Monday, 30 June 2008

Thick lights over thin darks

In oil painting, I have often used thick impasto of light colours while keeping dark areas thin. Turner was a master at using impasto for sparkling light effects
Ostende by Turner

Detail of the same painting showing the light impasto

Lately, I wondered why it makes sense to do this way and why generations of painters have followed this rule. Here is the list of reasons I came with:

  • Thick applications of paint draw attention: you want the shadow areas to recess, not to stick out (which is literally one of the consequences of an impasto. In her book “Painting better landscapes”, Margaret Kessler explains how thick applications of dark colours can lead to glares and create confusion: “A thickly painted, light door-frame projects forward, jus as thin, darker transparents in the opening itself recede, allowing the eye to enter the depth of the building. Keep in mind that, when your finished painting is hung, the display lights will reflect off any ridges and lumps of paint, creating bright highlights. If you load the opening with dark, thick pain, the lighting will reflect off this surface, pulling the opening forward – thus confusing the viewer.”

  • Projected shadows: If a light impasto (which means a “thick application of paint”) projects a shadow, then it reinforces the contrast between the light and dark areas. If you place a dark impasto over a light background, the projected shadow will darken the light area and will change the actual size and shape of the shadow area (which becomes the dark impasto plus the projected shadow).
  • Thick applications of paint can crack as they dry. Reserving impasto technique for smaller areas reduces the risk of cracks. This is exactly what happens if you use impasto in your latest lights.
  • The incidence of drying time: The white used at the beginning was lead white which had good drying properties (Zinc White and Titanium White were introduced more recently) and allowed thicker applications. Many dark colours take longer to dry and that could be an issue for thick application. For instance, Winsor & Newton classifies Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine Blue, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Lamp Black and Ivory Black as “medium drying time” and Alizarin Crimson as “slow drying time”.

  • Impasto is better suited for opaque colours which have a good consistency and a buttery aspect. Many dark colours are transparent or semi-transparent and therefore less effective as impasto. Now, you can find impasto gels that would allow you to get high solid transparent touches.

Related resources and articles

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Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Reverse engineer your writing

Artists have to write art proposals, artist statements, press releases or articles at some point in their practice. Many of us don’t feel comfortable sitting in front of a blank page and creating a good copy out of thin air. The “reverse engineering” technique is one I have been testing for years to overcome resistance.

Reverse engineering consists in learning how a product is made by taking it apart and looking into its components. Once you understand the structure and underlying principles of the product, you can build another one based on the same ideas.

Here is the process in 5 steps:

1. Just start writing. Allow yourself a first bad draft: you never write, you always re-write. Start anywhere and don’t worry about the order of your ideas or style at this stage. The key point is to commit all the ideas you have to paper, without worrying about how good they are or how they flow together. You are looking for quantity, not quality.

2. Extract the ideas behind your paragraphs. The goal is to sum-up each paragraph into one sentence, one expression or one word. For instance, the current paragraph can be summed-up in four words “Reverse engineering writing process”. You will discover that some paragraphs contain more than one idea and should be split.

3. Reorganize the content of your copy using your summaries. Once you have all your 1-sentence summaries group together paragraphs that develop the same or similar ideas. To find the structure of your copy, you can write the ideas in a linear fashion or draw a mind map (to learn more about mind maps, see Tony Buzan’s web site
). When this is done, put together your story with your “1-sentence” building blocks and connector words (like “because”, “then”, “however”). This way, you will see if the ideas flow in a logical way or if they need to be reshuffled.

4. Write your introduction and conclusion. Only after you know where you want to lead the reader you will be ready to write a good introduction. The same goes for your conclusion.

5. Refine and review spelling and style. Now that you have a sound structure, it is time to polish your writing. Re-write, weed out redundant words and simplify or expand paragraphs as necessary. Review again to correct style and spellings. It is better if you can leave a couple of days between steps 4 and 5 and between successive drafts in stage 5.

There are many advantages to this process:

  • If you use the “reverse engineering” method, it does not matter where you start.
  • By making smaller blocs (your 1-line sentences), it is easy to organize your ideas.
  • It also becomes easier to tailor your ideas to different formats. You should be able to pitch your ideas in 30 seconds, in 5 minutes and in 10 minutes ; or when writing: in 1 sentence, 1 paragraph or 1 article. Once you grasp the logic of your ideas using the “1-sentence summaries” and you know how the different arguments branch out, you can do that.

I wrote more than 100 articles on my blog since August 2007 with this method, as well as the present article. Give it a try and see how much easier it becomes to write.

4 Bonus writing tips
  • Carry a notebook around and write down your ideas, any ideas.

  • Keep a running list of topics you want to write about.

  • Stories are not only for fiction. Can you make your point by telling a story?

  • Stop in the middle of the piece you are writing. Your brain is craving for completion and if you stop in the middle of a paragraph or a sentence, it will be easier to start again.

Friday, 20 June 2008

The Rose Garden - Oil painting

I painted this rose garden, which is part of the Swindon Town Gardens, on location. I started around 7:00 p.m. and the weather was not bright.

I had planned to paint in the rose garden for some time but always missed the short window where roses are in bloom.

Rose Garden - Oil on linen canvas (35 cm x 27 cm) by Benoit Philippe

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

How unfinished your painting should be

This article was first published in my newsletter "Notes From My French Easel" – May 2008.

During a visit at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich I was struck by one of Monet’s paintings titled “The bridge at Argenteuil” (1874). This work is located near the entrance of the room and I therefore saw it close-up first. I could see the raw canvas apparent in many places: in the sky, in the foreground and in the reflection of one of pillars of the bridge. Monet used a thin layer of paint apart for the light boat hull in the foreground, which were painted with great vigour if not with much detail. The work is signed and dated in the lower right corner so, at least in Monet’s mind, there was no doubt it was a finished painting. After looking at this painting for some time, I carried on with my visit around the room. When I reached the opposite side of the room and turned back, my eye caught Monet’s painting again. From afar, not only the painting looked finished but it appeared full of details I knew were just marks on the canvas. The illusion was perfect.

I have had this experience several times when visiting museums and exhibitions. What I have learnt is that, as an artist, you need to leave room for your viewer to fill-in. By not showing everything, an artist can get his audience more engaged with his work and involved in the creative process.

What factors are at play when it comes to the finished or unfinished look of a painting?

I would discount ability as being relevant. There are numerous examples of masters painting in a loose way by choice rather than because of any skill limitation.

History should be considered:

  • The degree of finish of paintings has varied over time. Modern taste is more accustomed to a freer touch and does not see an unfinished look as untidiness. Jonathan Mayne, in the introduction he wrote for C.R. Leslie’s book “Memoir of the life of John Constable”, explains how Constable was ahead of his time in this respect:

    “The lack of ‘finish’, for which he was constantly criticized during his lifetime, has if anything enhanced his present-day popularity, and the pendulum has swung so far that the oil-studies, which he made as preliminaries to his larger paintings, not only are superior to the complete work, but were considered to be so by Constable himself.”

  • Portrait painting was probably the first genre to introduce free strokes in the background. The emphasis being on the face of the sitter (and his hands if they are painted), the rest can be executed in broad strokes that reinforce the intricate work of the portrait itself.

  • The advent of photography has in many respects influenced the degree of finish in paintings. First of all, photography liberated painting of its duty to record reality in a photographic manner. In addition, a photograph tightly focused on the subject let the background blurred and brought home the idea that the background can be almost abstract.

  • Maturity and the evolution of an artist personal style are determining factors. Paul Signac in “The subject in painting” observed that, as artists get older and more experienced, they tend to simplify their painting and go to the essential. As an illustration, he compared two versions of the same subject “Norham Castle on the Tweed” painted by Turner in 1815 and then again in 1835. A castle which was painted with great details in the first painting is merely suggested in the later one. The second painting has more strength, more drama. In the same way, Monet painted the water lilies series at the end of his life and went beyond the subject, towards a stronger yet looser sense of colours, shapes and textures. Signac summarizes this effect of maturity in the following way:
    “The more advanced an artist gets into his career, the more he masters his craft, and the more he understands the necessity to repudiate picturesque, to sacrifices it to pictorial qualities. He does not fall into all the delicious traps that nature plants everywhere; he distrusts postcard picturesque; he realizes the uselessness and danger of the useless and contradictory details that present themselves to him. He ignores anything that is not essential; he tends towards simplicity and synthesis; he moves away from anything that does not contribute to create drama.”
    Simple does not mean simplistic and it takes a great deal of work to convey the richness of reality in a simple way.

Finally, a certain degree of imperfection is the mark of human nature. Although I may admire the craft involved, I am not often moved by hyper-realistic paintings or works of art which present a mechanical perfection. They lack a human touch, a wild mark that says: “I am free”. Nobody expressed this idea better than John Ruskin in his book “On Art and Life”:
“Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.”

Related resources

Penguin Great Ideas : On Art And Life by John Ruskin

Monday, 16 June 2008

Picasso: Painting as journaling

«I paint like others write their autobiography. My canvasses, finished or not, are pages in my diary, and as such are valid. »


Related articles

Books on Picasso

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Friday, 13 June 2008

100 posts later: why blogging as an artist?

I just realised I passed the 100 posts mark. Achievements call for celebration and I also think it is a good time to look back and reflect on what I learned since I started the blog.

why blogging as an artist?

  • Sharing your art: The first advantage of a blog is the possibility to share your art with many people. Some excellent artists’ blogs just do that very well, like Urban Painter William Wray, Ed Terpening with his blog Life Plein Air or Rob Ijbema with his Painting Wales Diary.

  • Reaching out and making contact: I am still amazed by the visits I receive from so many different countries. Writing a blog is a good way to get out of your sandbox and see with your own eyes that, as Thomas Friedman put it, "The World is flat" (The World Is Flat: The Globalized World in the Twenty-first Century )

  • Getting feedback: People can post comments on your blog. You can also asked questions while you built an audience. A blog is an easy way to start the dialogue.

  • Making you accountable: A common advice when it comes to achieving your goal is to share them (for a good article on goal setting, see: Goal-Setting: The 90-Day Challenge by Michael Hyatt). You can do that with your blog and you can also report on progress your making towards these goals.

  • An artistic diary: I am using the blog as a diary of what I paint and what I am reading. If I share good websites or articles with my reader on the blog, I also get an easy way for me to retrieve them later. On a more down to earth side, if I failed to update my paintings inventory for some time, I can use the blog to track the paintings I need to enter into my records.

  • Expanding and testing out your thoughts: The journaling function of a blog is important. A blog is a good place to launch ideas, let them mature and come back to them later to refine your vision. You can write a series of short post entries and then use them to build a larger article for your website. If you take this to the extreme, writing blog articles is a great way to write a book one building block at a time.

  • Seeing what you accomplished: Looking back and seeing what I have done is key to keeping my motivation up. I just need to look at the menu and the many entries on the blog to know that, every single week, I have done something to move my art forward.

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Wednesday, 11 June 2008

The wonderful world of fractal geometry

Did you like geometry in school or did you find it dry and out of this world subject? There is another kind of geometry that has emerged in the 70’s. It is called “Fractal geometry”.

Mandelbrot discovered the so-called "geometry of nature" that goes away from the Euclidean geometry where everything is smooth and simple but feels inadequate to model the world around us. Mandelbrot describes himself as a deeply visual person and explained how he solved complicated mathematical algebra by visualising the result and describing it afterwards.

If you are curious to learn more about fractal geometry, you should watch
“Clouds Are Not Spheres” , a 51 minutes documentary on fractal geometry and its creator, Benoît Mandelbrot available on the Teacher TV website.

Mandelbrot's famous quote gives a good idea of the underlying principle of his theory:

"Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line." (B. Mandelbrot, introduction to "The Fractal Geometry of Nature")

Now, stop and read again the quote above with your artist’s hat on: can you see texture and patterns of the convoluted reality? Fractals are everywhere: animal, vegetal, mineral.

One of the scientists interviewed in the program said that, after reading Mandelbrot’s book on fractal geometry, you can’t look at a cloud in the same way again.

Fractals break the barrier between figurative and abstract geometrical art in the sense that, when you start to look at nature closely, you find geometrical patterns that repeat themselves on decreasing scales. In other words, abstract and geometrical patterns are everywhere in the natural world.

Fractal designs are not only intriguing but really beautiful. You can see some examples in the articles provided below.

Related articles and resources

Monday, 9 June 2008

Tea Garden (San Francisco) – Watercolour

I painted this watercolour from a reference photograph I took while visiting the Tea garden in San Francisco. I took dozens of photographs. This garden is magnificent, with a great attention to details. It is designed in such a way that you cannot see the whole garden at once. You have to explore, follow the paths, wander and discover new vistas as you go.

Tea Garden (San Francisco)- Watercolour (15.5" x 13") by Benoit Philippe

This garden is a peaceful place. You could stay for hours on a stone bench, listening to the chant of the water and the wind in the plants. A beautiful place… So quiet in the hart of Golden Gate park.

If you are interested in trivia, this is where fortune cookies were invented.

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Friday, 6 June 2008

Getting started with pastel

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – May 2008.

Soft pastels (not to be confused with oil pastels) are powdered pigments formed into square or round sticks with a non-greasy binder. Pastel is an immediate and versatile medium. One of the joys of pastel is the brilliance of the colours and the way pastel catches the light, like in the luminous ballerinas in Degas’ pastel paintings.

Pastel can convey a large array of emotions and serves any subject or style, from realistic still life to colourful impressionist landscapes. Look at works by various artists and you will see pastels built with watercolour-like glazes on one hand and rich painterly effects borrowed from oil painting on the other hand. With pastels, you have both a drawing and a painting medium.

Children at the river - Pastel (55 cm X 41 cm ) by Benoit Philippe

How to get started with pastel? Pastels come in a variety of forms and hardness (hard, medium or soft), but they fall into three broad categories:

  • You can buy pastel pencils which are suited for sketching, small formats and fine details in larger works. They are ideal for lines and crisp details.

  • You will also find square chalk pastel sticks, which are quite hard and are good to lay the foundation of a work in pastel. As they have a hard edge, they can be used to sketch and draw. Instead of using the tip of the stick, you can also sweep the side of the pastel stick on the surface of the paper to leave large marks, as you would with a flat brush in oil painting.

  • The last form of pastels is the round sticks of soft pastel. Their hardness varies from one brand to another and depends on the colour. Light colours are in general softer with a creamy consistency (some of them tend to crumble if you press too hard on the paper). Always choose artist quality pastels from reputable brands as cheap pastels contain less pigments and will not give you the brilliance you can expect from pastels.

You should get a good selection of colours to start with. I recommend buying a box of square chalk pastels and an assortment of twenty to thirty round artists’ soft pastels. You can buy a starter set, but it is better to compose your own palette from pastel sticks sold individually in art shops, making sure you include very light as well as very dark values. After some time, as you become more acquainted with the medium, you can add more colours or shades to your selection.

The next thing you need is a good surface to draw or paint on. Go for pastel papers or pastel cards. They come with a good tooth (from rough to sandpaper like surface) that is essential to hold several layers of pastel. These papers and cards are often toned and many background colours are available.

A spay can of fixative is recommended to bond the surface of the work because of the powdery composition of pastel. However, works in pastel should be lightly spayed because colours become dull and darken with too much fixative. For this reason, some artists don’t use fixative at all or use it only at an early stage in the process. Fixative can indeed be used in the course of drawing with pastels to “freeze” parts of the work and avoid smudges when a new layer is applied.

It is advisable to frame pastels under glass in order to protect your work from smudging, scratches and dust. A gap should always be left between the work and the glass pane to avoid rubbing and damage to the work.

If you need to store your works in pastel until you frame them, put them in a shallow archival box and make sure that, if you stack them, each pastel is protected by a sheet of non fibrous paper. You can use crystal paper or buy at the supermarket some unbleached non-stick baking paper that is treated with silicones and will not stick to the pastel. Cut a sheet to size and maintain it in place by sticking its edges to the back of the pastel paper with masking tape. Make sure you store your pastel works flat.

Now, you are ready to go and express yourself with pastels.

Related articles

Framing Pastel Drawings and Paintings

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Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Taking notes at the museum

I am one of these people who carry around a notebook with them most of the time. I have dozens of them in various sizes that I filled with notes over the years. My current notebook is a Moleskine (Moleskine Books - Large Plain Notebook) with plain paper so I can write or draw in it.

When visiting the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, I took some notes as I was planning to write an article on my visit. This made me appreciate the benefits of taking notes while visiting an art exhibition:

  • Your notes act as a memory trigger: By looking at your notes, you can revisit the exhibition.

  • What was this painting? There is nothing more frustrating than being unable to find a painting you liked. I want to have the title of the painting and the name of the artist to be able to search for it on the Internet. If I am lucky, I can find a good reproduction online.

  • Focussing your attention: Taking notes focuses your attention because you can only take notes if you look carefully at the paintings. You have to take the time. In a way, it works very much in the same way drawing a landscape will engrave it into your mind. You look at the painting, see something interesting, pose and write about it in your notebook. When you write, you look away from the painting and when you return to it you do so with a fresh look.

  • What to look for? When I visit a museum or an art exhibition, I pay a particular attention to details that cannot be seen the same way on a reproduction: the thickness of the paint; different textures; glazes and brushwork. I generally go from the general to the particular. I watch the painting from close, then far, then close again, as the painter would have done while painting it.

  • What do I note? I don’t try to be exhaustive. I jolt down my impressions, what jumped at me when looking at a particular painting. I try to capture what I liked and what I found clever or moving. I go for single words if words will do. This is not a literary exercise but a way to capture emotions. Many times, I will sketch the composition of the painting and write my comments around. Having a visual records works better for me. I take colour notes; in particular if I see an effect I like and want to try to emulate it in my own paintings.

Related articles
I would recommend two articles on note taking.

  • How to Take Notes like Thomas Edison : an excellent article by Tatsuya Nakagawa on note taking and fascinating account on how Edison used it to his advantage.

  • How to Take Notes Like an Alpha-Geek by Tim Ferris, the author of The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. I am now using the indexing system he suggested in this article and it saved me precious time. I am not going to copy the content of the article here, so make sure you go and read it on Tim’s website. The only point I would mention is that it does not matter that your key words are not in alphabetical order, just create the index as you go. Also, one thing I have been doing is to put a red dot in front of the names of artists in the index. This way, I can easily find the art quotes I am collecting. You could use the same idea to quickly create some broad categories in your index.

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Monday, 2 June 2008

Painting in the neo-impressionist style

This article was first published in my newsletter "Notes From My French Easel" – April 2008. Follow the link to subscribe to the newsletter .

A long time ago, after seeing neo-impressionist canvasses in the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris (these works have been transferred to the Orsay museum since), I had a go at pointillism. It took me ages to fill-in the canvas with little dots of oil paint.

Circus Sideshow, 1887–88
Georges Seurat (French, 1859–1891)
Bequest of Stephen C. Clark, 1960 (61.101.17)

I just read “Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism” by Paul Signac where he explains the theory behind neo-impressionist paintings and defends the divisionism technique pioneered by Seurat. Here are the directions Signac gives in his book:

  • A palette only composed of pure colours close of the colours of the spectrum. Neo-impressionism does not use the blacks and earth colours. Instead, these colours are obtained by optical mixing. Colours are used in their different shade from dark to light with the addition of white. Signac quoted Delacroix who, in his diary, wrote: “Grey is the enemy of any painting.”

  • Optical mixing. No mixing of the colours on the palette or on the canvas. The dots or marks, which are applied on the canvas side by side without mixing, are mixed together by the eye of the viewer when he watches the work from a distance.

  • Division of the marks. Neo-impressionist is not defined by stibbling (which is only a mean) but by the division of colours. The benefit of division is the luminosity, purity of colour and harmony. The size of the mark should be proportional to the size of the painting.

  • Technique which is methodical and scientific. Optical mixing and the use of contrast between complimentary colours were found by the neo-impressionists in the work of Chevreul. Signac also advocates the methodical application of the dots or well defined marks on the canvas, making the process coming from the brain rather than the hand. He vindicates cheap tricks done with the brush and the brilliance of execution of certain artists that, according to him, go in the way of true artistic expression.

Lighthouse at Groix, 1925 by Paul Signac (French, 1863–1935)

Oil on canvas; 29 1/8 x 36 3/8 in. (74 x 92.4 cm)Partial and Promised Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Dillon, 1998 (1998.412.3)

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The technique described by Seurat had a limited success beyond the neo-impressionist painters but the influence on how colours are used (in particular the use of complimentary colours and the fragmentation of the marks to get luminous colours) can still be felt today.

I think what played against neo-impressionism is the painstaking process of applying the small marks on the canvas. Signac reports that Seurat would work one year on a single work and, even if Seurat’s works are exhibited in museum around the world, the artist only sold two painting during his life.

The luminosity obtained by division of the colour comes with a price. The laborious process does not entail spontaneity and, despite Signac argumentation, renouncing to the multiple possibilities of different brush strokes is losing an important meaning of expression in painting. Pissarro tried the divisionism technique at some point in his career but put it aside because of its lack of flexibility.

Despite some reservations, I would encourage you to try this technique on a small format. This exercise will make you think a lot about colours and colours interactions.

Related articles

Seurat on painting subjects

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