occasional thoughts when I feel I have something worthwhile to say!
occasional thoughts when I feel I have something worthwhile to say!
Last weekend in the course of discussion, someone said, "Its time you brought your blog up to date John". So... here we go.
There's something about taking a weekend art school that keeps you on your toes! Especially when it's 11 women, and they are all eager to get started. ( Why are there so few men who wish to learn how to paint? )
To teach the class, I travelled to Balclutha, a small town near the South Otago coast, where I found an enthusiastic group of painters keen to try painting in the great outdoors.
Despite the variable weather, bright sunshine some of the time, but dramatic, threatening clouds and showers in between, we got out there on the beach as the photos show. I think we all agreed that there is something special about painting plein air.
However, it wasn't long after I took these photos that we were all packing up and heading for our cars as the rain started. Back to the art centre to paint pumpkins! I had to repeat several times that still life is one of the best things that you can do to learn to paint better. I think they believed me, and most of them did extremely well at tackling the subject I set up.
As usual, the difficulties common to most people showed up. How to mix various colours, and how to achieve darks and lights that convey depth or aerial recession to the scene.
It's the old story – practice, practice, practice!
"The old hall at Port Molyneux, Catlins Coast, South Otago".
On Sunday, we chose to paint this old building. It was really too far away for us to get a good view but unfortunately, the paddocks between the road and the hall were saturated – almost boggy, so we decided to paint from the road. Not a comfortable place to paint really, as there was not enough parking space and cars were whizzing past at 100 K's!
I did this fairly quick demo painting but realised as I was doing it, that it was a difficult subject for them. However, they all showed tremendous effort with some promising results.
Now that I've done the blog, I can rest up for a day or two to recover!
Two recent plein-air paintings in the Dart Valley - I'm spoiled with an amazing landscape!
First things first!
Over the last month or two, I have been very busy so I decided to save some of my
emails until I had a chance to fully answer them. Most of them were related to this
web site or my recent DVD done by "Put Some Colour in your Life," www.colourinyourlife.com.au showing on YouTube and my DVD page. Unfortunately, I inadvertently deleted all 260 odd emails with no chance of recovery! So..... if you have written to me and haven't received a reply, I apologise. Could you please write again? Hopefully, I won't make the same mistake twice!
However, I do know that many of them were enquiries about the brushes, colours, canvas, etc, that I use, (even my easel created interest among a number of people), so I decided to use this next blog to answer many of those questions and hopefully, save myself having to do many individual answers to people's questions.
Whether you are just a weekend painter, or perhaps more serious, wanting to make progress, contemplating an exhibition, or even anticipating going professional one day, a few ideas from my forty eight years of painting experience might be a help.
For me, it’s important to have a working system. I find it extremely difficult to work in a shambles – gear all over my studio or vehicle, nowhere to store wet paintings, etc, and as “necessity is the mother of invention”, I’ve developed methods and habits to keep me sane!
Easels: Probably, the most important and expensive item that you need is your easel, especially if you intend painting outdoors. I was fortunate to be shown a very good design by an artist friend about 30 years ago – far better I believe than any commercially made outdoor easel that you can buy on the market. I have tired of building them myself so I am looking into the possibilities of having them made by a commercial joinery shop. If you could be interested in buying one, please let me know so that I can ascertain whether it is worth pursuing. Be warned though..... they are made from top quality timber and plywood, titanium/aluminium legs, and the very best of fittings and epoxy varnish, so they are not cheap! They do last though. I gave an earlier one to a friend who is still using it. It's now 24 years old and as good as ever. I can't imagine how many paintings it will have supported over that time!
Palettes: My plywood palette is designed to fit neatly into my easel when it is shut. That means that I can leave my pools of colour on the palette and they will stay wet for several days because the lid is a reasonably airtight fit. Its very important that it is as large as possible, very smooth, shiny, and balanced so that it lies on your arm for support rather than having to grip it tightly with your thumb – very tiring over a long day!
Paints: I use Winsor & Newton artists quality paints - I think perhaps I should send them an account for this free advertisement!! After many years of trying a variety of makes and colours, I have settled on the following: winsor blue (red shade), winsor blue (green shade ) venetian red, winsor green, titanium white, cadmium yellow pale, cadmium lemon, gold ochre, cadmium orange, permanent rose, cadmium red, and magenta. During the winter when they dry more slowly, I add alkyd titanium white (roughly 50%) to my oil white – it speeds up the drying of the whole painting.The colours I use are strong but very pure, and with practice, will mix any colour or shade that you may want. Because they are pure, it is easier to avoid mixing unintended mud, something that seems to beset so many people when they try oils!
Medium: My medium of choice is Winsor and Newton "liquin original" – rather expensive but very nice to use and I find that using it means that my paintings are touch dry in about 24 - 36 hours – even in our Central Otago winter temperatures. My medium container which clips on to my palette has a screw - on lid so that once the medium has been put in the container, it stays there from one painting to the next.
Brushes: I have tried many types and now use brushes with a mixture of hog bristle and taklon synthetic fibre, sizes 8 to 12 - all long bristle with chisel tips. I wash my them in kerosene rather than turps as I find it keeps them in much better condition. I don't even need to go through the ritual of a wash in warm soapy water when I get home from painting – in fact they keep better without it. I do allow myself a small ox/sable brush for branches of trees or my signature – no fiddling with small brushes though!
Canvas: I've painted on a number of different surfaces and now work almost exclusively on linen canvas that I buy on rolls so that I can then choose the size and shape I want to work on when I arrive on site. I simply cut my canvas off the roll and masking tape it down to an MDF panel that then fits securely on to my easel. When the painting is dry, I then glue the canvas to a backing board that fits into the painting's frame. Canvas is quite expensive though, especially linen, but there are cheaper cotton alternatives that are also quite nice to work on.
As a much cheaper alternative, I have painted many times on hardboard and MDF panels that have been primed with a generous coat of gesso. For the price, this is an excellent surface to work on – far better than cheap cotton canvas.
Painting storage: Wet paintings can be a problem so I have a large covered drawer that fits into the back of my vehicle – easiest if you drive a station wagon or van. Inside it is a space for the canvas panels to slide into so that up to 6 paintings can be stored safely until they are dry. Other gear needed is also stored in the drawer with the lid fastened down so that nothing is loose – much safer in an accident. Before I built this setup for the back of my vehicle, I made myself a simple box with grooves down the sides so that I could slide MDF panels into the box and close the lid. It kept the paintings inside completely safe until they were dry.
My philosophy of painting is simple. Whether I paint in an abstract or figurative style, contemporary or more traditional, is not really the issue. After all, the qualities that define a painting in any genre are basically the same. What matters to me is that I create something from my heart, something that communicates with other people in a way that they can understand, and something that involves the elements of a good painting. Namely drawing skills, good colour and tones, flowing brushwork, a good design that may involve some abstract qualities, perhaps even some quality from ‘outside the box’ – something beyond the conventional. That’s a high calling and too often, I feel that I have fallen short – but nobody said it would be easy! It makes the occasional success all the sweeter.
"A windy day on the Dart River bed"
One of the things I dislike when I am out painting is a strong wind – strong enough to buffett the canvas. Even strong enough to start blowing the brushes off the easel and into the long grass.
That happened just recently when my painter friend Richard Robinson and I went painting on what started out as a calm and sunny day, and ended up being a battle with the nor-wester. Having started though, you can't just scuttle off home!
The interesting thing is that having got over the difficulties of the day, I'm now enjoying the painting. I like the very wide landscape format that I decided to use - it's just a little different for me. I also like the loose brushstrokes – the sense of abandon about it. Probably brought about by the rush to get out of the unpleasant conditions!
Perhaps a good lesson to remember and apply to every painting – paint with freedom, abandon. Try to remember that it really doesn't matter. Your future isn't depending on that one painting!
To explain my heading – 'getting up-to-date'. Ive been told that many painters are now selling their teaching DVDs online – ready for instant download. With Richards help, we've now included that choice on my DVD page of this website. There is a brief trailer that you can watch first to see if the particular DVD will suit you, and if you decide that you would like it, it's much cheaper than buying the disc. And of course, you can download it immediately. Hopefully, they will be a great help in your painting.
The difficulties of getting started!
Over many years of teaching classes, I've often had people say to me,"How do you decide what you want to paint" or "How do you find beautiful subjects"? Sometimes people have told me that they have gone out looking but then can't make up their minds.
I understand their problem perfectly because for many years, I was asking myself the same questions as I burned petrol touring around looking for the perfect subject! I eventually learned that seeing a perfect subject is VERY rare, like looking for UFO's really (if there is such a thing).
However, if you're looking for good lighting or exciting colour or shadows or shapes that make a really interesting design, then there are subjects everywhere. Perhaps something dramatic, a sky like the one above or huge churning rollers at the coast. It all depends on the way you are looking at things. It can be any subject of course but it does need to be something you really want to do.
If you refer back to a my December blog (sorry Ive been so long getting on to this one!), you will read that after 42 years of painting, I still confront the same issue occasionally.
I suspect it also has a good deal to do with how often you are painting. I find that the more I paint, the more I see subjects all around me.
For example, I saw these amazing clouds over Queenstown just recently. I didn't have time to paint and it was too late for outdoor work anyway, but they were awe inspiring and definitely worth a photo. Very exciting!
I do paint from photos very occasionally. I remember when I was on the West Coast and at the end of the day saw amazing lighting at the top of Arthurs Pass. I took some photos as it was far too late to paint. Even though I was at the beginning of a South Island trip to do three weeks of painting around Queenstown, I couldn't wait to get home and paint that lighting that I had photographed.
That's the key.... excitement, awe, loving the colour, marvelling at the texture, seeing a beautiful design, enjoying the brushwork, having the confidence to put your mark on the work – your style....all those things that move us – stir us up.
Incidentally, that Arthurs Pass painting turned out well.
I guess all those qualities we would term enthusiasm - and you can't beat enthusiasm for adding persistence, strength to overcome the difficulties, and out of that, progress and skill.
Now... having proof-read this several times to correct my frequent typing errors, I'm convinced that I need to get out there and do some work.
Onward and upward!!
After some months of planning, friends had just arrived from the USA and another friend from the other end of New Zealand. We intended doing some plein air work somewhere around Glenorchy and I had been looking forward to it.
I had also been skiting about the great weather we had been having so, as you can guess, the weather packed up with several flat grey days, one after another!
Not to be discouraged, we headed for an old ramshackle building that
we knew had some good angles.
I don't really understand why but while Scott and Richard chose their subjects, set up their easels, and got into painting, I roamed around the building trying to get excited enough to paint!
Finally, in desperation, I decided to pick on one bunch of flowers on a rhododendron tree that was growing against the building. By using that small part of our surroundings, I was able to concentrate on the one thing that I found stimulating – its beautíful colour.
Sure, I still had to consider the usual things that make a good painting – the design, where was I going to place my focal point, the use of lights and darks, the intensity of the colours, etc., but at least I was getting excited!!
I know that many people think that flower paintings are 'old hat', just another cliche! It's a worry too that a large flower study may be slow to sell - and I'm supposed to be earning an income from my work!
On the other hand, I believe that we painters should be expressing how we feel - something from the heart. After that small study, I now love the colour of those flowers. And for that matter, I've always enjoyed painting that old earthenware pot my wife gave me. So......forgetting about the practicalities, I decided to paint something I haven't done for years - a vase of flowers - perhaps the beginnings of a series.
What am I trying to say in this blog?
( 1 ) For me, it is so important that I am enthusiastic about my subject. I often find myself washing off partway through a picture if I start without some enthusiasm. Let's face it, it's hard to paint well if you don't feel like it!
( 2 ) When I've found a subject I like, I paint with the possibilities of a theme in mind because it helps me to progress to my next painting. The ideas begin to flow more easily.
( 3 ) I suspect that smaller studies around a theme are a good idea for many painters that struggle to get started (and I know from my painting classes that many do ). Even little colour roughs can do the job. Much less daunting than some huge panorama that's been 'on hold'.
I just hope my renewed enthusiasm is showing!
"RAIN....rocks, surf, and sand on the West Coast"
I have always had a love of New Zealand's South Island and especially the West Coast. With beautiful beaches, rocky outcrops, pounding surf, and beautiful native bush down to the shoreline, it's a painter's delight.
Mind you, you can't always say the same about its weather!
With four painter friends, I spent ten days up there just recently. The first two were glorious – perfect painting weather. The rest .... rain and mist, but with occasional glimpses of hope on the horizon.It was a good time of fellowship but disappointing from a painting point of view.
So.....despite there being no wet weather bonus pay, we decided to get out there and do some work anyway.
I think one of the essential qualities of a painter is persistence – born out of passion – almost to the point of stupidity!
It's like any activity that demands a high degree of skill –you can't afford to rest on your laurels. If you want to do well, you need to push through the hard times. As if there weren't enough of those times! Just the usual difficulties with tone, design and colour,etc, are usually enough, but then we needed to contend with the conditions as well.
As you can see from the top photo, you can produce a painting on a wet day but it's not easy. The lighting is dull so that everything is flat and lifeless. It becomes difficult to find nice colour in the subject. The wet brushes become floppy and the oil paints become an emulsion on the palette – hard to mix and difficult to apply to the canvas. (You can't actually see in the photo but the painting was completely wet with drops of water running off the bottom. Fortunately, it doesn't penetrate the oils and they dry perfectly normally.)
I was disappointed with my effort but decided to keep it anyway. At the time, I just wanted to get out of the rain!
However, nicely comfortable back at home, I've had a fresh look at the painting and can see definite hope. I like the rock formation and the sea certainly feels stormy - it carries the flavour of the day. Perhaps one or two seagulls on the beach to create a point of interest and I might have a successful painting for my efforts.
There was light at the end of the tunnel ...... I'm feeling better already!!
"Rugged coastline near the Fox River, West Coast."
We've all had that feeling occasionally that a painting has missed the mark but it can be hard to determine why.
I mentioned in one of my blog pages just recently, that it was a good idea to put a painting away and have a fresh look at it after perhaps a month or so. These two photos of a recent painting are a good example.
The 1st version (top) went off to a gallery where it hung for some months but I was not sure that I was completely happy with it. Unfortunately, the gallery closed down and the painting came home. On seeing it with a fresh eye, I realized why I had been uncertain about it. The lower photo is the new version – resized and repainted completely! People who saw the original version said they thought it was great, very striking, etc. However, having seen it afresh, I was convinced that it either had to be changed or destroyed.
There were several reasons that I was unhappy. I felt that the colours I had used were drab – there was a lack of sunshine. I also realised that I had created a number of focal points – the large piece of tree trunk slightly right of centre, the second piece of driftwood in the sand slightly left of centre, the splash of the wave, the rock tower above the splash - just far enough away from the main rock structure to feel separated and therefore distracting to the eye. Even the distant hill was a problem – too hard edged to fall into the background. And the sky felt lifeless! I also realised on seeing it again, that it was simply too big.
I don't like working over a dry painting but this one was large, (2.4 m long), and had taken a good deal of time and materials so I decided to give it a second chance.
With 600 mm. lopped off one end, re-shaped and rearranged elements, much better colour, and greater variation in the sky and foreground, its now one of my favourites. And all it took was a few hours! I've decided that on a painting this big, some preliminary design work on paper and perhaps a small colour rough are almost essential.
Sigh....... it seems theres always more to be learned!
Most people have heard of 'writers block'. I believe that artists can experience the same thing – a sudden inability to see good subjects, perhaps a lack of flow in a paintings brushwork, the
realisation that your work has dropped below your usual standard.
There can be so many reasons of course. A loss of the 'muse', some sort of altered mental state, my first time out of New Zealand and being away from everything familiar, the general upheaval of travel, even jet lag could be a handy excuse!
(I'm not really sure what the 'muse' is when I think about it!)
Of all the times to pick on, I experienced this artist's block while Richard Robinson, a painter friend and I were in the USA just recently to go to a Plein Air Convention and to do some painting with other friends in California.
First - the convention - a great time of learning, meeting people,(about 800 of them) and seeing top line painters demonstrate.
We plein air painters prefer nice calm conditions but the weather was not always kind to us – quite cold and windy for a time when we first arrived. However,on the last day, we went to paint around the cafes and boat moorings of Monterey. At last the wind dropped and we had sunny, mild conditions. A great group to paint with too as most of the people at the convention gathered in one place. Mind you, I struggled with this painting of the boat harbour at the bottom of this blog for some time, but at last, I was happy with the outcome.
With the convention over, we went up to Yosemite national park. What a fantastic place!
I felt particularly inspired by the beautiful colour of the water and the pearly white granite rocks around the river flowing out of Yosemite. I felt the urge to paint big. (This is a common experience for me.) BIG mistake!! I struggled with the painting all day and although I've put it at the head of this blog, I feel that it still needs finishing. I like it so far though!
It's frustrating when things go this way. It's so much better to travel home with a painting that you are pleased with and that you feel is finished. However, despite not painting well, I don't want to sound as if it was all doom and gloom. We had a great time. We saw and stayed in great places, I had good company, they even helped with my painting gear at one stage when I was struggling, and I found that Americans are so very helpful and friendly. (They can't make really good coffee though!)
Will I go to the convention again next year? I'll have to work on it as two 13 1/2 hour flights in a cramped seat feels a bit daunting just yet!
"Low tide near Pukerua Bay, Kapiti coastline."
I've been teaching in the last few weeks and was asked on the last day of the course if I would demonstrate – preferably water and reflections in the subject to be painted.
In two weeks time, I will be travelling to the annual convention for plein air painters that is being held in Monterey, California this year. (10th to 14 April if you live near enough to consider going.)
I've been asked if I will do a demonstration painting at the convention but it will be a very short demonstration of only three quarters of an hour.
So… as I started this painting I wondered if I could do it in roughly an hour, as a warmup for my demonstration at the convention.
I decided that a painting from memory of a rock pool that I had done many years ago would be suitable. Many people, I've discovered, really struggle with rocks. And, as I said, they wanted water and reflection, so it would be ideal. It is also a relatively simple subject so it should fit into my time limit.
I really like the outcome of this exercise. Because of the time pressure, the painting is very loose – broad brush strokes with very little bother about details. It's the very way I want to paint all of the time but don't always succeed. It's so easy, as I've said in earlier blogs, to get caught in the web of careful edges and fine detail. It's almost like sketching but in a semi – controlled manner. Good fun!!
I had also been stressing in these lessons, that you barely need small brushes when painting in an impressionist style but, so often, people can't believe it! This painting demonstrated that perfectly. I'm just hoping I can pull it all together in the same way when I demonstrate at Monterey. By the way – it did fit it into one hour
If you're interested in plein air painting, or just painting generally for that matter, the convention should be well worth going to. I'm certainly looking forward to it!
Please introduce yourself to me if you come along.
" Early Farmers -The Brocket's Homestead on Western Lake Road "
As an artist, there's something special about old buildings. The style of the building, the weather, rust, moss and lichen all casting their own effect and contributing to the subject. This one was particularly good with the stand of dark macrocarpa trees forming a beautiful background for the old house.
Mind you, that's not to say that I would like to live in one! I enjoy our modern low maintenance homes with efficient insulation and double glazing too much!!
When I said bringing up the past, I was referring not only to the age of the house but also to the fact that I painted this picture in 1985.
I came across a slide of the painting just recently and thought "Wow, did I paint that!?" I really liked the colour – it spoke of dry Wairarapa summers and the sense of isolation the house portrayed. Much as the farmers felt I would imagine, as, at the time, they would have been miles from town.
So often, seeing an old painting can be a very discouraging experience. Putting a painting away for a time, and then seeing it with a fresh eye, is one way of judging the quality of your work. Bad design, weak tones, dirty colour, poor drawing – these things can be so obvious in seeing your work after it's been out of sight for a time. (1985 to 2013 might be a bit extreme though!)
In this case I had completely forgotten it!
There is a silver lining though – it shows that you have grown in your skills and understanding since you did that painting.
But this one of an old colonial wreck looked ok – not too embarrassing at all!
While we were living in the area, I painted this building on the spot several times from various angles and distances. This was a bit different though. It was a studio painting done from a pencil sketch with acrylics on canvas – very much a watercolour approach. I've always liked the way transparent watercolours can give beautiful glowing colours and the acrylics used as thin washes, have the same effect. The texture of the canvas looks good too.
There is another plus to all this. Although I prefer working outdoors, this is a great way to spend the day if it's just too hot or cold to paint outside!
What People Are Saying
Informative instruction and demonstration from a highly skilled artist. When you see John's paintings you know that he has spent many years honing his art. His mastery of colour, tone, brushwork and composition instills confidence that he knows what he talking about as a teacher. Highly recommended."