Vermeer’s Room

The Music Lesson or A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, c. 1662–65; Vermeer

The Music Lesson, c. 1662–65; Vermeer

There’s a recent film called “Tim’s Vermeer” about an inventor (Tim Jenison) on a mission to recreate a Vermeer painting, using the set-up and optical aids that Vermeer may well have used. It’s by all accounts a fascinating and entertaining documentary. I’ve not seen it…yet!

Artists invariably use the tools available and will innovate strongly to get a result. I sometimes quip that if Michelangelo had had access to a projector, he would surely have shone his drawings at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The general opinion today is that the masters sought to keep their methods secret …to protect the magic…their value… but I suspect the secrets were more “open source” than we might assume.

Vermeer set many of his paintings in the same room… perhaps to facilitate use of his optical set-up. Through this, he was then free (with or without forethought) to focus on the human stories in his subjects …..with an innovative clarity in composition and design …perhaps more than anyone before …or for a long time afterwards.

His images seem strangely modern. This sparse, unassuming master created timeless human stories, with ringing silence and poignancy. He affects us profoundly with the quiet power of his paintings.

At Saturday’s workshop, 15 November, we explore Vermeer as our influence – details are on the courses page of my website.

They painted before their time

In their mirrors: self portraits from Turner, Vermeer, Van Gogh and Kahlo

In their mirrors: self portraits from Turner, Vermeer, Van Gogh and Kahlo

This Saturday marks the start of a new series of four one-day workshops, each themed on incredible painters who worked “Before their time”.

From the strangely realist compositions of Johannes Vermeer, J M W Turner unknowingly paving the impressionist way, Vincent Van Gogh’s emerging expressionism, to the surreal sensitivities of Frida Kahlo – four eras, four styles, four personalities, four great masters to inspire us!

There is still some space in each of the workshops. Check out the schedule and details on the courses page of my website.

Join us for some memorable painting days!


On Drawing Portraits…

DSC07933cropscaleMany people tell me that portraits are difficult.

There must be some magic to getting a likeness. But maybe not. The main thing with drawing, all drawing, is to “draw what you see and not what you know”. This is not a new idea, of course. The expression “the more you look the more you see” contains the same essence. When we worry, judge and rush, we become distracted. In fact, when confronted with just about any of the details of daily life, we stop truly seeing.

There’s probably a double challenge with portraits, because we have so much deep-seated brain wiring geared to family, faces, recognition and related emotional responses. These responses: innate, profound and mostly unconscious, can easily swamp our portrait drawing abilities.

A few tips that work for me:

  • Turn both the work and reference upside-down – though difficult to do with a live model, I grant you
  • Use your non-drawing hand – I wrote about this in my blog post “On the other hand…”
  • Look at your work in a mirror – you see things anew!
  • Squint, take your glasses off, turn the lights down, use sunglasses or look through a slightly frosted surface – all of these reduce detail
  • Look at negative shapes – the shape behind the shape!
  • Draw corrected shapes before erasing the old – if you must!
  • Exaggerate corrections – and then revise.

Some of these are “Old Faithfuls” and I’ve added a couple that have become good habits for me. One is not to erase, at least until new marks are established: those old marks show you where not to draw and sometimes can be recycled for new purposes. A related habit is to exaggerate revisions. The point of both of these processes is that they help me to not become “vested” in what I’ve already drawn, but to continue searching for what might be.

A starter-kit for your drawing toolbox! Do you have any favorites? Let me know!

This Saturday, 18 October, we explore the realm of “Portraits from photos” Details are on the courses page of my website.

Happy Accidents


“Howard’s Hat”,  15″ x 15″, Watercolour

There are many ways of getting a painting to resonate. Planning and executing with precision and a clear vision may be one. Another, more up my street, is protecting happy accidents along the way. (the term “Happy Accidents” being first coined by TV artist Bob Ross). We’ve all made a mark and seen a result that surprises: “Hey that looks interesting! I didn’t expect that but I like it.” When I see this, I often look to embody the effect: how can I propagate & reinforce the impact.

The Woodsman, 20" x 28", Oil on canvas

“The Woodsman”, 20″ x 28″, Oil on canvas

My painting titled “The Woodsman”, has one very strangely shaped eye. It seems to drip in the middle, preventing the eye from forming a contiguous whole. I remember leaving that mark there for most of the painting, wondering whether I should define it more completely or at least reduce the stridency of this almost random mark. But it repeats the verticals found in the beard, it could almost be a drip coming off of the hat and it certainly breaks up “reading” that eye – giving more focus to the squint in the other. When most viewers look at the painting, I am surprised to find that they don’t notice it. This “accident” is one that makes the painting!

Who knows where that mark came from. Perhaps it was subconscious. Perhaps random. But the response to that new mark is not either: it’s a connection with the painting. It’s the potential in what you see. Possibly showing a new path to explore. Painting for me is like this- a combination of conception, planning, skill and execution, but above all, an expression that comes mysteriously into the picture.

May all your accidents be happy!

This Saturday, 04 October, we explore the realm of “Happy Accidents” in our workshop: “Balancing Control and Expression – Capturing that special spark”. Details on the courses page of my website.

The Secret Life of Lines

My recent plein-air watercolour sketch "High and Dry", 10"x7"

My recent plein-air watercolour sketch “High and Dry”, 10″ x 7″

Lines are everywhere, noticed and unnoticed, a beguiling network of relationships, boundaries, connections. Looking at a Monet, we focus on the colours, the light, the painterly paint. We don’t necessarily focus on the horizon, that corner of a building or perhaps a reflection from a bridge. Whatever it may be, most paintings, certainly representational styles, rely heavily on line.

In my recent plein-air sketch (above), lines create atmosphere with tree-forms in the background and set compositional elements that help move the viewer through the picture space. The foreground is separated from the main viewing area by line and the horizontal surface of the shallow water is implied by line. Most of these elements are painted rather than drawn.

The focus of the painting is cemented with stronger and more prescriptive line work: the dead tree-root and its companion, an abandoned dock. What may not be visible in the finished painting is line work that guided the painted values, added later to better define the root structure. All this in a sketch that, although modest, could still have gone astray in so many ways. Whilst mainly atmospheric, it’s the line-work that holds it all together.

Line-work is fundamental, and this is the focus of the first of our Fall Series of workshops: Saturday, 20 November features “The Secret Life of Lines”, and we will spend the day immersed in “Drawing for Painters” as our theme. Join us for a day of integrating some sound drawing practices in your paintings. This will include some elements of layout, contouring and equally, exploring how line-work can add drama and punch to your artwork. Bring along materials for a new painting or a work-in-progress!

Check out details on the courses page of my website or just send me an email at for more information and to book your spot!

Lines Rule, OK!