Tickets are on sale for my live painting demo, May 22nd 2016, Marcliffe Hotel, Aberdeen. Proceeds will support two humblingly admirable causes, Medecins Sans Frontiers and Archway. Hope to see you there!
Tickets are on sale for my live painting demo, May 22nd 2016, Marcliffe Hotel, Aberdeen. Proceeds will support two humblingly admirable causes, Medecins Sans Frontiers and Archway. Hope to see you there!
I enjoyed a productive few weeks painting in Italy this summer. Working in and around the historic cradle of plein-air painting, Civita Castellana, and as an Artist in Residence of the world renowned JSS in Civita summer school, I was in the ideal setting to find a way into the landscape genre. I managed a portfolio of quick oil sketches, as planned, but am impatient to go back and explore things more deeply. Still, several of my first impressions are on show in the Edinburgh Drawing School Winter Exhibition…
…and a handful more will be in The McGill Duncan Gallery Winter Exhibition (click link to see all available work) in Castle Douglas, Opening November 7th.
The show will also include some recent still life and portrait work.
I’ll be giving a live portrait demo at the opening from 11am, so get yourself to Castle Douglas!
I just wanted to break the silence and express my gratitude to all those who have commissioned a portrait from me. Looking back over a particularly busy couple of years I feel I’ve been unbelievably lucky with my clients. Whether inviting me to paint yourselves or loved ones, each of you has embraced the process as a collaborative effort, being patient with sittings and allowing me to pursue that uncanny spark of life on the canvas. It’s been a delight and a privilege – thanks!
There’s much to enjoy at this year’s RP exhibition, running until May 1st at the Mall Galleries, London.
Exploring the virtues of an impromptu pose, a single light source and a limited palette is my contribution, Interlude. I’m pleased that it was shortlisted among some diverse and engaging work for the new Conversations prize.
Last year I was pleased to have three features published in Artists and Illustrators Magazine. Here are the complete, unedited versions.
A tour of any art fair or open exhibition reveals that one field of enquiry persists and thrives amid a kaleidoscope of changing artistic trends and category-defying innovations. That field (loosely defined) is realism. Encompassing everything from classical realism to photorealism and impressionism, the common aim is an illusionistic rendering of the forms and sensations of the visual world.
It’s worth noticing, however, that it’s relatively rare to be struck by truly naturalistic colouring. Whether by accident or in a deliberate bid to improve on nature, painters tend to distort their colours in one way or another, and a unique slice of truth is lost in translation.
To limit the scope of this troubleshooter, I’ll just focus on the particular challenge of recreating a subject’s colours faithfully, through careful observation and accurate colour mixing. I won’t offer colour theories to guarantee more picturesque results, but will encourage the reader to build paintings with true notes of colour, entrusting harmony and interest to the choice of subject, unadulterated, under its unifying light.
Have you used the reddest red on your palette for the apple and you’ve nowhere redder to go for the strawberries? Are you loading the white into the mid tones and can’t paint a highlight bright enough to sparkle? Clearly it’s time to demand a refund from your supplier for selling feeble paints! Or it could be that you just need brighter illumination on your canvas.
In this demo I painted the same still life three times, changing the amount of lighting on the canvas by varying the proximity of the lamp. The lesson might be rather elementary but I think it’s worth illustrating what an impact this one variable can have.
Example 1 was painted with the lamp very close to the canvas. The glaring brightness forced me to tone all the colours right down until they looked correct. Of course, when viewed under normal ambient light (1b) the result is a very dark painting with a rather burnt looking croissant.
For 2 I moved the lamp further from the canvas to achieve a more optimal light. The full tonal range of the still life could be captured, from the whites downward, and unlike 1 the tonal balance still looked right when hung on the wall (2b).
3 was attempted with the lamp shifted well away. The shadows could be rendered as seen, but under such inadequate light the middle tones demanded a lot of white mixed in to make them approach accuracy. That left nothing in reserve for the lightest lights, and the white paint, when compared to the actual table cloth, looked dull grey, even when laid on with a trowel! (3a) Painting the orange to look bright enough relative to the croissant, while maintaining colour intensity, was impossible. Adding even a little white to lighten it muted it from a fiery citrus to a pinky orange. Comparing 3b to 2b, notice how much more distinct the chroma (or relative colour intensities) are between the orange and the croissant in 2.
We can’t always count on optimal lighting arrangements, especially in outdoor painting, but it should be among the first considerations if difficulties arise.
“If you look into the past of any successful painter you will see square miles of canvas behind him. It is the work that counts, experience in seeing color.” Charles Hawthorne
Ever struggled to make sense of individual colours before you? Seeing colour and reproducing it in paint becomes instinctive with practice, but it won’t happen by accident – it must be a deliberate priority.
Valuable experience and a keen understanding can be gained by mixing colours of anything and everything, testing samples right up close. This isn’t about memorising colour recipes, but about tuning your eye to the particularities of colours in isolation. I recommend always arranging the paints in the same order on your palette so you’ll come to reach for them instinctively.
If a work in progress is in a state of vague approximation, taking time to get just one note exactly right helps guide subsequent notes providing a visual anchor to relate them to.
Are your colours sometimes naive and flat, countering any illusion of depth? This can come from falling back on the colours you expect, rather than scrutinising and trusting what you actually see. Even the brightest furnishings and whitest snow are tempered by the colour of the light source, reflected colours, and shadows. That’s a lot to consider, but it boils down to a few simple considerations – is it lighter? Darker? Warmer? Greyer? etc. The answers tell you where to reach on the palette.
As an exercise in challenging my assumptions, I placed this bowl of lemons alongside a piece of stained glass and a bottle, all strongly backlit. I had to fight the urge to use the bright yellow I expected on the lemons, and instead just kept asking myself how things actually looked in this unfamiliar context.
Ever felt doubtful about browns and ochres on the palette? When looking to eliminate superfluous tubes of paint, the earth colours might seem to be dispensable, since fair approximations are mixable from the three primaries, as illustrated below.
(Here I’ve mixed raw sienna, burnt sienna, both of which are staples on my palette, as well as terre verte.) So would I recommend discarding my earths and travelling light from now on?
Well I can’t deny one virtue of this approach. Aside from the moments saved by squeezing out fewer tubes onto the palette, there’s also worthwhile colour mixing experience to be gained. Exploring the range of possibilities of a primary colour palette, and learning how to neutralise bright colours with other bright colours teaches the lesson that contrasting pigments cancel each other out.
However, here are just a few arguments in defence of these time-honoured paints.
Ever painted something purely out of interest in its colour, only to be asked to explain the point of the subject? I have, and while the question might seem naive, it usually points to a failing in the mode of expression. For example, it might be unnecessarily detailed. An overly descriptive rendering of material facts suggests to the viewer there’s some symbolic significance to the objects themselves. Therefore, to guarantee that the image is unambiguously ‘about colour,’ it’s worth subordinating all other elements. Downplaying tactile form might entail a more general softening of edges to emphasise the intangible radiance of colour. Tone is an intrinsic component of colour, but it can be subordinated by avoiding dramatic light and shadow, favouring a front-lit arrangement where shadows fall behind the behind the subject, mostly out of sight.
The Value of Tone
The topic of last month’s troubleshooter was colour in naturalistic painting, and how to capture colours faithfully. This time we’ll home in on that fundamental element which conveys light, shade and three dimensional form – tonal value. It is the secret behind the illusion of weight and solidity in painting and should be the first port of call whenever any part of a painting looks flat or insubstantial.
Of course the word ‘tone’ is sometimes used rather vaguely, so let’s keep to a strict definition. It is the property of lightness or darkness found in any colour. Unlike the ‘hue’ (the redness, blueness, greenness, etc.) or ‘chroma’ (the saturation or greyness) tonal values are captured in black and white photographs, so viewing any painting in black and white clearly reveals the tonal structure without other distractions.
“I’m confused by colour and complexity. How can I see things tonally as I work?”
Be in the habit of squinting at your subject, not at your painting. Gently half-shutting your eyes when looking at the subject helps in the perception of tonal relationships by inhibiting detail and broadening focus. Areas that are similar in tone mass together as abstract shapes. The challenge is to paint faithfully what you perceive when squinting, and not expect to find answers among small details, or falling back on preconceptions.
Of course, while squinting simplifies the scene, it doesn’t entirely eliminate the complication of colour. Setting your digital camera to the black and white mode and comparing your subject and painting via the screen would be a more explicit way to identify any mismatches in tonal values. For a low-tech alternative, no batteries required, glimpse the world in monochrome by looking through a sheet of red or green acetate.
This won’t exactly reveal the ‘true’ tonal values, since through a red film, reds and warm colours will look tonally brighter, cool colours darker, the reverse being the case through the green film. But it’s still valid for making comparisons and jolting the eye into tonal awareness.
“I struggle to distinguish relative tones of different colours.”
The closer in tone two contrasting hues are, the harder it is to judge which is lighter and which darker. It simply takes practice to train the eye to sense the difference. By creating a greyscale palette like the one below, defining values from 0 (black) up to 10 (white) you can practise mixing colours and grouping them by tone on the vertical strips.
This is best done in good natural light. If the colour of the light source changes, then the relative tonal values will go out of kilter.
“My forms lack substance and solidity.”
Modelling forms to look tangible is a question of controlling tonal contrasts and searching out the transitions. In this self portrait demo I worked fairly systematically from dark to light using the greyscale palette.
The first panel has the darkest darks established, and everything else blocked-in up to a value 4 – darker than reality. Thereafter, I added lighter colours one tonal gradation at a time. It took some discipline not to artificially lighten areas which had already reached the correct value. The image evolves from under-modelled – large flat areas with too little tonal contrast, to slightly over-modelled, with too many contrasts in small areas.
“Can tone and colour be established in two separate stages?”
That might seem like a sensible way to break down the complexity of the subject – tone first, then colour on top. But while it is very good training to be able to translate a coloured subject into a monochrome painting, such a painting can’t simply be tinted into realistic technicolour by glazing it with local colours – the false appearance of a tinted black and white photo proves this point. Correct values will be darkened as soon as transparent colour is glazed on, and colour over grey looks dead through its depleted chroma.
In this demo, picture 1 is a reasonably faithful monochrome painting of the still life, roughly akin to a black and white photo. Picture 2 is the same painting with transparent colours glazed on top. Although it looks plausible, the red pepper was, in reality much more intense in chroma, but this couldn’t be recreated with a glaze over grey. Since the red of a red pepper is darker than the yellow of a yellow pepper, correspondingly distinct greys had to be used to be tonally accurate in the first stage. But this deadened the chroma of the red glaze. Picture 3 is a second under-painting. It is deliberately inaccurate in that I’ve ignored the tonal values of the local colours, depicting only the light and shadow, as if the vegetables were dipped in whitewash. However, on top of this fiction, true-to-life colours could be glazed, retaining their chromatic intensity.
“I can’t decide on a background tone for a portrait.”
In our eagerness to paint a subject, the background can all too often be a hasty after-thought. But even if it’s to be kept very simple, it should be considered as part of the whole, relating to and supporting the subject.
Having painted this profile on a white background I was curious to know what effect different choices of backdrop might have, all else remaining equal. I ruled out using strong colours to limit the experiment to a comparison of tone.
Against the first pale background the dark tones of the silhouette appear to be cut-out and flattened over all. There’s an issue with the unnaturally hard edge of the hair which should be softened, but notice how the equally hard edge of the top of the forehead appears softer and more rounded simply by having less contrast with the background. The surrounding tone dictates where edges are lost and found through tonal similarity. Against the second background with its middle tone, the close tonality of the forehead and background leads to some spatial ambiguity and a less defined profile than the first, while the neck and hair remains hard and cut-out through contrast. Finally in the third, the neck looks slimmer and more rounded, with a simple, logical, light to dark, front to back progression, and lost edges. The highest contrast is on the top-lit areas of the head, hardening and flattening that part of the form. I won’t pick a favourite, but compare how different contrasts affect the apparent size and shape of different features. Surrounding tone thereby can distort the very likeness of the subject.
In this month’s troubleshooter we’ll consider the role that edges have to play in enhancing (or compromising) the look of realism in naturalistic painting. As an area of study, edges are sometimes neglected, with most effort being directed at drawing, mixing accurate colours and applying them on target. But if we leave the hardness or softness of the edges of the brushstrokes to accident, then important visual clues about space, lighting, and material substance get overlooked. Edge quality is an invaluable tool of description. It is also a tool of expression, where a subtle manipulation of focus will guide the viewer through pictorial space, orchestrating the elements in terms of relative interest. A preference for hard or soft focus is largely a matter of taste, but as with any tool it’s empowering to know how it works.
1. “I’m a slave to the outline”
In our earliest forays into art we’re often taught that neatness is a virtue because it requires patience and control. This is all well and good, but painting shapes with movement and atmosphere entails more than ‘colouring in’ or painting to a strict outline. A huge variety of edge qualities can be achieved with oil paint, and here are four ways to banish the outline.
2. “Everything looks too ‘Edgy'”
An image with too many sharp edges can be jarring and unnatural to look at. This common tendency towards edginess can give elements a flat, cut-out appearance, and hardens areas which should look soft to the touch. Squinting at the subject is the usual advice for seeing a generalised tonal structure, (as discussed in the previous troubleshooter) but it is also a good way to judge how to depict edges.
Look for the sharpest edge while squinting, and try to soften all others in comparison, blurring certain boundaries entirely where areas of very close tone meet. The resulting play of ‘lost and found edges’ lends a sculptural depth and painterly fluidity to the whole.
3. “My shadows don’t look ‘shadowy!’”
We know that shadows are immaterial, but if painted incorrectly they can read more as material objects in their own right, or as cut-out holes in the canvas. If this is happening then more attention should be given to the edges.
In studying an egg under a single light source we can see the ‘form shadow’ on the egg itself, with its soft transitional edge into the light conveying the roundedness of the form. The edge of the ‘cast shadow’ on the table top is sharpest close to the object and softer further away. This softening would be more marked under a more diffuse light source.
4. “My painting lacks depth”
The most reliable mantra for the naturalistic painter is ‘Paint what you see, not what you know.’ But applying this rule without selection will not result in the most convincing illusion of three-dimensional reality. This is because of the eye’s spontaneous focussing wherever it is directed. A certain flattening will occur as every element, near and far, is brought into a uniform focus on the picture plane. We must consciously soften edges as elements recede into space – second guessing, to some extent, what we see with what we know about the relative positions in space.
The aim is to reproduce how the background areas appear in peripheral vision when the attention is held by the foreground.
5. “There’s no clear centre of interest”
As discussed in the previous point, recording everything indiscriminately will flatten the image. It will also undermine any hierarchy of visual importance, with everything vying for equal attention. So it’s worth considering how things actually look when our two eyes converge on one single object.
In the second of this pair of photos, the apple is chosen as the centre of interest and all other elements diverge into blurry double vision. We’re not usually conscious of this distortion since our whole attention is on the object we’re looking at, but in heed to our binocular vision we should remember to soften edges of secondary elements. This literally keeps the focus where it belongs and enhances the spatial illusion.
6. “I don’t know when to stop adding detail”
Good eyesight is a blessing, and it would be strange to bemoan healthy eyes. But surplus visual information can weaken the coherence of the visual statement. The previous pointers encourage softening the edges of certain elements, but that can be harder than it sounds when we are used to copying what our eyes perceive. For some painters, selecting and simplifying visual reality carries a fear of getting ‘unrealistic’ results; of distorting the truth or neglecting something vital. It would be good to be able to perceive spatial regression and its attendant softening of edges directly rather than by guesswork or the use of photography.
A sheet of traditional non-reflective glass positioned before the subject will have this effect. Its slightly frosted surface texture has an increasingly blurring effect on elements the deeper they recede. Unnecessary details are subordinated and foreground objects stand out. A sheet of normal glass or clear Perspex with a misting of hairspray will have the same effect. Several layers can be applied until the desired softening is achieved.
I’ll be braving the Easter crowds in Castle Douglas this Saturday with a live portrait demonstration at the McGill Duncan Art Gallery, to launch…
My Sky Arts portrait of Michael Kerr will be on show…
as will one of my AP McCoy portraits and several other recent works.
If you’re curious about buying something of mine, just drop me a line in the comments below, or email me at email@example.com and I’ll give you a link to a folder of available work. (There’s too much to post here.) As a special reward I’ll remove this laughable bit of Photoshop which was a shameful waste of four and a half minutes.
Slim pickings on the exhibiting front this winter, as I’ve been a bit preoccupied with this adventure:
But a handful of my paintings can be found along with an eclectic mix of 19th Century, 20th Century and contemporary artists, at the Blythswood Gallery. Caution – the proprietor, Mr. Harris, has an intelligent eye but a sharp manner.
I’ll try to make it a rule that I blog in my own words, if I blog at all. But please forgive this rare exception: Bryan Magee on the philosopher Karl Popper. (lifted from Popper’s facebook page)
“Another general attitude of Popper’s that I loudly applaud is his hostility to the tyranny of fashion in all its forms – the idea that we have to do certain things, or do things in certain ways, because these are the 1990s, and that we have to do certain things, and that we really have no choice, in that anything else is contrary to the spirit of the times, and therefore inappropriate, perhaps even inauthentic. This error is at its most predominant and destructive in the world of arts, but it operates in politics too. In Britain after the Second Word War we had years of uncritical commitment to Keynesian economic management followed by uncritical commitment to monetarism; we had an uncritical belief in nationalization followed by an uncritical belief in privatization. Town planners guided by what they took to be the spirit of the times devastated the centers of many of Britain’s most beautiful towns during the 1960s and 1970s, and corralled the poor of the inner cities into tower blocks. Anyone who opposed these developments at the time was denounced as conservative or reactionary, fuddy-duddy, out of date. Popper has always believed in either fighting or ignoring such tides of opinion. He sees them as forms of what another kind of philosopher would call “false consciousness,” and as ways of evading responsibility for our own decisions and our own actions. Insofar as we go along with them we are enemies of our own freedom. We can do whatever we can do, and it is up to us to do the best we can.”
Bryan Magee, “What use is Popper to a practical politician?”; can be found in “Popper’s Open Society after 50 Years” (ed. Ian Jarvie and Sandra Pralong), and also in “Karl Popper: Philosophy and Problems” (ed. Anthony O’Hear).
Do the subjects sit live or is the painting done from photos?
My strong preference is to work from life, when possible. I’d like my growing body of work to be a record of more extended human encounters rather than a series of artfully manipulated photographs.
Where do the sittings take place?
I rent a studio in Cockenzie, outside Edinburgh, but I’m happy to travel and paint in different settings as per the requirements of the portrait. Travel costs are added to the bill.
How long does the process take?
A realist portrait from life needn’t require endless sittings – two or three per sitter of around three hours each can suffice, unless it’s a very large or elaborate work. Many first-rate artists insist on much longer, but my current painterly interest is in the quick, direct approach.
How much would it cost?
Here is a typical range, where higher-end pricing reflects greater complexity of background or costume.
Small: £1000 – £1500
Medium: £1500 – £3000
Large: £3000 +
Commissions for institutions will usually be dearer.
How do I get in touch? email firstname.lastname@example.org
Your face is new to me. May I paint it? I’m intrigued by the unique set of your features, styled with such conviction by hereditary happenstance. I’m drawn to the expressive depth conferred by the passage of time and lived experience, and by the animating impulse of your thoughts.
I’ll give an honest account, if you don’t mind, not because you deserve credit or blame, but because I’d be squandering your presence by straying from what I see. Rest assured my observations will be tempered with sympathy as I too find myself wearing a face that I neither designed nor chose, but with which I helplessly identify.
I respect your personal space, so I’m not at all tempted to examine you with a microscope or telephoto lens. I might be denying myself the scintillating wonders of broken capillaries and oily follicles, but your psychological dimension is not, I’m quite sure, sequestered there. When the caricaturist Max Beerbohm wrote, it is ‘when (and only when) my caricatures hit exactly the exteriors of their subjects that they open the interiors, too.’ he used ‘hit’ for its implied brevity, rather than ‘trawl’ or ‘scour’. Brevity is the soul of wit, and the chemical peel pedantry of the photo-realists illustrates the corollary.
But you share this space with me in real time, and to convey that on-going presence I should guard against being too glib or cursory. If my Scottish art schooling has taught me anything, it is that superficial markers of painterly expertise, like the all-too-knowing peripheral flourish or the eye-catching autograph, should be strangled at birth. Humility before the subject is the correct attitude.
Fortunately, humility is no mere posture. I find it infusing my perceptions as I engage with the light that models the planes of your face. All content, inward and outward reveals itself as a pattern of visual facts, suggestive, to the practised eye, of passages of paint on canvas. Selecting and gathering the most salient of this information is a task of channelled excitement and concentration.
And salience is a question of artistic preference. Choices have to be made. Like everyone you have facial idiosyncrasies that a skilled caricaturist could distil and exaggerate, creating a realer-than-real, grotesque likeness. But I notice that in this light I’m really not perceiving the isolated forms etched in that way. The truth of the light on you here and now is more surprising to me, and demanding my attention, even if it partially obscures your trademark look. The way you connect with your surroundings is an intriguing puzzle, and there’s less separation and more interplay than I first noticed. Positive and negative shapes lose their distinct status, and the two-way process of tying you in and carving you out brings fleeting hints of the tangible realism that is my goal.
Thank you for your time. The work is, as always, a crashing disappointment. I was definitely in the zone, but I can see where I lost it. There’s always tomorrow.
Published in The Jackdaw, Sept/Oct 2013
More 1-2 hour portraits. The goal is to capture a likeness while the sitter is still alert and communicative.
There’s another Ewan McClure at large in Scottish Art. He’s not me and I’m not him. I hope that clears things up.
25th – 27th May, 2013, I’ll be based in Gracefield Arts Centre, Dumfries. Click here or contact me for more details.
Been busy these last few weeks and am up to my eyes with framing. But please make your way to The Mill on the Fleet for a gander at my recent efforts. Show runs from Saturday 29th September to the end of October 2012.
Not all of these made my final selection, but check out the video in the above post to visit the actual show.
Although I’m not taking part in the official Spring Fling this year, I’ll have work in the McGill Duncan Gallery’s exhibition running from 12th May – 14th July.
My two submissions to the Aberdeen Artists Annual Exhibition (Aberdeen Art Gallery, May 5th – June 9th) have been selected for exhibition. ‘Here’s Looking At Euclid’ and ‘Encounter,’ my experimental collision of easel painting and Pollock-inspired controlled accident.
I originally intended to incorporate photographic evidence of the work in progress into the final composition, but eventually settled on a more straightforward juxtaposition of original reference painting and its spattered monotone reincarnation.
When portrait commissions go swimmingly I think seriously about seeking them more actively. This recent one of Dr Ruth Page was a case in point, with the composition suggesting itself almost immediately, and the sitter being generous enough to sit for the duration of the process – roughly ten sittings.
I’m extremely grateful to those who put the commission my way, and to Dr Page for being such a patient and hospitable subject.
From a distance there’s perhaps a somewhat forbidding air, but the humour and friendliness becomes apparent on closer acquaintance. Ruth was President of New College 1996 – ’99; the first woman to hold the position. She’s particularly noted for her scholarly works on ecology and the natural world, explored from a theological perspective.