Monday, 5 December 2011

The blank canvas syndrome

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – December 2011.

Writers have blank page issues and painters may encounter the blank canvas syndrome: a dry spell where we lose the energy to paint, the appetite for creating or the habit of drawing. We become too busy with our life or feel in a rut, making again and again the same painting.

A period of rest from the easel is not a bad thing if it’s not for too long. I find pauses necessary to incubate ideas or assimilate new explored territory. However, there is a risk that you break your good habit of creating daily. One way to take a break without really stopping is to explore a different medium or a new technique.

If you have stopped painting for some times and you feel down because of it, the best way out is not to ask yourself “why?” but just to take small steps to get back into it. Artists are “makers” and it’s by making that we find again our artist way. Here are five suggestions to end a dry spell:

1. Start small: do a small sketch or a small study in oil, watercolour or acrylic. It will only take you ten minutes to an hour – not much time really. The main obstacle is often to get started and if you tell yourself “I am just going to make a small study, nothing much really”, your brain stops worrying about it and you passed the first hurdle.

2. Go plein-air. Painting plein-air (i.e. on location) offers a different sensation. As you are outside of your house, distractions will not get on your way. As you go on your painting expedition, you carve out painting time in your schedule. The change of scenery is also good for your morale and feed your inspiration.

3. Visit a museum or an art gallery. Looking at art always gives me the urge to paint. Seeing art works “in the flesh” is different from browsing mere reproductions. You can see the texture and feel the touch of the artist.

4. Read art books and art magazines. Read widely: artists’ biographies or correspondence, artists’ writings, art instructions books and articles. Read for 30 minutes and then start a small work.

5. Consult your idea file. If you don’t have an idea file, it’s a good time to start one. I have a notebook that I carry around and make notes of ideas for future paintings. It can be anything from subject matters, a particular location where I could paint on site, a quick thumbnail of a composition or a possible title for a future piece. Going through your old paintings may also prove a valuable exercise, by bringing you ideas on where you want to go next.

Related articles

Lateral reading

Fire-up your imagination


Tuesday, 22 November 2011

10 pieces of advice to oil painting beginners

This is my last article for Frequency Magazine. Since March 2008, I have covered many topics and I thought it would be good to circle back to some fundamentals of oil painting.

1. Composition is the key: Avoid the obvious focal point stuck in the middle of the canvas. Think how you can create more interesting compositions by using inbalance, patterns, grouping shapes and using light to lead the eye of the viewer where you want.

2. Paint from nature if you can: Photography is a marvellous invention and can be used in many ways in your art, but sitting on the spot and capturing a scene as you see it has no substitute. It does not matter how many mega-pixels your camera has, your eye is better still and it is the door to your creative brain. This is your reality, not cropped or distanced by the lens of a camera.

3. Play with the light: The light is a key element in paintings. It is the cement between composition, colours and tones. The light models every object. Shadows give direction. The same subject will look totally different depending on the time of the day and the time of the year. Morning light and light at the end of the day will give you long shadows and softer colours and edges. Mid-day light in summer will bring hard edges and erase colours. Visit places you want to paint at different times of the year as the changes in the light will change the mood of the place.

Ice and fire - Oil on canvas board (6" x 8") by Benoit Philippe

4. Your best subject may be behind you. A variation of this is: your best subject may be on your doorstep.

5. Paint fat over lean: There are not many rules that you should stick to, but this one is an imperative. The first reason is conservation: this principle prevents cracks to form on the surface of your work when the paint dries. The other reason is practical: if you start to paint lean, you can layer richer paint on top without getting muddy colours and work longer this way.

6. Use a limited palette: If you do so, you will get to know very well the colours on your palette, their texture, and the way they mix together. This will also force you to master colour mixing. And yes, you can buy a tube of this very special colour that you saw at the art shop, but only after you tried to mix it and realised that there is no way to create it from your limited palette.

7. Refrain from using white as long as you can: Mixing white into your colours will add body to them but also mute them. Too often you see dead pictures because the artist included white in all the colours.

8. Block-in your dark areas first, then your mid-tones and then the lighter areas. There are two advantages working this way: in oil, it is easier to make darks areas lighter than the reverse, so you can adjust tone balance by lightening your darkest areas; in addition, it makes sense to get the dark areas first in because the light areas will appear even lighter when contrasted with dark areas.

9. Use the biggest brushes you can: this way, you won’t be tempted to put too many details into your painting.

10. Use telling details: This last point goes hand in hand with the previous advice. The idea is that you do not need to put in every detail or paint every single blade of grass on the canvas. The viewer’s brain will fill-in the gaps. So, if you draw a few bricks on a wall, this is sufficient information to create the impression of a brick wall.

These are just my views and, after you try these rules, you should break them (except the “paint fat on lean” rule) or only keep the ones that work for you.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Painting as poetry

“Painting is poetry and is always written in verse with plastic rhymes, never in prose."

                            Picasso (in “Life with Picasso by Françoise Gilot – English translation by Carlton Lake)

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Sculptures at the V&A museum

This is the last post in the series on the Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum in London, England.

The sculpture gallery on the ground floor mix sculptures from different periods.

Peasant woman nursing a baby by Aimé-Jules Dalou (designer and maker)


Head of Iris by Rodin

This is an enlarged version of the head of the Crouching Woman. According to the notice, it was probably enlarged by Henri Lebossé, Rodin's associate, before being cast in bronze.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

A surprise in the post

I received a thick envelop from Mexico covered with 15 beautiful stamps. As I could not remember ordering anything from Mexico, I was intrigued.

I opened the envelop and found the book “Las pitahayas en las artes plásticas” (Dragon fruits in visual arts) by Adolfo Rodríguez Canto.

And on page 76, the "Dragon fruit" oil painting I did in 2008, together with my bio and part of my artist statement.

The book features many other artists from around the world who painted dragon fruits.

Adolfo Rodríguez Canto was born in Maxcanú, Yucatán (Mexico) in 1959. He is an Agricultural Engineer specialist in rural sociology. He has been teaching at the Autonomous University Chapingo 1982, now in the Regional University Center Yucatan Peninsula.

This book was a nice surprise and it will be a good occasion to refresh my Spanish. And now I know that “pitahayas” means “dragon fruit” in Spanish.

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Monday, 31 October 2011

Burne-Jones at the V&A museum

I saw two paintings by Burne-Jones (1833-1898) at the V&A museum in London (England). The main one, titled “The Mill: Girls Dancing to Music by a River” is located in room 81, on the East wall.

The Mill: Girls Dancing to Music by a River - oil on canvas (90.8 x 197.5cm) by Edward Burne-Jones

This painting is signed and dated 1870. It was purchased by Constantine Alexander Ionides in April 1882 for £905 and bequeathed to the museum by Ionides in 1901.
There is a strong inspiration from the by Italian Renaissance art. The notice by the painting indicates that “The models were friends and relatives of the patron and collector Constantine Alexander Ionides. His cousin Mary Zambaco, who posed for the woman on the far left, was for a time Burne-Jones's lover.”

The Feast of Peleus - Oil on canvas by Edward Burne-Jones and studio

This painting is both unfinished and by Burne-Jones and studio rather than the artist alone. This probably explains why the V&A relegated it to a wall at the bottom of a staircase…

According to the notice, the painting “shows the wedding feast of Peleus, King of Thessaly, and the sea-goddess Thetis, which was attended by the Olympian gods. Zeus sits centrally at the table. Only Eris, the goddess of Discord, was not invited, and her unexpected appearance (at the far right here) causes evident dismay among the guests. Eris went on to provoke a quarrel at the feast which eventually led to the Tojan War.”The painting was given by Sir Philip Burne-Jones and Mrs J.W. Mackail in 1920.

Related articles

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Turner at the V&A museum

The V&A museum in London has a good selection of paintings by William Turner (23 April 1775–19 December 1851)

Line Fishing, Off Hastings - Oil painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner RA
This painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy 1835 and given to the museum by John Sheepshanks in 1857. It shows inshore fishermen using a baited line in the English Channel.

St Michael's Mount, Cornwall Oil painting. oil on canvas by Turner, Joseph Mallord William (RA)

This work was painted around 1834 and given by John Sheepshanks, 1857. The island of St Michael's Mount is the site of a medieval monastery. It is probably a pair with Line Fishing, Off Hastings, also in the V&A.

East Cowes Castle: The Regatta starting for their moorings - Oil painting on canvas by Turner

This is a painting of the Royal Yacht Club races at the Isle of Wight that was done for the architect John Nash.

Life-Boat and Manby Apparatus Going Off to a Stranded Vessel Making Signal (Blue Lights) of Distress – Oil painting on canvas by William Turner.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Teachers and guides

Teachers are great because they teach you new techniques, correct your mistakes and help you to improve your craft through pointed remarks.

Guides are a rare breed. They will inspire you. They will make a comment that nudges you in the right direction. They teach in a different way. They don’t need to be prescriptive because you admire what they do and you know they bring you something different.

Cacciatore a cavallo by Giambattista Tiepolo

In my twenties, I had a chance to meet briefly Wojtek Siudmak  who was the guest artist at an art show. He looked at my painting and told me I should try to paint more thinly and also study Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. I did both and improved my paintings.

Since then, I came across several instances of artists acting as guides to younger artists. For, instance, Françoise Gilot reports in her book “Life with Picasso” that the painter told her: “Meantime it wouldn’t do you any harm to study Cubism more in depth.” She took the advice on board and it helped her finding her own style.

Guides shape you in more subtle ways than teachers, helping you to figure out by yourself what you need. Herbie Hancock remembered in an interview how Miles Davis would use metaphors rather than give direct instruction. Miles would say things like: “You know sometimes you walk to the kerb and you get ready to step off – and then you step back and go another way.” Miles Davis also famously told the guitarist John McLaughlin: “Play the guitar like you don’t know how to play.”

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Painting grass in watercolour

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – August 2011.

Many landscapes in the countryside or even in the city will feature an area of grass. How do you go beyond the boring flat wash of pure green and create interest when painting grass?

Golden field - Watercolour by Benoit Philippe

Talking of “grass” in general is misleading because its colour and texture will vary with the season and the location. Young shoots in spring are a tender green, when long grass scorched by the sun in summer takes an ochre or light brown shade. For green grass, the most common mistake is to go too bright too early. A wash of pure Phtalo green will look artificial. It is good to use strong colours as accents in the foreground, not as block of flat colours.

Let’s have a look at pure colours that are useful to paint grass, and then consider mixing your own colours.

What green colours should you have in your paint box? Sap green has a velvety quality and good transparency. It is a great colour to have in your palette to paint grass and trees. You need to be careful not to overuse it or you run the risk that all your paintings will look the same. Another great colour for grass and trees is Terre Verte. This is an opaque colour with a greyish tonality that makes it suitable for background expanses of grass. For dark areas, Phtalo Green is a deep green and is a solid base for mixing dark colours.

The first basic colour mix consist in taking a green colour from a tube and altering it. A drop of Vermilion in a pure green will remove any acidity from the original colour and bring it to a more neutral shade (because green and red are complimentary colours). Experiment with other red colours, like Alizarin Crimson, as well as pink or orange hues and discover the range of muted greens you can obtain. To lighten a green, try to add some Yellow Ochre to it – rather than a yellow hue – to obtain more natural greens.

River Kennet at Avebury (Detail) - Watercolour by Benoit Philippe

For a greater variety of shades, mix your own green colours. You can create a wide range of green shades with a small number of blue colours: I suggest Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue and Cerulean Blue. Add some yellow or Yellow Ochre to them and discover a rich selection of greens. As for green colours out of the tube, a drop of red will tune down any green mixture.

Bring life to your areas of grass with shadows and highlights. As sun light is coming from above or from the side, the top of the grass will be lighter than the part close to the ground. The easiest way to get highlights in the grass is to reserve them with masking fluid (a liquid gum that dries to form a water and colour resistant film and can be removed without damaging the paper). Paint some grass blades with masking fluid using a nib or a fine colour shaper (a tool with a pointy silicone tip that is perfect to apply masking fluid). For a natural effect, make sure the lines are not all parallel but cross each other and go in different directions. Once the masking fluid is dry, wet the watercolour paper and lay down washes of different shades of green. Add some shadows in the area close to the roots, in particular in the foreground. Finally, remove the masking fluid and apply a wash of light green on highlights to blend them into the painting.

An area of grass is subject to the laws of perspective like any surface of land. Arial perspective means that grass in the background will appear as masses of a lighter tone with a blue bias. Foreground can be painted with stronger colours and with more details, although there is no need to paint every single blade of grass. It is much better to only detail some areas and let the viewers’ brain fill the gaps elsewhere.

In term of brushes, a pointed round brush is perfect to add fine details once the initial washes of colour are dry. You can also use the tip of the brush handle to drag the colour and draw some grass blades. An old and distressed flat brush with uneven hair is a good tool to suggest the texture of grass in the middle ground.

As you grow confident with colour mixing and techniques described in this article, you can become more experimental in your approach and introduce purple shadows, deep blue washes or hints of pure red on top of your green washes for more striking contrasts.

Related articles

Going green

Friday, 7 October 2011

Pears - watercolour

Pears - Watercolour (18 cm x 24cm) by Benoit Philippe

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

8 ways to deal with pastel dust

Pastel is a great medium: fast, luminous, subtle. The drawback of working with almost pure pigment is dust. Whatever technique you use, whatever style is yours, soft pastels crumble and generate dust. Here is my personal way to deal with it:

1. I always put an old vinyl tablecloth on top of the table I am working on. At the end of the session, I use an old sponge to clean the dust (don't use the sponge for the washing-up... some pigments are harmful chemicals).

2. I affix my pastel paper to a drawing board with strips of framer's tape and I tape a rolled paper towel under the pastel paper to catch some of the falling dust (see photograph).

3. I start by working with harder pastels (like the square Conté sticks) that do not make as much dust as the softer sticks.

4. If I feel that I have too much dust floating on the surface of the paper, I bring my drawing board outside of the house, hold the board straight and tap gently on its back to make the dust fall.

5. I wash my hands regularly with soap during the painting session. I am conscious that some chemicals may pass through the skin pores and, as I do not like to paint with gloves, I make sure I clean my hands often. I take extra care to wash my hand if I want to eat something during a break.

6. I apply fixative early in the process. Fixative can change the colour of pigments and some artists stay away from fixing their work for this reason. I take a medium approach. I will spray fixative two or three times during the painting process, but not in the last stage. I think this is a good compromise because it settles some of the pigment onto the surface but let the colours of the last layer intact.

7. If a pastel stick is dirty because it gathered dust from other pastel sticks, the trick to clean it is to have a small plastic container with raw grains of rice. You pop the dirty stick into the container and gently shake it. The rice will clean the stick.

8. I frame my work with a gutter behind the mount to catch any dust that falls after the work has been framed. See my article on how to frame a pastel for more details.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Camera obscura and photography

Last week-end had a feel of summer in the South of England and we went to Lacock to visit the Abbey.

The entry of the Abbey's

A mansion has been built on top and around Lacock Abbey and at one point was the house of William Henry Fox Talbot.

The botanic garden of Lacock Abbey

Fox Talbot was a British inventor and a pioneer of photography.

In the museum, they showed an example of camera obscura, a device that Vermer used and that gave Fox Talbot the idea of building one of the first cameras.

Camera Obscura

In his book, The Pencil of Nature, William Henry Fox Talbot recalled:

One of the first days of the month of October 1833, I was amusing myself on the lovely shores of the Lake of Como, in Italy, taking sketches with Wollaston's Camera Lucida, or rather I should say, attempting to take them: but with the smallest possible amount of success. For when the eye was removed from the prism—in which all looked beautiful—I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold.

After various fruitless attempts, I laid aside the instrument and came to the conclusion, that its use required a previous knowledge of drawing, which unfortunately I did not possess.

I then thought of trying again a method which I had tried many years before. This method was, to take a Camera Obscura, and to throw the image of the objects on a piece of transparent tracing paper laid on a pane of glass in the focus of the instrument. On this paper the objects are distinctly seen, and can be traced on it with a pencil with some degree of accuracy, though not without much time and trouble.

I had tried this simple method during former visits to Italy in 1823 and 1824, but found it in practice somewhat difficult to manage, because the pressure of the hand and pencil upon the paper tends to shake and displace the instrument (insecurely fixed, in all probability, while taking a hasty sketch by a roadside, or out of an inn window); and if the instrument is once deranged, it is most difficult to get it back again, so as to point truly in its former direction.

Besides which, there is another objection, namely, that it baffles the skill and patience of the amateur to trace all the minute details visible on the paper; so that, in fact, he carries away with him little beyond a mere souvenir of the scene—which, however, certainly has its value when looked back to, in long after years.
Such, then, was the method which I proposed to try again, and to endeavour, as before, to trace with my pencil the outlines of the scenery depicted on the paper. And this led me to reflect on the inimitable beauty of the pictures of nature's painting which the glass lens of the Camera throws upon the paper in its focus—fairy pictures, creations of a moment, and destined as rapidly to fade away.

It was during these thoughts that the idea occurred to me…how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper!

And why should it not be possible? I asked myself.”

The instrument with a prism Fox Talbot referred to at the beginning of this extract is another tool used by artists: the camera lucida. The principle is totally different from the camera obscura. The prism of the camera lucida allows the user to see the subject as superimposed on the paper, making it easy to trace it. The instrument folded neatly into a case and had a clamp to fasten it to the drawing board or table.

Related resources

The Pencil of Nature by William Henry Fox Talbot is available as a free eBook (including as a PDF) on Project Gutenberg.

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Monday, 26 September 2011

What if... the sky was green

It is with this question that I started this painting of Malaga's cathedral: What if... the sky was green?

Malaga's cathedral (First state) - Oil on linen canvas

I will rework this painting, but I want to let some time go before I start again on it. I am not sure where this painting is going, but the "what if" approach is interesting if you want to get out of your habits.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Portrait of the painter Ingres by Charles Gounod

Charles Gounod, a French composer, won the Prix de Rome in 1839 and stayed at the Académie de France in Rome when Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres was its director.

Bust of Charles Gounod by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (Valenciennes 1827-Courbevoie 1875). Terracota, 1873. Fine art museum of Valenciennes (France) Source : Wikimedia

Gounod’s father, who was a painter, knew Ingres when he was young and Ingres probably took good care of Charles Gounod for that reason.
In his autobiography, Mémoires d’un artiste, Gounod contradicts the description of Ingres as an affected person:

“Who has not known intimately Mr. Ingres could only have about him an inaccurate and false idea. I saw him very closely, colloquially, often, for a long time, and I can say he had a simple nature, straight, open, candid and full of momentum and enthusiasm that sometimes lead him to eloquence. He had the tenderness of a child and an apostle’s indignation; he had a naive and touching tenderness and freshness of emotion which are not found in an affected person, as some said he was.”

Ingres invited the young mucisian in his studio and encouraged him to draw on tracing paper from prints of old masters’ paintings. Gounod recalled: “I did, at his side, nearly one hundred traced drawings.”

The book

"Mémoires d’un artiste" by Charles Gounod is available as a free ebook (in French) on Project Gutenberg.

Related articles

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Victoria & Albert museum

The Victoria & Albert museum (V&A) in London (England) claims to be “The world's greatest museum of art and design” and it is easy to believe it. It covers many areas of art, craft and design: sculptures, paintings, drawings, textile, glass, metalwork, ceramics, furniture, prints… The museum's works date from antiquities to modern times and come from all continents.

Courtyard inside the V&A

The National Art Library, located inside the museum is major public reference library.

A huge glass sculpture suspended in the main entrance

The painting gallery - in this room the paintings are still arranged in the way the Victorian did

L'immensite by Courbet

Morning by Corot

There are so many things to see that it is best to concentrate on a few sections rather than try to see everything at once and just skin over the collections. The V&A website is comprehensive and an excellent resource to make the most of your visit.

Practical information

The Victoria & Albert museum (V&A)
Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL

Opening times:

10.00 to 17.45 daily
10.00 to 22.00 Fridays
Admission: free

Monday, 19 September 2011

Pause cafe - oil painting

Pause cafe - Oil on canvas (14" x 18") by Benoit Philippe

I did this painting over the two week-ends of the Swindon Open Studios. This is an old Citroen van that was parked on the side of the Serpentine gallery.

Friday, 16 September 2011

My week-end at the Platform

I spent last week-end participating to the Swindon Open Studios 2011 at The Platform in Swindon (Wiltshire - England).

We were a group of 10 artists, showing in different media (painting, textile, etc.) and the display looked professional. There was also a very good and friendly atmosphere.

I also managed to paint an oil painting over the week-end. It’s not finished yet, but I will be able to show it to you soon.

I will be again at the Platform (Faringdon Road, SN1 5ED Swindon – England) next week-end from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Let the water do the work

In watercolour, the water plays a greater role than in other water-based media (like gouache or acrylic). The water is not only the solvent but influences the quality of the colour and the final effect and is therefore an integral part of the aesthetics.

With watercolour, you can let the water do the work (or at least some of it).

The following method was shown to me by a watercolour tutor years ago:

1) Draw lightly with a pencil on a dry watercolour paper the form you want to fill with colours;

2) Take a clean brush and load it with water;

3) “Paint” the whole form with the clean water;

4) Take some colour from your palette with a round brush;

5) Touch the centre of the form with the tip of the brush and see the colour spread and fill-in the form.

This technique works better if your watercolour pad is slightly tilted (30 degrees approximately) because it help the pigments go down. This technique is good for intricate forms, in particular if you want to have a smooth wash like in the wet on wet technique.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Swindon Open Studios 2011

This week-end and the next, I am taking part in the Swindon Open Studios at The Platform. We will be 10 artists in this space. 


The Platform (Ex railway museum),
Faringdon Road,
SN1 5ED Swindon

  • 10th  -11th September 2011, 11am to 5pm and
  • 17th - 18th September 2011, 11am to 5pm

Monday, 5 September 2011

Late roses

Late roses - Watercolour by Benoit Philippe

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

A visit to the Serpentine Gallery

We went to London last week-end and parked the car in Kensington Gardens, almost in front of the Serpentine Gallery, which exhibits modern and contemporary art. The gallery is not far from Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain.

The current exhibition in the main gallery, until 17 September 2011, is an installation titled The Mirror of Judgement by the Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto. It is a maze made of sheet of cardboards, with a number of world religion symbols placed along the visitor’s path. More details and photographs are available on the page for the exhibition.

The bookshop stocks a fine selection of books on contemporary art, photography, architecture, design, as well as cutting-edge art reviews. I recommend a visit.

Next to the main gallery is the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion. The current i(1 July - 16 October 2011) has been designed by Peter Zumthor and is called Hortus Conclusus. The pavilion is totally black with a long garden in the centre. The flowers in the border make a wild arrangement of herbs and flowers. There is a sharp contrast between the pure lines of the black building and the organic and colourful explosion of the garden.

The two things I liked are that quietness of the place, with the table and chairs arranged under the roof, around the garden; and the fact that there is no way to suspect, from the austere outside of the pavilion, the beauty of the inside.

The weather was uncertain and the pavilion was a calm shelter to drink the coffee we bought at the old Renault van parked on the side of the Serpentine Gallery.

The gallery is small and therefore a good way to introduce young children to contemporary art without boring them.

Practical details

Serpentine Gallery
Kensington Gardens
London W2 3XA
T 020 7402 6075
F 020 7402 4103

Open daily, 10am - 6pm (note that the Serpentine Gallery is closed to the public in the period between exhibitions. The Bookshop remains open at all times).

Admission free

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