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!


A couple of weekends ago my painting mate Andy and I went to an acrylic workshop. The premise was to learn how to paint focusing on light and shade through big gestures rather than fiddly detail. I was a bit anxious beforehand, having never attended a workshop before. As it turned out, the fellow artists were very lovely (with a wide range of painting experience between them), and the painting exercise itself was totally engrossing, so much so that time and paint flew.

I produced two pictures, both from photos which I’d taken, which I thought would meet the light/shade requirements. We had about an hour and a half per painting, with a technique demonstration before each.

The tutor painted a street scene in his initial demo. The closest I had in ‘feel’ was a photo taken in the woods, with light filtering through trees. I managed to be looser than normal for me, which was good, but using the big brush loaded with many colours simultaneously gave me some challenge when it came to depicting foliage. My colours, especially the greens, became rather muddy and pastelly rather than being zingy and bright. I also think that I could have changed the composition to improve the painting, but I’m not going to get hung up on that as there are so many other issues with it.


The second painting was based on a photo I’d taken of sweet peas backlit by evening sunlight. I wrestled terribly with it, and am still not overly happy with the outcome. Once again, in retrospect, I should have tweaked the composition. I found it incredibly difficult to adapt the tutor’s blocky technique to the rounder organic shapes of the flowers, and lost the plot a bit. Well, a lot. I ran out of time and didn’t get this into a shape where I could feel that it was working, although I can see now that there are areas I could improve if I chose. However, at the moment painting opportunities are too rare to want to return to fix ‘struggling’ paintings.


So, all in all, I found the day tiring, and a bit frustrating too, and came away feeling that I’d failed to capture the style of the teacher. However, with a bit of time and some reflection, and another painting done (watch this space), I realise that I did learn some interesting facts which I’m consciously putting into play in my acrylic paintings. Namely:

  1. Underpainting can be a real asset to a picture – I’d never tried this before. And now I know that I’d be best off choosing a colour I want to use, something which will contribute positively to the subject. I really didn’t like the mauve background suggestion of the second painting, which must be why I painted over almost the whole picture…You live and learn.
  2. Light is REALLY important. Duuuuh! I think I need to consciously try to make more use of it in my paintings. Letting the lights sing out just brings everything to life.
  3. Darks can be very colourful, and dark violet is a very useful colour. It was a new addition to my palette for the workshop, and I wasn’t sure what I’d be able to do with it. But now I realise it combines well with ultramarine and maybe pthalo green, or burnt umber to make a very rich dark colour. I’m  sure that I will be using this again.
  4. Using very big brushes and large canvasses (A2) can be a lot of fun.

So, this workshop was a new experience, and I definitely gained experience. And in summary, although I had trouble imitating the teacher’s style, I realise that I am actually glad, because it hasn’t entirely swallowed up my own way of painting – that which makes my paintings mine. I reckon that’s a good thing.


Plastic Fantastic

Cling film gets a bad rap. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that one). I’ve been wanting to experiment with it for quite some time, and have never felt brave enough. However, a friend who recently went on an ‘Experimental Watercolour’ workshop had some great results using it, and I badly wanted a piece of that paint action.

At art galleries the pictures I’m most drawn to are the night scenes, and for a while I’ve been considering trying to create my own. In the spirit of experimentation, I thought I’d have a go, and work in the cling film magic too.

I started by sketching out a scene on stretched paper, and drew in an opportunity to create a rocky foreground. Before reaching for the paint, I masked out the moon, some stars, a few lights on the coastline and a little of the moon’s reflected light on the water.

Throughout the picture I restricted the colours, using Payne’s Grey, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber and Cobalt Blue.  Having wet the paper in the foreground I slapped on my four colours (broadly speaking two to the left, two to the right for a bit of variation) and laid on the cling film, crumpling it to get what I hoped would be the look of a rocky cliff. Impatient as ever, I was helped by the sunshine outside and didn’t have to wait too long to peel off. Wow! I was so pleased to see the results (and still am).

Night scene clinfilm watercolour

I swept in a mix of Payne’s Grey and Burnt Umber for the main landmass, and Payne’s Grey only for the water. The sky gave me the most trouble, and was a mix of Payne’s Grey and Cobalt. I tried to add some drifts of cloud with salt, but the effect wasn’t right, so I ended up trying to remove the salt, repaint, and then lift off a little cloud with a sponge – same for the halo round the moon. Mixed success there.

When all was dry again, I removed the masking fluid, and added in a little hint of yellow on the lights, just to prevent them from being too stark a contrast.

It’s true to say that I had a real blast today. I will definitely be using cling film again!



Gold Leaf

My new metallic gold acrylic paint has been burning a hole in my pocket, so to speak. So I had a plan to use lots of it on a painting of another iris, inspired by a couple of paintings I’ve seen recently which employed gold or bronze backgrounds to great effect.

I used a canvas board, which is quite a new surface for me, but which has imparted some interesting texture to the picture. My initial sketch of the flower head was made directly on the canvas using a graphite stick. Once I’d laid in the background I soon discovered that my original composition was weak, as the flower head just floated squatly in the middle of a blank golden square. That would never do. I added the purples over a white base, including some deeper shades, enjoying using a rather dry brush to give a different kind of feel to the paint as the canvas texture showed through. Outlining the petals in black ink helped somewhat to give the flower a little more definition.

gold iris compressed

Standing back and appraising the picture, I had sudden thought to create some leaves by  using negative painting to create leaf shapes in the golden background. Although this improved matters, the composition was still missing something. Necessity being the mother of invention, I dabbed off some of the newly-dry purple paint with a cloth to blur the background a little, and then used my fingernail, to reveal the gold coating beneath, which I was relieved to see finally did the trick of bringing a bit more life and texture into the picture’s background.

I wonder whether I should have taken some photos while I was working of the different stages, but hindsight’s a wonderful thing.  I learned loads with this one, and also had the slightly reckless fun of experimenting to escape the difficulties I’d found myself in. Maybe that’s enough irises for a while now…


Blue Spray

The irises have been quite spectacular in the garden this year, and one dusk I was struck by how well the white irises stood out against the mass of foliage behind. I resolved to paint this, and thought acrylics would stand me in good stead, due to the vibrancy and depth of colour I struggle to achieve with watercolour. (Last year I drew the irises in pastels and then in ink; who knows what next year will bring?)

I used a lightly sanded piece of hardboard, larger than usual (24 x 9ins), sketched out the flower spray, and began by putting in a very dark green background. As I began on the flowers it became clear that there was going to be more blue in this picture than I’d originally thought, but it worked quite well with the dark green. I enjoyed the fact that I was able to show the flowers in three different stages on one stem, and it was a delight to see everything come together as I added the white highlights and the little sparks of orange stamens.

iris blue acrylic 3

Maybe some lessons on how to photograph large, shiny acrylic pictures would be a good idea?

Light and Shade

There’s an apple tree in the garden I’ve been watching, waiting for the right moment to paint it. The blossom has been emerging, and is now at its peak, the most wonderful point before it starts to wither and drop, cascading over the ground. Time was of the essence, and yesterday I managed to grab a couple of hours to make a quick acrylic painting.

I’m trying out canvas board, as previously I’ve painted acrylics on hardboard which has a very smooth surface, good for smears and blends. This behaves differently, but the texture of the canvas provides an interesting surface, albeit one where the paint dries faster due to being absorbed into the fabric. I worked with a large, flat brush throughout, from sky to background, finally laying on the tree and shadow last.

Apple Tree Acrylic

Before starting, I had an idea in my head about how this picture might look. The one I’ve ended up making is rather different though. Why is this so? Well, the conditions in the garden weren’t right for the image I had in mind – the light was wrong, and the vibe wasn’t there. Sometimes pictures just evolve away from my plans, there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it, as if they have a life of their own.

So this became a painting of two sides – object and shadow, light and dark. The blossom is all sweet, frisky and frothy; the shadow in contrast is almost menacing, without being intended that way. I initially thought it was going to me more ‘realistic’ than it has turned out. Strange.


On the Line

Yesterday was a beautiful day, with light breezes, big scudding clouds and intermittent warm sunshine, a good day for sketching outside. Inspiration was slow in coming, but finally I decided to have a go at the washing line, attracted by the lovely purply-blue shadows being thrown onto the gravel and the shed.

In the end this picture took an awful lot of fiddling with to arrive at this stage. I struggled with the sky because the paint dried even faster than I’d expected and, even with lifting out, the clouds are rather lumpy. Getting the foliage dark enough to contrast with the sunlit areas seemed to take ages and many goings-over; in doing so, I did get to try out my new W&N Neutral Tint, which seems a very useful addition to the palette. On the plus side, I am pleased with the colour of the shadows of the washing, and also that I managed to get the paint edges crisp and dark enough not to have to use my fineliner to add definition.

Washing watercolour



My husband is learning to draw and wants to start to sketch people. When I suggested he could do worse than have a try at a self portrait, he commented that he thought it felt a bit vain to do so. That surprised me; I hadn’t looked at it that way. I countered that I think our own faces are the ones we are know best, and that at least we’re always available to model for ourselves. Anyway, in my limited experience, self portraits are rarely flattering, given the fixed stare, frown, clenched jaw and compressed lips which result from the intensity of effort involved.

It was a series of self portraits in pastel which prompted me to kick off this blog just over a year ago. It was a good adventure, and one which taught me a lot.  I’ve done a couple in watercolour since, but today was the time for a proper selfie in acrylic.

I got the mirror rigged up, paints out, and off I went – starting is often the scariest bit. The board (30x40cms) was prepped by a light sanding and then propped on my tabletop easel. Having sketched the basic features in pencil, I worked from the background forwards. For once I did have a plan for the background, inspired by the black glass of the oven behind me (I like to paint in the kitchen).

Self portrait acrylic apr 16

The skin tones really gave me food for thought, how to mix the right colours; it took quite a bit of trial and error, and I’ve still come out somewhat more tanned than I am in reality. The shadows on the face were especially challenging. What colour is that? The chin is definitely a bit odd (I might revisit that). The bit I like most, and tellingly which took least effort, was the ear. If the rest of the painting was as loose and yet still as convincing as that I’d be really chuffed. I found that the acrylics actually dried a little too fast for me to achieve the smoothness of skin tones I was hoping for. I can see how oils would be a bonus here. Yet the acrylics do offer a sort of coarseness which is appealing.

I’d hoped that using my 3/4 in flat brush throughout would help me to paint more loosely, but in fact it created some problems where detail was necessary, particularly round the eyes and nose. Rightly or wrongly, I persisted. I’d be interested to know what brushes other people use for portraits, all advice gratefully accepted!

As has been the case with every selfie I’ve done, this sort of looks like me, but doesn’t really. Having looked at my previous attempts I think that I am getting better at this business, although my stern expression seems to confirm my opinion that self-portraiture is a very serious business indeed.


Memory Test

Today I wanted to paint something in acrylics. I didn’t have much time available, but felt that I’d like to experiment a little. I usually (almost always) draw and paint from a reference or actual ‘thing’ in front of me. The downside is that this can mean that I follow that scene or image too slavishly, sometimes to the detriment of composition.  I thought it would be a good exercise to try to conjure a scene from my memory, using just my impressions of that scene for reference. The aim was to produce something that felt as ‘real’ as possible, testing my memory store of observation and learning from previous sketches.

Mountains Memory Acrylic

I found this exercise such a challenge – so much harder than painting something that’s actually ‘there’. The composition wasn’t very clear in my head, and I was eager to paint rather than to sketch my picture first. This has meant that the resulting painting doesn’t have a clear focus, other than the channel between two of the mountains. I’m happy that the eye is led in, but once in, it sadly has nowhere much to go. The grass in the foreground was an afterthought, and it doesn’t add any value; in fact cropping the picture to exclude it does helps the picture somewhat.

Mountains Memory Acrylic crop

What did I learn? Well, randomness in mountain shapes is harder to achieve convincingly than you might imagine. Ditto for clouds – time looking hard at them in future will be time well spent. Imagining how the light will fall, and what kind of light it should be, is key, and this should be established at the beginning, not halfway through. I should have spent more time on working out my composition, perhaps including the suggestion of a village or a few distant buildings for a bit more interest. In summary, I think this picture should be filed under ‘Learning Process.’ It’s becoming quite a big section!


So, you’ll be glad to hear that I’m almost at the end of talking about our Spanish trip…just a couple more posts and I’ll be done.

It was a beautiful photo taken at dusk which inspired me to paint this acrylic of the house where we stayed. The scene strongly reminded me of Magritte‘s Empire of Light scenes, where blue skies are the backdrop for extremely dark foregrounds, and the house lights shine out warmly into the night. I loved the expanse of dark foreground, and the bold contrasts in colour and shade. I knew I wanted to recreate this in paint, and after shying away from it for about a week I finally got stuck in with the acrylics yesterday.

The mental process is always so important – in what order does the paint need to added? For me, this really dictates what can and can’t be done; I’ve found that I like to paint with imperfectly blended colours on my brush, which means that strokes laid on can’t easily be corrected if I make a mistake later when painting the next ‘layer’. This does cause some head-scratching, finger crossing, and occasionally quiet cursing. But you know, it’s fun.

Here I began with a sheet of hardboard roughly 12×16 ins. I really didn’t want to go any smaller. This finished size caused some issues, as the camera wasn’t doing a good job on the colour reproduction, compounded by the shiny acrylic surface. Therefore I used my scanner, but only half the picture could fit at a time, which is why there’s a rather unsightly line down left of centre where I’ve inexpertly stitched two photos together! I’m happy to say that the real thing looks rather more convincing…

Mas Bernad Acrylic Scan

Anyway. After pencilling in the outlines, I laid in the purple-blue sky (there is a hint less red in it than shows in this scan), moving on to the main body colour of the house and the path surrounding it. That was a much harder colour to mix than I expected, mainly because I couldn’t decide what colour I was really looking for to convincingly portray yellow stone in deep purply night conditions. Tricky. Next I added a very dark green for the foreground grass and the background trees, with some even darker patches for extra density. The detail of the porch roof and the darks under the eaves and the side of the chimney followed. I went for it with the yellows to give the golden light spilling out from the windows. Then it was time to add in the tree at the front, and the window frame details. Standing back and looking at the painting from this point, I could see that the path still wasn’t dark enough, and I felt that the colour of the house was too flat, so I took further measures there to try to compensate. I used a 3/4 inch flat brush throughout, choosing to persist even for the fiddly areas, since I like the interesting, slightly unpredictable quality wrestling with it gives.

This picture represents two new challenges for me: to try an acrylic of a house and garden; and also to produce a painting with a ‘dusk’ feel. I like the darkness throughout, and I’m especially fond of the way the light shines from the partially obscured upstairs window. I know I learned a lot here, and I really enjoyed the process.