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Abstract values and figurative painting with Martin Brooks

Posted on Wed 01 Feb 2017

Martin Brooks’ painting style is characterised by loose, expressive brushwork, subtle tonal ranges and bold compositions. He juggles his time between painting, spending time with his family and teaching life drawing and painting at Plymouth University. As a student, he recalls ‘virtually living in the art room’ as art for him has always been one of his biggest passions, fuelled by inspiring teachers. ‘I had a great teacher – Patrick Casely – a wonderful inspiration. After Exeter Art College, I was lucky enough to go the Royal College of Art and study illustration under Sir Quentin Blake.’

Abstract and figurative

Now, more than anything, time is a challenge. ‘My wife is also a painter so we take it in turns to use the studio and look after the children. We live near Bantham, in the South Hams in Devon, and we are fortunate to have a large, slightly dilapidated barn studio next to our home, which has the most beautiful soft, natural light coming in through a high skylight. This is where I painted Unfolding.’

Although Martin uses various painting methods, in many ways he is fairly traditional, building on age-old processes and methods and always drawing on his knowledge and appreciation of art of the past. ‘I love working with oils. I'm essentially a tonal painter, and enjoy the rich and subtle possibilities of oil as a medium, working alla prima in some areas and glazing in others. At present, I am using Sennelier paints, as I enjoy their soft buttery consistency, which allows me to move the paint easily on the canvas. I also love the texture and feel of linen for portrait work and panels for still life.'

Light and peripheral vision

‘Light for me is important to carry the mood of a painting. I like to balance shapes across the canvas right to the edges, especially in still life. I find Bonnard's use of light and composition particularly beautiful. I've experimented with abstraction over the years and like Andrew Wyeth, I aim to “capture the first abstract flash of the moment.” I try not to differentiate between abstract and figurative painting as I think that an awareness of abstract values underpins a lot of good figurative painting.’

Martin explains his understanding of what makes a good composition: ‘It's as much about viewpoint and peripheral vision as anything; you can then begin to see things as a whole. I like to simplify my compositions when setting things up; it's about selection and recognising what works.’ Once he has made that selection, he says, ‘I like to make drawings initially, especially in portraiture, as this allows time for the sitter to adjust and relax. I use photography as backup if sitting time is limited, and fairly early on in the painting, I like to establish a relationship between the figure and ground for the space to work cohesively.’

Maintaining some chaos

Rather than working on several paintings, Martin concentrates on one work at a time because: ‘Each painting requires my full attention. This also enables me to continue working wet-into-wet, so I develop a unique palette for each individual painting, which I like to preserve for the following day if I need to. I start with a limited palette: titanium white, yellow ochre, cadmium red and ivory black. I also use raw umber, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue and terra rosa and occasionally cadmium yellow and orange. However, I try not to become too formulaic, I like to keep a little chaos in the painting, room to make mistakes and experiment, as I discover new possibilities this way. Brushwork is important; I use bristles to push the paint around on the canvas, and softer mongoose and sable to add layers. The beginning and end of each brushstroke is vital as is how fluid or stiff the paint consistency. In one session I can paint with ten to fifteen brushes to preserve the purity of any premixed tones and colours.

‘Most of my paintings are initially sight-sized, so for instance, items in the still life are the same size on my panel as they are in reality; from 20cm squared up to the painting of Unfolding (see below), which was a three-quarter length portrait of 120x86cm. I work alla prima, so ideally I like to complete each painting in one session. Larger paintings demand a more considered approach, with each section completed and knitted together to maintain the freshness of approach.’

Illusion of volume and space

‘I follow my instinct in terms of style. Life drawing consistently over the last 40 years has always presaged changes in my approach; I suppose the biggest change over recent years has been a shift from line to tone as I become more interested in the painting process. My bookshelves are groaning with art books! I love Titian, Degas, Serov, Wyeth and Hammershoi, and amongst contemporary painters I am particularly taken with Martin Yeoman, Diarmuid Kelley and Jordon Sokol.

‘I try to work fast, so there is evidence of movement in my paint, although there is also often a sense of quietude in the final image, which I think comes from a sensitivity to the handling of tone. I tend to escalate my approach, moving from drawing to brushwork, brushwork to tone and then tone to colour, but in general, I have a very mixed approach. Sometimes I leave the mark intact, or move the paint around on the surface using card, rags or my fingers – whatever gives me the desired effect, and always in context to the rest of the painting. Edges, where one form meets another, are important, sharp and soft to create the illusion of volume and space.

‘If I'm actively engaged in a painting and if the image is forming in my imagination and on the canvas simultaneously I can carry on, but if I start to hesitate or fiddle with small sections of the painting without looking at the whole image, it's time to stop. In non-commissioned work, I can push the boat out a little, experiment with scale, lighting and pose, while still life gives me license to play a little more with composition, brushwork and colour. I work a lot to commission; my website has been very good for this. Relatively recently, I have put work in for open submission exhibitions and have shown with the RP [Royal Society of Portrait Painters] for the last three years, and Unfolding was accepted for the BP Portrait Award in 2016 (on show at the National Portrait Gallery until last September and subsequently on tour, to the Usher Gallery in Lincoln, then the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh until March 26, 2017. ‘Showing work is always a buzz and a good opportunity to meet interesting people.’


Unfolding, oil on canvas, (120x96cm).

‘This is a portrait of Stewart McPherson, who works in our local town of Kingsbridge. It's the biggest portrait I've painted so far and as a non-commissioned work, gave me the freedom to experiment with pose and painting style. The painting's title suggests a narrative interpretation of the pose. I wanted the painting to work effectively from a distance, hence the 'stepping out of the darkness' feel. I wanted the viewer to be simultaneously aware of the illusion of a figure emerging into our space and also of the marks and apparent movement of the paint surface – this is, I think, what gives the painting its tension and contained energy.

‘I used big brushes, card and rags to sweep the paint across the surface, especially in the coat and background (which are very closely toned) creating energy and movement. The pose is quite active (almost filmic) and also suggests a forward leaning motion. There is a sense of expectancy expressed in the posture, especially in the hands. I had Titian, Velázquez and Moroni at the back of my mind for this painting. I've also been studying Whistler and am now hoping to embark on a full length life-size figure for my next project.

‘The painting process is loosely based on alla prima techniques, although a variety of approaches came into play by the end. Some sections are worked in one fluid layer of oil paint (the coat and the background). I tried to integrate the figure into the background at an early stage; it's too easy to over-model the form so that it seems to sit on top of the rest of the painting. So rather than build in layers, successful areas are 'stitched' together to maintain the fresh feel of a single skin of paint across the canvas surface. I rubbed unsuccessful areas down or 'tonked' them sometimes to rework the painting (Whistler did this very effectively), which gave me control in defining form, creating subtle edges and allowing for delicate tonal transitions in the final painting.’


Ollie, oil on canvas, (46x61cm).

‘This is my middle son Ollie, painted a few years ago. He was proud of his white shirt. It is also a painting about light. Ollie was sitting in the hallway of our house and I was painting him from our sitting room, so the lighting was perfect.’


Clementines, oil on board, (25x25cm).

‘The bowl is Chinese, quite old, and has featured a few times in my work. I used lots of variety in the brushwork for this painting. I enjoyed the way the cast shadow merges with the form of the bowl, the small blue marks seem to float off the surface rather pleasingly. I like happy accidents like this, but only if they work in context to the whole.’


Blueberries, oil on board, (20x20cm).

‘This small wooden bowl filled with blueberries was painted at night by artificial light – I love the deep cool shadows this gives. It's a set up used sometimes by my favourite still-life painters, William Nicholson, Pierre Bonnard and Richard Diebenkorn. The berries are just suggested, I've used my fingers and soft brushes to create quite calligraphic effects. The paint is quite liquid. I use a stand oil, dammar varnish, solvent mix as a medium on hand-prepared triple-primed board, which stops the paint from sinking and keeps it looking fresh when dry.’


Helen, oil on linen, (50x50cm).

‘This is a recent commission. I spent the day with the sitter mainly trying to capture the delicate skin tones and softly reflecting light on the face. The painting was completed relatively quickly with only some finishing work needed back in my studio. When painting this I was thinking of the Russian portrait artist Valentin Serov, and of course John Singer Sargent.’


Martin Brooks trained at the Royal College of Art in London after gaining his first degree at Exeter College of Art and Design. While still a student he was awarded the Royal College Drawing Prize and the Madame Tussauds Prize for Figurative Art. He lectures at Plymouth University and in 2013 he was the SSTAR Award Winner for Most Inspirational Teaching and Most Outstanding Support across the Faculty of Arts at the University. In November 2016, Martin travelled to the US on a British Council/Arts Council Artists' International Development Fund Award to document the lives of the Amish Community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.


This Masterclass is taken from the March 2017 issue of The Artist

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Abstract values and figurative painting with Martin Brooks

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