Category Archives: Notes

General rough notes.

The Big Draw

I took part in The Big Draw day on 17 October at Jim Unsworth’s studios and garden.  It’s some weeks ago now, but with the benefit of time I can look back and reflect how the day has affected my practice.

Here is a gallery of some of the work I and the other participants did – I can’t remember now which was whose work, but it was a collaborative day so in a sense the drawings are an output of the whole group.

Jim wanted us to make big and open observational drawings – he furnished us with huge mop brushes, great chunks of charcoal fixed to long sticks,  large pot of black decorators paint, large sheets of paper taped to the wall or laid on the ground, and asked us to draw his greyhound, tangles of briars, an ungainly bare rose bush, a corner of the garden, and finally, from memory and imagination, a response to the day’s efforts.  We were encouraged to improvise tools and ways of making marks.

Although drawing from life, investigating and observing the subject as we worked, he wanted us to record our responses to what we were looking at, in other words our feelings about it.  These weren’t to be realistic copies of what we were looking at.  There were no rights or wrongs, so long as the drawing was open and honest…if we strayed into ‘arty’ techniques or effects this was quickly pointed out.

The drawings we made were very expressive and satisfying to do.

A few days later I made this quick sketch from life of a tree in a hedgerow in a country lane, using black ink, water and fingers.



The influence of the Big Draw is there – the drawing is as much about my response to the tree as it is a representation of the tree.  The confidence the workshop gave me was still fresh in my mind.

It can still be seen in many of my subsequent paintings for Part 3 – there is an expressive quality that shows how I think about what I’m looking at that wasn’t there before.  I’m drawing and painting faster, trying to capture my response rather than the detail of my subject.  I haven’t made any work quite as free since the workshop, but now I know I can!

One thing I promised myself was that I’d reorganise my studio so that I can tape paper to the walls, splash paint around, and not worry about making a mess.  I still haven’t done that…maybe now’s the time to do it, before I start Part 4.


Drawing Into Painting: John Virtue

Big landscapes painted in black ink and titanium white acrylic – drawing becomes painting – using rags, hands and all sorts of tools to apply the paint.

I read this article, which I have reblogged. 

Drawing OWU

John Virtue is a British artist known for his massive black and white paintings that he executes from a unique medium of ink mixed with shellac. His initial research involves making hundreds of on-site drawings. From this material he builds his evocative paintings in the studio. Virtue’s most celebrated series, 13 large-scale paintings of the London skyline, was carried out over two years from a studio in the National Gallery in London.

“The thing about London is that everybody knows, or thinks they know, these buildings. But the more you look at them, the more mysterious they become, so the more fascinating they become.

I would draw there, and then I would draw there. That would be one morning, and then I would do one part another morning… and so on, and I’d build them up sequentially; and then I’d mix them all up and I’d bring them all in…

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In pursuit of Bruegel: Berlin

That's How The Light Gets In

It’s only a small painting – barely seven inches by nine – yet (though I know such comparisons are invidious) if I were asked to list my ten favourite artworks this would be one of them. Pieter Bruegel’s Two Monkeys is haunting, mysterious and profound.

Two Monkeys is one of two Bruegel paintings that we found in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie – another way-station in our pursuit of Bruegel through the museums of Europe. The other couldn’t be more different: Netherlandish Proverbs is large (4 feet by 5), populated by a vast crowd of people engaged in all kinds of activities and social interactions. One is deeply meditative, even pessimistic, while the other’s vast canvas celebrates the complexity and richness of  urban life.

Pieter Bruegel, Two Monkeys,1562 Pieter Bruegel, Two Monkeys,1562

Two hunched and dejected monkeys are chained in the window of a fortress that overlooks the river Scheldt. In the distance, the skyline of…

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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, 

Notes – artists using media in unconventional ways


Clyde Hopkins 1946 – UK

The words that came to mind when I first looked at his work – abstract, intensely colourful, bold, organic shapes, patterns, contrasts. I found a video clip where he talks about his work processes.

Often he starts by painting a transparent, luminous coloured ground, eg Indian Yellow.  Then he might draw and paint on top with eg Brown Madder to create a skeleton for his painting.  He’ll then introduce a restricted range of other colours, carefully creating associations between them, filling in shapes with different brush techniques, such as dots etc.  The shapes start to look organic.  He sometimes uses the sharp end of the brush to draw through the wet paint, like Picasso and Matisse.

In the 1980s his work was ‘incorporating accident and gestural marks with washes of transparent colour often dominated by dense areas of black paint. By 1990 the black was starting to disappear as the paintings became flatter, more controlled, characterised by increasingly sharply defined zones of colour abutting each other. Shape and contour became more significant, as did various forms of repeated marks, such as dots.’ (

His work also calls to mind graffiti.  

References 01/06/2015


Gillian Ayres 1930 – UK

Her work is also boldly colourful, abstract

Early works were made with thin vinyl paint in a limited palette, or using household paint.  In the 69s/70s she used acrylics.  Later she used impasto oil paint and her work became more colourful.  She would name her paintings after completing them, choosing eg place names, names of flowers and gardens, verses of poetry etc, that seemed to her to complement the work.  She also made woodcut and hand-painted monoprints.  In he old age her compositions have become simplified and even more opulent.

Clear shapes and defined edges.  Although abstract she has appropriated from the natural world – recurrent shapes like petals, wings, fans, leaves, stars

She uses oil paint ‘manipulating it like strands of clay to build up thick iridescent surfaces where colours seem to merge into each other or waft outwards, as in Orlando furioso (1977–9; AC England). While such painting may evoke the shimmering floral confusion of late Monets, the directness of the handling – often the paint is pressed into place by hand – ensures a strong physical presence’ (

She says that her painting is about painting, shape and colour, and not about telling stories.  Also that she wanted the colour to resonate, to dictate shape, mood, tone.  She sees abstraction as a purely visual experience.

In a 1988 video of her talking and at work ( ) – the video shows her painting thickly with her hands, on a large scale – daubing and smearing paint on, obliterating and altering areas, covering herself, the floor, the stepladder and everything within range with thick spatters and smears of paint!  A very physical, gestural way of working.

She also shows us a series of smaller works on canvas completed one a day during a visit to S France.  These are, she says, figurative – inasmuch as she can relate shapes to things she was looking at – cypress trees, an archway, a garden etc.  she painted quickly and instinctively, reacting to her surroundings, letting things happen.  

References 01/06/2015



The older Turner was ‘a controversial figure, mocked, derided and misunderstood’.  One of his many innovations was a small, square format, sometimes painted round or octagonal.

Unconventionally, he applied paint with a palette knife, a tool which was used at the time just for mixing paint.  He would paint elements of great light – the moon, torches – more thickly than the surrounding areas (impasto) – allowing the raised areas to catch more light.  


Rain Steam and Speed – bold contrasts of tone; tumultuous handling of paint.

Landscapes – in the recent Late Turner exhibition (subtitled ‘Painting Set Free’) I was engrossed in a series of watercolours, and in his watercolour ladscapes generally.  Turner used all sorts of media mixed with watercolour to create these semi-abstract atmospheric effects.  He would add ink, pen, gouache, graphite, black chalk and crayon into the mix.  Sometimes he would use a sponge, sometimes coloured crayon in the foreground to add texture.  To create detail he scraped, blotted and wiped the wet paint, and scratched into or drew on to dry paint.  

His later work was his most inventive and uninhibited, ahead of its time in the abstraction of the scenes he looked at.  When I looked at the late landscape paintings they seemed full of light, an effect he must have achieved through use of colour.  He used colour in an unconventional way, having his own system of classification of light and dark colours.


Notes – artists who use staining

The work of the artists I’ve looked at and made notes on below have in common the aim of making pure abstract images relying simply on the paint, support and exciting use of colour.  Their processes include a large element of the accidental; their work is always experimental and highly creative and often on a very large scale.  They seem to have in common a love of the materials they use, and a sense of joy in their work.

According to Matthew Collings, Frankenthaler and Louis followed Jackson Pollock.  They were interested in colour but not gesture – and they liked the technical aspects of Pollocks work.  He painted onto unprimed or only sized canvas, which is very absorbent, and the very liquid colours therefore bled into the surface – with sometimes beautiful results.

Helen Frankenthaler 1928-2011 – USA

Compared to Turner her work was exhibited alongside his in 2014.  She shared with Turner a delight in paint itself, and “translated landscape into abstract compositions characterised by flooding colour”.(

Exhibited for over 6 decades, so spanning several generations of abstract painters,  her big canvases always experimental and inventive and hard to broadly describe her style.  “Frankenthaler is identified with the use of fluid shapes, abstract masses, and lyrical gestures. She made use of large formats on which she painted, generally, simplified abstract compositions. Her style is notable in its emphasis on spontaneity” (Wikipedia).  Her ideal was to create images that happened all at once.

Mountains and Sea, 1952 –   this was a work that inspired Morris Louis to adopt her methods – an example of her soak-stain method  in which she poured paint into an enormous canvas on the floor.  It was inspired by her impressions of a Nova Scotia landscape she’d seen.  The pinks, blues and greens could be reminiscent of hills, rocks and water.

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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.”