After working in watercolour and gouache Terry McKivragan finds his technique adapts easily to acrylics, which give him freedom to use sensuous textures and to over-paint and correct.

One of the most striking aspects of Terrys evocative landscapes and city scenes is the way he likes to explore the textural possibilities of acrylics to create a sense of place and atmosphere. For him there is a sheer physical pleasure in painting with this versatile medium and he delights in the opportunities it offers to contrast thin, translucent washes with rich, dense qualities of colour and texture applied with a palette knife. “The actual use of the paint and resultant marks and textures are in themselves an exciting and important part of the painting process,” he explains. “But I do not regard this as exclusive to acrylic painting, for all media have their own textural qualities and special characteristics and these will always contribute to the impact of the painting.”

It is only in the last few years that Terry has developed an interest in acrylics. Before then, in his career as an illustrator/designer and subsequently in his work as a professional artist, he painted in watercolour and gouache. “I cannot remember exactly why I started using acrylics,” he says, “perhaps it was something I read. But I became aware of them and soon discovered that I liked their quick-drying nature, colours and other qualities. In advertising I had often used gouache and so I found the jump to acrylics really wasn’t all that great. However, my painting method has retained the influence of watercolour techniques and in fact all my acrylic paintings start off with watercolour-type washes.”

Terry continues to work in watercolour as well as acrylics though he has never tried oils, despite encouragement from fellow painters. “I’m very impatient and I like to get a result fairly quickly,” he comments, “and this is one reason why I prefer acrylics – they dry much faster. Additionally, I love the flexibility of the medium, the fact that, at one extreme I can dilute it with loads of water or, contrastingly, I can create a sensuous texture using the thicker, buttery-consistency of paint squeezed straight from the tube. People often associate acrylics with harsh colours but this is just not so the colour can be as bold or as subtle as you wish.”

Subject matter and composition

“I’m very fond of interesting buildings and architectural themes and a lot of my work is based on this sort of subject matter.  In particular I look for ideas in which there is a strong horizontal line, preferably one which divides a landmass from an area of water. I like to see at least one strong line going through the painting, and the horizontal seems to answer that for me. Of course this can either be high up in the picture or low down, so the emphasis can be on the sky or on reflections. The technique I have, of scraping colour across a dry surface, is ideal for suggesting reflections, so when I find a subject which has buildings around the edge of water, I’m in my element! The qualities I look for in a painting are colour, shape and texture. The subject matter is important, of course, but it is more of a starting point, a means to an end, rather than the preoccupation for the work.”

Canary Wharf, acrylic on board, 87.5 x 97.5cm)

“Another attraction of city scenes is the variation of height in the different buildings:  this can be used to counterbalance the strong horizontal line and link the composition together. This effect is particularly evident in New York, which I have visited, while other places that have inspired paintings have included London, Venice, Istanbul, and recently Cuba. I also paint landscapes, though often with buildings in the distance, and I enjoy beach scenes, especially with piers. And occasionally I experiment with some still-life paintings. These are purely graphic interpretations of still life, in which my interest in the basic elements of shape, colour and texture leads to an almost abstract outcome. I’m not quite into pure abstraction, but I like to see how far away I can get from the subject yet create a result that is still just recognisable.”

“In all my subjects the lighting is very important. It is often the particular effect of light on a building or group of buildings that attracts me to them. My source of reference is mainly photographs and sometimes I have to take these on a grey day when there is an even, uninteresting type of light. If this is so I usually introduce a more exciting lighting effect when I start on the actual painting back in the studio, referring to other photographs or working from memory and experience. I find the camera very useful and it saves a lot of time – I can cover so many different angles and viewpoints and virtually compose the picture through the camera viewfinder. Photographs provide me with a general reminder of the scene just enough information to work from. After all, I’m not after a real likeness, although I do believe that the main proportions should be correctly drawn. My aim is to capture a feeling for the place and a sense of atmosphere.”

Rialto Bridge, acrylic on board, (37 x 37cm)

For the larger paintings Terry works on a hardboard support, using the smooth side and preparing this with two coats of acrylic gesso. Smaller pictures are painted on mountboard. His palette is quite limited and usually comprises cadmium red, French ultramarine, burnt umber, cadmium yellow, permanent green, yellow ochre, and white. He mixes the required colours on a piece of glass placed over a sheet of white paper, which makes the colours clearer to see. The diluted washes of colour are mixed in small china bowls. He doesn’t use any of the mediums and gels that are available:  water is the only diluent.

From the photographic reference Terry tries out a number of composition ideas in the form of very small line and tone pencil sketches. In these he explores different viewpoints and experiments with the proportions of foreground, middle ground and background. Next he makes a preliminary small painting to help him decide on the basic shapes, colours and areas of texture.  This colour study is made on mountboard and is usually about 6in (15cm) square. His aim at this stage is to establish an image which, while portraying a recognisable subject, will be exciting to look at because of its painterly qualities.

Here, an advantage of acrylic paint is that it allows him to overpaint the study as many times as he likes in order to arrive at a result that he feels confident about and which will give him enough information to start on the final painting. “These studies often work out very well,” says Terry, “they seem to have a nice freedom in the larger painting. But this is not so difficult in acrylics because the medium isn’t inhibiting – it can easily be painted over and corrected.”

Pool of London, acrylic on board, 95.5 x 106cm)

On the prepared hardboard panel Terry either begins with a fairly accurate pencil drawing to plot the main elements of the composition and then adds a loose general wash of colour, or he starts with the colour wash and does the drawing over this. The very fluid background wash is applied with a mop brush in loose, streaky strokes to create a deliberately uneven effect. Usually the colour is a warm ochre tint, but the exact choice will depend on the colour theme decided in the preliminary study. The next stage is more washes, perhaps using a wide brush, to build up the main areas of colour. While the underlying drawing provides a sound structure for the painting, Terry is not worried about keeping to the pencil outlines. Indeed, he purposely avoids doing so in order to generate a freshness and freedom in the work. If certain parts of the drawing need to be preserved he will pick those out with a pen dipped in thin acrylic paint.

Because in some areas the initial washes will probably show through the subsequent layers of paint, the colours used have to be chosen carefully to complement those anticipated for the later stages. The painting is then developed by building up a more pronounced textural quality using layer upon layer of tube-consistency paint applied with a palette knife. However, Terry doesn’t always apply a lot of thicker paint. “If I’m particularly pleased with the initial ‘watercolour’ effects and the painting is working quite well, then I use only a minimum of the thicker textures,” he explains.

Pleasure Boats Moored at Westminster, acrylic on board, (53 x 69cm)

A crucial factor is knowing when to stop, because if too much acrylic paint is applied, unlike oils it is not so easy to remove it and rework. “What I like do to,” says Terry, “is leave a painting for a few days and then go back and have another look at it. Then, if I feel it has captured my initial excitement for the subject, I know it has worked. A lot of the vitality in my paintings depends on the mixture of watercolour and acrylic effects. If I work on them for too long this essential quality is lost.”