Becoming an artist: fundamentals

 

“you need three things for paintings: the hand, the eye, and the heart.  Two won’t do.  A good eye and heart is not enough; neither is a good hand and eye”

David Hockney reflecting on the Chinese attitude to art

 

I wrote about my ‘awakening’ in moving originally from a science background and finding my way to becoming an artist since my retirement.

Art may seem to be completely different to the science I grew up with, because there appear to be no rules. But the artist and scientist do have quite a lot in common, as I discussed previously:

        • a curiosity and playfulness in exploring the world around them; 
        • ability to acutely observe the world; 
        • a fascination with patterns;
        • not afraid of failure;
        • dedication to keep going; 
        • searching for truth; 
        • deep respect for the accumulated knowledge and tools of their ‘art’; 
        • ability to experiment with new methods or innovative ways of using old methods.

The difference is that in science we ask specific questions, which can be articulated as a hypotheses that challenge the boundaries of our knowledge. Whereas in art, the question is often simply ‘How do I see, how do I frame what I see, and how do I make sense of it?’ , then, ‘How do I express this in a way that is interesting and compelling?’.

In art we do not have rules like in science, but in order to make progress, it is important to articulate guidelines, or fundamental principles if you like.

My starting point is a desire to create representational art, but including impressionistic styles, and even abstractions. I am not interested in trying to create a perfect copy of a scene, because as I often say, if that was my objective I would use a camera, not a paint brush.

This is not about being lazy and not wanting to create all that perfect detail, but rather to highlight the fact that a painting is doing a completely different job to a photograph; it is an expression not a record.

This is the second essay in a series I am writing on Becoming an artist, and I want to turn to the fundamentals.

The fundamental principles can be loosely grouped under the following headings:

  • Heart – learning to develop one’s creative impulse;
  • Eye – learning to observe as an artist does;
  • Hand – learning general techniques applicable to any medium.

I cover just those principles that I have internalised particularly over the last few years as a student of Alison Vickery, my mentor on this journey.

I haven’t read Hockney’s reflections on the Chinese artist tradition, but it is curious that I independently – in my first draft of this essay – came up with Practice, Observation and Technique. It was Alison who suggested it fitted well with the Chinese approach that Hockney espouses, so I changed the headings to Heart, Eye and Hand. Maybe these really are universals that any student of painting, from any culture, will recognise on reflection.

I am always questioning things “why do you do that?” or “how do you do that?”, and then trying to find the why behind the why. 

Alison has never written down this list, this is my appreciation of the lessons I have learned, and I am sure I will have missed some important elements out, or presented things differently to how a professional artist like her would articulate things. 

I am sharing my journey and the ideas that have helped me, and so feel free to use and abuse these ideas in your journey.

Heart

The emotional side of painting is in many ways the most important. When you feel free to express yourself in the way you want, you are, by definition, an artist. 

While you try to be someone else and to follows somebody else’s standards of what you think you should be and do, then you will struggle to find your voice, and your language for expression. 

Under the heading of ‘Heart’ I highlight the things that most influenced me in finding my voice, which includes aspects of expressiveness.

Loosen up

In sport you need to do a warm up, and in art it is also important to free up any tension in your mind or body.  Try to start a session on a cheap piece of paper first (so you won’t stress about ‘wasting’ an expensive piece of art paper).

Even when doing a piece of work you wish to develop, you still need to be bold and work fast, initially at least, and avoiding tightening up.

Start with the biggest brush you can get away with, hold it loose not tightly.  When you start painting, avoid fine brushes altogether; they will kill your ability to work loose.

For watercolour, try starting with a size 12 brush  – a decent quality one that will hold a lot of pigment but still make a point.

Loosen up. Make mistakes, they may be happy ones.

Work the whole area

The opposite extreme would be to start painting in the bottom left and work your way up to the top right, or for Michelangelo to carve out the perfect head of the David before moving on to doing his willy! No, as with a sculptor, you must ‘chip away’ all over the subject in broad bold strokes.

As you move to less bold and more detailed strokes, still keep working all areas of the ‘canvas’.

A huge benefit of this approach is that you will being to see things that influence how you develop the painting. Maybe you had a preconception of how you wanted to develop it, but you can now see how to make it better.

Don’t be afraid of white space

Working every areas of the paper is not the same as covering every area with paint – it is ok and actually desirable to leave areas of white space (or whatever the background colour might be). You need the light to get in.

White might be used to suggest light falling on a subject; a painted tree might be dark on one side where there is shadow, and white on the other, suggesting light from the sun.

This is particularly important with a medium like watercolour, where you need to compensate for an inherent difficulty in creating good contrast, and the white space can help to achieve it.

Use sketches and studies

As part of trying to get to know the scene better, do several quick sketches or studies, maybe starting with a charcoal drawing, then a very quick watercolour. Give yourself a short time just to produce something. Use cheap paper again.

Perhaps tear off bits of paper and see how it changes your perspective on things.

Mess around. Don’t self censor. Just go for it. 

If you create something that you think ‘that looks interesting’, then cut it out and paste it into an art journal, and add some written side notes “I wetted the paper and dropped in a swathe of cobalt blue, then dabbed it with kitchen towel to create a cloud”. Build up an inventory of such experiments.

Play with composition

After doing an initial sketch of a scene, you can use a ‘window’ cut out of card (with the required aspect ratio for the final painting), placed at different distances from the sketch, and use it to see how much you want to include in the final piece.

Maybe you decide that the house in the foreground is a distraction from the copse on the hillside which is what you really want to be the main focus in the composition.

Learn when to stop

Picasso once said that a finished painting is a dead painting.

It is so easy to over-work a painting, so learning where that inflexion point occurs – between improving a piece and killing it – is perhaps the most difficult skill of all.

Always err on being slightly underdone to overdone.

Eye

Painting is not photography. You are not trying to replicate what a camera would see. 

You are creating an impression that speaks to you (and you hope, will speak to others, but that is a bonus). While the work is representational, that does not mean you cannot be impressionistic.

You can decide to remove the annoying road sign that is upsetting the composition; make the clouds more moody; or whatever you care to. But it is important to learn to observe. Having a good eye is as important as having a good brush!

Paint what catches your eye or interests you

It might be the shape of a tree that intrigues you, or the curve of a river, or the curious shape of a cloud, or the tree line on a brow of a hill. Whatever it is, it is a great subject for you, because you are emotionally invested in it.

Learn to be acutely observant

How much time are you spending looking at the paper, and your brush strokes and how much time observing the subject matter? As a novice it is often a 80/20 split in time, when if anything it should be a 20/80 split.

The more you look, the more you see. The brain is telling you that the grass is green, but look closely and in the evening sunlight there seems to be some blue grass in the shadows of the tree – impossible? No, trust what you see.

The light from the window makes the shoulder of the sitter look almost white, but how can that be – they are wearing a black jacket. Look again, trust what you see.

Even if you don’t particularly like drawing, it is worth having a go, because it is another way to help develop one’s observational skills.

Think tonally

It is so easy to become obsessed with finding the right colour to use, but much more important than colour is tone.

Seeing the dark patches lurking in the depth of the wood, and noting that even on the apparently uniformly yellow daffodil there are shades and shadows, that help create a sense of volume; these are example of being tonally observant.

Having a good tonal range can really bring a painting to life.

Doing charcoal studies can really help to develop a sense of tone, unencumbered by considerations of colour.

When preparing to compose a picture, establishing the tonal range of the scene or subject is one of the most important things you can do.

Hard and soft edges

Often we feel compelled to paint or draw a hard edge because our brain says ‘there is a vase there, so I will draw around it’. Look more carefully and the brightly lit side of the vase blends in with the brightly lit background, creating a soft barely discernible edge. Resist drawing what you cannot see!

Look through someone else’s eyes

Take time out to step back, get a sup of tea, and then imagine you are someone else viewing the painting for the first time.

Does it grab you? Have you resolved the different elements of the composition? Have you established a focal point that draws the viewer in?

Look out for symmetry

Humans seem to like patterns in nature and one of the most universal patterns is simple bilateral symmetry – the kind created by the reflection of a scene in a body of water (with a horizontal line of symmetry), or created by the centre line of a tree  (with a vertical line of symmetry).

It can really help draw in the viewer to exploit the symmetries we see around us, in our paintings.

Background

A background may naturally present itself, as in a landscape, but in a studio, doing a still life for example, there may be a white wall behind the subject and little else. To avoid a painting looking flat, it is helpful to create a background, even where none exists. Maybe some imagined shadows or some texture on a wall will help.

Think about how a background might enhance the composition. It is so easy to get lost in a subject in a foreground, and forget how important a background can be in developing a composition.

Hand

Most, but not all, of the techniques described below are applicable to any of the painting mediums I have in mind: charcoal, pastel, watercolour, ink and acrylic. 

Later essays will focus on techniques specific to each medium. There are hundred of different techniques and ‘tricks of the trade’ out there. You will never stop learning new ones, but it is easy to get overwhelmed. I have included here the ones I feel are most important, at least to me.

Experiment with mark making

Try using different shaped brush heads, and other tools to create marks on a page.

We cannot all be Van Gogh who created his own brilliant style of mark making, but we can all just have a play.

To illustrate this, think about how you might paint a branch of a tree. You could use a classical pointed watercolour brush and carefully follow a line to mark out the branch. But you might struggle to control the thickness of the branch.

Alternatively, you could use a very wide headed flat brush to create the branch with a single dab of the brush.

Use brushes of different shapes and sizes, twigs, bunched up cloth, sponges, palette knives, or whatever; depending on the medium.

There are no rules with mark making – only that you approach it with confidence – so best to just try out as many variations as you can. Find out what works for you.

Play with negative spaces

A brightly lit vase on a table with a dark background might be approached first by painting the dark background – the vase will appear out of the darkness.

This idea can we be used in different ways, even when doing a simple sketch. Wainwright’s pencil drawings of the Cumbrian hills often include sheep, brightly lit from above. So instead of outlining the back of a sheep, he drew the grassland in the background; a sheep then appears as the negative of the grassland.

Use layering / glazes

When a medium is translucent or thinly enough applied to effectively be so, one can build up multiple layers to create a desired effect. 

In some cases – particularly with pastels – the painting may need to be fixed before proceeding further to avoid muddying the colours.

Surprisingly, even when using a medium as basic as charcoal, it is good to think in terms of layering.

With watercolour, glazes can help to develop depth.

Just as an old piece of furniture develops a patina, a painting can also develop a sense of complexity from multiple glazes.

Thin and thick

In any medium, it is normally best to start thin and only later to use a thicker form of the medium.

In acrylics, this is very important (in oils also, but I won’t be discussing oils in this series); using a more diluted medium at first. But the same applies to watercolours where one starts with light washes on the wet side, and only later might use some gouache on the drier side for some highlights.

The idea applies to pastel painting also. You should use light strokes with the side of a pastel stick at first.

Minimal palette 

Try when working in colour to use a minimal palette. Primary colours and white at a minimum.

It is a great discipline to learn how to make one’s own greens, browns and greys. With 2 yellows and 2 or 3 blues you can make a huge range of greens, for example.  As with all rules, you may want sometimes to break this rule; a ‘sap green’ can be difficult to replicate and is useful for bright foliage.

By using a small palette it makes it easier to tie the painting together, chromatically.

One can always add a few additional hues to finish a painting.

Knocking back

Sometimes a pigment is too bright for the current situation, such as on a grey day in winter. By adding a little of the complementary colour (on the opposite side of a colour wheel), it dulls the intensity of the pigment you are going to use.

With watercolour you can also, of course, reduce the hue intensity by adding white gouache.

Use of resist mediums

A ‘resist’ medium is something you can place on the paper (or canvas, or board) that will not absorb the pigment being applied to the surface. This can be for a range of reasons.

A masking fluid can be used to precisely cover a shape that must remain white in the final piece, or at least, not be covered by whatever is about to be painted over the medium. The fluid must dry fully then be removed by rolling a finger over it. This is ideal, for example, for snowdrop flowers.

The other kinds of resist medium tend to be ones that are used to cover a line or area and remain in place. For example, wax or a clear oil pastel crayon. These can be used to create texture – when wanting to create some extra effects in clouds, or in some landscape or on a building. 

Alternatively, resist might be used to suggest gaps between trees or foreground grasses, or some other effect where you don’t want the background (usually white, but not necessarily so) painted over.

Wet and dry

Particularly with watercolour but also with acrylics, the amount of water used when applying pigment can have a big impact on the picture. There is frequently a benefit to starting quite wet and allowing pigment to flow a bit. This avoids getting hard edges too early in a painting’s development. You can also just drop in other pigments and just see what happens.

You may need to use a hairdryer at some point to allow you to move onto a new wash or glaze / layer.

Later on, it may be you need to do some relatively dry work, dragging a relatively dry and lightly loaded brush – without completely covered the area – in order to deliberately generate striations. In a watercolour, this might be done with water colour pigment added to white gouache, for example.

Dabbing, rubbing and scraping

Sometimes, it is useful to be able to partially remove medium in order to create a necessary effect.

When doing a charcoal sketch, the rubber is as important as the charcoal in building up a patina to develop the image.

In watercolour, a paper towel can be all one needs to instantly create a cloud in a sea of blue that has just be painted.

For acrylic, scraping an upper layer of pigment away – before it has completely dried – to reveal pigment below can be used in number ways, such as helping to suggest a line of trees on the ridge of a hill.

Flicking and spraying

No one wants to paint every leaf on a tree and there is no need to. Look at a tree painted by Turner or Constable and you will see a fair number of brush strokes for foreground trees, to give the impression of detail, without excessive labour, but only broad strokes for distant trees.

Modern painters will often use an additional technique of flicking or spraying pigment to suggest the necessary complexity of the foliage. It can be repeated for different hues to create additional complexity.

Flicking of white gouache, slightly diluted can be used to help suggest the froth of a breaking wave, for example.

It is useful to have a cheap brush with quite stiff bristles (such as one might use for applying PVA in collage; if not available, an old toothbrush will also do the trick), as this allows one to do flicking by merely stroking the bristles (rather than using the wrist), giving much greater control.

Consider the interplay of simplicity and complexity

As we have seen with use of layering, resist and flicking techniques, there are several ways in which to develop complexity, and the human eye is intrigued by complexity. 

That is why we prefer to look at a rusty corrugated tin roof to one that is pristine and uniform. Yet we also like simplicity. A perfectly  rendered blue sky, a flat sea and a wide sandy beach – with just a small sailing boat in the distance – brings a sense of calm.

In developing an idea for a painting we can observe this interplay of complexity and simplicity in the world around us, and then decide how we might render it.

Consider the interplay between precision and imprecision

The painter must choose where to put effort into developing detail.

Typically, the subject is given more attention and other elements of the composition are allowed to be imprecise. A photographer, when doing a portrait amongst a landscape, will often use depth of field to make the background loose focus, and in a way so is the painter, but with greater freedom to emphasise or play with this imprecision. 

It may be that one needs the woodland on the distant hill to frame the picture of the family by the river, but the trick is to be very imprecise in how it is rendered – less is often very much more.

Choice of paper or other surface

There is a bewildering array of different surfaces to paint on. 

Papers can come in different weights and also levels of roughness of the surface.

Pastels require some grain on the surface to ‘take’ the pastel. Watercolour paper can be smooth or mottled and it depends a great deal on how wet you want to work, and whether you find the texture a help or a hinderance.

You will learn about stretching paper, and about priming paper or board with gesso. 

For any single sheet of paper, you need a board and masking tape to secure it to the board. Whether you need an easel or not depends on how you end up working. Some artists work so ‘wet’ they need to use a flat surface to work on with the ability to raise one side to cause the medium to flow; this is a long way from the classic image of an old master with the canvas on an easel.

Ensure you have some cheap cartridge paper you can experiment with, so you don’t get frozen by the thought that ‘this board is so expensive I better make this one a masterpiece!’. 

It can also help to have a range of sizes, so try doing small watercolour pieces, before migrating to larger formats. It is quicker to get a result and also takes the pressure off you.

Whereas for charcoal, you generally need to work on a bigger piece of paper straight away; but a relatively low cost large format ring-bound sketch book (around A3 size) is fine for this purpose.

Mixed media

In truth, many painting use mixed media, although some more obviously than others.

For example, a watercolour may use a number of other media:

    • pens to resolve some features (but best used sparingly), such as railings;
    • inks to help develop greater tonal depth;
    • gouache to finish a piece with greater colour intensity, for flicking effects or for white highlights;
    • pastels to help develop a light glaze of texture – for foliage or other features – as a finish.

There are also numerous special materials that can be tried, such as liquid pencil, to create effects.

But there is no obligation to throw everything at a painting, and it can be easy to get carried away with mixing media.

A great artist like Kurt Jackson has developed his own brilliant style – a vocabulary that is special to him – and his use of mixed media feels unforced and natural.

It is always best to start simple and work on adding ingredients over time, as and when they come naturally to you, rather than merely including them to try to emulate Kurt.

Conclusion

These fundamentals are the things I have internalised from an intensive three years of learning to become an artist, with the help principally of my mentor Alison Vickery, but also some other helpers along the way.

In the following essays, I want to show how these fundamental are reflected in sketches, studies and a few developed pieces I will share, from my endeavours.

I often forget these principles, catching myself in an act of regression, and then have to remind myself. Alison’s voice is often in my head …

‘paint what interests you’

‘don’t get too fiddly’

‘work the whole area’

‘stop right there!’

‘put down the pencil’

‘is the tonal range ok?’

‘loosen up’

I call them “Alison’s Aphorisms”.

It takes years to internalise the fundamentals of being an artist, and even then, so easy to get carried away and still fall flat on one’s face.

Equally, as time goes by nice surprises happen. 

You find that you ‘accidentally’ created something quite good, and you scratch your head and ask ‘How did I manage that?’. 

Don’t be surprised, you are becoming an artist!

Gradually, the better stuff happens more frequently and the not so great become less frequent. The art folder gets fatter and the dustbin less full of discarded pieces.

But everything you do provides a learning moment. Keep some of the not so great paintings to remind yourself of how far you have travelled.

Keep asking questions; it worked for me when I was a scientist and as a consultant, and it is something I continue to do as an artist.

Keep experimenting, and keep asking questions.

Making mistakes is fine, because that is the only way to learn.

 

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2020

Next essay in this series will be Becoming an artist: sketchbooks

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