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