Saturday, 3 June 2017

Sketching In Venice

Just spent a week in Venice - a week of sketching with pals.  I really enjoyed it!  I was able to concentrate on sketching with no distractions - a real treat. And a completely new environment.

I was so looking forward to it, but once we arrived, I think we were all overwhelmed by the beauty and complexity of Venice; one of the biggest challenges for us was what to focus on in this magical city.  We were a loosely organised group, completely free to go off and do our own thing.

On Day 1 I started by trying to 'sketch myself in'.  I sat down next to a canal near where we were staying (in the Dorsoduro) and made a start.  I caught sight of a view along a small canal with a rather quirky and intriguing building in the distance - a bit of a focal point - with the context of the canal and a bridge in the composition.
As I was sitting there, someone came out of a door and sat down right in front of me and drank his cup of coffee.  I decided I had to put him in the picture.

I found it interesting to be away from the main tourist hot-spots.  It made me think about who lives in Venice and trying to find the 'real' Venice as a sketching subject.  But Venice looks like such a confection, I think this makes it unlike any other city I've been to.  While it's not a film-set, there are very few parts of the city which are not full of amazing beauty and therefore of interest to visitors.  Another thought going through my head was that so many artists have drawn and painted Venetian scenes, it was hard not to think that 'It's all been done before and by much better artists'.  So all these thoughts led to a feeling of uncertainty about what to sketch.

So here I was in a very urban place where I could hardly see a tree or even the sky, and there was not a hill in sight.....what was I to sketch?  There were only buildings....and water. Perhaps a bit of my planning background reasserted itself, a throwback from student days.  I tried a variety of subjects - single doors, like this.....

.... ironwork patterns, groups of windows, buildings.  Patterns like this.

 Initially I stayed away from the beautiful palaces - and not just because I thought they looked too complex to sketch!  Was there any modesty in Venice, some simpler forms?  I found this simple building just outside the convent where we were staying.  Quite cute and worth a sketch. 

I realised when I was drawing this that the steps at the end of the bridge were an important piece of context to be included.  I also realised that I was drawn to the beautiful brickwork and the random patterns made by old brickwork alongside decaying stucco. And the doors that opened directly onto the canals, like this one.

 On our second day we went off to Canareggio, via the station.  My initial impression was that it was a bit dark and oppressive, but I soon found a bit of colour.  Actually, I really loved the Canareggio area, and I can't believe that I forgot to visit Tintoretto's house which is located there.  I think this old rusting watergate was quite close to it.

And later on I stumbled upon some old industrial buildings - more lovely colour and interesting patterns formed by old brickwork revealed by decaying roughcast. 
I was trying different sketching materials - chalk pastels, pencil, oil pastels, conte - trying to get the right look.

On Day 3, we went to the island of Burano.  Suddenly there was a big sky, and trees. The buildings were not so tall and it felt much more open. I did a few sketches there

Burano is famous for its colourful buildings, like these ones....
And the adjacent island of Mazzourbo is a bit wilder and rather lovely.  Found a beautiful greenspace with sculptures and a view of a tower.  I was happy to get a bit of breathing space!

The next day, I thought I must have an attempt at drawing a couple of old palace buildings.  I used ink in order to get the details of the window shapes - so vitally important to the character of the building. I found a quiet viewpoint across the Grand Canal from a rather drab but lovely palace, so I focused on drawing and restrained the amount of colour.
The next day I had another attempt at a palace building, this time using pencil. This sketch took me an hour to finish, but I do quite like the composition, with the poles in the foreground.

I realised by the last day that I didn't have many tourist-style views - where were the gondolas? -  so I had a go at the view from the Sa Toma vaporetta stop. Again I felt a bit overwhelmed by the complexity of the view but using charcoal allowed me to simplify the composition.

In the course of the week I also did a few 'tall' sketches in a smaller sketchbook, using a sketching pen.  This forced me to take a bold approach, and concentrate harder.

These are only a few of my sketches - I have lots of material to draw upon. But where to now?  The sketching group is hoping to bring forward a small exhibition and I'd like to have something to contribute.  And I find it important to 'strike while the iron is hot' and take the work forward while the images are still fresh in my mind.

In my next blog I hope to have a few emerging paintings.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Orange Reflections

One of the things I love about Wester Ross is the subtlety of colour in the hills and how the colours of the landscape change so much over the seasons. I particularly love the winter shades – from monochromes to the intensely bright colours when the late low sun picks out the orange hues in the hills. I think the bright orange is from the deer grass and the dying bracken. But whatever the root cause, the shades of orange have lodged into my visual memory. I realised this recently when I painted a series of orange hills, sparked by an evening sketch I did of Ben Luskentyre on Harris in October last year.

Orange Hill I (Ben Luskentyre)

So much for striving for realism. When Van Gogh made the trip from the Netherlands to the south of France, he had to revise his palette to cope with the different colours he saw in the landscape. Here's a lovely quote from him. “Nature in the South cannot be painted with the palette of mauve, for instance, [which] belongs to the North and [which] is and will remain a master of the grey. But at present the palette is distinctly colourful, sky blue, orange, pink, vermilion, bright yellow, bright green, bright wine-red, violet. But by intensifying all the colours one arrives once again at a quietude and harmony. There occurs in nature something similar to what happens in Wagner's music which, though played by a big orchestra, is nonetheless intimate”.

Orange Hill II (Beinn a Chearcaill)

When you think about orange paintings, one of Van Gogh's most popular paintings comes to mind - his 'Sunflowers'. He famously did several versions and revelled in the brightness of the colours: ”I am thinking of decorating my studio with half a dozen pictures of 'Sunflowers', a decoration in which the raw or broken chrome yellows will blaze forth on various backgrounds.”

The reference to chrome is worth exploring. With ready-made paint, we usually combine the colours red and yellow to make orange, but if you start with pure pigments, chrome yellow gives a beautiful pure deep orangey-yellow. This pigment is made commercally by adding a soluble lead salt (nitrate or acetate) to a solution of alkali chromate or dichromate. When chrome yellow was first introduced as a pigment in the early part of the nineteenth century, it provided a bright, opaque yellow on the artists’ palette. However, it suffered a flaw in its original form—it darkened upon exposure to light. It was widely used by artists such as Turner, Manet, Cézanne, Monet, and Pissarro. Cézanne, like Pissarro and Monet, used the neutralising effect of combining three primary colours—ultramarine, vermilion and chrome yellow—to make coloured grays. But there were concerns about its light-fastness, and cadmium yellow, a more stable pigment, was introduced by the middle of the century. However, chrome yellow still has advantages as an artist's oil paint because it makes dense, opaque paints that brush out long and flowing, yet the brush marks hold their shape. Here's a little egg tempera painting I did using a gold colour (a 'middle yellow' pigment) - such a vibrant colour!

Cornfield with Red Hills

Feeling Orange
Orange tends to be associated with joy, sunshine, and warmth – a combination of red which is a colour of energy, and yellow which is considered to signify happiness. As an autumnal colour, it signifies the 'mellow fruitfulness', that last flourish of life before the death of winter. Although orange doesn't have quite the same impact as red (which is considered to be a more emotionally intense colour), it is a highly visible colour, good for warning signs. It's also used for children's toys and in promoting food-related products – apparently it's associated with colours of healthy food and stimulates appetite.

The artist Kandinsky thought a lot about colour. He talked about the “purely physicial effect, i.e., the eye itself is charmed by the beauty and other qualities of the colour. The spectator experiences a feeling of satisfaction, of pleasure, like a gourmet who has a tasty morsel in his mouth.” He also described hearing colours and smelling them! He thought that yellows and oranges would be light higher-pitched notes, unlike the deeper bass of the dark madder colours. Looking at the colour orange apparently increases the oxygen supply to the brain, is invigorating and stimulates mental activity.

Of course there is another aspect to colour – cultural considerations. Different societies have different perceptions of colour – e.g. we associate the colour orange with Protestantism. For the Chinese, oranges are like gold – both an aid to digestion and a symbol of money. In India, the Hindus consider orange or rather saffron as the colour of fire, symbolic of the burning away of ignorance by knowledge. Buddhism sees orange as the colour of illumination, the highest state of perfection – hence the saffron robes.

Autumn Day By The Upper Loch
So many dimensions to colour. In May 2017, the Torridon Gallery is holding an exhibition entitled 'Wild for Colour'. I've decided to submit this painting. But there's plenty of scope for artistic interpretation and it will be well worth a look.

The text of this blog will appear in an amended form in An Carrannach in May 2017. 

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Story of the Tree

As some of you may know, I've recently done a print - a photopolymer gravure to be precise - of a Scots Pine tree, and I've been lucky enough to get it selected for the current open exhibition of Visual Arts Scotland 'FLY2016'.  I thought I would record what lies behind the picture.

If you drive along the road from Lochcarron to Shieldaig, you go through a forest of Scots Pines just before Shieldaig.  I can only assume this is an old native woodland, maybe even an ancient wood, and it stretches from the shores of Loch Dughaill up the slopes of Ben Shieldaig.  It is lovely to drive through, and I'm always happy if I have to linger in a passing place there.  It is difficult to draw off the road, but you can find a spot.

We did stop one time, and I chanced upon a tree with character and ended up reaching for my sketch book.  Here's a photo of the tree in question.
As you know, the image captured in a photo is a distortion of the real thing, as is a sketch. But I think you can see a similarity between the two.  Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but then Matisse did advise 'Exaggerate in the direction of truth'. I also realised that I'd have to draw the tree over two pages in my sketch book to try and describe the crookedness of its character.  I think I used graphite and pencil on this sketch.

I never quite know what I'm going to do with my sketches.  Initially with this one I did nothing.  This tree has such a strong character.  Would it be suitable as the main motif in a painting?  I suppose I shied away from that as I thought it would be too dominant.

And then a few months later I was looking through my sketchbook for ideas for making new photopolymer plates.  I'm trying to do a few smaller plates in order to have cheaper prints to sell.  Anyway, I thought this might make a good picture, and re-drew it in ink on a type of transparent film (MMR film).  This is the drawing.  You can see the edges of the film which is lying on top of paper.

Finally, after exposing this on to photo-sensitive polymer plate (using a lightbox), I ended up with a type of 'etched' plate (but it's not strictly 'etched' as it doesn't go into a bath of acid to create the lines to hold the ink: that's done through a photographic development process: sometimes this process is sometimes called 'solarplate').  The final print which I pulled off the plate is looking like this - it's quite true to the final drawing I made.
So that's the story behind the 'Shieldaig Pine'.  The print is hiding away in one of the back rooms of the VAS exhibition at the RSA until 27th December 2016.  See if you can track it down when you go along and please let me know what you think when you see it in the flesh!

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Harris in Glorious Colour.

Just back from a short break in Harris.  10 days of the best Autumn weather ever. And, of course, time for a few sketches.

Last time we went to Harris we never saw the top of Clisham: this time we climbed it.  We did it the day after we arrived just in case the weather didn't hold.  It was quite a good day - good enough for a sketch on the top - and what a view we got, down over the ridges of the North Harris Hills.  Even managed to make out St Kilda on the horizon.
Day 2 was a bit windy and so we explored a few beaches.  There was Luskentyre, of course.
And the stormy seas on Traigh Iar
And the beach at Horgabost (Niosabost) - a quick sketch as the sand was blowing into my eyes.

Day 3 - a bit more energetic.  We headed to Huisinis, planning to walk over to Loch Cravadale.  It was very windy, and the wind was funneling down the valley, making sketching difficult.  Nevertheless, I sheltered behind a rock and managed to do this.  Wanted to capture the stormy sea!

And I loved the view of the three lochs

And I managed a very quick sketch of Scarp and the other wee island.

Day 4 we had a bit of a lazy day around the cottage.
We were in a lovely cottage at Seilebost  


It was lovely to walk out on the beach

And those pale evening colours

Day 5 - off to Rodel and the walk to Borrisdale.  It was such a warm day and the colour of the grass was such an intense green.  Lunch overlooking the bays with Skye and the mainland on the horizon.
We walked out on the Dun. Looking back, I loved the abstract shapes (very quick sketch!)
Day 6 - a trip to Scalpay and the lighthouse at Eilean Ghlas.  The Shiants were clear and I wanted to capture their shape.

Lunch in that great seafood place in Scalpay (well recommended), and a couple of sketches on the way back to the cottage.

Day 7 -a quieter day.  But still time for sketching - this one is of Ben Luskentyre from the cottage.

Day 8 - it rained a little! But it was good enough for a walk up the Coffin Road.  Trying so hard to work out how to capture the grain of the landscape, the look of the rocks and the grass.

And coming back - more rocks and grass, but a view over one of the lochans to Luskentyre.

Day 9 - over to the Golden Road, and our favourite place - walking out from Manais.  I love the old fishing pools and this is a great example. And that's the mainland on the horizon.

Found an island and a half to sketch at lunchtime (Eilean Mhanais)

And after the walk we headed south again and stopped at this point in the bay of seals.

And then another quick sketch of a lochan on the road back over to Leverburgh, trying to get the colour of the moorland.
Day 10 - weather still good - off to climb the hill at Northton - Ceapabhal.  A steep little climb on a hot day.  Great view from the top over to to North Uist and beyond...looking into the sun. Could also see St Kilda and Hirta clearly from the top.
Then a quick sketch back at the bottom of the hill looking over Northton beach.  Great lazybeds at the bottom of the hill.

And finally a last (very quick) sketch of Seilebost beach, looking toward Luskentyre.  Still with the amazingly bright colours.

We were so lucky.  I went to Harris hoping for some moody skies and stormy atmosphere, but I got some beautiful weather with lovely colours.  Much more challenging for me to take forward!
And a bit of decision-making - which sketches have the makings of a good picture?
Watch this space....

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Just a wee snippet of 'North Coast 500'

The big news in this neck of the woods is the success so far of 'North Coast 500' - the new name given to the roads following the coast around the north of Scotland. The route goes through Lochcarron, but this week Peter and I decided to head north for a few days to sample some different North Coast delights. And of course I took my sketch book with me.

On Tuesday we headed for the area around Kylesku and Scourie and the sun was shining its heart out. Now, I love the drama of the landscape around Kylesku but it was looking positively cheerful this time.  I would have preferred a little more moodiness, but that's no excuse!  And anyway Quinag and the other nearby hills still provide a dramatic backdrop.

Here's my initial sketch of Quinag from Kylesku. I hadn't realised how much it dominates the local landscape. Feel so smug to have climbed it already - well...two of the three tops. Great to see it in its proper context. Must go back and do that top that I missed out!  Next time....

Sitting in the same spot, I did this quick sketch looking up Loch Gleann Dubh. A bit featureless, but I really wanted an accurate contextual sketch for future reference.

Then we went across to Kylestrome and I sketched a panoramic sitting on the shore, looking back south over Kylesku and Loch Glencoul towards what I now think must be the Stack of Glencoul.It's such an iconic little top.

Further north, we found ourselves at Badcall Bay - it wasn't bad at all really (haha).  An array of pretty little islands.  The outlook from Upper Badcall is quite lovely, but lower down the islands look better, I think, against the backdrop of the Drumbeg and Stoer peninsula.  Very sheltered and somewhat midgy.

On Wednesday we wanted to climb something and luckily it was not so hot and sunny.  Ben Stack beckoned. We took the eastern route - the long way up - and were rewarded by some fine easterly views, like this one, looking down Loch More and the smaller loch in front, Loch nan Ealachan. They were interesting views with cloud waterfalls coming over a few of the cols as the day started to warm up a little.

It was a bit gloomy on Wednesday, so my sketch of Foinaven and Arkle from the summit of Ben Stack is somewhat lacking in brightness and hasn't really captured the essence of these stark and chunky hills. But it was worth a try.

The sun was back on Thursday and we were on the road coming south again, but to Achiltibuie, stopping for sketches and photos. Drumbeg was the first stop for a sketch - the view back to Badcall and Eddrachillis Bay, Handa Island in the far distance.

Clashnessie was the next sketching stop. Had to be a colour sketch here, but I found the pastels a bit frustrating for capturing the intensity of the colours. Maybe I was just being too hesitant in using them.

After Lochinver, I couldn't resist getting the watercolours out when I saw this view. There's a lovely spot on the road where you can see Stac Pollaidh, Cul Beag and Cul Mor all lined up, but I couldn't fit them all on the sketch, despite the fact I used a large piece of paper.  I'll leave you to guess which of the hills I've depicted here....

Finally, after so many stops, we arrived at Achiltibuie in glorious sunshine. Only managed one small sketch of the Summer Isles - hard to do them justice on such a perfect, lovely day. I do want to return and spend more time drawing and painting in and around there.  One day soon, I hope. Maybe in winter?

Friday we came home, but we did manage a short walk before we got to Ullapool, down to an old fort, Dun Canna, now reduced to a large pile of boulders. This is, however, a fantastically exposed viewpoint where you can look southwest over the sea towards An Teallach and the surrounding hills, and so that was the obvious subject of my last sketch - trying hard to get the right tonal values.

This was a great wee break and I'm so glad to have gathered a few sketches. I'm hoping that this will re-energise my painting efforts as well as providing some material for new prints.  Time to get down to work!