Completing 100 days of chiaroscuro

100 day project completed!

For the last 100 days I’ve been studying light and dark in art, ‘chiaroscuro’ being the arty Italian word for this – loved by the old masters and still well used by contemporary painters, photographers and film makers. 100 is such a satisfying number and I’m surprised and delighted to have been able to keep going till the end – if you’d like to see the complete works first head here, or if you’re interested in the debrief, read on…

Some highlights

It would be hard to choose a favourite day but there were some that stick in my mind as particularly rewarding, either because of the mastery of the original artist, the way my materials behaved, or just the way the image chimed with my mood at the time. Incidentally, my favourite title of a work I copied was Joseph Wright of Derby’s ‘Two boys fighting over a bladder’ – bold!

Here are a few special ones:

oil study of a tree
An oil study from one of my photographs
After Ken Currie’s ‘Interregnum’
After a photograph of Rodin by Edward Steichen
After Rembrandt’s ‘Bearded old man’
a photograph of some flames
My edited photo of flames from my firepit

What have I learned?

  • A dive into the art historical archives is never a waste of time – as Austin Kleon’s smashing little book ‘Steal Like an Artist’ says, artists build their practice on the work of those before them, none of us are really ‘original’. I feel quite privileged to be able to dip into artworks from the past to feed my future. Thanks for that art ancestors!
  • Rembrandt was indeed a master – no surprises there and I’ve always been blown away by his work. Copying it gave me an even deeper understanding of his craftmanship and humanity and was a pure pleasure at all times.
  • Caravaggio took it a bit too far for my liking. I realise how ridiculous this sounds and in no way dispute his mastery as a painter and of chiaroscuro in particular, but through copying I learned that the stark contrasts between light and dark in his painting was a bit too clear cut for me, I like a little more mystery, more ambiguity and softer edges.
  • Vermeer repeated himself – the copies I made had so many similarities in the lighting and composition which I only really noticed through drawing. I fancifully imagine that his studio had the perfect spot where the light fell in just the right way and he just positioned all his models to take advantage of that, and why not?
  • Early photographers, particularly those who aligned themselves with Pictorialism, creating some fantastic compositions. Some of these were amongst my favourites to copy from. I loved the emergent quality in many of them.
  • Ken Currie makes such intensely powerful paintings and I really enjoyed copying from them to learn how, though my very limited scale meant that this didn’t work for some.
  • Composition is king – the images which had the most impact even at such a small scale were the ones which were from carefully crafted compositions and tonal arrangements. The ones which were less impressive were poorly cropped, at the wrong scale or just unconsidered. I had deliberately limited myself to a 10cm (ish) square which didn’t always suit my choice of source image, but had the advantage of being quite ‘do-able’ every day.
  • I should devote more time to cropping and editing my own photos, to provide a rich source of imagery to draw from. In the past I’ve had a bad habit of taking photographs of visually interesting things then ignoring them in the archive, like hoarding good books but not reading them. Reviewing with a particular purpose has been really useful. Must do that more.
  • I am totally in love with monotone oil painting – the works I made for this project have really given me a taste for more and on a significantly bigger scale. Summer = oil painting in my studio plan!

Things to take forward

In terms of my own art, above all I’ve learned about what excites me visually and what I want to continue to pursue. Emerging forms, dark ambiguity, subtle gradation, strong composition and tonal arrangement and a monochrome palette are all part of the recipe for future work.

The daily practice was sometimes a struggle for such a lengthy period, but I’m more likely now to embark on another long term project than I thought in January. It’s so good to see other people’s projects and follow their journeys, and sharing online definitely helps to keep up the motivation. If you’re thinking of giving it a go yourself, I’d highly recommend it – here’s the project page to help you on your way.

Read how the project started here, view the full gallery here or check out my weekly project updates on Instagram.

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Experiments in charcoal

It’s no secret that artists absolutely love getting new art materials, regardless of whether we actually need any or not. In fact need has nothing to do with it. I think this collecting habit is driven by curiosity – what if that new brush is exactly what I’ve been searching for, maybe that new pastel is the perfect green for those mossy bits, perhaps that ink will make exciting splashy marks I’d never imagined possible?

In this spirit of discovery, I jumped at the chance to try some unusual types of charcoal when I came across Wildwood Charcoal showing their experiments on Instagram.

I usually use charcoal from art materials suppliers, mostly made by Coates and Nitram for sticks and Derwent for the powder. I’ve not been too fond of homemade charcoal for drawing before, as it’s been very unpredictable, pale and quite frustrating to draw with. However, I heard from another artist that the passionflower one was great to work with so I ordered a little sample pack and got to work on some arty experiments.

charcoal made from brambleMy exciting little package arrived nestled beautifully in sweet smelling straw, wrapped in carefully labelled paper – nice touch! I set to work testing them in a not very methodical way, just allowed the marks to flow as the charcoals suggested.

Passionflower was indeed a delight, luscious and black. Gorse on the other hand was scratchy and grey, but in an interesting way. Clematis was definitely a favourite for its depth of tone but also its texture – the outer layers being ridged and slightly crumbly, giving pleasantly surprising results. Wisteria had less personality and bramble (pictured above) was pretty brutal – the thorns still jaggy even after carbonising and the stem so hard it seemed almost metallic.

I came to the conclusion that passionflower and clematis would be a great addition to my charcoal ‘palette’, gorse would be worth further exploration and bramble would be excellent if I ever wanted to draw on a stone wall. Each species had its own distinct character which produced a drawing style particular to it. I’d love explore this further, working on more sustained drawings. Of course I’ve also got a list of other plants I’d like to try now – I’ve got a feeling that’s the first of many little Wildwood charcoal packages arriving in my studio.

 

 

 

 

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Calder Wood Veterans

Calder twisted limb beech

Calder twisted limb beech, Charcoal on paper

My most recent charcoal works form the beginnings of what I think may be a much larger series. ‘Veterans’ encompasses trees which may not necessarily be very old for their species but have some of the characteristics of ancient trees, perhaps due to damage, past management or a challenging environment. Rot holes, water filled hollows, fungal growth, broken branches or damaged limbs all give these trees an aesthetic appeal I can’t resist drawing, as well as creating a rich range of habitats which sustain multiple other lives.

Calder bundled beech

Calder bundled beech, Charcoal on paper

For me, it’s these veteran qualities which make these particular trees stand out: their visual richness demands attention. I’ve returned to these six trees numerous times over the last 3 years since my first visit to the wood. The tree drawn below had one large surviving limb when I first encountered it, which had broken by last autumn, seemingly under its own weight. It must have happened shortly before my visit as the leaves were still fairly fresh, and I couldn’t help feeling like I was witnessing a death. It now stands like a slowly decaying monument to itself.

Calder collapsed beech

Calder collapsed beech, Charcoal on paper

Read more about how to recognise ancient and veteran trees at the Ancient Tree Forum

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Project Paint Part 2

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Following on from Alan McGowan’s workshop and my first attempts at oil painting (see Part 1), I’ve begun to make some experiments with the technique of oil glazing.  This has meant doing my favourite kind of shopping – buying more art materials, and moving stuff around in my studio to set up for painting rather than charcoal drawing.

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I’ve decided to use Windsor & Newton’s Artisan oils which are water mixable but otherwise behave like any other oils, it makes cleaning up easier and less smelly. I’ve also collected various mediums to try out.

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For the initial wipe out underpainting I prepared the canvas with a spare coating of one part PVA mixed with three parts water, having learned the hard way that more PVA does not equal a better surface. The canvas needs to have some resistance to the paint to enable you to wipe it off, but too much or uneven PVA application results in the paint not adhering to the surface at all.

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I used an image I’d already created in charcoal, so I could concentrate on what the materials were doing without worrying about the composition. I mixed Prussian Blue with a little Burnt Umber to give a nice neutral tone, thinned with turps. Making the image by removing the paint came naturally as it’s a very similar process to my charcoal drawing, though the paint does behave differently, giving more options for interesting mark making.

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After allowing a day or two for the underpainting to dry, I’ve started to add glazes. This is a slow process as each has to dry before the next can be added, so there are a few paintings at various stages. There is no real plan here – I’m just trying out the colours I have in a variety of combinations and trying to find out what works and doesn’t work. The many mistakes are very valuable and the happy accidents are wonderful, but it’s too early to tell yet whether glazing is an approach which will earn a more permanent place in my studio.

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This is an informative book which has kept me company on my painting journey, with a substantial section on glazes. This blog has detailed information about the principles and recipes and here is a demo of the method.

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Oily doodles

When does a drawing become a painting? I think of these as drawings made in oil paint and oil pastel.Project_paint10

Above are Dalkeith oaks, below a beech tree near the Cromarty Firth. All are done in the studio from photographs and sketches.

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The painting experiment continues…

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How do I make my drawings?

charcoal-splatcharcoal-sticks-2

It’s a question I’m often asked. I do workshops and demos for groups but thought a timelapse video of the process might be an interesting way to share a little of what I’ve learned too.

So, the blank white paper is taped to the board, the preparatory sketches made, materials collected and it’s time to begin. First I make large gestures with a charcoally hand to quickly give the drawing structure and movement. Lively lines help to begin to define the big shapes. There’s a magical feeling early on in a drawing when the forms begin to emerge from the dust. I can draw with energy and excitement. “This is going to be a good one!” my internal monologue says. Then, gradually the drawing morphs into the ‘smudgey grey mess’ stage when it seems like it’s all going nowhere… time for a tea-break.

time_lapse_closeup

However, I’ve learned to persevere through this – I know it will happen and I know I just have to keep going, keep walking away, looking through squinted eyes, looking at it upside down, all the usual tricks to help spot what’s not working. A few years ago I read on American artist Stapleton Kearns’ blog that drawing was like herding sheep – you should always be paying attention to the ones straying or lagging behind, rather than the ones way out ahead. So pay attention to the bad bits of the drawing, try to fix the things that are not working and eventually they will all catch up with each other and hopefully resolve into something ok.

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Dalkeith burred oak 7

The end result of all that herding turned out to be quite pleasing and I found that I really enjoyed knowing that I could review all the previous stages of the drawing on the time lapse. Being able to rewind time has proved a useful tool – I won’t do it for all my drawings but I’ll definitely do more little films.

Here’s the video of several hours work condensed into 3 minutes…

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New resolution for artwork photos

My first resolution for 2015 – take better photos and keep better records of my work.  Sounds a bit boring but is definitely more do-able than some previous years’ promises, so I’m giving it a go.

I have friends who are photographers and they make amazing images with their cameras.  I’ve come to realise that photography will never be something I’ll excel in, probably because I really only take photographs to create a record or for reference material – the image I want to make and show is a drawn one so I don’t put in the time and effort necessary for great photos.  The technical aspects of photography don’t interest me either, all those f-stops, ISOs, numbers and letters that float in and out of my memory like bubbles which pop as soon as I try to hold them.

However, since it’s essential to have the best possible images of your art for submissions, marketing etc. I’ve always tried to do the best I can within my limited knowledge, but as my drawing has developed over the years it has become clear that my photography is not up to the job.  So I’ve taken some advice from a professional about how to photograph artwork and invested in some proper kit and I thought I’d share my learning process – professional photographers please no sniggering, I know I have a long way to go!

res-studio-lights

I already had a good second hand DSLR and tripod but my lighting was not up to standard, so I bought some proper lights and set everything up in the studio today to do some tests…

Dalkeith-reaching-oak-2   Dakeith-reaching-oak-2-new

before                                                                         after

The most tricky of my drawings to photograph are the line drawings done in the field – they are usually made on a long scroll of paper and this has presented a challenge when trying to create an even light across the whole work.  I’m pleased with the delicacy and detail I’ve got in today’s test compared to my previous attempt…

res-Dalkeith-crop-2014

before

res-dalkeith-crop-2015

after

Like someone who doesn’t realise they need new glasses until they get them, the before and after details below really show how much my previous photos were missing…

res-scone-crop-2014

before

res-scone-crop-2015

after

Just to be clear, I am definitely no expert and hope to learn a great deal more about photographing my artwork but, in case you are like me and value some clear instructions, here is a summary of the way I’ve set up:

  1. Find or create a light-tight space to take your photos. I got IKEA blackout blinds for the windows and a husband who likes DIY to put them up.  Any light leaking from doorways, through curtains and such could affect your images so eliminate it as far as possible.
  2. Get yourself a good camera within your budget and read the instructions – I have had my camera for 5 years and have only just forced myself to do this!
  3. Get a sturdy tripod for your camera.
  4. Buy or borrow a pair of soft-box studio photography lights.  I got mine from Photogeeks, they have 5 daylight bulbs and individual switches for each bulb so you can adjust the brightness.  One of the components was cracked on delivery but Photogeeks replaced it very quickly with no quibbles. This video helped me to work out how to build the things.
  5. Ideally use a linear polarising filter on your camera lens to reduce glare – this is particularly important if your work has a glossy surface.
  6. Get a ‘grey card’ to enable you to colour correct your photos.
  7. Prop or fix your work against a neutral background, ideally at a 10 degree angle.  I have a drawing board and shelf system I use for making my work which doubled up well for this job – an easel would do the same.
  8. Once the work is in position, place the lights at about 45 degrees to the work on either side and close enough to give an even light.
  9. Now the more technical bit – my camera was set to capture RAW images only, ISO 100, lens length around 50mm, white balance set to match the lighting, aperture F11, automatic shutter speed and auto focus on.
  10. Position the camera and tripod so that you get the work filling most of the shot, tilt the camera to the same angle as the work to avoid distortion.
  11. Take a photo which includes the grey card, then upload to whatever image processing software you use (I have Photoshop elements) and adjust the image to your liking. If you are photographing a number of similar works like I have lots in charcoal, clicking ‘Save new camera RAW defaults’ will mean that these adjustments apply to the next images you open – I’m hoping this will help to give some consistency to my charcoal photos – all greys are not the same.
  12. You can find further guidance on photographing artwork here via the wonderful Making a mark blog.

It’s been a promising start to this year’s first project – I’m a long way from ticking it on the list as ‘done’ but things are starting to look clearer at least.

 

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Seeing clearly

seeing-my-eye2

Last week I thought I might be going blind. 

If that sounds a bit melodramatic, I had read that my symptoms could have been those of a retinal detachment – a ring of flashing lights on the edge of my vision and severe €˜floaters€™ obscuring whatever I looked at. 

seeing-no-floaters Before…

seeing-floaters After…

To begin with I put it down to a migraine but when it continued for a few days I got properly worried and went to get my eyes checked by an expert.  The wonderful David Crystal did every up to the minute test possible (including an OCT scan, new one for me) and reassured me that I had most likely had a €˜Posterior vitreous detachment€™, which sounds drastic but is actually very common, with about 25% of people experiencing at some time, usually later in life.  I hadn€™t heard of it though, so thought it might be worth sharing here.  I was so relieved that my retina was intact that I bought and ate quite a few chocolate biscuits in celebration before going back to the studio.

seeing_Central_serous_retin OCT scan image (not my retina though)

Strangely, this ocular adventure coincided with the arrival of a daylight bulb for my studio lamp, which I€™ve been meaning to get for ages but only just got round to.  When I fitted the bulb, the sudden clarity with which I saw the drawing in progress on my board reminded me of a time way back in my childhood when my sight was restored after many months.  I had congenital cataracts and still remember vividly the moment when I first tried glasses after the cataracts were removed when I was 7 years old.  I hadn€™t realised how much I€™d been missing, then there was all this amazing detail, colour and contrast. I was beyond excited and stared intently at my hands, studying every little pore and crease.

seeing-daylight-bulb

As a visual artist, I am predictably dependant on my eyesight­ €“ I imagine it would be very difficult to do what I do without it.  But it€™s entirely possible that I wouldn€™t be doing this at all, that I would not have this enduring obsession with seeing, had it not been for the eye problems I had as a child and the resulting gradual loss of sight and its sudden return following surgery. However, there are visually impaired artists like Keith Salmon who give me hope that, even if my sight were to deteriorate, I could carry on making visual images.

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Scone grafted beech 4

With the aid of the daylight bulb, the drawing got finished despite the floaters and will be on show at Perth Museum and Art Gallery in the new year.

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Words that guide me

Whilst it’s true to say that I spend most of my time as an artist thinking in images, it’s also the case that words have become central to my creative practice. 

I’ve always been a reader and enjoy a wide spectrum of writing, so I naturally sought out the wisdom of books to guide my drawing and feed my ideas.  But the problem is that this wisdom is cocooned in so much paper and my memory just isn’t up to the job of remembering the best bits and knitting them into something coherent that helps me.  I realised that I needed to see all these words and be constantly reminded of them, so I repurposed some old business cards and started copying out quotes.

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Some of the best or most striking have ended up on my studio wall, along with photocopies and little sketches, in a sort of giant mind map that I refer to whenever I come to a pause in my work.  Some of them have sparked a new direction in a particular drawing, some an entire project, while others act as a sort of constant safety net to support me through the doubt and indecision that bubbles up whilst in the middle of making a drawing.  It’s perhaps a bit like having your favourite art school tutor always on hand to both encourage and criticise where needed.

On one of my internet wanderings I discovered that not only does Brian Eno make fantastic music, but in 1975 he created something called ‘Oblique strategies’ with Peter Schmidt.  They put together a set of cards with words and phrases intended to stimulate, change, redirect, challenge the creative process and overcome creative blocks.  Brilliant!

So, building on the ‘wise words on the wall’ concept, I shamelessly copied the concept and wrote my own cards…

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Here are some of them, mixed in with quotes from books like Juliette Aristides’ Lessons in Classical Drawing, and Stapleton Kearns blog, which is packed full of cleverness.  When I’m starting a series of drawings, I’ll choose some cards which seem to be relevant and stick them up on the board so they are there, gently nagging me, while I work.  And not so gently if I drift off the task!

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Their purpose is to point me in a direction if I get a bit lost, rather than specify exactly what I should be doing – that would be far too rigid and bossy.  I can honestly say they’ve worked really well so far.

Perhaps the wisest of wise words that I remember from my very early days at college are “expect to keep about 10% of what you do this year” – that most of what I make will be rubbish, some will be ok and only a very small proportion will be good. It was both a shocking and liberating thing to hear at the age of 18 and has stuck with me, so I was pleased to see it echoed in Austin Kleon‘s newest book ‘Show your work’.  He has lot’s of words to guide you if you are an artist, writer or any other creator and his pictures are spot on too…

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The art of framing

framing-wall-view Wood nude tree limb view

A confession: I have done no drawing for two whole weeks. I really miss it.

However,  I have been thinking a lot about framing and presentation, which is a necessity right now with a show coming up.  So I thought I’d share a little of the thought and preparation that goes into putting my work on the wall.  I’ve learned a lot since I started exhibiting, some from generous artist colleagues and most from trial and a fair amount of error.

Why do frames matter?

A frame does a number of jobs – it protects the work, especially important for my fairly fragile charcoal drawings, it provides a safe method of transporting and displaying the work and, if you’ve chosen a good one, will make the work look great. It is of course a choice whether to frame or not and I often like to show my large drawings unframed if possible.  I really enjoy seeing other artist’s work unframed, I feel somehow closer to the act of making to be able to see it without glass.  But I also can’t help feeling disappointed when otherwise interesting art works are displayed in unsuitable or just plain bad frames.  Perhaps this is the designer in me getting frustrated with careless presentation, but all the feedback I have had from exhibiting has made me realise that presentation really matters.

framing-oak

My framing choices

When I mounted my first solo show I did lots of research into framing techniques and quickly realised that ready made frames would not suit my work – there needs to be a decent gap between the glass and the surface of the work for dry media, which means a deep frame and careful handling is needed.  I also felt that quality was very important – there’s no point putting your heart and soul into a drawing only to plonk it thoughlessly into a flimsy Ikea frame.  I love Ikea for other things incidentally, just not for my frames!

I also realised that I was not destined to be a DIY framer – this was a job best left to the experts.  After trying a few local firms I was lucky enough to find a small but meticulous framing company and have developed a great relationship over the years.  Trust is very important in this exchange, since many months work is handed over to them and much effort and expense is involved.  Edinburgh based Linda Park is primarily a painter, but is also very busy with her framing clients.  She has a painter’s eye for what will complement the works and takes great care in handling it.

framing-tests

I’ve discovered that there are complex and subtle choices to be made.  Which of the twenty-four shades of white would I like for the mountboard?  How many millimetres depth do I desire for the frame?  Which delicate shade of grey for the hand finishing?  How do I want to balance each side of the border?  See – no wonder I’ve not done any drawing.

So I have a drawer of paint charts and test pieces which I spend a lot of time squinting at, trying to imagine what it would look like and try to keep some consistency with my choices so that the overall effect in an exhibition is harmonious.

Preparing for an exhibition

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Here are my most recent works just collected from the framer.  She’s done a beautiful job as usual and I’m pleased with the new choice of colour for the pale hand painted ones – I think this works well with the predominantly white background of the work.  I now have to get them ready for hanging in the Meffan Gallery, which means mirror plating them.  I also sign, date and title them on the back and add my contact details.

framing-mirror-plates       framing-turned-plates

I worked out that it is much easier to pre-paint the mirror plates white, then attach them, rather than paint them after they’ve been hung.  No more going round with a tiny paintbrush before a private view, more time to do your hair or sample the wine or whatever. I position the mirror plates exactly halfway down the sides of the frame which makes for quicker and more consistent hanging, and for ease of transport I reverse them so they don’t damage other works.

There are thirty four works in the next show, ‘Time around trees’, so it took me a while to prepare, wrap and label them all, but I know that the better my preparation is, the more time I’ll have during the hanging to get things just as I want them.  And that’s the fun part.

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‘Time around trees’ opens at the Meffan Gallery, Forfar on Saturday 4th October and runs until Saturday 1st November.

 

 

 

 

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