Monday, 24 May 2010

St John the Baptist church - Cirencester

St John the Baptist church, Cirencester – oil on canvas panel (6” x 8”) by Benoit Philippe

Summer is finally here in England (not sure for how long). On Sunday, we went to Cirencester, a historic Roman town in the heart of the Cotswolds.

I took my pochade box and did a quick study of St John the Baptist church from the cemetery, at the back. It is an ornate medieval church.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Degas’ pastel secret

Ambroise Vollard, in his book “Recollections of a Picture Dealer", told a story about his visits to Degas’ studio where the artist was working on one of his pastels, “these marvels of colours that some compared to the mottled wings of butterflies”.

Au Café-concert : La Chanson du chien (55 × 45 cm) – Source: Wikimedia

The painter La Touche asked the art dealer if he could find out where Degas was buying his pastels, from which he could get such extraordinary colours.

Here is the dialogue Vollard reported:

“When I saw Degas again, he had in hand some pastels that he was lining-up on a board in front of his window.

- I make the colours fade as much as possible, he said, by placing them in the sun.

- But, if so, with what do you manage such striking colours?

- With some dead colours, sir!”

This quote still puzzles me and, seeing Degas’ pastel, I share Vollard’s amazement.

Related articles

Degas’ small wooden horses

Ambroise Vollard on Renoir

Homage to Ambroise Vollard

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Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The hog fan brush

When I paint in oil, I rely on a limited number of hog and synthetic brushes. Once in a while, I am in a situation where a special tool is required.

For the painting “Respect the beach”, I wanted to achieve the following effects with the background:

  • Convey the weathered look of the paint on the car bodywork.
  • Obtain a greyish colour so that the yellow numbers on the plate and the chrome would shine by contrast.
  • Achieve a smooth rendering, without any obvious brush marks, to let the number plate and the chromed handle become the centre of attention.

"Respect the beach" - oil painting by Benoit Philippe

I would normally let the initial layer of paint to dry and then apply successive glazes on top until I obtain the level of smoothness required. In this case, I painted this work alla prima (in one go), so I had to find another way.

I proceeded in two stages. First, I blocked-in the background by mixing some greys with three different blue colours as the main ingredient:

  • Manganese blue (from Bloockx)
  • Cerulean Blue (Winsor & Newton)
  • French Ultramarine (Winsor & Newton)

I added just enough Sanodor solvent to apply this layer comfortably without loosing the paste consistency. I established the shadow areas and the lighter ones, but I was not happy with the colours which were too striking and blue.

The hog fan brush

For the finishing stage, I applied a glaze of Ivory black with a hog fan. Ivory black is a semi-transparent colour and therefore suitable for glazing. I poured a puddle of painting medium on my palette and added some Ivory black to it. There was also some grey I had mixed earlier that get into the mix.

I applied the mixture with the hog fan. The bristles on the fan are spread out and did not remove the fresh underpainting. The glaze formed a grey film that tuned down the initial blue colour. At the same time, it created a smooth transition between the different shades and removed brush marks.

The hog fan left some distinctive marks in some areas (some parallel lines created by the each spread-out bristle). These marks become invisible if you step away from the canvas and they contribute to the battered look of the paint.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Respect the beach

At the week-end, I started to block-in a large oil painting of San Francisco. After I finished, I had some paint left on my palette and did not want to waste it, so I started to block-in another smaller painting. Things were going well and I just carried on. Six hour later, completed the painting titled "Respect the beach".

Respect the beach - oil painting on canvas (18" x 14") by Benoit Philippe

I liked the battered paint of this car, the rusty number plate and all the numbers and inscriptions. This number plate looked like a real lifestyle statement.

Friday, 7 May 2010

The drum bridge (San Francisco tea garden)

The drum bridge (San Francisco tea garden) - Watercolour (31 cm x 39 cm) by Benoit Philippe

The Drum Bridge (“Taiko Bashi” in Japanese), was part of the Japanese Village of 1894. It is now one of the features of the tea garden located in the park near the Golden Bridge.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Berkeley's Marina - Watercolour

Berkeley's marina - Watercolour (39 cm x 41 cm) by Benoit Philippe

Monday, 3 May 2010

Working from photographs

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – May 2010.

Degas used photographs, Henry Moore too. There is nothing wrong with referencing photograph as long as you know their limitations and don’t let them enslave you.
Two comments before we start: first, snap your own reference photographs so you don’t infringe any copyright. Secondly, invest some time in knowing your camera and read some books on how to take better photographs.

Limitations of photographs and how to overcome them

Cameras exaggerate both ends of the value range: the very dark and the very light. This is due to the fact that camera are less sensitive to tonal differences than the eye and have a limited range between the brightest value and the darkest value they can capture (also called “dynamic range”). As dark areas appear darker on a photograph, you need to make adjustments and use in your painting a lighter tone than what you see. Another consequence is that small details are often lost in the shadow areas.

There are some practical steps you can take to help yourself. In addition to the normal exposure, shoot an underexposed and an overexposed photograph of the same scene. If you have any software to manipulate digital photographs, you can vary brightness and contrast to get an optimal result. Finally, working from the reference photograph on the computer screen rather than from a print will let you see more details in the shadow areas (Losing shadow details is often aggravated when you print because printers have a limited range in black).

The second potential issue is that camera can misrepresent colours as different films and sensors have different colour bias. Although software can help, the best remedy is to use your reference photographs in conjunction with a sketch or a small study done on site. If you do a sketch on location, you can annotate it with colour indications and record your impressions of the mood of the place.

The third particularity of cameras compared to the eye is that cameras can only focus on a single plane. What is outside of this plane will be out of focus. What we see with our eye (unless your have glasses and don’t wear them) is in focus. When painting, you may want to create focus in a different way from what you see on the photograph.

Practical ways to go beyond photographs

Unless you plan to develop a photorealistic style, you want to put some distance between your reference photograph and the final work. A good way to go beyond the photograph is to draw first a small tonal sketch from the photograph. By doing this, you are getting away from the photographic representation of the scene and going towards the pictorial treatment of the subject.

There are other ways to avoid having your work looking too photographic. Work from small prints (5” x 7”) where you can’t see all the details; work from a Black and White photograph or use a slightly blurry photo.

Another strategy is not to reproduce the photograph as it is. You can change the format (use a landscape format photograph to create a portrait format work). Rather than working from a single reference photograph, combine a series of photographs and use thumbnails to work-out a composite picture based on your selection of photographs.

A good technique is to hide away your reference photograph in the middle of your session, once you have established the main masses, lights and shadow areas and work for some time without your reference photograph. After this “free from photograph” period, you can start referring to it again.

Let me finish by circling back where we started: there is nothing wrong with reference photographs. Now, you know their limitations and the best way to use them while being yourself.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

500 Grant Avenue (San Francisco)

This subject was ideal for a pastel painting. I could build it with large strokes yellow stripes of the crossing, the moving pedestrians and the car and bus, and then and then refine them.

500 Grant Avenue (San Francisco) - Pastel (39 x 31 cm) by Benoit Philippe

I worked on a sheet of Art Spectrum Colorfix paper with a Terra Cotta ground.

I have already done an oil painting of this location (see "Taxi in China Town") but this one is taken from a different angle and gives more importance to people crossing the street.