June 8, 2021
Such a treat today to be sitting outside drawing subjects we have become familiar with using photo reference. Before publishing I added more tone to these sketches from memory.
The heightened contrast reflects the very bright sunlight we worked in. I’m now going to discover the ‘photos taken at the same venues which I know will have too much contrast, so no good as photos but a very good reminder of the importance of tone in composition.
Your Sketches and Paintings from Sunny Maidenhead;
May 23, 2021
The challenge this week is to make a painting of boats and/or constructions on the river including weirs, locks, boathouses from sketches made from the riverbank. If the weather makes working by the river difficult why not look at any photos you may have of boats threading their way through the twists and turns of the Thames. It’s more difficult to draw a moving target from life so becoming familiar with the structure of boats and their effects on the water surface is easier from photographs.
However if you have the opportunity, it’s much more rewarding to work outside with a sketchbook. Start with the static objects and develop your confidence, and then try drawing the main shapes of boats and their wakes as they pass by,as swiftly as you can. With a little practice a real notion of movement can be achieved.
A few photographs of local parts of the Thames with moored and moving craft are below.
Think about the river and its banks, the relation of the boat to the water surface (the waterline, reflections and if moving the bow wave and wake, or if a motor boat how the water may be churned up by a propeller at the stern). The patterns of waves may extend far beyond the immediate vicinity of the boat.
If you attempt to draw or paint a lock, perhaps looking down from a bridge as you can at Maidenhead. Try drawing the large shapes of the lock first so that you get a feel for for its structure and aim to show its perspective. That will help you when you place a boat in it. Think of the lock as a big rather long box so the end away from you appears smaller. Then look at the water level in the lock and how the boat sits in it.
There are also occasions where boats are included as only a small element in a river landscape work so just as observing and drawing from human forms, observing and drawing boat forms will help you to be able to just ‘drop in a boat’ to enliven a composition.
Also included are boathouses and a couple of old rather abandoned looking dredgers and the turbulent water of the weir at Maidenhead.
With the weir draw its underlying structure lightly before indicating the frothy water tumbling over it. Hopefully we’ll be sketching outside but if not feel free to use any of these references or find a boat scene you would like to paint.
Some examples of paintings of boats and locks etc can be found on Jo’s Pinterest board using the link below:
Your Sketches and Paintings:
May 16, 2021
The Weather forecast is miserable for this week so here are some photographs of river birds and a few cows for inspiration, a contingency in case of rain on Tuesday.
As anything that moves is a challenge in real life, becoming familiar with bird and animal shapes will be helpful before sketching them outside. We can work in real time together either from the following references or using your own. We’ll choose a bird or a cow and make rapid thumbnail sketches in real time; four or five to a sketchbook page so don’t think too large. I will be using a stopwatch! You will see from the reference that you should be able to make several sketches of the same or a similar bird in different poses.
Where birds in groups overlap each other, as in the cygnet photos it can be useful to treat them as a single shape and then sort out the individuals. They move in amazing ways, with mother swan looking out for them all the time.
After a few warm up sketches we can move on to a more considered drawing or painting, making a good start that can be finished during the session or in your own time afterwards. This work may either be a painting that has the creature as the main subject, or a work where the beast or bird is placed in its landscape setting.
Most of the heron images are from the water garden at Cliveden where the carp fry are easy prey for a hungry bird. I watched and sketched this one before resorting to record his antics on camera. but sadly never caught him actually catching a fish.
Your paintings and sketches:
This week’s drawings include two minute drawings and two minute blind contour drawings, where looking at the image but not the paper was permitted. There are also 30 minute or longer drawings from the Canada Goose image posted just before them.
Drawings below were 30 minute drawings from the image above
Two minute drawings and blind contour drawings:
May 11, 2021
This week we’ll think about working outside, developing work from sketches or diving into a painting if you are feeling brave. The world outside can seem quite daunting if you are not used to working in the open and the complexity of some scenes can be overwhelming unless ways can be found to home in on a subject and isolate it from the surrounding “noise”.
Using a camera as a view finder is one way but limits you to composing with one shape. A better way is to take two L-shaped pieces of card which you can view the landscape in endlessly varied formats. Quite a good idea to tape these together once the desired subject and format has been found, preferably with a removable masking tape or similar.
To home in on a suitable composition it’s a good idea to make a few composition and tonal sketches first. Exploring a scene in this way focuses the mind on what most interests you and aids observation and drawing skills enormously. Last week we explored photographs in a similar way.
Below is a way of recording shape and tone in a sketchbook. Charcoal pencil was used in this case but if I had used pencil three or four small sketches could be made on a sketch book page.
This time make small sketches not worked up drawings to decide on the composition. This is a good exercise whether working directly from the landscape or preparing for a work to be completed in the studio. There is a good case for making both tonal sketches and making colour notes, not necessarily in the same sketch. If there is time separate sketches of any details you may need for the final work can be made. A camera of course is useful but because nature does not always arrange itself in the most interesting or pleasing way, small personal sketches are often a good guide to what should and should not be included.
A silly example would be if I wanted to make a picture of a coot with its reflection. I would think very hard before including or excluding a sign in red paint behind the bird saying DANGER WEIR which was only slightly camouflaged by a nest in front of the sign. If the sign and its reflection was making the painting much more exciting than just the bird, putting the bird in context with that part of the river, it may be good to include. If it did no more than draw attention away from my principal subject or led the eye out of the picture the sign would have to go. Then again I would have the same problem with the coot if my focus was river signage.
1. Equipment for working outside; minimum for preparatory sketches
Sketchbook, drawing implements: pencil, pen, eraser, small camera and view finder, light weight folding stool
Optional: a few of any kind of coloured pencils or a small box of watercolours , brush, water, water pot; for making colour notes
2. Equipment for working outside; for painting directly from the landscape
Sketchbook, drawing implements: pencil, pen, eraser, small camera, light weight folding stool;
Watercolour painters: Watercolours, pan box useful if working at a fairly small scale as usually have an integral palette, water and water pot, brushes, paper towel (few sheets), small natural sponge (if you have one), drawing board with stretched paper/ heavy weight paper well taped down or small block of paper
Pastel painters: small box of landscape colours (Sienna, green dark, green bright, ultramarine blue dark and light, white, yellow, yellow ochre, crimson, cadmium red middle tone, dark grey or black, purple. These colours are only a suggestion. Handful of pastel pencils if you have any), pastel paper and a board, clips or tape to attach your paper, small can fixative spray, craft knife, pencil sharpener, Blu-tac or putty eraser, few sheets paper towel
If the weather is stormy the challenge will be to paint wildlife or agricultural scene from the riverbank. This could include willows, cows birds, nests waterlilies, reed banks.
Outside the challenge will be to make a composition including one or more of the following; trees, boats and boathouses, lock gates and their reflections, or a weir for the fearless! Be selective; one well painted boat or tree is better than a scribble of a fleet or forest! It would be good to take on board the tonal balance of reflections and objects. Reflections are not always darker than the real object but often are. See how the sky is reflected and how ripples catch the sun, as we will see next week sometimes very literally.
For inspiration visit my as yet unsorted Pinterest Boards at:
May 4, 2021
Over the next six weeks we’ll be drawing and painting anything that can be seen from a riverbank. The first session will be online but if you do have the opportunity to sketch your subject by the river and paint afterwards that would be brilliant. We’ll start by considering water, waves and reflections and go on to explore the riverbank vegetation, birdlife, bridges, weirs and locks that can be seen locally.
Some words that sprang to mind when thinking about water were flowing, calm, reflection, spray, fierce, roar, crash, wet, wave, ripple, current, whirlpool, eddy. By the Thames locally, the extremes in appearance of water going over the weir at Maidenhead and the wonderful reflections of trees in the very calm water that can be seen from the towpath just a couple of hundred yards upstream, reveal what a varied and challenging subject this is.
We may often notice the reflections of boats, trees, poles etc. in and on the water but the sky is perhaps the most important element, being reflected not only in calm water but in every ripple and almost always brings an element of fleeting and shimmering light to the surface. The Impressionists found good ways of depicting this, using strokes of different colours and tones alongside each other to create shimmering effects.
If you can, get to a riverbank and watch the water. Better still make some sketches of what you see. Take two L-shaped pieces of card with you so you can use them as a view finder. These are more versatile than a camera as they enable the isolation of very tall thin slithers of the landscape or extreme panoramic views, as well as squarer and more conventional landscape shapes for your composition. In the sketchbook try several small sketches in different formats concentrating on the shape and tones of what you see.
If you can’t get out this week try exploring different compositions within one photo reference.
I am forced to admit this photo was taken from a boat and not the bank but the various crops show the great choice we have from the quite dark composition of crop 4 to the light airy feel of the original photograph.
Start to think in terms of shape and tone. Instead of thinking I am drawing a tree and its reflection say to yourself,” I can see a large dark oval shape. Below it is a similar dark shape that fragments into elongated light and dark shapes when the wind blows.” If you can stay long enough, observe different patterns on the water surface as a boat passes, and when there is wind or no wind. Try to translate these into drawing. Can you observe differences in size between ripples near you and those further away?
Observe and note whether there is a difference in tone between the sky and its reflection and do the same for reflected objects. As you can see from the photo taken on the Cam, the sky there was almost the same tone as its reflection but this is not always the case.
When you have found a composition that pleases you either paint or make a more considered drawing. Both the observation of the water surface and the composition exercise will be good preparation for the outside drawing/painting sessions.
Have fun and experiment!
Perhaps look at a few Impressionist paintings!
Your Drawings and Paintings:
April 27, 2021
This is a very popular portrait crop where the figure is cropped substantially below the waist and down to about mid-calf. It is an easier shape to fit to a canvas than an elongated whole standing figure and works especially well for women with long skirts.
Find a suitable reference or crop a whole figure reference to produce a three quarter length portrait. As you include more and more of the figure the head will be relatively smaller and the features will have to be painted rather differently; not so differently if you are working at a large scale but significantly less detailed at a smaller scale. The head is usually still the focal point of a portrait study so a good structure for the head and an indication of the main facial features are still essential.
The amount of detail with which the facial features are painted depends on several things;
Some portraits concentrate on the likeness and character of the sitter, while others may be more simplified or abstract. A glance at portraits by Rembrandt, Goya, Sargent, Matisse and Modigliani will give you an idea of just how varied the ways of depicting the clothed human figure are. Some examples can be found on the following Pinterest board:
April 19, 2021
This week you are invited to paint a figure including arms and hands but extending no further down the figure than about the waist. You may already have a suitable reference that needs no cropping or you may have a whole figure reference which needs cropping to carry out this week’s challenge. As a rough guide cropping works when it is not exactly at the elbow or cutting through part of a hand or foot. I have tried to show this in the illustration below.
You will however, always find notable exceptions from well known artists who perhaps have enough magic and experience to make the seemingly impossible work. Some great examples can be found on Jo’s Pinterest board, link below.
Week 3 Project
Choose a photo reference. Try to find a reference that illustrates the persons character or situation. You should feel something about the image. Decide by making thumbnail sketches, whether and what cropping would result in a good composition for a portrait that references the figure to about the waist. Try to include at least one hand. Some paintings of half figures have the subject at a table, sewing, drinking or reading. Make careful decisions about the background including only what is necessary or relevant.
As with the whole figure, work out the sizes of the dominant shapes and how they relate to each other. Look at the negative spaces. Either use a grid or at least a vertical and horizontal line across your image and your drawing so that you can check measurements and angles; making sure that your picture space is in the same proportion as the part of the image included in your work.
Really look at the posture of the person and ask questions.
Is the head at an angle?
Is the person looking to one side?
How does this affect the neck?
Can you imagine how the head connects to the spine?
Are the shoulders at the same height?
What are the arms and hands doing?
Are there negative spaces related to the position of the arms?
What angles are made by the arms and hands?
Are the arms bearing any weight as when leaning on a table?
Looking and answering these questions will inform your work.
April 13, 2021
This week try a different figure. If you tried a standing figure this week try someone sitting and perhaps choose someone wearing different clothes; perhaps a more flowing dress or someone in uniform. You may like to paint a child holding a doll or someone with a guitar. There are a few photo references here and ways in which other artists have painted similar figures can be found in the same Pinterest boards as last week.
For the seated figure:
and for the standing figure:
After next week’s review session we’ll discuss composition choices when working from only part of the figure and how to crop references to provide an interesting picture. For week three we will choose to include the figure down to about the waist and look at the ways arms and hands may be arranged. For week 4 we’ll be considering the three quarter length portrait so you may like to start looking for suitable references for these weeks.
The Project for week 2:
So for the Week 2 challenge find a significantly different kind of whole figure reference to your choice for last week, possibly uniformed, sitting or standing, perhaps holding a doll or musical instrument.
Check the overall height and width of your figure at the widest points. You may like to construct a rectangle around the figure so that you can transfer that rectangle to a space within your support. This will help you not only to get the proportions right but help you decide exactly how much of the total area you wish the figure to take up to make a pleasing composition. It will also help to avoid the situation of cropping an extremity at an unintended point or worse trying to shorten something artificially.
Also consider the negative spaces, for example between the legs if they are apart. Think hard about what items should be included in the background. An artisan carpenter might have his tools or an academic his books for example. Try to show the person’s character and age by the way they stand or sit and their interests by the surrounding props.
April 6, 2021
Over the next four weeks we’ll consider painting rather more of the clothed figure than just the head and shoulders. Choosing reference photo is the first challenge. You may have one of a complete stranger or you may have or can take a picture of a family member reading a book or even asleep. At least they won’t be giving you a great big beaming smile. For this week include the whole figure either seated or standing in your reference. The aim will be to get really used to looking at the various elements of the figure because understanding figure itself will help us understand how clothing drapes across the body. Usually there are a lot of clues especially with more tailored and tight fitting garments but the particular pose that presents itself can also give invaluable clues that will help you make a believable portrait.
In subsequent weeks we’ll look at suitable cropping points so that successful compositions can be made of to the waist and also three quarter length studies. We’ll also consider figures wearing uniform, formal regalia or traditional costume less familiar to us, but for all of these a general understanding of the figure, its proportions and the way it moves will inform all the work done.
Look at the standing reference first; in an adult the head is about one seventh of the total height but in a child this ratio is considerably more. In the photo above it is between one sixth and one fifth.
Follow an imaginary line from the top of the head down the spine to the pelvis and think about what happens when you get to the legs. With a standing figure the neck will be directly above the foot bearing most of the weight and if the weight is being evenly shared between both feet will be directly above a point between the feet. If your figure is leaning against a wall notice if this changes anything.
Look at how far the arms extend down the body if they are down and how far again if they are folded or the angles made if they are on the hips or if one arm is on the hip what is happening with the other arm.
Look at the tilt of the shoulders and the hips if these can be identified. Thinking about how the body moves will help. Look at the knee in relation to the direction in which the foot points. If you stand fairly upright with your feet together and then turn one foot out a bit the knee follows it and so the knee points in the same direction as the foot. When sitting this is also the most relaxed position for the foot, but of course if you cross your legs you will find the foot has far more freedom but still feels more comfortable when pointing the same way as the knee.
Try to find out how your own joints limbs and back behave, then look at your reference again and think through what is going on.
With the sitting reference, look at the relation of the sitter’s form to the form of what they are sitting on whether it’s flat ground, a grassy slope as for the Afhan girl heading this post, or some kind of seat. It can be useful to make a sketch of the chair, bench or stool, but remembering that the soft parts of some chairs will be altered by the sitter as above. The appearance of the figure, especially the fore-shortening of the upper leg will be very different depending on whether you are viewing the person from the side or the front. The height of the chair in relation to the person’s leg length will also result in a very different posture for the sitter. If a tall person sits on a low bench they will either stretch their legs out or bend their knees up bringing the feet closer to the chair. Just think about things like this when looking.
You may like to look at how other artists have portrayed standing and sitting figures so do have a look at the following Pinterest boards.
For the seated figure:
and for the standing figure:
Then it’s high time to have a go!
Choose to work either from a standing or a seated figure and make a few thumbnail sketches first, before launching into your first painting. Work so that you make note of the tones in the composition as well as the shapes of the forms. Try to imagine you are in the presence of the sitter and that the figure actually exists in three dimensions rather than the two dimensional image you are referring to.
After that decide how much space your figure will occupy in your painting. Look at the overall height and width of the figure and how much of the background and what of its features you wish to include or exclude. Sometimes an indication of the space around the figure and the objects within that space helps the composition while at other times there are things in the background which are irrelevant and may detract from the main focus: the figure being portrayed.
The medium is up to you; pastel and acrylic are possibly more forgiving than watercolour but whichever medium you choose once you have established the main shapes, take note of the tonal balance as well as the colour. If you choose to work in watercolour you may like to Google the portrait watercolours of Charles Reid, and Hans Schwarz, and of course Singer Sargent also produced some wonderful watercolour portraits.
March 17, 2021
This is the last of the head and shoulders portrait challenges and this week it would be great to try a portrait that is different from any attempted so far. If you haven’t yet tried to paint a very elderly person or a hatted person perhaps try that. Alternatively you could try a profile or near profile view or someone with amazing hair.
If possible choose a reference where the subject is not smiling. No one could possibly sit and keep up a broad grin for forty minutes and portrait studies from photographic reference look far more natural if the subject has a pose that could realistically kept for a long period.
If you decide on using a grid make sure that you take only the information that is really necessary to get the large shapes right. If you draw freehand in charcoal either as an under drawing for pastel or acrylic try to work tonally just indicating all the main forms and observing closely how the light reveals their form. Observe whether the head is tilting back or forward Remember to measure the total width and height of the head and to position the eyes and ears correctly.
If painting someone in a hat look at how the hat shades the face and how soft edges are under the hat.
If you are going to attempt a profile you may like to look at a few examples on the Profile section of my Portraits Pinterest Board, link below:
There was also interest in attempting a portrait where colours represent tones. You can find several Fauve portraits and the work of the contemporary artist Jessica Miller who works in this way in the Fauve portrait section of my portraits Pinterest board, link below:
March 10, 2021
This week’s portrait challenge is to paint someone wearing a hat or headdress. All the illustrations for this have been made in pastel or by making a tonal under drawing in charcoal, fixing it really well then adding layers of colour.
For an adult face quite dense layers of charcoal may be laid down to describe the forms of the face and mass of hair. For a child’s face a more delicate approach may be needed and it would be better to start with a drawing in pastel or pastel pencil using similar colours to those that will be used to finish the work.
Some examples of portrait paintings where the model is wearing a hat, hood or other and fascinators definitely come into the class of other! can be found on the Pinterest board that can be accessed by the link below:
When making a tonal study it is essential that the drawing is accurate. If the photograph is a front view or slightly three quarter view try to observe the following. Not quite so possible if the model is wearing a wide brimmed hat or in profile!
Look at the general shape of the head. Note whether it is tilted sideways and how this affects the axis of symmetry. Perhaps drop a vertical down so that it crosses the head between the eyes. Then drop a line from the highest point of the head to the tip of the chin, you will be then be able to see how much the head is tilted and you will be able to either make the eyes level if the head is perfectly straight, or at the correct slant if not.
Although if someone is looking straight at you the middle of the eyes appear about half way between the tip of the chin and the top of the skull, this alters when the head is tilted upwards or downwards. When looking up there will be considerable foreshortening so the eyes will appear nearer the top of the head but the ears will appear lower and you will be able to see under the chin and up the nostrils.
When the head is looking down with the chin tucked in, obviously you will see more of the top of the head and all the facial features will be rather differently foreshortened. The eyes will appear lower, the ears higher and the nose may overhang the mouth. The lower lip may disappear and only a little of the chin may be visible.
Usually a photographic reference will not be as extreme as this but do note the position of the head in relation to the head and shoulders.
Also note the width of the head in relation to it’s height and the position of the ears in relation to the point where the lower jaw articulates with the rest of the skull. It’s a good idea to feel this on your own head and also to examine the rather fundamental fact that a head, although roughly rounded has a curved frontal plane and curved sides. It is possible to think of the sides starting where the temples and cheek bones make a rounded corner. Again feel your own head and it will be easier to think about the structure of the head when you are drawing.
Leaving you with a final thought; remember that the hair is on the head so be generous with it! And if the model has very little hair you have the perfect chance to get the head shape spot on!
March 3, 2021
During the next few days the portrait will be completed and published. A lot more work is needed to resolve the features and soften and blend the skin tones. Some information on working in pastel will also be published.
Palette of colours used was: Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Ultramarine Blue, Permanent Crimson Alizarin, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber.
Both cool and warm skin tones can be made with this very basic palette. It will also provide for some near blacks by mixing Ultramarine with Burnt Umber. Try adjusting Burnt Sienna with the other colours to provide for a very pale complexion, a mid toned complexion and a dark complexion.
Although the addition of a few more pigments would be useful for example a warmer red like Cadmium Red Pale, Yellow Ochre, Raw Umber and Raw Sienna and perhaps Viridian, a remarkable variety of complexions and cool and warm shadow areas can be made from this basic palette.
February 23, 2021
Portrait painting is challenging because we are so familiar with faces that we can spot inaccuracies easily, and perfecting a likeness both of the physical features and the character of the model requires a lot of precise observation. This does not mean that we need to paint every detail but does mean understanding of how the various forms of the head and shoulders present themselves. A glance back to the portrait drawing Blog posts of May 5 Full Face, May 18 Profile and June 1 Three Quarter View will give you some useful reminders. Choose the appropriate month of the Blog archive to find them.
No excuses for the length of this post but the information should be useful for all of the next four weeks. I’ve put together a very eclectic mix of portraits on my Pinterest Board at
Making studies from photographs makes some things easier; the subject is already translated into two dimensions; it’s the easiest way to attempt wriggling children, and also to maintain consistent lighting etc. The down side is that many photographs tend to flatten the image so that we lose the sense of three dimensions and it is all too easy to copy slavishly instead of using the reference as a starting point.
Choosing a reference photograph
For the next four weeks we will consider working from photos of the head and shoulders and I suggest starting with a front or three quarter view. Reference photos with directional lighting from either side or above are more useful in revealing the form of the head and its features than those in which the head is evenly lit. Even lighting makes it very difficult to make the nose appear three dimensional and in painting as in a tonal drawing colour and tone will be more important than line to depict forms that are in reality three dimensional. Shadows on the face become even more interesting if the subject is wearing a hat but I suggest for this week it’s hats off and your first task is to find a suitable reference.
To Crop or not to Crop?
Once you have selected a suitable image you may find more content is more included than you wish to use for your portrait. It may be that more of the figure is included or that the surround is too large. Try using two L shaped pieces of card arranging them like a view finder so you can decide on an attractive crop for the image. Once found it’s a good idea to attach them so that you always return to work from the same part of the reference.
Now that a reference has been selected and cropped it could be imagined that all that remains is to go ahead and paint, and that’s possible but it may be better to think a few things through first, especially with regard to;
position of the head and its size in relation to the support, size of the finished work, background, tonal balance, colour composition
This is the stage where it would be useful to make a few thumbnail sketches. These should be no more than 3 x 4 inches and all on the same sheet of paper. Explore some of the following using a rectangle of the same proportions as the support to be used for the finished work.;
a) The position of the head on the paper e.g. as in the reference or to right or left, further up or down
b) Size of the head compared to the support, and size of finished work. Very often a photo reference contains the face but not absolutely all of the head. This can look charming at a small scale but presents considerable problems at a much larger scale. Very often head and shoulder portraits are made at three quarter life size so for an adult’s head and shoulders with some background 12 x 16 inches or about A3 would be fine and still allow the head to “breathe”. If only a child’s head/face fills the image so that there is virtually no background you may consider working much smaller at say 8 x 10 inches. Those working on paper can always cut paper accordingly but if you are using board or canvas you should work out the size you wish to work at carefully beforehand.
c) Background or vignette: Photographs of head and shoulders will have a background. It is a valid choice to paint without a background if that would suit the subject.
d) Does the background in the reference detract from or is it important to the way in which you wish to paint the portrait. Backgrounds may need simplifying, even to the extent of making them fairly uniformly dark or pale. Try both in separate sketches to see what would suit the subject best.
e) The main tonal areas of the head, neck and shoulders, and the hair. A small thumbnail sketch should really help you sort out the large areas and perhaps pinpoint the real highlights in the reference. It will also help you sort out the fact that the eyes are always in shade.
This is the point when you should also start to think about colour;
e) Complexion: Is the subject pale or dark skinned? Although we are only looking at the head and shoulders are clothes important and colourful and are some of those colours reflected in the face, especially neck, chin and sometimes the cheeks. See colour notes below for fair and dark skins.
f) Clothes and jewellery: Is the sitter wearing a hat or jewellery and how important are these to the composition? If a brimmed hat you should have already looked at the shadows this may cast across the face.
g) Background colours: do these enhance or detract from the portrait reference? These may be simplified and/or changed.
You may like to make a thumbnail colour sketch and work out some suitable flesh colours and see how these would work alongside colour swatches for background and clothes.
A mid toned paper would be suitable for working with pastel. If using acrylic or you may like to lay down a layer of white or tinted gesso, or thinned paint. At this stage you may decide whether to draw the image on to the support or whether as many painters do, or to start by blocking in the main shapes and tones and gradually refining these till your portrait is finished.
However you start it is important to reduce distortions when transferring the main shapes to the support by always working at the same ratio of dimensions on the support as in the reference. If working on canvas choose a size with the dimensions in the nearest ratio to the reference.
For example if your reference is 5 x 7 inches and you wish to scale up to twice the size a 12 x 16 inch canvas would be suitable but remember to lightly mark a rectangle of 10 x 14 inches ready to scale up the reference. When painting begins the paint can be extended to cover the margins but at the initial stages this will ensure that you should be able to get the proportions correct.
Draw the image on the support; either freehand or by using a grid.
Freehand: Personally I prefer to do most of the drawing freehand but often make a feint line across both my reference and support, dividing them both into quarters. This is helpful in checking whether the subject’s head is slightly tilted and gives a rough guide where to place the main shapes and to check the proportions and angles.
Grid: Many find a more exacting grid method useful. Stanley Spencer used grids extensively. If you wish to try this find a piece of acetate and make a grid of 1 inch squares. Lay this across your reference and make a corresponding grid of larger squares on the support (two inch squares for two times reference dimensions), remembering to work out the margins if the proportions of the support are not exactly the same as the reference. You can then transfer the drawing square by square from the reference. While accurate, this can result in a stiffer drawing so ensure you preserve the flow of the forms as they relate to each other.
Just draw the main lines and shapes including eyes, mouth, nostrils, nose and ear positions as well as the main head and shoulders shapes. At this point you can decide whether to start your painting by blocking in the main shapes or by making a tonal under drawing or painting. I may decide to start an acrylic painting by making a tonal drawing in charcoal, fixing this and laying a thin layer of transparent paint, perhaps burnt sienna or a more neutral colour thinned with water and a little slow drying medium and wiping out the highlights with a rag.
In Pastel: A good way to start is to draw the main shapes and then to start lightly blocking in tones and colour with broad side strokes, broadly working from dark to light but often also marking the lightest and brightest areas early on.
In Acrylic Paint: Perhaps tint the surface as described earlier and mark out the main shapes of the composition broadly with a brush. Then start to paint in the main areas of tone. I like to build up fairly tonally. This is a personal preference but within that I may like to indicate cooler and warmer areas, so it will not be a totally monochrome under painting. No detail will be painted but I will establish the darkest, palest, and then with colour perhaps some of the most colourful areas and the background so that I have some key areas established.
Most flesh colour mixes have a brown as their base which is modified with other primary colours. other colours. For fair skin this is often a burnt Sienna. For middle complexions this may be a burnt umber and for dark complexions raw umber. All of these can be modified with reds, yellows and for shadow areas blue. Some of you will have already experimented with the Zorn palette which makes successful flesh colours mainly because black and red will produce good browns. A reminder of some of the colours possible with this palette is below.
Try mixing your brown pigments with reds, yellows, white to make flesh colours and see what happens when you add a little blue or a little viridian.
Also note the difference between using a cool red like carmine or crimson alizarin or a more orange red such as vermilion or cadmium red pale in the mixes.
The flesh tones can be built up with opaque or transparent paint using darker and cooler shades for the shadow areas and pale opaque paint for the palest areas. See if any areas are picking up colours reflected from clothes or from the background and include these.
1.Thumbnail sketches as indicated earlier; exploring composition, tone and colour.
2. Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting it would be good to have the composition worked out on the support; as a drawing for watercolour; or a charcoal under-drawing for pastel quite heavily fixed so that the colour can be worked over the drawing. In the case of a young person the pastel drawing should not be too dark.
If working in acrylic you may prefer to make a tonal under-painting or block in the main areas of colour, or make a tonal under-drawing, fix it and wash with a thin layer of very transparent paint. The paint layer will seal the charcoal and prevent it from lifting.
I hope to demonstrate some colour mixes and applying the first layers of paint. So the review session will be short.
Illustrations will be added to this post during the week.
This week is a mix of finished and preparatory work;
February 9, 2021
This week I just took a little time exploring how two reds, one closely related to orange, Vermilion and the other Alizarin Crimson, closer to purple, mixed and related to two very different greens, Sap Green which is much more yellow that Phthalocyanine Green which leans toward blue.
You may have different greens and reds in your paint box. Take some time to discover how near to orange or purple s each red is and how near to yellow or blue each green is.
Viridian, Phthalocyanine Green, Cobalt green and Prussian Green are all examples of greens nearer to blue. Sap Green is a more yellow green and Hooker’s Green is much bluer than Sap Green but more yellow than Phthalo Green.
Vermilion, and Cadmium Red Pale are much nearer to orange than Crimson Alizarin, Quinacridone Rose and Magenta and you may have other reds which are somewhere between the two.
Before homing in on the green and red pigments you choose for your painting subjects this week find which combinations will be best suited by experimenting a little.
Have a look at this week’s Pinterest board at
In each example make a note of how the red and green pigments are being employed and how they interact. Observe how red looks when surrounded by dark, pale tones, by similar hues and by complementary colours both pale greens, dark greens, yellow greens and bluer greens.
Choose only two from the following list and make two paintings incorporating one in each. That doesn’t mean to say the other items won’t be present but I would like you to have one main theme for each painting, just as a story may involve one main character and a couple of supporting roles. Don’t feel you have to do two paintings. One well thought out composition is really worthwhile.
You may use white pure in areas and in mixes, and your paintings may be representational or abstract. The medium is up to you. Try to make dark tones by mixing the appropriate reds and greens and use black only if essential.
Think very carefully about how many greens you wish/need to work with and how many reds. The illustrations will give you some idea of the scope of using only four pigments but you may wish to explore lots of greens in a painting and only one red for instance. Try to have a reason for your choices.
After a while it becomes intuitive to just go for the “right” colour knowing how it will appear on its own and in mixes, and you will definitely begin to enjoy using some pigments more than others. I firmly believe that individual colour choices and combinations form as much of the identity of an artist as the shapes and lines he produces. (“he” being used in the universal mankind sense here.) Think this has already been born out in the last few weeks by those who prefer orange and blue to yellow and violet and vice versa!
January 26, 2021
This week we have high drama purple and yellow. It’s in some ways very like the blue orange challenge, although to my mind not as easy. Yellow and purple together always brings to mind mauve and yellow crocuses and Iris. I didn’t find quite so many references so perhaps I’m not the only one to find this challenging.
All the same principles apply as for the orange blue complementary pair, and it’s worth trying to mix a few yellows with one purple colour to find out what you can make with this limited palette. Again purple will very quickly denature any yellow much in the same way that blue does the same with orange, so always add a small amount of purple to the yellow to make your mixes, unless you just want to add a small amount of yellow to a very strong pigment like Dioxazine Purple, just to take the edge off its rather harsh colour.
A few notes on other pigments and the use of pastel are included in the Challenges for this week: section nearer the end.
Unlike red and blue and especially when working with oil or acrylic, yellow can be used to make a deep colour paler while at the same time lessening its saturation (purity). That is why a little yellow with Dioxazine will lessen its vivid colour. This does not work where reds and blues are opaque paints that already contain a lot of white; especially gouache and acrylic paints (some pink and pale bluecolours).
A useful watercolour technique is charging. Make a small square of yellow wash, about 3inches square and drop a strong purple into it while it is wet. This technique is called charging. Very often the colours mingle rather than mix, but the results can be stunning. Then try dropping yellow into a purple wash.
I repeated this with a stronger purple wash; the results are subtle but would be wonderful for a ceramic vase.
Challenges for this week:
Spend most of the time on 3. and/or 4.
1. Yellow and Purple mixes;
I suggest you stick to one purple, Dioxazine (also called Winsor Violet) would be a good choice being a strong pigment that will give you plenty of tonal contrast and see how it mixes with the yellows in your box. Just remember it is very strong, transparent and staining.
A gentler option would be any other mauve or violet.
If you have a pale opaque violet like the rather expensive Cobalt Violet your yellow mixes will be much more subtle but you will not be able to make dark tones with yellow. It is certainly worth experimenting with as it is a beautiful pigment for delicate colour washes but will not give you any strong tones.
Purple is one of the more difficult colours to mix but a magenta added to an ultramarine should give a good purple. Mix a large amount if you wish to have a consistent colour mix for a painting.
You may also wish to use either pastel or oil pastel which would be great as a wax resist with watercolour.
If you are using acrylic Dioxazine Purple is the strongest. There are other purple pigments which are often mixed with white so you would automatically reduce the transparency of your colour by mixing with transparent yellows. All are useful but please be aware that the results will be different.
If working with watercolour try the charging technique as outlined above. Note any difference in the behaviour of your pigments. Try charging purple into yellow and yellow into purple.
3. Make a composition using only yellows, one purple and white if required.
4. Make a second painting using yellows, one purple, white, black and a small amount of colour analogous to purple e.g. a purplish blue like ultramarine.
The painting should appear mainly yellow purple and mixes of these two. Use black with caution but do try using a pure black and very strong purple beside each other or for a very rich dark area try laying strokes of purple over a dry black wash. A strong transparent purple like Dioxazine is necessary for this.
If you use Payne’s Grey instead of black also be aware that this paint is a mixed pigment that contains black so will tend to desaturate/muddy colours in the same way that black does. Very often the added hues are blue and/or purple pigments. My personal choice is to use a Payne’s Grey Blue Shade as the alternatives are generally very dull.
If time is limited, choose to do either 3. or 4.
Do first look at the Matisse painting of a woman in a purple and yellow jacket and the Dufy work of a view through a window in Nice. It would also be well worth looking at the contemporary artist David Tress who works mainly with land and city scapes. If you can, choose to work from your imagination or your own reference, otherwise make your version of one of the paintings referenced.
January 19, 2021
Yellow, the sunshine colour; just what we could do with today! Opposite purple on the simple colour wheel this is the colour intrinsically pale in tone, even the yellows that are nearer to orange are pale in their most saturated form.
Yellow paints in your box may range from the very pale lemony yellows nearest to green;
Lemon Yellow, Cadmium Lemon, Cadmium Yellow Light
To the middle yellows;
Cadmium Yellow Medium, Chromium Yellow Light
And yellows that are almost orange;
Turner’s Yellow, Chromium Yellow Deep, Cadmium Yellow Deep, Indian Yellow
You can do any of the suggested projects below with one pale or lemony yellow and one that is nearer to orange or at least in the middle range of yellows.
Have a look at the Pinterest board to see how other artists have worked with yellow as the principal colour in a composition.
Then try any two of the following (more if it’s pouring with rain outside).
1. Try making an abstract or representational painting, using any pure yellows. If you need to because you are using an opaque medium like pastel or gouache you may use white.
Do not use earth yellows such as the ochres. These are already de-saturated colours. By mixing yellow with black, or as we shall see next week with purple, you should be able to mix your own approximations to these.
2. Find how the yellows in your box mix with black and make a hard edged composition with at least some pure black areas, some pure white/white of the paper areas, and blocks of pure yellow and yellow mixed with black or white. This may be representational or abstract.
3.Make a painting with hard and soft edges with any mixes of yellow, black and white, abstract or representational. For textures as in the Sargent portrait you may consider using pastel instead of a wet medium.
4. Make a painting using the same colours as in 3 but you may add touches of closely related colours like a reddish orange or a yellowy green.
With your paintings try to find ways of sorting out major tonal areas. The dark and unsaturated colours will be the perfect foil to pure or almost pure colours. Be very aware of when you are using pure colour and when you are using de-saturated colour. Look at how pure colours seem to stand out from duller unsaturated colours demanding attention.
January 12, 2021
Orange and Blue is a very versatile colour combination producing vivid contrasts and yet in mixes some lovely muted colours and greys can be made. In theory you should be able to mix a neutral grey if the orange and blue are mixed in the right proportions. Try this with an ultramarine and a cadmium orange. The exercise below used gouache pigments but could be done with watercolour or acrylic.
Try adding a titanium white to one of the darkest mixes. That will soon reveal whether the mix has a blue or an orange bias. See below.
Last week we saw how different hues looked when the same hue was surrounded by hues that were different in tone and saturation. This week we are throwing a much greater colour difference into the mix and the effects of pale and dark borders. The following were constructed digitally but the same principles apply when you are painting.
Outlines matter: the arrangement of colour is identical in the three illustrations below, they differ only in that the first group have no outline, the second group a black outline and the third group a white otline to the cross shapes.
References for this week can be found on the Power of Colour Pinterest board at:
The first challenge is to create two or three small studies that show how blue and orange can relate to each other, much as we did for the different blue hues. This time I would like to see both studies use similar shapes; these can be organic or more geometric. The colours should be distinct and either have no border, a black border or a white border. Use only one blue and a premixed orange e.g. cadmium orange or a similar bright orange.
Some people really enjoy making these studies/little abstract paintings. If you do, you may like to spend all your time on this. If not just spend a short time mixing colours; especially noticing any differences between mixing the complementary colours together, and mixing each complementary with white or black before spending most of your time on a painting; see notes below the study notes..
First Study; work with your chosen blue and orange as the brightest blocks of colour you can make. Include white as pure white and black as pure black and include shapes with and without outlines.
Second Study: In the second study try including some desaturated colour by mixing your blue with the orange. You may use white but not black.
(if time)Third Study: This time you may still use only one orange and one blue but do not mix them with each other, just use white or black to de-saturate the colours. You may choose whether to include any areas of pure blue and pure orange or you may choose to work with either very pale or very dark colour mixes.
Medium: You may use any medium for this; collage would work brilliantly perhaps inspired by works by Patrick Heron or Josef Albers. An opaque medium like gouache would also work well. This can also be done with watercolour, pastel or acrylic. These studies can be quite small and contain only about eight shapes, certainly not more than about twelve. If you decide to work in collage; paint some pieces of cartridge paper and cut or tare them to make your shapes. White paper can be your pure white and if you have any black paper that can be your black.
Painting; after the studies spend some time looking at the Pinterest Board again and make your own composition using any of your blue pigments, black and white but use only one premixed orange. Mix these however you like. An opaque orange like Cadmium Orange would be ideal but any bright orange will do.
Note how black lines can separate areas of colour, containing them as in a stained glass window. We often prepare to paint by drawing with lines that separate areas we may later choose to fill with colour. These lines usually represent edges of what we can see. Very often we obliterate these lines during the course of painting so that one colour lies directly against its neighbouring colour with no dividing line. See how in some works the artist uses line, sometimes to separate blocks of colour and/or to define the edges of objects within an area of colour as in the blue and gold interior painted by Matisse referenced on the Pinterest board for this week.
When looking at paintings look for works that use line and those that represent forms with no line which is much more as we see them.
Look at how Modigliani sometimes used a pale blue for eyes in a rather orange face. You might consider working from a black and white portrait photo. In landscape paintings blues tend to recede and the orange and red colours seem to advance. Whether you produce an abstract or a representational piece think about edges and enjoy the colour!
January 5, 2021
For the next few weeks we’ll be looking at primary colours used on their own and their use with each of their complementary colours. Primary colours will also be used with closely related hues to make harmonious compositions.
We’ll also explore some of the effects of colours on each other, after all colour can seriously affect your eyes or at the least deceive them a little!
Look at the appearance of the four blue squares on the right and middle columns above. Do they look different? What happens at their edges?
Then: stare at each of the squares in turn for about a minute then look at the blank space below before going on to the next one. What do you see?
For even more spectacular after images stare at the colour wheel below and then at a white space. these after images and illusions are with us all the time we are seeing.
To start with, here are a few basic definitions that are relevant to the course.: please skip if you are already up to speed with this!
Hue: a pure colour of a certain wavelength in the visible light spectrum.
Colour wheel; this should be a circle with a continuum of all the different hues in the visible spectrum. In practical terms this has been reduced to a beach ball of just six colours which represent six major groups of colour as used for painting; firstly, the three primary colours; red, yellow, and blue called primaries because they cannot be mixed from other colours; secondly, the three secondary colours orange, green and purple which can be mixed from the primary colours and which lie in between the colours they are mixed from on the colour wheel. Scientists and artists have invented a huge number of colour wheels, some of which include many more colours and also tints and shades at different levels within the circle.
Analogous colours; colours close in hue and next to each other on the colour wheel. the colour wheel. e.g. red and a reddish purple
Saturation : the purity of the colour, which is occasionally and I think confusingly, called intensity. To de-saturate a colour mix the pure hue (fully saturated colour), with its complementary colour, or black or white. The saturation of some colours is altered radically by even the smallest amounts of these; for example yellow is very rapidly changed by the addition of the smallest amounts of purple or black.
Tone: how light or dark a colour appears. Every pure hue has an intrinsic tone. A pure yellow for instance is always paler than a pure red. The additionof black, both de-saturates a hue and lowers or darkens its tone. Colours darkened in this way are usually called shades. The addition of a complementary colour also lowers its tone.
The addition of white to a hue lightens it and is said to raise its tone to make tints.
The definition of tints and shades is not always consistent as pastels are often labelled as e.g. tints 1 to 6 where usually a stick labelled tint 1 or 0 is the palest and is the pure colour plus white, and a stick labelled tint 6 is the darkest of that colour made up of the pure hue plus black.
This week’s colour is blue. Often the colour of melancholy and depression as in Picasso’s blue period portraits, I didn’t choose blue first because of Covid creating so much depression this New Year. No, I chose it first because it’s also the colour of sunny skies and Mediterranean waters, and because as you will see next week blue is great to combine with its complementary orange.
The blue pigments I have used for the exercises are
French Ultramarine (warm),
Cobalt Blue (warm)
Phthalo Blue, green shade or Prussian blue (cold)
It’s useful to have at least one warm and one cool blue to work with. If I had only two I would probably favour Ultramarine and Cerulean, but the richness of cobalt and the dark tones that can be produced with Phthalo or Prussian Blues are very useful additions.
For this week you will also need a black and white, and perhaps a couple of analogous colours a blueish purple and a blueish green or turquoise.
Used at full strength pure cobalt and pure cerulean are not as dark in tone as Ultramarine or Phthalo Blue and the darkest is Prussian blue. Phthalo Blue, Prussian blue and Ultramarine are generally more transparent than Cerulean and cobalt blue.
What does this mean in practice?
Transparency only applies to watercolour, oil and acrylic paints as if you are using gouache or pastel you are effectively working with an inherently opaque medium. Transparent colours deepen the more layers of colour that are added. Opaque colours laid down at full strength do not become darker when further layers are added. Very often it is difficult unless you know their position to identify the transparent colours of watercolour pans in a box because they all appear so dark whereas the more opaque colours give away their identity on sight; e.g, cadmium red, cadmium orange etc.
Exercises; I have chosen watercolour for this week but most could be done with pastel, acrylic or gouache. I hope to provide some pastel examples later in the week. The illustrations are only to give you ideas of ways to explore the blue pigments in your own boxes,
1. Tone and saturation
Take a blue pigment and try 1. diluting with water, 2. mixing with increasing amounts of white, 3. mixing with black and adding increasing amounts of white, and 4. compare with black to which increasing amounts of white are added.
Try this for a warm blue like Ultramarine and a cool blue like Cerulean or Phthalo Blue. Adding water or white will make tints and adding black will darken the colour and de-saturate the blue. Adding white to this mix will produce blueish greys.
2. Optical properties
Dark and light surrounds, disappearing boundaries; very closely related hues of the same tone.
Make a study where similar shapes of one hue are surrounded by white, a much darker hue or by a closely related hue of the same tone. An example is given below.
You may choose to do 3 or 4 below;
3. Make a painting/study using just blue pigments
4. Make a painting or study using blue pigments, and black. You may also use white and a couple of analogous colours like a blueish green and/or a blueish purple. The general effect should be that you are making a predominantly blue and harmonious painting.
3 and 4 may be your own composition or your version of a famous painting where the predominant colour is blue.
What conditions make a blue advance, float, or recede?
With regard to tone and hue how does a background colour affect how a blue hue appears?
Pinterest board for reference.
The link for this week’s board is:
which includes abstract works by Patrick Heron, Marc Rothko, Josef Albers, Kandinsky and Matisse alongside works from Picasso’s blue period.
November 17, 2020
Fire is natural light. We can cause fire to happen but it is a natural phenomenon and unpredictable in its shape and form which is as flickering and fluid as water. There are some similarities with the way fire and water behave visually; the explosive bursts of fire from natural causes or rockets exploding in the sky are not so different from fountains spraying water as pressure is released by a valve; fire can also pour down volcanic mountains. A difference is that we see water because it reflects light but fire is the light source. Visually it is the difference between the sun and the moon. In our thought processes when we depict fire we depict power and potential danger, even when this is in the form of a humble candle.
Perhaps the disconnect between the power of fire which we harness domestically and its destructive nature, whether natural or harnessed for war is why we find the flickering flame so exciting.
That’s the philosophy bit done! Now for a look at the candle;
The “halo” is not necessarily the sphere as seen in so many Christmas greetings cards. Note the blue at the base of the flame and bands of orange and yellow. Look at the soft glow of the top of the candle itself and tiny subdued highlights in the molten wax. The wick is barely discernible against the dark background here.
Lastly note how the reddish halo gradually merges with the dark ground; colours from dark orange to deep red before becoming indistinguishable from the red/black darks.
If you wish to make a candle study you may like to light a candle, taking sensible safety precautions and observe the colours you see. Your colours and tones may be very different from those in the photograph above so observation is the key to developing a realistic painting.
In 1982 to 1983 Gerhardt Richter made some very beautiful and photo-realistic oil paintings of candles, closely observed against different backgrounds. These look deceptively simple but are carefully painted with huge skill in handling the paint where gradual transitions from light to dark occur. References to these can be found on this week’s Pinterest board at:
Alongside works by;
Georges de la Tour: more candles and candle light; look at how faces reflect the candle light in his works
Joseph Wright of Derby: volcanic eruptions and a fire burning a cottage down at night
And Bonfires by the contemporary artist Brent Cotton.
This should supply you with plenty of ideas for next week’s painting. I would like to see work either from your imagination or a fire situation you have experienced; from an erupting volcano to a child’s birthday celebration or Christmas candle.
Looking forward to seeing
November 10, 2020
This week we are moving toward the coast, rivers and canals for inspiration and your challenge will be to produce paintings including a light source and its reflection in water. The reflection will not only be affected by the position of the light source to its reflection but also the prevailing light conditions; mist or the darkness of night and whether the water is calm, rippling or rough.
Look at photos of rivers and the sea where any light is reflected and look at how reflections are interrupted and sometimes scattered by waves.
Apart from the vertical positioning of any reflection take special care that each reflection is directly below the light source being reflected. This is seen very clearly both in works by Whistler and Andrew Gifford. better still take a walk along the Thames in the early evening.
The medium is very much your choice and as last week you may work from your imagination or from a reference, preferably of a place you know. James McNiell Whistler is famed for his series of “nocturne” paintings of the Thames. The darkest of these are full of drama and the most subtle have that beauty of early morning stillness. Examples of Whistler’s nocturnes alongside works by Andrew Gifford and the Canadian artist David Haughton can be seen on this week’s Pinterest board at:
Also included are some imaginative works by Charles Philippe Jacquet. The artist’s rather surreal compositions combine his ideas with an almost believable reality. In reviewing some of your own photographs you may be inspired to adapt them to an imaginative approach or to paint a more representational painting. If your reference is complicated, consider making a study of part of it and experiment with little sketches before homing in on a final composition.
Lastly I couldn’t resist including this photo of a cruise ship leaving Funchal; the antithesis of the little yellow boat that carries commuters and tourists alike from Leeds Dock.
If you have very little in the way of references for lights reflected in water at night or evening from boats or buildings on the shore, make a sketch or photo of one of the bridges or part of the Thames shoreline at dusk. Maidenhead Bridge has plenty of lights. Alternatively, if you would like to try a more surreal approach why not choose a building you know and perch it with fully lit windows on a rock in the middle of a lake and imagine your own private lighthouse!
Into the Garden: Watercolour and coloured pencil
Wednesdays 12th May to 16th June
Collage and Mixed Media
23rd June to 21st July
Paint a Meadow in Watercolour and/or Pastel
Saturday 17th July