Assignment 5, Part 1: A series of paintings on a theme

Initial thoughts

The assignment brief states that the series must show a progression. I spent quite a lot of time deliberating both the subject of this series as well as the idea of progression. I looked at my most successful paintings to date and came up with a list of qualities that I would like to take forward, a summary of which is in my research book:

Summary of my initial thinking process

All my successful pieces have been quick, gestural and not overworked. In terms of subject there has not been one particular area that I excelled at, however I enjoyed doing people and portraits the most. I spent some time contemplating doing a series about tree trunks and bark as I love the patterns found on some species of tree. My tutor suggested that I explore the physicality of paint as I find the actual process of painting more engaging than the final produce. This certainly was appealing and was keen to include this, but possibly not with trees and bark as the subject. This subject idea hasn’t quite formulated in my mind enough, it is hovering just out of reach. I also feel that it is the physical process of applying the paint, ie the actual movement of my arm, that I am drawn too!

The idea

So after much mental deliberation I decided to complete a series of portraits of my eldest son. In order to make a progression, I decided to start with a realistic portrait, and then progressively make more gestural marks, reduce the number of brushstrokes and really think about what paint can do as the portrait is taken towards abstraction. The final aim of my progression would be an abstracted painting that still retained the essence of the model. In other words I wanted to be able to look at the most abstract of my paintings and still recognise the original. This would allow me to both explore the characteristics important for portrait recognition and to explore the physicality of painting with respect to representing those characteristics using very deliberate movements of the brush.


I looked at several contemporary artists completing portraits abstracted in different ways.

I was very interested in the gestural marks in all of these images (photography excepted). I have no way of knowing if these artists have captured a true likeness of the subject – with the exception perhaps with the Dumas portrait of Amy Winehouse. However what stands out amongst most of them is the high contrast of tonal areas used by the artists. Whilst I would love to get a painting abstracted to the point of the Frank Auerbach here, I decided to use the Bacon portrait as my main influence. In this portrait the features are discernible, albeit distorted. I feel that the characteristics of the model are recognisable and that if the person stood next to it I would recognise those features. This was the end point that I was after. The Auerbach seems to take this process one step further.  As much as I like it, I am not sure the characteristic of the sitter is discernible. For instance, without reading the title I could not have said if the model was male or female. I also do not think I have the time available to me to create something with so thick paint, especially at the end of the series,  It has to dry in time for me to send off and I am pushing the time I have left available to do a third module!

The process

Initially I spent some time sketching my son from life. I need a composition that would allow enough scope to abstract at differing levels. Whilst he was occupied with a screen, I first sketched him from a variety of angles. I liked the low view-point that the first sketch gave although I also came to like the extreme high view-point of the bottom left sketch. I think this would be hard to take to abstraction however as much of the face is in fact hidden. I decided to go with the low view-point as it conveyed a sense of the model being occupied with something other than having his portrait drawn. He had quite an intense look about him that came across in this pose.  Using some old watercolour paintings as grounds I did too charcoal and chalk sketches at a view-point that was more level with my model. The first had the overhead lights shining down on his face, the second the light was coming in from a window behind, so the head was backlit. The second was going to be too dark to work with (although I think a backlit portrait has potential) so I went with the overhead lighting. I then completed an oil pastel sketch from the lower view-point to map out the main tonal areas. Putting these sketches together I again confirmed my choice of the lower view-point. It has a more commanding view of the head and suggests great concentration by the model.

Once settled on a composition I took some reference photos as I would not be able to paint him from life unfortunately. I used these reference photographs to complete my series from this point on. In order to move from sketches to paint,  I did a quick study in acrylic to get me going and to enable me to identify some of the more difficult areas. Portraits are difficult at the best of times! I found the most tricky parts to get down were the eyes and the end of the nose. It is hard to say which parts of the face make for a true likeness of a person because they all work together to form a whole. However there are some tricky shapes and highlights in both of these features and getting them right will be half the likeness battle won.

Acrylic study
working out eyes, nose and colours

I wasn’t too concerned with using a true to life colour palette. As I was working from photographs and the lighting was just normal household lighting, colours were altered anyway. So I worked out a skin tone palette that would enable me to concentrate of the tonal variations in the portraits rather than worry about true colour representation.

I chose to work with oil paints as these allow manipulation when on the surface. As much as possible I aimed to work wet on wet, so I could work quickly and hopefully be gestural in my approach. I prepared some preparatory oil painting paper with a wash of burnt sienna to give a warm ground to work on. All portraits were completed on the same size paper: 16 in x 12 in.


Painting 1: the realistic portrait

I completed an underpainting quite quickly, mapping out the main shapes and blocking in the main tones. From there I added more detail to the features and more detail to the tonal steps.

At this point I had to stop painting and return to it after a break. By the time I returned the painting was fairly dry. I continued to put more detail down, unfortunately loosing some of the like-ness and looseness of the previous painting session (arrgh!!) I struggled to get these back. The only way I could do this was to print out a copy of the version I had ended up with and then draw on it to map out what needed to rectified.

Finishing painting 1.

To a certain extent I managed to pull the painting back. I regained much of the likeness, however a lot of the brush marks ended up quite overworked and slightly ‘hyper-real’. This isn’t quite what I intended but at least it gives a very realistic start point to the series.

Tom painting 1

Painting 2

For this portrait I needed to adopt a loose way of working, similar to the how the first portrait was a the end of the first session of painting. I used a painting by Lucian Freud to think about contours of the face. The problem I faced was that the right side of the face is quite brightly lit and so much of the tonal variation is lost. I still needed to get a sense of the bone structure across

Working out contours

I repeated the mapping out of tonal areas as before, but tried to use more distinct brushwork. Immediately it became evident that I had lost the likeness .When you start working with larger blocks of colour, there is a tendency for everything to widen to accommodate your brush! I had to work very hard to thin this portrait back down to its correct proportions.

finishing painting 2

I have managed to make this portrait much more gestural. the brushwork is starting to be evident, with elements of sculpting and construction with the paint emerging. In particular the area of the right orbit shows this. The left side of the face is less successful in this and looks quite similar to the first portrait.

Tom painting 2

Painting 3

Painting 3 was the most unsatisfactory of the series, and in many ways the least successful. In wanting to move to a more abstracted form, I didn’t do an underpainting. I went straight into applying paint onto the paper in broad strokes using a wider brush than previously used. However the proportions were all messed up and the whole face lacked structure. It was a bit of a mess!

laying down broad strokes of colour

Finishing painting 3

I was unable to continue to work on this version for some time. When I returned I painted over the above image with another layer of broad brush strokes, building up the tonal areas. However I was unable to pull the likeness back and this remains the least like Tom of the whole series. In addition, it is not significantly different in terms of gesturalness to painting 2. This portrait has not continued the process to abstraction. However there is evidence of forms being sculpted out of paint more (notably the chin and cheek in highlight).

Tom portrait 3

Painting 4

Learning from the previous portrait I managed to block in the main parts of portrait 4 with a wide brush and still maintain most of the proportions correctly. The intermediate stage of this painting really shows the process of sculpting the shape of the cheek bone with paint. The eyes took some working out but I did mange to sort this painting as a wet on wet painting.

Sculpting the face with broad brushstrokes of paint

Finishing painting 4

I had high hopes for this portrait to be the first in the series that would be considered slightly abstract. However I got bogged down with detail trying to create more of the sense of the features and I lost the spontaneity of the under layer pictured above. The finished portrait is one step further along the gestural spectrum but it is no further along the abstract spectrum! I have reduced the brushstrokes I am using significantly but I don’t feel as if I am using the paint to tell the story in a way that I wanted to.I am pleased however that my forms are very much suggested by the brushwork. There is a real sense of investigation into the bone structure of the face with the marks (especially the cheek and eye in highlight).  Interestingly this is Tom’s favourite portrait of himself in the series.

Tom painting 4

I realised that I needed to do something quite radical to move on from where I was in the progression. I was in danger of producing hundreds of portraits all very much in the same style as each other. I spent a little time thinking about how to move on, looking at my chosen artist portraits and consolidating some thoughts in my sketchbook. One thing I was noticing, the more abstract portraits tend to be taken out of context of a background. That is not to say that a background does not exist, rather, there is a lot of paring down of background information, often leaving it blank as in the case of the Bacon and Auerbach portraits. Another technique is that the painter crops to a very intimate view-point, so perhaps just the visage is famed, such as the Dumas painting of Amy Winehouse. In this case there really isn’t any background. This is also seen in a very gestural painting in my sketchbook by Erik Olson. Here thick brush strokes define the structure of the face. This is what I am trying to achieve and I am not quite getting there – or at least when I do it is at a very unfinished level which then gets lost when i try to finish it!

At this point I happened to come across the contemporary artist Jonathan Yeo. Whilst he is not painting abstract portraits he has a wonderfully loose style full of character. Many of his portraits are against a dark background which contain little detail (some contain evidence of geometric grids and lines, but not everyday details). This artist was new to me but I really admire this work. I am drawn to the way that not all his paintings are ‘finished’ in the sense that often the outer areas of a portrait are more shadowy and sketchy allowing the viewer to focus of the main features of the face (usually the visage).

Painting 5

I made the decision that I needed to take my portrait out of its environment and reduce the background. The lighting on my model was very strong on the outward facing side of the face. In reality this meant that the curtain behind the subject was also brightly lit, creating a very light background. By making the background dark this side of the face would be thrown out more. I also needed to be very brave with my mark making to remove the tendency to end up with the same style of portrait. At the start of painting 5 I did a very quick warm up sketch in acrylics, just to loosen up. I then immediately grabbed my oil paints and launched into portrait 5

Quick acrylic gestural study
Very quick gestural blocking in tones with simple strokes on a dark background

I was very pleased with my initial mapping  out of the portrait. I have managed to capture the character I was after without detail and without too much brushwork. The dark background definitely made it easier to envisage what the final portrait might look like and did throw the light side of the face forward, making form easier to depict. I think that the highlight on the neck in particular works well: 2 light strokes over a slightly darker area. It is rough and gestural but it works, there is a sense of both the light falling on the neck and also the tension in the neck held by its underlying structure.

finishing painting 5

It was very tempting to leave painting 5 as it was above, however as much as I had managed to progress in my abstraction and reduction of brushwork, the portrait was very much unfinished. I very much needed to darken the background more and try once again to define in a simple way the main features. To a certain extent I feel that I succeeded with this although in adding the dark tones I lost the fluidity of the brushstrokes in the neck! However compared to portraits 1 – 4 this represents a huge step in my progression. I think it is also a more engaging portrait too, the background was unnecessary to the context of the pose. Now the viewers eyes are focused on the face and the intense concentration of the model.

Tom painting 5

Having reduced the background I am starting to see the form of the face in highlight and can start to visualise how this will become abstracted. The paint is able to form a line down the nose, along the cheek bone and around the ear. This is forming a major part of the character of this face. I am also aware at this point in the process my progression has actually been about understanding how to paint a portrait! I have never painted the same subject over and over again. There maybe much frustration when I don’t think I have moved towards my goal in this assignment, however, I am learning so much about how to apply paint and how to represent the face; far more than I ever thought!

Working towards abstraction

Painting 6

In spite of the frustrations of previous portraits I suddenly have a feel as to how this abstraction process will work. Through out all the previous portraits there have been certain lines that I have been keen to create with simple brushstrokes. One is the main curve of contours from the bridge of the nose around to the ear that I mentioned above. This is where the physicality of painting comes in. I have a need to make that movement with one gestural sweep! Others are the highlight areas on the chin and on the eyebrow ridge. In the Bacon portrait (below left) there several similar sweeps made with one continuous brush stroke: one from the temple down past the ear and along the upper jaw line; another down the bridge of the nose and one along the bottom edge of the lower jaw.

I briefly toy with the idea that the abstracted portrait should be on a white background with a lower intensity of light being represented on the near side of the face. I do a quick acrylic study, however I prefer the effect of the dark background previously setting off the highlighted areas.

I am also reminded of a gilded mummy mask (above right) that I saw a few years ago as part of the Francis Bacon and the Masters exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. The mask was only a fragment, but set against a black backdrop, the effect of the partial face was stunning. The only image I can find of it is a poor quality one I took with my phone, but it gives the idea. Whether Bacon took inspiration from this actual mask in making some of his portraits is not clear, but his distorted faces with in-cutting of shadow areas are certainly very reminiscent of the effects seen with the staging of the mask. I repeat the study on a dark background, letting the dark areas of the background run into the shadow areas of the face in the way the Bacon portrait does.

I then cover my support with my dark shadow mix as the background and let it dry enough to work on without mixing. Taking my largest brush I scoop up huge amounts of my lightest tone and dip my brush gently at its edge into a mixture of aliz. crimson and burnt sienna and ‘draw’ on the features that I have been slowly learning about in this series. I try not to go over any lines, I let the paint run out and become more transparent as the brush dries a little, showing the dark ground through. I am working the  bone structure around the shadow areas. They have become negative spaces. The lips are in a different perspective to the rest of the head, an accident but one that I like. I manage to maintain the long swirl of paint down the nose, across the cheek and around to form the base of the ear.

Tom painting 6

I am pleased with the concept of this as an abstract portrait. There are areas that I managed to mess up. I put a highlight area under the lips where in fact there is a deep shadow. I also haven’t got the eyes right, they look lopsided. However the biggest thing that hasn’t worked in this portrait is that I have lost the sense of who the portrait is of. I don’t feel it has the character of the others, and put next to the others, I don’t think it is recognisable as Tom. So with my deadline looming I set out to complete one more portrait in an attempt to retain that character.

Abstraction thoughts

Painting 7

I really felt the pressure with this one. I needed to have at least a week for the paintings to dry before sending off to my tutor so needed to get this one right! Given I felt I had a successful execution of the previous portrait, if not a successful outcome, I made a plan of the order that I was going to lay down my brushstrokes. This was to preserve the sweep of individual brush strokes as I could not easily make corrections. I wanted to build up the face in the same way but retain the character of Tom

Planning my brushstrokes

I made my background much darker, using raw umber and burnt sienna. For putting in the face I again used my largest brush and loaded it with paint, but mixed in some slightly darker tones to try to add a little more streakiness to the marks. I was careful to keep the perspective of the lips different from that of the rest of the face, I like the mis-match between the two. In such a reduced portrait this mismatch acts as a bit of a focal point. I scratched the lip line in with the brush handle. The portrait sits on the page a little too far to the right and my ear curve ran off, however I let it go. that is not the important part, the side of the nose and its high contrast between light and dark is more engaging.

finishing painting 7

My initial painting included a bit of the right hand orbit, as in portrait 6. However the more I looked at it, the more I thought the effect would be better without it.

reflecting on corrections

Very painstakingly, using cotton wool buds and zest-it, I managed to remove that part of the painting, and another part to introduce a shadow under the ear. I am glad I did, it makes a better image. Whilst there is a bit of reflected light on the right side of the face it isn’t in strong light and thus was a bit of a mismatch with the rest of the portrayed features.

Tom painting 7

The brushstrokes are not as well-defined in this portrait compared to No.6. I may have had too much paint on the brush, it didn’t run out and produce the drag lines I was after. However what I do feel this version has is the character of the original portrait and of the model Tom. Putting them side by side, I feel that the essence of the first is captured in the last. I am pleased with this result, but am also very aware that I could not have gone from the first portrait directly to the last. Whilst the intermediate steps didn’t always work how I wanted them too, they were important steps that I had to go through to be able to get to the end point.

The portraits altogether

Putting all the portraits together I am amazed at how one person can look so different yet remain being that same person. With the exception of portrait 6, they all look like him (although 3 less so). The assignment requires a series of 3 -5 paintings showing a progression. I need to work out which of these 7 show that progression best. I will post that and my overall evaluation as a different post.

Assignment 5, Part 1: A series of paintings on a theme

Sketchbook: On-line life drawing with the RA

I came across a link to the RA life-drawing room that advertised a real-time live streamed life drawing session with artist Jonathan Yeo. I am used to life drawing from real-time videos but couldn’t miss the opportunity to draw with the RA! Unfortunately the live streaming happened at a very busy time in our household, so although I started with the short poses in time with what was happening at the RA, the longer poses were done from the video around 3 hours later. This sort of negates the warm up value of quick drawings, but never the less, it was an enjoyable experience.

3 minute poses

10 minute pose

15 minute pose

25 minute pose

Sketchbook: On-line life drawing with the RA

Part 5: Towards Abstraction

Exercise: Abstraction from study of natural forms

I approached this exercise with a little apprehension as I have always viewed abstraction as a form of imagination. I don’t have a great imagination! However I have come to understand whilst studying this course that it is the process of developing your painting that is so important so why should creating an abstract be any different You don’t have to imagine the outcome, you can follow the process and see where it takes you.

working through ideas

I chose to work with a pheasant feather that I happen to have to hand. It has a repeating pattern as well as a detailed micro-structure that appealed. I was also reminded of an abstract painting that I thought was by Hans Hartung that I had come across when researching abstract expressionism. I have since been unable to find any reference to the fact it was actually painted by Hans Hartung so it may just be in the style of… however regardless, I wanted to use this image as inspiration (view here)

pheasant feather
Sketches for abstracting a feather

My initial sketches revolved around the micro-structure – of the tiny barbs all lined up at an angle to the main rib. From here, using the (in style of?) Hans Hartung painting as inspiration I decided to lay down a series of broad coloured bands roughly corresponding to the close up structure of the feather. I  mixed up a set of colours in oil paint thinned quite a bit with liquin. The colours were quite warm brown tones and I chose to use a russet transparent acrylic wash to cover the ground first.

Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of me placing these colours on the coloured ground. However I repeated the process on a plain white ground and this is what it started out like. The masking tape is keeping an area corresponding to the midrib clear of paint:

Laying down blocks of colour

I painted in the midrib, then used a palette knife to smear the paint sideways to create feather-barb like shapes in the paint. This allowed the coloured ground to show through the thin layers of paint. There was also a certain amount of blending that occurred a the edges of each stoke. (The whole painting was very wet so it was hard to get a good photo without glare).

creating the barbs (version 1)

I wasn’t happy with the midrib so I scraped that back and made it wider. I also added some white highlights to try to show the light bouncing off the feather vane in the way that I had observed. I did this by dropping white paint on and dragging back – it didn’t work!!

Adding highlights (version 1)

I wish I hadn’t put in the white highlights, however to remove them would mess up my vein structure. So I used a technique I had used in the impasto exercise, I made a print to remove some of the paint. I actually really like the impression of the patterns on the negative!

This enable me to rework the areas that had contained the highlights by re-blending the barbs. The finished result is this:

Feather abstracted, final painting

I really don’t like the result – so much for process! However I do think there is a bit of potential if the more messy parts are cropped out. In this version the main rib is no longer such a dominant feature and the unevenness of the top barbs is less evident. I still don’t like it but it works better as a composition.

Feather abstracted (closer crop, coloured ground)

NB. I had repeated the process on a white ground for the photo graph at the beginning. Here is the resulting end point of that piece. The same colours were used for the painting, it is amazing the difference the coloured ground makes. I prefer the coloured ground version, there is a much warmer note to the painting. However, the colours had a tendency to muddy. The white ground version is much cleaner in this regard, however much of that is down to the technique of blending the barbs. I was better at it the second time, and I didn’t have to try to remove the highlights! This however isn’t really a completed piece and I have treated it as a study.

Study on white ground


Exercise: Abstract painting from man-made form.

In the previous exercise I was very much driven by looking closely at the form of the feather and then replicating that in some way, following a set of logical steps to create a painting. I don’t feel that it worked very well so i tried a different tack with this exercise. I painted a very quick study of the electricity meter, then listed the features that stood out. I then tried to use my imagination and imagine those features in a different order!

Study of electricity meter


  • The numbers on the dial
  • The red number at the end
  • the wires coming out
  • the texture of the board behind contrasts with the metal box

in  my mind I took these elements and reassembled them in an abstract way (this is me using my imagination!). I used oil paint diluted with zest-it solvent to create a very watery background.

Abstract elements of the electricity meter

I knew this wasn’t finished but I got this far and had no idea where to go next so I left it for a couple of days. On returning I felt that the good bits were the way the very thin paint had picked up the texture of the primed oil paper, the crossing of the wires and the ghostly numbers. The bits I didn’t like were the metal boxes, and the fact that I hadn’t got the red in yet. With very little idea of how to proceed I made a list under my original sketch of things that an electricity meter symbolises:

  • use of energy
  • energy flow
  • time passing
  • use of resources
  • engineering, both mechanical and electrical
  • money

From this list I was aware that my brain made a mental shift towards the whole energy flow and I suddenly envisaged the electrical readout of a heart monitor. The wires then took on a new meaning, connecting to life. From there I have no real recall of the process of how I modified this painting however I used the image I had of representing the heartbeat whilst I put paint on the paper in fairly random ways. I used many different things to apply the paint, except using a paintbrush in the conventional manner. This was the final result.

Energy loss

I was stencilling numbers on in quite a random way, when I realised I had put a zero towards the end of the heart-beat line. I realised that I had only put in one heart beat followed by a long straight line denoting no electrical activity. The zero suddenly became more poignant – it could be the last heart beat. So I added a couple more zeros to emphasis this point.  I am pleased with the amount of texture that I have managed to incorporate. There is definitely a feel of graininess inspired by my original sketch. I wish that I had managed to retain some of the wiring from what is now the underpainting- I could have escaped back to reveal parts maybe.  The industrial grey is also a little uninspiring, and although it was intentional it does look in parts as if the black and white have just got muddied together.


These exercises took me very much out of my comfort zone (as so much has done on this course) and I approached them in two different ways. In the first I analysed the subject, drew sketches and developed a painting from there. This was the method that at the time I felt comfortable with. For the second exercise,  whilst I did do a painting sketch, the final piece very much came from my imagination – and this was sparked by delving into the emotions evoked by the subject rather than being driven by the subject itself. I enjoyed doing the second exercise more than the first, in the end, on the second day of painting, I completely let go! Of the two paintings, the second I consider to be the more successful. I wouldn’t want it on my wall, but I have been very surprised at how many of my family and friends who have seen it who like it (no one likes the feather!)

For me the learning curve here has not really been about actually painting but rather about the psychology behind the process of painting and I feel as if I have just made a huge step up that curve: understanding what is driving me. I have to feel connected to the subject in some way as I have previously established. However that connection doesn’t have to be a physical one or even an emotional one. It can be simply a thought process or an idea by association.Whilst writing this I am very excited. This opens up far more possibilities as to where my painting can go. I am going to try to carry this ‘letting go’ approach forward into my final project.


Part 5: Towards Abstraction

Adding other materials

Exercise: Preparing a textured ground

using torn pieces of heavyweight paper, pieces of corrugated card, some absorbent tissue paper and copious quantities of PVA glue I created a collage on a large piece of cardboard. I had  in my mind the idea of painting a jungle and I was working on the premise that the different texture of papers would provide a structural basis for the trees. Once dry i coated the whole lot with gesso and then used acrylic paint to create my scene. This was entirely imagined but I allowed the forms to emerge from the idea of having at least one large buttress rooted tree trunk in the foreground and a dense undergrowth receding into the background. Jungles are dark places so I used the recesses in the paper to be the highlights. I added some light falling on the buttress roots and a tall plant to the left, bringing out a yellowy green colour. [NOTE: The yellow all but disappeared when the painting was dry! You can still see it in bright light]

Jungle on textured ground

I like the effect of the paper collage, but the corrugated card was too crude (at least for here). Having said that I did like the piece on the bottom left. It created a 3D effect of foliage. The large piece on the top right was supposed to do the same as a swathe of tree foliage. However the layering of the corrugations hasn’t come out as much and thus it doesn’t work so well.

Exercise: Mixing materials into paint

I didn’t make a proper painting for this section. After the exercise above I felt that using these techniques were not where I was at at the moment. However I can see the merit of having references to the types of effects you can achieve so I made the following textured ground sample sheet, incorporating from top left anticlockwise: feathers, sand, glitter, acrylic impasto paste, and pumice bits. I mixed all except the impasto medium with black acrylic paint before painting on the sheet. The impasto medium I applied directly. Once dry I dry-brushed a bit of orange acrylic over each part to bring out the raised edges and reveal the pattern.

Mixing materials into paint

Whilst I am still not enamoured with these techniques overall I am interested in the effect that you get when you bring out the grain using a highlight such as the orange here. I don’t have a specific use in mind for this but I shall put the whole sheet in my sketchbook for reference.

Adding other materials

Part 5: Different Ways of Applying Paint

Exercise: Impasto

For this series of exercises I set up a still life of three small sunflowers in a jam jar on the edge of a table in my studio space. I chose this arrangement because of the colours (its been a very drab winter and I thought the colours would be uplifting!). Also I liked the idea of using various impasto techniques to create the sweeps and shapes of the petals and the leaves. I used acrylic paint mixed with a clear-setting gel thickener as a medium to create the following studies:

Impasto Using a brush

I was slightly disappointed with this experience! Having got all excited about using one sweep of paint to create petal shapes, I found that the paint didn’t quite behave as I was expecting. For a start it didn’t want to come of the brush, and when it did it was in a much thinner layer of paint than I had hoped for. I tried to follow the instructions regarding only mixing paint on the surface. Whilst I have definitely achieved a non blended look, I did find that the addition of further colours of paint into wet areas didn’t tend to leave ‘multi-coloured streaks’ rather the colours mixed in the process of my actually transferring the stuff from the brush to the support, and thus ending up with quite muddy areas! Some of the petal areas have worked, especially the ones onto which I have added a highlighted area. The leaves and stems however didn’t work so well, in part because I had to load the brush so much to get the paint to come off the brush and had to press quite hard, that the delicacy of the lines were lost.

I also found it hard to create a sense of depth to the study. The colours (in particular my green and brown) muddied really easily so any sense of using tone to create depth was lost. This is particularly evident with the middle flower which should appear further back than it does.

I was also really disappointed as to how dull the colours were once dried. I have noticed before that my (cheap) acrylics are not particularly good at maintaining vibrancy once dry, but I wonder if the medium made it worse. There is a slight fogginess to the colours of the painting as a whole!

Impasto with brush

Impasto using a painting knife

My next attempt was slightly more successful, I didn’t have quite the same problem of transferring the paint as I did with the brush. I was able to sculpt the paint more and manage to go some what to achieving the shape of a petal or leaf with one sweep of the knife. The paint also came off more thickly, creating a more impasto effect. There is no subtlety to the flowers!. I used a couple of different sized painting knives, however putting in linear aspects such as the stems and jar edges were very difficult. Correcting mistakes was nigh impossible. Whilst you can scrape paint off with a knife it was difficult to do so without disturbing other areas.

Impasto with painting knife

Impasto with scratching

For this exercise I put lots of paint in blocks onto some primed card. I didn’t worry about the details of the table rather just used a different colour to denote its presence. I used the end of a paintbrush to then scratch into the paint to ‘draw’ my picture. Once again the paint didn’t behave as I was expecting – the colours didn’t drag into one another particular, rather a trail line was just left in the paint. I was hoping that the support would be revealed under the scratch lines, but it was stained by the paint so there were not particular areas of highlight revealed. All-in-all it was a bit of a non-event! The whole thing was done quickly and was very sketchy, however the large amount of paint on the surface of the primed card seemed a real waste for something that really didn’t convey much. So I grabbed a piece of primed canvas and lay it over the top of the image. I applied gentle pressure over the whole thing then peeled off the canvas. Below are the original positive (after the print taken, I failed to get an image before) and the negative print.

The results of this were interesting on two accounts:

  1. The negative conveyed the scratches much better than the positive, the white background providing some highlighted areas. With a little thinking through and the more judicious use of a toned ground (or partially toned, leaving areas of white) this could be quite a powerful technique
  2. Where the surfaces were pulled apart, surface tension has caused some really interesting textures in the paint. This is quite hard to see in the photo but on the original positive it is quite clear. Whilst this is probably a bit of a cross over into printmaking, it still could create some interesting textures in a painting context. Perhaps small areas could be created. I wonder too what the effect would be to rub graphite powder or such like into the ridges.

I decided to investigate this technique in a more controlled way. I painted an image of one sunflower onto card, using paint daubed on thickly as above. I added blobs of white to highlight areas, and touches of red/orange to darker petal areas. I pressed a second primed piece of card over it and peeled the surfaces apart. As hoped the paint took on great textured patterns, in this case the negative being stronger than the positive (which I subsequently painted over but failed to get a photo first!!) Whilst this is not a finished piece, I do think that it has more interest in terms of texture, tone and form than my previous studies in this exercise.

Impasto print negative

Reflections: The possibilities of Enhancing previous work

This exercise has made me realise that texture is quite a powerful tool for painting. Controlling it however is important. There can be too much! I was disappointed with the brush work impasto but maybe the results would be different with oil and perhaps a thicker medium (artist quality paint may also help). I can see that impasto can be used to construct with paint and possibly I could have used thicker paint or a painting knife to sculpt some of the near foliage on this landscape painting. This would bring the foliage more to the fore, increasing the sense of depth.

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

I have already used scratching into paint to good effect in ‘Walking the dog’ although as my tutor pointed out i probably overdid it on the right hand side. I would agree. The mid-section however has a really good sense of dry stalks as a result of this sgraffito technique. I would like to use scratching back more. Care needs to be taken to get the width of the scratches right. In this panting the ones on the right that don’t work are done with a blunt point making the marks cumbersome. If they had been finer, I think they would have fit better

Walking the dog. Oil on paper

The surface tension texture effect might be useful in paintings of trees, perhaps like this one below. This is study that I started but didn’t really know where it was going. Small strips of paper used to ‘pull’ the paint may have enhanced the near tree trunks or added a different texture to the leaf areas. Used carefully I think such an effect could bring a painting like this together more. At the moment there is no focal point and it is very much smooth trunks contrasting with painterly leaf marks. A texture across both areas would pull the painting together more and perhaps provide that focal point.

Tree study in oil on prepared oil paper


Exercise: Dripping, dribbling and spattering

I started by working out some simple but vibrant palettes to use in this exercise. I chose to work in acrylics on a variety of primed, found surfaces (different types of card).

Selecting colours for abstract painting

Here I roughly coloured the ground a deep grey, then dribbled contrasting yellow and green paint from a large brush, flicking it occasionally to get a lined effect. I added the red to give some drama. In places the colours have run together creating some interesting patterns (I think this is a bit like the effect that the impasto ‘dragging’ was supposed to have but didn’t work for me). I tilted the cardboard a little to create subtle changes in direction of some of the marks.

Abstract 1

Here I used a brilliant pink ground, then dribbled and splattered black white and orange onto it. The black and white were dribbled from a squeezy bottle. I smeared some areas with a paper towel, producing the grey areas.  I added further splashes of pink to areas that became to monochrome. I really like this painting and am amazed at how different it looks when viewed in different ways.

Abstract 2 landscape
Abstract 2 portrait

For my third painting I used a pouring technique. I poured paint onto the middle of a stiff piece of card to form a puddle. I then poured paint on a different colour into the middle of this puddle, and let the second colour push the first out. I repeated this many times using orange, blue and white paint, each time letting the newest layer push the previous ones out in concentric rings. I finished off with a splatter of pink to break up the largest areas. This took ages to dry (even though it was acrylic), around 5 days! This gave lots of time for the paint to do interesting things. There is some merging of colours, but not as much as I expected. There are also some interesting textural effects going on as in places the colours have separated a little, especially where orange has run over the blue. There are also lumpy bits in the middle caused by the last bits of paint not being mixed with the water evenly.

Abstract 3


In doing this exercise I gained an understanding as to why so many abstract paintings are huge. I felt really constrained by both the size of the support but also the area in which I had to work. These very much became an exercise in having fun, but i wasn’t able to tap into other expressive emotions that often drive the painting of such works. i would need more space to move by arm and body in a way that allowed that expression to come through.

How much of these techniques you can use very much would depend on the type of painting you were doing. I liked the odd addition of a splatter, especially in breaking up broader areas of colour, but if  not careful it could look just like that – a splatter! I did like the true-ness of a line that could be achieved by a dribble of paint from a full paint brush as seen in Abstract 1. The marks have a certain energy to them and the direction is less controlled, however the lines are thin and crisp. I like the idea of attempting a continuous line painting like this in the same way you can do a continuous line with ink or charcoal. I am not sure how this would be achieved practically, running paint out of a bottle didn’t quite have the same effect in abstract 2. The line is more beaded. Something to work on!

Part 5: Different Ways of Applying Paint

Sketchbook: Studies of trees

I have been playing around with trees on and off throughout part 4. This is a log of my studies. Whilst they weren’t completed for the exercise in which I depict trees, they form part of an enquiry in how to depict trees, information that I use in both the exercise ‘Painting from a working drawing‘ and ‘assignment 4‘.

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 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

Apologies, this post should have been posted immediately before my post on assignment 4.


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

Working on my success of the previous exercise, I concentrated on keeping my marks for this piece loose, fluid and quick. I worked on enquiry with paint, in this case being driven by the negative spaces between the tree trunks.

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, 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 consolidated some of my ideas and experiments in using other implements to remove paint, and 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. I feel this is an enquiry into that light shining through.

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 am very pleased that I have managed to consolidate my more successful parts of other paintings here: the sense of enquiry, the application of paint (and the removal of paint too).

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.

Over all I feel that this is one of my more successful paintings.


Part 4 Painting from a working drawing

Assignment 4

note: I accidentally missed out posting an excise prior to posting this one (painting from a working drawing). I have now posted that exercise immediately after this one. There is reference to that exercise in this post.

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 really want to bring that into this assignment. 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’.

I have been very lucky to see a decent body of work by contemporary landscape artist Zoe Taylor recently (inspriation for ‘Walking the dog’) 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 really admire the series of paintings by Cezanne of Mount Saint-Victoire . He has 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 appeals with the general subject matter of my final assignment piece – a mountain scene.

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. I had also been working on some studies of trees prior to this assignment that whilst not directly related to this piece of work, were useful reference experiments in my sketchbook (access here)

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


What worked well

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.

Things that could be better

There is perhaps not the energy in the brushwork that I was striving for, even through it generally they are loose in style. The fluidity  between the different areas of the painting are lacking a little. Perhaps I should have scratched more into the paint in the foreground to add more detail to the leaves?

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