I have been painting on the Roseland peninsula in Cornwall for more than 15 years, often with close friends in The Portscatho Society of Artists, sharing journeys, exhibitions and company, giving each other encouragement and friendship. I am motivated by the wonderful coastline, changing seasons and fantastic light, as well as a love of bright flowers and fruits. It is important, too, for me to have regular contact with other artists, which gives an opportunity to discuss anxieties, plan work and hire models – it is a very lonely profession otherwise.
What to paint
Whether a busy, sun-soaked beach in summer, a stormy deserted scene in winter or a plate of bright fruits in the studio, I approach my subjects in the same way, through my senses. Everywhere I look is a composition of colours, shapes and light, and the way I paint is determined by mood, weather and light. This could mean physically struggling with the elements outside so that, when windy, the marks are energetic and fast, creating a lively image or, when blazing hot, gentle and warm. In the studio I may have sun streaming through the window – or a warm lamplight ‘ambiencing’ the collection of objects.
I may be inspired by certain weather conditions (at both extremes) or by ‘constructing’ an exciting, juicy still life.
When selecting a motif outside I take into consideration the time of day (a two and a half hour session is the very most I would spend at a time because of the changing light), the changing tide, how much beach to include, where to place the horizon, etc – all ingredients of the composition.
Poppies and Hogweed above Porthcurnick Beach, pastel, (76.2 x 50.8cm)
An opportunity to combine a flower subject with a seascape.
Planning the composition
I usually place the horizon near the top of the composition, making for a bigger, busier foreground – unless it is a ‘big sky’ picture, of course. I never cut the picture in half with the horizon. Whatever the main focus of the motif, it is important to take time to decide where it will sit in the composition – it makes a big difference. It is worth doing a quick compositional sketch to balance it, either with an object or tone. With a busy beach scene I may mentally move a windbreak slightly, or place a figure elsewhere.
With still life I usually construct the composition – moving things around to a desired effect, viewing the objects as shapes, tones and colours, placing an orange next to a banana, for instance, for excitement of colour, or overlapping interesting shapes and textures.
I always look at the motif from different angles, even after carefully constructing a set-up – a different, chance angle is sometimes much more exciting.
I never work from photographs or sketches, but always in situ, in front of the subject, because the painting is about my immediate reaction to it, determining the marks made. There’s nothing wrong with using photographs – there are no rules; all artists abstract from the motif to different degrees – I just find it less difficult to do it in situ than away from it.
Lemons and grapes, pastel, (25.4 x 50.8cm)
Cropping objects makes the picture more interesting. Don’t be afraid to leave ‘raw’ marks
Materials and equipment
I use pastels because, for me, they don’t get in the way of the painting – it’s the medium I feel most comfortable with. They have drawbacks: for instance, you need a wide range because you can’t really get unlimited mixes of colours with them. They can be mixed to a certain degree, but occasionally I cannot get near the precise colour I want, so I have to use an alternative – sometimes, however, with exciting results. You get to know your box of colours and if the painting is flowing one colour will suggest the next.
Their advantage over oils is that there is no drying time between the layers and marks can be made cleanly, side by side. Also they feel more immediate – and physically closer – especially, if like me, you use your fingers.
Pastels can get muddy if overworked but, on the whole, they are versatile. Marks vary from blending colours together to sharp, exact marks, part layering to build up depth of colour, or solid blocks. They can be used in a cross-hatching/drawing style right through to rich, painterly effects – laying on raw pigment almost. Delicious.
I use a mixture of brands – soft to very soft – Daler-Rowney, and Unison, with the occasional extra picked up for colour. Because Unison pastels are made from natural pigments the colours, however bright, never seem to clash with each other.
I prepare my own boards using thick card or panel primed with Art Spectrum pastel primer, available in several colours, but you can add any water-based colour (paint or ink) to make your own. I like painting the primer on with big, indiscriminate brushstrokes. This gives enough key to hold the pastel but one which is not so much textured as to wear away fingers when blending! I find pastel papers too flimsy and with a regular texture – but I’m probably too heavy-handed for them!
I generally make a mid-toned, mauve-coloured primer – any mid-tone is fine so that you can add lighter and darker tones without ‘fighting’ against the ground colour. The value of any colour tone is determined by what it is put on, or next to, so relative tones must be taken into consideration. What seems like the desired tone can be changed immediately by another mark, so be flexible and prepared to reconsider.
I always use an easel. Working on a flat horizontal (table or lap) can cause all sorts of difficulties – mainly perspective and smudging. On anything but small pictures I find it better to stand, as I get more movement in a gestural mark – and I am encouraged to stand back to have a good look at it periodically. Also, I stay warmer in cold conditions, hopping from one foot to the other!
Boats at Portscatho, pastel, (35.5 x 25.4cm)
Development of the painting
I don’t have a formula for painting and I try not to have preconceptions about the picture, but I do often lay in some darks first – to help get the feel of the tone and composition, then I use whichever colour suggests itself and make marks over the whole of the painting. I don’t worry about detail or definition, but try to build up the feel of the painting while keeping it all alive. I always work on the picture as a whole and take the hint, when the ‘flow’ stops, to take a good look at it which, hopefully, will suggest the next move.
Sometimes I may put in a sharp highlight quite early on, rather than at the end, because it is something to relate other marks and tones to. Also it sets the focus of the picture – making a certain ‘path’ of definition can lead the eye through the picture.
A colour can often seduce, which is great, but I try not to overuse it, or it would lose its impact.
A painting usually takes several sessions to complete, so similar weather and tides have to be hoped for.
If I get really stuck or have messed up the painting, I spray it with fixative, let it dry and work on top. If I feel it’s at the point of no return, I either abandon it or spray it with dammar or picture varnish which seals it completely, but takes it down tonally. Then, when dry (after a day or so preferably) I work on it again – although it’s rare that this works. Usually the shine gets in the way of applying the fresh pastel. But it’s worth a try - nothing ventured, nothing gained.
It is very difficult to decide when a painting is finished. I find it easier to make a decision after it has been left to settle for a few days – then either I will know it’s settled or something will scream at me to be reworked, and I’ll return to the subject yet again. The painting will then usually change drastically because one mark will lead to another and the conditions (outside) will be different. Obviously, I try to return on similar weather days but inevitably the subject will have changed, however slightly – as will my mood, and treatment of the subject.
Sometimes a painting can look exciting at a raw, early stage and, with hindsight, should have been left then. But, with an interest in always trying to improve, it’s sometimes better to keep pushing it a bit further – you learn much more. Try not to tidy the painting up, though, by filling in all the gaps. If a sympathetically-coloured primer has been used, it will work as part of the image and help to give an overall unity to the picture.
Sunflowers, pastel, (50.8 x 76.2cm)
Mainly reds and yellows – with blue to make them ‘zing’
Keep looking and learning
I have many failures and ‘dry’ times but I try to work through them. I am never totally satisfied with my painting – I always want to improve and keep trying.
The more you do, the better you will get. Always think carefully about the composition before ploughing in. Don’t be afraid to crop a picture, as often this can lead to a more exciting image. It will leave more to the imagination, and the composition will look less posed.
Look at the subject from different angles. Don’t be tied to the local colour – for instance reds amongst greens can bring a work alive, or a hint of blue around yellow will make it zing.
There are no right answers. It is your picture. Perseverance and continued thirst for improvement will help you to make exciting pictures. Visiting lots of galleries and studying art books can motivate enormously. Keep looking and looking.
Plums and Tangerines, pastel, (76.2 x 50.8cm)
I tried to keep the simple composition of squares and circles – and painted it from a ‘top’ angle.