a countertenor and very nice soprano voice).

There is a figure here, in the shadow, who could be sleeping. But it’s from a sequence of photographs taken during and after a reprisal massacre by Czech partisans in May 1945. There was going to be a whole row of them, but I decided against it.

I started work on this last May, but was interrupted by the necessity to finish ‘Ghosts’, the Open Eye set, and family events. I took an awfully long time to establish all the elements – even for me – and got very bogged down (especially in the front right bushes). Having said that, I’m sure that the painting has benefited from being put by, as I think I had lost sight of what I was trying to do. Resuming after New Year, I came to it with a fresh eye, and was able to see that the colour needed a boost, which I did fairly simply with glazing and thin transparent yellows. I did use more thick Stand Oil in these latter mixes, but I pulled back from the amounts I was using for the last small landscapes.

For these last top yellows I used a colour I’d picked up a couple of years ago for some reason, but had never used - ‘Stil de Grain’, from Talens. It used to be made from buckthorn berries (under various names including Dutch and English Pink) but the modern version is pure Isoindoline. It resembles Raw Sienna straight from the tube, but when thinned it’s a surprisingly warm, very transparent yellow, not quite as fiery as Indian Yellow. 

Again, it’s nice to say where work is on public view, and I’ve got two pieces selected for this year’s SSA Open exhibition. It’s on at the RSA building at Princes Street/The Mound, and will run from 29th January until 8th March. It’s free to go in, so if you find yourself in Edinburgh with some time to spare, you could do a lot worse than wandering through the SSA/VAS show and seeing what’s going on in Scottish Art just now.

And the bit of painting I like most in this piece? – The front-lit ground and trees on the right, from behind the dry brown foliage in the foreground to the skyline. As usual, I did the most effective painting without really thinking about it and with not a lot of subsequent correction.

I really do wish that didn’t keep happening…

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Evening – Alatyr

oil on card 21x15cm

This is the last of the four small pieces for the Open Eye ‘On a Small Scale’ show. It’s a quiet, early evening scene in a small town in Russia – Alatyr, about halfway between Moscow and the Ural mountains. It was composed as a larger scale painting with a figure - omitted in this one because it’s so very small - which I will no doubt get around to sometime.

I liked the light and the tree masses. It’s from google streetview of course, but not a direct transcription of a single screenshot. The far trees have been shifted leftwards a bit to get the interesting bits in, and I moved the large foreground tree slightly in from the left edge so that it didn’t feel cramped. I’ve also adapted some of the colours by playing up the red and orange top glazes.

I changed my painting technique slightly for this piece. I did the initial setting-out in light pencil because the subject matter was quite complex, and I needed to be as efficient as possible because of time pressure. (Recapping on last month’s ‘Body – Monfréville’, I forgot to mention that I used pencil to indicate the main forms. it was very important to get the curves of the riverbank correct, and that was the easiest and most accurate way to achieve that at 21x15cm.)

After the initial placing, I filled in foliage textures and ground forms with fast-drying thin acrylic ‘grisaille’ layers of Violet Brown Oxide. Once I was happy with that, I progressed with thin semi-opaque oil layers and finished off with glazes. There was no softening or blurring with the fan brush, except in the sky’s two oil paint layers on the white priming. This approach saved a lot of time in the initial stages, and is worth using again in the future. I was very pleased with the violet brown underpainting, and kept seeing it everywhere in real life. I think its oil equivalent is Winsor & Newton’s Mars Violet, and will treat myself to a tube of it for Xmas. 

This piece was actually finished in November, but I cynically delayed posting it because I knew I’d got nothing else ready for December. Even though I’m quietly ‘normalising’ after the Events of last month, I‘ve decided not to resume painting until January. I have some official paperwork to follow up, and then there’s Xmas and New Year. There is a work in progress - which ground to a halt in September - on the easel, so I can get on with that if I feel absolutely desperate, but I don’t think it’s worth starting anything major before January. It’s been very interesting and stimulating to produce this little set of four though, and I feel that I’ve learned a useful chunk about how to use my materials (and how not to use them).

It’s always nice to have something on show, and I’m pleased tell you that ’Ghosts’ is currently on the wall at the Union Gallery until 31 January. 

And the Open Eye show? Well, we didn’t go to the preview on the Friday evening, but on Saturday morning Madam and I wandered down to the gallery after a late breakfast. All four pieces were up on the walls, and all four had sold. I was quite surprised - she wasn’t though.

Quietly chuffed…

Friday, November 17, 2017

Body – Monfréville

oil on card 21x15cm
This is the third of the set of four postcard pieces, and has some music to go with it – Gnossienes No.1, by Eric Satie. It’s what I was listening to while painting this and it fitted perfectly. It’s played painfully slowly, but I find it compelling.

Before I go further I should perhaps temper the enthusiastic promotion of thicker Stand Oil paint mixtures in the previous post. Having completed this piece I had some unexpected trouble when I sprayed it with a temporary light retouch varnish to even up the finish a bit. Alarmingly, the glossy ‘oiliest’ bits became even glossier, and the varnish cissed and bobbled on the more matt parts, which was precisely the opposite of my intent. A second spray coat did the same, and I had to brush the still-wet varnish with a hog brush till it got tacky, while desperately hoping that the paint beneath was dry enough not to smear. Luckily, it was firm enough and I ended up with a broadly even surface. Phew. Next time I think I’ll let the paint dry a bit longer before the retouch spray. Or just not use the retouch spray. 

As you can tell from the Google Streetview source, there’s been a bit of compositional editing here. The left bank sits at a different angle from the main source – it’s imported from the next image to the left and fits the corner much better. Likewise the unwanted road on the right bank has been replaced with grass areas from just past the bridge on the right. 

I like this landscape very much. It’s a patch of marshy land in Normandy, and I put it in my ‘Ideas’ folder about four years ago. The light is northern and grey, but the scene is calm and serene. I was well into the second work session, though, when the painting started demanding a Bad Thing. I knew it would have to be in the near grass on the right, and I knew it was going to be a dead body. It’s a man, and he’s dressed in black, and you do have to look closely to find him as he is so tiny. The daylight around that time was particularly dark and overcast, and I had to rely on lights and a magnifying glass to see what I was doing. As ever, the whole painting changes once he’s seen, and makes it more complete and thought-provoking, and I may paint a larger version at some point.

I’ll not say anything about the final picture yet (that’ll have a blog post all to itself at some point, perhaps in December). All four postcard pieces have been completed, and were dropped off at the Open Eye Gallery for their annual ‘On a Small Scale’ show yesterday (exciting for me as it’s my first invite to participate there). They will form part of the big blocks of work at some point, but the display changes as the stock sells and gets replaced, so I can’t be certain when they will be on the walls. The show is open from Saturday 25th November till 23rd December, so if you’re in Edinburgh, go and have a look - there’s a lot of very good, very small work by a wide variety of painters on show.

Production of ‘Monfréville’, and the fourth one, began after the first two paintings of the series were well on the way. I’m not sure whether the increasingly fraught events since early October have affected it except possibly to have made me seek the calm in it. It was completed on the morning 25th October. In the afternoon Madam and I went down the road for my mother’s arrival at her nursing home in Edinburgh. She was there for ten days, and we visited every (except one) day, and then she died. 

Madam and I were both there, and it was peaceful. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Smoke – Chelyabinsk

oil on card 21x15cm

This is the second in the small postcard-sized series, and is taken from a couple of Google streetview screenshots looking west towards Chelyabinsk. My original view had the interesting sky, but the landscape was dismal. Luckily, just up the road there was this patch of grass and trees where there was a large bonfire, and I latched onto the play between the ground smoke and the vaporous sky. 

It went alright I think, but I would like to have dwelt a bit more on the cloud edge just above where it gets hidden by the rain - at such a small size, some subtleties really do have to go undeveloped. However, there’s great potential for re-working all four of the set at a bigger scale, and there’s a lot to be said for discovering and solving the problems of a piece by painting a smaller version first.

I’ve exaggerated the atmospheric pink under the rain cloud. It’s a very thin mix of Burnt Sienna and Alizarin Crimson in a Stand oil and Damar Varnish medium. I’ve used quite a dense Stand Oil mix in the latter stages of the sky in this one. Instead of my regular 1:7 Stand Oil:Turpentine (+mandatory driers) medium, I’ve used a 1:3, but with a lot more driers. 

If you’re not aware of it, Stand Oil is plain linseed oil that’s undergone heating in a sealed container, which changes it into a very different beast. As bought, it’s the colour and consistency of honey, and I sometimes thin it a bit with Turpentine to facilitate measuring when making up mediums. Without driers/siccatives it takes ages to dry, but it forms a very hard, non-darkening surface. Its most attractive property, though, is its handling. Paint with added Stand Oil feels very mobile and sensitive under the brush. It brings out the best in transparent pigments, and works well in glazes. Used very weakly – with a lot of turpentine (and driers of course) - it begins to ‘tack’ quite quickly as the turpentine evaporates, especially when supplemented with a resin varnish. With a stronger mix, the paint it’s been added to can be manipulated for some time – even a very thin layer – and is very useful for ‘soft’ looking graduated fades. As I say, I’ve never really got round to using particularly strong mixes before, maybe due to a reluctance to use driers. However, since my enforced abandonment of Lead White, I’ve been using driers a lot with the very long-drying Zinc White, so it’s no extra leap to put them to use with Stand Oil. Anyway, it’s worth a play with, and if it’s good enough for Jan van Eyck, well…

Some melancholy news. In the previous post I mused – at some length - on the new bus timetable for my regular family trip up to Perthshire. Sadly, due to my mother’s necessary relocation to Edinburgh, they will be no more. I’ve been going up there at regular intervals now for the best part of twenty-five years. The changing landscape has been a spectacular and inspirational by-product of my filial duties, and I shall miss it. Last Friday’s trip to collect her things was a magnificent circuit – over the new bridge, up through Fife to Perth, along Strathearn to Crieff, then south past Dunblane, Stirling, and back to Edinburgh. 

It was a lovely clear day too.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

July Cumulus – Perthshire

oil on card 21x15cm

This is the first finisher in a series of four very small postcard-sized submissions to a show in an Edinburgh gallery for the run-up to Christmas. The other three are still in development, but will be coming up soon, and I’ll post about any inclusions in the show if or when they get in. Naturally, if none are accepted, this’ll be the last you’ll ever hear of it. 

The painting is from a photo I took from the top deck of the No.47 bus – front seat of course - just north of Braco, and is more or less a transcription of the photo image. I’ve squeezed a dull section out of the centre so as to include the light areas at the lower right - behind the cloud base – and I’ve moved the top right patch of blue down so that it fits more comfortably. It’s all about the cloud really, which probably means that the supporting trees and ground are actually better painting. 

Technically, there’s not much new to say about this – it’s the fairly usual opaque and transparent layers. I did buy a new colour of paint for it though. We were in the art shop – Greyfriars in Dundas Street – and while Madam was buying some stuff (masking tape and a light portfolio), I had a browse at the Michael Harding oil paint display. I was just wondering vaguely what I’d forgotten to see what paint I needed before leaving the house, and I spotted a tube of Neutral Grey – which I’d never seen before. I hadn’t begun this painting yet, and thought that a standard grey might be useful. It’s a blend of Titanium White, Ivory Black, and with a touch of Burnt Umber. Thick, it’s quite neutral, and thin, over the white priming, it’s definitely quite a tarry brown. Interesting, and I’m sure it’ll be a useful addition.

You may, or may not, have noticed that I didn’t produce a blog post for September. While I know that I’m very, very lucky to be in a position where I can indulge myself in this arty stuff, I can still, very occasionally, become a bit blocked, disenchanted, and unmotivated about the whole painting thing. I went through one of those why-the-flip-am-I-actually-bothering-to-do-this phases. It’s past, I think, but my motivation and inspiration for the whole Easel Thing went completely out the window for some time. Oddly enough, I was diverted by having to fix a painting that had been damaged. It was just a few scratches but I found it interesting to do, and the process harked back to some of the fine colouring I’d had to do during the furniture restoration days. There was no risk associated with it because it was my own work and I had the Work in Progress notes (see link in the column to the right) detailing what pigments I’d used in the surface build-up. And, no, I’m not going to do that for anyone else.

So, while, paint-wise, I myself am hopefully back to normal, that’s more that can be said for the No.47. It seems that the bus company in their wisdom are re-jigging the timetable next month. The No.47 – Crieff to Stirling - will be no more. Never fear, though, it’s being replaced by the No.15a - which currently goes from Perth to Comrie (or St Fillans). It’s a mixed prospect; I’m told the new bus will have slightly different departure times but should be twice the frequency (hourly), so that should be an overall improvement. I am puzzled though, as to why the No.15a has been reassigned to the No.47 route, and the No.47 itself put out to grass. 

Perplexing though this may be, I’m convinced that no great good can come of dwelling on The Perthshire Bus Situation overmuch - best just get on with the artywork…

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


oil on canvas 100x80cm

Before we begin, get the speakers on and the music track clicked. Hear the piano? Off we go…

Some of you will recognise that this is Kate Bush singing ‘Wuthering Heights’. For those too young or forgetful, this was her debut hit single, which featured memorably on Top of Tops in 1978. You’ll probably be aware that the song is based around Emily Bronte’s novel ‘Wuthering Heights’ – the Heathcliff and Cathy story. 

Some paintings seem to paint themselves, this one didn’t for some reason. Not only is it larger than usual, but it’s quite heavy due to the much thicker stretchers needed, and I pulled my back quite seriously one day while raising it awkwardly on the easel. The blue sky and upper clouds were washed off and repainted once, then overpainted three or four times during the campaign to achieve the right colour and wispiness. The hardness and cragginess of the rock cliffs were built up – counter-intuitively perhaps - with thin veils of opaque/transparent paint, so they took a long time. The cumulus masses on the left kept developing unwanted hard edges, and the colourful young lady (inserted last, after the sky was completed) got very stroppy and refused to be convincing in all the important criteria – stance, colour, tone, solidity, and recognisability. 

Which was annoying, as she is obviously the primary attraction, seeing as how she’s dancing around in a bright red dress against the sky at the edge of a cliff. The grass, happily, took pity on me, and its painting went fairly effortlessly.

Arriving at the right image source for the rocks was a lengthy process too. Initially I was trying to work with composites of Buckstones Edge, but I just couldn’t get a workable skyline shape. (I think it might have been the chance discovery of these rocks that sparked the whole idea) At one point I was desperate enough to consider looking at Salisbury Crags up the road. Luckily it was raining, so I did one more picture search and discovered the Almscliffe Crag. This outcrop was everything I was looking for, and it has a wonderful shallow concave cliff face. As a bonus, it’s a proper Yorkshire feature, which is nice. I’ve flipped the crags left-to-right and altered the scale – they’re actually a lot more massive than suggested here – but the lighting on the source image was perfect for the bright sky I’d already chosen, so I just bluffed the scale. The vital green counter-curve of sunlit ground was a serendipitous contrast with the dead, hard rock.

On the left there’s a bundle of smaller cumulus clouds, and this is where the piece’s title makes sense. If you haven’t spotted them already, there are a couple of transparent figures there, looking up with interest at the young singer. They are, of course, the ghosts of Cathy and Heathcliff. They’re taken from a couple of stills from William Wyler’s Laurence Olivier/Merle Oberon film version. I didn’t want them to be immediately visible so I’ve camouflaged them a bit by putting them against a more contrasting cloud background. Possibly too invisible, but we’ll see.

My scenario is that young Kate is belting out her piece at the very crags where the young lovers used to meet – where the novel suggests their shades were last spotted - and that Heathcliff and Cathy are still there. Though the singer is telling their story, she is oblivious to their presence.

Boiled down, it’s an image about the continuing presence of the dead, and, perhaps, a comforting notion that they can be approving of the living.

I’m aware that the narrative isn’t obvious, and that it will probably become impenetrable within a couple of decades. The viewer has to know all four of the elements - the singer, the song, the novel, and its storyline – which will become a rarer and rarer occurrence as time grinds on, and the recognition factor might be stronger if the title was ‘The Ghosts of Heathcliff and Cathy’. Hmm. Purely as an image though, without the pop and literary references, I still think it has legs, and it does have some interesting bits of painting in it (the rocks and grass if you hadn’t noticed, and I’m also quite pleased with the mix of reds in the dress)

Anyway, it’s done now, and I’m going to have a bit of a rest before starting on to the next piece.

Which, with a bit of luck, will go a bit easier…

Sunday, July 30, 2017

More Figures and a Seagull


Yet another pencil window work I’m afraid, which is an admission of two things: 

a) That I still haven’t finished the painting I wanted to get finished. I did think that I’d manage to get it done by the end of July and be able to post it on the blog this month, but the final - most important element - is proving to be difficult and elusive, stubbornly refuses to convince, and to compound its general recalcitrance is refusing to dry as fast as I would like it to. Every morning, I check my side-sample, and every morning my fingertips feel the slight tackiness – reducing a bit, day by day – that signals ‘Unsafe paint surface, liable to lift with the slightest agitation. You labour here at your peril’. Very frustrating, but at least I have taken the decision not to over-hurry it – the painting, after all, does only get made once.

b) That I’m really enjoying doing these little life sketches in pencil. 

They are tiny – most full-length figures are no more than 2-3 inches, so they’re much more about drawing from the wrist than from the shoulder. This month I’ve diversified slightly away from the random figures that wander into view, and have been attempting to draw the birds that flit past – mostly seagulls and pigeons. It’s a funny thing, but while I can recognise a gull in flight instantaneously – even from quite far away off – analysing quite why that is, and then recreating it with marks on paper is quite a different thing. And they move so fast – they make the movement of humans and clouds seem positively glacial in comparison.

By the way, two more things: 
c) That’s not John Cooper Clarke there, just a passing Goth. 

d) I am aware that there is no such species as ‘Seagull’. In Edinburgh, on the North Sea coast, we are treated to several specific species such as Herring Gull, Lesser & Greater Black-Blacked Gulls, Black-Headed Gull, and Common Gull. I am at present not confident of identifying these species accurately, so I am, of course, using the term as a generic.

And finally: 
e) Enjoy the poem…

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Humble Pencil


I’ve been painfully aware that my rapid Watercolour Window Work exercises have become stale and much less rewarding over the last few months. Short of actually concentrating and working bit harder, which is difficult, I’ve taken the easier solution and changed my tools – hence the switch to pencil.

Actually, it’s been a very pleasant return. What’s not to like – it’s correctable when necessary, it’s dry, and unlike a wet brush doesn’t have ‘apparatus’ or the need to be re-charged with wash. The range of marks, and colour of course, is more restricted than the watercolour, but the pencil does have immediacy and speed that the watercolour can’t match, and that’s what these little live sketches are all about.

They’re still about the same size as the watercolour figures, but can be a touch smaller (the smaller the faster, as in the one of the bloke on the bike - which is about 4cm from helmet to tyre – and which simply would’ve been an indeterminate blob in watercolour).

The paper is still the A4 copy paper, and the graphite is the narrow 4B in my Staedtler clutch pencil, which keeps everything nice and clean, and probably favours my more linear style. I was never particularly fond of grinding away with a 6B – I always seemed to end up with most of it on my face – but it might be interesting to look one out that’s not broken-all-the-way-through and give it a whirl. I’ll see what happens.

I think it’s maybe quite odd that I’ve walked away from the pencil over the years. I think I stopped using one regularly for figure drawing at College when I began favouring Conte crayon for the hours and hours of studio work we had to do. Art Colleges were pretty strong on studio drawing then, and Monday was ‘Figure Drawing’ day. All day. If I remember correctly (and there may be some doubt about that) we started at 9.30 till maybe 12, then carried on after an hour’s lunch till 4pm, and that was, more often than not, a Single Pose. After a break for a cuppa, we’d have another session from 4.30 till 6.30 – with a different model, and maybe broken into two poses – just to finish off the day. It did actually pay off, because there was quite a high level of draughtsmanship amongst the students at the time, and I found that I was getting quite good results with the fine bistre, sanguine, and white Conte hard ‘pastel’ sticks (I loathed the dead black ones – completely lifeless). After College, if I was doing ‘window work’ or fast sketching off the telly, or landscape (which I did very, very, rarely indeed) I would most likely use watercolour (usually Indigo). When I started Artypainting again in 2007 one of the first things I discovered was that I had lost all the facility in my drawing, so I went off to Life Drawing classes, and what drawing medium did I use to get back into it? Yup, my trusty Conte crayons. I’ve used pencil for working ideas out, of course, but never for ‘serious’ work since, ooh, probably, the late 1970’s. 

Which is a long time ago. About when this was playing every night on the juke box in Clarks Bar – where the art students’ drank, across the road from the college at the top corner of Lady Lawson Street. Not to be confused or mistaken for the other Clarks Bar (no connection) in Dundas Street. ‘Our’ Clarks Bar was also across the road from the Fire Station, so it had a quite strange atmosphere – the front bar had the fireman, who were fairly burly down-to-earth guys, very good at darts, while in the back lounge were all these young, arty long-haired, earnestly questing, collarless shirt wearing, hedonistic ‘finding themselves’ types who couldn’t handle their drink very well, who dominated the juke box. For some reason it changed its name to ‘Tap o’ Lauriston’ in the early 80’s and became quite the trendy hotspot for New Romantics and synthesizer bands, party contacts etc, until it suddenly all changed. One Saturday evening myself and Mr Walsh trotted along there looking for a good time, and the place was empty – both bars. We asked the barman (his first night) why, and he said that he wasn’t sure, but that someone had been murdered there a few days before. Well, more than a little shocked, we finished our drinks, and like everyone else had before us, moved on, never to return. The bar closed shortly after that, then the block was demolished, and a Novotel now occupies that space, blandly unaware of its colourful predecessor. 

Hmm. Well, there’s an anecdote you maybe didn’t expect to hear. I only posted a Window Work because I haven’t managed to finish anything this month, and I didn’t imagine for a minute that I’d be diving so deeply into the Waters of Nostalgia. Powerful stuff, that graphite.

To the humble pencil then, unjustly overlooked…

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Wheatfield – late August

oil on card 30x20cm

Another view from the train - late afternoon, last August. It’s a combination of two photos taken ten minutes apart; one had a bright wheatfield with a dull sky, the other of a very interesting sky with a dull landscape. (Interesting, for me, to see how dramatically the sky changed between the two photos.) The central cloud form appears to be a low cumulus trying hard to become a multi-layered lenticular*, and, sadly, not quite making it. 

The viewpoint is high because the train has just crossed the River Almond – which curves away northwards through the line of trees on the right. This is just west of the industrial estate that is Newbridge, and about 500metres from the end of the airport runway. I’ve edited all of that out, so the setting isn’t actually as rural a scene as I’m letting on. 

Overall, the light is the thing. I’ve made an extra effort with the sky, and thought a bit about maximising the clarity of the colour. It’s a combination of Utramarine and Winsor Blue (a redder shade of Pthalocyanine Blue), and Zinc White. The thinking behind those specific pigments is that the touch of Pthalo give a pungency to the Ultramarine, while the Zinc allows the maximum saturation at lighter tones. For the blend/fade I reverted to the cloth ‘dabber’ pad, which seems to produce a smoother texture at this (small) scale than my usual soft stippling brushes. The clouds had been roughly indicated at the setting-out stage, but I didn’t bother about preserving their outlines too rigidly, as I planned to draw them properly once I was satisfied with the background ‘blueness’. The first greys in the clouds were calibrated to be about the same tones as the sky to increase the blue, and were worked darker and lighter quite carefully.

Just in passing: Grey is a very useful colour for boosting adjacent colours. I first really appreciated this phenomenon when doing the antique furniture – you could make the polished wood of a glazed bookcase positively buzz if the interior was a matted mid-grey.

That’s it really, quite chuffed though…

*Commonly, and descriptively, known as a ‘Pile d’assiettes’

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Trees – Glazovo

oil on canvas 56x56cm

I got this image when pootling fairly randomly around Russian back roads on the Google Streetview, and was struck by this ‘cave’ I found in the trees on the edge of a village called Glazovo. I did think about adding figures, and did try out a barking dog early in the compositional stage, but it seemed to be too much. So, no figures or anything else lurking here, just the dark.

Sometimes an image strikes you for no reason, but I think I was reminded of seeing a particular painting by Edward Hopper in a magazine when I was in my mid-teens. There’s something a little unsafe about those murky shadows.

Technically, there are lots of thin glazes in this, most of the thin darks and stronger shadows in the trees are made using Prussian Blue and Raw or Burnt Umber, and a lot of the greens are a pure transparent Yellow Lake laid over them. Come to think of it, with this subject matter and colour range I could’ve saved myself an awful lot of bother by establishing the masses in monochrome. More straightforwardly though, the central ‘dark’ is a simple glaze made with pure Ivory Black. The idea is to differentiate that particular area from the rest in an effort to make it a bit edgy, like the shadow in the Hopper. This layered transparent surface is actually very rich, but possibly a bit overcooked. I think I started off aiming for some quite subdued late summer, overcast colours, but they see to have run a little out of control, which is interesting, but not what I was aiming for.

According to one of my painting tutors at the College of Art – Jimmy Cumming - Renoir said ‘Black is the Queen of all colours’, and that he (Renoir) had spent forty years learning how to use it. I do try to use it sparingly because it does have an impact, but then again John Singer Sargent used it all the time. Sargent was apparently quite miffed when, on a day’s painting together at Chez Monet, he asked if he could borrow some black and Monet rather sniffily told him he didn’t have any ‘cos he didn’t use it. I doubt if there was actual fisticuffs, but it’s an interesting little story that proves that there are no rules about this sort of thing.

I’m not unhappy with the bush on the left, but, like the colouring, the rest of the foliage got a little too loose and fuzzy and I think I lost control of the tree forms and masses on the right at a fairly early stage. There’s a phenomenon where the brain interprets random marks as faces. This can be useful when mapping out complex marks like foliage, but I think it started to get on top of me a bit here. I’m actually quite pleased with the sky though. I know it’s a thick overcast, but it has a glow about it. I wish I’d done it sooner – I’d worked up the foliage layers quite a lot before sorting the sky, then had to recreate the layer system over the grey overspill for the newly re-drawn tree line. This duplication of the surface-building process was entirely unnecessarily, and was very frustrating and annoying. A bit of thought at the beginning would have avoided all of that and got this piece out of the way in at least two-thirds of the time. 

I’m sure the idea’s a sound one, but at the time of writing I’m a little bit ‘meh’ about this one. Short of re-starting (No!!), I cannot think of how to take this further so I’ll just draw a line under it and let it go. It happens sometimes, but if further inspiration strikes I’ll decide then whether to pick it up again. 

Anyway, here’s some trees from Russia, and what with my curse/evil-eye/ superpower of killing trees that I’ve featured in paintings, if they’re not floorboards now they soon will be…

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


oil on card 32x18cm

Another sky exercise on small card. It’s a view from the Dunblane-Edinburgh train, looking at the low hills across the Forth river plain, just past Bridge of Allan.

It’s really about the sky of course, and most of the effort has gone into that part of the painting. The ground is treated fairly cursorily, but I think it’s still quite effective. It’s actually a fiction – a computer-generated composite. In order to get the wide sky I took three photos and put them together using a panorama stitching programme. The sky was fairly constant over that time, but because the train was belting along at 50/60mph the nearer ground features were entirely different in all three photos. The image produced wasn’t bad though, and a little tweaking brought the composite to something I could work with. Any remaining minor inconsistencies were rationalised out during the painting process.

On the technical side, I used this little piece to try out Michael Harding’s ‘Warm White Lead Alternative’. He recently introduced this in response to requests from painters (not me) to ‘synthesize’ an easily available alternative to Lead Carbonate/Flake White at a reasonable cost. It’s a blend of Titanium and Zinc whites, with a touch of Yellow Ochre, in Linseed oil. He may have added a bit of wax or something as well (purely guessing here), as it feels more like real Flake White than greasy Titanium or lightweight Zinc. It doesn’t dry in the same way though – one of the major attractions of Lead White is that it’s fast and thorough drying – but this ‘Fake Flake’ is pleasant enough, and I’m sure I’ll continue to use it. Having said that I did use Titanium white for the final top lights behind the central cloud. Sometimes you just have to.

The low hills are the magnificently-named Gargunnocks. They’re aligned with the Fintry Hills and Campsie Fells to the southwest, and feature a straight-edged escarpment along their northern edges, tilting gently down towards the south. This fault line continues northeastwards and becomes apparent again along the steep southern edge of the Ochil Hills. However, these tilt towards the north, and I’ve absolutely no idea what’s gone on there as I’m not a geologist, but visually that’s very interesting.

I do actually enjoy painting these little sky pieces. They’re something I can get done quite fast – this one clocked in at 10hrs over five sessions - and I feel I can afford to treat them quite freely and experimentally, which pays off when tackling the larger stuff.

Looking forward to the next one already - the light is strengthening by the day, and it’ll soon be Spring… 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

September 2014

oil on panel 71x61cm

You may (or may not) have noticed that there wasn’t a January blog post. I apologise. My attempts to finish this painting for last month were soundly defeated by Xmas and New Year, plus a couple of doses of man-flu and one of lady-cold during December and January - and rather than just post yet another Window Work I just didn’t post anything.

I’ve been working on this on and off since October, so it has taken a long time. It’s as finished as it’s ever going to be, though it feels a little stressed and overwrought, and not as calm and serene as I had planned. The location is a real place – a small glade on Easter Craiglockhart Hill – and I took the source photographs myself back in 2014. It was late afternoon and the sun was quite low. I’d toiled up the steep path on the ‘pond’ side (carrying my bike on my shoulder), and emerged from the trees looking down into this small open space. The decaying mauve and orange rosebay willowherb opposite were lit up by the sun, and the elms and oaks behind me cast their shadow onto the two central ash trees. The atmosphere was still, and quiet - a serene lacuna in a particularly fraught day. Which felt a little like this*

It’s painted on hardboard panel for a change; I wanted a smooth surface that didn’t need ages to prepare. Unjointed battens were glued onto the back to make a simple frame to stiffen the panel and to receive all the stringing gubbins, and it doesn’t look out of place next to the canvasses. The cutting and woodwork stuff, as always without a proper workshop, was awkward, and (literally) a pain. That slightly bending forward position seriously does my back in, and I have to stop and ‘normalise’ it every ten or twenty minutes. Buying wooden stretchers from a shop and stretching a canvas is so much easier. The priming was a doddle though, so I suppose a prepared panel is best reserved for when I need a surface fairly fast. 

When I started composing this piece I knew there would be figures in it, but I was well on the way to finishing by the time I got round to working them out. I wanted two figures; one demonstrating dominance and power over the other. I used myself as both models, spending a morning photographing myself in alternating dominant and submissive poses - which may have been puzzling for the occupants across the road - then photoshopped the two ‘me’s’ together. So if both figures resemble a portly gent in sloppy joggers that’s the reason.

I’m quite pleased with some of the paintwork on this, and as usual the best bit of painting – the pink-topped trees on the left – was done almost without thought. What I’m not pleased with is that I made a huge mistake, or misjudgement, or wrong choice, whatever you’d like to call it. I darkened the right ash (which needed to be done) with an opaque mix and let it dry. This was an extraordinarily stupid thing to do, and it meant I had to re-paint the branch and foliage forms all over again. There are, apparently, parasitic worms which alter the natural behaviour of their unfortunate hosts for their own purposes, perhaps I was a victim of one such. Who knows, but probably not.

That day in September, when I went up the hill for a wander, was exactly a week before a referendum, and a poll result had sparked off a forceful counter-action from one side. ‘Events’ were happening, and the news on the radio and telly was a wall-to-wall avalanche deployed for that side. The weather was beautiful, and I would’ve gone out and left it all behind, but I had to stay in until the parcel I was expecting arrived. I remember the whole day as stressed and unreal, a little over-saturated, and perhaps I’ve unwittingly made the painting reflect that.

Again, sorry about January. With a bit of luck, normal service will be resumed next month…

*A version of ‘La Folia’ – a popular Renaissance and Baroque tune, and also the theme for the film ‘Fargo’. Richter’s version is part of a work about Virginia Woolf, and has a couple more very intense variations, and has only recently been released . What I was actually listening to on that day and around that time was this

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Four Figures and a Canine


It’s been a while, so here’s the cream of the Window Work done since April. 

To be honest, I don’t think I’ve been particularly diligent in my pre-easel warm-ups lately, and I’ve maybe been ‘going through the motions’ a bit. I quickly realised this when going through the drawings pile and saw that most of them really weren’t up to scratch (cue extra sessions and renewed concentration over the last few days).

As usual, they are done with the usual Paynes Grey watercolour on 80gm office A4, but you might notice a change of brushmark amongst them. My Pentel Aquabrush – which I felt I’d better get used to a while back – has become quite blunt and difficult to make fine marks with. I was still using it for the heavy metal guy, the dog, and the girl on the right, but the other two figures – done over the last couple of days – are done with a new, sharper, watercolour brush. If you compare the half-man and the dog sketches – both about the same size - you’ll see that his marks are pointed and quick, whereas the dog’s are rounder, softer, and a little less precise. The worn Pentel Aquabrush has been put aside for now - and that has absolutely nothing to do with a bad workman blaming his tools.

It’s the end of 2016, and – artyworkwise - it’s been quite a good year for me. I’ve been selected for both the SSA and RSA Opens, and have had work on show at the Union Gallery. There have been some sales (I have very mixed feelings about that but I’ll move swiftly along) and people have said some very nice things about the work, which is always very nice to hear. Looking forward, I’m wanting 2017 to be calm and placid - with no external excitements and tensions - so I can a) finish the stuff I’m working on just now, b) get on with the stuff I’ve already got lined up, and c) think up more ideas (the scary bit) without being unduly distracted by ‘events’. And I wonder how that’ll work out.

No more to say really, so that’s it for 2016. A Happy and Healthy New Year to all when it comes…

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


oil on card 30x21cm

Nice little cloud study, from a photo I took in October when up Craiglockhart Hill. You’re facing broadly north-eastwards – you can see Fife across the Firth of Forth, and if you look closely there’s an indication of the Lomond Hills. It was just a quick snap of the light on the cumulus clouds, but I tweaked the foreground trees, and the near coast a bit, and I think I’ve ended up with quite an interesting little composition.

It would’ve been finished a couple of weeks ago, but I started it disastrously by not being able to get the tones and misty greys right – I was at least a couple of sessions down before I finally got to grips with them (which sounds ridiculous as it is such a tiny painting). The space between cloud ‘ceiling’ and the cumulus ‘wall’ is a little ill-defined and indistinct, but I could spend ages re-defining that so I think I’ll just leave it as is. Got there in the end though, and, as ever, the most successful bits of painting – the foreground trees – took the least bit of thought and trouble. There must be some way I can use that…

Not much else to say, really, except that the other week Madam and I went to the National Gallery of Scotland to see Carel Fabritius’ ‘The Goldfinch’ – which is on loan there from the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Earlier this year we’d actually been thinking about taking a little jaunt to Holland specifically to see it, then - who’d have thought – it turned up here in Edinburgh. It was on a special stand in the middle of the gallery, but cordoned off and only viewable from about six feet away from the front. Which was a little annoying. The real thing is very different from most of the reproductions I’ve seen. The colour is quite subdued - though the pale yellow wing flash leaps out – but I did get a new sense of how just cramped into the right side of the painting the bird is, and how it seems to sit in its own shadow. There is a theory that it’s designed to be a piece of trompe l'oeil – so true-to-life that you’re tricked into thinking it’s real - but I’m not so sure, as the shadows seem a little inconsistent. The perches are lit from above, but the main shadows seem to slant upwards. This indicates, to me, that the light source – probably a window - is below, which, cruelly, means that the bird cannot ever see the sky. 

The ropes at the side allowed me to stand a bit closer and I was able to get a better look. The quickness of the drawing is superb. The painter has introduced a slight droop to the tail feathers, but as I leaned in close enough to focus clearly on the face I was shocked. This wee bird looking at me was so sad, so beaten, so hopeless. I can feel it still.

The picture was painted in 1654. I saw it in 2016, and it reached out.

That is what very good painting can do…

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Big Cumulus

oil on card 30x25cm

Google streetview is an excellent tool for sourcing landscapes, but it’s also pretty useful for finding skies as well. The source for this very small painting is from Russia – just outside a town called Kalachinsk, about fifty miles east of Omsk – where the summer weather has generated a dynamic sky, and the flat landscape allows an uninterrupted view of it.

I’ve tweaked a couple of elements from the original image; the hillock at the right edge has been developed from a clump of trees as a compositional support, and I’ve generally turned the colour up a bit. 

I wanted to play with the blue, and I fancied having a patch of clear sky separating the main clouds for some reason. I couldn’t make it work though. Madam couldn’t see at a glance which one was nearest, so I drifted some of the cumulus on the right behind the closer central one, and that’s made that space feel a bit more secure. Pimping up the blue meant I had to develop (invent) some aerial perspective, so I introduced an Ultramarine glaze fading upwards from the horizon, which I have to say works very well. It’s a shame that the distant clouds under the glaze weren’t done a bit more carefully though; the paint was quite clumsy and ‘lumpen’ – not smooth enough – and I think that hinders the near-to-far recession.

On an interesting technical note though, I returned to my old enemy Radioactive Blue for a more intense clear sky colour. I used a tiny bit of it – handled at a distance with tongs, and shielded by protective clothing* - with Ultramarine and Zinc White in a fairly translucent base mix, and built up a couple of layers of Ultramarine glaze on top of it. That system produced a blue that I’m quite pleased with, but it did mean that I had to spend extra time de-toxifying my brushes. My antipathy to this pigment goes back some time, and I made a solemn vow to never, ever, use it again, as it taints and stains everything it comes in contact with. My use of it here, however, rather proves that one should never, ever, say never.

That’s about it really. It didn’t quite go to plan and took far too long, but I’m glad I kicked it into something approaching what I had in my head. Oh, and I’m quite pleased with the painting of the ground and trees. As usual, the bits which took the least effort and thought turned out the best…

* I didn’t really. I was using ‘humour’ in that sentence to convey how powerful Pthalocyanine Blue is. It seems to have a mind of its own and delights in contaminating your brushes, palette, and household. One of the cats actually had a patch of it on his fur and I have absolutely no idea how it got there.