Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

October 10, 2017

Sight Size and other tricks

I find it odd how particular techniques in painting get a fan club type following. Wet into wet for watercolour is one and I suppose plein air another. Sight size is an interesting one. It comes from academic training where you set up your drawing of a plaster cast so that from a certain position both cast and drawing appear next to each other at exactly the same scale. All observations need to be made from this viewing point. It was much used by portrait painters such as Singer Sargent to get good likenesses and accurate tones. Although it appears Sargent only set up the painting in this way for parts of the process and to check progress. It was never intended however to be a method used in all circumstances. Here is a link that gives a good description of the method: Sight Size.

If for example you want to paint a wide view then getting both your scene and the painted image the same scale would be pretty tricky. Also if you were painting a subject that was far away then your picture would have to be very small or your viewing point would have to be a very long way from your canvas! Sight size drawers tend to use plumb lines etc though a threaded frame over the subject would seem to be easier and quicker IMO. This is not a debunking of the method, I think everyone would benefit from learning and trying it. I do however feel over reliance on the method can produce rather stiff soulless paintings. The method shows it’s weakness in the work of atelier students who tend to produce identikit sub Sargent paintings and academic drawings that all seem to be from the same dead hand. That said many of those students move on and successfully establish their own identity.

Really the method is part of a whole suite of techniques to get the perceived and very 3D world down on 2D paper. Plumb bobs are good if you have never used one then I suggest you give it a whirl. If you use a black thread you can put little blobs of white paint every inch which helps transfer information. Their main use though is to make it easy to determine how things in your subject relate along a line. You can use it to translate horizontal information or angles as well. All of these methods depend on you returning to the exact same position to make your measurement. The easiest by far to use but more tricky to set up is the threaded frame. Really you need a separate stand for the frame, but as with the plumb line I would encourage everyone to try it out.

What I would not advise however is to make any of these methods into  your everyday standard painting procedure. Their use is to teach you how to make comparisons of scale angle and alignment. Your aim in using them should be to evolve the ability to do those measurements by eye, this may seem hard but it is surprising how quickly the brain catches on and eventually they become second nature. Nonetheless I still get out my frame for work where it is very important that exact proportion are achieved.

Its disadvantages are that it is a monocular method, it allows you to see the world pretty much as a camera does. In turn this means it has all of the problems associated with camera images, the distorted proportions at the edges of the frame which become impossible to hide as the view widens. The method assumes we should only see what we can see with our head fixed, but to my mind this is only a small part of the visual experience, it is literally too narrow. To paint wider or higher than convenient views requires a whole other set of skills including constructive perspective both linear and hyperbolic. Also a number of adjustments such as sliding vanishing and eye points. Although this sounds hifalutin and complicated the actual application can be taught to anyone in a day or two.

A very mixed bag of work in this post as I have been dodging between media .

Blandford Forum, Dorset, drawing, pen and ink

This is Blandford Forum in Dorset. The challenge here was to reduce the busyness of the scene without loosing the impression of complexity. If you succeed in doing this people come up and say, “Oh look at all that detail” and “Just like a Photograph!” For windows it is important to get both consistency and variety into them. So I try to keep the position and rhythm accurate but vary the mark made to indicate them. Pen and Ink.

Blandford Forum, Dorset, pen and ink, drawing

Here is one where sight size would let you down! You would have to have your nose touching the paper to get this view. The camera could not produce it either, the building on the left would be very distorted. It is really a composite view as I am both raising my head to look up and turning my head to look left. A point that is vital to fix is the one where you look straight ahead. People assume that in a drawing the straight ahead point must be in the middle but here it needs to be far to the right where the road ends. Each of these movements causes swings in perspective that result in distortion. So what appears a simple scene is actually quite complex to construct. In practice I sketch in the rectangles of the facades and adjust them to find the best compromise between observation, what I “know” is there and the restrictions of a flat surface. Here the key line to track is the join to the walls and roofs. Pen and Ink.

Cardigan, Llanchaeron, Wales, pen and ink, drawing

This is Llanerchaeron in Wales a beautiful walled garden. I only had time for this quick sketch but would have been happy drawing there all day. I decided in the end it needed slight touches of colour. This is always tricky as the temptation is to add more, but I think greens would have been too much so I left them all out. Pen and wash.

St James, Shaftesbury, Dorset, watercolour

This is St James in Shaftesbury. I very rarely do a half sheet en plein air in watercolour as splashing it on with big brushes is the only option so the drying time becomes key. The other reason is that they are expensive to frame, rarely sell and if you do sell they get a lower price than a far smaller oil. This subject was a gift though and it was great fun to paint as is often the case the light improved as I worked but with watercolour you cannot easily chase the light. Once I got home I felt I could get more atmosphere in by washing back and as it was a 1/2 sheet  I  used the garden hose! It is nearly always worth taking such risks I find even if a few almost alright watercolours bite the dust. Watercolour.

Worbarrow bay, Dorset, oil painting

This one put me through the mill and I nearly abandoned the whole thing. It is Warbarrow bay near Tynham in Dorset. I find these looking down at bays type compositions very difficult especially when they include foreground. I had a plein air watercolour and photos but I still ended up trying several different tonal arrangements over a few weeks. It still may not be finished, I might cut it down as I think a better picture could be had by loosing a 1/3 rd of the right hand side. 24in by 12in Oils.

St Martins, London, oil painting

I recently visited London to see some exhibitions and just before the heavens opened the light on St Martins in the Fields was fantastic. No paints with me so this is done from phone snaps. Another one that might loose a couple of inches from the top! 16in by 12in Oils.

Newport, Wales, Pembrokeshire, plein air

I escaped to Wales for a few days and was greeted by blustery weather and fantastic skies and seas. This is Newport in Pembrokeshire and I had very little time to paint before being chased off the beach by the tide. I got rather too involved with the ruffled surface of the water which seemed to have every colour under the sun in it. 10in by 8in oils.

Moylgrove, Ceibwr Bay, Wales, Pembrokeshire, plein air, oil painting

This is Ciebwr Bay near Moylgrove in Pembrokeshire. This is painted sight size  as I hadn’t used the method in a while. I can’t say it made much difference as far a judging things goes, a little easier to judge relative tones maybe. I did use my tone guide which is just a bit of very black plastic with a dab of titanium white on it. This allows you to more easily judge how far away the darks are from being black and the lights from white and their average  hue. It was astonishingly windy and I had to anchor my easel to some big rocks. It makes it impossible to do really accurate brushstrokes as your board is flapping like mad! 12in by 10in Oils.

Wales, cliff, plein air, oil painting

Done on the same day but a bit down the coast. I had almost given up finding something to paint when I spotted a patch of sand that made an interesting contrast. Even windier than the last but very interesting to paint. 12in by 8in Oils.

Wales, Pembrokeshire, plein air, oil painting

Another day another cliff top. After a rough block in I kept my eye on the changing sun light sparkling on the sea, the whole key of the picture had to be organised so that the highlight would eventually be punchy enough.  This meant keeping the landscape tones within quite tight bounds. To much highlighting would have ruined the balance. Another very windy one it was only possible by backing up close to a wall. 14in by 10in Oils.

Llangrannog, Cardigan, plein air, oil painting

Yep it’s another windy beach! This is Llangrannog near Cardigan. Sight size again as it was convenient, it did help here in getting the drawing in quickly, the method makes drawing errors very easy to spot. Many pauses as the rain came down, though I loved the muted tones the foul weather created. I still far prefer painting on a stormy day than a bright sunny one. 14in by 10in Oils.

Newport, Wales, Dinas Head, plein air, oil painting

This is Dinas Head from Newport. Only a very quick sketch. The light was changing rapidly as the cloud shadows brightly lit or threw different areas into shade so I might do a studio one or over paint this one using the various photos I took as it changed as reference. 16in by 10in Oils.

Newport, parrog, Wales, plein air, oil painting

More Newport and more very muted light. I might chop this one down and frame it tighter. I loved the tone of the yellowy house, very hard to get right and I wiped and redid it at least 5 times. 16in by 10in Oils.

Porthgain, Wales, Pembrokeshire, oil painting

I took my time with this one, it is Porthgain which  would like to do more of as it has very interesting part ruined industrial buildings. I was nice to paint a calmer brighter moment with the storms over. 16in by 8in Oils.

For the visit to Wales I used a quite restricted palette heavy on the earth tones as follows: Cobalt Blue, Unbleached Titanium, Titanium White, Naples Yellow, Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna and a tiny bit of Cadmium Orange on the last one.

 

September 12, 2017

Pen and Wash

Later in the year I am to give a talk at a local art club. The previous year I had done Pen and Ink and as I left they asked me back and wondered if I could do one on Plein Air painting the same time next year. A few weeks ago at an exhibition of the group’s work I picked up a leaflet that listed the upcoming talks and found I was scheduled in to do a talk on Pen and Wash… A slight panic then set in after I went through my old, ancient and then antediluvian drawings. It seemed that bar about 6 illustrations pen and wash had not been a big feature of my 40 year career!

Now I have always admired pen and wash as a medium and 2 of the examples of my massive output in the media were recent where I had washed colour out of the ink in a pen sketch. However I could not help but conclude that I was about 20 slides shy of the full Powerpoint. No matter I thought with a sudden gush of over-confidence I’ll do some it will be fun! After all how hard could it be?

Very… perhaps another to get the point over…VERY!

Its beguiling simplicity might be the problem. You first think, “Oh I’ll just do a pen drawing and colour it in.” Then you think, ‘How much pen?”… “How much wash?… Pen first, wash second?… Wash first, pen second?… Waterproof ink?…Non-waterproof ink or a mix of the two?” The only way forward was to look at what others had done and then experiment.

The first technical problem I hit was paper. I tried hot pressed Arches Satin, in one of those glued pads. Not too bad but the surface is quite soft. Wash took well though, so a contender. Next a Moleskin sketch pad that bore the legend on the outside “for fountain pen”. Bah!  The ink went straight through it feathered like mad and was so soft the nib tore up the surface. It rejected watercolour, but sort of interestingly in a way you might exploit.

By now obsession was setting in. On my shelves sit many pads, sketch books, glued pads… and loose sheets. They go back to about 1910 with old sheets of paper my granny had. Indeed I could probably fill a medium sized “Paper Through the Ages.” museum. Cue a pseudo scientific face off!

Below are the scanned tests, I won’t go through them individually if you click there is a hi res image so you can form you own opinion. I scribbled with 3 inks one a waterproof and non waterproof mix which I tested with a wash of clean water. Of the other two inks one is a dilute 6:1 water to ink and the other a Red with the Zebra “G” nib which is sharper and more prone to catch but lovely to draw with.

paper test

The results are mixed. Some failed the G nib test so I excluded them. The worst by far was the Moleskin, worse even than bargain laser paper which is a technical feat. Surprisingly good was 100year old white wove writing paper. Bristol board old and new was very good with the pen but not so hot with the watercolour. Frisk CS10 from the 70’s is the best as far as feel with the pen but the very high china clay content means the waterproof inks don’t dry waterproof. Arches was poor with the pen catching very badly with the G nib, good with the watercolour though. Of the commercial papers the cheapo Fabriano 100 sheet drawing and watercolour pad 250gm was easily the best with the colour washing out very cleanly and hard enough to withstand the G nib. My favourite Ruscombe mill paper also passed with flying colours the paper is so hard sized that the G nib worked despite the texture of the surface. I used the blue but they make other colours. Below is the vile Moleskin…

Below is the back or verso of the sheet… as you might guess it also destroyed the page behind… the dark spots are where the pen went through entirely… not the sharp G nib by the way, a soft tipped fountain pen nib.

Next my efforts old and new…

This drawing has appeared before a few years ago. It is Honfleur, I did a few pen and washes on this trip, I can see I kept the penwork quite open so it would accept the wash. Also some pen is under the wash and some on top which adds variation.

 

Leadenhall Market, London, Pen and wash

This was done after I got back. It is Leadenhall Market in London. Again I am dividing up the work between the wash and the line. I think I resorted to wash here because of the complex subject and lack of time.

 

normandy, france, pen and wash

France again, Normandy this time. I well remember doing this I penciled carefully then started with the watercolour and it slowly lost definition and structure. So I added pen to accent the main beams and trusses. I remember being quite chuffed at the result.

 

Portobello, pen and wash

I am starting to see a trend here… I resort to pen and wash when in dire need! This is Portobello and another watercolour that went off the tracks. It was wet and I remember having to finish in a rush as the downpour started. The result I have to say is probably better than if I had carried on with just the paint.

 

Honfleur, france, pen and wash

Honfleur again. Not a rescue job this time thank heaven. This pen and wash at its simplest with the colour being washed out of the line. As it is on the blue Ruscombe paper the added highlight gives a relatively full toned image. Here the pen is definitely to the fore.

Well that is the past efforts in the medium. Having looked at these I decided to do more to explore the variations possible. The first thing was wash first or pen?

 

Hanford house, pen and wash

This is Hanford house, here the drawing is done in pencil then most of the wash work laid in. The pen was then added. The advantage of this is that the pen work is only added where it is needed so I stuck to line with little or no hatching. A few bits of final watercolour darkening caused the red in the ink to run which I quite like.

 

Wells, somerset, pen and wash

Another one, this time of Wells, where the wash went in first. Less successful here I feel. I have overdone the pen work and the line is too heavy on the cathedral itself. I am unconvinced by the wash first method now. I think some pen at least has to go in before.

 

Kimmeridge, Dorset, pen and wash

This recent drawing of Kimmeridge is much more like what I am aiming for. This is pen then wash with most of the colour coming from the line itself. A few areas of pen were restated but I like the balance of hatching and washes. I left far wider gaps between lines than I would normally do so as to leave paper for the wash to show. A very quick way of working about 40min whereas a pen drawing could take double that.

 

Milton Abbey, pen and wash, Dorset

This is Milton Abbas in Dorset. I wanted to try using waterproof ink and go for a subtler atmospheric feel. I used hatching much in the way I would when producing a tonal pen drawing with no outlines but just dropped the line density to accept the wash.

 

Hambledon Hill, Dorset, pen and wash, drawing

This is from an afternoon expedition to sketch on Hambledon Hill. I am frustrated that these fantastic vistas I have on my doorstep are so difficult to make into paintings. You get the same with photos, when you take a picture of an amazing panorama from one of those official viewpoints. Somehow the results always disappoint, even though the scene itself when you were there was amazing. On this one I did the watercolouring first. I laid in all the shadows in a blue which decided the structure and lighting. Next I defined and toned with a pen loaded with grey ink. That was then overlaid with some more watercolour to unify the masses, finally I strengthened with a black pen.

 

Hambledon Hill, Dorset, pen and wash, plein air, drawing

I set about this one with a bit more urgency as the weather was looking threatening. Hambledon Hill has lots of intimate subjects as well as the huge vistas. Once again I did the watercolour part first then, as it looked as if I was in for a soaking, I set about it with a reed pen dipping directly into the ink bottle. The rain shower conveniently deluged Shroton in the valley to my left rather than me so I then added black fountain pen to define the masses and lighting better. A4 Pen and Wash.

 

Hambledon Hill, Dorset, pen and wash, drawing

I then headed home only to spot another squall approaching from the other side. As I was definitely not going to make it home or even off the hill before it broke I set about trying to bash in an impression of the rain arriving. I used the reed pen again but with my red brown ink this time . I drew very broadly the basic forms and started to lay in tone with watercolour before the ink was dry so as to wash lots of colour out of the ink. I then skipped back and forth between wash and pen until it felt done. To my astonishment it once again rained in the valley rather than the hill so I even got home dry! A4 pen and wash.

I have enjoyed my foray into pen and wash so far and I think it has done me good. I was getting a little too comfortable with the pen and white highlight on the blue paper so it is good to ring the changes.

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