Sunset, Lisbon

The pergola does not dominate as I had feared it might.  Many things have contributed to this – the lamp , the wisteria, the clouds rising up from the sunset, and the faded central section, the strong tones of the figures.   There is a friendly atmosphere, the phone cameras make it very contemporary while the pergola and ornamental lamp offer an anchor in the past.

I’m not sure this is finished – a few more tweeks, perhaps, but nothing that materially alters the painting. Photographs can help one to see indiscretions that are missed in a bigger picture.   There is another option, of course, which would be to really go for the detail.  The wall tiles are beautiful, as is the characteristic paving of small stones.  Maybe pastel is not a good medium to use that way.

His friends

As you can see, his friends busy photographing him with their phones, have arrived.  If you look closely, you can see another person just beyond the group also busy with a phone.

First, I estimated how far the second pillar was from the first and drew a light line.  The top and bottom of the wall can also be indicated.  Then I wiped a line in the pastel with my finger to suggest where the spars of the pergola were.    That sited the group with the first girl half hidden by the pillar and the others in advance of her.    These figures have been sketched in and the walls extended.  There is a lovely curling wisteria to put in, climbing the  new pillar from this side of the nearer wall .  It has a lot more greenery on it, while beyond the far wall and to the right of the new pillar you will see the tops of bushes.  All these thing break up the very definite lines of the structure.

Sitting on the wall

When faced with a containing image like this – all the action is under the pergola – the instinct is to draw in the pergola first, so as to set the parameters of the image.  The same thing happens when the image is a vase of flowers.  You put the vase in first.  I don’t advise it!   It is actually a very unhelpful thing to do.

The focus of the picture is the people (or the flowers), so you start with them and show only as much of the “container” as you need.  If you do this you will find your picture comes under your hand more easily.

I was interested in the negative shape between the figure and the pillar, so my first mark was the lower part of the pillar.  The pillar base and his behind gave me the top of the wall, thence to his legs and the small step he has his feet on.  These are strong marks with no attempt at modelling.  There is light around but he is practically in silhouette.  His height gave me the height of the pillar and the beginnings of the pergola.  I have lightened the spar that is further away to lessen the impact of the two very straight lines across the paper, and “grown” the wisteria a little bit which also breaks up the line.

The very bright sunset will be framed by the figures, as his three friends are close to the other pillar, taking his photo.    I intend to lighten, indeed may only partially insert, the spars of the pergola as they cross the bright sun.  Looking directly at a bright light can have that effect,  and it’s a useful way of dealing with a fence, wall, or hedge that is blocking  access to the painting.    I’ve done just that in one of the Bridges, the Holt/Farndon   bypass.

Someone else’s pergola

I have been trying to make a satisfactory painting of this pergola for some time. 

I’ve cropped it in various ways.  I’ve tried watercolour.  I’ve tried soft pastel. I am unhappy with the results.  The atmosphere eludes me.   So I’m trying another tack.  I searched through my photos for a more active sky.  I don’t want it too active for that defeats the mood I’m trying to recall, but I can calm it down.  What I find difficult is creating an imaginary sky.

Here is one of my cropped images and my chosen sky.  I am working in Canson Moonstone with soft pastels.  I hope they will conspire to give me that dreamy, end-of-a-happy-day feeling.  This cropping is too severe, I think, but I’m going to start the sky first then ease up to the composition as I see how it goes.  What I won’t do is finish the sky before I start on the pergola, and if I like it I may not put the pergola in at all, just find another sky for it!  Below is my third attempt!

I have looked at the photo again and have cropped the image a bit wider to include the wisteria (it’s there but it’s a winter photo) and the decorative lamp post.  This is Lisbon, so there are all those decorative tiles and some of their decorative pavement.  How much of that detail will I show?  I don’t know.  Certainly the wisteria could grow a bit.

The Arch

I’ve done more pencil work on this and then added both watercolour and just water.

First, I continued the garden on the right hand side in watercolour pencil.  The deep shadow at the foot of the arch anchored it to the earth while the flowering bush was a welcome contrast to the very green border on the other side.    The absence of any distance beyond the trellis fence emphasises that this is my garden, with only the oak as a borrowed landscape.

The addition of water to the pencil marks increases their density so that they are darker or brighter than the untouched marks. It’s a very entertaining thing to do – It feels a bit like those e-cards growing colour before your very eyes!  I was able to thin the branches of the spindly lilac on the left.  I had added dark blue pencil to increase the depth of the shadow.  it scarcely showed until water was added.  The lawn and the oak foliage were watercolour paint laid in with a brush.

I’m reasonably pleased with it.

“My Garden”

I’ve edged up to this one.  I am surprised how daunted I still am about painting “in a book”.  I remember being very taken with a painting journal a friend of mine would do during every holiday, her text and her illustrations.  Even lines of washing have a different resonance when waving in an Italian breeze.  I loved the idea but never attempted it myself.

Something structural, then – it’s always easier with straight lines defining areas.  I have a rather pleasing photo on an arch leading into a little paved part of my garden.  It has a classic shape, with simple bushy mounds around and a flat lawn in front.  A few sketched lines gave me a map of the design and I started tentatively with watercolour pencils.  The plan seems to have worked since I got something down and am not staring at a blank page.

I began with the terracotta pot in the foreground.  That worked so I was encouraged to grow the painting from there, gradually rising through the bushes to the woodwork itself.  The old oak beyond the fence shows signs of being successful. Colours and tones are limited, but will blend later when/if I add brushwork.  I’m not thrilled with the greenery so I hope I can rescue it with a brush!

Thoughts on the present discontent

The discontent is not the current Solitude.  It concerns the rediscovery of a Layflat Sketch Pad I bought a month or two after the publication of my book “The Bridges of Dee”, when I was feeling artistically rudderless.  I had been painting the bridges pictured therein for some years, a very strong focus, and now I had none.  Being somewhat circumscribed by caring responsibilities, I couldn’t go as far as thought might take me (my other river, the Tyne? more bridges? Chester?).

Inspired by a article in either “The Artist” or “Leisure Painter”, I decided to make a painterly record of the garden.    The advantage of the layflat layout is that you can paint/draw across the fold so a painting could grow sideways if necessary, and gardens do grow.  Unfortunately I hit a “only painting rubbish” phase and was inhibited by the acres of white paper, and the idea of a rubbish painting trapped in a book!  I’m no better off now either.  As soon as I saw it, the old doubts reappeared, even though my paintings, currently, are not rubbish.

What to do?  Displacement activity required.  How about starting with the title page – it is a book, after all?  What do I call it?  The Garden, My Garden, Garden, Gardening Notes, Flowers in my Garden, Heaven on Earth? (eek! I say,steady on). And what font?  and where to put the title?  Up high on the page with wisteria drooping from it? In the middle surrounded by a wreath of summer flowers? Bottom right, alone?

Some decisions have been made, title – My Garden;  font – my own handwriting, which isn’t neat but probably has a closer affinity to the garden than a more formal font.  I’m not an accomplished flower painter, so although I’m attracted to the wisteria idea (the crossbar of the pergola would be a good place to sign) I’m a lot nervous about launching into flowers on page one.   Come on, Steve! You’ve got to start somewhere!

Because I don’t like a post without a picture, I’ve included one from the book.  It’s the Old Dee Bridge on a misty morning.

Banksia spinulosa

These striking “candles” are about man-high, borne on woody branches with thick needle leaves, close to the ground , for all the world like part of a giant’s  Christmas tree.  The colour  is bright, especially in shade, while the tiny flower stalks growing at right angle to the stem give a bristly appearance.  This is a return to watercolour, and it must have worked or I wouldn’t be showing it to you!

When I first painted in watercolour, I used a flat brush as the shape was familiar to me coming as I did from oil painting.  This seemed an ideal subject to return to that brush since everything is so angular.  The colour palette is Indian Yellow, Aureolin, and Burnt Sienna for the flowers and Prussian Blue with Aureolin for the leaves. Burnt Sienna was added for the real darks.  The composition works because of the strong contrasts so that the “candles” sing out, and the light, brushing their tops, is emphasised.  But painting is unfinished  – the sides are too clean-cut.We need the bristles!

I have scratched out the bristles with a craft knife, taking care to make my scratches at right angles except for the tops where they curve outwards.  They are only slight but show wonderfully against the dark background.   Some tiny horizontal taps of Burnt Sienna ruffle up the body of the “candle”, while the spiky needles have added darks all using the flat edge of the brush.  Played for and got, I would say!

Homage to Vincent

I was quite taken with the effectiveness of the directional strokes in the last painting and they led me naturally to Vincent Van Gogh.  I’ve attempted to copy his painting of the old peasant in his straw hat and blue smock twice, once in oils to try and work out how he painted (there is such vigour, such vitality in his brush strokes, and it’s not so easy to do as it looks), and once in watercolour (!) as part of my Meander Treasures (September 2017).   And I had a photo of A Hat …….

This is yet another example of so little saying so much.   Like Van Gogh, I have eliminated all background detail, and attempted no variation in tone either, the perfect foil for a simple image.  The hat and sunglasses, face, scarf and blouse are all simple shapes in block colour.   A warm, browny-red background thrusts the figure forward and sings beautifully with  cool greens and blue/white.  Lilac cream hat and green scarf  frame the half shadowed face.  Despite the eyes being lost in shadow (I didn’t even attempt them), there is no doubt she is looking at you in a friendly fashion.

The counter-change, the contrast of strongly dark and light tones invest the image with a presence of its own.  It ate up a lot of oil pastel, but I’m not repining, for I find to my surprise that this is a good medium to work in.

Looking down the Yarra

Here is another painting for my possible Australian Exhibition – I might even have them all done if this Solitude continues!  It is of three of us standing on a bridge in Melbourne looking down the Yarra river.  This is late July there, so Winter-time but sunny.

I’m using oil pastels.  I have been exploring what I can do with them to keep ahead of those of my students interested in this medium!  I’ve tried blending them, but my preferred painting method is to retain brush, knife or pastel marks.  I like the vigour they impart to a picture.  This image is nicely chunky so strong marks are exactly right, and the three people are very individual in colour and pose, the obvious focus .

The painting is done on mid green mount board.  I think it helps as there are no unintended bits of white to distract the viewer.  Strange, isn’t it!  I love those flecks of white in watercolour, but find them bothersome in any other medium.  The midtone disappears happily into the other tones.

The buildings and sky are blocks of colour, the pastel used firmly in one direction only (this is the sky, these are buildings,so there).   My new oil pastels go on thickly enough if I push hard    Looking at them again I think the white should be calmed down a bit so that the white hair stands out.  But the buildings are there merely to provide context and some perspective.  I haven’t put the windows in – oil pastels and me don’t do detail.    The figures are created in blocks of colour too, with high contrasts to suggest the sunlight.  Such blending as has occurred is the natural result a working one pastel over another.   How little one needs to define an image!  I recognise these people though there are no details to help; my most successful oil pastel to date.