Category Archives: 4.5 – working from drawings and photographs

4.5.1 painting from a working drawing

Final painting:-


The process of making several studies (concentrating in turn on line, tone and colour) provided me with a treasure trove of information which made it possible to make the painting away from the subject. The only thing I got in a bit of a confusion with was the intricacies of the fireplace – perhaps I should have spent a little time while doing the line study getting these clearer in my mind.  The shadow of the pole on the standard lamp foxed me – where was it?  In the end o decided it was tucked away in he corner between fireplace and wall, but maybe that’s not entirely convincing.

While painting, I found I largely relied on the memory of what I’d learned doing the studies instead of looking at the studies themselves.  This, and being away from the subject definitely gave me freedom to develop an interpretation and my painting style.   I used colour in a more imaginative way, creating an atmosphere of warmth, light and harmony.  I painted in a looser way instead of fussing over tiny details being ‘correct’.  I inserted things from my imagination – for example the colours and shapes in the paintings on the floor, the blue in the door, the turquoise and magenta in the wall.  In my opinion these are the touches that make the painting more creative and more interesting.



This is what I did:-

Before starting on the three drawings I made some quick thumbnails to help me choose a subject.  The notes on the sketchbook page   helped me select the fireplace composition, but I’d like to paint the bedroom scene too given time.  Both have strong shapes and contrasts of light and colour, and enough interest to engage the viewer’s attention.

The fireplace composition on reflection had a shallow picture plane, and the brief suggests using a corner of the room or a window, reminding me that I should be looking for ways of depicting depth in my painting.  So in my line drawing I kept the square format but zoomed out slightly, to better show the linear perspective of the rug, sofa and armchair.  The notes in the sketchbook show how I also use overlapping as well as the cropping of my elements to indicate depth.

Happy with the line drawing, I transferred it to another page in my sketchbook and next morning when the light is best, added tone with willow charcoal.

The aim of doing the tonal sketch was to record information in the sketchbook and in my memory; I’ve gathered quite a lot in the process of investigating and exploring the subject.  In the painting I may make the contrasts more subtle (the darks less black), but I’ll try to keep the effects of the morning sunlight on the wall and lighting up the of the objects.

I transferred the line drawing again, this time to a sheet from a canvas pad for my colour study, which I did in acrylic, the medium I intend to use for my painting.  I painted quite boldly,  usin realistic colours, figuring now was the time to gather as much factual information as I could before interpreting my subject in a larger painting.

It was a mistake to introduce lemon yellow for lightening wall, chimney breast, armchair at the very end.  Otherwise I like this quick colour study; its fresh, not fussy or tight.  I must try to keep hold of that spirit in the larger painting.  The painting of the rug’s successful – in the painting I’ll add its left edge, somewhere under the armchair (it’s linear perspective will contribute depth).  The lampshade is more red than brown in real life.  I forgot the stool – I think the composition needs it.

Back in my studio, away from the subject, I taped a piece of watercolour paper to my board, gessoed it, marked out a square 45×45 cm, and then painted all over yellow ochre.  Meanwhile, I put a grid over my line drawing on my iPad, and drew a corresponding grid on my paper when it was dry, then transferred the drawing square by square.

Grid over line drawing (iPad)


Transferred drawing, 45×45 cm

I set up my studies around me where I could refer to them and started painting, mapping in some darks and lights, working all over the support, .  I wasn’t satisfied with the wall as a literally painted cream colour, so experimented with emerald green, ultramarine and white; using acrylic retarder I was able to paint wet in wet, and so I added more white into the mix on the support, semi-blending to give an effect of light; then, lower on the wall, magenta and yellow ochre toned the turquoise mix to a shift shadow colour.

The door as a flat dark brown lacked subtlety.  I dry-brushed white, giving a sheen, but it seemed too stark a contrast.  Inspired by my turquoise wall I added a layer of pure ultramarine to the door.  The sheen was still there, but softened, and the blue added depth and a harmonious mood.

The pictures in the composition were painted as shapes of fairly bright colour, to give an impression of landscape, still life etc, and from then on they became the focal point of the composition, clustered around the fireplace.  Similarly the mirror on the chimney breast contains an impression of reflections; in the final stage I lightened them, making it less like another picture, but I still didn’t quite achieve the distinction somehow.

The foot stool was flat turquoise at an early stage; it needed bringing to life, and I found that sketchily adding pale yellow gave it light, texture and form, keeping the harmonious turquoise as an undertone.

The sofa on the right became the main bugbear; I changed its colour several times, settling on another harmonious shade of turquoise and blue.  I think it’s the biggest weakness of the painting, and I’m still searching for a solution.

Here’s my work in progress gallery, with the final painting and my reflections on the outcome above, at the top of the post.


4.5.2 squaring up

Here’s my painting in response to this exercise.  A1, acrylic on paper.

Although I completed my research into some of the German Expressionists a while ago, I’ve lately taken it further and added the paintings of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky.  Both painted in a modern style using vivid colours and simple shapes.  They didn’t attempt to replicate their subject, rather interpreted it in a way that seems to express an emotional response.  See my Pinterest board.  Kandinsky’s compositions are denser than Münter’s, his colours more nuanced.  In his paintings distinct brush marks can clearly be seen and form part of his expressive technique.  With dabs and short strokes he puts one vivid colour on top of another, creating a divisionist look, so the colours are partly mixed on the canvas and partly in the eye.  Münter’s colours are less neon-bright, slightly toned down, and painted in simple flat shapes, often with thick black outlines.

I’ve tried to assimilate these artists’ techniques into my own painting for this exercise.  I’ve certainly used strong colours, as bright as Kandinsky’s, but my colours are in general more highly saturated versions of the real colours, whereas these two artists take the imaginative process further, to the point where colours become outlandish, garish – for instance, a tree can be blue, red, pink or purple!  The same applies to shapes and forms; mine are simplified, but I haven’t taken this as far as Münter:- for her a tree can be one simple shape – sphere, triangle – with maybe two blocks of tone at most.  Mine are rather more complex affairs, as I slip in and out of the habit of trying to make something look as similar to the real thing as possible, instead of trying to make it look like a thing of its own.

Nevertheless, I’m very happy that I got as far as I did in my interpretative effort, and hope I can continue down this road.


I chose an image of rooftops of my village.  It’s a subject I know well and which I explored in several sketches for Drawing 1, so I don’t feel I’m just working from one photo with no other reference.

Here’s the composition I established by zooming in and cropping my photo and laying over a grid in iPad.  It’s interesting, in that the sun going down behind the hill behind the photographer casts a shadow over the hamlet, while lighting up the higher forest and mountain quite colourfully.  I have other photos with more tonal balance, and I will be able to play with breaking up the large dark-toned mass in the foreground.

In terms of rule of thirds it’s quite satisfying –  the mountain, the transition from shadow to sunlight, individual chimneys, are all aligned with the third lines.

I made some colour studies (11x18cm) in my sketchbook, drawing black lines and colouring using first marker pens then coloured pencils.  The second sketch achieves a sense of distance in aerial perspective better than the first. The pens are transparent, so I couldn’t dab one colour on top of another as Kandinsky does without them mixing on the paper; also I didn’t have any light or subtle colours in my limited selection, so the far distance is too bright and intensely coloured, the bare rock face not reading well,  but I began to see how I could simplify shapes and form.


Below is a work in progress gallery, with notes referring to painting stages.

1.With the iPad grid altered to the golden rectangle proportions of these sketches, the composition draws the viewer’s eye through from foreground to distance vertically, following the road, and the houses as they recede.  I marked it up on A1 gessoed paper to which I’d applied a yellow base coat and transferred the drawing by eye, square by square then erased most of the grid, darkened some of the lines with a marker pen, and started painting.

2. Using the acrylic paints thickly with a medium, like oils, wet in wet, with largish brushes held at arms length and on their sides, layering colour on colour, I went in with dark, rich colours in the foreground, with a confidence I wouldn’t have had without the preparatory work of the colour studies.

3. Working my way from bottom to top, it was important that the middle ground should very clearly recede, taking the viewer on a journey through the village, so I needed to lighten and tone down my colours for that section, remembering that the far distance is highlighted by the setting sun and therefore will be relatively bright.  I struggled with it, but I think I got a sense of aerial perspective eventually.

4. With the far distance in place though, I felt I’d lost the perspective somewhat.  Perhaps the mountains are too dark, and maybe the very dark shadows in the trees behind the houses are too contrasty.  I looked to Van Gogh‘s Les Alpilles, (below), how he treated mountains and sky, and how outlining elements of the composition adds to the painting’s dynamism.

5. I applied outlining in my foreground, but felt the impression of distance would be flattened if I did the same in the forest and mountain parts.  Van Gogh’s perspective looks flattened; the mountains like a tsunami imminently about to engulf the settlement.  I did steal his sky however, and the colour of the mountain!

6. Referring back to Kandinsky’s landscapes, I noticed how the dabs and short strokes of colour which he put on top of other colours would go in all directions, quite impulsively.  By comparison mine were very carefully placed horizontally and looked stiff and regimented.  As I wanted the viewer to wander along the path, I over-painted it and made new dabs following the path’s direction, which I think is more welcoming.

Van Gogh, Les Alpilles

Notes on the ‘squaring up’ technique

I’ve used the technique quite a lot throughout the course already, having practised it in Drawing 1 course too, and find it very useful.  Nowadays I create a grid over my reference image in an iPad app, Jackson’s ARTGRID – less laborious, and it doesn’t spoil the original.

As a first step I might enlarge and transfer the image to transparent paper.  I then transfer this enlarged drawing to my painting support by going over the lines on the reverse of the tracing paper with a soft media, laying the tracing paper on my painting support, and and then going over the lines pressing with the flat end of a pencil.  With the tracing intact, I can always refer back to it to re-establish my lines if they get lost under layers of paint.

Otherwise, I’ll enlarge and transfer the image straight on to my squared-up painting support; I make sure the grid lines extend beyond the painting boundaries, and before starting to paint erase the grid, keeping the extended marks for later reference if needed.


4.5.3 painting from a photograph

This is my final painting for this exercise.


And here are some close up details (click to enlarge), showing how I’ve incorporated seed heads, grasses, flowers,  pva glue and texture paste.

Reflections on the process /outcome

I feel I interpreted the photo to produce a painting which heightens the drama by using contrasting colours and tones and by emphasising the diagonally upward slope of the foreground.  My scrutiny of Klimt’s landscapes paid off; thinking about what he did made me look more carefully at my subject and applying some of his practises and solutions made my painting more interesting in its mark-making.

Taking a photo as a starting point was a good basis for a painting.  I experimented with viewpoint, noticed how perspective altered, thought about distortions, and got very different representations of the same subject by changing the viewpoint and zoom setting of the camera.   I still felt the need to do a couple of quick sketches from the photo I chose, to ‘learn’ about the subject before starting to paint. At an early stage I decided to leave out the central tree trunk and the dry leaves in the foreground, as they distracted from the subject.  I also simplified the background, cutting out various bits of trees, to increase the feeling of space and openness.

The development of the landscape was cyclical; I continually alternated between background, middle and foreground, finding each related to the others and that a tonal and colour balance had to be achieved to create aerial perspective and to ensure the background looked integrated with the rest of the painting. In this respect I struggled mostly, as usual, with the background tones, and achieving the subtle graduations.  I’m still not over happy with it.

The pva applied to the support at the beginning proved surprisingly useful at the end of the process, when I followed its trails with paint to represent detail of stalks and grasses in relief.

My indigo / lemon yellow striped underpainting was a leap of faith; the cool colours were a departure from the warmer greens of the photo.  I believed and hoped it would lend depth, contrast, light and shade to the finished painting – and in the final outcome I feel it does do that.

I mixed texture paste with paint and applied it with a palette knife in three places, near the end of making the painting.  It contributes texture, but was too little too late to form an important part of the painting… still, the experience will stand me in good stead in part 5.

Applying the grasses etc, using acrylic mat medium and painting over a couple of them was fun.  The seeds were brilliant – adding abstract detail, focus, warm colour.  I’m not sure how well attached the grasses are – they’re certainly not completely pressed down to the support; and I’m not sure about using the fresh flower, whether it’ll rot, with air pockets under it.  Again, experience gained and a skill to be developed.



My shortlist of photos fitting the brief in front of me, I made notes on pros and cons of each, and how I would define foreground, middle and background .  Any of them could be used, and that makes it hard to decide. In the end I enjoy painting something I feel strongly about at the time … at the moment that’s the beauty of springtime in my immediate surroundings, rather than a photo of past experiences.  So I took some photos of a flower meadow, and looked at how Klimt approached the subject in his landscape paintings – see my Pinterest board here.  It’s a subject he painted several times, in a pointillist style, always on a square canvas.

In Farmhouse with Birch TreesKlimt observes the meadows in three different stages – the flower meadow in front, the narrow reed stripe on the left and the mown meadow with fruit trees in the background.  The ground colour (first layer)  graduates from saturated, bright greens to bluer shades in the background.  Over it he places numerous marks representing flowers and grasses.  Vertical stripes of pale blue become the longer grasses.  In the flower meadow, shorter turquoise strips depict shorter grasses.  Blue, pink, white yellow blobs, up to maybe 1cm diameter, become flowers – but they’re made of light and dark tones, saturated and muted colours, mixed in proportions according to distance.  Some flowers are clumped together, some are individuals, as they would be in nature.  The mown meadow is made of horizontal, slightly blended strokes of the brush.

Blooming Field is different in character, having a muted overall tone, with a very dark ground – as in possibly black or indigo – covered with thousands of marks representing grass and flowers.  Too much darkness is alleviated with bright red poppies possibly 3cm diameter in the foreground, and the relatively luminous, sunny right and lower foreground made with brighter yellow marks.

Poppy Field combines the bright background, the bright red poppies and the densest array of flowers, making it the most decorative and least realistic of the three paintings.
The three examples have in common a very high horizon, where meadow meets the distance, allowing space underneath for an expanse of meadow, which becomes a colour field with infinite nuance and suggestion of detail.  Only a few flowers are painted in pure colour; the majority are muted, to a greater degree as they recede;  their size and detail also reduces with distance.

Composition:  Another painting I admired recently, Prunella Clough‘s Fishermen in a Boat,  also has a very high horizon.  It’s subject is a beached fishing boat.  The viewpoint is from close above looking down, and the boat occupies 90% of the picture. On the beach in the small background looking out to sea is a tiny fisherman – beyond him a narrow line of sea. The unusual composition seems to say something important about the connection between boat, fisherman and sea.  My composition would be structured similarly, a close-up expanse of meadow viewed from a very low viewpoint,  giving way to the middle distance at the top of the slope.  There is an orchard, and behind it sky and mountain.  I played with thumbnail compositions in my sketchbook and decided a square format would give a feeling of space more than portrait.

Size – making the painting is going to be a time-consuming process, but my tutor encourages making some paintings larger.  Klimt’s are generally 1 metre square.  Time presses, with an assignment deadline, so I’m going for 65×65 cm, the largest that will fit in my A1 portfolio.

Support – Strathmore 300 gsm mixed media paper (no canvas big enough).

Medium – acrylic paint mixed with texture paste in the foreground; and grasses, flowers and any other material found in the meadow that inspires me, incorporated using pva glue

Work in progress gallery no. 1 – Preparation:-  shows my selected photo cropped in various ways; a thumbnail of Prunella Clough’s composition; my sketchbook composition and colour tryouts.  In the colour study I explore the underlying tones and nuances of green (getting a clear idea of where I’m going at this early stage should help reduce time spent adjusting and redoing areas of the larger painting).  In the try-outs I’m experimenting with pva, texture paste, and incorporating grasses etc.  I puzzled over the best way to apply these, never having used them in a painting before. Should I put in texture first, but if so would I be able to make a smoothly graduated undercoat? Should I create texture with paste, then paint it, or mix paste and paint together? When should I stick the found things on? Etc.


Work in progress gallery no. 2:- Doing the painting:- In the end I decided to get started, and see how things developed. This is what I did:-

  1. on the painting support, drew the main areas in pencil! then created texture of grasses & flower stalks in foreground with pva
  2. made an all over undercoat, graded from indigo to lemon yellow
  3. developed background and flower meadow in paint.  Background painted using large brushes, serrated scraper, splayed fan brush.  Background daisies dotted on in groups with a coarse natural sponge for speed.
  4. continued developing, adding flowers, grasses etc, assimilating what I’d learnt from Klimt into my work
  5. added meadow grasses and flowers with paint mixed with texture paste, incorporating found materials – fresh flower, dried grasses, flower seeds.



Have subsequently discovered John Singer Sargent‘s Thistles, and thought about similarities between it and my painting.

His use of colour gives a feeling of Autumn and harvest time.  The field has very dark undertones, like mine. The red field is exaggerated in depth and richness of colour…mine is a more literal interpretation of colour, but I’m happy with it as it expresses Spring time, which is what I wanted.

Both paintings have a very high horizon and a low viewpoint with foreground dominating.  Seargent’s distance looks far more distant than mine, lacking the middle & background ground detail & focus that I’ve painted.  This harks back to my misgivings about my background…  after looking at this I think it could be less focused, to concentrate the viewer’s attention on the meadow grasses subject.