Revisiting old drawings

I have so many sketch books now including two fairly recent A3 sketch books that I have been taking to life drawing classes. I am in the process of reviewing these with a view to retaining only the drawings that I like or wish to develop further.   I can then recycle pages for further drawing. I cannot keep everything and, as my skills develop, I do not really see the point of keeping older drawings that I do not like and don’t look at. It also provides the opportunity to play around with paint and collage.  In the first image below, I painted around the two figures using different textures but essentially a monochrome palette.

 The basis of the second image was a pencil drawing in which the proportions were essentially OK but the lines in the drawing were very light and needed reinforcement to work as a drawing.  I decided to use some metallic paints that I have had a while and not used. I masked areas of the background and loosely applied green and copper metallic acrylic paint around the drawing.  This abstract approach only emphasized the inadequacy of the drawing.  Reinforcing lines didn’t work because original lines have their own life and drawing over them with more controlled lines can deaden them.  

I decided to create a collage paper using the green and copper metallics again, adding ultramarine and prussian blue acrylics. I used waxed paper which is very thin and can be used to create a layer which is mainly paint and does not protrude from the surface like, say, card or even most papers would.  I used various tools, including a piece of a comb, to create marks  in the surface of the wet paint. I then traced the outlines of different parts of the body and cut these out of the  painted paper.  I like the technique and the colours worked well as a palette.  I stored the tracing paper template for possible future use.  This is one way to breathe life into a drawing that is not working. 

Transforming old drawings using mixed media (2)

I am so into this process that I tried again on a larger scale. A couple of days ago I found a life drawing in an A3 sketchbook that I had drawn a few months ago. I didn’t much like it – in particular, the head seemed too small and I am never too happy with the way I draw feet!  I have really liked some of the blue images painted and drawn by some other students on my course that I decided to paint the figure with cobalt blue acrylic paint. I was not sure where I wanted to go next with it and so left it for the time being. This morning, while on an internet diversion, I came across the poetry of Mary Szybist and read a poem of hers called Happy Ideas.  The poem contains wonderful imagery including a reference to a “blue soul” so I knew immediately the direction that I wanted to take with my blue figure. I began by writing out the poem in full and then added excerpts from the poem that rang true for me and some of the imagery, too. It is not a finished image – I may add some text in dark blue, or stamping, to the orange space at bottom left, which seems a bit empty. 

I would love to be in a class or group using a particular poem as a starting point. The poem would have to speak to everyone, of course. It would be fascinating to see how others might interpret a single poem through imagery. 
The process:

The initial life drawing – the neck is too long, the head too small – overall odd!

Cobalt blue paint over the  figure, adjusting the head size. Next, text was added (see above).  The poem refers to a pair of blue velvet shoes and these were added spontaneously – not sure I like them – might re-draw them because they are a rather odd shape or might look for an interesting pair to add as a collage element.  The poem is the starting point for the image but it can diverge and become something else.  The poem has one life, the image another. 

I selected particular lines from the poem that touched a chord and wrote these out on the surface of the blue figure (and later around the figure, too.

As a next step I used emulsion base (gesso-like) and brushed and rubbed this over the surface around the figure. The text still shows through in places. After it was dry,  I added some “blue globes”, direct imagery from the poem and placed dots of acrylic paint in cadmium yellow pale, cadmium orange and deep yellow in the space around the figure and blended them thickly using the emulsion base.  While the paint was still wet, I stamped into it and applied the wet stamp elsewhere in the image to create some texture around the figure without detracting from it. I repainted the head and tried to find a way to convey the sense of a face using the title of the poem. I may work further on this image but for now…

Transforming old drawings using mixed media (1)

I have long admired mixed media pages but I have never really been happy with my own efforts.  In the last week of the Polishing Kourse (Sketchbook Skool), our tutor was Juliana Coles. Our homework was to take a drawing that we didn’t like and to transform it through layering.  The essential stages were …

  • writing – responding to a prompt
  • emphasising / selecting words from our text 
  • painting in acrylic or gouache 
  • adding collage
  • mark-making (e.g. writing, stenciling, drawing, stamping…)
  • reconciliation (finding ways to connect layers, finding personal meaning in a piece)

This was so much fun and once I had begun, it was just intuitive  – try this, try that. I began with a pencil “portrait” drawn a few weeks ago, which I didn’t like. 

As a first step, I outlined the figure in black acrylic ink, painted the hair with blue ink, painted the face and wrote a text on the left hand page that responded to the question “why do I draw?”. I then gessoed (see note on gesso below) over the text and carved lines through it. I added some lines to the opposite page with a broad spatula with a toothed edge, as well as a few gold stars.

I wanted to “lose” the text as well as some of the intensitivity of the colour and so masked the lines….

…. and then added more gesso which I rubbed into the surface with a paper towel to allow some of the colour through but more subdued. I did not like the face and hair so used more gold stars, this time as stencils and gessoed over them, removing them quickly before the paint dried.

Finally I stamped over the image with a homemade stamp and  added a few stencilled words from my original text and stamped a few circles of different sizes. This left me with the problem of the head which the process had emphasized more than concealed.  I looked through my collage collection and found a face from a magazine, which I had already separated into its features.  This seemed to work with the other elements of the image and eliminated the dominance of blue hair. A little warm yellow paint was added to brighten and balance the red.

The red is more dominant than I would usually choose but when we become absorbed in process we make decisions more intuitively and we may never have imagined the outcome!  This exercise has taught me something about working in layers and enabled flow such I could let go of the end result.  I am pleased with the final image.  

That’s it…. for now!  But maybe the process never ends…

Regarding gesso: I have taken to using paint used to create a base for household emulsion paint rather than gesso, it is a type of acrylic paint and so brushes can be cleaned in water. It is thicker (can be thinned with water) and also cheaper than gesso.

Sketchbook Skool – Polishing Kourse

For the past six weeks, I have been participating in the Sketchbook Skool Kourse (sic) Polishing. Sketchbook Skool was begun by illustrator / artist Danny Gregory.  It has been a great way to get back into drawing for fun – each week a different tutor, skill set and homework task.  A couple of weeks back we worked with Dutch illustrator / artist Nelleke Verhoeff.  We combined collage and drawing to create a series of images of faces or whatever we wished.  I used a painting from a recent workshop that I did not like as a painting but which had interesting textures to create a series of birds.  (Hahnemühle A5 sketchbook, fineliner, acrylic paint collage).

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New Beginnings

This blog became private in autumn 2014 as I struggled with the OCA Painting 1 course. Eventually in September 2015, I decided to give up the OCA course. Behind this decision was the sense that there were already too many deadlines at work and, not living in Britain, I felt very disconnected with the OCA community. I also found it difficult to acquire practical skills without some direct tuition and felt the need to be a part of a “real” artistic community, with whom I could communicate regularly face-to-face to exchange ideas and for mutual support.  There was an insistent feeling that all of the fun and spontaneity that I had initially experienced through drawing, and which had led to my interest in the OCA course, had disappeared and I wanted to recover it through drawing, printing, painting… without an assignment at the end!

Now I have begun to have fun again, I have decided to resurrect the blog – to share ideas, explore artistic process (many aspects, one process) and to enjoy being part of an online community as well as part of one in “real life”, too!  I will record my process and outcome when time permits.

The 150+ posts that I made during the almost four and a half years I was studying with the OCA will remain – they are a part of my artistic development – warts and all!

Exercise: Still Life with Man-Made Objects

I began this exercise using the chemical glassware that I had used for Assignment 1, in order to develop skills of interpreting transparency and reflective surfaces.  The initial sketch was approximately A5 in size and made using gouache (seen below on A4 sketchbook page).  I used a dark green base beneath the glassware to create a contrast and to complement the red-brown glass bottle.  I have not used gouache much before and enjoyed its thick, chalky texture, as well as its ability to create flat areas of colour.




The image is somewhat busy, although the brown glass creates a focus. The task specified a maximum of four objects so I reduced the number; using four objects might work if they could be visually arranged as three and one. Retaining the larger brown glass bottle and the porcelain dish meant finding a way to depict three glass / china surfaces so that they could be distinguished visually.

I used two pieces of L-shaped card taped together to create a frame for the glassware, measured it and created a format in my A4 sketchbook of the same proportions.  I added lines to help develop the correct proportions of the objects more quickly.  The main intention here was to look at the tonal range and to discover where the deepest tones lie.  The objects wet arranged largely overlapping and are viewed from just above at a shallow angle. The aim was to create a sense of depth and to keep the eye moving back through the image and then forward again.



The pencil image above was then further developed digitally using the Art Studio iPad app.  This was done in order to begin thinking about colour.  The colours used here are realistic but I have kept the table and background deliberately light in order to bring out the transparency of the clear glass and emphasisze shadows.  Adding colour has also brought various issues to the fore:

– The dish at the front is made of porcelain, not glass, and so needs to be more solid to distinguish it from the glass.

– The dish’s reflection in the brown glass could be clearer.  The dish could be placed a little over to the left so that it creates less of a vertical with the bottle.

–  The shadows are inconsistent.

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The painting used Hahnemühle acrylic paper with a linen surface (330 gsm).  I replicated the format and angle of the table top but moved the porcelain dish slightly further to the left.  The dish also needed to be larger to reflect its closeness to the viewer.

Once again, I chose glazes but restricted the painting to two.  I wanted to try to create a visual object from the ground using layers of glaze alone.  I used olive green for the ground and dish and, originally for the glassware, too.  The red-brown jar and the upper third of the ground used a glaze mixture that was left over from a previous painting and was based on pthalo blue / brilliant red and quinacridone violet. I wanted a redder jar than the actual jar – more of a maroon to stand out from the olive green.  The ground was two layers of glaze.  I applied them in different directions across the paper but could not prevent the streakiness. This is accentuated by the linen structure of the paper’s surface.

Because all the objects had smooth surfaces, I chose to make the background more textured – an abstract wallppaper print, perhaps.  The print was created with a small round household paintbrush, applied lightly all over and then with rather more paint in a few areas.

Here is the ground:


I built up the image in layers, originally using a dark surface for the set-up. Part of the way through,  I realised that I had darkened the glass while the surrounding surface was too light. The porcelain dish did not yet look substantially different from the glassware and needed many more layers and more substance. The surface of the dark jar shows the reflection of the porecelain dish but the glaze is messy and there is not yet enough contrast.

The painting at an early stage:



I continued to glaze layers on to the dish but the glassware was too dark.  I applied gesso to the surface and then two layers of zinc white before reapplying a layer of glaze, leaving some white showing through.  I had wanted to avoid white but found it unavoidable in this instance to distinguish china from glass. I initially tried a white glaze but this was not strong enough to achieve the desired result – or not without multiple layers.  The white paint does create a sense of transparency when selectively overlaid with the olive green glaze and touches of undiluted olive green paint to help convey three-dimensionality.   I also darkened the glaze used on the porcelain dish for the shadows and added a few white highlights, as well as to the coloured jar for some balance.  There is some tonal contrast – the lowest tones cannot be too low in a composition that focuses on transparency and reflection.




What I have learned from this:

Applying a ground using a glaze:  Perhaps use retarder to slow down the speed of drying and use a softer brush that leaves less of a bristle trace.

Handling glazes requires knowing exactly where you want the glaze to go and not applying too much at once so that it does not become “tacky”.

Composition – I find still life composition harder than landscape, at least partially because I feel little emotional connection with objects.  However, there are ways into the process. Since beginning this painting, I have begun to read Ian Roberts’ book “Mastering Composition“.  He makes the point that there are five stages of composition:

1. The dynamics of the picture plane – how the format that an artist chooses is affected by every mark they make within it.

2. Armature – how the elements within a composition are connected and the “flow” that they create for the viewer.

3. Abstract shapes – the main shapes and how they interact – Roberts says that this is the stage on which success or failure hang.  Roberts describes composition as being made “through the arrangement of abstract value masses on a picture place” (Roberts, p.9)

4. Subjects – i.e. what you choose to paint.

5. Details – Roberts decribes this stage as “”almost anything (else) painted with a little pointed brush” (Roberts, p.9)

He also says that inexperienced painters typically enter this process at stage 4, ignoring the first three stages…

What steps could I take to improve my own compositions?  In this painting, I began with step 4, returned to step 1 and then jumped back to step 4.  I paid some attention to step 2 but without step 3 a composition has not been fully thought through. I need to consider armature with more care.   Reading Roberts’ steps again, it becomes clearer why a good abstract painting is successful and why many figurative paintings fail.  It suggests that if the armature, shapes and contrast are correct then the subject could be anything and it would work visually!


Revisiting Assignment One: 

The painting done for Assignment One (below) is cruder than the one just completed, although I still like the glass bottle on the right with its hints of colour absorbed from its surroundings, as well as the lettering on the jar.  The glass flask in the centre looks out of proportion – too squashed.  The shadows overall are much too dark.  The composition could be better balanced – the eye tends to slide of at the left. The lettering of the chemical symbols is crude – deliberately so – but it looks untidy.  There is a better sense of transparency in the painting just completed. However, the assignment painting used opaque acrylics and the recent one used glazes – I will need to think more carefully about matching the medium to the subject.

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Roberts, Ian (2008)  Mastering Composition.  North Light Books

Still Life with Natural Objects

I have been unable to work on course material for some months, partly due to work commitments and partly frustration with painting fruit and veg. I have continued to sketch but have not worked on the course for a long time.  I have decided to try to complete this unit in order to fulfil a commitment to the OCA and also to myself.

I became “stuck” on this exercise because I find still life difficult to conceive in a novel / imaginative way although I have come across some wonderful examples by other artists.  It is still possible to depict fruit and veg in an imaginative way but I have been frustrated in attempts to do this.

I began in a very conventional way. I chose the composition for its relative simplicity: the rounded shapes of the fruit and the sharper edges of the table on which they sit, with a contrast in size and tone.  I have wanted to learn how to apply glazes using acrylic, and to use these to build up of colour while retaining a translucency. I have not yet found a way to combine glazes with a looser style, the problem being that the glazes are quite viscous and, although they take a while to dry completely, become quite “sticky” to the touch relatively quickly.  Therefore, it seems as if one has to be very clear on where the paint is to go because, once applied, it is not easily moved. Mistakes can be corrected by covering with gesso and beginning again with the layers…but this creates uneven build-up of paint on the surface. The glazes were created using Winsor & Newton’s Artisit’s Acrylic glazing medium. I also added Golden’s Flow Release to incresase the fluidity without diluting the colour.

The image below is an A3 sketchbook page.  I glued newspaper to the surface to produce a more sustantial ground which could stand up to several layers. I sealed these using an acrylic medium. The ground may also be part of the problem.  The final surface is dense and uneven, partly due to overlap of underlying newspaper and partly through correction of mistakes.

I am aware that the “painting” below is far from finished but I do not have the skill at the moment to put it right and so am abandoning it for now in order to move on. I am including it here for completion of the record, not because I am pleased with it…



What I have learned from using glazes:

– a smooth ground is important for even application of paint layers.

–  patience is important – layers must be allowed to dry thoroughly!

–  it can help to have several paintings on the go at once so that there is always something to work on.

– more practice needed – I still like it as a technique and would like to master it.

Somewhat disillusioned, I felt that some kind of experimentation was in order where the process was more important than hanging on to an outcome.  I applied some watercolour ground to an A4 sketchbook page and then drew the composition into the ground using the end of a paintbrush.  Once dry, I coated the ground with water and then painted the same composition by dropping fluid watercolour on to it rapidly, so that colour became more important than shape and outline.  although the image is necessarily careless, it does have a sense of light.



Recently, I have come across the work of Urban Sketcher, Sanjeev Joshi, who often uses slashes of ink/ paint on the page before he goes sketching and he integrates his drawing with the ink already on the page.  There is a calligraphic quality to his underlying colour and he may use an automatic pen for this, or maybe a broad brush. Some examples of his work can be seen here.  I wondered whether this approach would work for still life, in order to create a looser approach and to create more enjoyment in the process.

I have a pile of small shiny pieces of card (11.8 x 13.2 cm) and decided to try a miniature still life using one of these.  The surface was chosen because the ink would move around fairly easily and might take a little longer to dry.  I used Ecoline fluid watercolours in prussian blue and deep orange.

I began drawing a random selection of lines with some balance in shape, colour and width.  While the paint was still wet, I drew the outlines of the fruit and table top using a dried up fineliner (although this pen no longer works dry, it did release remnants of ink, creating a more defined outline than intended. Ecoline is a watercolour and so can be re-wetted and moved around the surface, which reduced the intensity of the initial colour.  I found the technique more satisfying because there is an element of unpredictability due to the increased flow characteristics of the paint on this surface.  The image below shows a mid-stage and the final image.


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The next step was to develop the composition in a larger format.  The card in larger format was not an option (I am still searching for A2 and A3 card which has the same finish) but I had some LANA polypropylene “paper” (not the most environmentally-sound option, but…).  This surface slightly repels water making it even more difficult to control the paint – perhaps oil could be used if more control is desired?  However, this lack of control was what was wanted in this context.  I used vermilion and spring green, plus a deeper green and then prussian blue.  Addition of water created the lighter blue patches.  I did not photograph the underlying structure but some is visible in the finished painting.  The outline was drawn in pencil, which is not easily erased from the polypropylene.

These images convey some idea of how the paint appears when applied to this surface.  The fluidity and long-drying time means that the paint continues to move while drying and that there is a considerable amount of time to play with the image.  The disadvantage of this is that it is tempting to go on, when perhaps the image has been optimally worked already…


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The final image (22 x 32 cm):




Having enjoyed working with this surface and the watercolour, something odd happened: I discovered that I wanted to try another still life!  As autumn has arrived, I chose some gourds with a variety of colours and shapes.  Here is the initial sketchbook page of ideas:




However, these ideas again led to a dead end and I reverted to using the polypropylene surface and following a similar process to the first one tried. Here is the initial stage, showing the outlines, this time drawn using the end of a paintbrush.




The paint was then moved around with a brush and more was applied.  Prussian blue was applied for contrast and shadows.  A little more was added to the dried surface.  I like the fluidity of the image, even after it is dry!  I am torn about using polypropylene as a ground but it is a very useful surface for letting go of an idea of a finished product.





Finally, a composition was created in A3.  I used grapes again but this time contrasted red with green and used a box to produce a contrast of line.  I decided to use colours close to the actual fruit and began with a selection of random lines and marks using a 2.5 cm automatic pen, as before. The surface was a piece of card whose surface approximated the initial piece of card used. However, this surface is more matt and did not have the same characteristics but I attempted to work wet-in-wet.  However, the paint did not flow to the same extent.  I used candle wax to repel the paint in places and create highlights.  This was more successful in some places than others.

I tried to recreate the bloom on the surface of the grapes.  This was easier with the red grapes than the green, due to the tonal contrast for the former. The green grapes are unsatisfactory – it is their size that identifies them rather than their skin texture.


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This is the final image.  I like the way that the initial lines “contain” the image and act as a stage, and also with the range of marks.  I am less happy with the quality of some of these marks.





What I have learned from this exercise overall is that I seem to have to make a choice between attempting to depict objects realistically and using the objects as a starting point for exploring paint, colour, texture, shape, line…   I feel happier taking the second path and fel as if I have turned a corner.