Monte Bianchi 02

First I needed to deal with the distant hillside.  The pastels I used are too bright though in a good part of the spectrum.   They are a pale blue green, so I chose a pale peach pastel from the other side of the colour wheel, and gently overlaid it, disturbing the underlayer a little so that the two blended.   Now we have a greeny blue hillside that is much reduced in intensity.

The tree in the foreground is an important part of the composition.  Unusually, the leaf shapes are quite distinct.  If you measure one of them against the width of the door, you will appreciate their size too.  Treating them all as “mass” would work, but it is an opportunity to try another way of showing trees.

I selected five greens of the same “family” and added a bright yellow.  My aim was to create some of the leaf shapes on the edge of the tree using differing pressures on the pastel to create the shapes I saw.  There is no need to follow the photo slavishly.  A joyous approximation will suffice.  Where the leaves mass, I have used more solid strokes and scribbles, but broken the edges with more definite shapes.

Looking at the photo of the painting, I notice I have a square tree behind my star performer!  That’s for next time.

Keswick paintings

Recently, I visited Keswick on an oil painting course, using a palette knife only, en plein air.  October can be beautiful, a sort of Indian Summer, but this October wasn’t so.  In fact it was very cold and somewhat rainy.  This was a transferred holiday from April this year (which was balmy) – a very strange year.

Behold my first effort.  Bearing in mind that my clothing (inexperience shows) wasn’t adequate, and that rain passed by intermittently, and the thin wind blew straight at us across the lake,  I didn’t do too badly.  It’s not what was in front of me,  and the tonal variation of the trees is poor, but it looks like a rainy mountain.

The new thing was doing landscape using a palette knife only.  I have painted townscapes in the studio using a palette knife, and one landscape impression used as a background for flowers, always with a brush handy for final details if necessary.  Manipulating the knife to say what I wanted involved some contortions at first.  For instance, this view was relatively friendly to a left-hander, not a problem I had to address using a brush.   The descending hillside met the lake where a left-hander could create the acute angle  comfortably.  Increasingly during the course there were “right-handed” views.

The other interesting “thing” was mixing the right colour and, more important, the right tone, proved surprisingly difficult.  This was partly because the chasing clouds changed the tone by the minute, and partly because the general light outside is different.  Mixes I confidently used in the studio, were near-misses in the open air.

Pastel – Monte Bianchi

It was so good to see all my friends at the Zoom demonstration.  I do miss our weekly meetings in Holt – maybe next year?

This week I was working with a vertical board, standing somewhat constrained by the camera at my right elbow.

Now I can stand back and assess the result of this stage in the painting, I can see, as can you, from the juxtaposition of the photo and the painting that the tonal values are in the right place so that the picture can be “read”.

The distant mountain is too close, the colour too bright, too glowing.

I like the purple shadows, though they need to be modified, perhaps towards to blue end of purple, and it needs something warmer still in the lighter areas of the building.  I’m not aiming to match the photo, but to recreate the feeling of the place, mid-morning on a very hot day in a very quiet place on one side of a deep valley.

The strength of the building is there already, and the gentle slope of the hill before it takes a nosedive just over the fence is suggesting the charm of the place.

Italy – final day

We spent the day in a tiny hilltop  village of Monte Bianchi.  It’s very picturesque so the inhabitants are used to painters, and just carried on, greeting us pleasantly but incurious about our efforts.  There were splendid views all round from both  the grassy lawn in front of the church at one end of the village, and the modern hotel and restaurant at the other.

Full of confidence, I went straight in with paint!    It was such a simple view -the distant, tree-covered mountains covered with early morning mist, the grass green lawn with its little tree, then the pillar of the church porch.  We were given 20 minutes to capture this view.  There was a slender palm tree with a mop on top  on the right hand side that would have balanced the composition , but time ran out.

We repaired to the restaurant where we well provided for, and sat in the shade finishing the carafe of wine.  Perhaps that was an incautious thing to do, for we another painting  to do, this time the view from the hotel terrace.

In view of what I have just said, you will understand that this is less than perfect.  The mountains, the trees and the drive are OK, but that large dark green cotton wool ball on the right is not one of my most memorable paintings.

It was a splendid holiday and taught me much.  I don’t think I’ll be going out painting as Autumn and Winter approach,  but I’ll be out there come the Spring.

Italy – Day 5

Today we were whisked off to the ruins of an old monastery, closed down in the 1500s I think, and now privately owned and run as a wedding venue.  The Cloisters were still intact and made a cool and complex place to paint.  Again, they had been opened for us only.  The interest lay in the interweaving of the curves of the ceiling and the patterns of sunlight and shadow.

I think I lost the plot here, as the colours look cold and uninviting.  Painting from life on this occasion gave me a more grey palette than I would have used, had I thought about it a bit more.  Had it been a photo, I would have used Ultramarine Violet as my base for the shadows.   This would have helped to differentiate the blue grey flags in the courtyard, and pillars, too.  The floor was much warmer too, being faded red tiles, some of them whitened with age.    It’s a difficult drawing, though, and I think I won there.


We had a splendid picnic, beautifully laid out in the loggia of the monastery  taking in the sun and the wonderful views, then returned to the Mill  to paint a “personal choice”.  I returned to the river, where the rushing milky water and the exposed pebbles had interested me on our first visit there. 

I’d learnt some sense by this time and the equipment I carried was considerably reduced – my smallest water pot that sat neatly in my paintbox, (I’d taken out the holder for paint pans), half a dozen tubes , two brushes, my watercolour paper pad, a paint rag, and an easel.  I hadn’t appreciated how much I used the paint rag to control the amount of water in the brush, and found a convenient place for it at the top of the easel, both hands being fully occupied.  I enjoyed this experience but had to stop after an hour and a half as my concentration slid away.

More Italian paintings

We visited a town clustered around a castle called Verracola that presented a myriad of painting opportunities.  Mike suggested this view, standing with our backs to the castle with the bridge over the stream/river below us.  You could see this becoming a raging torrent in winter, but the colouring was pleasant, the day was warm, and I had an easel to rest my pad on!

This took the morning to do, and I was beginning to remember technique though still uncomfortable with too much equipment.  The organisation of paint, paint tubes, water pot, brushes,  seemed to be a juggling exercise  though the easel did improve things.  I’m reasonably happy with this painting.  The view through the bridge  needs sorting.  I stopped because I lost concentration.  So I’ve learned two things:  I need an easel, and two hours is the maximum I can paint for in such a concentrated fashion.

That afternoon, after a splendid lunch in a restaurant in Verrucola that opened specially for us, (the outcome of the contacts The Watermill had built over the years), we returned to the Mill to paint a waterfall viewed from the grounds.  This was a very different plein air experience! We trekked through a small wood to the river carrying our equipment.  The footing was unsure for we were standing on cobbles in the river bed.  The easel stood sensibly as the legs were adjustable but juggling everything else (I still had too much!) and doing a sensible painting  took some determination – not easy after a morning’s concentrated painting and a good lunch.  Then it started to rain, and in good earnest, so we retired to the studio.  The trees kept most of the rain off so we weren’t drenched.  The watercolour elves have been at this one, which improved as I slept.

Koala – perhaps

I thought the first attempt at a Koala had much going for it, but it didn’t look like a Koala, so I tried again.

As you can see, I attempted the same loose style.  This is the best way I know for learning how to judge the water/paint ratio.  You start with a mark of strongly toned paint then use water to guide it where you want it to go.  If the mark is in the wrong place, you can heavily dilute it to make it vanish, while the addition of more strongly toned paint will restore or increase the required contrast.  The very visible brush marks add movement  and  continually dampening the edges softens them.

This painting does look more like a Koala, but it has lost the energy of the first attempt, repeated here for comparison.  I know Koalas are reputed to be sleepy animals, though the first one I saw was galloping round its enclosure in a real strop!   However, a painting needs its own energy to connect with the viewer.  This is the perennial problem of repeating a painting.  I rarely achieve a truly satisfying result at the second attempt.  Correction – I never achieve a truly satisfying result at the second attempt.

More Italian Sun

The nearest town, walled, of course, is Fivizzano, and we spent the day there.  There was a fairly busy, fully masked, market in the town square where I did my least successful painting, in fact I didn’t even finish it, not because I was dissatisfied but because I ran out of time!   The photo enhances the painting,  and I will finish it from the photo I took, though that is not ideal.

I discovered I can’t paint happily with my pad on my knees.  I need a wall or an easel as support.  My quick sketch was more lively.  The sketch was done in situ in pen, and the paint added later.

After lunch we migrated to the city walls, and attempted the valley below.  Here I had a wall to rest on so was able to work more comfortably.  It was a difficult view for me with my very young drawing skills, looking down on all those lines and angles, though right up our tutor’s street!  I still found mixing colour problematic, forgetting all my knowledge about aerial perspective, never mind wrestling with the terrestrial kind.   Gradually I dredged up my old skills.  Painting out of doors is not just a matter of turning up and painting the view.  Even the things I do almost instinctively when in the studio have to be adjusted to changing light and unhelpful colourings.  But some kind of satisfaction was achieved.

Italian sunshine

The above diary doesn’t begin to explain the deep delight of a painting holiday at The Watermill in Posara, near Pisa in Italy!  Just seven small pictures chronicle seven days of adventure with brush and paint in the great outdoors.

My purpose was to find out what was needed to successfully paint outside,  and indeed I fulfilled that purpose, due in no small part to the comprehensive but unobtrusive organisation and care of our hosts, and the focussed help of our tutor.    It was a working holiday – there was no doubt about that – two paintings at different sites every day, and the sites so varied, mountains, sea side, villages, cloisters, hill towns, fast flowing rivers.    But such was the level of planning, that the biggest non-painting decision I had to take was whether to red or white wine at dinner, real bliss to be able to concentrate on painting alone.

Day one, and we were painting in the courtyard of the Mill itself.   This is the corner of one of the buildings that surround it, a beautiful golden render (Quinacridone Gold and a touch of Orange) with big shuttered windows.  It was a baptism of fire, straight in, no drawing, don’t spend too long at it – exhilarating.  I did more than one but this is the best of the bunch.

Then, after  lunch, we were up a grassy alley to paint some of the houses of the village.  Here is a longer view, a more considered painting.  I think you can see I was struggling to cope with water, paint brush, paper and easel! In fact, I forgot how to paint!  Colour mixing ideas went out of the window, brush strokes didn’t exist.  Nothing seemed to be where it usually was when painting at home.  It took me a day or so to  realise that I had taken too much equipment with me.    By the end of the week, a big pocket, rather than a big bag would hold most of what I needed.

Koala – sort of!

I have to say, I’m rather pleased with this.  It doesn’t look much like a Koala – the eye is too big for the size of the head –  more of a rat or squirrel with long hairy ears, but the loose style, especially for an animal, is a new achievement for me.  The beast, whatever it is, looks alive!   I’d never have got here if it hadn’t been for the experimentation I’ve been doing lately.  My thanks to Mike Wildridge and Jean Haines.

I started with the eye and sighted the nose from there.  A little modelling to join them up, just light spots of colour whisked away by wetted brush.  Next I tried to define the shape of the head at the top, again whisking the rather darker paint away following the fall of the hair on the ears.  I’ve lost his chin (Hazel Soan: form first then texture, why don’t I remember?) and needed to resort to Opaque White to find his ruff, but it is certainly worth another go.

This is an excellent example of my new mantra, “If you want to paint loosely, you must learn to draw accurately”!