Monday, 3 August 2015

Portrait drawing and painting in oil (work in progress)

A note from my drawing board, to your Inner Voice (you know the one, that keeps saying you can’t do, it blah blah…)

Did you know that artists are Human too? It appears that many students think that artists are some sort of Other Species who get things right first time, all the time. Well, if only that were the case, perhaps artists would be less frustrated.. 

Even when we have been using a particular process for a long time, we can still make mistakes. But this isn't a bad thing necessarily. It just means we have to work out a solution and try again. 

Recently I began working on a portrait - it was to be in Oils, but I always start with a drawing.

Drawing study, pencil 
After working on it for a few days,  I transferred it onto canvas to do an oil painting of it. This is a relatively simple procedure which I have done MANY times, which involves tracing over my original drawing, providing a rough line drawing on the canvas as a guide to paint from. But this time.. Well, what a palaver.

Firstly, I couldn’t believe how PALE the pencil was as it went onto canvas - I could hardly see it at all. So I tried again, using a much softer pencil, with little or no improvement. After almost an HOUR I realised that I’m not supposed to use pencil at all, but paint… What was I THINKING??! So I started again, again. And it was a gloopy, lumpy MESS. This is the point that many folks just give up. But giving up isn't part of the painting process, so I wiped the canvas and traced it yet again. Still gloopy, but slightly less so than previously. Here it is...

Gloopy mess - if you can't see much, rest assured, I couldn't either... 
It didn’t look inviting as a surface to paint on, I can assure you. But I painted on it nonetheless. it's up to me to make it work. 

slowly working on top of the underlayer
Inching along
The colour isn't great in these photos, but it gives you an idea. 

This is where it is so far, with another layer to go on everywhere. 

Why am I telling you this?

So that you understand that even when you’ve been doing this for a long time, there are always times which hurt more than others. And the only thing to do is carry on, anyway.

There are a few more hours left to go in this painting, I just wanted to share the process. 

Upcoming workshop: portrait workshop, children's classes, Location Drawing and four day drawing and oils workshop with PJ Lynch. For info please email

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Mark of Summer..! (student work)

It's been lovely getting back into teaching after a break away. This week its been busy in the studio, with a couple of childrens classes as well as my Thursday bunch. One of the adult students, Mark,  decided to try his hand at the grissaile method of painting, which is a black and white underpainting in oils, followed by the colour layers on top.

Day 1, the grissaile underpainting, completed
The first stage after setting up the objects, was a tonal drawing, which was then transferred onto the canvas board. Mark spent the rest of the day carefully using the black and white to turn form on the apples, with the gray scale beside him to remind him... 

Day 2, colour layering over the dry grissaile
One week later, the underlayer was dry, and he put the colour on top. It is hard to feel the benefit of the underpainting when laying down strong colour (ie the reds), but he soldiered on - blind faith goes a long way. And to quote Mark himself, 'sure, what could possibly go wrong..?' 

End of day 2 - first colour layer completed. 

The underpainting really came into its own on the chopping-board - Mark painted over the chopping-board with a thin (fairly transparent) layer of yellow ochre, and same on the shadows of the apples. The whole thing was unified, with very little work. Win win! A great exercise, very well executed. (Though maybe one more layer will be needed to finish it off. But I won't tell Mark yet...)

Up-coming courses - landscape in water colour, portrait drawing and four day oils workshop with PJ Lynch. Enail for info 

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Earning my wings at The Angel Academy of Art, Florence.

I'm just back from a wonderful workshop with the Maestro, Michael John Angel, in Florence. I have learnt so much, and it is an experience I will never forget.

Thirty-one students gathered from all parts of the globe (Dubai, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, USA, New Zealand, Pakistan, England, Holland, Russia, Ireland, Brazil, Spain) to learn to paint using the "Grisaille underpainting and glazed overpainting method", by copying from a master painting by either Bouguereau or Leighton.
On the left, the art shop, and straight ahead
 in the sunlight, a peep of The Duomo...
Not sweeties, but yummy pigments

I chose a portrait by Bouguereau, because I was interested in studying skin tones and form modeling of the face. The course was a technical one, designed to teach us a system of working, to show the steps involved to create a long lasting painting.  There are many ways to work in Oils, but it is vital not to mix the systems.

"Grisaille" is a classical method, which means painting in grays, using the 9 value gray scale to firstly block in the subject, then establish a 'map' for the overall form and eventually more carefully render an accurate, subtle form painting. Once the grisaille is complete, the colour is laid on top. It sounds so simple when written down..

Mr Angel is an amazing teacher. He is incredibly generous with his knowledge, approachable, open and keen to assist everyone, no matter what their level of experience. And, thank goodness, patient too. During the two weeks he gave us a succession of lectures and demonstrations, with follow-up emails, directly relating to our task, as well as giving us a broader context to the work.

The Maestro, M John Angel, giving the first demonstration

After getting our drawings onto canvas, it was great to have a demonstration, showing us to be general, not specific. To quote, Maestro said "don't expect a result straight away. Relax and don't mind it being roughly painted!"

Of course, it is vital that the grisaille underpainting is, eventually, as good as you can possibly make it. This is where mistakes should be ironed out and adjustments made, so as to form a solid foundation for the colour. So there was no pressure to rush, only an expectation of commitment and 'slowly slowly wins the race". So, with that encouragement, I took a deep breath and started the scary process of whitening up my drawing... She didn't look too well to begin with, poor thing, but once started, there's nothing for it but to carry on!

Day 2                
Day 3
Above - the left image shows a close up of the slather-system I adopted after three days in an attempt to beat the Oils into submission. I had been a little timid, and still getting used to using the Calcium Carbonate in with my white paint, and if you look closely at the image, you will see little white lumps. This is the calcium, not blended forcefully enough. 

end of day 4. Still on the rough side
 I was discovering that the oils like to darken as they dry overnight, so the serene, pale girl you said goodnight to as you left the studio, greets you the next morning with a 5 o'clock shadow - oh, pu-lease!! This 'game' lasted several days, with Herself always having the last laugh.  The image above is the end of day four. This was harder than it looked. 

If you look closely, you might detect a few mosquito bites on my neck. This was to be a recurring theme of the trip... 
End of day 5
By the end of day 5, a lot of work had gone into blending and modeling, and the mouth was moved a few times too. By now, some of my companions were starting to apply colour. But I was determined not to rush. The photo is a bit fuzzy because the camera got a bit sweaty..! It was 38 degrees outside, and 37 degrees in the studio.

I was so lucky to be working next to Fiona Merlin from Australia. She was the sweetest person in the world and answered my (silly) questions kindly and helped settle my butterfly tummy. Fiona was a teacher, and we shared some great conversations about learning and art and Everything. She's a great painter and a great painting buddy. 

Fiona and I working (I'm the one with the white antannae...) 
End of day 6, and the final pass before colour
I was much happier with the face by the end of the sixth day. By now I was the only one not working in colour. But it was better to make the corrections at this stage rather than in colour.. I appreciated that I could have spent a few days more moving things around, but decided to get on to colour. 

Back of canvas neatly pinned

Above - a break in the proceedings for a demonstration by M John Angel on stretching canvas. Such is his gentle nature that all aspects of techniques were explained thoroughly, and logically, demistifying all processes as if veils were being lifted from our eyes. Lovely. 

I was a little apprehansive about colour until I actually put some on, then, ah... delicious relief. We do, after all, live in a world of colour. I felt at home. and I remembered, I love colour! 

end day 7
As you can see, I continued working slowly-slowly but hadn't fully appreciated how much the gray underpainting still wanted to override the subsequent layers. The battle was still on. Oh no. 

I didn't realise it until the end of the day, but day 8 was to be my final day in the studio. 

End day 8
I was really enjoying the venture into colour. The grisaille system is not like any painting I have ever done, and it is interesting manipulating the layers, to see how much underpainting can be used, and how I might do the underpainting differently next time. What is very clear is how the paint performs, and how an understanding of mediums is essential for any degree of success. As you can see, the face is still blotchy, and the gray underpainting is dominating. Grrrr!!! There are so many good lessons to be learnt from this. 
Unfortunately, my whole trip was punctuated (!) by regular visits from mosquitoes. Now, I didn't scratch EVER, and I hardly complained, but they kept on coming. It started with one big one, then a scattering of smaller ones, then a total free-for-all. By day 8 I had 80 bites, mostly on my legs. One of the tutors at the academy, Martinho Correia, stopped in his tracks in the corridor one day and asked me loudly, 'are you IRISH? Gee, I could tell - the mosquitoes LOVE the Irish".  Nice. 

So, on the doctor's insistance, I got an early flight home, two days earlier than I intended, to give myself a chance to recover. I've had a few days now of extremely strong antibiotics and I'm lapping up the cooler air. I was so sorry not to be able to say goodbye to my studio companions - that was the worst bit.  I had a wonderful experience, met great people - WONDERFUL people, and I'd do it all again tomorrow, even with the mosquitoes. 

I have spent more time on the painting since my return. I have done some hair (which is a little big at the moment!), and a beginning of glazing on the fabric, and more layers on the face. I have another day, or two, or three still to go. 

Not quite finished yet...
I'd like to thank Maestro M John Angel for his kindness and his friendship. I highly recommend his courses to everyone who has a desire to improve. He is holding a two week workshop in Liverpool in August 2015,  see

and I'm delighted to say that he will be coming to Belfast in 2016 to deliver a workshop here too.  

For information on this or all my courses, please email

Monday, 15 June 2015

notes from the airing cupboard.. Oranges in oils

So, I mentioned that I moved my workspace up to my small spare bedroom, and felt the benefit of being away from the general living space of the rest of the house. After the first painting, of an orange, which I'd set up in  shadow box, on top of a chair on top of a table, I decided it would be useful to have some shelves, to vary the height of my subjects. And then I remembered that the other wall is a set of cupboards, with lots of shelves! Da-naaa!!

So I turned my easel and lamp around, moved a few towels, placed the shadow box on the right shelf and set up the next arrangement. Oranges in the airing cupboard. Perfect...
Fruit in the airing cupboard..

One of the important factors in using the shadow box is the ability to control lighting, or to prevent more light than you want, on the subject. I lined the edges of the cupboard with black fabric, and used the cupboard door to block external light. Yes - a lot of time is spent preparing and setting up. This is so important. Composing, arranging and lighting your subject  is the making of the picture. It has to look delicious, or there's no point in painting it. So all this faffing about isn't a waste of time, it's the creative part. 

One lamp on the subject, another on the canvas. 

I did my preparatory drawing in my sketch book - I love this stage. This is a step which so many students leave out. Why? Drawing is information gathering - we draw information from the subject, to gain understanding of spacial and tonal relationships and to get the balance right. 

Something magic that happens when we draw before painting. Familiarity with the subject, an intimate getting-to-know it better. Then, at paint stage, we've already observed it, we kind of FEEL it, and the NEW decisions we are making are about colour - we still have to make the spacial and tonal decisions too, but we're half way there with those by then..

Underpainting, over a burnt sienna base colour
I painted the white canvas with a layer of burnt sienna, as a good base to paint on.

I propped my drawing up as additional refrence material next to my easel. Sometimes looking at the drawing helps, even though the fruit is still right there!

With this painting, I was trying out glazing techniques, and trying to be a bit looser. The canvas was one that I'd already opened, from my pre-Milliken Brothers days, and it was horribly rough and textured, which at least helped to restrict any over-tight tendancies. Sometimes though, it can feel like we're battling with the materials, which is not a good thing. I stuck with this painting till I couldn't stand the rough canvas any more, and moved on to the next one (making sure it was a nice fine linen).

For me, painting really is about the doing of it, rather than the completing of it. The hope is always that the next one will be better, and the next and the next...

Up and coming workshops: Oils weekend, Belfast. For info email

Saturday, 23 May 2015

An Adventure to Milliken Brothers, County Down

On a visit to artist Ian McAllister's studio I asked him where he bought his lovely big linen canvases. He casually said, 'Millikens', as if everyone knew who that was. Ahem. When he realised I hadn't heard of them (his jaw almost hit the floor and his eyes nearly popped out in shock at my unfortunate lack of knowledge...), he insited on taking me to introduce me, as they weren't too far away. He looked so pleased at the idea, and while I didn't anticipate much joy in visiting a canvas-maker, I do love a little run out, so off we went.

It was wonderful. 

This is what it looks like from the outside - a charming, unassuming, traditional house in an Ulster village. 

But behind these doors is a treasure trove of craftsmanship, highly skilled carpentry and attention to detail which will make every artist very happy indeed. 

The Milliken Brothers Alyn and David - their father was water colour artist Robert Milliken, who painted beautiful landscapes and birds.  I met Alyn, who showed me round the workshop, explaining that everything was made to order, and he showed me the biggest art 'board' I've ever seen - about 12 ft square, like a smooth wall, perfectly prepared for an artist to paint on. It was beautiful, even in its unadorned state, in the way a hand made staircase is.

The linen comes in a variety of thickness, from chunky and lumpy to fine and smooth. Having used only cotton canvas thus far, I was delighted to see how smooth the linen is, and I bought one, and Alyn gave me a small board to try as well.
I was impressed by the different linens, some thick, some very fine. 
Across the courtyard, next to a garden filled with sweet peas, was a series of low-roofed buildings, which included the office (fire blazing) and, much to my surprise, an art materials shop. 
The art shop!

If I'd not been smitten already, this would have clinched it for me. I can hardly describe the emotions I experienced - these buildings, the whole atmosphere, is just so authentically Irish. This is what old Ireland looks like, and it feels so personal. It was, of course, just like my granny's house.  It felt like coming home. Opening the low door and stepping inside.. gasp!
Inside, a very small selection of artist-quality materials. Specialist, and specific. Paradise.
Growing up with an artist parent must, I'm sure, be the key to the brothers interest in providing such good quality materials - not only the canvas and boards, but also the paints. If you are going to paint, use the right materials!

 It is fantastic to order canvas to the exact size you want to work, rather than using only pre-made shapes. I now only use the Milliken canvases - the trick is to plan ahead and order a few at a time. Their canvas is lovely to work on, as are the boards. And if you change your mind after starting the painting, they can take it off the stretcher and resize for you. (though that is too scary for me...) I highly recommend Millikens. It's not only me, of course. Here are what some others say about them

But there was more, my first visit wasn't over yet... Amongst all this deliciousness and amazing abundance of temptations, my eye was attracted to a lovely old sign... which had nothing to do with canvas or boards or paints... 

So I asked Alyn about it, and lo! - a little twinkle popped into his eye and a modest smile crept over his lips.. Turns out he's a lover of motorbikes.. I'd noticed some posters in the workshop of Triumph motorbikes so I mentioned them, and he told me that he owned one, as well as a Triton. A Triton is a rare breed of bike, a cross between a Triumph and a Norton, usually hand contructed, in the 1960's. Ooh, really? Would I like to see it? Well, YES! (Bear with me, I'm Visual, remember, I love looking at things)  Poor Ian, he was looking more than bewildered by now..  

 Alyn on his beautiful, shiny and immaculate Triton

The Triton was beautiful, and so well looked after it was like new. Did I mention being smitten before? Well, at the sight of this,  I was falling in love. Alyn told me some of its history, with affection, respect and a little bit of reverence too. After all, the bike is about 50 years old. I stared with envy, until he read my mind and asked if I wanted to sit on it! How could I not? Afterwards, he said that only 3 people before me had sat on it, and that I was the first woman. I felt deeply honoured, but at the same time, glad to get off without scratching it. 

This was one of the best day trips, ever. It's good to have a break from the drawing board - a break can turn from a visit to a surprise to an adventure, when you least expect it!

Upcoming workshops: Portrait drawing, Oils weekend, Landscape in water colour and a Drawing Trail around Belfast'sTitanic Quarter. For info email 

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Orange on black cloth, oil on board, 20cm x 20cm

So... working on the dining room table for a couple of weeks was ok, but I began to get on my own nerves.  Besides, my new toy had arrived... a slim line easel. Time for a spacial rethink.

A... jigsaw?
Which was exciting until I realised there were no assembly instructions with it - puLEASE...!

Compact, but perfect. 
I chose a slim easel because the lovely big ones were too tall for my ceilings. And as I don't work very large, slim is fine for now. My thoughts had turned to my tiny spare bedroom - or the Box Room, as we call it in Ireland. I don't know if that's because you're only supposed to keep boxes in it, or if it's because it's the size of a box. But certainly, it's economical in scale. I squeezed the easel in, after draping the walls with black cloth (this was such a palaver I'm trying to blank it from my memory), put the shadow box on a chair to a height that I liked,  played with the lighting, then began drawing, in my Moleskine sketchbook. (actually, no. After all that, I had anice cup of tea. Phew. THEN began drawing) After that I laid in the underpainting on the world's smoothest, custom made board from Milliken's.  (

The thing I struggled most with was reflected light hitting my board, so I set up a piece of black foil - dangling from my lamp - to block it. You can see from the photo below that I have two lamps - one on the still life and another on my board. The rest of the room is pretty dark.The black strip in the middle of the photo is the light-blocking foil.

The camera is a wonderful tool, but there are (many) times when it doesn't serve, and trying to photograph paintings is one of them. Below is the finished painting, but the real thing has much colour in it's cloth and looks richer, more velvety. But, you get the gist.

Next up - Portrait drawing workshop, oils weekend, location drawing at Belfast's Titanic Quater.
For info email

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Oil painting set up - shadow box, Irish style

Last summer I spent much of my time planning and preparing for the Draw In Symposium ( which ran across two weeks at the end of August into September.
I came out the other side of that determinded to set aside more regular painting time for myself, and in order to do this, I resigned as distance learning tutor for London Art College.  Although I've loved it, it was the right thing for me to do - sometimes the best way to serve students is to produce more personal work, and practice. I've worked with their students for six years, but have many students that I am still (in May) seeing out, who started their course with me.  

So, a new routine!

One of the common mistakes I hear from students is in thinking that you must have a designated area at home, set aside specifically for painting. While this is desirable, it's not essential - what is much more important than setting aside space is setting aside TIME.

I decided to do some still life subjects using a shadow box, and put it on the dining room table, raised up on another box to get an angle that I liked. After playing with the light source, I started drawing. (light, by the way, is so transformative to a subject that it makes the difference between making something worth painting, and not. A perfectly ordinary object can be rendered awesome, by the lighting).

Drawing - this is the important act of beginning your observation of the subject - of form, light, relationships, contrasts, nuances of tone. It gets your eye and brain engaged and in sinc with the subject and prepares the ground for the painting to come.  Yet this is the step that many students seek to avoid! Preparation is key. Draw to prepare. Think of the word Draw to mean Gathering. You're gathering information. You're drawing together the information you need to make a good painting.  

Next I traced my drawing onto layout paper, and transferred it onto canvas by painting a thin layer of burnt sienna oil paint over the back of the layout,  and drawing over my lines with a pen, ready for my black and white tonal study. I think it's important to show you the table by now - filling up, but I haven't had to spread out much - the space required is small.

Note the glass of water -  do not get dehydrated.. It's fine to get so absorbed that you forget to eat, but don't forget to drink. 
Finished tonal study

Next up was the colour version. I traced my drawing onto another canvas, laid down an underlayer with burnt umber thinned with mineral spirit, and left it to dry overnight. 

Starting the colour

By now, I admit, I was spreading out a bit more, and I was worried as had a friend coming to visit for an overight stay... Fortunately, she's a lover of arty things and was happy to share the table with me to do some of her own work. This has GOT to be the sign of a good friend. 

Me and Claire, space sharing

One of the good thing about having a visitor, of course, is that it would be rude not to go OUT, especially when the weather is crisp and sunny. So we headed down The Ards Peninsula, one of my favourite places, and drove over the little islands to the Nendrum Monastic site, and on round to Daft Eddie's for coffee.  

You can't beat a nice dry stone wall. 
A break from the drawing board often means we work more quickly when we get back to it. We also see things with a fresh eye when we've had a change of scenery. If you know you're going to have a small gap in studio visits (or, dining-room table visits), it's important to leave the painting at a good place, so it's easy to pick it up again.

The finished painting

A colse up to show the slathery bits - this is one of the best things about oil paint, the slathers. 
Next up - Portrait drawing workshop, Oils weekend and a Drawing Trail around Belfast's Titanic Quarter. For info email