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.




Some years ago we took a short break in Dartmoor, and spent one glorious afternoon at a local beauty spot in Postbridge. Famous for its clapper bridge, this is truly one of the most idyllic English scenes you could wish for. Our son made a new friend, who had brought a fishing net, and they spent a happy hour looking for minnows in the shallow water. (If you do take a look at the link above, you’ll see a photo of the stones they were standing on to fish, in front of the bridge). We were lucky enough to capture this moment as a photo, which brings back fond memories.

Now back to recent days. My painting buddy Andy and I were seeking a new ‘challenge’ to paint, and had decided on water as the theme. In the pile of images for consideration was this one. Daunting, but interesting. We decided that we should raise our game and have a go at it – facing up not just to water, but figures too.

Andy made a stonking first study in pen and wash, which deterred me from doing the same. Therefore I plumped for having a bash at the same subject in pastels, which would still let me try out the colours and composition in preparation for making an acrylic painting next week. I used Rembrandt pastels (kindly lent to me by my mum), on mountboard, which I quite like for its smooth texture.


Overall, I’m reasonably happy with how this one worked out. I may alter the cropping slightly when I make the painting, but this study did let me get my eyes and hands around the figures and have a good look at the reflections in the water and how I might treat them. Hardest this time for me were the skin tones, dark water tones, and the boys’ faces, the latter mainly due to the chunky nature of the pastels I was using. Getting the features in needed to be a matter of suggestion rather than explicit detail. I suspect the same will be an issue with the painting. We shall soon see!


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.

Challenge No.1

Following our attendance at the acrylic course, my friend Andy recklessly threw down the gauntlet. The idea was that together we would choose a scene to paint in acrylics. On an appointed day, we’d set the timer for 3 hours and paint simultaneously, in ‘real time’. Since there are a couple of hundred miles between our houses, we would convene on FaceTime at the end of the three hours and compare our paintings.

Well, how could I resist? It seemed like an excellent opportunity to get back on the horse after the acrylic course, and we’d no doubt have a laugh comparing our approaches at the end. We were both going to try for a less detailed, more impressionistic style than usual.

Andy kindly shortlisted a few photos, and together we chose a colourful Hong Kong night-time street scene. I’ve tried to find the original photographer, to give credit, but it’s not been easy and I’m still not sure I’ve managed it. (There are so many reblogs and shares on the internet it’s a bit of a minefield to be honest). Anyway, I’d like to extend our thanks to whoever originally shot the image – it was tremendous fun to work with.

On the morning of the challenge Andy and I had a quick FaceTime to compare how we were feeling about getting started (excited, and a little nervous) and then signed off to get on with the task we’d set ourselves. This was the first painting I was going to make with my new Golden heavy body paints. I had my fingers crossed for a decent experience.

I picked a 16×12 inch canvas board. Knowing where to start was tricky. Having chosen turquoise underpainting, I then plunged in with a bunch of good darks for starters. It wasn’t long before I realised that it was becoming hard to tell what was what, so I needed to add in some reds to give more shape to the buildings. Very soon I added the beginnings of the light areas, and then over the course of the next couple of hours repeatedly returned to the darks, mid-tones and lights adding more definition as the picture evolved.  It felt quite haphazard. I normally paint quite fast, and after about 2.5 hours I realised that my strokes were becoming increasingly fiddly, and that it was time to stop.


After the 3 hours was up, we reconvened at our computers. The reveal was a strangely tense moment. Andy had taken a slightly different approach to me, choosing an A2 canvas and a warmer, mellower range of colours. He is always much more methodical than me, and had blocked in his buildings with beautiful luminous colour on top of his underpainting, but he needed more time to finish the picture. Interestingly, we both had struggled with the bottom right of the picture, largely because on the reference photo it was hard to see exactly what was there.

It was so interesting to be able to see how we’d both tackled the same subject, our colour choices and differing techniques, and where we’d chosen to bring out or downplay elements of the scene. Andy later completed his painting, and I’m very pleased that he’s agreed to let me share it on this blog (mine’s on the left, Andy’s is on the right). At the end of the process I felt totally spent, but to be honest, pretty happy at what I’d achieved.

This shared endeavour was very rewarding, as was the opportunity to see how someone else had approached the same subject, and the resulting similarities and differences. Suffice it to say, we’re already planning the next challenge!