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Why I must watch paint dry

March 22, 2017

What I love about watercolour is the beautiful marks and textures that can be achieved. Here I talk briefly about two of my favourite types – granulation and runbacks.

Other painters have remarked on the very strong granulation textures I sometimes get in watercolour. Granulation is a property that some pigments – generally earth colours and blues – can exhibit with watercolour paints. The most common manifestation is when, on paper with a rough surface, pigment particles collect in the tiny dips in the paper producing a sort of mottled effect. This effect can also be referred to as sedimentation.

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Harbour Wall, Polperro. The bottom half of this painting shows the speckled effect of sedimentation of pigment in the troughs on rough paper.

However, to my mind the more exciting granulation effect is flocculation. This is where pigment particles coalesce and clump together. You can get some beautiful flow effects by letting the wash run. I prefer a smooth paper surface for this technique so that the paper texture doesn’t dominate.

Paint manufacturers provide information about which of their paints granulate, and the tendency for a given pigment such as ultramarine to granulate may vary between manufacturers. I use Daniel Smith watercolours mostly – they have a wonderful range of pigments such as amethyst, apatite, tiger’s eye and hematite that are basically ground minerals and granulate beautifully.

One of the tricks for granulation is that you need enough water – the pigment particles need to be able to move in order to clump together or settle. The effects can be enhanced by using a specialist granulation medium (gelatin based I suspect) to replace (some of) the water.
Godrevy. The rocks at the back on the shore show horizontal flow patterns of flocculation.
Runbacks (also known as cauliflowers or back-runs) can be the bane of the beginning watercolourist’s life, because they can occur accidentally and often look very ugly. But they can also add excitement to a painting.
They occur when a wet wash flows back into a drier wash, but it isn’t quite that simple. I find this effect difficult to achieve at will, although I’m working on my technique. Again some pigments seem to produce this effect more readily than others, but the paint manufacturers don’t provide this information. The biggest problem for me is timing, which is critical. The drier wash has to be at the point where the sheen is just disappearing from the paper when the wetter wash is applied.

I’ve always had a low boredom threshold. Unfortunately getting the timing right to generate runbacks really does involve watching paint dry.

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Sea Sprite. The squiggly blue line above and to the right of the boat is a runback.


Book review – Vision and Art by Margaret Livingstone

March 4, 2017

I’ve just read “Vision and art, the biology of seeing” by Margaret Livingstone. Twice. The author is Professor of Neurobiology Harvard Medical School. In this fascinating book she describes the information processing that our visual systems perform and how this relates to the way we experience visual art. The book is illustrated with many diagrams and reproductions of famous artworks illustrating her points.

I think Newton’s experiment splitting white light with a prism made me always think of colour as a physical property. But this is wrong. Wavelength of course is a physical property, and we experience light of a particular wavelength as a specific colour. But the same colour might be made by mixing different wavelengths of light, and the effect of the mixtures is down to the cones that our visual system uses in all but low-light conditions. The colour wheel, useful to artists, is not based on physics, but biology.

We (if not colour blind) have 3 kinds of cones – red, green and blue used for seeing in daylight. Colour is perceived by comparing the activity in the three cone types. The green cone responds most strongly to green light and the red one to yellow. The ‘response curve’ – the graph of how much the cone is excited against wavelength of light – for these two cone types are very similar. This means that we are very sensitive to small differences in wavelengths for yellow/green light. I wonder if the difficulty so many artists, myself included, have with green is anything to do with this.

As a visual artist, one of the most important concepts is the importance of tone or value, or what Livingstone refers to as luminance. I always assumed that this too was a physical property, but it is perceptual, not physical and relative values change in different light conditions. The author also explains why we are much more sensitive to abrupt changes in colour or luminance than gradual changes due to a phenomenon known as centre/surround organisation. This phenomenon is useful to artists as the gradual change in darkness of a region enables an artist to suggest a greater range of tone than is actually possible with purely reflective pigments.

The part of the visual system that detects motion, depth and position – the ‘where system’ – doesn’t use colour at all. This is why the sun in Claude Monet’s eponymous ‘Impression, sunrise’ can appear to pulsate. The sun and the surrounding sky are equal in value, so the where system doesn’t detect the sun and therefore its position is ill defined. I couldn’t see the effect in the reproduction of this work in the book, but other examples show the effect clearer. It is also the where system that keeps the world appearing still when we move our eyes.

Another impressionist trick is to render a scene slightly blurred. This can scupper our stereopsis (binary vision) as this mechanism depends on the brain being able to detect subtle differences in the image as seen by each eye. When stereopsis fails then other indications of depth become more significant and a two-dimensional surface can appear to show a 3 dimensional image.

The book talks about many other issues including how faces are processed, dyslexia, steroblindness and pointillism amongst others.

The “homunculus fallacy” is the idea that the visual system is like a camera that transmits a high resolution image into our brains. If you, like me, always assumed this was the case then I recommend you read this book.


ING Discerning Eye 2016, the Mall Galleries, London

November 18, 2016

I’m delighted that my piece “Decay, Pin Mill” was selected by Ian Mayes QC for this year’s ING Discerning Eye exhibition which is on until 27th November at the Mall Galleries in London.

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This exhibition is unusual in that the 6 selectors each curate their own section of the exhibition which is made up of selections from the open submission of over 2000 works (from the likes of myself) and work from invited artists. It makes for 6 mini-exhibitions in one and each have a different feel. It also leads to quite an eclectic selection of work.

Last night was the artist preview. I met fellow Reading Guild of Artists member Mick McNicholas who also had a work selected. Here we are attempting to pose for a photo for a press release for the RGA. It was entirely unintentional but Mick’s hair actually points at my work on the wall!denov161


Another trip to the Mall galleries tradesman’s entrance

July 7, 2016

Well I’m back to the Mall Galleries tomorrow, to pick up my painting “Decay, Pin Mill”.

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It was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition but unfortunately didn’t make the final cut. Still I’m quite pleased to have got shortlisted. This is apparently the largest UK watercolour competition and only about 250 works get shortlisted. But then only about 100 actually get through to the exhibition. The shortlist is made from digital entries and the selected works had to be delivered last Friday. The gallery front entrance might be on the Mall but I’m back to the tradesman’s entrance on Carlton House Terrace tomorrow.

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I really want to go to the Royal Society’s Summer Science exhibition while I’m in London, I couldn’t believe it when I checked where it is – Carlton House Terrace.


RWS Contemporary Watercolour Competition 2016

February 6, 2016

My painting “Harbour Wall, Port Isaac” has been selected for this year’s Royal Watercolour Society Contemporary Watercolour Competition.

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New assistant

January 10, 2016

We were in the garden trying to photograph some of my latest paintings and had some unexpected assistance.

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Exhibition with Guildford Arts

December 5, 2015

I’ve been invited to exhibit, alongside 8 other artists, in the offices of Guildford Solicitors Clyde&Co. The exhibition is for 3 months and the private view was on 3rd December. Below is a photograph of my paintings in the conference room.

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Improving sketching skills

May 24, 2015

I have decided that I need to make a concerted effort to improve my sketching skills. For three reasons. Firstly I would love to produce beautiful sketches. Several artists I admire do, and the style of the sketches follows through in their paintings. Examples that come to mind are David Bellamy, Chris Forsey and John Blockley and some Urban Sketchers. If my sketches were as beautiful as theirs I’d probably give up painting because I’d be addicted to sketching.

Secondly if I improve my sketching I will feel less self conscious and enjoy (and do) it more. If I could sketch as well as David Bellamy I would welcome people looking over my shoulder, instead of cowering in a corner or sometimes wimping out completely. This is particularly an issue with urban scenes, where there are typically more people about than in an Icelandic fjord. Cowering in a corner rather reduces your choice of subject. Worse still, going on a “sketching trip” and never finding the courage to get the sketchbook out is something I have done on more than one occasion.

Thirdly, if my sketches were better I’d be less dependent on taking backup photographs.

On the other hand, my sketches are primarily reference notes for future paintings and as such don’t need to be a work of art in their own right. I’ve seen many reproductions of sketches by very eminent painters which at a cursory glance look no more impressive than some of my sketchbook pages that I turn rather quickly and try to forget.


Trip to Iceland 2015

May 22, 2015

Just got back from a holiday in Western Iceland with my partner, Adrian. This was our second trip to Iceland and we have fallen in love with it. We spent several days in the Western Fjords (the squiggly bit in the North West) which was wonderful. About 18 hours a day of daylight but there was a bitter wind most of the time too.

The best bit was visiting the Western Fjords. We couldn’t get to everywhere we meant to go to because some of the roads hadn’t yet been cleared of the winter snow.

 

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A couple of locals

 

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This road had just been reopened

 

Some sketches from the Western Fjords:

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Henley Arts Trail 2015

May 6, 2015

I was delighted to be invited to participate in the Henley Arts Trail this year as guest artist with professional artist Catherine Ingleby at her studio in Shurlock Row.

This was my first Arts Trail, my only previous experience of exhibiting my artwork has been in large group exhibitions and I very much enjoyed the opportunity of discussing my work with members of the public.


Life drawing

April 8, 2015

Life drawing has never really appealed to me. I went to a class once a few years ago, just to try it. It was OK. But they say that it is the way to really improve your drawing, so I decided to give it another shot, attending an untutored group in Reading.
Being already well outside my ‘comfort zone’ I decided I might as well go for broke and use charcoal, which I have always hated.
I can’t believe how much I enjoyed it, life drawing AND using charcoal.
And another revelation was why it helps your drawing so much. Of course errors are likely to be glaringly obvious, and you have the challenge of modelling the complexity of the human figure. But the thing that I didn’t expect was the intensity. Not only do you have the complexity of the figure, but a cooperative subject who can change pose at a moment’s notice. There aren’t many other situations where a new subject is presented in such a rapid-fire way, and it can be exhausting, but sometimes it forces you to try something slightly different and develop new styles and techniques.

 

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En plein air London 2nd installment

October 19, 2014

We did it again. This time from the South bank opposite Westminster. As you’ll see, Big Ben was a bit wobbly that day.

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Big Ben with a bit of a lean


En plein air painting in central London

August 2, 2014

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John and Stephen

As mentioned in other posts, I’m very nervous about sketching in public. So I’m not sure what came over me when I suggested to a group of people that we should meet up in London to paint on location, that is set up easels and paint. It was at the end of a week’s watercolour painting workshop with Alvaro Castagnet. We’d been painting outdoors all week in ‘Constable country’. What was I thinking? Cowering with a sketch book in a Cornish harbour is one thing but setting up an easel in central London?

Anyway, three of us met outside the Oxo tower, set our easels up on a little pier there with a view of St. Paul’s and painted. It was great fun and even relaxing. I’m not sure what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t that. The complexity of the scene forced me to simplify and paint very loosely. I produced no masterpiece but there are elements of my painting that I am pleased with as I was forced to work differently from usual. I was buzzing for days afterwards.

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It could have been worse


Drawing in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

July 12, 2014

I attended an excellent workshop led by Kieran Stiles and inspired by drawings by Rodin. We spent the morning drawing inside Christ Church Cathedral. We were drawing on paper that we had prepared beforehand with watercolour. I never imagined I’d find drawing vaulted ceilings relaxing.

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Tips for the nervous sketcher

I think I may be a pathological case, but I am very self conscious about sketching in public. However, sketching is important to me as I find it very difficult to paint from photographic references alone. The following are ideas I have come across to make sketching in public less scary:

Sketch with others

This probably the best, when you can do it. It is quite amazing the difference it makes if there are even just two of you. There are opportunities for group sketching – for instance with Urban Sketchers or via meetup.com. And from my experience you don’t necessarily have to stay particularly close together.

Don a ‘don’t bother me’ expression

This may make people less inclined to interrupt, but it doesn’t make me any more relaxed.

Wear earphones and listen to music

The distraction of music helps a little. I hoped that wearing earphones would discourage other people from interrupting but my limited experience suggests that is not the case. I was only wearing ear-buds so it may not have been obvious. I’ve only tried a handful of times, so this isn’t statistically significant, but it seems to me that interruptions are MORE likely when I’m wearing earphones. Perhaps I look more relaxed and therefore approachable. Maybe I should get some big earphones and just pretend I don’t hear people interrupting. But there is also the security issue of being less aware of what is going on around you.

Use a tablet

I haven’t tried sketching on an iPad in the field. However, when using a sketch book strangers do occasionally look over your shoulder (unless you have your back to a wall, which is recommended). I can’t help thinking that to look over the shoulder of a stranger using a tablet or portable computer is socially unacceptable, and they’ll probably think you’re playing a game anyway. The problem I have with this is that I like a physical sketchbook.

Develop immunity

I am working on this. I haven’t found an instant cure though I have had notable breakthroughs. Counseling might help!

Produce such beautiful sketches that you can’t be embarrassed

This my master plan. Unfortunately progress is slow. My current fear of attention is because I don’t think my sketches are very “good”. However if they are to paint from then sketches are an aide memoire rather than necessarily a work of art in themselves.


Iceland – Thingvellir

February 28, 2014

Last October we (Adrian and myself) went to Iceland for the first time. We had a week so we worked our way along the south coast from Reykjavik and back. It was an amazing place. Below are a couple of my paintings based on sketches I made at Thingvellir, the site of the world’s earliest Thing (parliament).

 

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