Friday, 31 October 2008

Turning the Place Over

After the visit to Tate Liverpool, we went to see a very unique piece of art.

Liverpool was named European capital of culture in 2008 and the City commissioned a number of public art pieces for the occasion.

Turning the Place Over is a piece of public art by artist Richard Wilson (who has twice been nominated for the Turner Prize). This piece is on an abandonned building in the centre of Liverpool. An oval piece of the front of the building has been cut out and is rotating 360 degrees. The cut out piece rotates upside down but is only aligned to the front of the building when in the right position, otherwise it sticks out.

This piece of art is daring and very spectacular. It is also a well executed piece of engineering.

There are many YouTube videos, but the short one below will give you a good idea.

Related resources

Times interview of Richard Wilson

Turner Prize page for Richard Wilson

Richard Wilson’s biography

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Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Tate Liverpool

Last Sunday, I visited the Tate Liverpool , which is located at Albert Dock in the English city of Liverpool.

"DLPA Piper Series: The twentieth century: how it looked & how it felt" Exhibition
The exhibition “DLA Piper Series: The Twentieth Century: How it looked & how it felt” is on at the Tate Liverpool until the end of April 2009, with almost 200 works on show.

The first floor is dedicated to figuration, starting with a sculpture of Degas
“Little Dancer Aged Fourteen”.

Here are some works that caught my attention:

The Bath by Pierre Bonnard. The paint has been applied very thinly apart from Mrs. Bonnard’s head that sticks out of the water and has more visible brush strokes. The water has been glazed over and present the subtle quality of watercolour washes. By contrast, the rest of the work present some dry brush work. The raw canvas is visible on the edge and shows that the work has been stretched afterwards (see for more details on this on my previous post Bonnard: working in batch and creative process ).

Nude bending down by Pierre Bonnard is another painting on show

Woman in a Tub (circa 1883) is one of the pastels on paper of a women taking her bath by Edgar Degas. The work is delicately executed with a fantastic work on lost edges. Degas was famous for the high luminosity he achieved in his pastel work and this one is no exception. The interesting point from an execution standpoint is to see the predominantly vertical strokes on the woman’s body.

Three sculptures I liked in the exhibition:
A whole room is dedicated to Andy Warhol (1928-87) and is covered with The Cow Wallpaper that was first used by Warhol in an installation at the Leo Castelli Gallery (New York) in 1966. The works on show have been made using the method of silk-screening. A Marilyn Monroe series is on display as well as the Electric Chair series.

The Second floor is dedicated to Abstraction, with works from Jackson Pollock, Mondrian, Calder, etc. I feel less attracted to this type of works, although I find the works of Vasarely clever.

The website of the “The twentieth century: how it looked & how it felt” exhibition offers more details and photographs of some of the works.

Meeting Georges at the Tate’s Cafe

We ended our visit in the Tate’s cafeteria. I noted a gentleman seated a few tables away from ours, concentrated and trying to solve the Rubik’s cube. I did not pay much more attention to him until much later, when it looked odd to me to see him still in the same position, visibly puzzled. Also, the face of this visitor looked vaguely familiar. On close inspection, I realised that I had been fooled by a work by Alison Jackson.

More information

Tate Liverpool
Albert Dock
L3 4BB
0151 702 7400
Entrance : FREE (Donation suggested to keep it free)

Monday, 27 October 2008

Welcome to the sketching club

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

You should be sketching everyday. I don’t, but I would like to. Sketching has many advantages and will take you a long way in improving your artistic skills.

Sketching is quick: a sketch can take you from a few minutes to half an hour. There is no set-up required and you just close your sketchbook when you are done. Sketching is cheap, portable and flexible. You can experiment; try new subjects or new formats. You also build a visual reference library for future works.

You can sketch almost everywhere: cafés, trains, airports, parks, at the zoo… This is the ideal artistic activity when you are stuck in a queue, waiting, or only have small pockets of time at your disposal.

At the restaurant

The material

At a minimum, you need two things: A piece of paper and a pencil. Pencils are made of a mixture of graphite and china clay. The more graphite, the softer the pencil and the darker the mark will be. Pencils are graded from light (H) to dark (B), with digits to indicate the intensity on this scale (6H is really light, 8B gives the darkest black). HB pencils, being the middle ground, are good for everyday use. For sketching, 3B pencils are ideal with their medium soft texture. I also use a 6B pencil for deep shadows.

With pencils, you will need a sharpener and an eraser. Putty erasers work best. They look like modelling clay and can be shaped with your fingers for precision erasing. Furthermore, they do not create dust like conventional erasers.

Pencils are only one option. You can sketch with graphite sticks; colour pencils (ordinary or water soluble); ballpoint pens; fountain pens (some are manufactured specially for sketching); felt-tip pens; sepia, sanguine pencils and white pastel pencils; a metallic nib and a bottle of Indian ink.

Pencils, charcoal and pastels need to be protected using a light spray from a can of fixative, otherwise they will smudge. If you use felt pens, make sure you buy ones that are lightfast and waterproof when dry.

Finally, you can draw in black and white or add colours using colour pencils or a wash of watercolour.

What paper can you use? It depends on your technique. Buy a sketch pad of medium weight cartridge paper (90lb/150gsm), acid free for good conservation. Chose a sketchbook you love, feel the quality of the paper and make sure it is suitable for your technique. Go for a paper which is strong enough to withstand water and can therefore be used for watercolour washes. Don’t skimp on quality. Your work is important (even your day-to-day sketches) and the last thing you want is a thin yellowing paper that will not stand the test of time and will be hard to work on. If you think it is too expensive, divide the price by the number of pages and you will see that it is not that expensive after all.

6 tips for better sketching

1. Define the overall shapes first, before going down into details.

2. Learn to draw from your shoulder rather than by using your wrist. This way, you can draw lines in one continuous movement. To work this way, you need a larger paper format (at least an A3 paper pad).

3. Don’t rub out ideas or line you traced. It does not matter if you have several lines to define the contour of a person or an object. Imagine that you are carving out the space like a sculptor in order to draw your subject. Working this way will force you to think and only put on paper the marks you want.

4. Learn to quickly capture movement. Animals are difficult to draw because they move most of the time. Unless you catch them resting in a field or in their barn, they will likely move before you finish your drawing. Don’t worry, just stop there and start a new drawing of the same animal on the same page.

5. Try all sorts of formats: from a small notebook to A2 sheets of papers.

6. Experiment with different marks: pure line drawing; hatching; cross hatching; stippling or sweeping marks with the side of a graphite stick.

It takes thirty days to establish a new habit. Buy a nice sketchbook, a selection of pencils and start today on this new drawing venture. I would love to hear about your experience with sketching and what it’s brought to you. So please, visit my blog and leave a comment on your sketching experience.

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Friday, 24 October 2008

Cézanne’s slow art

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

When we think of “impressionism”, we see buoyant artists painting fast on location in order to capture the fleeting light before it goes. This is most probably a cliché as we have evidence that even Monet used to work on his canvasses over long periods of time and would come back to them in the studio.

Cézanne was not a painter of the instant. In fact, he was deliberate to the extreme when painting. He hated when people watched him painting, but the best account I have read of his technique is the one by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard in his book “Listening to Cézanne, Degas, and Renoir”.

Vollard had ample time to see Cézanne in action as the artist was working on his portrait. The art dealer recalled how he sat through one hundred and fifteen sessions and described his fear of upsetting the artist (who in such a case often ended up stabbing the canvas with a painting knife or throwing it in the fireplace).

Cézanne liked to paint apples but it took him so long that they would be rotten before the painting was completed. He tried flowers and, as there were too short lived, he switched to paper flowers. He was still complaining that the colour of these artificial flowers would fade over time and Vollard reported that, in one instance, Cézanne resorted to an engraving as reference material to get all the time he needed to paint a still life.

Paul Cezanne. Still Life with a Curtain (1895). The Hermitage Museum.

Here is Vollard’s description of the process Cézanne used for oil painting:

“To paint, Cézanne used very soft brushes that reminded me of marten or polecat. He washed them after each stroke in a dipper full of turpentine. Whatever number of brushes he had, he would use them all during a session, and he was getting himself so dirty that the police arrested him one day he was coming back from working on location.”

“We can explain, by Cézanne’s working method, the solidity of his painting. As he was not painting with thick applications but rather layered the paint in applications as thin as watercolour, the colour would dry instantly: there was no fear that the internal tension of the paint would produce cracks, as it may happen when one paint on a layer that is not totally dry.”

If is difficult to imagine, while studying the thick application of paint on Cézanne’s canvasses that he worked this way. His process also explains why it was taking him so much time to complete a single work.

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Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Chrysanthemums and apples

Chrysanthemums and apples - oil on canvas (46 cm X 38 cm) by Benoit Philippe

I set-up this still life in our dining room. The bowl came from Russia. After the first session from life, I re-worked this painting many times and over several months, adding the apple on the left and the two paintings in the background.

I also paid a particular attention to texture (using painting knives as well as hard and soft brushes) and edges.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Paint red hot landscapes that sell!

I had mixed feelings about the title of the book "Paint Red Hot Landscapes That Sell!" I have nothing about being successful at selling art, but it sounded too much like dozens of business books that promise you to make your first million dollar in six months. I also feared that the author would dictate his recipe to paint “by numbers” the perfect bestseller. Thankfully, the content is much more nuanced and balanced and provides sound advice that you can use to improve your painting.

Mike Svob starts with a sobering (but true) statement: “If you want to be one of those professional artists who make a living selling art, it will require a great deal of self discipline and hard work. Talent is nice, but optional.”

The book contains a number of recommendation regarding what, according to the artist, makes a painting sell:

  • “People tend to prefer warmer paintings to cooler ones. It is human nature.” (Page 66)

  • “As a general guide, visually transparent passages of paint are more appealing than opaque passages." (Page 69)

  • “The addition of believable figures participating actively in the landscape environment has a special attraction to us as human beings. The psychology of this obviously goes very deep. Knowing this can help you make a sale.” (Page 86)

  • “Larger paintings simply have more impact.” (Page 98)

The artist reviews the main elements that make a strong painting:

  • Subject
  • Composition and direction

  • Tonal map
  • Edges
  • Colours, warm and cool.

The most interesting considerations are on colours. This is not a surprise: when you open the book, the word “colourist” comes immediately to your mind. What is more surprising is how Mike Svob came to the conclusion that he could “push the colour” any way he wanted. The paradox is that colours are not that important and therefore you can play with them without destroying the belief in reality. Here is how the painter explains it:

“We understand the world by shapes and tonal values alone. Color is not necessary. To demonstrate this is true, just look at a black and white photograph. The image has no color, yet everything makes complete sense.”

As a result, you can allow yourself total freedom when it comes to colours: “Only use colors you like – no other”, advocates the artist. It is a fact that I was not shocked or even surprised to see Mike Svob’s landscapes with yellow, orange and even green skies. It just worked within the overall colour scheme of the paintings.

Although Mike Svob’s landscapes are realistic, his treatment is more one the graphic side of the house. You will fail as an artist if you just copy his style without adapting it to your personality. You may sell your “red hot landscapes”, but would it be you? However, there is plenty to borrow from this book in order to try new techniques and visual effects, reflects on your own paintings and venture in new directions with colours.

Details for the book

Paint Red Hot Landscapes That Sell!

Hardcover: 128 pages
Publisher: International Artist Publishing,US (Aug 2002)
Language English
ISBN-10: 1929834187
ISBN-13: 978-1929834181

Table of content

  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 : Finding your way in art and sales

  • Chapter 2 : Getting your message accross with materials and grounds

  • Chapter 3 : Compelling design that makes the sales

  • Chapter 4 : Putting buyers in the picture with tonal values

  • Chapter 5 : Warm up your sales with the direct local color method

  • Chapter 6 : Painting « must have » landscapes

  • Chapter 7 : Edges – the make or break part of controlling the buyer’s attention

  • Chapter 8 : Making it look good on the gallery wall

  • Chapter 9 : Creating a visual feast that sells

  • Chapter 10 : Gallery of bestsellers

The author

Mike Svob lives in White Rock, British Columbia. He has been a full time artist since 1982. He has done more than 45 exhibitions and 22 large scale murals.

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Monday, 13 October 2008

Morning walk in the the vineyard

I painted this scene from some reference photograph I took in Assas (South of France).

Morning walk in the the vineyard - Oil on canvas (6"x8") by Benoit Philippe

Friday, 10 October 2008

Inkspot Exhibition

I am taking part into a collective exhibition at Inkspot, in Swindon, until the end of November, with one oil painting and one pastel.

Relaxing at Mevagissey - Oil on canvas (24” X 20”) by Benoit Philippe

Mid-Day San Francisco - Pastel (37 cm X 30 cm) by Benoit Philippe

Where and when

Edgeware Rd
Swindon, SN1 1QS

Exhibition is on until the end of November.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Sgrafitto – Oil painting technique

Sgrafitto is a technique borrowed from ceramic makers and plastor. The top layer of the painting is scratched while fresh in order to reveal the colour underneath.

The sgrafitto technique

In oil, you would:

  • Lay the light colour first. Let it dry.
  • Lay the dark colour on top.
  • Scratch the surface of the dark colour while the dark colour is still wet in order to reveal the dark colour underneath.

You can use many tools to remove the upper layer of paint, provided they are not blunt and likely to damage the canvas. Two tools I found that work well are the tip of a brush handle and a shaper.

Uses of the technique

  • This technique is most useful to obtain a light colour drawing on a dark background. For instance, if you want to draw some railings on a dark background or a window frame.

  • This technique can also be used to create texture in your painting.

  • When painting thick, in particular if you use painting knives, sgrafitto effects participate to the texture of the painting and can be done “in the fresh”, revealing the layer beneath you last application of paint.

  • This technique can help painting high grass. If you use the tip of the brush handle to draw the blades of the grass, some paint will be dragged along to draw the grass while, at the same time, a sgrafitto effect will create texture at the base of the grass clump.

I used the sgrafitto technique in a recent plein air painting done alla prima (e.g. in one go). This was done to create highlights in plants as well as to evoque grass blades and twigs in the foreground.

Sgrafitto technique used in the foreground of the painting "The red meadow"

The French painter Eugène Carrière was using the sgrafitto technique to sign his oil paintings. I have also seen the technique used in many paintings by Matisse.

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Friday, 3 October 2008

The Creative habit by Twyla Tharp

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp has the sub-title: “learn it and use it for life: a practical guide”. The premise of the book (to which I totally subscribe) is that creativity is a habit, a process you can harness and put in motion. If you have sometime sparks of creativity, it’s because you are disciplined and you have been working hard. As the author puts it, “Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is the result of good work habits.”

The good news is that everyone can be creative, that creativity can be unearthed with perseverance and the right process. The bad news for those who hope to arrive somewhere but don’t want to bother with the journey is that “there is no “natural” geniuses.”
Twyla Tharp is a choreographer and examines her creative process. She talks about:

  • The rituals of preparation,
  • What is the “creative habit”
  • How you can harness your memory to feed your creative mood
  • Her box system, where all material and inspiration for one project goes
  • Her creative methods, in particular “scratching” (or how everything can become material for your creativity)
  • How to deal with ruts and grooves
  • Dealing with failure
Many of Twyla’s advice can be transposed to other forms of arts.
The design of the book is stylish, making the read even more enjoyable. The layout, illustrations, typography and colour of the pages (white, grey or black) keep you in a creative mood.
This book is the journal of a creative journey, personal yet useful for anyone who craves to explore her or his own creativity. This is not about theory but a practical manual peppered with exercise to help you on your quest.

"Coins and Chaos", one of the exercises described in the book

In a nutshell: a practical book to read, use, and read again.

Favourite quotes

On the paradox of creativity:

“There’s a paradox in the notion that creativity should be a habit. We think of creativity as a way of keeping everything fresh and new, while habit implies routine and repetition. That paradox intrigues me because it occupies the place where creativity and skill rub up against each other.”

“This, to me, is the most interesting paradox of creativity: In order to be habitually creative, you have to know how to prepare to be creative, but good planning alone won’t make your efforts successful; it’s only after you let go of your plan that you can breathe life into your efforts.”

On metaphors:

“Metaphor is the lifeblood of all art, if it is not art itself. Metaphor is our vocabulary for connecting what we’ve experiencing now with what we have experienced before. It’s not only how we express what we remember, it’s how we interpret it – for ourselves and others.”

The Book

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life (on Amazon in the US - Affiliate link)
The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life (on Amazon in the UK - Affiliate link) 
The creative habit: learn it and use it for life: a practical guide
By Twyla Tharp, Mark Reiter
Published by Simon & Schuster
ISBN 0743235266, 9780743235266

Related articles and resources

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Wednesday, 1 October 2008

The red meadow – oil painting

Saturday was another good day for plein air painting. Last week, I went away with my pochade box and painted three studies, included the one titled “The orange meadow” .

I wanted to go back there and make a larger painting of the same subject. The pochade helped me to resolve some composition issues and make sure it was a worthwhile subject to paint. On the other hand, the pochade did not do justice to the fierce colours of the meadow.

I took my French easel on my back and rode my bike to the scenery I wanted to paint. It is a nice spot, off the cycle path and sheltered by edges. Despite the motorway being only a few yards away behind me, it seems like an isolated place and I only saw two people while painting.

After a week, the orange plants covering the meadow had turned rusty in the shadow and bright red in the sun. My orange meadow was now a red meadow.

The red meadow - Oil on canvas (18" x 14") by Benoit Philippe

Before I went, my wife gave me a challenge: not to put on my palette the green I generally use in my paintings (it must be the Sap green colour that I like indeed). I also decided to forego the Yellow Ochre colour, just to try something different. After I put-up my easel, I realised I faced an even bigger challenge: I forget to pack my Titanium White. I had to use two light colours as substitutes:

  • King’s Blue Light (Maimeri Classico)

  • Naples Yellow substitute (Roberson)

As my normal palette was already missing some key colours, I decided not to use any Viridian Green or any pre-mixed green and to increase instead my selection of yellow and blue colours in order to mix a variety of greens I needed.

Here is my complete palette for this work:

  • Naples Yellow substitute (Roberson)

  • Cadmium Yellow Pale

  • Chrome Yellow (hue)

  • Vermillion Hue

  • Cadmium Red

  • Alizarin Crimson

  • King’s Blue Light (Maimeri Classico)

  • Cerulean Blue

  • Manganese Blue

  • French Ultramarine Blue

  • Phthalo Blue

For this canvas, I used both brushes and palette knives. I sketched the composition using a large flat brush loaded with diluted Alizarin Crimson. I then blocked-in the main shapes with large and medium brushes. At that point, I switched to painting knives.

Towards the end, I reworked some background areas and the sky with a soft synthetic brush to achieve a smooth surface that would contrast with the texture created by the painting knives. I also used a shaper to carry on some sgrafitto work in the foreground (more on this later).