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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