Showing posts from August, 2009

Everybody needs some support

Artists love to experiment and one of the things that painters often play around with is different types of supports. That's technical language for the things that you put the paint on. Canvas is common and there are many different types and weights of it. For smaller paintings - under 24 x 24 - I usually buy ready-made canvases which tend to be lightweight but for larger works, I buy a heavy-weight cotton by the roll and stretch it myself. It seems daunting but it's actually easy. All you need are the stretcher bars (the four wooden frame pieces that you knock together with a mallet), a pair of canvas pliers, and a staple gun. Stretching the canvas as tight as a drum and planning what I'll paint on it later is very satisfying, meditative work. Unwrapping a purchased canvas is anticlimactic in comparison.

Linen canvas is a traditional, sturdy support which makes smooth, durable canvases but it's very expensive.

Another common support is a piece of wood. I've…

Painting Support

I love a very smooth surface when I paint because it allows me to make long, elegant marks and calligraphic details without the strokes breaking up on the canvas weave. I have no interest in the actual texture of a tree, it's the big picture stuff: the value, shape and placement of that tree that grabs me. If I use big brushes on a smooth support, I'm more likely to produce the big picture and avoid the tightness of strict representation.
My usual support is a canvas with 4 coats of gesso on it. If I've stretched the raw canvas myself, I put the first 2 layers on with a credit card (knew I'd need that Sears card for something) to ensure that there are no pinholes in the gesso which would allow the paint to rot the canvas over time. A credit card also makes the surface quite smooth but you have to watch out for the slight raised drag marks from the sides of the card. After the final coat, I lightly sand the surface and wipe off the gesso dust. The finish is luxur…

Painting with Water

I recently searched an artist who was a huge influence on me when I started painting, the Australian watercolourist Joseph Zbukvic, and discovered that he's posted a beautiful website. It's well worth a look.

Like so many new painters, I started out in watercolour. It seemed more accessible than oils which have the intimidating mystique of the Old Masters clinging to them. I wish I'd known then that I was choosing the most challenging medium there is. Watercolour painting is an edge-of-your-seat art: you lay down a stroke of wet paint, making it much darker than you want because it lightens by 30% or more when drying. While it's wet, you drop in other colours, soften edges in key places and tilt and move your paper to achieve runs and bleeds. You blot, splatter, spray the mark with water and generally do everything that you can to make that mark final and interesting but not overworked. And you do it all in the minute or two before it dries. If all goes well, yo…

A Painting System

Recently I taught an introductory oil painting workshop in one of the bright, new studios at Cactus Art in Calgary. There were 10 students of varying ability but huge commitment and we had a wonderful day.
We painted 11 x 14 landscapes alla prima on gray-toned canvases that I'd prepared earlier in the week by adding 2 extra coats of gesso and a gray ground.
One of the things that I stressed was that no matter what the subject, I always start my paintings in the same way; it's a formula that saves a lot of waffling and indecisiveness.
First I coat the entire canvas with a thin wash of a warm, transparent colour. This sets the tone for the whole painting and also eliminates the drag of a dry canvas.
Next I do a value painting of the subject using dark, warm colours - often a reddish-purple. I use size 12 brushes for this or house-painting sized brushes if the canvas is very large.
After that, it's just a matter of going back in with local colour of varying translucence and bui…

Starting in Oils: a 12 week course

Starting on September 15, I'll be teaching a 12 week oil painting course for beginner and intermediate painters. The course will be held on Tuesdays from 1 to 4 pm at the Calgary School of Art, a spiffy new facility attached to Cactus Art Supplies in SE Calgary.

I taught a one day workshop there a few weeks ago and it went really well. The studios are bright and new and there's the convenience of having an art supply wholesale store attached to them; just the thing when you discover, as I did, that you've forgotten a key colour!

The course will cover: composition, colour choices, brushwork, and the technical details of solvent-free oil painting. As well, we'll experiment with a number of different subjects including landscape, still life, and figurative and we will work both from life and from photographs.

I've included more details on my website, so if you're interested in signing up, have a look and contact me through the site.

Happy painting!

Work, work work

The most common comment that I hear from spectators when I paint on site at an exhibition is a variation of this:

"I wish that I could paint but I don't have any talent. I can't even draw a stick figure."

It's a sentiment that I don't believe for a minute but there's nothing that I can say to change that person's mind. She's decided that you're born with or without talent and that's that. It's an easy out and a self-fulfilling pronouncement. Telling yourself that you can't do something is the best way to ensure that it's true.

Looking back a few years at my first paintings is enough to convince me that I don't have a natural talent for it, but I do love painting above all other pursuits and I've spent lots of time trying to improve my work. Malcolm Gladwell noted in his book The Outliers that it's the time and the quality of the time that a person devotes to a discipline that determines his or her level of profi…

Transparent, Translucent, Opaque

When I look at paintings, I'm drawn to the variety in brushwork and paint consistency more than the subject matter. Paintings in which each mark has the same level of opacity as every other mark are ultimately boring for me to look at no matter what they depict.
The artist Stephen Quiller teaches that a painting can, and should, have a full range of paint consistency from transparent to translucent to opaque.

Transparent areas are the first ones that I lay in. They have pure pigment with no white whatsoever. The paint is thinned with a medium or scrubbed in with the brush but either way, it is see through. It acts like a glaze in watercolour, allowing light to penetrate to the lower layers or to the canvas beneath.

Translucent layers come next. They also allow show through but less so. The paint is modified slightly by the addition of white or an opaque pigment such as cerulean or yellow ochre. These layers give body to the colour and cut the raw look of a totally transparent …

Painting for a Crowd

I was painting at the Calgary Stampede recently in the "Artists' Window". It's the 3rd year that I've done it and it's always worth the trouble of packing up my paintings and art supplies, fighting the rodeo traffic and setting up in the Round Up Centre. For the 4 hours that I'm there, I paint (never anything worth keeping as it's a very short time) and chat with the many people who come to watch and look at my work. The appeal of watching someone apply paint or draw seems to be universal. As the object of this attention, it's hard not to try to give my viewers something worth seeing: a definitive brush stroke; a dramatic value change or a bold new colour passage. The temptation to be worth the attention is strong. However, fighting that temptation and trying to maintain flow and pacing despite the presence of people standing behind me is a discipline worth undertaking. I figure if I can tune these spectators out, and make a decent painting…