You don't know how far you've come until you look back at where you've been!
I started painting in January 2020. Initially, as I found my way, I painted representative landscapes in oils, but right from the start I knew I wanted to paint more than just what I saw. I wanted to look at one of my paintings and remember how it felt to be there, in that landscape. The energy of the wind, the sound of the rumbling sea and applauding pebbles as the waves retreated over them. To experience the sense of freedom and wild openness of the coastline I grew up along in West Wales. I'm not concerned with the painting looking like the place, but I want my work to reflect the connection I feel to these places I love.
Knowing what you want and how to achieve it, are two very different things. When I look back at my final piece from art school, I can see how much my approach to capturing the landscape has changed.
This style now feels so unlike me, I hardly connect with it. I remember as I painted it, I enjoyed moving the paint around, creating the lighter areas by wiping back to the canvas and producing the illusion of trees and light. But I knew it lacked soul.
So I set about pinning down what I wanted in my work, by looking at the work of other artists and analysing what it was that drew me to them. I made a list, many lists! I curated a book of photographs of paintings I liked. I created Pinterest boards. And when I was happy that I knew the elements I wanted to see in my work, I wrote them down and pinned it to my cork board, right in front of my easel. I wanted my paintings to:
lead the viewer through and around my paintings.
reveal hidden detail as the viewer looks more closely.
And most importantly I wanted to look at my work and feel a connection to the landscapes I love.
Creating a Painting I Want on My Wall
The first thing that strikes us about a painting is usually the lights and darks of its composition, the value contrast. The eye sees these contrast before it notes colour or composition and it's often what makes an image stand out from a distance. This is the initial impact of a painting and it will move the eye around a painting, as will colour. Beyond this however, and what I really love are the hidden features that reveal themselves as you get a little closer. It's then we discover shots of colours, glimpses of letters or text, an imprint, mark or texture.
I worked mainly in acrylic paint for almost 2 years, largely because acrylics are great for exploring with. I enjoy their ease and immediacy - the energy I can put into painting with them. You can really paint at pace with acrylics because of the fast drying time. They also allow for a lot of work in a short space of time, with layers being laid one over another, almost endlessly. One of the down sides however, is that acrylics dry a little flat and you have to work hard to get a lovely depth that's anywhere near the luxuriousness of oil paint. So I set about exploring if I could combine the energy and vitality of mark making that painting with acrylics allows, with the stately, yumminess of oils.
Initially, I believed that painting in oils had a lot of rules attached to it, which would have deterred me if it were not for the lure of the rich colours and buttery texture, and some expert advise from tutors and books. There are some great books that really simplify the whole 'mystery' of oil painting. My favourite of late is 'The New Oil Painting Book', which questions the use of toxic substances and offers viable alternatives. I'd really recommend it if you're an artist wanting to understand more about the 'rules' and mediums associated with oil painting.
So as my journey continued I began to explore the use of cold wax as a medium to combine with oil paint. It thickens the paint, quickens the drying time and although initially results in a matt finish, when buffed (I use simple tissue paper and sometimes an electric buffing brush), it creates the most beautiful soft sheen. The blendability - not sure that is a word!- is fabulous and results in great colour mixing in front of my very eyes. I paint on wooden boards and haven't yet used it on paper, but both are possible.
There are downsides of course. Cold wax medium still has a slower drying time than acrylic paint and I find it’s not as easy to correct an error with oils. But over all it is a happy medium - see what I did there 😂.
There are some great guides and practitioners on Instagram & Youtube and a wonderful book by Rebecca Crowell & Jerry McLaughlin 'Cold Wax Medium'. If your tempted to buy it however, shop around as the price really varies! On Instagram @daynalovesart is also a fabulous inspiration, amongst many others.
Finding my Way
So, having found my medium of choice - for now, I've been experimenting with transferring the techniques I've developed with acrylic paint to create the same vibe of expressive and gestural abstraction with oils.
My base layers are free and fun, applying layers of acrylic, graphite, charcoal and sometimes collage. The images I create are largely filled with the energy of the coastal landscape so I don't hold back! I create textures and pattern at this stage too, creating motifs I've observed in the landscape - fishing nets, stone and slate walls for example.
With no plan, other than to enjoy the process, I apply cool and warm palettes of vibrant colours with gestural and energetic marks. I want these layers to peek through and be discovered on closer viewing, when the painting is complete. So whilst they are completed with abandon, for me they have to be rich and filled with a history of mark making and texture. It's at this stage I may write on the board - messages to myself, with only snippets visible in the finished piece. And maybe some collage at this point too.
The next stage is to firm up the colour palette and begin to apply the oil paint. The later layers tend to be more muted and reflective of my landscapes, but I don't over restrict myself as the magic of accidental colour mixing, is one of the best parts of paintings. As I progress, a core palette emerges and only pops of the base colours remain visible, as I scrape and mark into the outer oil & wax layers. Each layer is part of the painting's history and journey.
The layering of oil paint and cold wax takes longer, as they take time to cure, so I may only work on each painting once or twice a week. I can still mark into the paint as it dries but at this stage I spend lot of time looking and thinking. This slowing of pace allows for a lot more consideration and observation than when I work in acrylics. The drying time with acrylics means I can work almost endlessly on a piece, but this pace can mean I don't take enough time to stop, step back and consider what I have in the image, and often leads to me painting over good compositions, losing paintings and probably extending the whole process longer than necessary.
Over time as I work on a piece, an image and composition will emerge that connects with a memory of my landscapes and becomes an expression of my time in those places. This connection between the landscape, the painting and me is really important and a piece is not complete with out it. This is, in part the answer to my most frequently asked question - how do I know when a painting is finished. It's not straightforward, as I'm sure you already guessed. This connection is vital to a finished painting and can sometimes when it arrives, it feel quite obvious, like the last puzzle piece slotting into place. But sometimes it's subtle and I need to listen out carefully for it, or risk missing it. It relies on the painting gently whispering, not roaring, 'That's it - I'm done'.
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