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I truly think your work is some of the best within the field of contemporary representational painting. The naturalistic quality of colour, tone and drawing is fantastic. I wondered if you’d have a word of advice regarding improving one’s own work?;
Does the ability to paint confidently and accurately alla prima, only arrive with hundreds if not thousands of failures?
Is sight size the most fail safe way to ensure your painting and subject correspond accurately?
Are arbitrary time limits for studies and works a good way to force one to work truthfully and essentially (again with many failures inevitably turned against the wall!)?
And finally, did you find whilst starting out, that correcting and tweaking an alla prima work sometimes leads to an unwanted build up of paint and muddying? It seems every brush mark you place is in the right place first time. I’m sure that’s just practiced draftsmanship… When working in layers there’s no problem because you can sand back and have another go, but alla prima I guess you’d have to cut your losses abs scrape or wipe off an area that’s not working…
Thank you so much for reading.
Thank you for your generous message. Excellent questions!
The best I can probabIy do is describe the key stages of my own journey. But first – a word of reassurance! Although I always enjoyed doodling, and messing around with art materials, I was not a patient beginner, and I really don’t think I would have had the tenacity to plug on through hundreds, let alone thousands of failures, before doing something half decent! On the contrary, I had a few successes that surprised me, with fairly minimal practice, and these provided the impetus to push harder.
Betty Edwards’ book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” was directly responsible for those early leaps. As well as being impatient, I also wasn’t much of a reader in my school days, but I devoured enough of that book to be able to put theory into practice, and to be quite shocked that it worked. Edwards introduced me to a clear, probing mindset, and a form of dispassionate, incremental observation of the subject that allowed it to materialise almost effortlessly on the page.
I was quick to apply those early drawing lessons to paint – inching my way around a still-life subject, and trying to finish each abstracted shape, making it true to what I saw, and joining it on to the next. If you’ve ever tried that approach, you’ll know that you can start anywhere in the set-up, and it’s not as laborious as it sounds. For the easily discouraged, it beats the overwhelm of biting off more than you can chew.
In those early exercises, the most empowering thing was to see seeing something of uncanny realism emerge, and to witness the illusion occurring in real time.
In a way, you could class this as the much maligned ‘bottom-up’ approach to painting, working from smaller details up to the larger forms and relationships, whereas conventional wisdom has it that top-down is the way to achieve correct proportions, colour harmony and a considered heirarchy of importance. Bottom-up, they say, risks giving indiscriminate attention to everything, and failing to achieve broader accuracy and unity.
Again though, this approach undoubtedly gave me something on the canvas that was surprisingly ‘real’, fueling my budding interest. With sufficient concentration, you can keep the relationships and proportions in check, working this way.
But what of taste? Expression? Artistry? I had only the vaguest inklings of their relevance to the pursuit of painting! I thought the beginning and end of being an accomplished painter was the ability to paint the world before you – and the less you had to self-consciously contrive, or even think about things, the better.
The upshot was that I have probably been slow to build a faculty for composition, beyond what a viewfinder might offer as a guide.
Anyway, with that intrinsic naivete, I ploughed on in my narrow pursuit, and embraced ‘Hawthorne on Painting’, Charles Hawthorne’s notes to his students, as holding the keys to the kingdom. These repetitive little refrains, instilling the fundamentals of observing one spot of colour next to another and building a true painter’s sensibility, lit my imagination. There were no illustrations in my edition, so I had to visualise his demonstrations, where he’d reveal the solemn beauty of humble still-life objects or the dazzle of outdoor sunshine with clumsy yet decisive strokes of paint.
Even now, this booklet has a ceaseless ability to stir my excitement about painting.
But I remember always fighting a certain cognitive dissonance when confronting the mismatch between ‘true painting’ as I imagined it, and the reality of painting that felt altogether more artificial – more beset with pretence, burying errors and second-guessing. Painters like Hawthorne, as I imagined him, and John Singer Sargent, presumably had a direct connection between eye and hand, and must hardly have needed to make conscious decisions about how to work – all answers presumably lay in the subject. But, of course, that’s a joke. Certainly in Sargent’s case, he creates a double illusion – that of the tangible presence of his subject, and secondly, the appearance of effortless inevitability in his brushwork. It is crucial to think about what he is doing, and why. He is brilliantly harnessing the language of the oil sketch – understood on some level as an honest, efficient, fact-finding record of factual observation – historically used as reference for more complete works. If you adopt this language, yet idealise your sitters, taking multiple sitings and reworkings to get there, your express aim must be to mislead – albeit in a way that adds to the beauty in the world.
So when you ask about alla-prima effects, and how to get them, you are probably wandering into this world of artful deception, and the first thing might be to see the mirage of painterly honesty for what it is. Speaking for my own work – if it looks alla prima, it isn’t. Almost every stroke is a ‘best guess’ and gets further adjustment after I’ve paced to and from my viewing spot, to see it in context, comparing it to the subject. So yes, as a rule, I work sight-size – subject and painting in alignment. I hope your studio allows for a nice long walkway between viewing spot and easel, because that’s the surest path to a statisfying, broad brush construction of your subject. Keep your table-top palette at the viewing spot and do your colour mixing there. You only step up to the painting to get one mark roughly on target, then stride happily back to the palette to see how you did!
I should say that, with the help of this viewing distance, my approach is strictly top-down rather than bottom-up, despite my fledgeling successes, years ago, doing the opposite! The initial block-in is as broad as possible, with big patches of aggregate colour (generalised averages of whatever inhabits each chunk) and blurred edges; and I work steadily down to the smaller subdivisions and refinements.
The question of deception still preoccupies me. I attended a summer school of ‘Perceptual painters’ who base their mission on a mental sleight-of-hand – to avoid painting nameable ‘things’, but instead, to capture the raw, preverbal colour sensations they provoke. If you think about it, the logical end point of that discipline might be expected to resemble photography, since cameras are unimpeded by emotions, words and concepts, and reveal the visual world relatively unfiltered. And right enough, (and rather disappointingly) the end-point is photographic if you successfully record the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. But photorealism evidently was not understood as the goal among these painters, because photos record everything instantaneously, and are not an accumulation of discreet elements, extracted over a protracted timespan under changing light. Photography also says nothing of the activity of finding and noting colour relationships in the visual field. So it turns out that so-called perceptual painting begets a distinctive language, born in pursuit of that search – often with little extraneous marks made by the artist, while measuring out the rectilinear coordinates where one colour shape ends and another begins. And rather than concealing those marks when sufficient certainty has been achieved, they are sometimes left in as a lasting testiment to the workmanlike search.
I personally find these reference markers graphically interesting. They add to the interest of Euan Uglow and his ilk. And insofar as they have not been literally perceived out there in the subject, they nevertheless have a place in a finished perceptual painting, as a record of the process of looking and painting.
Yet I find myself wondering to what extent they have become a shorthand for a particular way of thinking about painting, with which painters signal among themselves. Such ‘in-group signaling’ would presumably be unjustified, coming from painters who work from photos, thereby sidestepping the rigors of true perceptual painting, where a translation from a 3D world onto a flat plane is a key creative element. And yet, many practitioners of the recent trend of ‘Disrupted Realism’ are peppering their imagery with such hallmarks of perceptual painting, along with other ‘accidents’ of direct painting, despite the evident use of cameras and photoshop for reference. Disrupted Realism’s overarching thesis, to such extent as there is one, offers some historical context for this trickery, but trendy mannerisms don’t tend to age well. (And this critique of course doesn’t apply to the likes of Anne Gale and James Bland, whose divisionist brushwork is a genuine record of an intense process of looking.)
Sorry to have slid into an incoherent ramble. I think I’m just urging you to think about what you really hope to express, stylistically. Going back to the start of your message, it sounds as if naturalistic colour, tone and drawing are your priorities. Just keeping to those, see if the habit of introducing a greater working distance from your easel is enough to give more of an appearance of confidence to your marks, even though each will inevitably be the result of some trial and error.
Did I ever struggle with paint build-up and muddiness? Yes – and still do. But the latter can occur due to dear of the former. The initial block-in should be thin, but thick enough to opaquely conceal the white of the canvas. Subsequent paint added to that first layer, also being opaque, won’t clash with it, whereas it would be apt to look muddy when seen against the vibrant glow shining through transparent colours. Sargent teaches that even where a look of transparency is desired, it should be achieved with opaque colour. It is telling that, even as a master of transparent washes in watercolours, this was his advice for painting in oils.
I’ll leave it there for now. Do please keep questions coming, and do feel free to disagree with any of this provisional advice!
With best regards,
EDIT – The second last paragraph was particularly rushed, and its second line should have read ‘fear’ of the former…