Acrylic on paper

"Beach Refrain", acrylic over watercolour

“Summer Refrain”, acrylic over watercolour, 22″ x 15″

For quick studies, I invariably enjoy using acrylic on paper. Watercolour-like washes, cemented into opaque passages and the potential for some impasto. It offers the freedom to explore fluid effects, continuing into the realm of more painterly approaches – perhaps integrating watercolour and dry media along the way.

I often use watercolour paper, but any stiff paper or card will work. That said, watercolour paper is designed to control wet effects and washes which can be moved around in much the same way as any other water media. In contrast to canvas – or any other impervious surface – paper welcomes the paint, and it’s texture becomes part of the work.

I start with a loose approach, sometimes as for a watercolour or perhaps just ladling on a base of opaque paint. I’m already having fun – here are a few examples!

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Mona Lisa smiles…

Mona Lisa combo

That elusive smile…

I’ve long been fascinated by the way images resolve differently, up close and at distance. This was a theme of last year’s exhibition, the Descendants, where my segmented and pixelized images worked differently from various viewpoints.

Part of the intrigue of portraits generally is that how you look at them makes a difference: lighting, distance and viewpoint all have an effect. Last year I found that my pixelized images looked quite surprising when viewed from the side. It was a revelation.

Researchers have now applied the same sort of intrigue to the Mona Lisa’s smile. Apparently Lisa smiles more when you look at her obliquely or blur the image. When you engage with a straightforward stare, many folks find that her smile “disappears”. An example of how focus affects perception: too direct an image and you can’t see the woods for the trees. The elusive Mona Lisa Smile: read more about the study

I thought it might be interesting to see if I could coax some of my portraits to change expression in a similar way. I didn’t find any hidden smiles. What I did find is that the expression changed – the aggregation of space forming a new image or at least an altered perception. A hidden expression.

I think the researchers may have missed something: For me, a smile emanates from the eyes and blurring slightly narrows the gaze and creates a more sympathetic feeling. It’s said that you smile with your eyes. What do you think?!

Carolyn smiles...

Carolyn smiles…

Finishing Touches…

It's always good to start with value!

It’s always good to start with value!

For most of the last term, I carried around a quick demonstration study. I originally did this to show the start of a portrait and I’d use it periodically to remind students that it’s always good to begin with value.

This study started with a mid-tone wash in burnt sienna, dulled with a bit of ultramarine blue. I followed this with a darker mix using the same two colours – but more potent and perhaps a touch bluer.

And there it sat for months, until I recently decided to finish it.

The foundation of the original blocking is still very evident through the screens of some warm tones (alizarin crimson and Hansa yellow) and cool accents (cobalt blue), applied judiciously.

Studies can be a good opportunity to go expressive with hair and experiment a bit…..well, it’s a study and should be spontaneous!

The finished study, 15"x15", watercolour and charcoal

The finished study, 15″x15″, watercolour and charcoal

The Best Colour…

The best colour!

The best colour!

I think I heard this piece of advice some time ago and was reminded of it recently in a weekly art bulletin that I receive…thanks Colin!

You can’t say any fairer than that. Painting is all about getting paint onto something and unless expressing, responding…. perhaps being surprised…. I can’t make real progress. I’ve always found it important to create forms, values and contexts, rather than overly worrying about the exactness of colour. Although I’m a bit of a colourist, don’t concern myself about the precise paint I’m using…. balance arrives toward the end of the journey. Colour is, after all, only relative!

Perhaps there’s something unconscious going on as well …. you have to respect it, give it a bit of free rein! I’m not suggesting that you go hog wild, but a certain arbitrariness can be a good thing – the disparate ideas, forms and colours melding together into something greater.

Once there’s paint on the brush ….PAINT!

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.