Here are a few details from the sheep painting I’ve been working on (see work-in-progress photos), as well as an overall photo. It’s now at the “don’t fiddle with it” stage, put to one side where I can see it but not to be touched unless I’m going to do something very specific. I particularly like the texture* on the sheep, which catches the light at certain angles.
These four photos show this painting-in-progress I was working on yesterday.
Photo 1: Though you can’t see it in the photo, the sheep in the foreground and the cliffs in the distance had been ‘sketched’ in with texture paste, which is why I had put down colour on the sky, hills, and sea only. This having now dried, I started by adding yellow to the foreground, knowing the blue under this would show through, shifting it towards green. I applied the yellow directly to the canvas, then used a brush dipped in clean water and then some glazing medium to spread it around.
Photo 2: Without cleaning the yellow from my brush, I picked up some blue from my palette and let this run down, creating green. I added dark (perylene green) for the sheeps’ heads and legs, and applied a little to the distant hill. Then I started adding white for the sheeps’ wool.
Photo 3: I’ve added more colour to both the foreground and the distant hills. Permanent rose mixed with the leftover blueish colour on my brush/palette, giving a range of pink-purples, suitable heather colour. Then another round of white added to the sheep.
Photo 4: I’ve applied more dark to the faces (running the brush along the texture of the horns), and greens to the background. This wasn’t tube green, but created by mixing quinacridone gold with leftovers on my palette. Now it needs to dry completely before another round, which I’m hoping will get me to the “is it finished yet?” stage.
Last year  I painted almost nothing but flowers to accustom myself to a colour other than grey, that’s to say pink, soft or bright green, light blue, violet, yellow, orange, fine red. And when I painted landscape in Asnières this summer I saw more colour in it than before.”
– Vincent van Gogh, letter from Paris to his sister Willemien, October 1887
Looking at the daffodils in the sunshine this spring, all the different yellows, I’ve found myself thinking about that quote attributed to Picasso about “they’ll sell you thousands of greens but never the particular green you’re after”. The yellows of the same daffodil change as the sun shifts, as the light falls on different parts, as shadows move, blooms open and fade.
To paint them I feel as if I need to dig out every yellow, blue and green I’ve got along with some reds and oranges. The temptation will be procrastinating into colour mixing. The way around this is to mix on the canvas not my palette. I may still get distracted by colour, but can all form part of a layer in a painting.
Vincent van Gogh’s various paintings of cut sunflowers in a vase (e.g. Sunflowers 1888) are probably his best-known flower paintings, but he also painted growing flowers, such as these irises. I enjoy not only his use of colour and mark making, but the way he makes flowers fill the whole composition and flattens the depth of field (an influence from Japanese art on him). A floral colour field, to apply a concept from a few decades later, and another influence on my painting, Rothko.
Other examples: Long Grass with Butterflies in the National Gallery, London, Ears of Wheat and Butterflies and Poppies in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Tree Trunks in Grass in the Kröller-Müller Museum. If you search using “field” or “garden” or “blossom” rather than “flower” (along with “Van Gogh painting”) you’ll find photos more easily.
Given Monday’s Motivator to Keep Striving, I thought I’d share work-in-progress photos of one of the paintings I’ve been working on this week, one that’s been testing my resilience. Wildflowers are something that have bounced around my mind’s eye for some time, but a subject I’ve not translated into paint much. Listening to Trees was the first time I painted foxgloves to my satisfaction. My idea with this painting was for it to echo my forest paintings, but be only flowers. It’s a large canvas, 1×1 metre (about 39×39 inches).
The first photo shows where the painting was when I downed brushes yesterday. To my mind, very much still a work-in-progress that lacked oomph. It needed more tonal contrast, a stronger sense of sunlight, pinker foxgloves. The last thing I had done was to add a stronger dark tone using a mixture of Prussian blue, burnt umber, and perylene green. It was a bit streaky but once dry my plan was to do something similar with some “sunlight” and “blue sky”, then reassess.
How long would this take? Would it work? Doing it is the only way to know. I might make it worse, but ultimately that’s irrelevant as it’s not right now anyway.
Awake at four this morning thinking about this painting, I headed back into my studio to give it another go. I dug out some fluid medium, cadmium yellow, phthalo blue, and titanium white, then played around with very fluid paint and gravity. This photo shows where the painting is now. I like it more — it’s less static — but will reassess once it’s daylight. Studio cat seemed to approve though.
If you’re to keep yourself interested in and stimulated by your painting, how do you combat routine and monotony? How do you get from blank canvas to “the interesting and challenging bit” without being bored?
1. Work Faster
Get through the initial blocking in of colour in as little time as possible. Use a bigger brush, paint faster. Focus on what you’re doing but also think about what you’ll be doing next.
Don’t always paint the same size, on the same surface, or with the same medium. Add texture, use a brush that leaves strong marks.
3. Paint in Series
Investigate a subject in depth, don’t only do the one impression of a scene, but look to vary the lighting, the viewpoint, the style and the focus.
4. Add a Colour
If you fear monotony, then introduce a small segment of unusual colour to the painting. This will give the art work a bit of omph, and may well highlight where, in the rest of the painting, you are loosing interest.
5. Change Your Hand
Hold your brush in your other hand (the “wrong” hand). It will get you thinking more about the physical process of painting (because it doesn’t come so automatically), and free up that part of the mind which is worrying about aesthetics. Step back after a while and consider the painting from a distance, some of it will feel new and fresh for the simple reason that you mind has been concentrating on other things.
6. Swap Subjects
Whatever your ‘usual’ subject is — still life, landscape, wildlife — there’s no reason you have to paint only this. It is feasible to be successful painting more than one subject, whether you’re swapping between them or evolving from one to another. (As an example, take a look at the paintings of South African artist Peter Pharoah, who paints wildlife, abstracts, and figures.) If what you’re doing is feeling stale to you, the artist, what do you think the audience is going to feel?
7. Consider the Alternatives
Remember, you could have become a [insert: whatever you regard as the most dull of careers]. Now, doesn’t painting seem so much more exciting and fulfilling?
“It is the only point of getting up in the morning: to paint… to make something even better than before, not to give up…”
“If I knew exactly what I was going to paint in the next minute why would I want to do that?”
– Lucian Freud, quoted in Breakfast with Freud by Geordie Greig, page 10 & page 213
Not knowing exactly what you’re going to do next isn’t the same as not having a good idea of what you’re going to do next. It leaves room for possibilities and change, for letting the painting and subject suggest things to you and responding rather than sticking rigidly to a path determined before you picked up the brush.
If you do have a specific thought about what you’re going to do but then the painting suggests something else, follow it to see where to leads. You can always go back to what you’re originally thought to do (writing a note in a sketchbook helps remembering what it was!).
Some artists didactically insist black should not be used in a painting, often supported by the argument that the Impressionists didn’t. Do you ever hear it said about any other colour?
If you wouldn’t use black to darken a colour, then perhaps using white to lighten it shouldn’t be automatic either? The main problem is few colours are light in tone (though some do come in “light” and “dark” versions). You might lighten a red with a bit of yellow, but how would you lighten a yellow?
I think where “don’t use white” should be considered is when you’re working with the lightest tones on a painting. Don’t automatically use pure white, use very pale yellow, blue, red, green, purple first. Take a look at Monet’s snow paintings to see what interesting colours “white snow” can be (for example Lavacourt under Snow in the National Gallery in London).
A monoprint I made a few years ago has pale blue that seems lighter than the white of the paper (the top one in the photo). I think it’s the coolness of the blue that does this, against the warm white of the paper.
“… indigo with terra sienna, Prussian blue with burnt sienna actually produce much deeper tones even than pure black. What I sometimes think when I hear people saying ‘there is no black in nature’ is — there doesn’t have to be any black in paint either.”
– Vincent van Gogh, letter to his brother Theo van Gogh. June 1884
Talking to another local artist about the differences and similarities between our paintings, one thing that came up was her use of black. Often strongly as one of the final layers on a painting; thinly glazed in places, quite opaque in others. This layer is not mixed with colours, it’s embracing black as a pure colour. It’s striking and dramatic.
I tend to work with a mixed black, and to invite ‘happy accidents’ by not being meticulous in mixing the colours together so that occasionally I’ve suddenly got a bit of blue (or red or green or whatever else is in there), emerging beneath my brush or knife.
It’s a choice of style and working method. Neither is better. Explore both, feel which you prefer; it may even be it’s not an either/or for you.
This is part of a comment in response to Never Moving Beyond Liking the Idea of Being Creative:
“My goodness this hit a really raw nerve…! I so so soo want to paint. …But I never ever start. Why? I can’t draw/paint. Of course I’ve always desperately longed to. Can’t afford classes. And if I just ‘go for it’? Well, just what was said… I will be so upset if it’s a heap of rubbish.” — Jax
We need to permit ourselves the time to learn (and onlookers need to give us time too). Remember how many years it took you to learn to read and write fluently? Art is not instinctive like breathing, or inherited species memory like running from fire. It’s a learnt skill. It takes time to acquire. Time that’s hard to give ourselves.
Set aside the time as if you were going to a class and never skip a week. With a pencil and sketchbook work your way systematically and thoroughly through a good how-to book. Every week, as if you were paying to spend this time.
I recommend wildlife and botanical artist’s Katie Lee‘s book Fundamental Graphite Techniques — it’s practical, thorough, lacks arty-farty gobbledygook, and full of exercises to do. Katie’s a friend, and it’s her voice I hear in my head when I’m being too heavy-handed with a pencil (“layers of tone, Marion, not pressure”).
Don’t tear pages out of the sketchbook, keep every attempt, the good, bad and ugly. Week after week. Permit yourself the time. It’s the only way.