Hidden depths?


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I read a Facebook update from David Kassan (http://www.davidkassan.com/) the other day where he’d posted a flawless portrait from a few years ago and in a sort of embarrassed way was commenting on how much he’d learned since! Well I’m not David Kassan, but I’m learning. I pulled out a portrait from a year or two ago the other day… it wasn’t a pretty sight, but that’s encouraging! It means I’m learning and growing as an artist, which is pretty cool.

Anyway, it’s still raining and the boys are home on half-term holiday, which has been fine, as – for the most part – they’ve let me get on with work this time.

Yep, it’s another self-portrait! No I’m not turning into a modern day Rembrandt… some hope. I don’t know why I feel a need to justify that action, but here’s a few reasons why I painted me.


1. He’s free and crucially, available when I need a model.

2. The model doesn’t complain and I don’t have to struggle to communicate what I want them to do. He’s very obliging that way.

3. …well that’s it mostly.


1. I have to put up with looking at him for weeks.

2. Everybody else has to put up with looking at him for weeks, perhaps longer if they get left him in my will!

3. You run the risk of being considered a narcissist. Believe me if a better looking model was available I’d use him or her.

So why this subject? I wanted to try a head and shoulders portrait and I wanted to see if underpainting with a kind of grisaille would have any actual practical benefit. Plus I’ve always loved Frans Hals’ Laughing Cavalier and wanted to do a homage-type-thing. Hals’ moustachioed cavalier is facing the other way, is ornately dressed and painted by a master, mine has a moustache!

You see lately I’ve been struggling to get depth and weight into my work and a crippling fear of intense colour or tone has resulted in a ‘flatness’ in my work. As it turns out the grisaille (black and white) underpainting was a real help!

I’ve learnt a lot from this painting and been surprised by how much I’ve had to challenge preconceived ideas too. I mean the “trees are green” kind of preconceptions. Trees are sometimes green, but when we paint them we find that they actually might include any number of colours like alizarin crimson, Prussian blue or violet! Depending on the light they could be any combination imaginable.

Now I know this in principle, but I was surprised by how much I didn’t put it into practice. The whites of eyes for instance are white aren’t they? In fact it turns out that a mix of cobalt blue, burnt umber, lamp black and white make a pretty good duck egg grey, like they were in this picture. If they were white, then how would the highlights stand out in contrast and if you haven’t got good enough contrast you have a weak image.

White has been a revelation too! A this point anyone other than a painter might be excused if they dose off or their eyes glaze over with boredom. My wonderful wife actually managed to find this interesting… ’tis only the power of love that can work such wonders!

No, white is fascinating! I’ve been using cheap Daler Rowney titanium white, which was gritty and poor, but the new Jacksons (cheap but quality) titanium white is like a new species entirely! It’s smooth, buttery, a little elastic (in a good way) and beautiful to work with. Titanium white has excellent opacity, so it covers other colours well, but it can also flatten colour when it’s used to mix with and can make your colours look a little ‘chalky’. Flake white by comparison is on the warm side of white and is superb for mixing with transparent colours like rose madder for instance. So where titanium white will flatten colour the more you add, Flake white will bulk up the colour while still preserving a little more transparency, which is great if you want to allow some of the underpainting colours to show through a thin glaze of added colour. Zinc white is a good mixer too, but more on the colder side of white and apparently is a little more brittle on drying. Black… well that’s another equally interesting story for not all black is equal!

I’ve also bought a couple of Michael Harding colours recently, chiefly to see in they were worth the hype. As it turns out, they are. They have great saturation, so you don’t need to add so much paint to mixes and they weren’t overly expensive. On the whole though I think it’s difficult to beat the Winsor & Newton Winton student range. They are little less saturated perhaps than Winsor & Newton’s Artist’s range, but considering the price, they are amazing quality paints! Jackson’s (http://www.jacksonsart.com/) own brand oils are also excellent quality paints and they do a brilliant free catalogue that you can sit and read over a cup of tea while you’re literally waiting for paint to dry.


I didn’t do the whole thing ‘grisaille’, but the areas where I did definitely seemed to encourage bravery in subsequent layers!






Detail. As my youngest son put it recently, “you look a bit like a nutter. But you’re an awesome nutter!”. I can live with that :)


Afraid of the dark?


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It’s been so wet lately on the south coast of the UK that I half expect to see adverts in the local press that read, “animals required in pairs for epic ocean going voyage”! Today is no exception, it’s been steadily deluging all night and all day. The sky is a dull leaden grey and it’s lit by that gloomy half light that you get when the sun has been taken captive by bad weather.

I’ve just finished my latest painting and as usual I’m feeling that dissatisfaction that seems to haunt most of my work at the moment. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just not that good! It’s not what I want to achieve and yet how to achieve what I want, seems to elude me, tantalisingly close but always just out of reach.

I think part of the problem is that I seem artistically afraid of the dark. By that I mean that I seem to have a watercolourist’s way of applying colour. This shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise to me, as my first tentative steps into the world of colour were in watercolour when I was a boy.

As many of you know, the difference between applying colour in watercolour and applying colour in oil, is that a watercolourist will traditionally work from light to dark, but when you work in oils the received wisdom is to work from dark to light, applying the darkest colours first. I know this isn’t always the way, but in general I think that it is true.

My problem is that I seem to be pathologically averse to putting down dark enough shadows and contrast, which results in my having to endlessly darken subsequent paint layers to get enough tonal contrast. I don’t seem to trust the paints ability to cover all that darkness!

So I’m going to try out two different traditional methods of achieving this. The first is “grisaille”. This means effectively painting the whole work in black and white first to get a good tonal image and then overpainting with colour. Vermeer used this method for Girl With a Pearl Earring. Here’s a great example from: http://www.penroseart.com/vermeer02.htm


I’m currently working on a portrait using this method and if it’s successful I’ll post some pic’s. To be honest I’m not sure I have the patience, so it might not be for me, but if it helps break my tonal timidity I’ll try anything once! If that doesn’t work I can see myself doing some in-depth research into renaissance chiaroscuro.

Anyway… the latest work is a landscape. Yep, I know I once vowed never to touch landscape again… I may re-vow that vow again soon, but I love this part of Eastbourne. When the sun sets over the marshes it lights the tips of the reeds so beautifully that I wanted to have a go at painting them. Pure inspiration, not common sense, just inspiration and sometimes you’ve just got to follow that feeling even if you are uncertain of completing the task that you are inspired to do! Inspiration is a motivational force like nearly no other. If Paul Simon hadn’t felt strangely compelled to go to Gracelands then the album Gracelands may never have been made. Bob Dylan had a similar compulsion to withdraw before he wrote his best work. Inspiration focuses our minds and gives us the strength to withdraw from distraction and push on with a project that we can feel divinely appointed to achieve during one of those shaft of light experiences. So even if it makes no logical sense, an inspired idea is always one that should receive great respect and be given serious consideration.

That said, whilst I enjoyed the process of taking the reference shots with my youngest son (apart from deep frustration that a DSLR can’t capture what my eye can), I’m not sure that the resulting image was that great. However! I learnt something, and every painting (or experience) that teaches us something constructive is a great success!


Bits of it I like, but the uptight stuffyness of other bits I find deeply irritating. The old renaissance Tuscan proverb that says “every painter paints himself”, may indeed be true, but not necessarily comforting! We probably do “paint ourselves” in a way, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept that, or that change isn’t possible. I push on with each picture I paint in the hope that either I will change and my art with it, or I will find myself in my art and be at peace with who I find.

sunset detail

This bit I kind of like.

Merry Christmas.


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In case I forget – which is entirely probable – may I wish you all a very Merry Christmas! Here’s a bit more festive doodling to celebrate the festive season.


Original sketch


Text inverted in Photoshop (Elements 3! believe it or not) and with a filter or two added.

Bonfire – Tolkien style


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At great risk to the photographer’s hand and aged phone, I got this shot of a bonfire I had this morning. It seem to have a bit of Tolkien flavour, with shades of Mount Doom to me. The more literary types may seen Dante or Milton, I see Peter Jackson. Anyway, it looked pretty cool…


selfie: noun, informal


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The Artist is a curious being. He or she is often confident and somewhat full of themselves one moment and then lacking in confidence and neurotic the next! Many of us are a paradox of existence, holding in tension within us feelings of awesomeness and worthlessness. Now, I’m not saying that all artists are as mad as the proverbial ‘bag of hares’, but in my experience many of us have a somewhat split personality. On the one hand we want to be bronzed and adored, on the other we want to shrink into a hole and hide.

So the idea of the ‘self portrait’ is often a tortuous one for the artist, (unless you’re Rembrandt of course, and then you can’t stop painting yourself! He painted at least 40 paintings, and 31 etchings of himself in case you’re interested), but for many of us it seems like the height of narcissism.

In reality the self portrait is often done out of necessity, nobody else being prepared to sit for you for a day or two. It is also a great exercise in self evaluation for the artist. If you paint a ‘selfie’, then you invariably ask a lot of questions of yourself as you prepare for it and while you’re painting it too!

For me, I wanted to see how much, if any, progress I’d made since I painted the first self portrait that I painted back in January of 2012. Actually I know in reality I had made progress, because with nearly every successive painting after that one, I learnt something new about the medium or execution of the work. Also, I’d found that picture recently, peering out at me from behind a stack of canvasses like some grotesque gargoyle – I should say at this point how much I appreciate the kindness of everyone who made a positive comment about that painting. It was much appreciated and a great confidence booster! – however, not having anything much to work on at the time, I thought a reprise of the subject might not be such a bad idea.

After endless vain attempts to capture an image I wanted to work from, I finally settled on one that seemed to capture my heroic manliness in all its splendor (that’s sarcasm by the way, well… probably).

The reference shot (there was no way I was going to work from a mirror again) was taken in a mirror, hence the reversed logo on the chest. My boys asked a couple of times if I’d spotted that, which I had… thankfully. Actually it was intentional. For those of you like me, geek enough to know your superman…ology, the reversed superman logo is worn by superman’s negative clone, a villain called ‘bizarro’. So while at first glance the portrait could be taken as the artist wishing he was superman (which of course he does), it also displays his inner struggle with that desire, often feeling more like opposite to that ideal. The fact that the t-shirt is black with a splash of red also gave the portrait an interesting visual edge that I really liked, and yes I do know that the red logo on black is in fact Connor Kent’s logo (Superboy). I explained this once to a relative (who shall remain nameless) to which her reply was, “Super…boy!” (incredulous emphasis on the boy). I have not forgotten, and I’m working on the forgiven too, Mrs. Norton!

What I toyed with adding, was a list of words written across the t-shirt that would sum up the person, positive and negative. The idea being that we are all made up of so many things. Who we are is a mixture of good and bad, positive and negative. It might be interesting to ponder what your own list might be. Mine would include: Husband, father, son, brother, uncle, friend, confident, insecure, considerate, inconsiderate, vain, self-conscious, loved, forgiven, thoughtful, forgetful, at peace, in pain, unresolved, restored, paradox, healed, loved… and you could go on ad-infinitum. We are all so many things, but I guess what we choose to be is more important than what we are by nature, nurture, or circumstance.

I didn’t in the end because a) it wouldn’t have worked with the ‘S’ and b) a picture in some way should tell itself and not need a written commentary… probably.

It’s oil on linen 16″x12″:


Detail below. Many times larger than actual size.


Nature’s lantern.


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It’s getting a bit cold for nocturnal photo shoots in the shed, so this may be last for this year, but the subject was so beautiful I thought a night shot might do it justice.

If you don’t recognise it, the little basket shaped thing in the shot is in fact a poppy, that has slowly decayed over the last few months leaving just the framework of the seed-head. The light is coming from beneath using a tiny led from some disposable thingummy or other and shone through a hole in the bench.

poppy head copy


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