Big November Update
It's been a little over three weeks since the last update, and you know what that means - lots of new paintings.
The series of tonal studies is gathering pace. One more red and blue still life exercise, followed by a pretty awful full colour painting which came out so bad I did it twice, and seven tonal studies in raw umber and flake white, all hot off the easel and live on the site.
The more I work with tone, the more I'm convinced that it's been, without me realising it, the single biggest problem in all my paintings so far. I'm also beginning to think that tone is the key to getting to the next level with these paintings. The series of still life drawings has taught me a new way to approach tone. Instead of trying to literally translate what I see, I'm accepting now that my available tonal range is limited, and that the best way to compensate for that is to preserve the ratios between the main tonal blocks in the paintings. 'Epiphany' is the only word that comes close. I can see the results of it in everything I've done since I came to this realisation. Of course, there are still ups and downs, it's never a straight line and there's always the danger that a loss of concentration will produce an ungodly mess, but when I get it right it makes a difference to the work.
Releasing myself from the need to try and match exactly what I see has also given me the freedom to start taking liberties with the pictures. I would say that I'm more concerned now with making a good picture than I am with producing a faithful reproduction of reality. I was always concerned with that to an extent, but deliberately not painting exactly what I see has opened the door to other possibilities. I think about the composition more now. And I try to treat the edges in a way which makes sense for the picture - harder, sharper edges for focal points and for close objects, softer edges for objects which are further away or where the edge moves into shadow. I learned the importance of edges from Harold Speed. His book on painting, although written in the 1920's, is probably the best practical book I've ever read on painting, and has changed not only the technical aspects of how I put the paint on the panel, but also how I think about painting as a whole. Get a copy. It's £6 from Amazon, so you can afford to get it just to disagree with him if you want.
But I should clarify here a bit. I'm still very concerned with producing an honest representation of what I see. It's just that I'm now thinking that changes must be made in order to make a convincing picture, in order to deal with the limitations of oil paint. I also want to make pictures that live, and I have a growing feeling that sometimes that means moving deliberately away from what I see to an extent. But I'm by no means sure at this stage about how far away is too far. I guess I just have to trust my eye and to experience on that one.
On to the paintings.
First up is the third and last blue-red tonal study. This one had a slightly more complex subject, with a red, a blue and a yellow object included, in order to force me to translate some higher chroma colours into tone. The red and blue versions went ok, both being done on the same day, so I thought it would be a nice idea to do this one as a full colour piece before I started on the series of raw umber and white monochrome tonal studies.
And that's when the trouble started.
I spent a day on the first go at the colour version, with quite disastrous results. The tomato, with it's high chroma, threw me entirely. The composition was off. Nothing worked. I beat my head against the painting all day, one moment thinking it was going well, the next thinking it was falling apart. But then I committed the sin of sins: after the light had gone, under the dim glow of a standard 40 watt bulb, I reworked the painting. Anyone who's ever tried this knows what a bad idea it is. Apart from the fact that you can't really see properly, all the colours are completely thrown out by the yellow of the light. It wasn't until the next morning, when I saw the painting in daylight, that I realised what a mess I'd made. I didn't paint for five days. The following weekend, I roused myself and had another go at the same set up, with slightly better results. Then I quickly moved on, trying to look as nonchalant as possible and pretending that nothing had happened.
The first of the raw umber and white tone studies was a reprise of one of the still life drawings, and went pretty well, considering the disaster that I was on the rebound from. In fact, all the paintings from this series grew out of the still life drawings in one way or another. Although this one came out reasonably well, there were some big mistakes in the relationships between the tones, which took me a couple more paintings to sort out.
I liked the composition of this one, but unfortunately made some more mistakes which stopped it from being the painting it might have been. The first mistake was getting tied up in details too soon, before I had all the tone blocks in and could see how they would relate. That meant that I had to repaint pretty much the whole thing in the last hour of failing daylight, with the result that, like the last one, the final painting has some pretty big mistakes in the tones. The objects, the lemon and the bowl, are just too light. I enjoyed painting it anyway though, and resolved to use a more deliberate process of building up the painting on the next one.
Day three, Wednesday, and I started to get it together. This one was approached by laying in all the tonal blocks first, tweaking them to make sure that they were working together, before going on to the edges, tightening up the drawing, and adding some detail. This study is rough, and crudely painted, but I don't mind because I did a much better job of the tones. I think I was starting to settle in and make a bit of progress at this point.
Day four, Thursday. This is my favourite of the small studies. Although a small and simple composition, there was quite enough for me to deal with, and I think that the handling of the paint improved a little with this one. I'm starting to realise that the surface texture of an object can be at least partially shown by the tone, because the tone shows how it reflects the light, and how it reflects the light is dependant on it's surface texture.
Friday saw the fifth in a row, and was a slightly more complex set up. This glass came directly from the series of still life drawings, I love the way the light cuts through the cast shadow. I added the wooden block because of the simplicity of the planes, the clear tones. I thought it might give me something concrete and simple to base the tone relationships on.
Saturday saw the sixth and last of this batch, and I challenged myself with a backlit subject. Backlighting, although very nice, has been my downfall on more than one occasion. Although this one was a bit of a struggle, it pulled through in the end. The drawing is very bad, but the tones work nicely.
After all that painting I felt the need to get out of my cramped back room studio, so after an all day ride to Devil's Dike on Sunday, I returned to the easel on Monday this week for a new painting, a larger tonal still life of a duck egg and some other assorted bits and bobs.
This one took three days, and had more time spent on the finish. For once, I wanted to bring a painting up to a more finished state without it falling apart on me. I saw this one as kind of a litmus test for the approach I was using on the last few of the small studies. I think it came out ok.
For the first time since I started painting again last year, I feel like I'm starting to make some real progress now. I can't help thinking that if I'd concentrated on tone back when I first started, instead of spending all that time obsessively trying to match the colours I saw, I would be a good bit further on now. But that's the price you pay for teaching yourself. You get there eventually, it just takes that little bit longer. On the upside, the lessons I've learned have been hard won through experience, through a lot of disappointing paintings, and because of that, those lessons are more thoroughly learned. Also, I must admit, I do get a certain sense of satisfaction from knowing that I've got this far on my own, that I haven't let the numerous disappointments stop me for any great length of time. I'm still here, still painting away, and will do until I'm: 1. producing good work and 2. making a living from said work. I don't want to be rich and famous, if I can just get out of bed every day knowing that I've got nothing to do that day but paint, I'll be a very happy man.