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...)

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

ArtRage 4 Release

ArtRage 4 explodes into existence with a myriad of shiny new tools and enhancements! Paint Symmetry, Scraps, Canvas Views, Clone Tool, Toolbox, Workbench, Pattern and Gradient Fills, Improved interface and more.
Here are a few of my favourite new features in a little more detail.
The mind-blowingly flexible Paint Symmetry system features a central control puck which can be moved, rotated and hidden, all of which means your symmetry work is not restricted to the centre of the canvas or mere horizontal and vertical planes. Everything is done on the fly giving you an extremely fluid workflow. You can also alt(option)/click drag the puck to increase/decrease the number of segments with a maximum of 12. The movie sample below briefly demonstrates testing my sticker spray mosaic brush with symmetry. 

iCONography. ArtRage 4
Magic. ArtRage 4
The combination was used in 'iCONography' and 'Magic' while beta testing symmetry features. I haven't had the chance to continue exploring yet, but Paint Symmetry really opens the door to quick generation of mosaic tesserae and that is a mouthwatering prospect, especially given ArtRage's ability to render textured, reflective and metallic materials, gold being the obvious first choice. Incidentally, the metallic slider was also utilised for the girl's hair which looks very different with canvas lighting switched off!

This next feature is too small to make headlines, but for me perfectly demonstrates how Ambient's considerable development nous and attention to detail result in simple, clean but powerful software.
During the beta test there was some discussion on improving dry brush techniques. Various ideas were mulled and chewed, but when the next beta appeared I laughed out loud at the solution. A single slider called 'Stiffness,' was added to the Oil Brush settings panel. Turn it up full and you get a very bristly brush, but not like the single stamp sample brushes of old. This tool generates a random and unique brush head stamp with every stroke, therefore avoiding that repeated pattern which is often a signature of digital natural media painting.

Among my other favourite additions is the Toolbox panel, a single place to store collections of items. Toolboxes can be saved and loaded into new paintings. Workbench collapses the entire interface into a single interface strip panel which can be docked to different edges of your screen. Scraps and Canvas Views are two new additions to the Reference panel. Scraps can be used as mixing palettes or simply areas to experiment and Canvas Views give you a thumbnail of the painting. You can also paint directly in the Canvas View with strokes automatically mirrored on the main canvas. Finally, important when working on massive images, is the ability to save a user defined number of backups. I can say from personal experience that while testing the memory range of ArtRage 4 on images a metre long, this feature saved me a few times!
Full details of the cracking new toolset can be found at the ArtRage website.

Autumn Sea Warbler. ArtRage 4