I remember when I first came back to regular drawing and painting again in 2005, there’s a particular drawing that sticksin my mind, etched into my memory. It was a little self portrait drawing. I remember looking aghast at it when it was done, amazed at itsclumsiness, its downright awfulness. That drawing in particular brought it home to me that I was going to have to completely retrainmyself. I should try and find it again and post it, but it’s probably buried somewhere in a vain attempt to forget that such an abominationever flowed from the end of my pencil.
So I knew I had to start over, but where to start? I had no idea, but I had to make a start somehow, and I came up with the ideaof setting myself to work through some short runs of series of drawings and paintings, justto get the pencil, the brush, my hand and my brain moving. That probably turned out to be the single most productive idea I’ve had.
A lot of those early pieces are posted here in the drawings and paintingssections. I’d do ten drawings of hands, ten paintings of single objects, ten paintings of pairs of objects, anything to get a bit of momentum goingand to break the fear of the blank paper or canvas. The beauty of that way of working is that, for as long as the series lasts, you don’t have tothink about what it is you’re going to draw or paint that day. Usually, I’d have a few running at once, so if I didn’t fancy drawing a mouththat day I could draw a hand, or paint a piece of fruit. I was never stuck for a subject.
One of the hardest things at the beginning was building momentum. Keeping it going can be hard too, but the really hard part is justgetting over the initial inertia. Once the habit of regular practice has been formed it’s much easier to keep it going, but it takes timebefore it becomes ingrained. Robert Genn at the Painters Keys site talks a lot in his fortnightlyemails about thenecessity of forming good working habits, and I agree with him. He also talks a lot about the value of working in series, and I agree withthat too. The important thing with a series I think is that it should be relatively easily manageable – short term, achievable goals.I almost always used to choose a series of ten,it being a nice round number, and the end was already in sight once the first one was done. Completing each series gave me a sense ofachievement, which helped to spur me on to the next one. Learning to paint from scratch is, lets face it, a rather large undertaking. Breakingit down into very small, bite sized chunks breaks the paralysis that can result from realising the enormity of the job at hand.
There are other benefits too. People talk a lot about wanting to develop a personal style, well, working in series will do that for you withoutyou having to put any conscious effort into it at all. In fact, I would say that putting conscious effort into that kind of thing is a mistake.The style, or direction if you like, should come from the work itself I think. And it does, in my experience, if you just get moving.
In my last post I was talking about how I seemed to have hit a wall, and was having difficulty finishinganything. Three paintings in a row had been scrubbed back to the ground, and that’s no fun when it happens to you, I can tell you. I think it’sprobably an indication that there’s a change coming, a reorientation. I wonder if it’s in the nature of the job that this happens every nowand again. Probably. Regardless, I found myself in a similar state of paralysis and disgust at my three failed paintings as I did three yearsago with that awful little portrait drawing. But at least now I have a handy tool in my toolbox for just these occasions. SoI started a series.
No surprise either then, that this will be a series of ten paintings. A short series, and all the paintings will be small, manageable,unthreatening affairs. I’m half way through now having just done the fifth a couple of days ago, and thankfully this series has had the usualeffect. I’m painting again, and am gathering momentum. So here they are.
Here’s the first, Silver Cup and Little Red Book. I’ve painted and drawn this silver cup many times, it’s a personal favourite you might say.This being the first one in the series, a familiar object seemed like a good choice. The little red book was a subject in one of the aforementionedfailed paintings, so I suppose that this one was also an opportunity to salvage something from the wreckage.
One of my goals for this series is to try out some stuff that I might be too nervous to play with on something I intend to be a portfolio piece.One of those things is underpainting approaches. The last post went into some detail about the construction of the iron painting, which started with arough underpainting in an approximation of the final colours of each part. I believe more erudite painters than I call it the ‘colour ebauche’.A pretty nice method I think, it worked well on the iron painting. For all of these five paintings,I’ve started with a raw or burnt umber underpainting on day one, painting the lights over it, leaving some of the underpainting to show throughin the shadows, on the second day. All these little paintings took two days.
The other day one of our cats hopped up onto the shelf I had all my favourite little objects on and upset it. This was one of the results. Thissecond painting is also a familiar subject, but obviously with a twist. The breakage seemed somewhat apt to me given the recent spat of brokenpaintings.
Working on two successive days on each piece meant that the underpainting had to dry overnight, so the first day’s work was done into a couch ofraw or burnt umber mixed withOld Masters Flemish maroger medium, very kindly sent to me by a friend. It’s a qualitymaroger I think, does just what you want it to. Helps the paint flow,dries overnight, and also dries to a quite nice even gloss sheen. Once the couch is laid evenly (but not too evenly) over the whole surface ofthe board, I’ve been starting by wiping out the lights, then painting into the dark areas with more pigment. It’s a nice way of working I think,it allows you to sort out all the values and edges in the underpainting. It’ll be interesting to try it on a larger piece, But plenty more practicewith little fellers like this first before I get to that I think.
Number three, Freesias. I’ve posted this one a bit bigger because it makes it easier to see where the underpainting is still showing through. Youcan see it most clearly in the shadow on the cloth to the left of the little vase (well, sake bottle) and in the cast shadow. Rather clumsily handledhere perhaps, but an effect I’d like to play with more. I think it adds depth.
For this one, I was rushed because freesias don’t last. I had to get the underpainting and the flowers done on the first day. The yellow onewent in first, it being the focal point really, and by the time I was half way through the purple ones the yellow one had already changed outof all recognition. Freesias are strictly a one day deal I think.
There’s some hints in this little painting of where I’m headed next. Having got to five, I’m having a short break from the series whilst I do alarger piece (still fairly small though, these are all about six inches on their longest side). Having built a little momentum again, I reallyfelt like trying another slightly larger one. It started with a small colour sketch, which I thought was interesting, and has just progressed toa larger colour sketch and now I’m on the final one. I’m not posting any of it today, but I mention it here since I think it’s a good example ofhow working in series like this can get your juices running. I’m happy with the sketches, I just hope I don’t crash and burn on the final one.We’ll see. I promise not to scrape it even if it does fail, and to post it when it’s done whatever the result.
Number four, and probably my favourite so far. I think you can see a bit of confidence returning with this one. At least, I think I can. Floatingflowers are set to become a regular thing with me. Partly because I just sold one, and partly because I like the theme. In fact, a series offloating flowers is highly likely.
Here’s a top tip if you’re thinking about painting flowers: chrysanthemums last a loooooong time. This one is still in this bowl, and still lookspretty good over a week later. It hasn’t changed much either. Freesias, paint fast, chrysanthemums, you can relax and enjoy it.
Number five and the last one for the moment. More floating flowers, this time begonias. These flowers also seem to last very well, these two have survivedinto three days of colour sketches for the painting currently underway. They’re looking a little tired now though, so I’ll have to change them fornew ones in the final one.
I’m quite happy with this one too, and I think it’s fair to say that by this time I’d broken my painting block and regained some momentum. Moreimportantly perhaps, some confidence had returned. Although the painting currently on the easel is something of a departure in technique from theselittle paintings, I don’t think it would have happened without working through these ones first.
Now I know I said I was going to be offering these little paintings for sale, and was even planning a new section on the site and all that palaver,but I’ve thought better of it now for two reasons. The first reason is a pragmatic one. If I was going to sell these on the site, I’d have to sellthem cheaply. A lot of people sell small paintings from their blogs now, and a general price region has become established. But I’m with a gallerynow, albeit an online only one, and selling work as cheaply as I’d have to sell these would in effect be undercutting them. That’s not good for anyone.
The second reason really goes to the heart of what this series is about. I needed to break my painting block, first and foremost. If I start offeringthe pieces in this series for sale, I think I may run the risk of putting myself back where I started. I think the most useful thing that can come outof this series is to move my work on, to help me find my way towards whatever it is that I’m trying to find my way towards. That kind of thing isperhaps better done in a low-pressure environment that allows room for experiment and mistake.
So the rest of this series, like this first five, is going to stay in the studio for now. That gives me more freedom with them.
I mentioned Robert Genn’s Painters keys site earlier. You might find something in the results of this search onworking inseries to catch your imagination. I’m a firm believer in it’s benefits. I can’t think of a single drawback to date and the proof, as they say, is in thepudding.
Posted 22nd November 2008
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