My story's landscape (1)
So why landscapes and why a painter of landscapes….
I had the good fortune to grow-up in the countryside and I'm still…
A captive of landscape's magic
While I didn't necessarily see the isolation in my teen years as good; enjoy nettle stings; or relish cleaning out hoards of semi awake bluebottles from my bedroom windows, every Spring; and I found the plagues of tiny black corn flies in Summer irritating, there was so much more to compensate.
Roaming through the nearby woods, wandering through the fields (when no one was looking), catching baby Lapwings (letting them go again, especially when they pooped) and building dens in the straw bales up at the farm, were just a few of the numerous delights. My love of being outside, breathing in the open spaces, catching the drift of damp woodland scents or perfume of ripening wheat, hearing the wind rattle the leaves and feeling the soft touch of grass plumes became part of my DNA.
Though I've been a city dweller for a couple of decades now, those open spaces are inside me still, somehow.
Those years immersed in the magic of the British landscape are the reason why I was always going to be a landscape painter.
When Instinct turns to gold
I think the reason I'm an oil painter now is that I've progressed through the other media in an order that happens to have suited my development as an artist. I needed to master many skills before I was in a position to make the most of this lovely medium called oil paint. To be a master of skills, you need to understand them.
As a child, I worked exclusively in pencil, making black and white drawings. These became highly observational. During this time I learned the basics of tone, which is fundamental to creating a sense of three dimensions in a picture. A lot of art courses start with these very exercises. Without realizing it, I was self teaching at home during my school years, with school art classes supplementing, perhaps encouraging, the activity. I've not thought of it before, but looking back now, it's become clear that's what was happening.
Going to art school was where something miraculous happened. Until that point I'd been working instinctively and while I was able to render shape and tone, I couldn't have explained it to anyone. Working instinctively had only got me so far. Life drawing, which uses the human figure as its subject, was taught by an amazing tutor. She methodically explained in sequence the mechanics of seeing structure and calculating proportions, detecting movement (even in static things), understanding volume, analysing light (tone) and assessing local colour.
My tutor converted the instinctive to insight. Insight into the problem solving activity that is: making art. This new deep understanding turbo-charged my development and my figure drawings went from pretty poor to so good I could not believe I'd done them – within a year. Insight turned instinct to gold.
The boost to my confidence was huge and I embraced colour with a delight rather than fear. At first I used coloured pencils which happened to be water soluble, so after adding water, the next step to Watercolour paint – and to becoming a painter – was easy. All of this was a logical incremental progression. Again, most ateliers work this way. Atelier is a name applied to high level art workshops/courses teaching classical art methodology. The rest of my art course, if I'm honest, was of minimal value. The academic life drawing module was priceless.
Oil painter: A natural destination
The progress I'd made while at art school was exhilarating. I think it's why I was reluctant to stop attending life drawing classes, while beginning to work as a full-time illustrator. A sure fire way of developing as an artist is to paint and draw intensively every day. This is exactly what I was doing as an illustrator. I was working with Gouache because it was relatively easy to wash off the illustration board or to scrape back. In my evening classes I was exploring Acrylics.
It was becoming frustrated with the limitations of Acrylics, and the other media, that prompted me to try oils which I'd always admired, but been intimidated by. Though they were frustrating at first, I loved the way they behaved and the effects I was able to get. I'd found a medium I could grow into and instinctively felt I'd never discover its limits, no matter how hard I might push it. It's felt as though the pieces have fallen into place in the last few years, like a natural progression and slow building of skills has culminated in the art I'm making today. Where other media has limited me, oils beckon onward – and I outline some of the way it does below…
A unique characteristic of oils, a gift for my landscapes
Oils have a distinctive feature. This feature gives rise to three of the reasons why I use the paint. So I've explained what the feature is and then the three ways it benefits my art below…
Oils dry more slowly than other media. They don't just take a little longer, they take a lot longer.
Mixing time and oils is a fine art
The time it takes for oil paint to dry depends on a lot of things. Firstly, if it's applied thickly or layered like in my landscapes, a finished painting can take months before it's dry enough for varnishing. If oils are applied thinly, they can be dry by the end of the same day. Secondly, there are many other variables involved including: who made the paint, which colour it is, the weather, exactly how thick it is, how many layers have already been applied and how dry they are. The drying time of acrylic, watercolour, and gouache varies from instantly (on a hot sunny day outside) to within a few minutes. By contrast, oils are dry within half an hour at best, but usually longer. Both have their challenges.
Many painters add something called 'drying medium' to their oil paints in order to speed things up. I use a bit of drying medium when painting outside, but hardly any (and increasingly less and less) back in the studio.
Oil and water, night and day
All paints are made mainly from two things. Pigments (a coloured powder) and a binder to make the powdered pigment into something which can be painted with. The binder for oil paints is unsurprisingly: oil – linseed oil. All the other media are water based and use water soluble binders. The water evaporates and the paints dry. Water evaporates relatively quickly. Oil doesn't work this way at all, it oxidizes instead, so oils stay wet for longer. Don't underestimate the differences between how paints made using oil and those made using water soluble binders behave – they're as different as night is to day in my view, having used many of them.
So oils without anything added, such as drying medium, take their time. They're an unhurried assistant. Perhaps this explains the depth oil paintings develop and why we tend to linger in front of them.
So below I explain how this distinctive characteristic helps me when creating my landscape paintings – how it's a gift in three parts…
Rainbows are everywhere (2)
Sounds soppy doesn't it. However it's true, especially in landscape paintings. And rainbows are challenging to paint effectively.
The fact that oils dry slowly is a gift to an artist who needs to paint rainbows, so here is the first reason why I make landscape paintings in oil.
An ordinary summer sky?
The next time you're fortunate enough to be out under a blue summer sky with time to stand and stare, have a look. How many blues and shades of blue, transitioning softly from one to the other, can you count? Take a late evening sky just after the fireworks of a sunset have faded. During this brief time before the glow of the sun entirely disappears, you might see a soft flush of pink shading through dusty blues to dark inky night hues. I've described just two skies, a summer one and a late evening one – each a beautiful and beguiling rainbow if ever there were. Unless entirely hidden by clouds or fog, every sky is a rainbow of colour, even if it's all blue. I'm currently enthralled by skies and often yo-yo in and out of the house looking at the sky (yes, I know). My future paintings might betray my fascination (though there's possibly another word for it). The thing is: no sky is ever ordinary.
Skies are a distinctive feature of landscapes. While portraits and still life paintings can contain skies, they're never in a supporting or lead actor role, but are instead walk-on parts which would not necessarily be missed if not there. A landscape without a sky however, is highly likely to be a bit odd, like a play without one of its star actors.
Sloping shading multi-hued hills and vales
Rainbows are not restricted to skies. Vibrant softly merging ranges of colours abound on hillsides, in distant haze and throughout vegetation, for example, as well as showing up in any expanse of water (because it often reflects the sky).
These series of colours fading gently one into another are not restricted to skies, though they're often the most evident there.
Absorbing… and absorbing, oils
Because oils pass through several stages of semi-dryness, they stay workable and amenable to absorbing a little something of new paint added, while at the same time retaining an integrity. Once you tune in to this as an artist (which I'm still in the process of), the ability to create subtle changes in colour and/or tone is considerable. Yes it takes me time (as I'm still learning) gently working small amounts of colour over the top of near dry oil to create a subtle shift in hue. I find it an engrossing – absorbing – activity. Trying to achieve these effects with any precision in other media, is something I find far more difficult than when using oils.
So the distinctive feature in any scenic painting, the sky, usually covering a fair proportion of a canvas, calls me to use oils, a medium which gives me the scope to paint rainbows.
I'm more Lost than found (3)
Here is the second way in which slow drying oils helps me achieve the effects I see in scenery.
One artistic fascination I have is a hangover from my illustration days – or perhaps a reaction, I don't know.
A history of found
During my years as a fulltime illustrator, my stock in trade was visuals for architectural practices. They needed technical, but attractive illustrations visualising what a building would look like once built. This art was all straight lines – even the curvy ones – and crisp edges. If I decided to create an imaginative blurring and smudginess, it raised eyebrows (So I only did it the once… maybe twice, to check those eyebrows really did rise). Don't get me wrong, those years were tremendous and I've much affection for that chapter of my life.
Now, all these years later, I find I am intrigued again, by softness and what artists call 'lost and found' edges. Lost and found edges are exactly what the description suggests. Landscape is filled with these edges (and the odd line) which are architecturally crisp in one place and so effuse in another you can't tell where something begins or ends.
You could say, after a history of 'found', I'm now more 'lost' than ever…
A landscape lost, is a landscape found
Take trees for example. From close up, standing next to one, you can pretty much see the crisp tracery of their foliage against the sky. Look to a tree in the far distance and it can be a different story, especially if there is more than one tree grouped together. Introduce a breeze to animate the foliage and it's all blurry movement. Lost and found edges – especially lost ones – are everywhere in landscape: clouds, grasses en mass, trees, mist, and distant haze, immediately come to mind.
I said I was "intrigued again", because I was introduced to lost and found edges at art school and used them extensively during academic drawing classes, such as figure drawing. I learned to understand how paying attention to the the way I depicted the edge of things actually pays off ten‑fold in a finished drawing or painting. Being free to use lost edges again is almost like rediscovering an old friend who never failed to brighten up your life.
Painting with butter
Oil paint is particularly amendable to creating soft edges to things. Mainly because, as I've described above, it's unhurried in terms of drying and passes through several stages before becoming completely hardened. This means you can let a crisp edge thicken just enough to allow you to soften it without destroying it.
The ability to blur previously applied paint in a precise and controlled way means a multitude of edges can be styled. Dry brushed, textured and (technical term alert:) fudged paint can be layered on top of semi dry detailed work. There are so many paths for an oil painter to explore here, that it'll take a lifetime to walk them all.
It is also possible to work with the medium while still wet of course, as many do, smearing and smudging edges, in what's called a 'painterly' manner. This is because when wet and undiluted, oil's are the consistency of slightly warm butter. (I understand the Russian word for oils can also be used for butter.)
It takes time to craft soft lost edges, but always worth it in my view. Oil paint's capacity for a myriad of levels of lostness, is almost reason enough to be adrift in an oil landscape painting.
Because not painting is good (4)
The third reason why I use oils for landscapes involves having to stop painting in mid‑flow.
It might seem odd that being forced to stop painting is a good thing. Here's why it is…
I've suggested landscapes can be more difficult than other subjects, elsewhere on my website, because there's no obvious structure to them. Landscapes can also be complex with many elements in view. With still life, a painter chooses what's in the picture and what's not, and arranges things including the lighting, to suit their ambition. A painter can simplify a still life subject before they touch a canvas with any paint. None of this is possible with scenic paintings. Digging up a tree in order to simplify a scene is a bit excessive and trying to stop the sun moving would be about as successful as King Canute's attempt to halt a rising tide.
Portraits have a natural structure to them because a human being's anatomy is a structure we're all familiar with. Noses are centred between two eyes and heads are attached via a neck to the torso, for example. This familiarity is why humans as a subject for art is thought to be the most difficult kind of art – when it's really not. Landscape on the other hand is complex and chaotic. Add complexity and chaos together, and you've a lot of problems to solve!
(I've discussed the relative difficulty of different subjects elsewhere more fully and will put a link in here soon when I've reviewed it).
Difficult is not better
Just to be clear, whether or not landscapes actually are more difficult or I just think they are, degree of difficulty does not equate to 'better than'.
I mastered life (figure) drawing at art school; became proficient with portraits a few years after leaving and I've drawn still life's since I was a child. Buildings and cities were a forte during my illustration years. Landscape has been my last great challenge, and this informs my view rightly or wrongly
It makes no matter really, whether I'm correct or not, because it's not the difficulty of a process which determines artistic success, but the artist's vision, decision making and execution. A poor painting of a landscape is not better than a great still life, simply because it might have been harder to create. A great portrait or still life can be better than a great landscape.
More gazing than glazing
This thing is: I'm a beggar for charging on fueled by inspiration and an overwhelming urge to paint the painting nagging at me. It can be the worst thing to do and I've paid the price of angst and disappointment on many an occasion when younger (sometimes still do). If subjects are complex and nuanced, as landscape is, then it's a recipe for disaster. If I were a drama queen, I'd tell you about years in a wilderness of failed paintings when I first started tackling landscapes. Putting the brush down and stopping can be when the art happens, but it requires a lot of discipline to not paint when creative energy is high.
At first oils were deeply frustrating, because I had to stop painting mid‑flight, even when things were simple and going well. Oil paints insist however and rather than fight them with lots of drying medium, I persevered. Gradually, I realized that having to pause meant I spent more time pondering, than painting – more time gazing, than glazing! ('Glazing' is nothing to do with windows here, it's a painting method). My landscapes also showed signs of improvement, so it was clear there was a pay‑off and it started to feel as though my paintings were telling me what the next step was, themselves.
In truth, I was studying my landscape paintings more, identifying subtle weaknesses I'd otherwise have ploughed‑on through
Subtle weaknesses created early in an artwork's progress end up biting later, when it means undoing days, perhaps weeks of work – if it's even possible by then to fix things. Subtle weaknesses have a nasty habit of having unsubtle disasterous effects in finished art. The need for discipline when working with oils taught me that stopping was good. I began contemplating ways to resolve weakness and issues with composition, in a way I'd not before turning to the paint medium. Giving a painting some time to sit a while, while the medium cures, schedules space for gazing, for contemplating, and it's a third reason I love oils.
Some of my studio based oil paintings
Colour chemistry is
easy easier… maybe (5)
We're now at the fourth reason I use oils in my landscape paintings and it has little do with drying time, but everything to do with oil
This advantage of oils for landscape paintings, is something I'm still learning a great deal about. I feel able to be much more lucid discussing the other qualities above. However, here goes…
Soaking it up
I understand the oil used in oil paints holds a lot of pigment. Oil paint is pigment rich you could say, compared to other media. Perhaps this is why oil paints can be more expensive than other artist grade paints – they soak‑up a lot of expensive pigment. More importantly, it probably explains why I've always thought oil paints have a depth and sophistication of colour, other media struggles to match. Even neutral colours retain an intensity soon lost by say Acrylic or Watercolour.
I've found Acrylic is brash, Watercolour struggles with intensity and Gouache duller, even when bright. These differences are slight, appropriate for certain subjects and just one of the qualities a medium has to offer – paintings are rarely just about colour. I've used and use all the paints I've identified for scenic paintings and each has it's own beauty.
Why is oil's intensity particularly useful for landscape paintings over other subjects, and therefore a reason I use them? Well, my half‑formed theory is in part derived from an influential book written by an American artist called Richard Schmid. While I'm not the biggest fan of his finished artworks, there is much I do admire about his classical skills and knowledge of painting's first principles. It's his book which, while a bit rambling in the way self-published works (er-hem) are, has much to say about colour. I'm still studying it, by re‑reading, because it's a real door‑stopper of a tome, but it's already begun to shape my ideas below.
Light is colour chemistry
So here's my ham‑fisted attempt to explain my current understanding. There is a colour harmony in landscapes which, I think, has a lot to do with the all pervasive, single natural light source, called: the sun.
In portraiture and still-life, there is usually more than one light source. At a minimum there's an artificial light source and residual natural lighting. This is unless painting takes place on the darkest of nights or in a windowless room. Even in the unlikely event there is no natural lighting sneaking‑in at all, it's unlikely a set-up will be lit by only one light. Artificial lights vary a great deal – the age of a bulb influences a light's qualities, even when it's specification is the same as another, for example.
In a daytime landscape, there is only one light source. The light bouncing off white walls, or reflecting off water is not an additional light, but simply the original single light source modified. This creates a harmony other subjects rarely have. Of course other subjects can be quite wonderful precisely because they're lit by numerous different lights.
Landscapes might be all about colour?
This harmony of colour which is such a feature of landscapes is where oils, with their ability to absorb each other and inherent subtle sophistication, stand out. My skills here are very much developing – I've not even settled on a core palette (set of colours) to use yet. However, I'm already finding the colour schemes of my landscapes in oil are far superior to my other works and this is a good enough reason to use them. Perhaps landscape painting is all about colour after all!
Twilight's a time for review
So here we are, at the end of an in depth description of the five reasons I make landscapes in oils.
It's been an interesting exercise, figuring out how to explain why I do what I do. Am I entirely satisfied with my explanations? No, and I may entirely rewrite this in a few weeks! It's difficult trying to explain art in words, I always struggle, so often go through several versions. I'm cool with this though, because it helps me develop as an artist – I'm always learning (converting the instinctive to something more practical?). I've ended-up with a to-do list as a result of writing the above:
- A series of landscape paintings called "The Rainbow Paintings"
- Reinvigorate my experiments with colour variations
- Study Schmid's book and list exercises
- 'Play' lost and found in a painting as a fun exercise
So thank you for being part of my roam through painting landscapes in oils. I hope you've gained a little something too from reading this and if nothing else, learned why it's not a good idea to go catching Lapwing chicks.