Cascade 1

A few years ago my sketching friend and I went to a workshop at Leeds School of Art. The focus was to study the work of David Tress and take inspiration from his work into our own art. In retrospect I really gained a lot from the session, moving away from detail and towards elements of abstraction.

With time on my hands I thought I could revisit what I’d learned, so I picked up a small, narrow piece of mountboard and looked for a subject. I found a photo of a waterfall in Wales which appealed and suited the dimensions of the card. By collaging packing paper and newsprint I created a textured base on which to paint with acrylic. I went a bit mad with colour (I thought at the time) but was pretty happy with the result.

It’s rough and ready, but I think it looks at home mounted on some brown paper.

Everything’s Beachy

We are going through a process of changing some of the pictures we have hanging around our home. It’s pleasing to have some kind of a link between those in one area – maybe by colour, theme, or medium. And so I find myself with a little piece of wall space just asking for a sea/blue themed picture. Queue a trawl through our photo albums to find inspiration. I was attracted by a picture of this groyne in Hunstanton, a beach we have visited many times over the decades, and which holds good memories of clear, cold spring days.

Hunstanton groyne acrylic

I referred my source photo, making sure that I had a satisfyingly cropped composition with horizontal thirds. Helpful memories reminded me of how the sea and sand look here, as the tide makes its long retreat. Acrylics seemed the most fitting choice, especially as I wanted a bigger painting (A4+) and often struggle to achieve this size successfully in watercolour. I enjoyed building up the layers of paint with a flat brush, starting with the sky, moving on to sand. I do love a flat brush. Last to be added were the wooden posts and a smattering of pebbles (which were certainly more taxing than I’d expected).

Looking at this painting now, I’m not sure whether it’s finished. I guess time will tell.

Spirit of experimentation

What was I thinking?

Well, the idea for this picture began on a visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park with good friends. There was a large exhibition of Tony Cragg’s work, which had some fascinating sculptures, seemingly abstract at first glance, but from which faces materialised as you changed your point of view. These were gloriously intriguing, but the item which attracted me most was a charcoal drawing where the artist had very quickly overlaid outlines of vases, all originating from a single point. It had a great deal of dynamism in its simplicity. I was very taken by it.

This prompted an animated conversation with Andy, my sketch buddy, about how we might take that picture as a starting point for something further, a stepping stone away from the realistic and into a more graphic or abstract vibe. I knew I wanted to explore using more than one medium, and I had some acrylic inks which needed to be played with. Experimentation was to be the watchword.

I did a small preliminary drawing to see if the composition I had in mind might work – I thought it could. First then was to mask the edges of the green-tinted A3 watercolour sheet, and put down my base drawing in ballpoint pen. Although I liked the delicacy of the ballpoint, once I’d put on the acrylic ink (used onto wet), the lines were wholly overwhelmed, so I used Crayola crayons to bump up the outlines. The red band in the middle started with silver oil pastel, then briefly went very red indeed in oil pastel, and was subsequently scraped back again as I wasn’t happy with its dominance. I’m not sure what that band is supposed to represent; it just wanted to be there, so I let it in.

And here’s what transpired…

Glasses ink and biro

I had hoped that the masking tape would hold back the acrylic ink and prevent it from straying; obviously that didn’t work! But I quite like the way that the ink has crept under the barrier and spread in some areas. Also interesting was the way in which the different colours of ink seemed to behave in the water, with the tendrils of pthalo blue spreading much further. This might have been down to the order in which I laid the ink on the wet areas (can’t remember which colour went on first).

So, although I’m still not sure about how the whole hangs together, I definitely learned a lot on this one, and had a pretty good time making it.

The Big One

It’s Challenge No. 4, and the painting which has been taking up all my spare time (not that there’s been too much of that) is finally finished. I think…

The Challenge this time which Andy and I set ourselves was on the theme of ‘Water,’ and we chose this fishing scene of my son and a friend. To be painted in acrylic, on a big canvas, 24 x 30 inches. We did our studies (mine’s here) and then gave ourselves a laughable 3 hours to see what we could get done on our respective paintings. It turned out that the answer was ‘not that much.’ However, we both decided it would be time well spent to press on and see what we could make of the scene, however long it took.

And it took hours. I have lost count, but I reckon I’ve spent at least 10 hours on this, over two weeks, although quite where the time has gone I couldn’t say. (As usual, the camera has bumped up the blues and whites in this pic).

Clapper bridge acrylic

Covering the big canvas was definitely part of that – I really underestimated the amount of paint it would swallow, and how long it would take just to get a basic covering of paint onto it, without even getting down to the details. One of the advantages of taking the painting more slowly was that I was able to be more critical about each session’s progress. I definitely learned a phenomenal amount. For example: how tricky it can be to get translucency and ‘believability’ into the water (I ended up layering paint, and then using a pretty dry brush to skid over the top); the importance of varying the type of stroke to show different textures; how to compensate for an over-exposed source photo which has made all the skin tones even whiter than standard English skin; and the difficulty of painting a face you can’t really see. I also learned that for big pictures I think I prefer painting on board rather than canvas. This is because the canvas gave a grainy final surface tricky to paint detail on, whereas the board would have been smooth textured and would have made the skin much easier to deal with (and particularly the faces) I’m sure.

So here it is, finally done. I’d like to put this one on the wall, I think. It’s a good memory of a very happy day, and now it’s also a symbol of another hurdle attempted. So that’s two reasons to be cheerful.



Onwards, with a Smile

I’ve been trying to summon up the courage to get on with this portrait of the lovely Amy for some time. Then, having got stuck in, it’s suffered a few setbacks on the way, which hasn’t made the process entirely plain sailing, but then, whenever is this an entirely straighforward experience? And where would the fun be if it was?

Initially I chose quite a deep, Air Force blue for the underpainting. This gave me a lot of trouble with my initial drawing as I couldn’t see my pencil marks properly. I tried overdrawing in watercolour pencils, and once I could see what I’d drawn (and redrawn, several times) decided that it wasn’t good enough anyway. Lesson learned. In the end I abandoned ship and started afresh on a new canvas, drawing straight onto the white, which felt much better. The hardest part to capture was the mouth, trying to suggest the start of laughter which I knew was there. I spent a long time on that. Redrawing the lines meant that there wasn’t enough time to complete the portrait in one sitting (which I would normally prefer to do). So this picture was completed over about three days, in shorter bursts.

However, the advantage of returning to the painting over several sessions is that I’ve been able to step back in between stages and consider my next move, making adjustments as necessary. I think that’s been helpful, although I wonder if I’ve sacrificed a little spontaneity in the search for accuracy. Maybe it’s a case of swings and roundabouts.


Normally I hesitate to edit what I see, but in this portrait I did omit a necklace which I felt was going to detract from the face. Doing this required a confidence I didn’t feel, first imagining and then trying to convincingly paint the area which would have been covered by the jewellery – a good lesson, no doubt.

Since I’m currently painting portraits from photos I’ve taken, I’m really discovering how important the source image is. This one didn’t offer as much tonal contrast on Amy’s face as I’d have liked; a bit more lighting drama would have been good, so that’s something to bear in mind in future attempts. Also, painting people I actually know is a very interesting situation: on the one hand you can choose to bring to bear your experience of your interactions with them, and your knowledge of their personality, but then the ultimate aim of trying to capture the essence of the person, not just how they appear in a single image, can be terribly hard to achieve. It’s a very trying business!

The ideal behind painting these portraits from photographs is that I’ll eventually be sufficiently familiar with general facial features and perceiving individual characteristics to be able to sketch and paint faces more accurately and quickly from life. I do get the impression that this is going to be a loooong project – I’ll just have to approach it with a smile!

Viv Again

This painting has been brewing in my mind for quite some weeks, but finding time to actually get it onto canvas has been the sticking point. However, yesterday I finally knuckled down to it. Viv is one of the lovely ladies I do yoga with, and she’d kindly volunteered to have her photo taken so that I could practice portrait painting with ‘real’ people.

I’d done the under-drawing a few days before, and was quite pleased with it. So much so that it took quite a lot of courage to pick up the paintbrush and get started in paint, for fear of wrecking the whole thing. I had to remind myself that learning was the whole point of the exercise, and that sometimes mistakes just have to happen.


Which was just as well, because I then realised that I’d neglected to underpaint before making my drawing. Well, I wasn’t about to redraw the whole thing, so I decided to work with it as it was, and that did cause me some trouble. Underpainting would have made life quite a bit easier. I’ll try and remember that for next time!

A second note to self is that portraits seem to be harder (for me) when they are smaller – this one is 12×10 ins, which means small brushes. On reflection, I don’t think I like that very much – there’s so much pleasure to be able to make a big, sweeping stroke rather than a fiddly little tweak. So, next time I will go bigger.

Anyway. I began with the background, figuring that might give a better time with the hair. Next in line was the skin; it was evident that I’d learned a lot about skin tones in the previous portrait of Gill so the process wasn’t quite as scary as it could have been, although finding the right shades and colours is always a big challenge. Eyes and hair next – I do enjoy putting the eyes in, it seems to be when the picture takes on a life of its own. The hair was surprisingly tricky – how to make that elusive grey-blonde?


And then finally, the t-shirt. Oh dear. In real life this garment was black with a yellow collar and white geometric line design. The latter was never going to happen! I bottled out completely. But my excuse is that it allows the viewer to focus more on the face. Sneaky, eh?

There are two things I will change on this before I show it to Viv: the line between her face and the background on the right hand side needs tidying up, and the right shoulder needs to be narrower. Hopefully these will be fairly straightforward fixes. In summary, I’m pretty pleased with this one – I think it does bear a resemblance to Viv, and I hope she will think so too.

Messy business

Hmmm, long time no blog, eh?  Must try harder.

But I’ve not been entirely idle, I’m pleased to say. Last weekend my painting friend Andy and I went on a course at the Leeds College of Art. Titled ‘Atmospheric Acrylics,’ the objective was to look at the techniques used by the artist David Tress, focusing on landscapes.

We’d chosen this course as it looked like it might help us to loosen up our painting techniques in acrylic – we weren’t disappointed! The tutor wasted no time in getting us to scrunch up and stick paper (and anything else we fancied) onto boards to provide a basis for painting. We were encouraged to expand the boundaries of our boards, which was interesting – I think I might keep working on that idea.  I’ve never tried to mix collage and paint, and I found the process at first a bit bewildering, then, very quickly, liberating. The tutor expected that we would be churning out four to five pieces, from small to large, during our 5 hours on the course. That seemed ambitious at first, but the techniques we were using were very fast indeed. The tutor was excellent, and provided lots of welcome encouragement and advice where needed.

Big brushes, splattering, sticking, smearing and scraping – all pretty new territory for me, and I loved it. I definitely made lots of mistakes and errors of judgment, but it didn’t matter as the day was all about experimentation and freedom from constraint.



What did I take away from this experience (apart from paint spatters all over me)? Well, I think that I would be happy to use all the elements  – torn paper, expanded boundaries, splattering, broad brushwork – again. I’d like to experiment with incorporating some of these powerful techniques into my own style of painting. Should be both challenging and fun!

Challenge No. 3

Andy and I knew that we wanted to try a more realistic portrait for our 3-hour challenge this time, and so I shared some of my photographs with Andy. It being his turn to choose, he selected a photo of Gill looking rather wistful. He was attracted particularly by the way the light hit her face and hair, with very bright highlights on the left side, and some additional reflected light on the right.

gill-portrait-2-copyI was intrigued, as this wasn’t an image of Gill I would normally have chosen to paint. Game on! After the experience of the previous challenge, I knuckled down and did a couple of preliminary studies which I hoped would help me get to grips with this painting, in particular looking at how to mix flesh tones.

Now, I must declare an advantage in this challenge with Andy: I have known Gill, the portrait model, for some years, and am therefore pretty well acquainted with her face in ‘real life’. Andy on the other hand has never met her.

We agreed that it would be ok to do underpainting and sketch out the features before the challenge timer started, so that we could focus on just painting during the 3 hours. This proved a helpful decision, as it took me ages to sketch in Gill’s face, with a good deal of rubbing out and ‘hmmm’ing. Even then I wasn’t entirely satisfied, but decided that it would have to do. (Next time I might save a lot of agony by drawing a grid and working to that). I chose (maybe foolishly) to add in an ear and more hair to the right hand side of the picture, as the photo crop wasn’t quite what I had in mind. This gave me some problems – making up body parts doesn’t seem to be my forte.

The challenge morning arrived, and after a quick FaceTime pow-wow, Andy and I set to. My method of approach was to begin with the background (for courage) and then paint in the mid-tones and darks. This was quite haphazard, using a rather dry brush so that the straw-coloured underpainting showed through. I built up the flesh tones in layers, increasingly dark initially, then adding more mid-tones as I progressed. The highlights and bluish reflections were last to be added to the face. This process took about two and a quarter hours. That left 45 mins for the hair and clothing which fortunately were fairly straightforward – I didn’t want to get too finicky with them anyway as I didn’t see them as the main focus of the picture. I scraped in with the last orange zip detail just as Andy was FaceTiming me at the end of our challenge. Phew!


Rebecca’s Portrait of Gill


Looking back on this picture I can see some areas that I intended to return to, and then forgot under the pressure of time – these are the parts which stick out like sore thumbs for me. I’ll have to take a more thorough approach next time. However, there are some parts I feel were quite successful, such as the light on the right hand side jaw, and the left side of the nose.



Andy’s Portrait of Gill

Once again, it was fascinating to see how our approaches differ, and also the areas where we both made similar decisions. I think Andy nailed the eyes, giving them a really liquid luminosity, and I especially like the left side of the face where the bright sunshine merges into the flesh tones. For me his portrait really captured the wistful expression of the photograph.

It’s very likely that there will be a pause in the joint challenges now, due to work pressures up to the end of January. However, that certainly doesn’t mean that we’ll stop thinking about what we’d like to try next! Roll on February…



Preparing for Gill

Challenge No. 3 with Andy is now on the cards, and this time it will be a portrait of my friend Gill. Since I found doing a preliminary study very useful in the last challenge, I have had a first stab at the picture for this time.

Gill study ink.JPG

I’m not sure this one does Gill any favours, but it has shown me some areas that I will need to work harder at when it comes to producing the painting in acrylic on Monday (eek!).

The aim will be to produce a ‘realistic’ portrait, and that means getting to grips with flesh tones. A few minutes spent this afternoon practicing mixing the acrylics reminded me how difficult flesh, especially in shadow, can be to paint.

Flesh tones acrylic.JPG

It’s plain from this photo that the camera has struggled in the artificial light, making everything even yellower than it was, but nevertheless, I have a feeling that this mixing chart is going to be very useful in the heat of the moment on Monday.


Challenge No.2

Very soon after my painting friend Andy and I had finished our first challenge, we started discussing what our next should be, and came up with the idea of painting a portrait. I was very keen indeed to do this, as I know I need the practice, and this synchronous painting venture would make me just get on with it. Andy kindly shortlisted a few photos, and this one appealed the most to me:



Picture by Franco Clun

Fortunately Andy was also happy to paint ‘Beardy’ as he became fondly known. There was a bit of an extra challenge in this one, as it was a black and white image*, and we both wanted to paint in colour. That would mean finding a ‘key’ to translate tones into colours. Interesting.

In the run-up, Andy messaged me the preliminary sketches he’d been doing. Cripes – I hadn’t intended to do any prep (lazy), but guilt pushed me into making a quick study of the photo, and some possible colour notes. There’s a first time for everything. It turned out that this was a good thing, as the sketch highlighted some troublesome areas to watch out for.


Rebecca’s colour study

Andy also upped the ante by boldly saying he was going to work at roughly A2 size. I hadn’t planned to go this big, given that it would make it harder to scale up the image successfully, but in the spirit of the enterprise I threw caution to the winds and broke out an A2 canvas board. Gulp.

Today was the big day, a 3 hour painting session with a mutual reveal at 3pm. Time to knuckle down. I knew that I would start with underpainting, but had been shilly-shallying over the colour. In the end I went for a mix of cobalt and cerulean blue, as I wanted the mid tones and highlights to be in oranges, and the deepest areas to be a dark purply-blue. Underpainting done, I sketched the main features in graphite. Then it was on with the deep purple, in all the shaded areas (and there were a lot of them). This took about 45 mins. If I’m honest I quite liked how the picture looked at this stage, and was tempted to leave it there. But I got a grip, mixed up some orange and laid that in for the mid-light areas. I wasn’t at all sure I’d done the right thing at this point. The orange was turning greenish where it was only thinly laid over the underpainting – not what I’d hoped for. I bumped up the coverage a little, which improved matters. Nearly another hour gone, and only 2 colours on!

Things then progressed very quickly. Flecks of red lowlights to deepen some of the oranges, a very pale yellow for the brightest areas, and a dry brush to skim highlights over the existing paint. Then back in with the purple to balance out more of the darks throughout. It was an intense experience, with multiple struggles and minor victories over problem areas. Time to stop became evident when I realised I was faffing over small details. Brush down. 20 mins left on the clock, and Andy Face Timed me that he’d also finished. Wonderful. We agreed that it had been a very good challenge, making us face fears and rise to the occasion, finding creative solutions to the many problems we’d encountered. Happy, tired painters.

It is once again fascinating to see how differently we have interpreted the picture, and where the similarities lie. On my own picture I’m especially pleased with the eyes, and how the dramatic colours worked together. I particularly like the way Andy’s laid the paint on in his picture with the flat brush, building up and contouring the skin out of the shadows and red underpainting. I came away from the experience absolutely buzzing, and I know Andy did too. There will be more!


Rebecca’s version


Andy’s version

*There’s an interesting footnote to this tale, which is that when investigating the photographer so that I could offer credit here, we were astounded to discover that the image we’d painted from was actually a stunningly executed photo-realistic drawing by the amazing Franco Clun. Franco has kindly given permission for us to post our images (and his) here. Franco, thanks again if you’re reading this! I’d encourage anyone to have a good look at Franco’s tremendous graphite drawings at  Truly astonishing, breathtakingly-detailed work.