I’ve been giving a lot of thought to processes lately. If the recent results of my own trials and tribulations at the easelare anything to go by, the processes by which a painting is made have a great influence on the eventual result. Well, I supposethat’s a pretty obvious thing to say, of course they do. But I’m thinking now not so much about particular techniques, butabout mental approach. Or am I? Oh hell, lets just get on with the post and we’ll see where we end up.
I’ve been trying to get a few things straight in my mind lately, so it’s been a few weeks since the last post. Sometimes it’s bestjust to keep quiet for a while when you’ve got nothing interesting to say. I’ve also been busy with marketing stuff now that I’m attemptingto turn pro – getting business cards designed and printed, setting up a new portfolio site(http://www.paul-foxton-paintings.co.uk),that kind of thing. But mostly the post drought has been due to easel dysfunction problems.
The results of my last few attempts to make a painting have given me much to think about. There are timeswhen working at the easel is a quiet, relaxing, contemplative affair, and others when it’s more like a battleground. Lately, my easel has beena battleground and the last three paintings have been collateral damage. I’ve found myself repeatedly scrubbing days, and in the most recentcase weeks, of work off the panel. Most disheartening it is too.
Right when I need to be pumping out portfolio-grade pieces, I’ve found myself faced with an apparent inability to paint at all. A goodpainter friend of mine reckons it’s precisely because I’m trying to turn professional now, and the pressure is on. He may well be right.But I think it’s also because I’ve found myself at a fork in the road, and I’m vacillating. By way of investigation – and perhaps if I’m lucky,explanation – today I’m going to be writing about two rather different approaches I’ve used recently on two quite different paintings. Maybe I’llfind some clues before I reach the end.
“Old Iron” 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen panelHere’s the first of the two, the old iron painting. Twice now
I’ve thought it was done and taken it off the easel, but it’s back on again now for the third time for a few adjustments.
For a while I had a disconcerting feeling that this wasn’t really my painting. A large part of today’s post will bea step by step walk through of how I built this painting up, which I know I’ve been promising to do for a while. I’ve made peace with thispainting now, and can look at it without discomfort again, even enjoy it. It was this one that brought me to the fork in the road, so abreakdown of the process might be helpful to me, if not to anybody else. Although I’d hope for both.
This one has been something of a marathon for me, starting with the initial value study, which took meabout three weeks to complete, followed by a colour study which took up two weeks or so. The final painting heretook another three weeks or so I think, I’ve been staring at it so long now I can’t remember. Suffice to say I’d have to sell it for a smallfortune to recoup the investment in time, and that isn’t going to happen any time soon.
I’m also going to be talking about a small still life of a quince I painted immediately after the iron.
“Quince” 10 x 8 inches, oil on linen panelHere she is, Madame Quince sitting in her little blue bowl. By wayof contrast, total time invested in this painting was a little under two weeks. There was no value study, no colour study and nocomposition study, it was all worked out on the fly.
Often my paintings are a reaction in some way to the previous piece, and that’s certainly true of this one. If the iron painting was a study inpatience and working methodically, the quince, by comparison, was an exercise in sailing close to wind.
One of the requirements of a professional painter, it seems to me, is the ability to consistently produce work. No paintings, no money. Notgood. For some time now I’ve been attempting to evolve a repeatable process that assures at least a basic level of quality and will allow me toproduce regularly. But perhaps that very process might become stifling if adhered to too strictly. After all, this is painting, not accountancy,and surely there must be room for inspiration and intuition if we’re to remain personally involved and not become painting machines.
On the other hand, perhaps a certain degree of process provides a necessary environment in which the inspiration can occur, or perhapsguide it if or when it does happen and help it to become more fully realised. You decide. I suspect that there’s some kind of continuum with dry,method-based drudgery at one end and wild abandon at the other, and painters will fall somewhere between one and the other depending on theirpersonality and influences. I’m not sure where I fall yet, I seem to fluctuate. Perhaps we all do.
But let’s get back to the iron, since this has to be my most methodical painting yet. I set out with the idea that I was going to puteverything I knew into this painting, to build it up in stages and to try to complete each stage to the best of my abilities. The value and colourstudies we’ve covered, and the initial sight size drawing out has been covered already too.
The next stage after the drawing out was the ‘rub in’. I’d already resolved the colours I was going to be using, so my basic approach here wasto scrub on thin layers of the colour for each section in their proper places. The paint was slightly thinned with pure gum turps, and applied withbrights. Brights are short bristled, flat profile hogs which are very good for scrubbing in thin layers of colour and working into theweave of the linen. They can take a lot of abuse, and the short bristles let you get a lot of force into the brush.
Unfortunately I accidentally deleted the first photo of the initialrub in, but this one shows some areas that are still at the first stage, and some at the second stage.
The darker sections are on their second layer, all the rest is at the first stage. All I was doing at the first stage is laying down anundercoat, as much as anything else to ensure that the subsequent layers would cover well. I also wanted to leave some areas, like the background,with some of the texture of the rub in showing through to give the surface a bit of life. I don’t like the look of perfectly flat areas inpaintings, personally. Not in mine, anyway. The second layer in the background also being thin, it will hopefully suggest some depth through theslight translucency. For this layer, I used neat paint, but still applied fairly thinly. The upper part of the background here is at its finalvalue, and most of it I planned to leave alone after this point.
Here we are with the second layer on the background done.
Some of the shadows on the shelf have also beenput in at this point, since I want them to blend seamlessly into the background.
I’ve feathered out the edges of the shadows where they join the light, planning to address them later. Usually I try to finish all edges as I get to themsince they’re easier to handle wet into wet for me. But for this painting I’m going to be painting into a thin layer of stand oil and turps forsubsequent layers, so it shouldn’t be a problem.
At this point I’ve put a second layer onto the handle of the iron. There’s not much in the way of modelling ofthe form yet though, its pretty flat.
I need to wait for it to dry so I’ve moved onto the cloth. The cloth has been painted prettymuch as I would if I was painting normally in a single layer, wet into wet. This stage is the product of a few days work and a fewlayers though. There’s still a lot more refining of the forms to do.
No couch or medium at all was used on the cloth. It was mostly painted with an old and worn down natural mongoose filbert (my favouritebrush, especially for painting cloth). It seems that especially in the lighter values, sinking in is much less of a problem, in fact it doesn’thappen at all. All the problems of painting in multiple layers seem to happen to me in the darker values. So for those areas, like the body andhandle of the iron, I’ve used a stand oil and turps couch. There’s still some sinking in, but it doesn’t seem to be as bad. If an area is prettywell finished, like the background, I’ll put a thin layer of retouch over it to bring the values back to where they were. Otherwise, the couch sortsit out fine.
Here’s a couple of shots to show how the handle of the iron was painted. This is it at thesecond layer, with just the large blocks of colour and tone laid in.
This layer was put in with neat paint, and left to dry completely before the next layer, which was going to be the modelling of the form.
The body of the iron is still at the first ‘rub-in’ stage at this point. It will follow the same process as the handle, with the final paintingdone into a thin couch.
This couch is painted on thinly and evenly, just over the area to bepainted. It’s then rubbed in enthusiastically with fingers to get the layer as thin as possible whilst still being workable.Doing this helps the paint to go on smoothly, and allows edges to be handled with a lot of control, even when painting up to a dry edge. The onething to watch with this, I think, is that as little oil is used as possible, just enough to make the paint flow. Too much and the finish will go,and the oil will build up into a thick gooey layer which doesn’t look nice, takes forever to dry and is awful to paint into too.
Here’s the handle nearing completion. Apologies for the extremely rubbish photo. Thelights for this set up were attached to my camera tripod and couldn’t be moved, which necessitated the construction of a Heath-Robinson typetripod to fix the camera to which didn’t work well at all. Hopefully there’s enough here to give you an idea though.
All of this final painting has been done into a thin layer of oil, the couch. The edges, in particular, have been done this way, and thebackground has been painted over again in places to get as smooth a gradation as I can.
The body of the iron has now reached second stage, basic blocking in, and was completed in the same way as the handle. Any time I needed towait for a section to dry, I went back to the cloth and refined it some more.
By the time the painting had got to the stage it’s at in the ‘finished’ photo above (actually just nearly finished) I was fairlyhappy with it. It had, by and large, achieved the goal I set for it. I wanted to produce an effective translation of the set up onto thecanvas. I wanted to stretch my facility for observation of detail without losing the overall effect and feeling of light, without losing theconsistency of the picture. I wanted to make the picture live, and to push myself further than I’ve gone before. I do think I’ve come closer thanI often do to achieving my goals with this picture.
But it left me feeling somehow dissatisfied. It took a lot of work to get the result I did, but I was left wondering whether the result I gotwas really the one I wanted from my work. For some time now, I’ve been concentrating on what I think of as the basics: accuracy of shapein the drawing, sound value relationships, descriptively handled edges and natural and convincing colour. Of course, I still have atremendous amount of work to do on all these things, I’m still a beginner in the grand scheme of things. But having done better than I havepreviously on those points with this painting, I was left wondering if that was really what I wanted to do with future paintings. I’ve alwaysthought that there can be more to representational painting than the replication of what we see, and perhaps getting closer to what I sawthan usual in this painting has left me wondering what that ‘more’ might be. I don’t have any answers yet.
I was recently chatting over email with a painter friend about processes and accuracy, around the time I finished the iron. He’s a painterthat works everything out as he goes on the canvas, and maintains that allowing a piece to evolve more organically, complete with mistakes andscrubbing out, produces a better result for him. His work is powerful and moving, so I wouldn’t for moment disagree with him. Perhaps itwas that conversation I had, or perhaps it was the questions that the iron painting raised for me, or both, but when I came to paint theFloating Sunfire immediately after the iron, I did much less preparatory work, just a quick colour sketch.
When I came to paint the quince, I did none at all. Although it has to be said that all the sight sizing, Bargue copies, value studies, Munsellcolour checking etc. I’ve been doing lately has changed the way I paint. I don’t dash anything off these days, I’m much more slow anddeliberate. It suits me to work that way.
The quince was painted entirely wet into wet without any medium, just paint. I also went back to natural light, which I much prefer. It’s harderto work by I think, since it’s harder to control. Artificial light seems to me to be easier to work with in many ways, because of the degree ofcontrol you have over the light. It has to be said though, I have an emotional reaction to natural light that I just don’t get from artificial light. I can’tdescribe it though, so I’m not going to try. Not everything can be easily put into words.
But something about that soft, gentle quality of natural indoor light moves me and makes me want to catch it in paint. If the iron painting wasabout the subjects I was painting, the quince was more about the light and the atmosphere, and trying to recreate something of the way it mademe feel. I wasn’t concerned so much with the accuracy of the colour, and played a lot with very near greys, violets and blues, whichunfortunately don’t replicate well in the photo. I had in mind that the painting would be a thing unto itself rather that an attempt toget as close as I could to what the stuff I was painting actually looked like. The air shimmered around the white cloth and I wanted to try torecreate something of that in the painting.
At first the quince felt more ‘mine’, it felt closer to where I wanted to be going. But I’ve tried to catch the same thing since andfailed miserably both times. All I have to show for a few weeks work is three panels with the paintings scrubbed off them and a lot of heartache. Atthe very point when I thought I’d reached a basic level of competence, finally, and was beginning to see a way forward, I’ve fallen flat on myface. Again.
So where to now? Well, that’s what I’ve been asking myself, and whilst I haven’t found an answer that completelysatisfies me yet, I do know that sitting around thinking about it won’t help. The answer has to come from the work, that’s the only placeit can come from. About the most useful thing I’ve ever done in painting and drawing is to work in series. Working in series gets youout of a rut, it gets you moving when you don’t know where to go next. When the series is done, you get a sense of achievement, you’ve builtsome momentum, and like as not the next step has become clear along the way.
So for a little while I’m going back to small paintings, based largely on my still life drawings. I’m going to do, erm, ten of them tostart with. Ten always seems like a good number for a series to me. The current plan is to use them to try outsome ideas I’ve been thinking about without waiting weeks to see the result, and perhaps to take a few steps down either fork in the roadand see how it feels. I want to try to distill them down to the essence, and hopefully out of that will come a way forward. And because I’mpainting full time now and have bills to pay, I’m also going to offer them for sale here on the site, as long as I think they’re good enough.It won’t quite be the ‘painting-a-day’ thing, since they’ll probably take me more than a single sitting, but they’ll be – what’s the politeway to say it? – competitively priced. I’llset up a separate section for them though, so people who don’t want to be bothered with them won’t have to put up with having them pushedin their faces. That wouldn’t be very nice would it? I’ll be setting up a separate email list too so you’ll only see them in your in box ifyou want to.
I’m going to leave you with a question today, which I’d love to see some answers to in the comments of you have the time (and ifanyone’s still reading after two months with no posts…)
Question: In your working processes, where do you see yourself sitting on the line from methodical care at one end to gay abandon at theother, from strict adherence to a proven method to flying by the seat of your pants? How much do you leave to chance? And what do you thinkare the advantages and/or disadvantages of each approach? Don’t be shy, tell me what you think.
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