Creating Mood and Atmosphere


This was a photograph that caught my eye.  She is a protestor for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and I thought it was wonderful to see a Muslim girl with her head covered with a hoodie.  And her luscious locks were abundantly streaming out of it.  She is obviously a fiery character to the warm tones worked for the subject.  I painted it very quickly using acrylics on paper as I do need to get as much coursework done before my deadline in September.  I think I have got a likeness, but it’s hard to tell from a newspaper photograph – I would have loved to have met her. I tried to keep it loose and spontaneous.  In the photograph, the tonal contrasts don’t seem to work so well as in the real painting – the sleeve projects much better in real life, but looking at with a critical eye, again I need to consider tonal patterns much more carefully – one of my big faults.

Head and Shoulders Portrait

I’ve done a portrait of my daughter for this.  It’s taken weeks!  First I did some sketching when she was watching TV at her house.  I had a row of pretty girls – none of whom were Katy.  She sent me selfies, none of which were quite right for her and her character.  She has very mobile features and looks different in every single photograph.  Finally found one on my computer that was taken last year that I thought was representative of her and that I thought I could do. I did a sketch from it that wasn’t really like her – so difficult!  Then decided to blow the photograph up, printed it out and traced the main features so that eyes, nose, chin, set of head were at least accurate to start me off.  It was a very basic line drawing.  I transferred it to a small canvas then gave it an all over wash with yellow ochre acrylic.  The finished portrait is in oils.  I chose a colour palette of yellow ochre, ultramarine, rose madder, titanium white and lamp black.  The painting went through several stages.  I kept looking at it in a mirror, which showed where the mistakes were.  I built up the skin tones in layers of oils and tried to put in the subtle tones that made the shape of her face, nose, mouth and the depth of her eyes.  She saw a photograph of one of the stages and her verdict was that she could tell it was her but didn’t feel as if she was looking in a mirror.  I carried on making changes to the size of her eyes mainly, they went through several stages.  The depth of the eye sockets seemed to be crucial to getting a likeness. The final result I am pleased with.  It is an amalgam of several pictures of her in the end, as the head comes from one photograph and the shoulders and blouse from another one. I feel as if I have a reasonable likeness and some of the humour and thoughtfulness of her character is coming through. Her brother is very complimentary about the likeness so that is encouraging.Katy2

Work done not on my course

I am very behind with my course work.  This is partly because of personal issues and partly because I have got very sidetracked with watercolour.  I have been doing a weekly session on watercolours with a friend and become entranced with the transparency and glowing colours that watercolours offer.  This is a selection of the work I’ve been doing.  First some traditional flower paintings:

azalea cyclamen Primroses Streptocarpus1


I have also done some experimental paintings with images emerging from coloured backgrounds:

ExponentialSpring buds&leaves JugPanBottle2 Tree in Spring

I’ve really enjoyed this work, some of it more successful than others but feel I must get on with the course or I won’t finish for September.

Self Portrait

self portrait

This is my self portrait at an early stage. I felt I was getting a likeness but it was rather wooden.  My tutor kindly gave me some advice and the finished portrait is this one:


I have tried for a looser approach and more tonal contrast.  There is a likeness there, especially around the eyes. I always find mouths hard to tackle – especially when the teeth are showing. Hence my closed mouth!  The exact shape of the nose was hard too – I have nose that projects at the end and it was hard to get the 3-D formation of it. I found that painting hair requires lots and lots of strokes to get the effect and texture – which is not surprising as hair consists of thousands, if not millions of fine strands.  Technically I did ‘square up’ the photograph to give myself the basic relationship of the features, but this resulted in a face that didn’t resemble me at all.  I scraped it off and overpainted by just looking hard and taking measurements  with my brush handle to get the proportions as in a life class and I felt this worked better.  However, when I looked at the painting in a mirror as recommended it didn’t look right at all!  Need more practice I think the lesson is!

Self Portraits

Rembrandt Looking at Rembrandt’s self portraits, he always seems to be more interested in where the light falls rather than a psychological depiction of character.  This is a warts and all portrayal of an older man who has been through the mill – I know he went bankrupt at an earlier stage of his life.  But he depicts the exact placing of light and shadow on his corrugated features with a suggestion of his clothing in the rich dark below. Light falls on his forehead and cheekbone, catches an eyelid and sweeps broadly down his nose dodging the creases and landing on his chin and double chin below. Van GoghIn contrast, Van Gogh’s self portraits are an examination of his own mental state – always.  He was a great expressionist in the literal sense; the bitter frown, the angry eyes, the fear and worry in the face is all surrounded by marks like flames of fear soaring around and up the canvas.         CourbetCourbet, on the other hand uses the lighting to obtain a dramatic effect, not least by using a rather affected pose to modern eyes.  I can’t help wondering how he did it. Did he drop the paintbrush and start posing his hand by his ear to look in the mirror for a bit, then go back to the work.  if it was a reflection in a mirror, then it could have been his left hand in the pose leaving his right hand free to paint it, then he could’ve painted the rest later.  I think he looks beautiful but vain; did he know this?  The objects he chose to surround himself were learned tomes or maybe just leather bound sketch books.  It is a masterpiece of technique – he paints realistically and convincingly. Stanley SpencerI love everything about this self portrait by Stanley Spencer.  He himself was the great subject running all through his art, but like Van Gogh it doesn’t seem to be self-obsession, rather it’s an expression of the pains of life and how he feels about it.  This has the slightly glazed look of someone staring at his own image and trying to get it right.  Another beautiful young man, but his own attractiveness is the last thing on his mind – the brushwork showing the tones of the skin, delineating the bones of the face and neck and showing the planes of the head is really satisfying to look at. Frieda Kahlo Frieda Kahlo said she painted herself so much because she was always alone.  She is another expressionist painter with a small ‘e’.  Her personality and passion flows out from her work.  She alters nothing, from her mono-brow to her slight moustache, it’s all here, uncompromising and accurate.  The fauna and flora of her native Mexico is always there in her pictures and she is saying that her country is an essential part of who she is.   PicassoPicasso, with hair, as a young man.  He is all about the arrangement of shapes abstracted from reality of course, but his black stare and thick dark are aggressively there, gazing out at you.  Line and texture within the simplified planes of the head and shoulders make up the composition.  What is the gaze saying?  Is it that he is seeing you the viewer, seeing life, looking out from a window to the world?

I am having so much trouble with my own self-portrait.  It’s such a struggle to get a likeness.  Maybe I should simplify like Picasso, but he was a genius and could get away with it.

Turner and Moroni

I had a weekend in London at my daughter’s house and went to the Curator’s talk for the Late Turner exhibition.  He mostly gave anecdotal background to the paintings and talked about Turner’s intention to capture atmosphere.  The word ‘abstract’ wouldn’t have meant much to Turner but some of the paintings do almost qualify for that term.  To a modern eye they are breathtaking, though most of his contemporaries disagreed at the time.  It was interesting to see how he had taken earlier works and altered them in later life to paint in atmospheric effects, literally painting light, whether it was a furnace or a sunset added to an earlier, more pedestrian work.

On the next day we went to see the Moroni exhibition at the Royal Academy.  I was bowled over by his technique creating portraits.  The figures could have walked out of the frame, shed their 16th century Italian costumes, donned shirt and jeans and wandered off down the road looking thoroughly at home. They perfectly achieved the portrait artist’s aim in conveying some sense of the personality of the sitter as well as a physical likeness – one couldn’t doubt that he achieved the latter.  He is only not better known because he didn’t work in Florence and Vasari didn’t write about him apparently, but he was a genius.  He painted ordinary people such as a tailor as well as nobles who paid him for portraiture.  So what is the secret?  It seems to be more than just hand and eye co-ordination, it lies in the artist’s ability to see, not just physical features, but to deduce something about the personality of the sitter, from their stance, attitude, dress, expression – the look in their eyes, well a million things that we unconsciously use when we assess people we meet.  That’s why portraits still trump photographs every time.

I am reading Atul Vohora’s Painting the Human Figure as background reading to this part of the course which discusses aspects of perception and ideas about reproducing the human form.  Also Emily Ball on Drawing and Painting People – a Fresh Approach.  Both artists illustrate intriguing ideas about how to represent and communicate ideas in visual forms.  Emily Ball struck home with me when she says Images… are formed through the process of working with the inherent expressive qualities of the paint and the artist’s ability to take information, to play with it, take it apart, put it back together in a different order, harness the accidents and apply it to their knowledge and feeling for the subject.

Painting figures – creating a solid form on the canvas

I Ihave found this really difficult.  I don’t have any models to pose for me as my son refused to do it!  And I don’t like asking friends as I don’t want to bother them.  So I’ve used the models at my monthly life drawing class.  I started by taking acrylic paint along to the classes and sketching them in situ:

IMG_0867 IMG_0866 IMG_0864 IMG_0862 IMG_0860

I quite like the liveliness of these quick sketches, done in about half an hour each pose.  The next ones were done at home over several days with reference to both sketches and photos.

I took photographs (with permission) and these were the results:

This was my first attempt (oil on paper).  I wasn’t really happy about it – I couldn’t get the angle of the leg tucked under the other one to look realistic – it seems to disappear into the table below.  I was pleased with some of the shading of the flesh but the shoulders aren’t correct.  Also I have difficulty with placing the head correctly and painting in the fine features.  Does it look like a solid form?  In parts maybe.


My second attempt was oil on a canvas.  I had done the drawing in class and didn’t take a photo, I tried doing it from the drawing:


This is the result:


I have worked on this overpainting the head several times and trying to increase the shading to make the body more solid. I think it needs more work but I feel I need to get on with the next assignment.  I think the pose is fairly convincing but the subtlety of the shading needs more work – perhaps if I continued to build up layers the flesh tones would become more like real flesh and the forms would solidify into the proper cylindrical leg and arm shapes.  Needs more work.  Also the face is very doll-like.  I do have trouble with faces, so perhaps if I do the self portrait which is the next exercise that will help.

Lately I have done some watercolour sketches and was quite pleased with those:

Fig 2 Fig 1

Linear Figure Study


I did several sketches with a brush before settling on this angle.  The exercise stated I should emphasise the linear shapes so I’ve painted in the lines round the shapes.  I wanted to suggest the tonal range within the figure though the instructions talked about ‘slabs of colour’ but I couldn’t resist trying for the subtle shades of the skin tones.  I used a very limited colour range of burnt sienna, burnt umber, titanium white and raw sienna, but added yellow ochre at a late stage to get some warmth in the skin tones.  I am quite pleased with it, though it is an easy pose – no foreshortening and complicated hand shapes to deal with, though the requirement said I only had to suggest feet and hands.