Monday 17 September 2012

Drawing is Understanding

'It is often said that Leonardo drew so well because he knew about things; it is truer to say that he knew about things because he drew so well' - Kenneth Clark

Friday 14 September 2012

A Gentler Solution for Washing Oil Painting Brushes

To reduce the amount of turps you need (or cut it out altogether!), try using liquid woolwash with eucalyptus oil to wash your brushes. This is also a strong, yet gentle alternative for other brushes, though you won't need as much. I find it conditions my brushes, keeping them soft, and I can reshape them easy.

Monday 10 September 2012


Painting vs. Drawing

One question that students often ask me is why they need to learn drawing when they want to paint. The main reason for this is that black-and-white drawing will teach you most of what you need to learn about painting - form and direction, light and shade, perspective, positive and negative space, foreshortening, composition, anatomy, character, texture and detail. It will give you hand control and eye-hand coordination. It will also give you observation practise and critical evaluation skills, which further teaches you how to see and correct your own mistakes.

And it will do all of this without colour (hue). That is an advantage in that colour has its own complex rules, so that is one less thing to worry about. But in the overall scheme of a painting, colour is a small part of believability. When trying to convince your audience that your subject matter is real, getting the form right (through tone, direction, perspective etc) far outweighs the importance of getting the colour right. Colour changes rapidly and often, through movement, light, shadow or the presence of other objects. We recognise the object through all of these changes because the form stays the same. If we convey the form believably, we have our audience.

In fact, colour can distract us away from form. It can dilute the all-important tones and tonal changes that create the illusion of form. We can get so caught up in trying to make a vase a beautiful orange that we forget to make it round, shaded, highlighted, full, heavy and reflective. Learning to convey these subject qualities without colour means that you learn their importance and the skills required to achieve them. Colour can then be added to into a working system, taking its place as one quality within many.

Friday 31 August 2012

'An artist painting a picture should have at his side a man with a club to hit him over the head when the picture is finished.'  (John Singer Sargeant, 1856 - 1925)


'Draw everywhere and all the time. An artist is a sketchbook with a person attached.' (Irwin Greenberg)
'One must keep right on drawing; draw with your eyes when you cannot draw with a pencil.' (Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres)

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Keeping a Sketchbook or Ideas Book

If you don't already have the habit, I really recommend keeping a sketchbook or ideas book. It will pay you back many times over any time you spend on it.

Sketchbooks get you in an artistic frame of mind. They keep you practising which keeps you coordinated and used to seeing detail. They can also be such a relaxing thing to do. I love sitting and drawing in the garden.

You can also take notes as reference to use later:

 or to teach yourself something you find difficult. I spent a lot of time in Europe drawing statues' knees and taking notes!

You can also use them to collect things you find inspiring - photos, postcards, pictures of other people's works, magazine cuttings etc. Then you have a resource book of ideas and reference material for other works.

Sometimes they can provide providence (a sort of history of inspiration and development) for potential buyers and gallery owners. People are often fascinated by artists' sketchbook, and some galleries even have exhibitions of just sketchbooks. I love seeing the sketchbooks of my favourite artists - seeing how they work through their ideas.

One of the best uses, I think, though, is as a souvenir. They can make invaluable mementos of holidays, or children growing up, of artistic phases in your life, of the change of seasons in your garden. If you haven't been keeping one, try and find a little time to start one today.

Monday 13 August 2012

Keep it Fresh! Tips to Avoid Overworking Your Artwork

It's easy to work so hard to get a good result that you overwork your drawing or painting. Colours get muddy or they lose depth, the tonal range becomes more narrow or you lose the freshness or vision that you originally had.

There are a few tricks around this, particularly for students:

1. For paintings, spend 70% of painting time with brushes the same size or bigger than your thumb. Don't get too fiddly with small brushes - this is the surest way to make your work muddy and lose the big picture.

2. Always work from big to small. We often spend way too much time on the details, but the details are not how we orient ourselves through the world. We spend more time in the real world trying to not walk into a table than noticing the woodgrain. To convince someone of it's realism, the big structure has to be correct first.

3. Give yourself a time limit to finish the work or finish specific parts.

4. Try this technique: study your subject for 5 minutes, then draw for 5. Feel free to change or erase as you go. This can give some really interesting results.

5. Limit your palette (that is, the number of hues (colours) you use). Choose either a cool or warm palette at the beginning and stick to it (more on this later!) This includes blacks and whites. Avoid premixed tertiary hues (colours) whenever you can - make them up from your other colours. There are three reasons for this: you'll learn about colour mixing; similar colour combinations bring a sense of cohesiveness to your work (link parts of your work) and generally, the fewer colours, the fresher the work.

6. Step back to see, step forward to make marks.

7. Mix your colours on your palette, not your artwork.

7. Have a plan to blend colours or apply shading before you approach your work. Choose the direction of your strokes ahead of time and make them as efficient as possible. Strokes should show what the surface is like (the texture), and the direction the surface moves in (around, away, to the viewer, drops off sharply etc), as well as the lightness or darkness (tone) or overall colour.

8. Have an exit point planned before you start your work. In other words, have it clear in your head when your work will be finished (writing it down will help). You may like to think of it as the aim of your work, e.g. 'to create a strong, fresh floral painting.' This will help you know when your work is finished so you don't overwork it. As my favourite art teacher once told me, an artist knows when to walk away!

Friday 3 August 2012

Why You Should Buy the Best Supplies You Can Afford

1. Student paints aren't always pure. They may be labelled as 'hue' which means made to look like a pigment, but not made of that pigment. One common example is Cerulean Hue which is not made up of cerulean pigment but pthalo and white. These mixes may make a muddier, (less pure), colour or not mix how you expect them to as the properties of the other pigments, such as the white, will affect the mix.

2. Student paints can contain a shorter-lasting fixative or binding agent. They may degrade over time or even go mouldy! Some less expensive acrylics also get very plasticky, and can peel off the canvas or paper.

3. Some papers, particularly watercolour papers, contain so much rag that they absorb the paint really quickly. They don't hold detail as well or give you time to work your painting. They are also unforgiving, and will pil, (degrade), with the smallest touch. They may also need so much more paint that they become a false economy, (in other words, you save on the paper but you pay more than you saved on the paint).

4. Some papers are not pH neutral or acid-free, meaning they can discolour or leach color over time.

5. Some paintbrushes lose bristles as you work, which get left in the paint. Others come apart or rust at the ferrule or the wood swells or flakes as they age, which can also contaminate the paint.

6. Some cheaper primed canvasses aren't well folded or tight enough. If not stored properly, they can get pressure marks which can't be easily removed, (or can't be fixed at all). The frame may be badly cut, loose or uneven. Primed canvasses may not be pH neutral.

5. Cheap materials can make you work harder to accomodate them, taking longer to complete works and making the learning process that much more complex. Moreover, if you get frustrated with the problems that arise, they can stop you enjoying your art as much as you could!

Thursday 2 August 2012

Characteristics of Shadow

In reality, shadows are very rarely black or pure grey. As well as changing in line with the strength, colour and quality of the light, the characteristics of shadows change with their surroundings. The more complex the surroundings, the more complex the shadow.

Shadows are not just an absence of light. Instead of thinking of them in terms of what they are not, think of them as what they are: the addition of the qualities of the casting object(s), the qualities of the light and reflected light and the qualities of the surface that they are being cast onto. These qualities include opacity, (solidity), tone, texture and hue (colour).

Some general rules of thumb are this:
1.The stronger the light, the darker the shadow.
2. The more solid the object, the more solid the shadow is (particularly its edges).
3. The more angled the light, the longer the shadow.
4. The longer the shadow, the more it interacts with its surrounds (shows variation).
5. The more textured the cast surface, the more jagged the shadow.
6. The more reflected light, the lighter and/or more uneven the shadow.
7. The more absorbent the cast surface, the darker the shadow will be.
8. The further from the casting object, the larger and often lighter or less crisp the shadow will be (unless the light source is very strong and/ or the objects are very solid and small. You may not see any variation in a still life scene).

In terms of shadow hue, (colour), consider that in that dark tone, there is also a blend of the hues of the surface and the hues of the casting object as reflected light.

Loosen Up!

Ways to loosen up your work:

1. Watch your grip. Don't hold your pencils or brushes too tightly or close to the end. For some people, this could also mean taking a finger off your grip.
2. Exercise your wrist. Draw and paint from the wrist, not the fingers.
3. Be prepared to throw work out.
4. Try this exercise: draw, then erase some off (at least a third). Draw again, erase again, etc. This can teach you to explore your work and not get too precious about it.
5. If a part of your artwork is not working, redo on it another piece of paper. Then, once you have it right, redo on the original (or just paste it on if that suits the work).
6. Take a break. Do something fun, come back.
7. Put on/ change/ turn up the music.
8. Try drawing or painting a step further away.
9. Give yourself a time limit to make you focus on the bigger picture. Three minutes is a good limit.
10. Stretch and jiggle.
11. Trying observing 3 steps back and come forward to make the marks.

Friday 27 July 2012

Teaching Yourself to See Tone

Until they get their eye in, a lot of art students find it hard to accurately portray tonal (value) differences in their art. In other words, the darks are not dark enough, the lights are not light enough or the mids are too light, too dark or not rich enough in colour.

Even experienced artists can lapse from time to time if they don't keep a discerning eye on the tones in their work. Some artists also find that it's harder to see the full range of tones as they get older - even more reason to keep tone in mind in the creation of any artwork.

Here are some quick pointers to not only correct the tone when needed but also teach (or remind) yourself how to see tonal changes:

1. Take a piece of white cardboard, draw a long rectangle and divide it into 10 equal sections. Paint the leftmost section white, and paint the rightmost section black. Mix a small amount of white and an equal amount of black together and paint the middle section this mid-grey. Then gradually paint in lighter greys as it goes towards white and darker greys as it goes towards black. You should end up with a scale, which progresses evenly from white to black.

This is firstly a good practise exercise to get familiar with relative differences. If you like to draw, it's a great one to do with pencils. But the real use comes in when you use it to measure the tone on your subject and compare it to the tone on your artwork. You may be surprised at the difference.

2. Make a black-and-white copy of your work (e.g. by photocopying the original, a scan or a photo) and really look at the tones. Are they really representative of your subject? Do they change evenly on round objects? Are your blacks and whites pure? Sometimes colour really distorts our perception of tone, so a black-and-white version can really give you a sense of what's really going on.

3. Learn to paint using the grisaille approach- a purely tonal underpainting in only one colour (hue). This will get the tones straight in your head before you add colour (or alternatively, leave it as a study to refer to as you paint the final work).

Tone is one of the basic building blocks in representative styles of art. No matter how beautiful the strokes or finish, without this solid foundation, an artwork won't come together. Poor tones can warp and image as you walk away from it, or mean that the artwork fails to capture the viewer's attention. Moreover, incorrect tones will greatly impact on believability, in many cases, even more than proportions. Concious measurement of tone and practise using the range of tonal values is key to successful works.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

3 of the Most Common Issues in Student Works

While on a rainy day mission for art supplies today, I walked past a few students’ canvas works on display out the front of the shop. Across more than ten artists, there were three things consistently holding back the works from realism or believability – tone, colour mixing and form (shaping). These are some of the most common issues amongst all art students and can define the difference between a student and a professional.

A lot of the techniques to address these issues aren’t readily available to art students. Many books don’t cover these either because the writers don’t know, can’t explain the issues well or because they’re well guarded secrets in this competitive industry.

In a nutshell, tone means the range of lights and darks. A lot of people’s works don’t reflect the full range of tone, either because they don’t see the full range, or don’t know how to mix their colours well, creating  greys, muddy colours and blanched white colours instead of clean, strong mid and dark tones.

The most common colour mixing mistake is to mix across colour systems before having a good working knowledge of how the colours will blend. Colour mixing is a complex science, and more than I can go into at this point, however, to keep it to one rule – only mix warms with warms and cools with cools, til you have extensive experience mixing across. Make a decision early on which way you want to go and stick to it.

The third issue I saw today was form. Many students find it hard to conceptualise the objects they are painting as three-dimensional, and/or, can’t translate the three dimensions of the objects onto a two dimensional flat space. The result is flat work with a lack of believability.

Think about how our eyes work. Our eyes are set up to measure depth quickly and accurately. Every day we navigate through rooms full of furniture, around shops full of products, through hurried, unpredictable crowds or around moving trains, buses or cars. Our eyes are well trained to search for the cues that tell us where the object is located in space – how far across, how far up and how far back, (X, Y and Z axes), as well as the dimensions of the object itself - its size, depth, texture and even weight. To trick our eyes, we need to have these cues well aligned, particularly when working on a flat, two-dimensional plane.

The easiest way to tell our eyes that an object has depth is to show part of the side of that object. Avoid sharp edges as this makes the objects look flat, like a paper toile. This is particularly the case for rounded objects - rounded edges don’t end quickly in reality so don’t paint them as hard lines. To show the side, it may be necessary to adjust your objects or your point of view slightly, otherwise, smudge your edges just enough to suggest that not all parts of the object end at the front.

While this is a quick overview, most students will find that improving these three areas - tone, colour mixing and form - will have a huge impact on their work.

Friday 20 April 2012

Rainy Day Lighting Problems and Solutions for Artists

I thought of writing this post when I woke up this morning to an overcast day. It put a bit of a dampener (he he, pun intended) on my plans to go drawing in the Botanical Gardens. It’s not just the rain or wind that can affect our plans as artists, but also the change in light conditions – even for those artists who work entirely indoors. The light changes between sunny and rainy or overcast days can be dramatic and can affect the way we see our subjects' tones, colours and features, let alone how well we see the artwork we are creating.

The light on overcast days is very different to that found on sunny days. It is glaring and  more diffuse. Ambient light is reflected off a layer of low-lying clouds and direct light is diffused through the same cloud layer. I often notice on overcast days that I can’t do my usual trick of looking out the window as I work on my computer as it’s just so bright. 

This change in light conditions can have a huge impact on your work if you use natural light to illuminate or enhance your work, particularly if you are working on an artwork over a few days. Not only is it a different type of light, but because it is glaring and more diffuse, the dark tones and shadows that fall on your subject won’t be as strong. Any painting or drawing done on these days runs the risk of looking a little flatter without this depth of tone.

The easiest way to overcome this is to (lightly) cover your windows from the glare and place a bright light, such as a strong, adjustable desk lamp in front of those windows in the direction the sunlight usually comes from. Adjust the lamp’s position (or add more lamps) until your subject matches the work you have already laid down.

Dark rainy or stormy days have a different problem entirely. While lights and lamps will give off the same light as they would on a sunny day, the background light is reduced.Without this ambient light enhancing the mid and light tones, and with the dark tones the same or darker, the contrast, (the difference between light and dark), is reduced. Reduced contrast on the subject can mean that the artwork looks flat.

Some still life artists only work with covered windows or at night to avoid being at the mercy of changes in light. If cutting down the light in the room doesn’t suit your work pattern or living arrangements, your best option is to enhance the level of ambient light in the room.

You have probably noticed how overhead lights on dark days don't seem to help unless it's very dark, as the light is only from one direction and doesn't fill the surrounding area with light. So, rather than having one or two overhanging lights, a series of smaller lights regularly spaced will create a good replacement for sunnier days. The next best solution is to surround the space with bright lights, directed away from the subject. Bouncing lights off surrounding walls, particularly white walls, works a similar way to natural light within an interior. If you have a very large space to light up, you may like to try both techniques together.

Remember though that natural light is warm light. It is naturally more yellow or orange, whereas many electric lights, (most infamously fluorescents), are pure white or blue-toned. You've probably noticed the difference in how you look under a fluorescent (unflattering) light compared to a more golden (flattering) light, and the change on your subjects is the same. While you do want a bright light - that is, a strong light with high wattage - you need to look for yellow-toned or warm-toned lightbulbs or light filters.

We'll be adding a tutorial on lighting rigs soon if you want to check it out at I aim to enlist the assistance of our local animator to give us tips so it should be fairly indepth. We should be up and running within a few weeks.

10 Things for Artists to do on a Rainy day

There are a lot of things to do inside during rainy or overcast weather, even for the most hardened plein air artist! These tips also work well when you're experiencing 'artist's block'. They'll keep moving you ahead or give you the rest you need to come back refreshed...

1.    Bright, overcast (not rainy) days are the perfect days to take photographs of your work. Set up a dry, clean place outside, (or inside if you don’t want to risk the raindrops), such as an easel or a white backdrop. Unlike flash photography, you don’t need to take the photograph on an angle, even for framed work under glass. The bright, diffuse light of an overcast day is perfect for illuminating your artwork for photos.

2.    Take the opportunity to clean up your art supplies – sharpen those pencils, give your brushes a wash (and haircut if you use oils), clean your pastels or clear up your work space. This is not time wasted – the next sunny day you’ll really appreciate having everything clean and ready to go.

3.    Spend the time solving any long-standing difficulties you have. Are there certain things that you find difficult to draw or paint, such as knees, noses, shiny fabric etc? Find artwork from an artist who is good at those things and copy what they do. It doesn’t have to be in the same medium – classical statues are one of the best ways to study these difficult areas, even from a photograph. You’ll be amazed how much you can learn by seeing how another artist has dealt with the same issue.

4.    Sharpen up on the basics, like shading the basic shapes or tonal paintings. Most artists need to review these from time to time to ‘keep their eye in', and you’ll find that as you gain experience in art, the exercises which you may have found boring as an early student become more and more relevant. Tone, and how to effectively create tone and form, are the most common problems that both students and professional artists struggle with. Many don't even see that this is the aspect of their work that needs improving.

5. Start, sort or add to your reference material collection. For example, if you paint flowers, spend the day collecting pictures of flowers either to work directly from or to get ideas from. Sort and file them into categories to make them easier to find. Otherwise you can paste them into a scrapbook or pin them onto a board to inspire you!

6. Do something else creative that isn't related to your art. Often artists think that because their job is creative, they don't need another creative outlet. But if art is your income or you are training for it to be, then it is your work. You still need another hobby that doesn't have any stress or obligation attached to it. A hobby will also re-energise you ready to paint, draw or scuplt again.

7. Draw or paint your friends and family. So often we forget to draw those close to us. This can really connect you to those you love and they usually enjoy sharing something that it such a big part of you. And whatever you create will be a wonderful momento for years to come.

8. Spend the day drawing from memory or imagination. This can really re-energise your art. Let your mind and pencil wander...

9. Look up artists working in a similar style or on a similar subject matter to yourself. Collect pictures of their work and/ or sketch their work and put both together into a scrapbook of ideas and inspiration. Sometimes these can become beautiful visual diaries that you can keep or give to those close to you.

10. Create a mandala painting or a sand meditation painting to bring peace and tranquility to your inner artist.