Monday, 31 March 2008

One mug for two apples - Oil painting

I wanted to take advantage of a sunny spell during the week-end to paint a still life from nature. The canvas was not toned, so I started with highly diluted washes.

This painting was done alla prima with a single brush: a long flat hog brush number 4. I did not restrict myself consciously, I just started with this brush and get so absorbed in the painting process that I carried on to the end. I did not feel the need at any time to switch to a smaller brush or a round one.

One mug for two apples - Oil on linen (18 X 24 cm) by Benoit Philippe

The subject is simple and complex at the same time. It is simple as far as the props are concerned: a mug we use for tea and two apples from the fruit basket. It is a complex painting because of the multiple reflexions:

  • Reflexion of the apples and the mug on the glossy surface of the windowsill and in the glass pane behind;

  • Reflexion the apples on the glazed mug.

There is an abstract beauty to the crossing of shadows and reflections on the windowsill.

The backlit objects display dramatic contrasts reinforced by the antagonism of greens and reds, one of the strongest opposition of complimentary colours you can get on the colour wheel.

Although colours are strong, there is still a theme or a motive developed within this painting: the red rim and handle of the mug echo the colours of the apples.

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Wednesday, 26 March 2008

The Art of Mistakes

One of the trends beginner artists have to fight is the will to achieve perfection here and now. They are impatient. The benefit of experience is, beside technique, a certain ability to see what the painting is going to look like when finished. It’s like being a seasoned chess player who can anticipate where the game is going. In reality, the painting will never be exactly what you anticipated it to be, but it saves you from giving-up too soon. It fosters enough confidence to build the painting over time because you know where you want to go; you have the map and you can see from the top of the hill your final destination.

How does that relates to mistakes? To make progress, you need to learn by trial and errors. “Trial” is a better word than “mistake”, because you always learn in the process.

Thomas Edison, who invented the electric light bulb, the phonograph, the motion picture camera and the microphone did not succeed overnight. He was in fact a firm believer of the virtue of failure as a path to success. Once, he was experimenting to find a better type of battery. One of his assistants came to Edison and asked him if he was downhearted with the lack of progress. Edison answered back: “Downhearted? We’ve made a lot of progress. At least we know 50,000 things that won’t work!”

You have to learn to see failures as a step towards success. Unless you stretch yourself, unless you explore new territories, you won’t make significant progress. The trick is to look at the positive aspect of your failure, as Edison did.

Next time you experiment and you are not happy with the result, have a close look at the effect you achieved and think how you could use it in other circumstances. This way, you will learn faster and develop your own style.

To avoid focussing on failures, you must reduce the cost of such failures: economically, in term of time and emotional investment. One good way to achieve this is to work on small formats. Undertake small studies that will only take you couples of hours and do it on a regular basis. Making it a habit should also reduce the preasure you put on yourself.

Le Chemin de Vertignol - Oil painting by Benoit Philippe

You will also encounter what I call “happy accident”. I was once painting a landscape in the North of France when it started to rain. As I was using oil painting (and had nowhere to get shelter), I just carried on. The rain made the surface of the canvas slipery and the paint formed a rough texture in some areas. I like very much this painting and I would not have rendered better the stormy and grey sky without the helping hand of the elements.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

My French Easel in print

I am much excited to report that Frequency Magazine published my first article in their March edition.

The magazine contains a “What’s on” section informing people in Swindon (Wiltshire, England) about concerts, exhibitions and other entertainment happening in the area.

For the first instalment, the article was “learn and you will see” that I published earlier on this blog. For April, I wrote an article on oil painting, with 10 tips for beginners. This series of articles is going to be a monthly column.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

A bowl of lemons - Watercolour

By the size of the projected shadows, you will guess that this week's painting was not done from nature in England… Outside, the weather is mostly grey and the sun timid.

This still life was done using one of the photographs I took while in the South of France during last summer. The photograph was shot in the morning, around ten o’clock and the sun was already bright. I liked the multiple reflections: the lemons on the glazed ceramic bowl and the reflected light in the shadows of the lemons.

A bowl of lemons - Watercolour by Benoit Philippe

The strong summer light means stark contrasts, with almost black shadows on the right and lost edges where the light hits the bowl and the lemons on the left. To reinforce the sense of intense light, I only suggested the table, leaving most of the background white.

If you are interested to see how watercolours and oil painting lend themselves to different moods and effects, check out “
Café et croissant”, a small oil on panel I executed from a reference photograph taken during the same session.

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Monday, 17 March 2008

Art pricing tip from Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci wrote:

“There is a certain breed of painter who, having studied little, must spend their working lives in thrall to the beauty of gold and azure. With consummate stupidity they argue against executing good work for meagre recompense, although they say they would be as able to produce it as another, were they be well paid. But consider, foolish people, do such as these not realise that they should keep aside some good work saying, this is worth a good price, this is medium-priced and this is run-of-the-mill, thus showing they have works in all price ranges.” 

(from Leonardo on Painting: Anthology of Writings by Leonardo Da Vinci with a Selection of Documents Relating to His Career as an Artist (Yale Nota Bene) edited by Martin Kemp)

Source: NASA

It is important, as Leonardo suggests, to “have works in all price ranges” for the following reasons:
  • First of all, you want to make sure that a wide section of viewers can buy your art and offering a comprehensive price range helps buddy collectors to start on the path to buying art. You could sell drawing or small studies at reasonable price, or have small oil paintings.

  • Collectors who bought a piece of work from you (even the cheapest ones), are more likely to buy more in the future and could buy more expensive works. Many people have trouble breaking the mental barrier of buying art. Once they’ve done it, they realise that it is not that a big deal.
  • If you have a wide price range based on a combination of the medium you use and the size of the works, you have a good argument to answer the discount question: “Can you give me a discount on this painting?” In this case, you can answer: “Well, what is your budget? I have smaller paintings and I am sure we can find something you will like and is within your budget.”

  • Having cheaper paintings in your range comforts the potential buyer of a more expensive work that he is paying the right price. Let me explain. As a buyer, we want to feel comfortable that we are paying a fair price for what we buy. We generally do that by comparing different goods with various features and then we make-up our mind. We may not go for the cheapest good because we value certain characteristics of the more expensive item. What is important is that we had the choice and when we have made a choice freely, it becomes harder to back track. By offering a wide range of prices, you are placing your potential buyer in a position to make a free choice and therefore, to feel comfortable the day after the sale that he did the right thing.

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Friday, 14 March 2008

White or White? (Oil painting)

There are a number of whites available from manufacturers (Winsor & Newton offers nine whites in its Artists' Oil Colour range for instance). We will limit this article to the three types of white most often encountered by painters.

Many white paints are milled with Safflower oil or poppy oil which lessens the risk of yellowing. However, safflower and poppy oil undergo greater dimensional changes than linseed oil when drying and they are not suitable for underpainting (the movement of the underpainting film could crack the layers applied above). For this reason, underpainting whites are milled with linseed oil.

Early Snow - Oil on canvas (24”x 20”) by Benoit Philippe

Lead White

Lead white (or flake white) is the oldest of the whites used by painters. It was already in use during antiquity. Ancient Greeks and Egyptians were already making it.

Lead white has a heavy consistency. It is also the fastest drying of all of the whites (because of the lead), which is useful for underpainting when using Alla Prima techniques.

As lead based paint became classified as hazardous, zinc white and titanium white started to supplant it.

Zinc White

Historically, Zinc white emerged during the eighteen century, when it is presented as a possible substitute to lead white.

Zinc White presents the following characteristics:

  • It is the most transparent white and suitable for glazing, scumbling and alla prima painting.

  • It dries slowly, so painters who want to paint wet into wet over a long time will find it useful.

  • It tends to brittle, so it is not recommended to use it as a general white or to paint large white expanses (which may crack over time). It is safe to use in moderate amount and mixed with other colours.
Titanium White (Titanium dioxide)

Titanium white is the most brilliant white available to artists today. This is a modern pigment as it was introduced for artists only in 1921.

Titanium white is an excellent all-purpose white oil colour and is the one to pick if you only want to buy and use one type of white:
  • It has excellent chemical stability.

  • Its covering power is useful for creating opaque layers.

  • Its tinting strength is superior to both Lead White and Zinc White,

  • Its drying time is faster than that of zinc white and slower than that of lead white.

Some manufacturers mix titanium and zinc pigment to take advantage of the quality of both. This white is often sold under the name “titanium-zinc white”.

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Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Daffodils and cherry tree - watercolour

You don't have to go far to find subjects and this one is few hundreds metres from home. The daffodils and the cherry tree in full bloom transform an ordinary piece of land in a scene worth painting.

"Daffodils and cherry tree" - watercolour by Benoit Philippe

Monday, 10 March 2008

Using a limited palette

There are multiple advantages to painting with a limited palette. You are going to know very well these colours: their texture, opacity or transparency and the way you can mix them together.

As Picasso said:
“We work with a few colours; what gives the illusion of their number is that they have been put in the right place.”
There are hundreds of hues commercially available, but buying a large selection will be costly and disperse your efforts. Don’t put me wrong, I have bought colours I rarely squeeze on my palette and it is tempting to buy new colours.

Having a limited selection of colours is like having a circle of close friends instead of being in the middle of a crowd of strangers. Which situation gives you a better chance to express yourself?

Painting with a limited palette is not limiting. Monochrome paintings can be staggering. Think of Matisse and his blue nudes. The idea is to explore and experiment with a colour like a musician gets acquainted with different tonalities.

You have to mix colours when you only have a few. It can look scary and daunting first but it is not that difficult. The palette is your laboratory and you will soon discover that possibilities are almost endless.

This watercolour of Pershore Abbey was completed with only three colours: blue, red and yellow (and the paper for the white).

Related articles

Friday, 7 March 2008

What’s Your Title?

This article was first published in the July-August 2007 edition of My French Easel Newsletter.

Parents spend a lot of time chosing their child’s first name, make lists and argue about it because a name is a personality in the making. After the birth of your work, you don’t want to launch it into the Big World without a proper name. Title your work or someone else will do it for you.

There are many good reasons to pay attention to your work’s title.

The title is your hook. It may be the first impression your viewer has: the curator or gallery owner opening your package and browsing through the list of slides, the visitor to a collective exhibition scanning through the catalogue…

A good title makes the difference between the book you pick and the one you leave on the shelf. An excellent title intrigues or makes you smile and invite you to discover more.

An original title will show your attention to detail. It will frame your work in the mind of the public as a good frame enhances a painting on the gallery wall. Your art and inventiveness do not stop when your work is finished. Why should you confine your imagination to the studio? Inject creativity into everything you do.

"A pint too far"- Oil on canvas by Benoit Philippe

You can also use titles to generate your art. There is no reason to confine the role of the title to a mere label for a finished work. Being short, the title offers shortcuts to the mind and generates ideas. I personally experienced many times the power of titles as generators of a work. My painting “A pint too far” started with the conjunction of the title and my desire to paint a nice pub in my home town. This painting is part of a series called “Parallel reality”, which gave me another pointer to develop the initial idea. I imagined what wild vision a drunken customer who went a pint too far could have when leaving the pub and turning back to look at it. I decided to put the pub into an African landscape, with an elephant and a jaguar in a lush tropical forest.

Finally, by crafting a good title, you acknowledge the intelligence of your public. You give them a clue to unravel the meaning of your work and let them decipher your riddle.

There is no miracle formula for the ideal title. Taste evolves and titles have changed over time. What do you think of the title of Daniel Defoe’s book “A Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations or Memorials of the Most Remarkable Occurrences, as Well Public as Private, Which Happened in London During the Last Great Visitation in 1665”? The time is gone where long titles flourished on book covers. Save for a specific effect, you should aim at short titles.

One of my favourite painting titles is: “Ceci n’est pas une pomme” (“This Is Not An Apple”) that René Magritte gave to an oil he painted in 1964. The title is actually written at the top of the painting representing a very realistic apple and it forms an integral part of the work. When you first look at the painting, you think: “of course it is an apple”. Then, you think again and realise the obvious (or is it?): this is not an apple, this is a representation of an apple… This is Magritte’s unique representation of an apple… This is my personal perception of Magritte’s unique representation of an apple. The title unfolded a complex reality. What looked like a benign painting became the object of a reflection on aesthetics. This title gives another dimension to the work and is a work of art in itself.

10 tips to better titles

  • Use images: visuals have more impact than words.

  • Use short, simple words.

  • Poetry is your ally.

  • Suggesting rather than telling.

  • Use humour.

  • Avoid long, boring and descriptive titles, unless for effect.

  • Play on the words, play with words.

  • Use references.

  • Begin a story with your title.

  • Promote a telling detail in your painting as your title.

  • Titles in practice

  • To improve your ability to craft good titles:

  • Look for advertising slogans.

  • Pay attention to titles of articles in the press.

  • For poetic conciseness, read haikus.

  • Carry a notebook with you and take notes when you think of a title.
    Don’t discriminate at the beginning; go for quantity rather than quality. There is always time to choose and edit later. A dull title may lead you to a good one after a few thinking rounds.

  • Write your title, leave it for a week, and then come back to it. Distance and time give you a fresh perspective.

  • Test your titles with a couple of people.

Creative exercise

When you go to a museum or a gallery, look at the art first and don’t read the label. Try to come-up with one or two good titles for a work that inspires you. Then, read the label and see which title you prefer (the official one or yours).

This exercise will help you for two reasons:

  • Your mind will be more relaxed because you will be working on someone else’s work. Editors of newspapers and magazines often write the headlines. It’s not only because it is fun and an art in itself, but because they are more detached from the story than the journalist. They are more likely to catch the right angle. In the same way, the distance you have with another artist’s work gives you a safe way to get better at crafting titles.

  • In addition, works you see in galleries will be different from yours (in style, subject, and medium) and will help you to generate different and unusual ideas that you may then transpose to name your own work.

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Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Near Coate Water Park - Watercolour

I took the reference photograph for this painting at the end of a long walk with the family last summer. The sun was going down and the row of trees looked stunning in the light.

The landscape itself is fairly simple, but the direction of the light created a dramatic effect: the clouds, the distant trees and the edge in font of the field are enhanced by the silver lining projected by the sun behind.

Near Coate Water Park - Watercolour (37 cm X 30 cm) by Benoit Philippe

The trees on the right are in a deep shadow and I had to lay many successive glazes to get the right tone and intensity. To do that, I waited for the paint to dry between each layer. I alternated washes of green, ultramarine blue and Carmin Alizarin until I was satisfied with the result.
By contrast, the rest of the painting is executed with light washes.
The front row of plants creates interest in the foreground. I used masking fluid to paint the leaves. When doing this, I am always careful to vary the size and shape of the leaves and I also make sure that the masking fluid is not applied in a mechanical way or geometrical pattern.