Saturday, 7 December 2013

J. D. Fergusson

An exhibition featuring the work of influential Scottish Colourist, J. D. Fergusson opens today at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and as a friend of the galleries, I was lucky enough to attend a heaving preview show last night. It is easily worth more than one visit. Though perhaps swimming against the tide, I prefer the general style and bold marks of his earlier work rather than the more ground breaking transition to modernism. Click for more info

Friday, 29 November 2013


Weed, a Poison Diaries book by the Duchess of Northumberland and Hugh Sington is now available for pre-order here, due for release on December 10th. Weed is the central character of the whole Poison Diaries concept which for me, is right up there with such classics as Süskind's Perfume. I had the pleasure of creating illustrations for that led to some Weed character concept design which, I'm proud to say, now features on the cover.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Independence Day

There were a few title candidates for this post. Death to the Pixel. Mandelbrot's Canvas. To infinity and Beyond. Making Mischief. That last one came a close second because I'm talking about a relatively new painting app appropriately called, 'Mischief,' by 61 Solutions, Inc which really puts the cat among the pigeons by ditching pixels in favour of vector graphics. For more info on these terms please click the underlined words.

Vector graphics have been around a while and are capable of some very complex imagery. 'Classic' was created in a sadly defunct app called Freehand and though simple, in many ways typifies that sharp, clean cut out vector style. The huge advantage with vectors is that they are resolution independent (and there's your title.) This means you can infinitely scale your artwork up or down and it will never degrade because unlike pixel based art, vectors are described by mathematical points, lines, curves and shapes and are therefore not constrained by the grid arrangement of pixel images. However, in order to create vector art you need to manipulate points and bezier curve handles which many digital artists find fiddly, frustrating and unintuitive.

Pixel based painting apps tend to emulate real world art materials and therefore feel more natural to painters. The images above were created in SketchBook Pro and Artrage respectively and show a much looser, more painterly style vector apps would struggle to replicate.
Anti-aliasing tricks aside, the thinnest line you can draw in a typical painting app is 1 pixel wide. Therefore when more detail is needed, your only option is to increase the document size so that your 1 pixel line becomes finer in relation to the larger number of pixels which make up the grid. However, the bigger the count the more resources and memory your painting needs, so before too long you'll encounter brush lag, an annoying feature of high resolution painting which prevents working in real time, because your computer is too busy calculating every stroke you make some time after you made them.

To counter brush lag most artists start with a small document size and increase it only to add the final details, but I find you waste a lot of time repeating and re-sharpening areas with this method.
The holy grail of digital painting then, is an app which combines the best attributes of both methods. That is where Mischief comes in. It gives us the intuitive painting of pixel based apps, but lays down vector strokes which are infinitely scalable. The YouTube video below demonstrates why working on a resolution independent canvas has so much potential.

Side note: I had intended this to be a first shot rough test video but really liked the low rent 'stop motion animation' effect!

Yeah, that's what I'm talking about. Finally I am free from the tyranny of pixels. Mischief has broken the bonds and in the process quite literally given us an infinitive number of possibilities for storytelling.
When testing an app I tend to try and break it, or at least attempt to find its limits. There must be hundreds of thousands if not millions of strokes in this painting, yet not once did I encounter brush lag. Yes, there is always a compromise when dealing with lots of data and in this case, all those vector strokes caused zooming/moving around the canvas to slow down, but to be honest, I'd rather be able to paint in real time. In any case, most future work won't be this data heavy because I've now learned it is probably better to make fewer strokes with a higher opacity setting. Also, considering Mischief is only at version 1, improvements are a foregone conclusion.

You get a simple but more than adequate set of tools all laid out in an interface so easy it doesn't actually require a manual. I really don't think there is a such a thing! Like vector graphic apps, Mischief "keeps a mathematical representation of every stroke, but differs in that it uses textured strokes rather than filled polygon outlines." This is most evident when using the lovely pencils and Conte Crayons and there is also a textured eraser.

Within seconds of first launching the app I was painting what turned out to be this - titled, 'Mountain Peek,' my first artwork made with Mischief.
When finished, your painting will have to be converted to pixels for editing outside Mischief, a task which 61 Solutions, Inc have made easy. You can either export the visible canvas or export a selected part of the canvas. This is huge because it means even the smallest detail of your work can be exported at any size up to the current ceiling of 20,000 pixels without any loss of quality (20,000 pixels equates to approx 170cm - 67 inches - at 300ppi.) Even better, we get the choice to export as layered Photoshop files, so you can easily tweak or change elements outside Mischief as seen in the 4th image below where layers were switched off in Photoshop to reveal background sky.

There is one final startling fact to consider. The Mischief document is a mere 20mb, but when I export a full Photoshop file out at maximum resolution, it weighs in at a massive 530mb. Half a gig!
I have no doubt many artists will wake up one morning, catch the word on the web, open Mischief for the first time and declare a day of independence.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Visual Art of Screenwriting

One day not so long ago, I was shopping online as you do, when an ad for Amazon Studios caught my eye. At first glance, it seemed like a very interesting idea and got me wondering exactly what it takes to write a film script. Within minutes of searching I found a veritable treasure chest of freely available scripts along with an abundance of information from industry professionals.

The first thing you notice about the screenwriting format is the way it looks. There's a lot of white space thanks to the wide margins, short paragraphs and inset dialogue blocks. In practice, all these elements combine to make an easy flowing, fast read which, as I understand it, is exactly the goal. Clean and lean. Click the image to the left and you'll see a screenshot of notes I made early on while figuring out how to interpret some basics. Should any professional screenwriters happen to read this, apologies for the errors, misinformation and plain bad writing you'll no doubt encounter. However, please do feel free to get in touch with any corrections or constructive suggestions. :D

It should be noted there are some things I'm deliberately avoiding at this stage. Sounds are not capitalised within action blocks because I don't yet fully understand why you would and when you should. In the above example scene only the word, 'WHOOSH!' is capitalised to really emphasise the sudden downturn in young Hedgehog's fortune.

I'm temporarily ignoring transitions and camera angle direction because quite frankly, it is a ridiculous notion that a beginner would dare tell professional directors how to do their job. Even if I wasn't such a newbie, my understanding is that speculative scripts from new writers aren't final shooting scripts and should therefore not yet include such specifics. That suits me for the moment as I just want to learn how to tell the story within a basic scriptwriting framework.

I read somewhere that each short paragraph within action blocks should indicate a potential change of camera angle. Whether right or wrong, I love this idea. It makes sense to me because readers stay focused on the story without being too distracted by the mechanics of film making or script formatting.

I like to learn by doing. Get stuck in, make the mistakes and file them along with little victories under 'knowledge.' I fancied a bash at this lark and after some research found many apps which automatically format screenplays. I chose the free desktop version of CeltX for mac and Scripts Pro for my iPad which exports to the CeltX file format among others.
Finding a story was the easy bit. Once again I turned to my project of choice for learning and experimentation; The Ballad of Piggotty Wood. As intellectual properties go, it is becoming a pretty well established entity, but the original point of the project was to practise 2D painting, so the story was written in the quickest format I could think of at the time, rhyming verse. Verse was fun to write, but by definition limited as a story telling tool. The detailed illustrations help, but the storyline was still more of an outline. A screenplay seemed like the perfect way to flesh out the details.

And so it proved. The first draft is finished (it's too long!) The initial verses did indeed serve as a good outline, but I had no idea how the details would pan out until they appeared. To my delight, The Ballad of Piggotty Wood has turned into something of a tolkienesque fantasy with pantomime villains and all!
Screenwriters work to keep descriptive passages to a minimum, something I found tricky, but to test the effectiveness of those six line paragraphs, I decided to choose a scene and create some concept art based on the words alone. Barely mentioned in the original tale, the evil Widow Queen's stronghold is situated in Piggotty Wood, unseen by human eyes (for now,) but all too visible to native creatures. I chose to illustrate her throne room in that stronghold; inspired, perhaps, by a recent viewing of Game of Thrones.

When clicked, the thumbnail on the left shows our scene with three rendered images alongside. The renders were made using Cinema 4D, Daz Studio and Photoshop. Hopefully, you will not completely disagree with my interpretation, but constructive feedback is always welcome!
The top image shows an empty hall from the point of entry so we can compare it to the description in those first few paragraphs. The middle image shows a view from the opposite end of a hall, now filled with soldiers. The final design of despicable bad eggs is a spare time project crying out for high resolution detail. In the meantime, this environment test is hastily occupied with a mix of quickly made characters and low res fbx models from excellent resource site, - including those superb Lord of the Rings cave trolls. The bottom image is a close up of the Widow Queen and her spider throne, which I really struggled to describe with words. It still isn't right. Looking at the image now, I'd also like to add a few silk wrapped corpses hanging from the ceiling.

We all make pictures in our minds when reading, but as someone who is more used to standard book formats, screenplays somehow make those images more vivid. I tip my hat to all screenwriters, you gifted artists who make the simplest collection of words paint a thousand pictures.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Bridge House, Ambleside

Last month we were kindly invited to spend a weekend with my brother in law. One fine day we had an amazing mini tour of the Lake District, stopping at Ambleside to see this charming little 17th Century National Trust building, Bridge House.
As is my want these days, the house is depicted from both sides. I had intended a third front view to qualify the work as Cubedist, but it felt like overkill. Maybe later.
Both paintings are 21 x 29.7cm, oils on canvas board. But for the finest finishing details, I seem to have temporarily abandoned brushes in favour of palette knives and colour shapers. Brushes waste more paint. Paint is mass manufactured from chemical processes and therefore carries a carbon footprint. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy use lots of paint where the creative urge dictates - as long as it ends up on the surface and not swilled down a plug hole. The palette knives can be frustrating to use, but they also give my paintings more random organic marks which I like very much.
I'm currently having fun experimenting with chromatic blacks. Every other colour is mixed with varying degrees of the chromatic black and titanium white, so it is interesting to see what effect that first step has on the final outcome. In this case, I mixed powder pigments burnt umber, ultramarine violet and pthalo blue (green shade) to a ratio of 5:4:1. I then mashed that powder mix together with the oil medium. The resulting black had a bluish tinge, but was easy to neutralise/warm up with the addition of more burnt umber.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Self Portrait 2013

Self Portrait. 30cm x 40cm
As far as I'm concerned, self portraits have nothing to do with vanity; they're simply the best way to get 24/7 access to your subject. This portrait was done in four sittings at the mirror with Chroma's Atelier Interactive Acrylics. I gave the canvas board a Raw Umber wash before using a limited palette of Titanium White, French Ultramarine, Transparent Red Oxide and Yellow Ochre. Tiny beads of these pure colours have been applied down the zip pull.
 Somewhat ludicrously, on finishing the painting I thought the face looked slightly too long and thin, checked my measurements, which seemed roughly okay, then realised the mirror I was using must have been a 'magic slimming mirror,' warped to stroke our vanity. I guess you'll just have to imagine my face a little wider!

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Through American (and French) Eyes

If you happen to find yourself in Edinburgh between now and 8th September I can strongly recommend a visit to the National Gallery where the free exhibition, 'Through American Eyes' features exquisite oil sketches by that brilliant painter of light and atmosphere, Frederic Church. His full scale paintings are amazing, but the immediacy of these sketches show how deep his mastery truly ran. I don't know much about the life of Church, but this exhibition has inspired me to learn more.

The brushwork in these sketches is reminiscent of Singer Sargent, somewhat fitting as Sargent's 'Lady Agnew of Lochnaw' hangs in the room next door. At the exhibition entrance a small sign informs us we are not allowed to photograph Church's work, which prompted me to ask a guide whether we could photograph the Scottish collection. To my delight, she said yes, without flash. So here is my photo of one of my all time favourite paintings, Lady Agnew.

Opposite Lady Agnew is a small, beautiful painting by a lesser known French Impressionist, Jean-Louis Forain. I've never noticed this painting before and only vaguely recall the name in some dim distant memory of a half digested education, but I don't understand how I could have walked past it so many times. Stunning. I will now follow the likes of Henri de Tolouse-Lautrec in becoming a devotee and ardent admirer!

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

A Quiet Moment in Fort Augustus Abbey

A Quiet Moment. Acrylic on Board
This is without doubt the most perfect place for hanging your work. I am bursting with pride that a giclée print of my painting, 'A Quiet Moment' has now been installed at The Boys' Dormitory as part of a recent refurbishment. The self catering apartment occupies prime spot within the Fort Augustus Abbey complex, situated at the foot of Scotland's most famous body of water, Loch Ness. Owners Mark and Laurie have done an amazing job of guaranteeing the perfect break and if you need more proof, just read the comments book on their Feedback page. You can also appreciate the breathtaking surroundings by looking at Mark's photos on their gallery page.
If you're interested in owning one of these prints (or a detail in a different format,) please do let me know via my contact page.

Monday, 15 April 2013

A Spring Blizzard

In my last post I jokingly announced the birth of a new one man art movement, Cubedism. Since then though, I can't stop thinking in multiples, so I might need to start taking cubedist Sav seriously. I'll have to find a more appropriate word for the movement, suggestions on a postcard please. The principles advocate creation of no less than three images to describe a given subject at a given moment. On this occasion though, I easily gathered enough reference for at least ten. In the end I settled for six images, a hexaptych. The subject here demonstrates the flexibility of those guiding principles; it is not a person or an object, but a space, Edinburgh Castle esplinade.

Top of the Mile
The first painting is a view right at the top of the Royal Mile, just before opening onto the esplinade. Driving snow settled within minutes, making this amazing place look even more magical.

Streaming Tourists
The second image is a wide angle view of the esplanade showing a stream of bewildered tourists filing back down to the Royal Mile with the castle silhouette barely visible behind them. This was actually the first image I painted, attracted by the odd composition, content heavy on the right with almost nothing down the centre or on the left. However, as Facebook Oil Pastel Group member Alphonso Foster points out, the dark tone of the turret and small group of people on the left provide just enough balance to pull you back. I love the idea of a composition which, to quote the infamous swine triumverate, 'by the hair of its chinny chin chin,' teeters on the edge of a workable solution.

The Tour Must Go On
As I start walking round to my left the small group of people by the turret catch my attention and it eventually becomes clear a tour guide is still doing her turn. Now there's professional dedication for you! Another group of tourists were not originally in the image but I liked the forms they made. We often try to keep focal human outlines separate from each other so the viewer can clearly read a situation, but I really like the way these glued together groups make interesting creatures with too many legs and not enough heads!

Walking towards the castle brings more opportunities for interesting compositions. This one shows the sheer drop down to Johnston Terrace on the left, while a brace of giddy lads make great shapes as they play.

Turning Back
I think this is my favourite of the bunch. Turning back towards the Royal Mile reveals a line of superb architectural silhouettes, including Ramsay Garden on the left originally built by Allan Ramsay the elder. The just visible gothic spire is The Hub, home of the world famous Edinburgh International Festival designed collaboratively by Augustus Pugin and J Gillespie Graham.

The final image shows roughly the same spot as the first, but this time looking down the Royal Mile. Perspective is exaggerated to fit the 50cm x 20cm format and the result pleasingly sucks us in towards the vanishing points. That is plural because the buildings either side have slightly different vanishing points. We're not talking grid system street design up here.

All these paintings were made with mashed up Sennelier transparent oil pastel medium and Cornelissen pigments on a Hahnemühle Cornwall watercolour block, matt texture. All surfaces were primed with a wash of burnt sienna acrylic. I used the series to test the making of neutrals from Pthalo Blue (green shade) and Venetian Red, a combination I'd not previously tried. Streaming Tourists was painted with just these two colours and Titanium White, but for the other images I also added Raw Sienna. This Accidental Tourists sub series also prompted the evolution of some new tools for my pastel port setup which I'll detail once tested in the field. I think I've solved the problem of slow initial blocking in and If successful, the solution is laughably simple.

A Spring Blizzard

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Picasso Tree

I think I was born with the heart of a Druid. Not that I'll be joining their order any time soon, but that says more about my attitude to the dogma which often defines human congregation (is the stubborn dislike of dogma dogmatic?) Like Druids though, I have always had a deep affinity for trees. As a boy walking past I imagined they'd greet me like an old friend. Oak, Ash, Beech, Sycamore, Elm and Pine were the most accommodating, but each tree had its own personality. Silver Birches were a bit standoffish and more often than not, Weeping Willows were so distracted by their own problems they rarely noticed me. For years I wondered what made the Weeping Willow so sad until as a teenager scouring the radio for Punk, Two Tone, or New Wave, I discovered late night jazz and with it the answer to the Willows' woes; Billie Holiday.

The way we treat them, you'd think it totally insignificant, but trees give us life. Or perhaps more accurately, give us breath, sucking in carbon dioxide and water to make glucose before spitting out the waste, oxygen. Perhaps we should think about that before clearing yet another section of rainforest the size of Wales; humans can only exist by breathing floral excrement.

My first encounter with The Old Forest, Lothlórien, Ents and Saruman's wanton destruction of Fangorn in The Lord of the Rings read more like documentary than fantasy, and it wouldn't surprise me if that was Tolkein's intention. The writing clearly reveals his passion for them, but to satisfy my own curiosity on the matter, a quick internet search confirms just that in author Claudia Riiff Finseth's eloquent essay, 'Tolkein's Trees.'
I suspect if most people thought about it, they would agree the moment you step into a forest, the screaming clamour of modern life disappears and a calm awe descends. Trees, it seems, are universal guardians of our sanity, silently soothing by some inexplicable force akin to motherhood.

This long standing love of the rooted beast was a core inspiration for my picture book, 'The Ballad of Piggotty Wood,' a tongue in cheek, but affectionate look at the fairy tales I enjoyed as a child. Through production of the book I, like many before, came to learn the meaning of the word anthropomorphism. We are so good at reading human faces that using them to illustrate character is the A to B straight line route. The habit persists which, in an admittedly long winded way finally leads to the point of this post.

Weeping Woman. Acrylic on Card
On a September walking break in Luss, Loch Lomond, we took the ferry to Inchcailloch Island, a small nature reserve worth the visit and if luck is onside, you'll see a fallow deer buck in the ancient burial ground (we did) or perhaps a migrant bird in Autumn (we didn't.) While waiting for the ferry to pick us back up I went reference gathering as usual, but didn't need to go far. This tree, an oak which looks so innocuous from the landing jetty, becomes a multi-headed beast when viewed from different angles. The first face I saw in the tree immediately reminded me of Picasso's 1937 painting, Weeping Woman.

Waiting for the Ferry. Acrylic on Card
On moving round to the other side, I was panning with my eye to the camera's viewfinder when this enormous toothy grin appeared in the frame bottom left. Ironic then, in a painting which is part of a series called 'Accidental Tourists,' that nature happily poses for me while the human tourist is oblivious. At this point, I realised there was an opportunity to play with the Cubist ethos of depicting a subject from different angles. Rather than arranging all the elements on a single canvas though, I would produce three separate paintings of the same moment from different viewpoints and display them as a triptych. The centre panel would be a front view flanked by two 'elevations' which best show anthropomorphism in the tree.

A Toast to Pablo. Acrylic on Card
Of the three, 'A Toast to Pablo' is the standard tourist snapshot. Its purpose is to establish the status quo, so a human figure is the focus while the tree barely features. I like the way she is perched on the end of the seat though, and the empty space to her left is inviting, but does nothing to balance the solid structure of the bench to her right. In this context the space represents a threshold to new knowledge, something we average humans often resist. From here most will do as we did; walk stage left up a rough hewn staircase to the island interior without first exploring this scene from all angles. That could say some very interesting things about the way we blindly follow paths made by others. Social conservatism it seems, is humanity's default state. I don't pretend Cubist imagery is easily digested. I'm not even sure I like much of it, but then that's the point; Cubism played its part to shake us from the safe sleepwalk to eternal slumber. History shows this effect is also evident in writing and music, which suggests to me it could somehow be necessary or advantageous.

Thinking about it, without such creative evolutionary bursts, we would live in a world which, with no hint of irony, gives serious credence to the kind of mind numbing elevator music sanctioned by industry moguls who use terms like 'x factor' far too easily. Such a state is comparable to the Salons and Academies of art history, all powerful behemoths who fought tooth and nail to suppress individual expression. In this nightmarish scenario, so much of our most innovative art, writing and music could never have existed. Music like Punk, Two Tone and Billie Holiday's 'Willow Weep for Me', recorded around the time Picasso painted Jacqueline Roque.

I love paintings which make sense from a distance but break down to abstract chaos as you get closer. Atelier Interactive acrylics can be kept wet, but also dry quickly if left to cure, giving you fast texture build up:

There is one discipline missing from this list which most of us would never associate with creative thinking, but it is in fact arguably more so than any other. After first providing a language for the creation of geometrical shapes and methods for the realistic depiction of 3D space on a 2D surface, it has since taken us way beyond such piffling trifles into very real scenarios we could never have imagined. Also among the myriad of amazing things it gave us is the most profound of all images for me, the toppled figure 8 symbol, Infinity. That discipline is, of course, Mathematics.

What has this exercise taught me? I've always been a fan of representational art. My work is hardly a visual revolution despite a penchant for messing with the rules, so on the face of it you'd think there was not much room in my head for abstract modernism. However, in this case the initial spark of inspiration completely relied on a prior knowledge of Picasso's Weeping Woman. That kind of information can lie dormant for years before something triggers a recall and once recalled, often sets off a chain reaction which leads you somewhere new. The problem with getting older and wiser is that you start thinking you've been there, seen it, done it; an auto mode which has more in common with mass production machines than human creativity. I don't much like that side of me and will fight it every step of the way. The lesson then, is simple and twofold. Knowledge is not absolute. Personal taste should never be a barrier.

Now might be the time to start a one man movement. It must be free of dogma, so I will lay down a single guiding principle which can be expanded at any time or completely ignored at will. The principle states that three is a magic number. To qualify, a work of art, writing or music must consist of at least, but not be limited to, three separate view points of the same moment in time, preferably but not necessarily depicting the same subject. The name of this new movement? Cubed-ism³. I'm a Cubedist now. :)

Friday, 15 March 2013

Pastel Port Mods

More mental meanderings. The paper wrapper Sennelier use has always bugged me a little. It seems to attract muck and when you try and wipe it clean, all the printed info on the pastel disappears. I think it might be wax paper or something. Recently though, in fact just now, I realised this could be solved by rolling and sellotaping cut acetate around the pastel. The acetate sheets I have are not paper thin, so they resist the bending. This means it won't wrap so tight that you can't move it up as the pastel wears down. So far at least, it is proving easier to wipe clean and keeps the original wrapper info intact. This in turn lead to a couple of other improvements: Having mashed pigment with the clear medium, I wasn't sure how to store any left overs for future use - roll it in acetate! This easy clean surface now also allows me to add some small pastels to my pastel port to address another niggle. I wanted the initial blocking in process of a painting to be much quicker than has so far been achieved by a palette knife alone. The acetate rolled around each pastel makes it easy to blu-tack a limited palette of 4 crayons to the board for this purpose. The palette of french ultramarine, burnt umber, yellow ochre and white is enough for pretty much any initial covering scenario (picked up from the brilliant Will Kemp but the boxes of 4 are so small you could carry other combos and interchange them easily, since they're only blu-tacked to the board. Inside the box I also placed two strips of blu-tack so the pastels stay where they are when holding the board at vertical angles. Again, the acetate wrap makes this a much cleaner and easier process.
In other news, I've also added a couple of bulldog clips as they seem like very handy wee clamps/holders! Getting modular now. All of which must surely make it official; I'm an oil pastel geek! :)
You might notice from the photo that colours are beginning to share wells or even take over space which should be dedicated to mixing. This is because a) oil pastel colors are solid and non-siccative, so they won't run into each other and b) I'm finding in practice that because the pastel on the painting surface is easily scraped up with a palette knife, I'm doing most of the colour mixing while painting rather than beforehand. By first laying down a basic sky/ground and altering the pressure sensitivity on application, this combination of features make effects like aerial perspective pretty much automatic.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Winter Garden

Winter Garden
This is the fourth painting in an 'en plein air' series testing a cobbled together system which allows me to hold a board containing everything I need to paint in my left hand, and a painting instrument in my right. It should also be light enough to carry in my bag at all times. The rule is simple, if it can't be Blu-Tacked to the support board then it won't come out with me. You can see other posts in this series by going to the bottom of this one and clicking on the label, 'pastel port.' I really don't feel comfortable using the French term 'en plein air.' Not that I have anything against the French language, in fact I find it very beautiful to listen to. Problem is, I don't speak much French and so when people like me use it, I'm always reminded of that classic Faulty Towers punchline, 'pretentious, moi?' So from here to eternity when you read the term, 'outdoor painting,' it means, erm, painting outdoors. No franglais required.
We got an unexpected Spring bonus in the form of a cold snap this week and I couldn't resist the chance to try out the ultimate challenge for the device; painting outdoors in freezing snowy conditions. I knew I'd have to stand for this one and to my surprise found the whole kit stood up remarkably well. I chose a rather strange composition because I liked the shapes it made, simple as that. Various people were photographed as they came past so I could choose which ones suited back in the studio after the rest of the image was finished.
The scene shows a favourite spot in Edinburgh's Royal Botanical Gardens. From here you can see a panorama which includes Calton Hill, Arthur's Seat and Edinburgh Castle along with many church spires.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Trail of the Lonesome Pines

Lonesome Pines
This sketch is the next in a series testing the ease-of-use contraption I made which you can read about here and here. Again in Edinburgh's Botanical Gardens, this time with my back to the Giant Redwoods. It was a cold, crisp morning, very peaceful with hardly a soul around, which perhaps explains why the pines were lonesome. To recap, I added a priming layer of clear medium oil pastel to see if I could speed up the initial blocking in phase. This did work much better, but I still want the first phase to be quicker. Of course it may just be that my natural painting speed needs turning up a notch, but next time I might try quickly blocking some sky and ground before leaving the house! It is only an issue because rather than first drawing the scene, I'm filling the surface with a basic sky/ground before scratching into the base layer to roughly mark the position of everything. I have to say the more I do this outdoor painting lark, the more I admire painters who do it full time. Its not an entirely relaxing process because you're against that king of clocks, the Sun, but I guess the process gets easier with practice. This time I lasted about 1.5 hours before most of the scene fell into shadow so again, I took it home to finish.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Infans Giganteum

Infans Giganteum
Following on from my last post demonstrating a quick and cheap way to optimise the use of oil pastels outdoors, testing begins in earnest. The title, 'Infans Giganteum' is my best stab at Latin for 'Baby Giant,' and eludes to the type of tree depicted; Sequoiadendron Giganteum or Giant Redwood, the world's largest trees by volume, known to grow up to 90 metres high. This particular herd is situated in the grounds of the Royal Botanical Gardens Edinburgh and I estimate their current height at around 25 metres - mere toddlers! It has been one of my favourite places to sit over the years, but recent times have seen its once off the beaten track charm usurped by the formalised development of an outdoor wedding venue. I applaud the governing bodies for such enterprises though. Anything which might contribute to continued free access for all is fine by me and spiritually speaking, I can't think of many better places to get married than among such magnificent trees. If the option had been available in 1999, we may well have!

Impasto Detail
Overall, the 'Pastel Port' worked great. I got the core of this image done in situ, but was so woefully under dressed the chill sent me packing after an hour or so. Another lesson learned. Some details were added back at the studio, where I discovered that whittling the tip of a wooden coil spring clothes peg made an effective detailer. That's coming out with me next time. This image was painted on acid free card treated with a coat of burnt umber acrylic followed by a coat of Atelier Interactive impasto gel. Despite this though, the initial blocking in with palette knife still bothers me a little. I think there is some optimisation yet to come and exact treatment depends on the unique properties of each surface. For example, I notice the oil pastel is easier and quicker to lay down once there is a base covering, so the next obvious thing to try is one further priming layer of transparent oil pastel medium which, using the large 38ml pastel, takes seconds to apply. Once that initial blocking layer is down though, using a palette knife with oil pastels is a dream. Any colour of any value sits happily atop any other, giving some lovely textures. The trials continue...

Friday, 22 February 2013


This workflow is a definite keeper first devised back in May 2012 on the painting, 'Mor Bheinn from Culcrieff.' Rather than applying Sennelier oil pastels like crayons in the conventional way, it involves mashing them up on a palette and applying with a palette knife, just as you would paints. With a little manipulation the pastel mush goes a lovely soft buttery consistency. I know what you're thinking. Why bother? At the time it was mere idle curiosity, the immortal question responsible for humanity's stratospheric rise: 'What happens if..?' I simply wanted to see if it would work, it did. But much as I liked the technique there seemed no substantial advantage to using oil pastels in this way until a couple of days ago. Read on.
I'm no plein air painter. Cue tenuous link to tiny random sample of amazing outdoor painters: Ken Howard, Haidee-Jo Summers, James GurneyDon JuskoJack Frame, Emma Holliday, wow that is a long long list of bookmarked inspiration. At the risk of sounding like someone who is not prepared to suffer for their art though, I just can't be bothered carting all that stuff around! :D There is obviously more to it than that but I can rarely resist the opportunity to deliver a facetious remark. The truth is, most of the time I actually prefer taking my crop of reference photos back to the studio, mulling over them, seeing what features best match the feelings I had of being there, often splicing elements of several photos together to best represent those feelings. I love sitting in front of a blank canvas and going through the mental process of deciding what to paint next. The photo references are a trigger to remind me of a moment. The momentum to start and finish a piece comes from trying to re-capture something of the ephemeral tranquillity and pure joy of experiencing the awesome delights of nature.
I always take a shed load of photo references in any given situation, but sometimes painting a scene adds to the pleasure of being there. As mentioned in previous posts, I like taking oil pastels out because they are so simple to set up, to use and to pack away. There's no need for easels, water, oil, turps or other mediums. Intense colour and inherent opacity means that most of the time you can apply lighter colour over dark. They're not wet so the ham-fisted among us don't have to worry about getting paint everywhere, yet they never dry which means you can work and rework whenever you like. Once a piece is finished it can be put behind glass or, my preferred option, fixed with either Sennelier's spray fixative, acid free PVA glue or acrylic mediums. Of these options, I find the acid free PVA works best, but it must be high quality archival PVA. Roberson have a suitable product.

Beech Scene
However, despite all the oil pastel positives, the recent painting, 'Beech Scene' highlighted a few drawbacks which made me wonder whether the workflow could be improved. I'd started painting on the spot in the conventional manner, but for some reason was getting slightly irritated! The first thing I realised was that despite the improved convenience, I still had to find a place to sit/stand which would accommodate the tin of pastels, blender stump and kitchen paper. It was a bright blustery day, so this and that was being thrown and blown here and there. The pastels are well used and no matter how hard you try to keep them clean, the heat of the sun or your hands inevitably mean they get soft enough to smudge, and although they're still a lot less messy than paints, do end up staining fingers which, as any painter will tell you, often results in cracks and callouses. In addition to this I noted the constant swapping of pastel sticks was a bottleneck; here paints do have an advantage because only one painting implement is used making it more efficient to load and apply different colours. I got to a certain stage before giving up and finishing the piece back home, but all the while mulled these admittedly slight issues round and round until a eureka moment in which the use of that Mhor Bheinn palette knife technique came back to mind. I immediately switched to a palette knife to finish Beech Scene and by the end came up with a possible solution.

Pastel Port!

The above image shows my first attempt at ironing out the niggles. No doubt it will get refined over time, but I love the low tech approach because it is so quick and cheap to put together there'll be no problem replacing parts along the way. I have no name for the device yet, for now lets call it a Pastel Port. Deluxe. :) Here is a list of the raw materials:
1 x Piece of hardboard (masonite) cut to a size which fits your bag. In my case that means a piece 25cm wide x 32cm high.
1 x small folding palette, which by sheer chance I found in the UK high street book/craft shop, The Works at £1.99. Link. You can also get the same thing at SAA or in the US, Dick Blick. Of course there is nothing stopping you from preparing several palettes. Because they're so light, cheap, small and only attached by blu-tack, it would be a doddle carrying extras in your bag and would take mere seconds to swap.
1 x small diamond headed palette knife or other implement of choice (blending stump, colour shapers etc.)
2 x elastic bands
Kitchen paper
Masking tape

Canvas board testers
In practice so far, this simple solution works brilliantly. It solves all the above niggles and even allows the painting surface to be wider than the hardboard, as long as it is stiff enough to accomodate blu-tacking. For example, I have an Arches 30cm x 15cm watercolour block which overlaps the sides, but is solid enough to be stable in use. The palette knife handle is wrapped with kitchen paper and masking tape to soak up stray pastel stains.
One issue did come up right away when testing a small canvas board - I'd forgotten to apply an undercoat of acrylic paint and in situ found it a struggle to lay down the first layer of pastel on a relatively course canvas texture. The white ground added to the struggle. This first blocking in stage should be quicker, so to solve the problem I gave a second tester canvas board a coat of burnt umber paint, followed by a layer of Atelier Interactive acrylic impasto gel which filled the weave depth nicely, but still left enough texture to allow a canvas texture to show through in places. Also worth noting is the fact that using a palette knife to apply light colour over dark works even better than when using conventionally, which is a real bonus for impasto lovers!

I give supports a dark undercoat to take advantage of another oil pastel benefit; the ability to scrape away applied layers, a technique known as sgraffito. This allows me to add fine twig tracery by scraping out the sky.
Job done then? Not quite, there is one last delight to report. Sennelier, in their infinite wisdom label all their pastels with colour index codes. This means that you can make informed decisions on which pastels are likely to be the most lightfast, opaque, toxic, etc. I noticed none of their earth colours use the single pigment PBr7, probably due to dwindling supplies. But since Sennelier do sell a transparent medium pastel and I happen to possess all the PBr7 earth colours in pigment form from Cornelissen, I tried mashing the two together and so far, this is working really well. All the neutrals you see on my palette are made by mixing French Ultramarine PB29 with one of its mixing compliments, PBr7 Raw Umber. I have also made an Ultramarine Violet which works very nicely and am awaiting some Quinacridone Magenta pigment to get a true lightfast cool red. Endless joy.
Please feel free to try this out. I'd love to hear from you if you do. Perhaps you might find ways to improve it further, or simply just want to show paintings made using the Pastel Port. :) In the unlikely event I get any, I'll post them.

With added archival PVA
EDIT: Now that I have oil pastels in this form, I took the next obvious step and wondered what would happen if I mashed in the archival PVA just before adding the colour to a painting. To my surprise, the two emulsify very well despite one being oil based while the other is water based, and what you essentially get, is quick drying oil pastel. Colour dries fast with a hard skin (dependent on how much PVA you add.) You'll have to ask a chemist about the long term prospects of such an emulsion, but my current gut feeling is that because archival acid free PVA is a long lasting and stable glue, the resulting colours will be stable under conditions in which you would keep original paintings (not in direct sunlight, or over a radiator, or in the freezer...)