Wednesday, 17 August 2016

It's been six weeks or so since my last post and in that time I have been working a plein air using oil as much as possible, but also in watercolour and sketching. We have been to Exmoor twice, the second time frequently in unrelenting fog. I have met up with various friends and worked side by side with them, but mostly I have worked on my own in the Dorset landscape and by the coast. 
I realised quite early on that most of my problems came from not having sufficient experience of working alla prima in oil paint. So I  tried some closer to home stuff, the washing in the garden and a bit of still life just to get a handle on how to use the paint.  I read everything I could find online that explained the technicalities and have gradually put together a working method which is beginning to show fruit, I think. 
When I first arrive at a location, I use my camera to try out compositions, a quick snap gets rid of all the peripherals and allows me to see whether my chosen scene really has a good structure. Composition is so important, it is the skeleton on which the flesh of a painting hangs, if the composition is wrong, try as you might, you'll never have a satisfactory image. Next, in an A6 sketchbook I make a quick  tonal pencil sketch of my subject.  I sort it out into four tones. Leaving white paper for the lightest areas, I shade everything else with a  light mid tone, subsequently adding the dark mid tone and finally the dark. I may try out several compositions, keeping in mind the final proportions of the piece and whether it will have a landscape or portrait format. Time spent on the planning stage is never time wasted.
I have been painting on pieces of MDF, primed with acrylic gesso and tinted warm orange which seems to work as a good underpainting colour. I plot the large areas  with a few lines of charcoal, then knock it back to reveal a ghost of an image. 
and on to the paint.. I'm trying to discipline myself to mix all my colours before I start, but I usually forget something. However the basic principle is to lay in all the darks first, then the mid tones and finally the lights, trying hard to only work on each area of the painting once. This is harder than it seems as all colour and tone decisions have to be taken before making the mark. Inevitably I end up with areas that need to be modified and that's when the problems start. Scraping off is probably the only option and I have found a plastic glue spreader to be a suitable tool, slightly more controllable than a palette knife.  A rag tightly wrapped around the handle of a paintbrush is also useful, although I have ended up wiping off more than intended when I lost sight of the other end of the rag.
One of the things Ive noticed is that the paintings all seem to be quite dark, I think this may be due to working in bright daylight and then bringing them into a darker environment to assess. So I'm trying to keep that in mind especially with the light mid tone areas.
Here are the oils I've done so far, most have had to be tweaked in the studio as I'm not fully in control of the paint, but I hope it's coming.
Studland South beach, early evening
Cerne Abbas river, afternoon
 By the free car park in Blandford, morning
Exmoor, Beech roots on the bank
Lynton, Valley of the Rocks
 Exbridge, painted in the pub garden, evening
 Exbridge pub garden again, looking across the Exe, quick 20 mins, as we'd just ordered supper 
Washing in my garden, morning
Weymouth, morning
Weymouth, lunchtime
 Fifehead Neville Ford, evening
 Weymouth, from the bridge, morning
 Withypool, Exmoor, morning
This is the only "untweaked" one. 
Chebbard Hill, on a beautiful Sunday morning starting at about 7.30, only saw three cars in a two hour session.
West Bay, morning
West Bay, lunchtime, very quick as it started to pour with rain. 

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Third Plein Air Oil Painting

So this is my third attempt, a bit shimmery as it's still wet. I used all the bits of information I gleaned from looking at Tom Thomson's work. I worked on an orange ground, worked out my composition and pattern of tones in advance with a pencil sketch, drew the outlines carefully with a thin brush loaded with dark red, then mixed the paint to exactly the right colour on the palette before applying it. Am I happy?
Well, no, of course not. This is a boring piece of work. 
But I may know why.
In following all these new rules I've acquired I forgot my usual ones;

1. Never paint a vista, they are lovely to look at but usually end up as tedious paintings. Think hard about the composition before starting. Try to home in on a smaller area and maybe use a challenging angle of perspective.
2. Decide on the main element (s) and emphasise the changes of tone around the edges.
3.  Don't make a psychological block to the distance with strong horizontals, and even worse, a fence straight across without gap or gate (what was I thinking?).
4. If you must use green, and I suppose in current circumstances I must, push it towards blue or orange or yellow even red. I did remember this when I got down to the crop in the field directly in front of me, which was faintly blue green wheat, but I pushed it too far so it looks like water.
5. Never use a tube of green, I didn't use it neat of course but I still have some very unnatural shades in the foreground.
6. The construction of any image should be composition, tonal structure, colour, in that order.

So onward and upward, having reminded myself of my own rules and trying not to forget the Tom Thomson element. 

I've found another painter I like, Peggy Kroll Roberts, Ray Roberts & Peggi Kroll Roberts her work looks plein air although, since there are active figures, she may well be using photographic reference. The images are lively, fresh and full of light. I don't like everything she's done but there are some gems.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Still at the thinking stage

Still thinking about Tom Thomson I realise his colour palette simply will not do for Dorset in high summer. I am going to have to work with greens. My most unfavorite colour.
Meanwhile here are some sketchbook watercolour studies done earlier this year. These take the form of an illustrated journal, although more illustration than journal. They are not intended for exhibition and not really to inform future paintings, just memories of time and place.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Learning to really paint.

I haven't blogged for four years, but this summer, 2016,  I've set myself a task, and I think it would be helpful to document my progress.
Over the last couple of years I've thought more about getting out of the studio and working in the open air, making a direct response to the scene in front of me.
Last summer I worked in acrylic in Weymouth and West Bay and in the gardens at Moreton and I've always used watercolour to record directly, but I don't know how to paint, plein air, in oils.
It seems to me to be a completely different and scary  way of working. I use oil paint all the time in the studio, but the painting develops slowly, layers are left to dry and new modifying layers worked over the top. It takes weeks to produce a piece I'm pleased with. How can it be possible to apply the paint in such a way that it's all wet at once and doesn't get mixed up?
My first attempt, a tree on Exmoor isn't too bad, it's a bit boring, there are no real dark places, the composition is poor, but I have got separate areas of paint, there are mid tones and light areas.
My second attempt in Weymouth is so appalling I wipe it off the board before I have a chance to photograph it. The colours are muddy, no definition. What to do?
I study a couple of "how to" books. The one thing all the examples have in common is that the composition is drawn in with pencil before starting. This is totally alien, I never draw for acrylic or watercolour work, just modify as I go along but, of course, that's wet paint over dry. This can't be done that way. But I also don't like the work, it's too close to reality.
So I go online and look for plein air painters who are producing work that I like. I find Robin Leonard, painting in Cornwall, a wonderfully loose style, I think a palette knife is involved in a lot of them, really economical with detail. This is just what I want to do.  And then, of course, there's Tom Thomson painting in Canada just after the turn of the last century. I saw a beautiful exhibition in Dulwich Picture Gallery a couple of years ago which featured his wonderful, crisp, strongly coloured little paintings of the Canadian Wilderness. This is what I want to do too. Looking carefully at Tom
Thomson's paintings, I can see he uses various coloured grounds and sketches the composition with a fine brush and dark colour before applying areas of premixed paint. Each part appears to be only painted once, so all the tonal and colour decisions are taken before putting the paint on the board. Very little subsequent modification is possible.
I think it will help to have a small sketchbook and work out the composition and tonal structure before getting going with colour, a hard set of new rules to learn.
I will post my progress.
Exmoor Beech, Oil on board, 30 x 30 cm