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I paint, make collages and mixed media work. I write poetry. I reflect on the Tao.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Painting from a Photograph – Oil Painting of Dover Beach Tasmania

Now and then I like to take a break from my more demanding semi-abstract oil paintings, surrealistic collages and assemblages (which you can see here To renew my artistic eye and to have some fun, I’ll do a quick conventional oil sketch.
This particular oil painting started out as a grainy, out-of-focus photograph. In the gloomy light of the overcast day, the figure in the red-jacket stood out as a focal point.

Compositionally, the photograph doesn’t work. The movement is from left to right and out of the picture space. So I copied the image into MSPaint and flipped the image horizontally. Now the foreground leads the eye into the image and the two dark shapes of trees act as stops, preventing the eye from sliding out of the painting.

Next I did a thumbnail drawing in coloured pencils to fit the main elements of the image into the dimensions of the intended painting and to get a better idea of the main tonal values. I reduced the amount of foreground and changed its angle from horizontal, which acted as a barrier, to an upward slope from left to right to assist the eye in moving into the picture. I separated Red Jacket from the other two figures to strengthen the focal point. I got a second opinion from my nearest and dearest who suggested lowering the far bank. This connected the background to the beach.

What I used

 Surface: A4 Oil Sketch paper with a 1 cm border all around, roughly 11 x 8 inches, untoned ground

 Palette: Titanium white, cobalt blue, sap green, alizarin crimson, cadmium red, yellow ochre, raw sienna,   burnt umber
 Brushes: flat hog hair brushes (¾ inch for the darks; ½ inch for the lights and ¼ inch for the details. To stop me from fussing I only used the smallest brush at the very end.)

 Turpentine: to wash the brushes only. Paint was applied neat.

 Reading glasses: for the short sighted artist (only used at the end for the details. Since I can’t see details, but only the overall impression, this also stops me from fussing.)

Traps for the unwary

In painting from photographs, there are some traps. Cameras flatten perspective; sharpen the edges of objects and record a more limited colour and tonal range than you see. That is why paintings which merely reproduce a photograph just don’t look right.

 In painting this scene, then I tried to remember to exaggerate the aerial perspective relative to the photograph and the colour/tonal contrasts. The water, for example, has a little alizarin crimson in it to warm the tone and bring it forward. The shadow on the beach under the tree started out with a slash of nearly pure cobalt. The trees, which are nearly dark outlines in the photograph, are composed of lighter values in green and yellows over a dark background.

What I did

The painting process was more or less conventional:

No preliminary drawing, just an initial line to demarcate the lower edge of the background and some dark (sap green and alizarin crimson) to block out the broad shape of the tree on the beach.

Then I blocked in the dark masses of the background, with different darks, and the beach debris, which defined the beach area.

Then, broad horizontal strokes of white with a little blue and gradually adding a little alizarin crimson as I worked on the water from top to bottom. Additional white, to suggest reflected clouds, was blended in as the painting progressed.

Shortish strokes for the beach (white with a little yellow ochre) and redefinition of the beach debris.

Now for the fun time! Adding the greens and yellows to the tree shape and bringing these colours into the foreground (along with some darks). Here I used directional strokes to suggest growth of leaves and grasses. A little bit of dragging the background and the lower beach into the water.

Next a process of overall modifying and adding to all elements of the image, to bring it all together.

On with the reading glasses and I take up the small brush. Using some of the mixed darks on the palette, I block in the lower half of the figures and the upper torso of the two left hand figures. Clean the brush and dry it. Put in a rectangle of pure cadmium red for the jacketed figure. A little blob of yellow ochre and white overdoes the heads. I overpaint with some dark stuff. That looks all right. I notice that the brush has split leaving a bit of untidy paint next to the figures. I leave it. To try to correct this is going to lead to disaster. With these details, it’s a one touch operation.

I add a few touches here and there with the small brush. Then I STOP.


I look at my watch. 45 minutes have passed since I started setting up. I have fifteen minutes to clean up before launching in to domestic chores. I mix the leftover paint on the palette with turps (mostly a bluish grey...I put out too much Cobalt) and, using a rag, apply it to another oil paper as a toned ground. I clean the brushes in turps and then in hot water and soap. I do NOT look at the painting, but leave the studio without a backward glance.

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