Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The old Cadillac - oil painting

I am continuing my series of Californian paintings, based on the photographs I took durind a US trip with the family, last year in April.

This old Cadillac was parked in Berkeley.

The old Cadillac - Oil painting (45 X 35 cm) by Benoit Philippe

Monday, 27 April 2009

On creativity

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

Creativity is a vast topic and I am only going to scratch the surface here. As an artist, I am interested in creativity in practical terms. It is a fascinating subject as well as one surrounded by myth. The most persistent one is the image of the creative genius who would have sparks of creativity coming out of nowhere. Names like Picasso, Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci immediately spring to our mind. The truth is that all of them were hard workers who dedicated their life to their pursuit and produced a lot along the way.

Having these icons can be both empowering and curtailing. They will inspire you if you see in them an illustration of the quasi-unlimited power of human imagination. They will bring you down if you think that they were born geniuses and you were not.

What is creativity? To me, creativity is a state of mind. You won’t be creative unless you believe you can be creative. Creativity is hard wired in our human brain and the question is whether or not we cultivate this gift, nurture it and use it. Children are really good at creating because no one told them they couldn’t.

Creativity is about coming-up with new connections and combining unrelated ideas. It goes across many fields: art, business, science… You should not confine it to your art studio because creativity has a place in everything we do.

A critical aspect of creativity is in the “doing”. You need to get all these ideas out of your head and bring into the tangible world. The more you do that and the easier it becomes. The bonus is that ideas generate new ideas and keep your creative wheel spinning.

In order to explore new territories, you must be willing to take risks; you must be willing to fail. The good news is that you don’t have to take risk in public, at least not all the time. You can paint in your studio or write in the secret of your home and it is up to you to show the results of your experimentations to the rest of the world.

According to Richard Florida (in “The rise of the creative class”), researchers identified four phases in the creative process: preparation, incubation, illumination and verification or revision.

  • Getting prepared in the literal sense means having your painting gears always ready, scheduling time in your studio and showing-up even if you don’t feel inspired. It also means creating an environment where unusual connections are more likely to happen. Expose yourself to the work of other artists in and outside your field, explore music, architecture, design, literature… Read a magazine you never read before. As Michael Michalko explains in his book “Thinkertoys”: “One of the paradoxes of creativity is that in order to think originally, we must first familiarize ourselves with the ideas of others.”

  • The incubation period is really important, but it is also important to capture ideas as they come because ideas are fragile and evanescent. For some paintings, I have a gap of several months and sometimes several years between the initial idea for the painting and its realisation. Over time, the idea was refined and morphed into something different. It grew from idea seedlings planted a long time ago in one of my notebooks.

  • The illumination comes on occasion. It would be dangerous to aim only at producing “illumination moments” because good ideas often emerge from not so good ones. You must suspend your judgement when you generate ideas and aim at quantity rather than quality.

  • Revision is producing a series of sketches to find the right composition; coming back to your canvas days after days; making a series of painting on the same theme to explore it in new ways; trying out a new medium to refresh an old theme.

Related articles and resources

Creativity under constraint

The creative habit by Twyla Tharp

Fire-up your imagination

Jackdawing for ideas

Recommended books

The Rise of the Creative Class: And How it's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life

Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques

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Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Malraux Museum in Le Havre

The Malraux Museum in Le Havre is the second museum in France for impressionist paintings, after the Orsay Museum in Paris. There is a strong link between Le Havre and impressionism. “Impression, sunrise”, painted by Monet in 1873 / 74, the title of which is at the origin of the term “impressionism”, represents the outer harbour of Le Havre.

The museum building

The museum is located in the harbour of Le Havre, which has still a lot of commercial (container carriers) and passenger traffic. You cannot miss it with Henri-Georges Adam’s monumental sculpture “Le Signal” on its side. The museum is easy to access with a free car park close by.

The museum opened in 1961 and was renovated in1999. The building is made of steel, glass and aluminium that give it a contemporary feel and transparency. Inside, it offers a vast open space with white walls and a soft natural light flowing through large openings. A ramp with a wooden floor leads to the mezzanine area, allowing wheelchair access.

The permanent collection

The museum benefited from major donations over the years:

• Eugène Boudin died in 1898. A year later, his brother Louis donated to Le Havre 60 canvases and 180 panels (studies and sketches). A total of 224 painted sketches by Eugène Boudin joined the collections of the museum in 1900.

Eugène Boudin: Lady in white on the beach of Trouville, oil on cardboard, 1869, donation Louis Boudin, 1900.

• The Charles-Auguste Marande Bequest: Marande was a wealthy Le Havre cotton merchant. He built a collection of works by Jongkind, Pissarro, Monet, Marquet, Camoin, Van Dongen, Delacroix, Decamps, Daubigny, Harpignies, Corot, Fantin-Latour, Vuillard and Roussel. He gifted the town with 63 paintings, 25 drawings and one sculpture.

Claude Monet: Les Nymphéas, oil on canvas, 1904, purchased from the artist by the city in 1911.

• The Hélène Senn-Foulds donation: Senn’s granddaughter, Hélène Senn-Foulds, donated to the Malraux museum 71 paintings, 130 graphic works and 5 sculptures from impressionist and fauvist painters.

Auguste Renoir: Portrait of Nini Lopez, oil on canvas, 1876, SENN Collection.

• Le Havre museum received a bequest from Raoul Dufy’s wife of thirty of Dufy’s paintings as well as thirty drawings, five watercolours, a tapestry, three ceramics and a bust of Dufy by Valorises.

The museum’s collection also counts paintings from European schools of paintings dating from the sixteen to the eighteen century: still life, religious paintings and landscapes. On the contemporary side, works by Dubuffet and Esteves are on show.

Practical details

Musée Malraux
2 boulevard Clemenceau
76600 LE HAVRE
Tel: 02 35 19 62 62


Monday, 20 April 2009

Exhibition at Intel

Since the beginning of April, I have an exhibition of 38 pictures (28 oil paintings, 8 watercolours and 2 pastels) at Intel Corporation in Swindon.

It will last until the end of the month. It is not accessible to the general public, but more than 600 people work on site.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Whiter than white?

Looking at the title, you could think that I am trying to sell you some washing powder, but this is an article about using white in our paintings (Although, I write a little bit about washing later on).

Let’s go straight to the point: it is most unlikely that you will see pure white in nature. It’s all a matter of contrast and reflected lights on white objects.

White and simultaneous contrasts

The way we perceive based on context was brought home for me when I visited the last year
The Exploratorium in San Francisco. They had an experiment in the section on “seeing” where they were displaying in the dark a succession of lighted squares. When the first one appears, it looks white. Then, the second square pops-up. You see it has a lighter shade and, by comparison, the first one looks grey. It goes on and on… and you cannot believe your eyes that each new square appears lighter than the previous one.

This exhibit focuses on how the environment affects the way we see everything: colour, tone and brightness. The same goes with the light areas of your paintings.

The checker shadow illusion is also a striking way to remind us that our brain is easily tricked into seeing as different tones that are identical, based on the context.

Square A and B seem to be of a different shade

The two vertical bars show you that, in fact, square A and B share the same shade of grey

You can read an
excellent explanation of this illusion by Edward H. Adelson from the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

What colour is your white?

White surfaces act as a screen where the coloured light and surrounding object can reflect. For this reason, you will have bluish whites or yellowish whites depending on the time of the day and the quality of the light.

Using a palette of light colours rather than pure white out of the tube makes your painting more interesting in subtle ways. The modulation creates movement and interest and stays closer to real life.

In fact, there may be some cultural influences on how we perceive the quality of the tinted white as white. Washing powders contain some agents to make white a little bit blue. Historically, people noticed that it did not matter how well they washed them, white fabrics always had a slight yellow shade. Physicists found that you could neutralise this yellow colour by adding some ultramarine blue to the rinsing water. This habit stayed and we today perceive white fabrics with a slight blue shade as fresher and whiter.

In practice

We talked about how our eyes perceive reality. How does that translate in practical terms?

  • It is a good idea to use a piece of white card to judge the brightness and whiteness of an object you are painting.

  • Remember that pure white is rare in nature and that a good way to make light colours appear lighter is by simultaneous contrast (of tone, colour and brightness).

  • A coloured ground, in particular with a mid-tone or neutral colour, will make it easier than a white ground to set the lighter tones at the correct level.

  • Tinted whites (with blue, pink, yellow, etc.) offer endless possibilities to make your light areas more interesting.

To end this article, I will leave you with what Ambroise Vollard remembered in his book “Recollection of an Art dealer”:

“Later on, I happened to hear Renoir talk about a white on white effect that he was trying to render.
- It is pretty difficult, he said, but nothing is more exciting to paint nor provides a nicer effect.”

Vollard (and probably Renoir) did not explain what this effect consisted of, so we will all have to go to the museums and study carefully any Renoir’s painting we can find in order to try to see and understand this effect.

Related articles

White or white?

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Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Ferry crossing

We went to France during the bank holiday week-end. I just had time to draw during the Channel crossing on the ferry.

One of my daughter's soft toy dog.

Upper deck on the ferry

One of the passengers taking a nap

The sewing kit

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Underpainting for pastel

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – April 2009.

The underpainting is, as its name tells, the layer underneath the upper surface of your final work. Although it is only meant to be a stage in the process, underpainting gives you a solid foundation for your pastel and set the mood of the overall painting. Part of the underpainting will show through the pastel strokes and change their appearance by simultaneous contrast.

When using an underpainting, you need to consider the archival consequences (would the work be damaged over time?) and if the substrate you use is suitable for a particular technique.

Underpainting with pastel: a common way to create an underpainting with pastel is to lay colours using broad strokes with the side of your pastels sticks and then to blend the marks in order to obtain a soft background to build upon. You can brush the pigments with a stiff brush loaded with water or rubbing alcohol. Different brand of pastel will react in different ways to water and alcohol, so it is a good idea to test beforehand. After establishing the underpainting with pastels, I like to apply a light spray of fixative. This way, the underpainting is not disturbed by later work on the surface and you don’t end-up with muddy colours, in particular if you are using complimentary colours in your underpainting. If you apply any liquid for blending, you need to use a heavy paper (or a board) so that the surface does not buckle.

I laid the colours for the underpainting of Cardiff Gallery, using broad strokes and the side of pastel sticks

The pastel pigments are blended together after a wash of rubbing alcohol applied with a soft brush.

Underpainting with watercolour: This is a good technique if you use watercolour paper as your support. As already mentioned, use a paper sturdy enough so that it does not buckle, some pre-mounted paper or a pastel board. Paint freely with a large brush, wet on wet. Let the paint flows: you are preparing the ground for your pastel, not painting a watercolour.

Watercolour underpainting for Bluebell wood - As the paper was prepared with Colorfix pastel gesso, the surface was waterproof and the watercolour did not react as usual.

Underpainting with gouache or acrylic: Gouache or acrylic work well for underpainting. The difference with watercolour is that you can obtain opaque layers of paint. You must be careful to paint thinly, otherwise the paint will fill the texture of the pastel paper and the paper will not hold pastel pigments.

Underpainting with oil paint: The first precaution to take is to make sure that the support you use can take oil. If you are using paper, this means applying some gesso to protect the paper from the chemicals in the paint. Use oil paint thinned with turpentine or mineral spirit and let the colours drip and mix together. You must paint thinly to retain the tooth of the surface. The advantage of this method is that the oil paint used in thin washes will dry quickly. As mineral spirit can soften adhesive, it is better to use this technique on unmounted primed paper.

Oil underpainting for Summer Walk

Make sure your underpainting is fully dry before you continue with the next stage of your pastel painting.

The choice of colours and tones for your underpainting depends on the effect you want to achieve. Here are four options to explore:

1. Create a monochromatic underpainting. For a snow landscape, you could select a pastel paper tinted with a mid-range neutral colour (grey for instance) and use a dark colour as underpainting to block in trees and rocks. This will make it easier to get the correct tones and colours for the snow and highlights.

2. Another option is to use a contrasting colour temperature in your underpainting. Staying with our snow landscape, you could use red, orange and yellow in your underpainting in order to make the blue strokes sing.

3. Use colours which are similar to the ones in the final painting. To make this work, you need to create some type of contrast with the final layer, either by using contrasted tones in your underpainting or by keeping it loose and soft.

4. Paint colours randomly across the whole surface. Provided you keep the number of colours low to preserve some unity, this technique may produce interesting effects if the underpainting shows through the final layer.

As always, you need to try and experiment in order to find the techniques that fit your style. However, don’t get stuck with a single technique because they all serve different purposes.

Related articles

Getting started with pastel

Framing pastel drawings and paintings

Product test - Colourfix pastel primer

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Friday, 3 April 2009

Art DIY week-end project – Part 2

My post on Art DIY week-end project gets many visits, so I though I should publish another compilation with more Do It Yourself (DIY) gems I found since then on the Internet.

Jim Serrett (make sure you also visit his studio blog ) is doing a wonderful job showing how to build yourself some nice painting boxes. Two great posts not to miss and a blog to keep an eye on:

Wet Canvas offers a number of very good tutorials:

Richard McKinley, on Pastel Pointers, explains how to mount pastel paper in two different ways:

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Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Taxi in China Town - oil painting

This is a scene from San Francisco, just on the border of China Town. I just like these yellow taxis, which bring a dash of colour.