Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Links Lenticulars

oil on card  30x15.5cm

The original source for this little sky study is a wide panorama I took from the Bruntsfield Links, looking north. There was a lovely mixed sky featuring a lot of very stable, lens-shaped Lenticular clouds (years ago, I used to think of these clouds as ‘whale’ clouds), and I used the section containing the glowing white one on the centre right.

Done on mid-blue primed card, I had a lot of trouble with the tones, then realised that my composition was a bit formless. There was a band of cloud stretching across the middle that didn’t do anything, so I had to import the sharper, more slender band now present from along the panorama. Likewise, I imported some trees from another part to fill up the middle foreground and break up the regularity of Glengyle Terrace.

I’m meant to be learning stuff from these exercises, so what have I learned from this? Well for starters, don’t use a mid-blue priming – it completely screwed up my control of the blues (odd-sounding but true). Get the tones sorted quickly – by looking at the sources properly. Keep the shapes and textures right – by looking at the sources properly. Finally, sort the composition out from the start – by looking at the sources properly – so that I’m not mending and playing catch-up all the time. The painting is on card, so I could’ve solved the composition very simply by cutting the top third off, but then that would have been for too easy. I do have a (slight) excuse for the tonal miscalculations too, seeing as I’m still coming to grips with the whole ‘Not-Using-Lead White-just-Titanium-and-Zinc Whites’ thing. But I shouldn’t push it.

Madam says it’s not as bad as I think it is, and some of the low horizon work is quite interesting, but it did take far, far too long for a small study. However, it’s done now, so I’ll just move on…

…into 2015 that is. Time for a song – should be Auld Lang Syne, but it isn’t. Happy New Year everybody, here’s hoping the next one’s better!

Post Publishing Edit: This was still annoying me, so this morning – 5th January 2015 – I sliced 1.5cm off the top edge. The image at the top is the amended one. Much happier with the painting now, though in making this edit I seem to have reverted to an earlier draft of the post and have lost a load of interesting stuff about measuring angles of view with your hand . So, my apologies for that - it's as if that little paragraph has been trimmed along with the top 1.5cm...

Monday, December 1, 2014

Orange Sky Study

oil on card 30x18cm

Another sky study from a photograph I took last month - I saw this sky developing from the window and nipped out to record it. I’m not really a sunset person – they can be spectacular, but I think they’re a bit obvious. Anyway, that’s the exercise done, and because I was dealing with colour problems different from those I usually face, I would say that it was worth the effort.

Laying a thin, warm, light layer over a darker base was an everyday problem when I was in furniture restoration - colouring patches and disguising glue lines. If I was using a coloured glue – a translucent glue to which I added my own pigments – there was less of a problem than when using the naturally-dark traditional bead glue. This was very useful stuff indeed, but couldn’t be coloured, and no matter how well a patch fitted, there would always be a dark line in the surface. If I simply painted that over to match the surrounding wood, it would just go cool and grey. I had to overpaint the dark line in Cadmium Orange (usually in Gum Arabic). This dried to a cooler colour, but warm enough to be a base for all the tricksy grain and figuring work that would camouflage the mend. Which was what I got paid for. 

No Gum Arabic in this though, or Flake White. I’ve had a shock concerning the (most) recent prohibition of Lead White, so I’ve decided to learn how to do without. This piece has only Zinc White, which has it’s own glow, but I’ll have to get to grips with the Titanium/Zinc permutations which are the only whites you can get in the shops now. (If anyone knows of a Lead White speakeasy, let me know…)

Anyway, this little painting was done over three sessions, total time 9hrs 35min – not great, but about right I suppose. It’s an adapted view from the canal bridge at Viewforth, just down the road. The trees suggested on the right are imported from Blackford Hill; what’s actually there is a new student accommodation block – higher and more rectangular than the building that it replaced, but the influx of students and their cash will no doubt be beneficial to the neighbourhood. I wonder how many of them will see my three paintings selected for this year’s Society of Scottish Artists Open exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy building at the Mound/Princes Street, and whether they know it’s on from 5th till 20th December, and is free. Probably not many.

By the way, I knew we were a bit low on milk when I went out, so I got another litre - and some biscuits - from the corner shop on my way back. (So efficient)…

Monday, November 10, 2014

Cloud Study/Braids and Pentlands

oil on card 38x21cm

Another quick-ish cloud study. This one is taken from some photos I took in September 2013 when I was sourcing clouds for some other piece. The view is looking South from Blackford Hill, Edinburgh, taking in the Braid Hills and the more distant Pentlands. 

It’s all about the clouds though, and having a look at describing the shine of backlit Altocumulus. I think it works at first glance, but again the surface has somehow become lumpy and possibly overworked. I wish that the sky had the economy of the landscape sections, which I think are Quite Good. Oh well.

These small studies may actually be more useful than I think at the moment. Last week, when trying to buy another Flake White, I discovered that it is now unobtainable in UK, or Europe for that matter. It has been under restrictions for some time – being only available in tins – due to the fact that it’s Lead Carbonate, but it’s now totally banned, except for use in conservation. This means that I will have to adapt to painting with the ‘replacement’ whites produced by the various manufacturers – most often blends of Titanium and Zinc Whites, both of which are very cool whites and bad driers – and these little exercises will be very good for finding a New Way With Whites. Which, in My Humble Opinion, I think is unnecessary.
(A word of warning to other Artyfolk, the Cadmiums colours – strong opaque Reds and Yellows - are under threat as well.)

Today, as you can perhaps tell, I am Quite Grumpy. However - to paraphrase Scarlett O’ Hara - “Tomorrow is another day… and who knows, there may be Kelvin-Helmholzes* or the newly-categorised Altocumulus Asperatus* hangin’ about, which’ll be nice…”

* Two uncommon but spectacular cloud types, as if you didn’t know.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Blackford Hill Cumulus/Grass Study

oil on card 28x21cm

Another quickie, done in parallel with the first, again from a photo I took a few years ago. I had gone up Blackford Hill to do watercolour sketches of the big Cumulonimbuses that were sailing by that afternoon. I was in the lee of the hill, but suddenly got hailed on from behind. I turned round, and there was this shining billowing thing looming up on me. I took a quick photo, gathered my kit and legged it.

This small painting is a very near transcription of the photo image, mainly looking at, and trying to describe, the soft luminosity of the cloud. Used Flake White in soft, mobile, walnut oil – I think done in three layers – and this time I’m happy with the surface.

The grass was unexpectedly interesting to do. It’s only about three or four feet away from the eye, and while I didn’t want to make it a token blur, I didn’t want to describe every blade either. I ended up scoring the wet paint (very thinned out walnut oil, laid on a wipe of walnut oil) with a curled-up bit of stiff paper, which gave quite an effective grassy texture - especially in that tricky turf/sky silhouette area. Very likely to use this technique again, I think it would have been quite useful on most recent work.

It’s felt very refreshing to cut loose on these small ‘throwaway’ pieces, and it’s good to return to the Bigger Pieces with more energy. 

Mind you, I have prepared a whole new batch of primed card…

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Backlit Altocumulus Study

oil on card 38x23cm

First of the New Quickies, taken from a photo I took in late summer 2011. 

It’s Bruntsfield Links, below some brightly backlit Altocumulus clouds, and not really mucked around with at all. The tree line (I’ve omitted the rooflines) is cropped slightly from the photo to give me the ‘bookend’ tree masses, but I’ve used the entire width of the sky in the source.

I’m very happy with the efficiency of the trees and grass, and there does seem to be some light in the sky, but I’m disappointed with the paint surface of the clouds. It’s somehow got very lumpy and rough, and will probably gather dirt and dust in quite a short while – negating whatever brightness there is now. Which is annoying.

I’ve made the trees and ground elements a bit darker than they would appear in life to exaggerate the shine in the sky, but lighter than in the source photo. There’s a dynamic range problem that arises when trying to photograph the sky – either the brightness throws everything else into impenetrable gloom or the sky is so overexposed that the cloud forms don’t register in the general white-out. It was a problem solved fairly early on by the 19thC French photographer Gustave le Gray - combining two separate exposures of sky and sea in one print to produce an acceptable optical solution.

So there you go.

Ten hours max over five separate days, which is like greased lightning for me…

Thursday, October 16, 2014


oil on canvas 51x51cm

Here’s another woodland scene, this time featuring a man and a black dog. It’s taken long enough, and perhaps slightly misses the painting I had in my head, but there’s really nothing more I can do with it.

It’s meant to be about that moment of uncertainty when you hear something unseen and don’t know what it is. In that context, the viewer is aligned with the figures – we are watching them reacting to something in the murky area at the centre.

The setting is an adaption from a google streetview location in Hampshire. The open area was originally wider, and I moved the right trees inwards to make it a bit more claustrophobic – which caused a few problems where the two sides of foliage overlapped in the upper space. I also removed some of the more intrusive branches from the left to unclutter that central zone. Structurally, it’s very similar to Crow (July 2013); there is an open central area, a nearer block of lighter trees on the left and a darker row on the right leading back to a sunlit clump of trees. There’s even a sightline going back on the left, and in both paintings the light shines in through the trees on the right. I only noticed the similarity when I was about a third the way in, and honestly don’t know whether this is a Good or a Bad Thing.

During the initial stages of composition there were just two men; one on the right - as now - and another by the trees on the left. This began to look a bit shifty, so I removed one man and gave the other one a dog. This change, where the animal is suddenly very alert while the human peers into the gloom, introduces more acute senses, and is a bit more potent.

The dog is a pointer* - found on the interweb and originally white – and was exactly the pose I wanted. The man was taken from a BBC TV News report. He’s from Sloviansk, Eastern Ukraine, and was part of a crowd of men watching something going on from afar – again, exactly the pose I wanted

Technically, the initial progress was quite fast. I omitted the charcoal drawing step and went straight to drawing the elements into the grid with oil paint – quite finely in the case of the dog and man, and the left tree trunks. It was fast and efficient, and I think I’ll carry on doing this regularly. Another development is that I find myself using linseed Stand oil more. If you don’t know it, it’s a stiffly viscous substance – like thick honey – and takes an era to dry. To make it more manageable I dilute a batch of it 50/50 with turpentine. This makes it easy to use as a measured ingredient in damar resin and walnut oil mixtures (not forgetting to add the required drops of cobalt driers!). Recently though, I’ve been using it without damar - further thinned down and with different amounts of driers added (still experimenting). I’ve found that as the turpentine evaporates, the oil content tends to stick to itself, and can be controlled quite finely. It can produce a softness I find very pleasant to work with, and, once cured, is very tough. Which is always nice to know.

Now, thinking aloud, I’m getting concerned at how long these pieces are taking to complete, and how the regularity of my monthly blog posts has collapsed recently. This may be subjective, but it seems to me as if I’m only painting long novels, and I feel the need to be producing short stories and essays as well. I’m going to start breaking up my work habit with smaller, faster pieces, on easy-to-prepare card or panel - and just get some churn going.

Subjects? Well, who knows, but seeing as how the sky is always there and always changing and clouds are constantly fascinating and just an up-look away, and I have thousands of photos of them idly cluttering up my computer… 

* To the disdain of my Spanielist friends

Thursday, August 28, 2014

August Window Work


After a period of relative inactivity on the rapid drawing front, I’ve had a bit of a burst during August, with quite a high success rate as well.

I’d got into the (bad) habit of not looking properly, so I made sure that I had my initial good look for an extra 3-5 seconds before making the first marks.

I’ve been using a Pentel Aquash waterbrush – it’s a watercolour sketching brush which has a reservoir of water in the handle. If you need a bit of water, you just squeeze and there’s a flow through the hair. It saves a bit of time, which is very valuable in these exercises. Some people fill them with a ready-mixed wash - a good idea which I haven’t tried yet. The hair is an artificial fibre, but it feels OK and the point is pleasantly flexible and responsive.

I’ve selected five sketches, but I could have included at least three more. They’re the usual size, between 10-5cm high, and in my regular Payne’s Grey. There’s a bit more dynamism in these ones – I’m quite chuffed with the twisting man. It’s the whole figure and I really didn’t have long, and I think I’ve got ‘im. The mother and baby is a partial figure, and the marks are a little bit style-over-substance, but I quite like it. I think the best one is the central man – he was just a guy going up the road, but he’s got a touch of the classical about him, and he did actually have that poise and balance. 

Nice to know that when I do get down and concentrate I’ve still got it.

Well, some of the time…

Friday, August 8, 2014


oil on canvas 61x51cm

Just for a change, here’s a painting that doesn’t rely on greens. It’s adapted from a found google view from way up in Northern Norway, where the landscape seems entirely composed of swathes of dwarf birch.

It’s finished now - with quite a nice surface - but, its production has been a good example of why working an ill-thought-through idea, and grinding it out without really knowing where it’s going, is not always Good Practice. The initial thinking was all about the colour and the raking light, and in the (too brief) compositional stage I added a running figure, and it all seemed like A Good Idea At The Time.

Unfortunately, I didn’t concentrate enough on my drawing at the very start (February!), which meant that I was constantly playing catch-up and correcting the forms from the word go – except for the distant trees, which were actually painted quite efficiently. After a while, I realised that the elements of my original source weren’t adding up very well. I had wanted a very positive, fresh atmosphere, but then I became aware that half of my foreground birches were dead, leafless, and skeletal – and had to be changed pronto. Unfortunately I replaced them badly from various sources, and finally ended up composing clumps of trees from some (summery green) birch trees in the park, and the pair across the road that I see every single day.

I had realised fairly early that the scale of the figure – the Runner - was problematic; because the trees were dwarf birches (and not drawn well enough to indicate that), the figure was reading as a giant, so there had to be yet more coming and going on that. His back was meant to be lit by the low sunlight, but the resulting shape was a very awkward diagonal, so I hid him in deep shadow and blurred him to a mere suggestion.

Despite all my hand-wringing and grief, there are actually some very nice bits of painting here. The ground is done quite well, especially the shadowed dip on the right that leads back to the little valley in the mid distance. I’m quite chuffed with the clear blue sky too – quite a mobile walnut/stand oil mix, applied and blended with a cloth-covered dabber. I wasn’t planning to have any clouds (I know… heresy) but the minor additions left and right do imply a further distance over the last line of trees. So that was good.

Summing this piece up positively, it has been very pleasant to work in yellows and reds again. I have another idea along the same lines primed and ready to go - much, much, much more considered this time – and working through this piece has probably been very valuable in organising and working that up.

And at last - having eased this out of my system - I can move forward, and concentrate on the more interesting stuff…

Monday, July 14, 2014


oil on canvas 61x51cm

Not much to say about this except that I thought it started off quite easily, and then suddenly it became quite fraught, and then ended up solving itself. Which sometimes happens.

The landscape is about 50km north of Moscow – there’s quite a lot of western Russia now covered by google Streetview. It’s not absolutely flat, but is endlessly undulating very slightly - and the weather is visible from a long, long way away. I like the plainness combined with the huge clouds. The bushes and grass in the foreground offered a variety of texture on which to deploy some different paintwork. The sky is mainly mottled and blended (with my new badger mottler) while the foreground, containing a figure, is mostly as it left the brush.

The large open area was originally pale dry grass, with small patches of green, and didn’t seem compatible with the showers passing over, so I just transposed it to a much lusher green - Prussian blue with Chrome yellow if you must know. It came across as very two dimensional at first, so I blurred the slight light/shade variations progressively towards the far trees to help the eye with the distance, which helped.

It’s all about the clouds though. If you’ve been following the Works in Progress page (perhaps wondering what I’ve been doing for the last two months?) you’ll have seen how they’ve developed. I was planning to have this piece finished by the end of June, but it seemed to me that while the sky was, well, passable, it lacked the impact necessary to distract the eye from the figure, which is the whole point. As recently as two weeks ago, I pulled the left bank of cumulus forward slightly, and it happened to make a rhyme with the shape of the bushes. It looks as though it had been structured from the beginning, but was actually a last ditch effort to make the cloud-banks look interesting. It’s a very Baroque device, but it still works. Now, the sky has the required energy, and a jolly good thing too.

There is a bit of music for this. The painting started off powered by Ralph Vaughan Williams, but really only crystallised after listening to ‘Infra’ again. Having this sort of music on while working still seems to open me up to new ideas when going through painting problems (if that makes any sense at all). Which can be both pleasant and useful.

So, as you may have gathered, I’ve gone a little bit round the houses on this one. This will always happen in painting, - and perhaps I hadn’t quite shaken off my post-exhibition inhibition – but I’m glad that I took the trouble to re-tune the sky. I’m quite pleased with how it’s ended up, but with one small caveat -

It should have been bigger…

Friday, May 30, 2014

Window Work


Having crashed through April and May without producing any finished work (though plenty of Works In Progress*), this month’s image is that reliable stand-by, Window Work. I quite like the one of the girl walking the dog.

The body of the post, though, is me reflecting on my recent – my first - solo exhibition. Now, at the time of writing, it’s almost two months since the show at the Union Gallery closed, and I’m becoming normal again, thank heavens, and far enough away to see just how abnormal that whole experience was. 

The most obvious thing that I can see now is just how tense I had become. There were enough paintings ready that I didn’t have to worry, and I was able to function perfectly well with the gallery – doing my bit with the images, information, and my end of the publicity. However, away from those tasks, there was an imperceptibly slow but steady increase in tension that probably really got going in December, and just got tighter and tighter approaching the opening. Latterly – in February – I found that my shoulders snarled up and became rock solid at the smallest thing, and I was uncharacteristically irritated and aggressive. On at least two occasions I used the most unforgiveable language at people for not shutting café doors. Etc. It was extraordinarily unpleasant behaviour. That tension dropped off rapidly during the show, then simply disappeared, which was a great relief.

In the final approach to the show, the gallery kindly flagged up a couple of things about how I, a very inexperienced exhibitor, might be affected by the exhibition.

Firstly - seeing the show hung on the walls can be a bit traumatic. For me, it was not so much an emotional response as a confirmation that they looked good together, and only found myself a little affected later at home. 

Secondly – after a show there is often a feeling of anticlimax and deflation. Madam and I cunningly sidestepped this by jetting out for three days in Amsterdam the day after the exhibition closed. Actually I was quite relieved that the whole thing was over, and I don’t think that I’ve suffered overmuch from anticlimax at all.

The most unforeseen thing that happened was my sudden bout of profound and visceral sadness – a short physical grief – just before we left to go to the Preview. I can best describe it as a Gethsemane moment – an intense episode of dread, doubt, and loss. I’m not at all sure what that was about, but it was as shocking as it was surprising. Well, I’m not naturally gregarious, but I did manage to gather myself, and went, and all I can remember is my glass of orange juice and that I had scores of fractured conversations. It took me two days to recover enough to come out the house.

As the show progressed, more and more red ‘sold’ stickers appeared, and again I had quite some strange reactions. I might have been expected to show some enthusiasm for sales, but actually I felt quite melancholy at being separated from my lovely paintings. Happily, some have gone to where I know for certain that they will be appreciated and looked after, and I have a chance to see them again. Some, though, have departed into alien orbits, and I am quite sad at the thought of never seeing them again.

Anyway, it’s an important thing to have done, and no doubt I will be able to handle any similar future occasions better, but I am glad it’s over. I’m happy to have returned to my usual routine (which may or may not be affected by the World Cup), now have a large re-supply of paint, and will soon be adapting to my new easel.

Oh, and the Numbers? Out the twenty-four pieces hung, thirteen were sold, and the show was considered by all as a Great Success.

Which is nice…

*Works In Progress - the same link as in the ‘Links’ column on the right near the top – I’m just making it easier for you. (It’s actually quite interesting)

Saturday, March 29, 2014


oil on panel 31x25cm

You may or may not have noticed that there wasn’t a post for February. I was quite busy doing my bit for the solo show - contacting folk, editing copies of the blog posts for print, and generally becoming so unrelaxed that I found it difficult to concentrate when doing arty work. So I’m sorry about that. However, it didn’t keep me from my unrelenting searches for inspiration through the google streetview, and I came across these extraordinary tracks across a lava field in the Galapagos Islands.

The crust has been violently twisted and torn by cooling and the pressures of the molten stuff from underneath. In places, lava has welled up through the recent scab and puddled across the rock before setting again. The whole surface is very new, so it’s un-eroded and razor sharp at the fissures. There is very little plant life – some pioneering species are slowly gaining a foothold – and it is a bleak, hellish, but fascinating landscape. Just for the contrast I’ve placed it below a soft, tranquil sky.

The painting is quite small, and I thought I’d experiment a little with its structure. Having indicated the main shadows, I tried explaining the forms in a dark red, thin stand-oil mix (plus driers!) applied with a smallish hog-hair brush. The substrate is smooth panel, so the brushwork appeared quite streaky when dragged, and gritty when dabbed, and I chose not to blend it. This ‘shorthand’ helped a lot in defining the forms, the complexity of which were rapidly becoming apparent.

So far so good. However, the priming was my usual mid-grey, and when I began placing the lighter tones a lot of this very informative red/brown texture got buried, which I didn’t particularly want. I think that I maybe did this the wrong way round, and it might have been more interesting to put my lights in before streaking and dabbing the texturing reds in on top - who knows.

As it happens, though, the subject does reflect my rather emotionally turbulent February and March, what with the solo show and all. I’ll just say for now that it seems to be going fine so far, and no doubt I’ll have more to say later - once it’s over - and everything’s back to normal again.

Looking good, though…

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Dark Arcadia

oil on papered canvas 31x25cm

This piece combines two very contrasting images.

Firstly, Thomas Eakins’ Arcadia. This depicts the Arcadian idyll – a simpler Golden Age inhabited by Innocents who spend their days tootling on their pipes and generally lounging around without a care in the world.

The second is a figure from Holocaust murders near Sniatyn, in Ukraine. There was an article about this photograph in my newspaper one morning, about ten years ago, and it bubbled up again after seeing the Eakins.

In subverting the Eakins, I had to make a decision whether to imitate his style, or just the composition. I decided to try for an imitation, but I provided some of my own background features – that made me feel a little more ‘independent’, and I strongly suspect that the original is unfinished. These apart, the general forms and illumination of the background are as near the original as I could get. It was very interesting to realise that Eakins was quite cavalier about putting his background together. He’s actually combined two separate scenes, and each is lit from a different direction. The paintwork here is a departure from my usual treatment; I’ve used a thin Stand Oil mix, but instead of blending the marks, I’ve been very loose (for me) and left a lot of texture straight from the brush. 

The meat, though, is in the figures. The man is a straight swap with the standing boy, and the two supine figures have their original legs with new upper bodies. The far one is invented, the near one extracted from yet another Holocaust scene. Proportional to the canvas size, they are larger than I normally paint. They went quite smoothly except for the standing figure’s legs – I had to redraw them, and that took some of the spontaneity of the looser treatment away.

I became very nervous at this point – too much work on the legs would draw unwanted attention – but I think I managed it. That done, I had to decide if, or how much, to lighten the torso as well. I took the plunge yesterday, after letting the surface settle over the weekend. Very delicate, risky, heart-in-mouth painting. I’m glad I did it though, as it makes the standing figure so much more vulnerable, and it started to suggest Gethsemane, which, come to think of it, also touches on the same subject.

This is, probably, the last finished piece before the show goes up at the Union Gallery (the butterfly larvae are already stirring in my stomach), and in a way, is a bit of a keystone for it. I’m saying nothing new here, just aiming to whisper in the viewer’s ear that even in the most beautiful place, in which hurt cannot occur, it does - and will. 

Et in Arcadia Ego