Category Archives: Part 2 – Close to home

2.4.1 quick sketches around the house


I had been looking at some elegant drawings by Egon Schiele, which I came across during my research on the interiors of other artists – see Schiele’s drawings below –


They are essentially line drawings, with little regard explicitly to shape or tone, but nevertheless extremely expressive and skilled.  I used these as my starting point and made five (not so quick) line drawings, which are shown below.  I spend most time at home in the living area so I made my sketches here.  I’m not good at drawing this subject quickly, wanting to linger, to carefully examine perspective.  For three of them I was sitting, as standing is uncomfortable for me for the sort of time I was taking.

Re-reading the exercise instructions I decided to time myself doing another set of sketches.  This time I had looked at Bonnard‘s sketches for his paintings of interiors.  Compared to Schiele’s they are untidy, sketchy,  unfinished, more investigative of tone, shape and light.  They’re packed with information for developing into larger paintings, and they may well have been executed quickly.  This is much more the approach needed for this exercise.
Some of Bonnard’s sketches –

My next set was actually done following instructions!  No detail; focus on important lines, shapes, contrasts; timed at 10-15 minutes each!

I looked closely at my drawings, keeping in mind the instructions for the painting I’m going to be doing for the next exercise, which are, in summary :-

  • Focus on creating an illusion of space (perspective)
  • Keep it simple
  • Draw the defining lines and outlines of important shapes with a fine brush (structure)
  • Pay attention to relative scales – accuracy and proportion
  • Add light colour washes to define shapes (muted or limited palette)
  1.  Kitchen – the most difficult but I simplified (could be further simplified), and it looks right – lots of interest.  Has an illusion of space.
  2. Back of armchair – interesting shapes, tones.  Simple.  Has depth.
  3. Pool – ditto
  4. Fireplace – not much depth or interest
  5. Gallery – Complicated, picture of two halves.  Vertical perspective overdone, difficult
  6. Table & bookshelves – Has depth, is simple but interesting shapes, tonal values potentially good but not worked out in sketch
  7.  Table & window – Rather flat, the illusion of space is in the view outside not in the interior
  8. Dining area – Good shapes, tones, lines, depth.  Messed up the table & chairs proportions, but can do more carefully.

So I’ve ruled out 4,5 and 7 which leaves the strongest 5 potential compositions to choose from.


References – web sites accessed 08/08/2015



2.4.2 simple perspective in interior studies


I would have liked to have worked up all five of my selected sketches into paintings, but time was pressing.  I chose just one, the first, of my kitchen, simply because I liked it the most.

Gridding it up to 30×42 I redrew the main lines in charcoal, on gessoed mixed media paper.  Then I erased the grid and lightly erased the lines so they could just be seen.

In the morning, sitting in the same spot at my easel, with the rising sun shining through I redrew the lines with a brush and very dilute acrylic ink, applied masking fluid to some objects, then built up some light coloured washes (Paynes Gey, Burnt Umber, Yellow Ochre) in layers.  The floor was spattered, the sunny outside greenery stippled with a stencil brush.  The pattern on the folded blind drawn with a fine brush.  I reinforced important lines with dark and light paint, and finally added a few highlights with white from the tube.


Reflecting on the finished painting

  • The door (the way it’s let into the wall between two ranges of cupboards) and the folded blind above the door, with objects partly overlapped by it, look particularly convincing.  The contrast between the harsh light outside and the darker interior comes across. The objects on the lower shelves and the corner of the worktop in the foreground catch the light.


  • I noticed too late that, relative to the height of the base cupboards, the wall cupboards on the left are too tall, and the shelves by the door are too narrow – somehow this has caused the wall cupboards to look as though they’re tilting inward.   its quite a major mistake.  I can’t have measured and compared these elements carefully enough; I checked back to my original sketch;

 and it’s the same.  It doesn’t seem to matter in the sketch, but the painting has been done in a more realistic manner, so the inaccuracy jars.  Lesson – measure, compare and check more !

2.3.1 /2.3.2 exploring contrasts and successive contrast

I prepared the coloured squares (Process Blue) inside squares of simlar (Process blue mixed with process Magenta, Emerald Green, Crimson, Cobalt and Ultramarine), and then complementary (Cad Red mixed moth Cad Yellow) colour.  I could see that similar colours tended to blur together – when I squint my eyes I can hardly spot a difference, and they appear uniformly dark toned;  

whereas the juxtaposed complementaries appeared vibrantly as different as possible from each other, even with half closed eyes.

The neutral square inside the darker toned blue appears lighter in tone than the one inside the Orange-red square, and the neutral square inside its white border appears darker than all of them.

It illustrated Chevreul’s theory of colour contrast to me in a very practical way; that opposite colours (on the colour wheel) juxtaposed  will appear as different as possible to each other;  similarly, opposite tones (very dark juxtaposed against very light) appear as different as possible from each other – the darks look darker, the lights look lighter (tonal contrast).

How could this affect my work? How colour looks in a painting seems to depend on their relationship with the colours around them.  If a colour or area looks muddy or dull, it is probably because it’s surrounded by colours which are too similar in hue or tone.  On the other hand if the colours in a painting look bright and gorgeous, it will be because there are many juxtapositions of opposite hue and tone. 

One point arising from his which I’ve seen explained in contradictory ways is whether juxtaposing colours which are opposite in both tone and hue at the same time gives an even greater, cumulative contrast.  My light toned orange border has a blue square of similar tone inside it.  If my blue was dark, would the overall contrast be even greater?

To find out I juxtaposed complementary colours (a) of similar tone and (b) of opposite tone.  The complementary colours with similar tones definitely have a greater degree of contrast.

I wondered what would happen if I juxtaposed muted complementary colours – can they still add emphasis to a painting?  I muted my red-orange with a little green, and my Process Cyan with a little Napthol Red (adjusting to similar tones). See above, the first box – there’s less contrast than with the pure colours, but within a scheme of muted colours complementaries will still add impact compared to putting more similar colours next to each other.


Successive contrast

Having focussed on a bright red area, a green after-image appears when closing my eyes.  This applies to any pair of complementaries.  The after image is what makes the contrast between complementaries so intense when they’re placed next to each other.  Focussing on the red dot in this image for 30 secs gives a positive after image of the woman’s face:-


Chevreul’s Colour Theory and its Consequences for Artists by George’s Roque, pub The Colour Group Great Britain 2011

Colour:How to see it- How to paint it by Judy Martin, pub Harper Collins 1994 Accessed 10/070/2015

2.3.3 colour accuracy


Here’s my still life group and the final painting (acrylics 50x70cm, canvas).


image      image


I chose objects I’m fond of and like – I would find it difficult to work with things I have no feeling for – objects from travels or that we’ve had in the family for ages – tactile things with varied textures, from rough straw to shiny porcelain, fresh, cool cotton, to a warmly patterned throw.  Bright, shiny peppers and aubergines contributed interesting forms.

While working on the exercise I looked at the still lifes of Matisse and Max Beckmann, and how they integrate interesting backgrounds into their compositions, background lines, patterns, shapes and colours that complement the objects depicted without overwhelming them.

Also looked at some deceptively simple, minimal still lifes, which I talk about below.

My sketchbook studies and the still life paintings I looked at helped me form the concept to paint a composition which would combine the elements I admired – simple but interesting shapes and lines which have a hard-edged, geometrical feel to them – combined with pattern and texture.


 I intended  to work on all three paintings in this project simultaneously, influenced by my tutor’s advice to work on several at a time, and something I read in another artist’s blog which gave me food for thought-

I always work on several paintings at the same time. Switching to another artwork as soon as I start to feel my interest waning allows me to stay engaged in my process. Interestingly, once I embark upon a second painting with a completely different set of problems, this somehow allows me to better understand the problems of the first. When things get hard I just move on to another painting. I always have at least 3 paintings going at the same time.”

What I found I couldn’t do was to stop painting and work on another when the going got tough – I felt if I didn’t carry on and work my way through whatever the problems were, I’d lose continuity in the painting, and maybe never feel like picking it up again.  In the end, I carried on with this one painting exclusively, worked through a phase of negative ‘I can’t do it’ feelings, until I got to the stage where I felt it was going much better, then eventually decided I’d finished.  


Looking at it now, I got the colours, the shades of hues and the tones mostly accurate, but not always by mixing the pigments right first time.  I wasn’t as careful as I could have been;  I was forced to work fast by the quick drying time of acrylics in summer heat, and this led me to adopt a bit of a slapdash, panicky approach.  I can still see parts aren’t right – the emerald green is too bluish for the green pepper, I should have mixed an accurate yellowish green for instance.  



Process – making notes as I went along

To begin the exercise I made a thumbnail line sketchbook study of the grouping – I’m seated, the setup to my left (so that I’m not looking over my drawing arm), lit from the right/above by a northerly window as well as an angle lamp.


Colour and tone

There are many contrasting colours and tones in my objects; I spent a few moments of quiet observation analysing them more carefully.

  • Overall colour temperature is warm (yellow, orange, brown), with cool accents from the green peppers.  Tonal contrasts are strong; similar darks (while being different colours) from the pot, aubergines and chair back; lights from green peppers, cloths, chair surfaces. The midtone red pepper has similar tonal value to the outside of the bowl.
  • As the light falls on the right side the transition from light to dark tones of the same hue occur generally from right to left.  This is reversed in the red pepper, whose natural colour lightens towards its top, where it’s less ripe; and the inside of the blue bowl, whose right side is in shadow, left side catching the light.  The arm of the chair is light in the foreground and darkens as it recedes from the lamp light.
Individual objects –
  • The backdrop cloth is a warm yellow-yellow-orange, the cast shadow of the chair muting parts of it towards a green hue.
  • The chair dull warmish brown, the arm light, vertical pieces dark
  • The pot is shiny and very dark ultramarine, some pink, green and yellow pattern on it.  The green and yellow, being similar tend to disappear, but the complementary warm pink stands out.  Reflected light from the pink cloth turns the lower plane Violet.  White highlights from light sources.
  • Deep inside the bowl is very dark blue, but the left inner surface high up is light tone with highlights; outside of the bowl is midtone grey-violet with pink reflected light from the cloth.  The shiny green pepper inside is light toned with a blue-green shadow side.
  • The plate has blue upper surface with very dark shadows cast by the peppers on it, and a white inner circle contrasting with the blue-green shadow side of the green pepper, and a white-pink outer rim.  The red pepper’s local colour varies from deep scarlet on the right to orange-yellow on the left, but overall it has a dark tone with strong highlights.  The dark red looks even darker where it’s juxtaposed against the light one of the green pepper – the green pepper seems to have a corresponding dark juncture.
  • The aubergines are very dark, coloured black through purple to pink where they pick up reflections from the cloth, and pink-white highlights.  They have very light green leaves and stalks.
  • The seat cloth is a cool light pink, with white stripes. Shadows cast by the blue objects are lilac-mauve.
  • The rush chair seat is the same warm light brown as the wooden arm of the chair.

Armed with these observations I was ready to do a tonal drawing of my setup.   I took a while to get the proportions right, drew the arrangement too small on the page, and ended with a smaller study (about A5) than I’d intended.  With the coloured ground though,  I could quickly block in lights and darks with charcoal and white conté, referring to my notes, observation &  b&w photo.


Laying in these tones was easy, given the prep I’d done, but the study gave me the opportunity to look even more closely and I added to my knowledge of the tones of the still life by doing it.

To simplify the composition, and allow me to concentrate on colour and shape in the painting, I experimented with zooming in to different areas of the still life setup, looking for areas with interesting colour and tonal juxtapositions, and pictorially interesting shapes.  I made some small-scale coloured sketchbook studies of some of these ideas.

Coloured pencil, zooming in on an area. 

The colour and tonal contrasts in the background are interesting – I hadn’t even noticed these shapes and patterns until I zoomed in!


Water soluble crayon,  zooming further in.  Although the backgrounds still striking it’s less dominant.  The eye’s drawn to the green pepper.  The grouping is beginning to yield some interesting juxtapositions and shapes.


Derwent Inktense – moved the bowl, tilted it to display the pattern and the pepper inside, and zoomed in further.  I muted the yellow background for accuracy – doing so made it recede, which is great!  If the pepper was lighter, it would contrast better with its bowl and come forward more.  I’m liking this composition – feel I’m beginning to get simpler, pictorially interesting lines and shapes.  Complementary colours (yellow/purple, red/green) are emerging.


As part of this project I looked at still life’s of other artists.  What I admire is the ability to simplify and distill – shapes, colours, lines, mood.  For example here is Picasso’s Glass, Pot and Book, 1908.

Picasso has simplified colours (although they are richly textured), while keeping them realistic looking.  The lines are graphic, geometrical. The forms are shown with simple toning.  The result is a representational still life which looks abstract, and has a warm, luxurious feel.

Richard Diebenkorn in Lemons and Jar, below also has strong shapes and lines, simply but interestingly positioned, and it’s shapes are painted in a limited palette of strong contrasts.  I notice how his objects -at least, the lemons – are small in relation to the pictorial space.  A slice of toast is severely cropped!  I would never have thought of scaling and placing my objects like this – perhaps I should!

William Scott, a 20c. British artist from Ulster painted still life’s, verging on the abstract, with flat shapes and planes.  This one has a harmonious palette of analogous colours.


Work in progress – I decided to go with the Inktense study zoomed in composition with fewer objects.  My monochrome  under painting was dreadful, felt wrong in proportion, tones etc, I was hot, tired and daubing paint on.  I couldn’t leave it there and start another painting in such a negative frame of mind so I had a day off and felt more positive when I came back – it was ok as a foundation to build on, I could ignore the many imperfections and start adding colour.



At the stage of the third photo above I stopped to assess the colours in my painting:-

  • The orange yellow cloth is accurate.
  • The pink RH wall should be warmer hue
  • The floor is a more neutral grey and quite a bit lighter in tone towards the front of the picture plane
  • The pot would benefit from a dark blue glaze all over except for the RH upper surfaces which are nearest the light
  • The rush chair needs a cast shadow from the arm; and should be lighter around the pot  and bowl
  • The bowl has a pink reflection LH side, and a white one RH side
  • The pink cloth is the major inaccuracy; it’s a warm pink, not a cold lilac.

My biggest challenge was the pink cloth – crimson and white worked, and I trowelled it on with a palette knife.  I need to work more on achieving believable folds and drapes though – but on the whole I’m happy with my efforts at colour accuracy, and will now go on to the next exercise.



2.3.4 still life with complementary colours

Experimenting with complementary colours


To get practice at using colour and lighting in a non-representational way, I painted a series of a basic simple still lifes, using colour in a dramatic way and with a vigorous painting technique – like the Expressionists!  I was influenced in my choice of colours by a Diebenkorn still life I discovered during my planning for the Colour Accuracy exercise, in which he uses complementary colours in a way that to me seems to evoke drama and mystery.



It was harder than I expected and did indeed require concentration and disciplined observation to interpret form in these few colours – I feel I was more successful with the later, lower row of three – showing an improvement as I went on at least!

To prepare a surface I sealed a 55×75 cm piece of watercolour paper with gesso tinted with red, brown and orange acrylic paint.  I was after a deep terracotta red and this only produced pink, so I followed it when dry with a few washes of acrylic ink, a mix of scarlet and sepia, then I ruled off 9 boxes, each 15×22 cm.

Using a narrow range of closely related colours  – red, yellow, orange, magenta  – plus the complementary paynes grey – and white,  I went speedily from painting to painting, trying to use loose, gestural brush strokes at arms length (I also used palette knives and rags to manipulate the paint). My plan was to start with the nine basic pepper shapes outlined in white;  completing one stage on all of them before starting again at the top, I then added the major light and darks to them all; follow that with a graded dark to light background to contrast with the pepper; put in a light surface for the pepper to sit on; and finally added a dark cast shadow.

I used my colours as tone, to help me create an illusion of form -a bit like Derain’s 1905 Portrait of Matisse, using simple drawing, high pitched slabs of colour with not much subtle blending. It was great fun to do, I didn’t mind whether the result was ‘good’ or not, and this allowed to to just enjoy the paint, the colours, and the pattern the images made on the large sheet.

For the final painting, at the top of the post, I added a few touches of soft pastel colour, juxtaposing more complementaries of similar tones. 

The peppers certainly look dramatic, and individually and as a group they seem to be quite expressive.  Each has its own separate character, although it’s quite hard to view them individually.  The dramatic background deep terracotta pulls them together as a group.  As a painting of a group of objects this isn’t a still life as we’re accustomed to think of the genre… but the genre doesn’t have to be limited to the conventional formats.  My mind is turning to The Unswept Floor  (Sosos, 2c. BC) – Tracy Emin’s Bed – Seed Pods by Sigrid Muller (second prize winner, Jerwood Drawing Prize 2014)?  These are ‘still lifes’ too.



2.3.5 still life with colour used to evoke mood

The brief is to use the same grouping of objects as in the last two exercises to evoke a mood or atmosphere.  My aim when I was planning this painting was to achieve an atmosphere of brightness, hotness, joyful activity, chaotic disorder. By using intensely saturated colours, and thinking about their placement relative to each other (for example I’ve juxtaposed colour-opposites in several places), and also the proportions of warm versus cool colours I think my colours interact to evoke the mood I was aiming for.

Here’s my final painting – 

Thoughts on creating a mood in my painting

I thought about how all these factors can help evoke a mood –

  • Colour – warm v cool; bright v muted; contrast high or low – I’ve used warm, bright, high contrast colours.  Yellow, my dominant colour, denotes sunshine, joy,  enthusiasm, hope.  Orange is friendly, inviting, happy.  In this context my blues and greens are meant to counterbalance all the hot colours with a soothing, calming element.
  • Handling of paint – brushwork, varied edges – my foreground has movement and varied marks relative to my fairly peaceful background.  I tried to make the front of the yellow cloth and the tassels look as though they were twisting, squirming with joy!
  • Choice of objects – the objects have curly shapes and playful twirly stalks,
  • How they’re arranged – the chair is symetrically placed but the objects on it are intended to look as though they’re strewn higgledy piggledy, by someone in a bit of a rush.
  • Viewpoint – the viewer is looking down so all the objects are displayed
  • Lighting & Tone – my high contrast is meant to evoke bright sunlight.
  • How they’re depicted – sharp realism, soft focus, abstraction – I outlined some of my foreground forms, giving them hard edges,  to contribute to the effect of a colourful mosaic, or sun shining through coloured stained glass.
The objects chosen for a still life painting often have a special meaning, either on a personal, cultural, societal, religious or philosophical level. The themes surrounding the artwork often provoke introspection and reflection in the viewer. The way that the objects are depicted can evoke a wide variety of emotions, depending on their arrangement, as well as the lighting, color choice, and handling of the paint”

Thoughts on colour moods generally – 

Clashing colours – busy, noise, activity – looked at Derain, Matisse Collioure paintings – the Fauves used colour to express feelings and impressions, not to describe the subject

Harmonious colours – in Degas’ Blue Dancers – complementary colours harmonised by modifying each with traces of the other

Muted colours – gentle

Deep, opposite colours – anxiety, panic, impending doom; I’m thinking of Edouard Munch’s The Scream.  Also melancholy – The painting below is by Wassily Kandinsky, Autumn Landscape with Boats, 1908.  The image rekindles the melancholy I feel each year when the season has changed to autumn.

Light, saturated, bright colours – playful

Warm earth tones – nurturing

Neutral earth tones – serenity

Pink, pale orange, peach – romantic

Dark, rich colours – drama and mystery

Red, orange and yellow are ‘warm’ colours – associated with fire, heat, sun, warmth, intimacy

Red – heat – Derain’s Beach at Collioure; exciting, passion

Orange – friendly, inviting, happy

Yellow – enthusiastic;  hope and cheerfulness eg Van Gogh Sunflowers


Blue, green, purple are ‘cool’ colours – associated with water, chilly, sky, distance

Blue and grey – sadness and despair – note Picasso’s ‘blue period’ after the death of his friend, as an example his painting ‘The Tragedy’

Blue – also restful, serene – can be cold or calm

Green – calm and soothing

Purple – dreams, fantasy, mystery; also luxury


Colour as symbol 

White – sacred, pure, clean, light

Pale blue – purity – the Virgin Mary

Dark, earthy Browns and greens – the earth – eg Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters

Black, red and white – evil, Nazi


Planning my painting

So, returning to my group of objects – how did I pick a mood?  It seemed difficult to assign a mood to prosaic objects – to pick any mood at random for them would seem meaningless.  I tried to weave a story around them;  I picked these vegetables from my summer garden, the sun beating down;  it’s bright and hot in the kitchen.  I’ve gathered them together on the yellow cloth on the chair with these utensils, ready to prepare the evening meal.  I want to express a joyful summer atmosphere, activity, heat, and a bit of chaotic disorder!

I looked at André Derain, The Pool of London, 1906, the contrast between warm and cool colours, complementary opposites, together with the clashing diagonals creating a sense of noise and ceaseless activity.  The colours form a bright pattern.  There are reds juxtaposed with green, purple against yellow, blue with orange.  He uses cooler and lighter colours in the background, intense bright, darker colours in the foreground, giving the illusion of depth.  Derain has reserved yellow and green for the water and sky;  this yellow-green backdrop gives the viewer breathing space and unites the hectic scene.

I aimed to have this atmosphere in my still life, so I decided to use all the objects I started with, and to try and organise a busy mosaic  of colour.  This is a world away from the simplicity and serenity of my Picasso and other still lifes I looked at in the Colour Accuracy exercise.

My thoughts on organising my colours were –

-don’t stick to real colours, exaggerate.  Have two cool analogous colours as backdrop (cloth and background) eg lemon yellow and pale yellow-green, darkening and warming in the foreground to reds, yellows, oranges. Objects will have intense, darker tone red, blue, orange,  Paint objects with complementary colours next to each other eg

  • Orange pepper – blue dish
  • Red pepper – green pepper / stalk
  • Purple aubergine – yellow cloth
I made a sketchbook study using watercolour pencils, aiming for high colour contrast with bright colours; trying to use the contrast of warm and cool colours in foreground and background respectively to help achieve depth in my symmetrical composition.  Her are versions of it as it developed.

Although there’s lots I would change in this study – for example, expose part of the front edge of the rush seat in the foreground – a gold-yellow colour – to add detail and bring the foreground forward – it gave me the confidence to go ahead and start on my painting.


Painting in progress

Here’s the work-in-progress development of my painting, with the final version at the top of the post, showing how layers of colour were built up using acrylic inks diluted with water and flow improver, for a transparent, watercolour effect.  Rags, an old credit card, kitchen paper all came into play to manipulate washes and create texture.  Masking fluid saved highlights on shiny vegetables and pottery.  An opaque white ink pen was only used at the final drawing in of tassels in the foreground.  The painting was done on 50x70cm gessoed, dampened and stretched watercolour paper.




I applied colour in big, flat, layered washes, with a sponge, rag, or ‘found’ tools to create some texture, but using a minimum of subtle shading and blending. I outlined some of my foreground forms, or made them hard-edged, to help create aerial perspective, but also to contribute to the effect of pattern, or mosaic, or sun shining through stained glass.

I had to solve a number of problems as I made the painting –

My washes didn’t sink into the support as I’d hoped and expected from my experiments with staining. This support was different from the ones I’d used then so that may have been the reason.  Instead they floated around, precipitating pigment patchily and drying relatively slowly.  I had to accept this and work with it, adapting my methods.

First time using acrylic inks, I had to familiarise myself with them as I worked; the range of six colours in my standard set seemed limited, but became surprisingly versatile when mixed.  Using the pipette dropper straight onto the support was fun and helped move me away from pallid washes.  On the whole it’s a good acrylic medium for me at present;  in summer heat battling with normal acrylics’ short drying time is an unwanted headache.  Also the use of damp paper, with frequent additional sprayings and wettings helps lower the temperature all round!


Reflecting on my still lifes in this project

 The different effects I’ve been able to create using the same group of objects

Laying out my up three still lifes side by side I first of all notice that all three are quite colour saturated.  I haven’t gone in for muted colours or light tones much!  I may try and redress the balance in the next project, by doing studies and/or paintings that are light toned, with harmonious colours.

However there are differences in mood and atmosphere between them.

The group on a pink cloth can be characterised by a calm and restful atmosphere, despite having some complementaries (in fact the dark pot and light backdrop are so different tonally that their  colours don’t contrast as much as they would if they had similar tones).  The muted shadows; the quiet, warm, muted tones of the chair and the backdrop; the dark, restful grey floor; the cool pink and blue-grey of the cloth, all add to an atmosphere of quiet waiting.

The yellow cloth group by comparison jumps out and screeches for attention with its clashing complementaries, busy composition and big tonal contrasts.

My group of nine pepper paintings is harder to characterize.  Each one has its own atmosphere, from light and airy (top left) to a more general tendency, influenced by the deep terracotta background, towards drama and mystery, or that feeling of  melancholy that I describe above in relation to the deep opposite colours of Kandinsky and Munch’s paintings.



Notes and experiments in staining techniques

Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis and others used a stain technique, both with oils and acrylics, pouring thinned paint onto huge untreated canvases, allowing it to sink in, flow and merge, encouraging it by tipping the canvas, and manipulating the dilute pigment using rags, sticks and other makeshift tools.  I researched the technique (see references below) and had a go.

My results were surprisingly varied, depending on the support and the medium I used.  I like the even staining effect of acrylic paint on canvas when flow improver was used to break the surface tension of the water; quite different was the watercolour effect of simply using water as a medium, especially on watercolour paper, where the paint floats on the surface , often unevenly, and dries there rather than sinking into the paper.

The soak-stain method could be a joy to use for producing abstract compositions with some unpredictable effects.  Not being so easy to control, it might not be appropriate for detailed figurative painting; but I can see a possibility for combining soak-staining with brush-drawing; where areas of colour need only approximate to the objects depicted.


I did some testing on both canvas and scraps of paper.  The canvas was cheap shop-bought pre-stretched, and comes already gessoed, as I dont have any untreated canvas.  I treated half my canvas with extra gesso and left half as it was., but I didn’t notice much different in results between the two sides.

Marking out 3 separate areas I then dropped diluted (with water) and undiluted acrylic inks into the pre-wetted surfaces – my wetting liquids were; water; diluted washing up liquid;pre-diluted W&N Flow Improver.  I also tried brushing the coloured inks straight onto dry surfaces, adding my wetting agents to the paint instead of to the support.


The washing-up liquid didn’t work at all as a flow improver / staining agent in any way – instead, the paint remained on the surface looking a bit congealed and sticky, and didn’t dry for ages – which means I’ve possibly found a very good drying retarder, something I’ll look into further.

Paint on the  water-wetted support tended to sit on top sometimes in globules, rather than sink into the canvas, and to dry more quickly.  It could be manipulated, and encouraged to run and drip, but it still didn’t really sink in or flow evenly. 

Paint on the flow improver-wetted canvas flowed evenly and easily and sank into the canvas, staining quite readily. Raw canvas would soak the paint up much more readily I suspect – but may not allow as much time to manipulate the paint.

Dilute paint with flow improver added to it and brushed onto dry canvas sank in and stained very readily.  One major advantage of flow improver instead of just water as a thinning medium is that there’s no loss of pigment intensity.

I wet the painted surface again and drew into it with a brush dipped in flow improver and then water, again noting that the paint tended to clump and settle in unevenly just using water – whereas the flow improver yielded an even stain, which sank straight in, the more so when the brush was also dipped in the product first.

Like watercolour, the paint is transparent when used this way, and old layers show through later layers of colour – so  some watercolour techniques could be appropriate, such as saving the white of the support for highlights (alternatively, I could use opaque paint to create highlights afterwards.


After the canvas trials I didn’t bother trying washing up liquid with paper.  Doing the experiments on paper with flow improver and just water, my general conclusion was that  on (sized) watercolour paper the paint is more reluctant to soak into and stain paper than canvas – it tended to float on top of the support more.  Maybe this is because the paper is treated with sizing.  In this respect its even more similar to watercolour painting, where the paint tends to float on top of the surface and dry there, rather than sinking into the fibres.

On gessoed heavy mixed media paper however, the paint with flow improver flowed, spread out evenly and sank into the (pe-wet) paper nicely.  On the same paper un-gessoed, the paint sank straight in without flowing and spreading, producing a more vivid stain,must with no opportunity to manipulate it.

So depending what effect I want,