I find that a lot of people struggle with boats but by getting people to sketch rather than try a full-blown painting I have had some really good results. Because ‘it’s only a sketch’ people loosen up and forget their boat block, and often produce some loose and lively work. Boats and harbours offer a wealth of painting opportunities.
The scene is constantly shifting – boats languidly rolling on their moorings are left high and dry when the tide goes out. I do love getting down into the harbour floor to look up at the jaunty angles of the boats and it’s easy to become engrossed and overlook the fact that the water is on it’s way in – I have got my feet wet a few times.
Depending on weather and the time of year, harbours can be rather chilly venues so I always pack a waterproof jacket and best double stroller for my kids, which also keeps out the wind. I also tend to weigh down my lightweight easel when painting in case sudden gusts of wind take my kit on flying lessons. There have been times when I have had to go on a fishing expedition to retrieve a piece of kit that has been blown over the edge into the water. It’s all part of the enjoyment of painting en plein air!
The importance of the sketchbook
I tend to sketch in pen and watercolour wash, going straight in with the pen work and then overlaying a series of watercolour washes. I find this stops me from fiddling and also forces me to concentrate on the scene so that each mark is as accurate as possible. There’s no rubbing out an ink line once it’s down so careful observation is paramount. That’s not to say that I don’t get it wrong sometimes but so what – I put in the correct mark and then colour over the wrong one, it’s only a sketch after all.
I have been to Porlock Weir a few times and am always excited by the wealth of painting material. On this occasion I had taken a group for a day’s sketching; the tide was out but the lock gates and the harbour walls presented a great subject, which I managed to capture in my sketchbook. Just before we left the tide came right in and the whole scene changed, so I took a series of photos around the area with all the moored-up boats riding high in the water. I decided to get to grips with a studio piece demonstration of this lovely sunlit scene.
During the course of a long career teaching painting and drawing I have spent a lot of time persuading students that the subject of still life can be as exciting as any other, with considerable advantages over many of them. It doesn’t move, the light source is usually constant, it can be as colourful as desired – or not, and it is personal to you and can have a story to tell.
In addition, it will teach you all you need to know about drawing shapes, perspective, texture and composition– what’s not to like?
Banish the block
About 25 years ago I had a period of painter’s block. I was painting mostly in watercolour and selling well, but wanted to break out of the ‘safe’ and predictable rut I was in. An artist friend advised I change media and try working on textured surfaces, including collage. Although I had misgivings I gave it a go, with startling results.
From that time I was hooked and although I paint in many forms of mixed media, whenever I need a bit of a shake-up I turn to collage and allow it to (partially) tell me what to do. As it had worked so well for me, I wondered whether it would work for my more advanced students. Well, it did but with mixed results. However, the real result was that it persuaded them that still life is not boring and has endless possibilities.
Ways with collage
There are many different ways of working with collage. I have artist friends who will paint the whole piece with cut paper before applying paint, others who will use paint until the piece is almost finished before applying any collage. Some artists will incorporate text into a painting to give both a message and texture, and some, like me, will use decorative papers to spring surprises of colour, pattern and texture.
Many discover their own preferred way through a process of trial and error, as I did. So what materials are used? Over the years, I have built up a large collection of papers, from very beautiful handmade papers , available at good art shops and stationers, to serviettes with music, flowers, smiley faces and all manner of shapes. Coloured paper, wrapping paper and tissue have all been squirrelled away to await the moment when they are just what I’m looking for. Many old watercolour paintings have had a second lease of life. The surface that I stick onto is usually mountboard that has had a thin skimming of gesso primer first. I have also used cheap watercolour paper very successfully. Both these surfaces need to be framed under glass, which enables me to use pastels and crayons on them.
I have worked on canvas board and canvas, but because these are framed unglazed I usually confine myself to working only in paint. The glue is usually PVA in various dilutions to suit the thickness of the paper that’s being stuck (the thicker the paper the thicker the glue needs to be). The paint, of course, is acrylic, both in ink form and heavy body, which will paint on absolutely anything. Having assembled all this I start work – remember, this is the way I do it, others do it differently. With all my still-life paintings, by the time I reach the final stage the original subject has usually died, been eaten, drunk and generally dismantled, which helps me to consider the painting in its own right and not keep comparing it to what I started with.
This stops me fiddling to get things exactly right and overloading the piece with excessive detail that it doesn’t need, given the surfaces that I’m working on and the way that I paint. When finished, I hide all my work away for a period of time – days, months, and sometimes years – and then look at it with fresh eyes to see if anything further needs to be done.
At a recent workshop I was asked why my demonstration painting appeared to have a great amount of depth when I had used values that were darker in the background than in the foreground.
The person asking the question had always been told you had to make the distance pale and the foreground strong and that cool colours have to be used in the background. Distance is an illusion that is achieved through the use of aerial perspective and whilst colours are often cooler towards the horizon, they aren’t always. Likewise, they’re not always pale values either. The distance, like all other elements of a painting is relative to the focus you choose and, in turn, how you decide to treat it.
You can make anything distant, even features in the middle ground. Distance is relative to your focus, so choose that first and decide where it is going to be in the painting.
A focus is part of the painting that holds the viewer’s attention so it needs to be prominent and interesting. A focus can be anything from a figure or figures to trees, a splash of light, a building, a lake and so on. Once you have decided on your focus you may need to use a compositional grid to place it in an appropriate setting near or around two of the intersecting compositional lines. Features behind the focal point can be made to appear more distant than they might really be, which in turn puts more emphasis on the focus you have chosen and creates greater depth in your work.
There are a few techniques to use but the main intention is to use less detail and blur most of the hard edges. Use a large brush to suggest any would-be fine detail shapes to generate simpler marks and a more distant feel.
To blur edges, the wet-into-wet technique is an evocative way to create softness; alternatively, paint the shapes in a conventional hard-edged manner and allow them to dry. Take a fine spray bottle and lightly spray the area with water so that it is just damp, then follow up with a stiff brush and gently work the edge of the paint into a blur. Any feature in the background of your painting that has soft or blurry edges will automatically look distant whether they are dark or light. Don’t always concern yourself with values and rules, look at the edges.
This is the illusion of depth and helps create recession in your work. As I have just outlined it’s not necessary to make your background paler, as it is subject to the overall image and lighting. However, if you do use paler colours you will create a huge amount of recession. Use your paints quite dilute and maybe add extra blue to colour mixes, such as cobalt blue to give the impression of intervening atmosphere.
Other ways of creating aerial perspective are through using repetitive, similar-sized features such as people, poles, trees or animals. These will reduce in both size and detail as they recede and often a simple estimation of the reduction in visible detail is all that is required. With structures such as buildings and roads, one- or two-point perspective can be used to gain the receding lines of the feature. Whilst perspective can be a confusing experience for many people it really doesn’t have to be and if you paint loose, your perspective lines don’t need to be entirely accurate, so long as they are roughly going in the right direction.
A simple rule of thumb is that of expectation: you either expect a perspective line to slope downwards or upwards. First locate your eye level; any lines above will slope downwards towards a vanishing point located on it and those below will slope upwards towards it in the same way. Lines near your eye level will have a shallow gradient and those further away will have a steep gradient. There is no replacement for looking, but the expectation of which way a line will slope, and the steepness of the angle, will help you place the lines correctly.
The foreground is, of course, relative to the focus of the painting. If the focus is in the foreground then you may need a reasonable amount of detail to support it, but most of the time the focus is in or near the middle ground. With a foreground, you want to hint at what is there without necessarily painting everything in intricate detail. After all, you want the viewer to look at your focal point, not the clumps of grass in the front of the picture.
I try to encourage people to look at things this way instead of painting something just because it is there. The best way is to hint at rather than state. Paint clumps of grass, mole hills, reeds and so on using a damp-into-damp technique with paint containing very little moisture onto paper that is damp but not saturated. Soft shapes like this suggest at detail rather than state it and, in context of a sharper focus, will allow the eye to absorb what is there without being drawn to it.
White paint such as titanium white, opaque white, gouache or Chinese white will create tints in your colour that will help to generate the feel of distance. Chinese white is weakest and will add a subtle, milky appearance to your colour, whereas titanium white is strongest and will alter your colour quite drastically.
The reason for adding white over traditional methods of diluting colour is to add a slightly opaque haziness to the colour. This often gives an illusion of light and depth to the distance. Another way of using white is to mix it thickly with colour. This also dulls the colour slightly which helps to create an automatic feeling of distance, especially when contrasted against richer colour and stronger values elsewhere in the painting. Thicker paint is slightly easier to control if you wish to blur small shapes together in the distance or achieve drag-brush effects.
One of the most exciting things about painting people with darker complexions is the way that light reflects on their skin. The contrasts are greater and the form and structure of the head more evident. Colours are also easier to see. My studio in South Africa has a large south-facing window (the equivalent of a north-facing window in the northern hemisphere), which gives me a cool constant natural light source with no direct sunlight coming into the room.
The intensity of the light can change with cloud cover but the shapes of light, half-tone and shadow remain the same. Occasionally I paint a subject outdoors. In these situations I will either paint in a shaded area or with the sun almost directly behind the model, creating more of an edge light – the features of the sitter will then be in the reflected light. A wide-brimmed hat is essential to protect my eyes from the fierce African sun and I find that an hour is about as much as the sitter and I can take in these direct sun situations, I wish I could have the best mattresses for side sleepers so I can get some rest while painting.
I am often asked what colours I use for painting dark skin. My palette remains the same whether I am painting a blonde child on the beach or an elderly African gentleman in my studio: burnt sienna, ultramarine blue (deep), alizarin crimson, raw sienna, yellow ochre, cadmium red, cadmium red light, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow deep, cadmium yellow pale and titanium white.
Other colours that I only use when the situation requires are cerulean blue, ultramarine blue, violet and viridian green. In the oil sketch The Miner (below), I show mixtures used to paint the head under cool natural light. This might not seem like a lot of colours but I have always been fascinated by the beautiful colourful paintings of Anders Zorn who it is said only used four colours: black, white, yellow ochre and vermilion.
This really emphasises how important values are. My preferred way of working is to have the model in front of me throughout the painting process and most of my work is done in this way. Of course a painting of the mother with baby on her back (right) would be almost impossible for me to complete without photographic reference but I still have a go and find that so much information is gained in a 20-minute session that this sketch becomes my most important reference. Having the model in front of me allows me to judge colours and values accurately.
I work looking regularly in a mirror behind me where I can see both model and painting together. It still amazes me how faults in drawing and values become exaggerated in the mirror. This way of working is exciting and involves you totally and when successful leaves you on a high and inspired for hours after the sitting.
How I approach more complicated subjects
A mother with a baby on her back is a very common sight in Africa and a great subject for a painting. In Molly and Yenzaogolthi (above right) I opted for natural studio lighting rather than direct sunlight, to allow for a more comfortable environment for the models and for myself to fully resolve the painting. We started with ten- minute pastel sketches, exploring the shapes of light, halftone and shadow.
These are broad studies where heads and hands are reduced to one or two values with no detail. Lots of photos are also taken from every angle. By the end of the day and after a few nappy changes and a couple of naps and feeds we arrived at a pose that I could explore further.
In the morning I completed two small oil studies of the pose, working with a large brush and focusing on large shapes and peripheral edges and searching for lost edges and selective hard edges. Yenza’s grandmother was also with us on this day, which helped greatly because he had decided that modelling was not for him.
In the afternoon I started the large canvas, paying attention to design and head sizes. I was able to get a lot of Molly done because she could hold the pose for longer without Yenza on her back. I finished the painting from my references and would certainly not have been able to complete Yenza without photographic references.
I simplify the edges in my painting into four types of edges: hard, firm, soft and lost. When observing my subject I always squint my eyes so that I can easily see the sharpest edges first. I then search for the lost edges; after that the firm edges and then soft edges. A good control of edges can improve the strength and appeal of a painting immensely and also gives us the ability as artists to guide the viewer’s eye to see what we are seeing.
Somewhere in our past we have been conditioned to outline everything (probably as far back as colouring-in books). Photographs might be amazing in capturing moments and details but they are distinctly lacking in values and edges, especially peripheral edges. This is another reason why life drawing and painting from life is so important to improve an artist’s observational skills.
The very word perspective makes most art students shudder – all that ‘technical drawing’, precision and formulaic planning – yikes! Well, it’s easier than you think and let’s face it, you need to get to grips with at least the very basic principles of perspective to see real improvements in your art.
Regardless of your subject, good perspective is the foundation on which a good painting is based. Even the simplest compositions are stronger when artists show evidence of good perspective skills.
Assess your subject
The most obvious subjects that require perspective are buildings and cityscapes. In the next issue we will look at this more closely but let’s not overlook landscape. The ‘big landscape’ can appear daunting at first – especially to beginners and artists just starting to paint the subject but some pre-planning will help you as you work. Firstly, ask yourself why you want to paint the scene.
Take your time – look, think and assess the scene (through a viewfinder if that helps); rushing headlong into drawing and painting your scene before you’ve really planned what you want to do will get you into all sorts of trouble – especially with scale.
When looking for perspective within a flat open expanse of moorland, sparse of any redeeming features, it’s hard to find anything at first to use as a guide to lead the eye through your painting and to discover the true characteristics of the perspective within the scene.
By following the contours of the land, the undulating shapes and shadows, then plotting those shapes, the angle of the deep gullies and carefully observing the angle of boulders, pathways and tracks, all is revealed.
By analysing your chosen composition into a series of shapes, forms, tones and, of course, the ‘feel ‘ for your subject, you can begin to apply the basic principles of perspective to those elements to bind them all together. In Sun and Shadow over the Old Moors – South Pennines (below) the underlying perspective forms a strong framework on which all the above principles are intertwined.
Everything on the level
The most important thing to establish before you begin is your eye level in relation to what you are looking at. If it is difficult to ascertain this, try drawing a series of lines at the correct angle from objects you can see – where they cross over or correspond with one another will establish their vanishing points.
Be prepared for the vanishing points to be outside your composition; don’t force a vanishing point back into a composition just to make it easy for yourself because it will be wrong and throw everything out. Tonal values also help with perspective.
Working from light to dark (stronger colours in the foreground and lighter colours towards the back) helps to give the impression of aerial perspective. In watercolour the lightest light is the white of the paper – adding white during the process or at the end will never be a substitute for the pure white of the paper as the same brightness or lightness of tone cannot be achieved.
The distances between each and every element in the composition, and their scale in relation to one another is really important as it will unify everything in the painting.
Pay close attention to the actual solid volume, tone and colour of the shapes, the negative spaces and distances between each creates the framework too.
As a painting develops don’t just paint with a brush, draw with it too. Creating some sort of added drama, point of focus or contrast gives a painting the edge.
Equal amounts of dark and light within a painting can stifle it, despite your best efforts. Try to think about different proportions or relationships between light and dark in your compositions – more light in ratio to dark or, more dramatic still, more dark in relationship to ‘spotlight’ light.
Whether you make art to sell or for therapy, allowing yourself to shine through your work is something you shouldn’t shy away from. You don’t have to spend years of studying to be able to express yourself. We all have feelings and emotions that we can use in our artwork. Whether on paper, canvas or clay, self-expression normally begins with some sort of mark, even for photorealistic painters.
Your marks make you special
Imagine a straight line. If you were to draw or paint a straight line without a ruler, it might be a little shaky. For some people that can be upsetting and create a feeling of failure, but for me it brings me closer to the person behind it. That singular mark is what makes you special, so embrace the shakes!
Some of the greatest artists can be identified through their marks. Van Gogh is a good example of this. When I saw his work in the Van Gogh museum I couldn’t help but feel his presence through his brushstrokes – his marks are so alive and expressive.
What makes you special is how you interpret your subject, whether through mark making, powerful subject matter or strong colour, these elements will make you stand out. Many people comment on the sense of movement in my own paintings – marks going in different directions with flicks, twists and turns are what create this impression. Every mark is as important as the next and I want the viewer to enjoy the scene through my own energy encompassed in every mark made.
Sometimes we can get too comfortable when producing our paintings. Marks can appear dull, lifeless and overworked. I can normally tell when I view a painting if someone has got bored as their marks become repetitive. A good example of this is when painting grass, lots of similar lines all going in the same direction with a tiny brush. Stepping out of your comfort zone will create another dimension to your work and help you evolve as an artist. You can make a start by:
l Trading in your tiny brushes for a large brush
l Use your largest brush for details
l Use your whole arm rather than working from the wrist, which gives
l Paint a subject unfamiliar to you, even something you don’t like!
l Work larger or smaller
l On a small surface, don’t scale down brush size, use a large brush
l Restrict your equipment: one or two brushes
l Restrict your colour palette
Initially you may feel uncomfortable and awkward but it’s purely for your own benefit – no one else needs to see your experimental artworks. For me art is about exploring the different ways in which a subject can be interpreted, not being predictable.
DEMONSTRATION One Brush Does All
People gasp when I show them my large brushes. I guess to most people a large brush appears scary and uncontrollable but
it’s not the size that matters, rather the marks it creates. Here’s how I develop a picture from start to finish using one 2in brush
Close family ties take me to Australia, to a town on the Great Ocean Road. This coastal strip has wide beaches of white, soft sand and dunes, backed by low tree-covered hills.
On my last trip I endeavoured to do a painting most days and very nearly achieved my aim; a holiday can seem to be missing something unless I do a few works – I guess I’m an addict and just can’t do without my painting fix. My sketchbooks fill quite quickly.
But I also had a small pack of basic equipment with me and the newness of this landscape prompted me to paint small works on acrylic paper, working from my sketches and glancing occasionally at the image on my mobile phone screen.
Light and colour
I have painted numerous times in the south of Europe and used my experience of portraying this landscape to help me with my Australia paintings.
Perhaps it is due to the area’s lack of air pollution, and also its proximity to the colder south polar seas, but here the light seems clearer, with an added sparkle and intensity, compared with the sun-filled glory of the Mediterranean. The red-orange cliffs with colour-filled shadows, blues and violet, and the ochre and red sunlit surfaces are topped with blue-green foliage and complementary colours, yellows, lemon, pink and lime green.
The colour of the sea changes from cobalt to turquoise, pale violet and cerulean blue, all hues deep, clean and pure with not a hint of grey! Bearing in mind flight weight restrictions when packing, I choose colours that are clear, bright, and versatile.
These increase my colour mixing opportunities and help me steer
My Australia painting kit
l Small tubes of acrylic colour: azo yellow, yellow ochre, cadmium orange, cadmium red, magenta, cobalt blue, Prussian blue, turquoise, dioxazine violet, titanium white and raw umber.
l Two bottles of Daler-Rowney FW Acrylic ink: purple lake and antelope brown.
l Oil pastels: white, lemon, ochre, pale olive, purple, pale orange and magenta for mixed-media work.
l Two Rosemary & Co flat brushes (I recommend these, good value and hard wearing), 1in and 1 1 ⁄ 2 in. l My fold-up palette (a WH SMITH plastic document case with a pad of tear-off paper palette sheets); a palette knife and 20 sheets of 10 ? 13in acrylic paper.
l My sketching kit comprises: hardback sketchbook with two large bull-dog clips to hold pages down in breezy conditions, a pack of children’s wax crayons, felt-tip pens, (large Italic from Berol and fine 0.5 tip by Pilot,) two chunky water-soluble crayons in blue and black, a field box of watercolours and watercolour brushes
I put my satisfaction with watercolour painting down to its elusive quality. The merest touch of colour dropped onto a wet surface can express so much. So often it is the case of what is not painted that says what is intended and in this article I shall give you a few hints and tips that will help to explain almost nothing!
To get to grips with how to depict glass you need to note exactly what you actually see as opposed to what you think you ought to see. Because we see through glass we need to paint what is behind it and, if it is a vessel, what it contains. Glass in the form of a vessel can do all kinds of things to the above depending on its make, thickness and shape. Distortion is common together with reflections and refractions.
Additionally, glass is a hard, crisp- edged material that looks worse if painted with a woolly edge. Needless to say if one tries to depict all the aspects the image could look overloaded and unreal. The trick is to know what to put in and what to leave out, along with the illusion. Imply rather than overstate – keep it simple!
First things first: Don’t put an outline around a glass object. If you look carefully you will note that the edge is sometimes not even there unless the glass is tinted. I have found the most efficient way to obtain this elusive but crisp edge is to use masking tape. If the glass is straight-sided then it is simple.
However, if the glass is curved in any way a symmetrical template has to be cut. With the sides taped off you can paint what is behind or within without worrying about the edge. At a later stage in the painting you may well need to mask out the vessel in order to paint in the background.
Masking tape is also useful when there are reflections in the surface of the glass, which may appear as lighter vertical lines. These will need to be masked out, leaving a slot that can then be lifted. You may also note reflected highlights, which can be shown by using masking fluid at the outset.
Reflections, refraction and shadows
If the glass vessel contains water the surface of the water seen through the glass will be reflective. It will also be distorted where objects such as stalks pass through. In this instance note the relative tone of this reflection as it will be different to the glass. You may see the elliptical surface of the water but only partially – another phenomenon particular to reflective substances and materials.
Clear glass usually has quite strong tonal contrasts in its reflections. Circular vessels act like lenses that both distort and magnify contrasts. Note this especially at their bases and rims. Dark liquids in a glass or bottle reflect most strongly, quite often your own face.
Again, because of the shape of the vessel these reflections are distorted, especially at the sides. Refraction is that peculiar effect that distorts any object that passes through the surface of the water. Note that the stem appears to be separated at the water surface level.
Because clear glass has no tone or colour to indicate form it cannot theoretically cast a shadow, but anything in it will. The rim, base and sides of the glass cast a shadow because the light cannot quite pass through these greater masses. Notice how, if the light comes from behind the glass container, the base acts as a lens and produces a bright light in the middle. Any texture in the glass such as subtle ribbing will produce ribbed-type shadows. If the light comes from in front, any shadows seen through the glass are distorted at the sides.
Cut glass and coloured glass
Surface decoration on glass, whether coloured or cut, produces even further challenges for the artist. I have some cut-glass fruit bowls that are immense fun to paint but very difficult and, to add to the fun, the rims are also scalloped (page 20). To paint one I start with several dots to establish the relevant ellipses, then the high and low points of the scallops.
Following this, with intense concentration, I paint exactly what I see. Well almost. The bowl invariably contains fruit of some kind. Another piece of torturous glassware I possess is a brass-based twisted oil lamp with an engraved glass bowl, through which can be seen the glass flue. Yes, a serious piece of work especially when I put in blue– or pink- coloured paraffin and light it.
Modern glass can often have colours swirled into it. The best way to achieve this effect is to work wet-into-wet whilst still preserving a crisp edge.
If the vessel is a complicated shape a stencil cut in Frisk Film* will probably do the trick. Some glass objects have surface colouring that has been cut, engraved or etched to reveal the natural glass. Similarly, as for engraving on natural glass, you can use masking fluid to delineate the decoration; I have often used this method to illustrate my oil lamp where the orange glow of the light reveals the decoration.
Glass containing coloured liquids
I have already touched on coloured liquids in glass vessels. In an object such as a bottle of wine you have three factors to take into account: the label, the colour of the glass and the colour of the liquid. The colour of the glass or its contents can vary considerably according to what the glass reflects.
This is particularly noticeable if there is any candle light about. Again acute observation is the name of the game. If you don’t trust your eyes, take a photograph and look intensely at the various phenomena revealed. The brain tends to deceive, willing you to simplify and make logical. Unfortunately the truth is more complex and therefore more interesting – trust your eyes.
Elements such as bases, stems, rims, handles or any form of excrescence added to the surface basically have crisp-edged tonal contrasts. They are not necessarily outlined but owe their look to the basic shape of these quite specific reflections. Painting glass objects is, like painting water, a peculiar challenge and one that can give a great deal of satisfaction once mastered. In a future article on buildings I will refer to glass in windows!
My studio is an old cider barn that looks out across a farmyard from a large, west- facing window. As a painting space, it can be pretty dark through the winter months, but each spring, like some ancient Druid, I wait for the day when the sun just gets into one corner of the studio before setting over the barn across the yard.
From that day on, through the spring and up to mid- summer, the puddle of sunlight gets bigger and the light stronger until, by mid-June, I often can’t work in there at all as the sunlight blazes in and lights up the whole building.
There are days when I hope it might be cloudy, or perhaps even rain, to slow things down a little so that I can do things in a more considered way, but every spring I find myself waiting with growing excitement for the day that I can start to make paintings out of the frenzy of the returning sunlight.
The sun moves quickly – in minutes the shadow of a glazing bar moves across the newspapers sprawled on the studio table. The reflected bounce of colour and light is quite unlike anything I’ve seen all through the winter.
On one such day I manoeuvred my easel so that I could paint a succession of little panels as the scene changed. I laid out my usual palette in the usual way, with a handful of brushes and a jar of spirit to swill them in, so at least that part of the process would be automatic.
No particular thought went into setting up a still life as whatever I did would be subverted by the unpredictability of the splashes of brilliance and darkness – as the sun passes over the studio clutter all things move in and out of the light.
There wasn’t too much thought about composition either – this isn’t about stable pyramids of carefully drawn structure – I got it down as it happened by watching the movement of the light through the next hour or so, painting a sequence of little notes.
I started by looking at a boundary between light and dark and making a pair of marks to establish the relationship between the two. The painting grew quickly from this point; I constantly looked at whether a colour was darker, lighter, warmer or cooler than its neighbour, but my eye had to keep sweeping across the whole field of view to allow the pattern of lights and darks to sink in.
I got about ten minutes before a key part of my little design fell into shadow. I could chase it, modifying what I’ve done to keep up with the change, or leave it. I decided to leave it; I had another little board ready for the easel and took a minute to reset my thoughts about what might make an interesting ‘eyeful’.
Shifting my position to gain a slightly different view, I kept my angle of view fairly restricted, a bit more ‘telephoto’ than ‘wide-angle’. There was enough to think about without the complexities of spreading my gaze too wide. In an hour or so I’d made five little studies: one seemed complete in itself and one was a dud; the other three were all interesting, a toe in the water of a few possible visual ideas, and gave me a glimpse of what might be done.
Days two and…
The next day was cloudy and my afternoon was spent priming boards, stretching canvases and thinking, catching my five little studies out of the corner of my eye.
In fact, several days passed before I could get back to this subject. I wanted to do something a bit bigger but along the same lines. I had two or three canvases ready, to give me a choice of format, but beyond about 20in the size becomes an issue in the limited time available.
I find pencil and watercolour useful for collecting information so, knowing that the light will be just where I want it at say 3pm, I can start drawing at 2pm, concentrating on mapping out lines and getting the structure right. With my watercolours ready and enough drawn marks on the paper I can move quickly and say a lot with a few simple washes.
As the weather forecast looked fair for the rest of the week I thought I could plan something bigger. Oil paint will let me work over two afternoons, maybe three, before it becomes too sticky to do another day. Beyond those two or three days, the sun would be on a noticeably different trajectory.
I’d been watching how my simple tablescape was transformed by the sunlight and had made some simple drawings to plan my composition on a bigger canvas. I was very aware that the range of tone in front of me was enormous; looking at this group, I loved the way that much of the foreground was covered with a big shadow and all the bits and pieces in that area were very quiet, and need a very restricted range of light and dark.
I also noticed that the light was bouncing colour around the shadows, giving variety to these rather restrained parts of the composition.
The first painting session was fairly brief – I started just a few minutes before the light was just how I wanted it, working in a similar way to the earlier studies, but focusing on trying to block everything in very quickly.
I concentrated on getting the big relationships right rather than worrying too much about the more hidden aspects. I got about ten minutes slightly ahead of the moment I wanted, another fifteen with it just about right, then a few more minutes of relying on my visual memory, stopping as that began to fade. About half an hour is as much as I could hope for in one day.
The following day was bright enough for me to work again on the larger oil. At its first stage, I’d just got the bare bones so I wanted to elaborate a little further. This way of painting means I’m doing everything at once, drawing and settling the composition as well as making decisions about tone and colour.
For this reason, it’s inevitable that there will be adjustments and I spotted some drawing corrections that needed to be made. A few marks quickly indicated those adjustments. The previous day’s paint was still fairly wet so the surface was quite receptive and I worked quickly with a loaded brush.
There was stuff going on in the foreground that I hadn’t really noticed – a pair of scissors made a good X shape, and the blue-and-white plastic bag was bouncing its colour into the foreground along with the yellow from the little glass bottle.
The plastic water bottle on the right-hand side was refracting the strong sunlight and becoming a focus in the painting. I got just a little longer but once again, as my visual memory began to fade I stopped, knowing that if I carried on the effect of one moment would be weakened. I love the excitement and fizz of this sort of painting and I can see obvious parallels with the sort of landscape subjects I look for. I’ll carry on making paintings of this corner of my working space until, in the autumn, it’s reduced to a tiny slice of light.
Born in Genoa, Italy, Richard Burger studied in New York and London at art schools internationally recognised for their independent approach to teaching art and their success at nurturing accomplished, often groundbreaking, artists.
Now living and working in London, he recalls his formative years before he became an artist, and the influences that affected his career choice and painting style: ‘I grew up in an artistic household where I was always encouraged to pick up colours and a paintbrush. Both my mother and my sister were artists.’ Richard’s sister Carol is the subject of the portrait that was accepted for the 2016 BP Portrait Award (right).
Richard’s figurative paintings are powerful and colourful: ‘I love painting in oil. I find it very forgiving as a medium, providing you follow the rules. I sometimes use acrylic for backgrounds to get rid of the whiteness of the canvas. I also love using watercolour pencil for sketches and preparatory drawings, expressive observations of people around me and everyday life.’
Of his continually evolving style, Richard says: ‘Every subject requires me to look at things afresh. I have always loved people, both interacting with and looking at them. Everyone is different and that makes for a challenge every time. Also, somehow painting from the model is more companionable than being alone in the studio! Having said that, I also love landscapes and beach scenes since they get me out in the world.’
Richard’s art comments on society, but also allows viewers to interpret what they see within them. ‘When planning paintings, I try to find something that I like and that the viewer may find interesting, and work on that. With people, the poses are worked out with the model. I think that anything that the model contributes helps the painting to show that sitter’s character. With landscapes, I plan and sketch the composition out before I begin the final painting, although changes do inevitably happen as I work.’
‘My vision, acquired over many years of open studio drawing and painting, takes its influence from where I grew up in Italy and from where I have chosen to live in London.’ As far as individual influences are concerned, he says: ‘I grew up in Genoa, so 17th-century Italian painters seem to haunt me! In New York, I studied under Mary Beth McKenzie and William Scharf, and with Enver Gürsev at Chelsea. I always seek to observe the everyday and renew how we see it, and in this respect, Frank Auerbach is probably the reason I paint. I also love Lucian Freud, Peter Doig and Chantal Joffe.’
In his studio – a shared complex in London run by Bow Arts – Richard experiments with materials and formats. ‘I love experimenting with both textured and smooth finishes. At the moment, I’m going through a bit of a phase of painting on board or Masonite. These rigid surfaces let me hit them hard without answering back. The sizes of my paintings vary. My biggest painting so far is about 72 ? 28in (183 ? 71cm), and sometimes I paint very quickly, so a large painting probably takes me less than two weeks to complete. At other times, I work on paintings over a long period of time, letting them stew, and picking them up again later. Most of the time, I have several paintings on the go at once.’ His process is fairly traditional. ‘Normally after making preparatory sketches, I sketch the composition on to my canvas or other surface with oil paint. I tried charcoal for this, but I found it left too much of a mark through the paint. When I paint, there are certain colours that I tend to use more than others, which go in and out of use depending on the theme of the work I’m painting.’ Like many other artists, he struggles to leave his paintings alone when they are finished. ‘It’s very easy to overwork a painting. The key is to step back and leave it alone.’
‘My approach to portraiture is simple, I much prefer my subjects to sit for me from life, but I am aware that people have busy lives, so I try to use a mixture of life, to capture the essence of the portrait, and then work from photos until I’m happy with the result. Often the painting goes very quickly at the beginning and then sits there for a few months until I’m completely happy with it. This delay also allows me to use glazing techniques to add the final nuances to the work. ‘I normally try to avoid using black in my portraits. My favourite black alternative is sepia, simply because as it is lightened it resembles a dark skin tone. I also like to try to include the hands in my portraits, because I think they can say almost as much about a person as the face.’
The driving force
With his wide variety of projects, Richard works both for himself, as he chooses, and for commissions. ‘With commissioned paintings you have people working with you to develop what they want. The best bit about that is that once you achieve these common aims you know the work will have a good home. I also exhibit as much as possible. Getting your work out there is what it’s all about. I guess the best thing about exhibiting is the positive reaction of the people – the viewers – interacting with the work.’
So what next for him? ‘A spin-off of the BP Portrait Award, involving all participants, has been organised by Cass Art in Islington, so I’ll be involved with that, and in September 2016 I had a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in the USA that gave me the time and space to develop some more exciting works.’