Thursday, 29 May 2008

The Constable Memory Exercise

Visual memory is an important part of drawing and painting because you cannot draw accurately unless you first observe accurately. It is therefore important to develop a sharp sense of observation.

When you learn painting, copying from the masters will give you valuable insights into their technique as well as their sense of composition and colour.

This exercise is designed to develop your visual memory while forcing you to observe the work you are copying from in a deep and analytical way. It has been inspired by the life of John Constable.

In “Memoirs of the life of John Constable”, his biographers CR Leslie comments on the artist’s bad health and how his doctors tried in 1811 to take him away from the melancholy that was affecting him with the following artistic therapy:

“It now became apparent to Constable’s friends that his health was declining. It was, I believe, at this time that Sir George Beaumont undertook to be his physician, and prescribed for him that he should copy a picture entirely from memory. He was to walk every day to Sir George’s house in Grosvenor Square, look at the picture as long as he pleased, then return home and paint as much of it as he had retained in his recollection, until the copy was finished. The regular exercise and the change of scene, combined with an agreeable and not too arduous employment were to work the cure. The picture selected was a landscape by Wilson, and the experiment was tried, but the malady under which Constable laboured was not to be easily removed.”

This experiment may have not cured Constable but cannot do any harm to your artistic development, on the contrary.

John Constable Stonehenge - Victoria and Albert Museum
– Londres
A few suggestions on how to set-up this exercise:

  • Select a painting you like by an artist you like. Life is too short to paint something you don’t have feeling for.

  • If you live close an art museum (and the entry is free or your have an annual pass), select the painting to work from in the museum gallery. Working from an original painting will give you more benefits.

  • If you work from a reproduction, keep your model outside of your studio. If you work outside of your home, you could keep it in your office. If you work from home, just put the model in a different room.

  • Take your time: Take all the time you need to observe the painting you are copying. Then, paint only a portion of the painting each day. Building-up the mental image of the model over time is part of the exercise. The image of your model should become clearer and clearer as time passes.

Related articles and resources
John Constable on painting from nature

Memoirs of the Life of John Constable: Composed Chiefly of His Letters (Arts & Letters)

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Monday, 26 May 2008

What Your Labels Tell About You?

While in vacations in Kent (South of England) with my family, we went to a restaurant in the city of Canterbury. They had a couple of paintings on display: watercolours and oil paintings.

I was distracted from the art by the poor look of the labels. They were handwritten, yellowish (grease from the restaurant’s kitchen), tattered and with bent corners. What did that tell me? It yelled: these paintings have been here forever and nobody wanted to buy them.

Small details like that are essential and make or break a sale. Your potential customer may not even realize that the labels put them off, but they will.

Many artists really care about their artwork until it is framed and just imagine (or hope) that, after this final touch, it will sell itself. The truth is that every little detail count and looking professional does not have to cost you a lot.

A few points to remember:
  • Get access to a computer and type your labels. They will be more legible and project a good impression.
  • Print your labels on heavy paper or Bristol cards. This way, the label will be stiff and you will avoid bent corners.
  • If you anticipate that the works may be exhibited for some time (semi-permanent display in a restaurant for instance), print duplicates of your labels and make sure you change the labels on a regular basis, so that they always look clean and in perfect condition.

Related articles

Two excellent articles on how to label your art by Alyson Stanfield from

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Signac on painting subjects

This article was first published in my newsletter "Notes From My French Easel" – April 2008. [Note: This newsletter is not published anymore]

Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (La Bonne-Mère), Marseilles, 1905–6
Paul Signac (French, 1863–1935)
Oil on canvas; 35 x 45 3/4 in. (88.9 x 116.2 cm) - Gift of Robert Lehman, 1955 (55.220.1)

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Signac was asked to write an article for the « Encyclopédie française » on « the subject in painting ». The artist’s views on this topic are well summarized by this quote:

«There is no good subject for a painter. In a painting, the subject should go unnoticed, like the style in a novel. Picturesque goes out of fashion; only the pictorial element does not go out of fashion. » (Paul Signac)

Who was Paul Signac?

Paul Signac (born in Paris on November 11, 1863 - died on August 15, 1935 in Paris) was part of the neo-impressionist mouvement together with Georges Seurat. He used the division of colours in his paintings and explained the theory behind pointillism in his book "From Delacroix to neo-impresionism". He became president of the Société des Artistes Indépendants (Society of Indepenent Artists) in 1908 and kept this tenure until his death.

Related articles
More on Paul Signac
Books on Paul Signac

Monday, 19 May 2008

Martin Kemp talks about art and science

I went to listen to Martin Kemp who gave a talk on “Art and Science” during the Swindon Festival of Literature.

I read “Leonardo on painting” edited by Martin Kemp and was impressed by the editorial work he had done with Leonardo’s notebooks, organizing the content into sections and creating a natural flow from diverse sources. I was therefore looking forward to hear what he had to say on science and art.

Kemp has been writing a column in the famous
Nature magazine for many years and a first compilation of his articles was published under the title “Visualizations: The Nature Book of Art and Science”.

A more recent book (from September 2006), “Seen/Unseen: Art, Science, and Intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble Telescope” regroups articles published in Nature around themes. Some of these themes are what the author called “deep line intuitive continuity” and are going back to childhood: the pattern of the flames in a fire, the rhythm of the waves and the shape of shells.

He discussed how art and science start from these intuitions. Taking examples from Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein, he showed the power of visualization.

Kemp then explored 3-D geometry, splashing and folding. Illustrations were taken from the scientific world and from the art world.

My favourite quote from the conference:

“The alert mind picks-up things it does not expect to pick-up.”

There was a lot of information but, at the same time, the session lacked structure and a sense of direction. At the end of the talk, I was left with a large collection of facts and I was trying to find how they related to each other and what the interaction between art and science was. It was ironic as Kemp talked about “structural intuition” and how we extract structure from the world.

To take an image, I think Kemp described art and science as separate paths. He walked these paths but never really told us when these paths intersected (apart from the allusion to the fact that Jackson Pollock owned a copy of D’Arcy Thompson’s book with a study of splashes).

Let me tell you about my own intuitions:

  • Artists open the mind of scientists by helping them to visualize the world that we cannot see.

  • Scientists who can visualise are better equipped that those who cannot, because new theories often go beyond words and manipulating images is like manipulating concepts.

  • Although science feeds on rigor, precision and proofs, creativity is necessary to envision what you want to prove. Both art and science use the power of unusual associations to short circuit established ways of thinking and go beyond the consensual views of the world.

Books by Martin Kemp

Seen/Unseen: Art, Science, and Intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble Telescope

Leonardo Da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design

Visualizations: The "Nature" Book of Art and Science

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)

The Oxford History of Western Art

Spectacular Bodies: the Art and Science Of the Human Body

Links for Martin Kemp

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Thursday, 15 May 2008

The vineyard path - Watercolour

This watercolour represents a derilict shed along a path going through vineyards. I took several reference photographs while I was walking one summer morning towards the village of Assas (South of France) to buy ten croissants and pains au chocolat for the family's breakfast.

The vineyard path - Watercolour by Benoit Philippe

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Neue Pinakothek in Munich

During a short stay at Munich last week, I did a flying visit to the Neue Pinakothek. I took advantage of the fact that they close at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesdays.

The Neue Pinakothek has the biggest art of the nineteenth century collection in the world. According to the website, “The Neue Pinakothek exhibits approximately 400 works of art chosen from its collection of more than 4,000 paintings and 300 sculptures.”

I had only one hour and half and had to make difficult choices on what I should see. I much preferred spending my limited time in a few rooms than zooming through the whole collection without taking the time to appreciate any of the paintings.

The museum was very quiet at that late time of the day, so I could enjoy many paintings on my own and come close to them to analyze the painting technique and brush work without bothering any visitor.

They have a magnificent view of Oostende by Turner and a few paintings by Constable (including “View of Dedham Vale from East Bergholf", c. 1815).

The museum also counts two rooms of French impressionist and post-impressionists paintings by Edouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Paul Signac, Paul Gauguin and Paul Sérusier in room 19 and room 20.

Where and when
Neue Pinakothek
Barer Strasse 29
D-80799 Munich
Entrance on Theresienstrasse
Telephone: +49 (0)89 23805 195
Neue Pinakothek Web site

Gallery Hours
Daily except TUE 10.00 - 18.00
WED 10.00 - 20.00
Closed: Tuesdays, May 1st, Christmas Eve (24.12.),
Christmas Day (25.12.), New Year's Eve (31.12.)
Opened: Easter Monday (24.03.), Whit Monday (12.05)

Related resources

Monday, 12 May 2008

Fire-up your imagination

“I have in the past seen in clouds and walls stains which have inspired me to beautiful inventions of many things. These stains, while wholly in themselves deprived of perfection in any part, did not lack perfection in regard to their movements or other actions.”

Leonardo da Vinci (In
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) )

An old stone wall in the village of Assas in the South of France

Get into the habit of using random shapes to get your imagination started. Abstract shapes are seeds to grow your creativity from.

The human mind naturally looks for meaning and it will either consider shapes it does not recognise as being unimportant “noise” or it will relate the perception to existing knowledge and create meaning where there are only shapes. The key is to keep an open mind and “question” the shape you discover.

There are many opportunities to find around us shapes to work with. Play with the shapes you can see in:

  • Clouds
  • Geometric patterns on carpets or wallpapers
  • Peeled bark on trees
  • Moss growing on trees
  • Stains on old walls
  • Negative shapes in foliage

The roots of a sequoia tree

Creative exercise

Take a drawing pad and make an outline of a stain you found. Then look away from the subject and see what you can create with this abstract shape as a starting point.

Don’t hesitate to turn your pad on the side or upside down and see if the stain in this new position inspires different ideas.

Visual arts are based on patterns. Even if you don’t see them at play, they guide the eyes through the work: the diminishing lampposts along the road or the interlocking shapes of buildings for instance. On top of stimulating your imagination, this exercise will also develop your sense of working with patterns.

A stone egg I brought back from Morocco. Can you see a bird?

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Saturday, 10 May 2008

10 tips to get you started with oil painting

This article was first published in Frequency Magazine - April 2008

Oil painting may seem a difficult medium, but it is in fact versatile and very forgiving. Whether you are new to painting or already using another medium, don’t be afraid to go for oil painting. Here are my ten tips to get you on the right path:

1) Buy the best quality paint you can afford. Manufacturers sell different ranges of colours. The cheapest ones are often labelled as “student” and contain fewer pigments. Buy “extra-fine” or “artist” quality oil paint instead.

2) Use a limited palette. There are dozens of colours available in tubes and it is tempting to buy them all. Limit yourself to a basic set of colours and learn to mix them together. This will not only reduce your costs but give more unity to your paintings. I suggest the following colours to start with: Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson, Cerulean Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Sap Green and Viridian Green. You may want to add Black, but you can also mix it with equal parts of ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson and viridian green.

3) Start small to learn faster. Start with small canvasses or canvas boards that you can complete in a few sessions. 12x10” or 16x12” are good formats to use.

4) Paint fat over lean: this rule is fundamental to conserve your painting and to avoid cracks when the paint dries. In a nutshell, you use a thinner like turpentine when you start and only use linseed oil or thicker painting mediums at a later stage.

5) Don’t paint too thick at the beginning. Paintings with texture look great. However, you will not be able to adjust colours or tones and will just muddy your colours if you apply the paint too thickly at the initial stage.

6) Simplify your painting. Don’t try to put too many details in. Build-up the large masses first and don’t worry about fine details until you have the foundation of your composition right.

7) Use as big brushes as you can. The best way to avoid being bogged down into details is to paint with big brushes. Buy an assortment of hog brushes (flat, round and filbert brushes) and experiment to learn the type of marks you can achieve with brushes of various shapes.

8) Block-in with your darkest tones first. At an early stage, when you define large masses, think in three: dark tones, medium tones and light tones. I advise you to start with the darkest tones, then the medium ones and to reserve the planes with the lighter tones or to paint them with a wash of light earth tone, like Yellow Ochre.

9) Don’t use too much white too soon. White mutes colours and, when used in excess, deadens the whole painting. Try to avoid using white in your mix until you have covered the entire canvas with colours. As an experiment, see how far you could go in your painting without using any white.

10) Work from nature as well as from photographs. Painting from photographs that already provide a two dimensional view of the subject is easier. However, working from nature will improve your observation skills and make you a better painter. For your first attempt at working from nature, a still life is a good subject because you can take the time you need and you have more control over lighting conditions.

Related articles

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Monday, 5 May 2008

The Sea At Clovelly - Oil Painting

This painting captures the waves breaking on the shore at Clovelly in Devon.

Sea at Clovelly - Oil painting on canvas (40" x 40") by Benoit Philippe

For the composition, I played on the following elements:

  • I chose a square canvas to contrast with the roundness of the pebbles and the curve of the wave ;

  • The wave was not that big but there is nothing to really give a sense of proportion and the size of the wave is left to the viewer's imagination ;

  • I cropped the view to remove the sky and the horizon line. This adds to the dramatic effect.

For the first stage of the painting, I used mainly painting knives, covering the whole canvas quickly. Apart from the wave that was yellow ochre, the rest of the painting was in shades of cool greys. I liked the contrasts but felt that the colours were too sad and almost nocturnal. So I left the painting to dry completely and reworked it with colours.

The initial knife painting provided a great support to work on, with plenty of texture.

I glazed the rocks with ultramarine blue and alizarine crimson to obtain more interesting deep dark colours. I also painting some lighter areas to make them more tri-dimentional.

Working on the wave was the most difficult part. The yellow or light brown colour seemed almost unatural and I spent time working on it to find the right tones and the right colours so that they would not clash with the blue colour of the sea.