Monthly Archives: April 2015

Notes on books I’ve read

An Introduction to Acrylics by Ray Smith. Pub Dorling Kindersley, 1993

Recommended course book, gave me a good start in tackling acrylic paint, a medium totally new to me. Packed with practical help, great examples and useful hints. I’ve tried out several of the techniques already – suspect I’ll keep referring back to the book during my Painting course. 


Rembrandt by Michael Bockemühl, pub Taschen, 2007. 

Found on my dear departed mother’s bookshelf when going through her stuff, I inherited it on the principle of ‘finders keepers’!  Lots of clear images and many useful insights in the text. It contributed to my research article on Chiaroscuro, as there are lots of interesting observations on the lighting in individual paintings. It gave me a good appreciation of how important the treatment of light and shade is in an image. 


Simon Schama’s Power of Art, Pub BBC Books, 2006. 

Also has a chapter on Rembrandt, with some of the same images as Bockemühl’s book. Telling the story of R’s life,  Schama leads the reader to an appreciation of what he describes as R’s great painting – The Conspiracy of the Batavians Under Claudius Civilis – “a picture, above all, of light” (p130). The painting was rejected by the worthies of Amsterdam – too embarrassingly coarse – and R had to cut out four fifths of it to get anyone to take it.

Caravaggio also has a chapter to himself, in which Schama leads us by the hand to The Beheading Of St John the Baptist.  And Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals are the subject of the final chapter. 

A good fireside read, and the DVD set also entertaining and instructive. 


Notes on articles I’ve read

Nairobi-Born Artist Michael Armitage on LGBTQ Rights in Kenya and Misconceptions of Contemporary African Art

I sometimes worry about why I’m making art – what’s the meaning, or point of it all, apart from my own pleasure and satisfaction?  This article describes how one artist needs to express an element in his work relating to his cultural surroundings, recent events and issues, but also builds in western art historical signposts.  

Downloadable art books


List of sites offering free downloads

Grayson Perry on his sketchbooks


Postcards Painted by Franz Marc

These are wonderful examples of post art – postcards painted by the artist and sent to his friends, including Kandinsky and Klee.  So each is small, inventive, imaginative, semi-abstract but based on close observation.  They could be gouache or acrylic – opaque, water based media anyway.  Use of colour is bold.  Ground appear pre-painted in some light burnt sienna wash.

Tips for landscape painting

Useful points to have in mind for part 4, and particularly painting en plein air

Sitting for Frank Auerbach

His portrait models sit for him for two hours every week for years.  Each week he scrapes off what he did in the previous session and starts over – each time learning something new, improving – until after maybe a year he decides to keep it and start a new one.  He starts with charcoal studies.

 British Museum defines Greek naked ideal

Apparently the ancient Greeks were obsessed with the naked body, and especially the perfection of the nude male figure. Female figures were represented in Ancient Greece with great modesty.  These days we’re not so obsessed with perfection, more with human  imperfection and frailty,; on the other hand we’re more obsessed with the nude female, sans modesty. I remember the marbles of imperfect nudes by Marc Quinn which I saw; the amputees, his trans-genital figures and his obese figures. 

 Vulva artist transforms Colorado women’s vaginas into body-positive art


I love this, because it shows that we are all unique and different and normal. It’s a comment on our culture which imposes artificial and impossible norms on the female body, creating in a lot of us feelings of inadequacy.  But how weird that it’s been done by a man! His motivation seems rather condescending to me. 


Tracey Emin is still the real thing – and that’s why we love her


Tracey Emin certainly polarises views. Daunting to learn a degree in philosophy is necessary to produce conceptual art – which I believe is where the later levels of OCA degree tends.

Interesting revelation from Emin about how Schiele traced his nudes from photos thereby achieving perfect foreshortening – which is, apparently a giveaway as not even Picasso could draw foreshortening accurately! Must try tracing, I used to do it a lot as a child, but somewhere along the way I’ve picked up the idea that it’s ‘cheating’ to make a drawing by tracing. 

I like that she has such good traditional, technical artistic skills, and is still interested in acquiring more. “What makes her outstanding is the totally convincing way that her craft skills and conceptualism stitch together.”

Some experiments with acrylics

Before I started my painting for Assignment 1, I carried out some experiments with handling the paint in different ways,  thinking how I might apply these techniques to my piece, but not limiting ideas to that subject alone. 

Leaf – layering transparent washes, leaving white paper for the pattern of veins, and modifying it later with yellow. 


Stones and starfish – I dropped very dilute yellow, blue and red paint onto wet paper, then much thicker secondaries, tilting the paper in all directions to allow the colours to rub and merge, sprinkling salt to create texture. When the paint was dry I went in with a black calligraphy pen and drew shapes and patterns suggested by the paint. The combination of thin and thicker paint gave more interest to the finished page than just one or the other would have done. 


Mushroom –  I painted a large oval with another oval inside it. A dark brown wash was roughly added over a paler wet wash, tilting the paper to get a mottled appearance.   Keeping the rim wet, I added thick brown all over using radial strokes from the centre, which I then dabbed out with a tissue. I used the point of a credit card to create the gills. 


Brick or stone wall patterns;

  • top – wet in wet collage using torn scraps of magazine print; paint with a wash of sap green; when dry, add a thicker layer – the paint accumulates around the torn edges of paper, giving natural  3D effect stone shapes 
  • middle – Fingers used to lift out wet paint from a dilute wash of sap green. Then a darker wash added. 
  • Bottom – basic shapes painted with sap green; a darker colour dropped in wet in wet; when almost dry, the spaces between the stones painted with a yellow. 


Tropical plants – pulled a pallete knife or corner of credit card through a blob of cream-thick paint, to create spiky leaves. Added a second shadow colur and repeated, getting subtle colour variations. Added a stem using transparent washes. 


Weaving – laid down thickish paint and wiped a strip of card the rough the paint to create lighter strips like a fence (top). Staggering them (middle) looks like bricks. Pulling thin vertical lines first then horizontal strips looks like woven basket work. 



 Garden fence – made a small landscape using the techniques – a gate, scraping strip of card through paint; plants, pulling a blob of paint up and away with a sharp point; grass, a transparent wash of colour with salt sprinkled in. 

Adjacent stripes of white, brown and blue paint straight from the tube; dragging the paint (with a cocktail stick) into the adjacent colour to give a textured, 3D effect; following the contours if the supposed object, eg a cylinder. 

A basic mushroom shape painted in brown; indigo layers on top and white below; a cotton bud used to stipple the colour around, blending and grading the colours to create the form of the mushroom. 


Experiments to achieve effects like my Croton leaves; washes with dry brush texture; spattering with toothbrush; yellow china graph pencil, oil pastel and coloured pencil as resists; spattering and stippling using a stencil. 

Orange leaves: Oil pastel resist over transparent yellow wash base; cling film for texture; stippling on top with red. 

Green leaf: yellow base wash; veins drawn in thick gouache and dried thoroughly; green transparent thicker layer painted overall on top and dried thoroughly; leaf washed under running water exposing veins, which were then modified with red stippling. 

Colour trials – emerald green with process cyan, paynes grey, indigo, prussian blue – some toned with orange. 

A1 Assignment 1

For this Assignment I decided to make a finished painting of a Croton pot plant in acrylic paint on A2 paper. The painting was to be representational, and I would aim to demonstrate a grasp of drawing, proportion, composition, tone and colour. The form of the pot would be an exercise in portraying a solid three dimensional object in two dimensions; and I would try to represent the depth of the leaves through use of aerial perspective principles. 


Here is the final painting:


Final assignment painting – A2 on paper

Here are some reflections made after I finished  – 

What I learned doing this assignment – and what I’d do differently next time – I certainly improved my technical knowledge of acrylics; this painting incorporates many different techniques – glazing, opaque painting, blending, stippling, resist, scrubbing. Some are more successful than others, but before using my gouache resist technique again in a painting I would need to do more trials, as i really didn’t get the result I’d expected from my sketchbook experiments, and I’m still not sure why.  I also took a leap forward with colour mixing, and got some good results. My favourite leaf is the almost black one at the bottom, with the pure white highlights – I managed to mix the colour without actually using black!

My composition – I’m happy with the composition, especially the negative shapes produced by the cropping,  but I feel the background needs more substance or texture, especially top and right sides. When I have time I’ll go back and try to improve it.

Tonal values and depth – with hindsight I think the painting might have been more successful if I’d concentrated on tonal range and achieving depth, rather than spending so much time on pattern and texture. I would like the left side of the plant to be darker and the right side to really zing out with light shining on and through the leaves – but I’m not sure right now how to achieve it – again, I think I’ll go back to it at a later date when I’ve had feedback and more time to reflect on it. 


Here’s what I did, and my thoughts along the way – 

I set the arrangement up with a simple backdrop as the subject itself would be quite complex.  

The pot plant appealed to me to be painted because it had a striking shape, strongly patterned leaves, a great range of tones when well lit, bold negative shapes between the leaves, and gorgeous shades of green and golden colour from pink through yellow.


Starting off my preparation with an A3 drawing with marker pens, I dived in and made a colour study, but soon got in a pickle as I wasn’t taking account of tones, being seduced by the colours. 

Going back to basics I made a line drawing then a more considered, larger study in monochrome using Derwent charcoal pencils. This time I was able to work out relative tones, constantly adjusting, lightening and darkening, as the charcoal was easy to lift and smudge. By the time I finished this study, which I did over three sessions, I’d learned to recognise the darks and lights and midtones and not to be waylaid by colour. 

I changed the composition for the tonal study, zooming in and filling more of the support. The negative shapes started to contribute more to the image. 


Although the background detracts from the clarity of the plant, making it difficult to read some of the leaf shapes on the left, I was fairly happy with my composition, but I made a couple more thumbnail sketches.

As a result I realised if I sat further away from the plant the composition changed for the better. The negative shapes opened up, and the separation between the upper and lower plants, and their diagonal orientation, was more apparent. I also felt the painting would benefit from stronger contrasts in the leaves to really grab the viewers attention and distance the midtone background. 

When I photocopied/enlarged and transferred my tonal drawing onto the A2 gessoed paper therefore, I cut the composition roughly in half and slightly separated the two halves to create that view without having to completely redraw. Feeling my upper clump of leaves looked a bit smaller now than in reality, I tried a measuring technique I’d read about – the sight-size method. Placing the easel in a position where my drawn plant was exactly the same size as the real plant from where I was sitting, I could compare measurements directly (with a knitting needle held in my outstretched arm), without having to scale up or down. I did indeed find some leaves were drawn too small, and I made some fairly big adjustments as a result. 

Before committing paint to paper I needed to explore ways of representing the patterns of the leaves, so as a separate exercise I made a series of experiments using the acrylic paint in different ways. Click here to see the experiments. To achieve the sharp lines of the bright yellow veins in dark green leaves without having to paint around them, a gouache resist could be effective, with stippling and dry brushing or scumbling on top as necessary once the resist had been washed away.  All of the leaves had a bright, light base colour when viewed this way, so I started my painting by putting this down as a first layer. 

Next I painted  the background (cobalt, and white with a speck of Crimson and yellow; paynes grey on top for cast shadows). I enjoyed using a stiff bristle brush to scrub on the cast shadows, and blending roughly with a fan brush; these brushes seemed to lead to a more painterly effect than the slicker more blended outcome from a synthetic brush. 

Next task was to reserve the leaves’ base colours with the gouache resist, prior to adding darker colours to the leaves.  Here’s a section showing the white gouache painted on; next, green added to some leaves; Thirdly, showing green paint washed away and more texture/pattern added. Rather annoyingly the resist didn’t work nearly so well as it’d done in my experiments, but anyway, the washing process left some good textures in the paint which I was able to use to create the patterns and colours I needed. 



The main leaves in the plant needed to be distinct and readable, otherwise the painting would be incoherent, so as I painted the top layer, I observed relative tones of leaves with care.  


At the stage above I left the painting for some days and when I came back to it became aware of some improvements to make:-

  • connect the top and bottom halves more firmly (with background canes and leaves)
  • lighten the right side to make a stronger distinction from the dark, left side
  • add tonal glazes to make the leaves at the back appear further away

(An interesting point, in all the above 5 photos the background hasn’t been altered – the first and last photos with a blue background were taken in daylight, and the two middle ones with the apparently grey background were taken under electric light.)

I made the adjustments I’d identified, and also decided to crop the painting so the leaves and border together created closed negative shapes; the painting’s final version is shown the top of the post. 

Part 1 – reflections

I’ve struggled somewhat in Part 1 with a loss of motivation and concentration, affected by the loss of my mother. This has meant not much more done than the basic course requirements, and postponing the assignment date.

Demonstration of technical and visual skills (materials, techniques, observation skills, visual awareness, design, compositional skills)

The main thrust of Part 1 has been in starting to get practice in handling paint as a media, and to learn basic techniques.  I chose to concentrate almost exclusively on acrylic paint, a medium new to me. Their fast drying times, and not having to work in a fug of solvent appealed to me, but otherwise I knew almost nothing about them.  I used the recommended course book by Ray Smith to supplement the course manual. 

The course exercises on using the paint and brushes got me started, and preparing smoothly graded washes was a challenge. Comparing my first attempts at painting a tree, with later work, especially my still life on a dark ground and my assignment piece, I realise I’ve climbed quite a steep learning curve already.

The research on Chiaroscuro led directly to my approach to the still life on a dark ground, and I really intensified contrasts between light and shade. I found I could see light like this by squinting uncomfortably hard, or by playing with photo editing – but for observing the subject at length under such light conditions, putting the arrangement in a dark box and strongly spotlighting it from the side worked very well.

The design and composition for my assignment piece evolved out of a number of studies in which I viewed the plant from different angles and distances, and experimented with cropping. The subject lent itself to composing with shapes, negative and positive, dark and light, until I found what I felt was a strong and pleasing composition. 

Quality of Outcome (content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas)

That said, the quality of the work I have done has been passable in terms of content and application of knowledge, and I’ve presented it coherently. What has suffered is concepts and ideas – I haven’t really been a bright spark and pursued any, but this will come. 

Demonstration of Creativity (imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice)

The exercises in Part 1 are about developing technical skills and painting in a representative way. I’ve experimented with the media and ways of using it, and brought many of these experiments into play in my final assignment piece, some more successfully than others, but nevertheless the risks have had positive outcomes.  I’m disappointed with the quantity of my sketchbook work (almost none outside of the exercise requirements) and hope to redress the balance in the next Part – for now I haven’t made a special section in my blog menu for sketchbooks as all I’ve done so far is contained within other posts. 

Context (reflection, research, critical thinking – learning log)

I’ve set up my learning log as a blog. I use the blog to record my processes, thoughts and reflections as I work; at the end of each exercise I summarise my reflective thinking and ‘hindsight thoughts’ – shortcomings I identify after completing the exercise and moving on, what I’d do differently next time etc. I generally put these at the beginning of the entry for the exercise, along with an image of the finished piece, as I think it is more important than the record of what I did. 

The research on Chiaroscuro was instructive, and as I noted above I was able to apply it to my own work.

Mark Rothko and the Seagram Murals was an interesting topic, and tied in with the exercises well.  I’d like to develop my own project combining Rothko’s approach with the theories of colour I’m learning about in Part 2.

My thoughts on books I’ve read and films I’ve watched in the last 3 months can be seen in the Research menu of my blog. 

Part 1 – tutor feedback



Reflections on Assignment 1 feedback

Here’s the report, marked up by me to highlight some of the points for action and important advice to take forward into the next assignment

Here’s a link to a pertinent OCA article, How to Use Your Tutor Reports and an extract from it below


  • Firstly print out the Tutor Report document or enable the document to be annotated on your PC.
  • Read it carefully.
  • Read it again this time highlighting areas of importance. For example strengths, weaknesses and suggested changes.
  • Read it again this time alongside the assessment criteria noting down any language that suggests you are at a particular level. (Tutors use the assessment criteria to judge the kind of feedback you require)
  • Look at the Tutor Report with your notes along side the assignment it refers to.
  • Lay out your work looking for the places your tutor has indicated for change.
  • Make notes on what you see. Can you see what your tutor sees?
  • Make further notes on how you could go about meeting the suggestions made or making improvements to the assignment.
  • Talk the assignment and feedback over with another student (via Facebook or a student forum) or a friend/member of your family.
  • Make your changes to the assignment.
  • Reflect on how this process has helped you improve your assignment.
  • Place both the Tutor Report and your notes in your learning log.
  • Write up the changes you have made to the work and reflect upon the outcomes.



A positive, generous feedback, full of solid advice, as well as praise and encouragement. The report was very motivating.

The main messages are to be open and investigative. Be experimental and inventive. Have fun. 



Guidance to keep in mind going forward 

1.Make more work rather than less;  

2.Make lots of prep work.  see this article And this

3.Avoid using brushes in the same way for every painting or part of a painting

4.Vary the size of painting tools and substrates

5.Paint vertically and at arms length 

6.Don’t concentrate on detail

7.Allow accident to have a role

8.Let the paint and the activity of painting lead me at times

9.Sometimes, begin by painting the spaces between objects


Artists to look at

1.Clyde Hopkins

2.Gillian Ayres


4.Morris Louis

5.Helen Frankenthaler

6.Mali Morris



9.Geoffrey Rigden

10.Paul Tonkin



To do list 

1.Discuss next assignment date and format

2.Use acrylics mostly

3.Paint more than one version of assignment pieces

4.Blog more about the differences between pieces in a series

b.say more about what your work is doing in an imaginative sense more about why rather than how.

d.organise so it scrolls down, starting with earliest project and ending with assignment.   I followed the OCA blog setup instructions; unfortunately  a blog is essentially a reverse chronological publishing tool,   But, I understand where my tutors coming from – I think  changing the appearance of my blog to a magazine style, so exercises thumbnails are displayed within individual project pages, and then can be individually selected in any order  rather than scrolled.  Together with using the categories I’ve set up within the blog’s menu, it should now hopefully be easier to read.  

5.Get clarification on –

a. ‘Methods and ways of working can make the painting if approached with intent’

b.‘say more about what your work is doing in an imaginative sense’


Notes on films I’ve watched


Chapman bros – Goya Disasters of War



Benjamin Zephaniah private view of Late Turner, BBC

The format of the programme is a personal view. The presenter goes from painting to painting, commenting on what he observed and how the paintings made him feel. He related the first painting to his own family and ancestry. It was evident the presenter was taking great pleasure from Turner’s work. These are some shorthand notes I made while watching the programme. 


The Slave Ship. Off the coast of Jamaica   Slaves thrown into the sea, drowning in their chains. Not far from where his family came from. Blood in the sea and the sky. 


The burning of the houses of lords and commons. He was a chronicler. Detail of people watching from the sidelines. Like the system is being burnt. 


Snow storm. Chaotic but beautiful. Turner disregarded conventions of his day and painted what he wanted. He might have been tied to the mast, but probably wasn’t – he used his imagination. 


Regulus. The power of the sun blinding us as regulus was blinded. Was turner addicted to the sun?  


Rain, steam and speed. The hare racing down the track. 


A disaster at sea. The ship going down while women and children drown as the captain refused help. A political commentary


Sun setting over a lake. The sun is the subject. There’s nothing solid. The sun isn’t round. It’s abstract. 


Peace burial at sea. Turner painted this because a friend died at sea. Perhaps t was also thinking about his own mortality. 



Norham Castle, Sunrise. The sun shine through at the centre of the painting.


I also visited the exhibition and made a blog entry about it (click here)

For me, the TV program was interesting because I could compare the presenters view with my own. It was lovely to be reminded of some of the great late works of Turner I’d seen. We noticed different things of course, but it emphasises that viewing paintings is a very personal thing.  



Michael Eavis private view of constable – BBC 

The presenter himself was brought up in Constable county in a farming family.  He could recognise the truth of Constable’s paintings, exclaiming with great pleasure in the many small details in them and how he remembered exactly this or that thing from his childhood. 

Haywain. Looking at detail. Ducks mating. Steel rim on wheel. 

The cornfield 1826. Romantic view of England. Brought back memories of his childhood. 

Stonehenge. Atmospheric, magical. 

The leaping horse 1826. Good drawing of the horse. Colour of the water, the light on it. All the detail realistic and beautifully painted. So special to him as that’s where he was born and bred. Painted with love and ownership. 

The village fair East Bergholt. Rain clouds gathering. 

Rainstorm over the sea  incredible painting of the sea, clouds. Unattractive, frightening 

Boat building near flat ford mill   

Path to the church.  No elm trees now, but they’ll come back. 

Dedham Vale, evening. Elm trees, sloping fields. A godly picture. Soothing. 

He thought Constable must have received pleasure, joy, contentment, satisfaction in painting them. 


Every painting described England and the life of the day in the country. 


An astonishing amount of detail, painted with care and love, and small brushes.


Watching both of these ‘Private View’ programs, it was very interesting and positive to see how much enjoyment art can give to people. 


Simon Schama, Power of Art – Rothko – BBC, 2006

One of a series of documentaries presented by Schama in which he examines the lives of eight great artists. In the book accompanying the series he posits that each of these artists, under great stress in intense make-or-break turning points in their lives created masterpieces that changed the way we look at the world and altered the course of art.  One of these is Mark Rothko, and the masterpiece is the Seagram murals.

Schama explains that Rothko repeatedly stated he was no abstract artist. His subject was the “universal tragedy of the human condition” (Simon Schama’s Power of Art, p401).  He was strongly influenced by Matisse, and in particular The Red Studio, where Matisse had “abolished volume and reinvented pictorial space” (Simon Schama’s Power of Art, p413). Venetian Red covers the entire field of the painting, and the illusionism of painting had been dispensed with. 

Interestingly Rothko himself recognised an affinity in his paintings with Turner – both of them depicting dramatic atmospheres and dematerialised vistas. His blocks are “diaphanous gauzes that drift together,mc losing and separating, hovering above or gliding beneath each other” (Simon Schama’s Power of Art, p424). The borders are crucially important – ragged and indeterminate, both at the paintings’ perimeters and  in the “frayed seams he tears between large colour zones” (Simon Schama’s Power of Art, p424). 

For me, Rothko’s paintings speak of the emotional power of simplicity. His paintings appear to be simple, although as I’ve seen, in reality they are built up in complex layers. I find it very interesting that one of the media he used was acrylic paint, then in its infancy – and it is inspiring to see how thin layers can be built one on top of the other, all adding up to incredibly rich textural effects. 

Ref Simon Schama’s Power of Art, pub BBC Books, 2006. 


Hockney – broadcast on BBC2 – director Randall Wright, production company First Class Hero Productions Ltd. 

For this program, which is like a visual diary of his life, David Hockney allowed his personal photographs and film to be used.  It encompasses his whole life,  from his early life in working class Bradford, to his move to Hollywood and later back to Yorkshire. He says he tries to find ways of looking and to think of his drawing subjects in simple ways, and in that way to get a response from the viewer.   I’m slightly familiar with his work and perceive it to be colourful, accessible, optimistic; his line drawings in particular are attractive in their economy; but listening to Hockney talking about his life and thoughts has given me more of an insight into his work, and made me realise that his many ways of seeing, drawing and painting are also sensitive, expressive and thoughtful.  The drawing and painting shown of his mother are heart-rending when seen in the context of his reminiscences and family films. – the piercing blue eyes, the gnarled old hands. 


Picasso: Love, Sex and Art – broadcast on BBC4 – Director Hugues Nacy, Production Company Gedeon Programmes

Gave an insight into the story of the women Picasso painted. He abstracted from the female form, and it seemed that each new wife, lover or mistress gave fresh fuel to his inspired explorations – they were his muses, but in themselves became little more than erotic objects for his work. It was said that some of the women felt damaged forever by the experience.