Women Painting Women

Originally posted on Elenacaravela's Blog:

Divide1

12″x 12″ Oil on Canvas

I’m absolutely thrilled to announce that my painting, Divide1 will be part of the Women Painting Women show at the Principle Gallery Charleston.  I’ve had a look at some of the excellent work in the show, created by some wildly talented women artists, and I’m honored to be a part of this inspiring exhibition! Have a look:

‪#‎PaintLikeAGirl‬ ‪#‎WomenPaintingWomen‬ ‪#‎PrincipleCharleston‬

View original

Zap!

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It’s bank holiday Monday and having spent some of the morning chiseling off the render from our chimney breast, somewhat inappropriately shod in a pair of slippers I might add, in order to explore an ongoing damp problem, I finally have some time to sit down in peace and quiet. listen to Radio3 and write.

Both the last work “Joe” and this latest piece “Luke” have taught me something. I think nearly everything I paint teaches me something, which is great because I figure if I’m learning, I’m growing and growth is good, especially if you’re not where, or who, you want to be! By both of those I mean in an artistic sense of course. I like “where” I am geographically and I have no desire to be anyone else… unless Superman’s on offer of course, I’d be Superman.

Anyway, one of the issues that both these pieces have highlighted is contrast. Contrast is essential to the full appreciation of so many things in life and art. Love is most deeply appreciated when contrasted with unlove/hate. Plenty appreciated most when contrasted with a period of want,  peace when surrounded by war and so on. We often don’t appreciate fully what we have, because we aren’t surrounded by the alternatives.

Light against light is unnoticeable, dark against another dark, likewise. Blue against blue, orange against orange and so on (orange against blue however..). If you want your lights to stand out they have to be contrasted with darkness. In art I think the simplest way to explain this is that you need white, grey and black, or highlights, mid tones and shadows/darks. My past pictures may well have lacked depth because I’ve been intimidated by the two extremes, light and dark. Plenty of safe mid tones though! Learning to differentiate between the highlights, the mid tones and the darks and representing them on canvas has been, and still is, a challenging task, especially when you’re trying to avoid using that troublesome pigment… black! Black is such an unwieldy and troublesome pigment and rarely the best choice for really giving depth to shadows. “But black is the darkest you can go surely” you might say. Well it may have the properties of a pigment-type vampire sucking in light and not letting it go, but it also has a nasty habit of sucking the life out of shadows too!

I’ve been amazed at how often pure pigment unsullied by white or black gives the most vibrant shadows and lowlights. White, particularly Titanium white, has a pastel-ising effect on colour and black has a deadening effect, but mixing dark colours (especially the transparent ones) together can produce some really deep vibrant darks. I used Burnt Umber and Cadmium Orange Hue for the lowlights on Luke’s forearm and in the shadow under the arm and was amazed at the depth it gave me.

Light is a weird phenomena. It behaves like a wave, but also acts like particles and the way it bounces around your subject picking up colour and reflecting it here and there is a revelation. Edges of shadows can have hints and halos of pure colour, oranges, blues, greens etc and if we fail to notice them and represent them then we impoverish our work of these wonderful additives. After all, all that we see is a result of the interaction of light on the surfaces of the things visible to us.

Painting however works in reverse to the way light works. Light is additive. Add coloured light together and it gets brighter with each successive colour until you get pure white. Paint is subtractive, add pigments together and they get darker with each successive colour until you get black. However as mortals this isn’t too big a problem as we don’t paint in light, we learn to represent light by using pigment and so know no different. God’s paintbox must be really quite something in comparison!

If I’ve learnt, or am learning anything, about art and representing things through it, it is that observation is everything. They say that the three keys to french cooking are butter, butter and butter! Well in art the three keys are observation, observation and observation! We grow up being taught, trees are green, sky is blue, roses are red etc. and then as artists we spend the rest of our lives discovering that this is often not so at all and for me at least it is a constant battle to fight against the preconceptions of representation that I’ve probably learnt as a child.

In these two last pictures observation has taught me the value of contrast. Observation is my best and most valued tutor. Talking to other artists, reading books, magazines and online articles are also extremely helpful, but nothing yet has beaten observation as a teacher. Looking and asking myself “what are you really seeing here?”. Not “what do you think you see”, but “what are you really observing”, because they are often two completely different things. One contains truth, the other contains a counterfeit of reality, a fake preconception of the real. When you really represent what you see as an artist your work has a compelling and reassuring truth to it and that only comes from looking and learning how your subject works and solving the puzzle that you are trying to represent.

Here’s Luke. He was a great sport sitting for the reference photo’s. He was however an even more obliging sitter after I loaded the water pistol. Apparently it’s no good asking a small boy to imagine he’s squirting someone with a water pistol, he has to actually be shooting someone with a water pistol!

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Luke – Oil on linen

Joe

Joe – oil on linen

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.

Advantages:

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.

Disadvantages:

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.

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

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Underpainting

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Finished.

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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 :)

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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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Original sketch

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

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