Sketchbook: Painting whilst travelling


Sketchbook: Studies of trees

I have been playing around with trees on and off throughout part 4. I am not sure where this is leading yet, but wanted to log some of my studies. I really like the way trees on the edge of a wood or forest stand out against the blackness of the interior, or in a thinner group of trees, the light makes great negative shapes through the tree trunks. I ended up exploring this latter theme a little in an exercise in part 4. I also did some studies of the trunks against darkness in my sketchbook. As images there are not particularly successful but as an exercise in exploring the theme and different ways to apply paint they have been useful.

I also like the atmosphere of tree shapes in the fog! I haven’t had a foggy day whilst doing this part to go out and explore this further in paint, however I did have the idea of drawing basic tree shapes in charcoal and then covering with gesso in order to paint over the top. The result (before any painting) is quite atmospheric in itself.

Tree study in charcoal and gesso

Finally I used a some oil on prepared oil paper to create a study of trees with the light shining on the trunks. I am not sure where I was going with this and the study isn’t really finished I just am not sure where to proceed with it.

Tree study in oil on prepared oil paper


Sketchbook: Studies of trees

Part 4 Painting from a working drawing


Chose a subject you are familiar with and make 3 drawings

  • A linear study
  • A tonal study
  • A colour study
  • Paint a final piece away from the subject and preliminary studies drawing on memory of the subject.

Preliminary studies

I took some liberties with this exercise to fit with the circumstances I found myself in. There is a copse of trees on a hillside that I don’t see very often but I have always admired it when I do see it (too far away to visit in a day). The mental image of the scene is one that tends to stay with me. I love the way that the light shines through the gaps of the tree trunks, the view of the horizon below (the hill is at the top of an escarpment) and the wind-swept nature of the trees up the hill. So when I found myself passing the hill recently with my sketchbook, coloured pencils and a tin of water colours in the car, I used the opportunity to stop and draw the scene.  I started with a simple line drawing, which I repeated twice changing the position of the trees within the frame to create a stronger composition: the trees leading off to the edge of the image. In doing these quick sketches (and they were quick) I became even more aware of the negative shapes between the tree trunks, and the light coming through which ha attracted me in the first place. The whole composition was actually very simple.  I took a reference photo and continued on my way. later, using the linear sketches and the photograph I completed a quick tonal study of the hill and trees using charcoal. It became immediately obvious that this image was one of strong contrasts. There was variation in tone in the tree tops (especially where the light fell on the top surfaces) and on the grassy hill, but the biggest contrasts were between the hill-tree structure as a whole and the sky around it. The negative spaces once again leapt out at me. I then completed a colour study in watercolour (the only paints I had with me). This was a little unsatisfactory as it was hard to get the darks dark enough and I am not very good at actually handling the wateriness of watercolour, so the light tones (denoted by lack of paint) ended up  in slightly the wrong places on the tree tops. The negative spaces also were less defined in this medium. However back home I decided to continue using this image for this exercise and proceeded to complete my final piece in acrylics.

Final Painting

I completed this painting from memory of my sketches and only came back to look at them after I had finished. Using an A3 sheet of acrylic paper, I started by blocking in the area occupied by the trees and hill using a variety of greens and browns in quite a haphazard way, loose way using broad brush strokes. I didn’t’ stick to an outline rather just covered the general area with haphazard paintbrush marks of various shades and tones. My reasoning behind this was that it was the negative shapes that really interested me and I wanted to emphasis them by blocking them in on top of the existing painting. I blocked the main area of the sky in a pale wash of paynes grey, starting to pull the form of the trees into shape. The horizon below was blocked in with a darker wash.

I then used raw umber to darken the tree trucks and emphasis the shadows on the ground and in the tree foliage. Then, taking titanium white made dirty by paint on my brush, mess on my palette and bits of wet paint being dragged on the canvas I set about defining the negative shapes of the tree line. I kept my brush marks loose in order to create an atmosphere of cloud. I also let the colours already on the paper ‘shine’ through. Finally, I used the side of a palette knife to scratch in the tree top highlights in a very textural way.

Trees on a Hill. Acrylic on paper


What went well…

I am very pleased with the resulting final painting. I have managed to maintain the loose style I have been aiming for and have created some interesting textural areas by scratching back. There is a sense of space in the painting, created by the aerial perspective of the horizon and the emphasis on the negative shapes around the trees. I am particularly happy with how my treatment of the negative spaces worked out. Putting them in last allowed their ‘lightness’ to be emphasised which is what had drawn me to the scene in the first place.

The three preliminary sketches undoubtedly helped formulate this final piece. I had a strong memory of the linear and tonal sketches and drew heavily on those memories for the final piece. The colour study was less useful to me, probably because I had used the slightly unsatisfactory watercolour paints. However as I wasn’t too worried about keeping colours 100% realistic this probably wasn’t an issue.

I think that being away from the subject when I painted it was a great help in allowing me to maintaining the looseness and freshness of the piece. I couldn’t get bogged down in detail as I had no memory of it and wasn’t able to look it up. This was in fact quite a powerful lesson and one that I will take forward.

What could be better…

There were a couple of features that have been lost along the way that would improve this piece. Firstly, the sense of the hill receding from the viewer has been diminished from the linear sketch to the final piece. The hill now looks a little flat. More information regarding warm and cool tones on the hill-side would help rectify this. Secondly the windswept nature of the trees has also been lost. I am not sure this matters so much in terms of the subject but some of the drama of the scene is lost as a result. Whilst I was very aware of this when making my linear sketches, details are not present in the tonal or colour painting (done from photographs). It is as if being away from the scene took the importance of this from my mind and I haven’t really considered it. My trees become more upright as I go along! I could add this back in my changing the negative shape around the tree line, however I didn’t want to lose the atmospheric texture of the present skyline so have left it.

One alteration I did do post-painting, was to crop the image a little of the righthand side. The painting has another tree but it didn’t really come out as well as the others and the composition is better without it (the original painting still has this edge and I will post a photograph of it when it comes back from my tutor).


Part 4 Painting from a working drawing

Assignment 4

Review of previous work

The paintings that appeal to me most from this part are two finished pieces and one study:

They all have a looseness about them that I like, and is probably the primary reason for their success. I am also very personally attached to all the places represented too and I think that has really spurred me on in this part of the course. I need to feel a connection to what I am painting. I am particularly drawn to atmospheric skies both of which are important in the two finished paintings above. The linear perspective in ‘Walking the dog’ is particularly successful and the sense of shape in space is good in ‘Trees on a Hill’ and ‘Study for Cityscape’.

For my assignment I chose to paint a scene to which I am particularly connected. That of the forest covering the lower slopes of Mount Kinabalu in Borneo. I had been toying with the idea of this for a while whilst completing this part of the course. In particular I had in mind a view across a small valley of the  village Kaui nestled in the forest on steep slopes of the mountain. For much of the day the mountain is completely covered in cloud and you can stand on a ridge and look at the houses on the steep slopes and not realise that there is a huge granite rock behind it. However, first thing in the morning, the mountain is often clear of cloud and the dark mass rises up quite forbiddingly behind the brightly coloured houses. I wanted to get a sense of grandeur in this painting, of the dark mountain, the coloured houses and the mass of forest around.

I chose to work in oil paint as overall I think I have had more success in handling them than acrylics. I had about a week to complete this assignment so I didn’t need the paint to dry overly quickly. I also chose to paint on a better quality canvas than I have previously. I like the feel of canvas but I am very aware that you get what you pay your. Unfortunately I was unable to get a large one in time to do this assignment (poor planning on my part) and so had to make do with a smaller size that suggested by the exercise. It was a 40cm x 60 cm natural linen canvas. I like the idea of not starting with white!!

As I was working from a photograph, my initial sketches were really about finding the shapes that worked and what detail would be ok to leave out. I did a linear study and a colour study and then a tonal study to see if the general composition and overall tones would work.

From these three studies I identified 4 main compositional areas that I needed to focus on to make this painting work:

  1. The forest foliage in the immediate foreground needs to stand forward relative to the houses, otherwise it looks as an extension of the forest across the valley
  2. The houses had a lot of pink tones in them. In order for these to appear in the mid-ground I was going to have to desaturate slightly. I had to do this without losing the light on them. I also realised during my studies that I needed to simplify the houses a little so that the painting would not be over detailed and messy.
  3. The mountain is very dark but it definitely needed to be in the background.
  4. I also realised that I needed to mix lots of different greens. I had been looking at jungle greens in different areas of the tropics. The foliage in this part of the world was very dark as the forest tended to be denser. Much of the forest  in this painting however was not closed forest as much had been cleared in the process of building the village. Light areas and individual plants could be distinguished. I needed to be careful how this was going to be depicted. Too much detail and everything could look very scrappy, not enough detail or changes in tone and the canvas would be very flat and dull.

Recognising that I was going to need a variety of cool and warm greens I had a go at mixing some. At first my experiments were a  little ad-hoc (see above) however it soon became evident that I needed to be a little more systematic with my mixing experiments so I created two colour charts making different greens from

  1. Cadmium Yellow and Ultramarine blue and
  2. Windsor Blue and Cadmium Yellow Pale

I mixed the two base colours to make a mid-green colour, then added cad. yellow, cad. red, diox. purple or yellow ochre to produce a selection of warm greens (then lightened with titanium white). I obtained a selection of cool greens by mixing the mid green with lemon yellow, alizarin crimson, viridian cerulean blue or phthalo blue. I also moved these cool greens to lower saturation points by the addition of black. (please note these photos were taken when the oil paint was still wet and so these are not, as yet, labelled)

The Process

I used Payne’s grey paint heavily diluted with liguin to block in the mountain shapes with a very broad brush. Underneath this I blocked in the main forest areas using diluted sap green. Taking a rubber colour shaper I then moved the dilute paint around to create areas of lighter tone to mark out position of the houses, the various rock faces of the mountain and some foliage shapes in the foreground.

Stage 1. Blocking in colour areas

Leaving this underpainting for 24 hours, I returned and started laying down colour in a more structured way, marking out the (simplified) houses and blocking in areas of greenery with more detail. The houses were my main focal points and it was important to get the perspective of their sloping roofs right. I added more colour to the vegetation but kept returning to the colour shaper to maintain some basic shapes in the foreground and to add detail such as tree trunks to the mid ground. The colour shaper moving the wet paint creates an interesting effect of darkening the edges of a shape where the paint collects, whilst letting the light canvas show though.  I also added some cloud at this point, mainly to break up the huge mass of the mountain. I wanted it to look as if it was just starting to roll in over the ridges.

Stage 2. Laying down colour and establishing focal points

Returning to the painting a further 24 hours later, the bottom two layers now being touch dry (due to the amount of liquin I used) I started on my third layer. This time I concentrated on building the greenery of the forest, creating shapes over the underpainting marks. I painted a layer of cooler green over the middle distance forest to give the impression of it receding from the foliage in the foreground. I also concentrated on resolving issues with the houses regarding which was perceived to be in front of which.

Stage 3. Adding detail and resolving issues

The final Painting

My final stage was to add back in some of the foliage highlights that had been lost, especially in the middle distance. The mountain up until now had been quite dark. I had done very little to the initial underpainting, allowing the canvas to provide the tone for the lighter faces of the rock. However the darkest areas were almost neat Payne’s grey and whilst it certainly provided was imposing site, the mountain was not receding into the distance. In order to do this, I needed to ‘blue’ the area. I managed to do this by adding a wash of Zinc white over the Payne’s Grey. Zinc white is translucent rather than opaque and it had the effect of blueing the dark grey/black tones, immediately sending the covered area back. I left the nearest mountain ridge as Payne’s Grey which further added to the effect of receding distance.

Stage 4. Final Painting. Kaui, Sabah. Oil on canvas


I am pleased with the end result of this painting for four main reasons. Firstly, it is a recognisable painting of the area. I showed the end result to my family and they all knew where it was. Secondly, I identified at the beginning 4 main areas of concern with the composition and I managed to resolve each of these satisfactorily throughout the process of painting. Thirdly I have managed to keep my brushwork loose and varied, I’ve not got bogged down in detail and have managed to simplify where necessary. Lastly, I have discovered a new way of moving paint around a canvas, namely with a colour shaper. I picked this up on a whim (I have often used one for blending pastel drawings so had one to hand). It worked better than I could have expected! I loved the textural way it left areas of thicker paint at the edge of the marks, and allowed the canvas to show though in other areas.

It is hard to say which artists have influenced me in this assignment as I have looked at so many during this part of the course. I have also been trying painting in so many different styles I don’t really have one of my own! However I have been very lucky to see a decent body of work by contemporary landscape artist Zoe Taylor and I find her work to be both inspiring in terms of creating atmosphere and in terms of mark making. I certainly think that my mark making has been influenced by her work. She uses a lot of scratches and scrapes to reveal under layers. In addition, the looseness that I am trying to create in my paintwork does bring the Impressionists to mind. I certainly admire the series of paintings by Cezanne of Mount Saint-Victoire and am well acquainted with this series even if I didn’t base my painting directly on one of his. He has, however, painted some of my favourite mountain landscapes, and this one with tree in the foreground, loosely defined detail in the middle distance and hazy mountain in the distance certainly resonates with my final assignment piece.

Assignment 4

Part 4 Painting Outside

Painting outside isn’t something that I have really done before beyond a few watercolour sketches in a sketchbook. I haven’t done anything formal. Have to say that the idea of having to take stuff with me somewhere and the need to complete a painting in daylight within a strict time frame before rushing back to do whatever I have to do next (usually child related) including having time to unpack my kit does not install me with a feeling of great joy!  However I did make an attempt on three occasions. However, on the first two days I had set aside time, the weather was not conducive to painting. The first time was during a howling a gale. Trees were coming down and I made the decision not to leave the house!. The second time I had available was a miserable day and it was pouring with rain. I wanted to paint a landscape of a valley a short driving distance away. This would enable me to load the car with my kit and park up next to the view thus saving time me valuable time. On the second afternoon I ventured out in the vain hope that  the weather would clear a little. I sketched the view from the dry of the car. The rain didn’t stop! I went home.

I returned two days later. The weather was still miserable but the seemingly constant rain had turned into showers and whilst the weather was still murky, damp and chilly, I was lucky to have a relative dry period to complete this exercise. I returned to the same place, with the intent of painting the above view. However on actually getting out of the car I found a spot about 5m to the right where the trees in the foreground were more in view. I was also able to crop in on the view to leave out the near fence. I did another quick sketch of the largely unchanged view although the trees could now be a point of interest to lead your eye to the trees in the middle distance.

The actual horizon (which on a clearer day is visible above the tree line) was obscured by murky cloudy/mist. The far fields merged into this murk. I wanted to try to get this lack of horizon across in my painting.

I really didn’t enjoy the whole experience which was a shame. I found it hard to manipulate colours on a palette (paper plate) without a table as support. I found the time pressure constantly interfering with my thought processes (even through I had set an alarm to avoid exactly this) and then on top of this, I was ill-equipped: I had brought oil paints and a canvas board, dilutant (liquin), brushes and palette knives but NO tissue paper for wiping brushes (or hands). Valuable lesson, never pack your kit in a hurry (or at least double-check!!) With nowhere to put brushes down safely other than on the paper plate, they constantly rolled into the paint and the handles became covered, colours accidentally mixed and I got covered in paint. In fact reflecting back, the whole thing was slightly comical!

The upshot of it all was that all this negativity transferred into my painting which ended up quite unsatisfactory as I ran out of time before I could rectify the many things wrong with it. I would like to go back and repeat this exercise but doubt I will have the time before the end of the module.

I am a little ashamed to put this up as a finished painting – because it isn’t. The ploughed field is too warm and light and leaps forward at you, the bright grass in the distance should also be cooler (and I am pretty sure there wasn’t a white field in front of them both! The foreground trees are of a boring shape (too much like the reality) – I should have incorporated some interesting branch shapes and included a greater variety of tones. The valley itself is too bright green and appears flat rather than a hill curving away from the viewer. The depth of the valley is evident through the darkening of the green towards the bottom. The tones of the middle ground trees are probably ok, the plough field jumps forward of them causing your eyes to water! The one thing I do like about this is the sky and the disappearing horizon. You can’t tell where the actual land mass is, and this is quite how it was on the day.

Onwards and upwards….

Painting outside. Oil on board
Part 4 Painting Outside

Part 4 Project Expressive Landscapes

Creating Mood and Atmosphere


I walk my dog in the fields around my village on a daily basis. The countryside is not particularly spectacular, especially this time of year when the fields are either ploughed or lying fallow with the stubbly, decaying remains of last years crops. The leaves are starting to fall off the trees and the grass has lost its vibrancy. It’s just run of the mill, agricultural countryside. However one thing that you do notice is the sky. There is lots of it and you see weather coming long before it hits you! As an island nation we are constantly remarking on the weather. We don’t have patterns that are generally stable enough for us to take for granted, nor do have time to get used to a particular set of conditions before it all changes again. Hence the well know British obsession with the weather.

For this exercise the mood I wanted to convey, as odd as it seems, is one of ordinariness. So many landscapes are of depictions of drama, maybe huge vistas or spellbinding colour. Much of our environment isn’t like that however and as much as I like looking at all of the above, I wanted to paint something ordinary with an atmosphere of familiarity with the weather, neither a barmy sun nor a misty atmospheric fog. Somehow both of those felt more achievable! How do you make ordinary interesting to look at?

Initial sketches

I chose a view of a green footpath along side a hedge with a ploughed field to one side containing power lines. I know the area well a chose a point at which the path rises a little then dips away into the distance. I wanted to give the viewer a sense of walking that path on an average (whatever that is) day at the turn of Autumn. I thought I could use the pylons to add interest into the image.

My initial sketch was about whether to do a traditional landscape orientation or to move to portrait to incorporate a lot of the sky that dominates the view at this point.


I was undecided on the format so I started two paintings simultaneously to see which would win out. Using oil, thinned with W and N liquin (quick drying) on commercial oil paper I blocked out two compositions.

Initially I like the portrait format. with the land in the bottom third it gave loads of space for a cloudy sky. The pylons were a little lost however. I put them in by eye, meaning I moved them across from where they actually were so that they were in the image, but they felt a little cramped. Never the less I continued to layer colour on my areas to develop both images.

Intermediate stage of portrait orientation

At this point in proceedings I changed my mind about liking the portrait orientation. The problem of the cramped pylons was bothering me and I felt that whilst I was developing a sense of the place, I wasn’t getting the sense of a journey. There was not enough at the sides to guide me along. I think some of these issues could have been resolved by placing the land much further down the canvas so that the view of the land was very much truncated. However given that I had a landscape orientation developing nicely along side, I worked on that instead. Unfortunately I failed to take an intermediary photo of it.

Final Image

Walking the dog. Oil on paper


I am very pleased with the outcome of this painting. I get a sense of place, a sense of journey and a sense countryside that whilst not dramatic in any way, I would like to be in it. It has that sense of ordinariness that I was after yet it is depicted in quite a sensitive way. I have managed to keep the light,  throughout the composition, but especially on the ploughed field and on the grassy path. Consequently the air is also full of light (if that makes sense!) The direction of the brush marks were very important to the sense of journey. The clouds needed to be billowing without being overly dramatic. They are however what greets you as you walk along that path. The inclusion of power lines were more important than I thought. Not only do they add to the sense of journey, but they also add a bit of height to the foreground. the painting would not work so well without them. I scratched back to white paper in places in the foreground to give impression of near grasses. I quite like the effect although I can see that it would be easy to over do!


Part 4 Project Expressive Landscapes