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.

 

October 10, 2015

A Trip to Pembrokeshire

My first trip to Pembrokeshire in a while… and no chance to paint… With old friends so lots of talk, laughter, food and walking. Being a tourist rather than a painter lots of photos to bore friends with when they come to dinner… there is nothing more tedious than photographs of other people having a good time in a lovely place! All I managed while there art wise was one small pen and ink, but I still wanted to get some paintings done to recall the weekend.

So once home what can you do? I find if I am going to paint quick studio paintings from reference then I need to do it as soon as possible after the shot is taken. I find after that I really struggle to remember how it felt to be there. I do bigger studio paintings from reference but that is a different and longer process involving sketches and multiple photographs. Painting quick a la prima sketches from single images is a different and I think more difficult thing. You are very at risk of having the photo make every decision for you. To counter this I try and paint very quickly and also several times whilst painting put the reference aside and work from memory. If I am lucky I find that at a certain point the painting gains a life of its own and becomes an independent thing, a memory prompted by a photograph rather than a copy.

Once I have decided to paint from an image I first look at how I can break the image down to simple tonal areas. Then I decide what my palette is to be. I find restricting the palette helps a great deal. Then you cannot mimic the colours of your reference but have to mix equivalents. (this is a good policy I find with plein air also!) I then look at the arrangement of things and think, “How could it be better?” by better I mean have more sense of atmosphere and a simple underlying structure.  I turn the image into a monochrome version to assess the actual tones. Colours confuse our sense of tone so it is far easier to see the relative tones with colour removed.

With all that thought about if not all decided upon I mix the colours. It is so much easier with oils I find to mix the colours first. There is often not time en plein air but in the studio it is well worthwhile. When you do this you can put your lightest light and darkest dark on the palette and then set the mid tones to lie between them. I very rarely use full white in a painting so this process makes sure you do not automatically use the full tone range but set a key (range of tone) that leaves you room to manoeuvre when the time comes to accent and add punch at the end. It is far easier to paint if all the tones are there on your palette organised in hues. The mistake many people make is mixing too little. In the end you will not waste paint because the left over colour nearly always gets absorbed into the mixes for the next painting.

Once started I found the first one was very lifeless and in the end rubbed it off and started again another advantage of no time pressure and a studio setting. The next attempt went better and I got properly in the swing. When the point comes where you forget yourself and the time starts to flow by then usually the painting benefits. Before the oils I did some quick watercolours to get myself immersed in the subjects.

 

Tenby, pen and ink, drawing, wales, pembrokeshire

Here is the one drawing I got done. This is Tenby, a place I would love to spend a few days painting in. It has the lure of some very obvious scenes that get painted too much, but has a lot more to offer as the dramatic headland it is built over allows some great and unexpected viewpoints.

 

Tenby, watercolour, wales, painting, pembrokeshire

Here is one of those Tenby views. The narrow street runs steeply up from the harbour giving a great perspective. You actually could not do this painting on site as you would be mown down by the constant stream of 4×4’s driving up the hill! Only a 1/8th sheet but I painted it with a big sable keeping everything quite wet. Even though I was not trying to be very precise you have to take great care over the perspective in scenes like this where the road is going uphill. If you get lines at the wrong angle the feeling of buildings stepping up a hill is soon lost. I put a few soft lines in first to guide the angle. Watercolour.

 

pembrokeshire, watercolour, painting, wales, cliffs, sea

The coast path in Pembrokeshire is a wonder but tricky to paint. There is a tendency to over cook the turquoise which makes it more Med than Wales!

 

Chamber Tomb, Pentre Ifan, Newport, watercolour, painting, wales

This is the chamber tomb of Pentre Ifan near Newport. It is sited in a wonderful position and should be easy to paint but I have failed to paint it decently quite a few times now. This attempt wasn’t too bad and at least captures a little of the mood. I felt it was a little tight so I did it again giving myself only 20 min.

 

Pentre Ifan, Chamber Tomb, Newpoit, wales, watercolour, painting

Here it is again different but not really better! I shall have a crack at it with the oils I think.

 

Wales, Pembrokeshire, Narberth, oil painting, art

First go with the oils. This is Narberth a distinctly posh Pembrokeshire town. The first attempt got bogged down so I wiped it off and started afresh. It still needs some adjustment of the distant tones which need to be a tiny bit softer and bluer but I will dry brush over once it is dry. 10in by 14in Oils.

 

Coast path, cliffs, sea, pembrokeshire, wales, oil painting

This is on the wonderful Pembrokeshire coast path. I have painted here before in a force 8 gale so a studio picture was far more comfortable to do! Not sure this is quite finished some of the distant cliffs need softening a little. I have already adjusted the horizon after I made this scan as the whole thing falls off bait too much to the right. I did this to counter the lean on the figure but rather over did it. 10in by 16in Oils.

 

Pembrokeshire, newport, parrog, wales, oil painting, art

This is the Parrog which is the harbour at Newport. When I was walking and saw this I could see it as a painting and tried to hold on to the memory! Quite hard and close tones but fun and quick to paint. 10in by 16in Oils.

 

Pembrokeshire, wales, painting, sea, cliffs

Last one. Back on the coast path again. It was very still and warm for October. I painted the foreground with a knife which is unusual for me. I must use it more. I am slightly put off because I rather dislike knife paintings where the impasto seems to perform no function. For the scraggly growth on the cliff edge it was just the thing though. Like all techniques if the technique starts to dominate then it ruins the picture. Paintings about how things are painted are I tend to find rather tedious! 10in by 14in oils.

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