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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Life Drawing from the past year.

As usual, life drawing is something I always like to keep working at.  I think it's especially important for teachers of art to keep life drawing.

Many artists will say that because they are not involved in representational art that they don't need to work from life, well if that's the case don't listen to any of their objective criticisms.

If those artists cannot prove that they have spatial awareness and knowledge of proportion, then all they have for you are opinions that could equally have come from someone of no training.  Should a journeyman tradesperson listen to the criticisms of a lackey?

On a base level it's possible for a lackey to observe that something has been well made, and that is equally true of art.  It's good to hear criticisms, but for any technical observations and the suitability of certain media to express ideas, those should fall upon deaf ears.

Too often, and increasingly, student artists are being 'taught' by those who have no knowledge of the life room or critical aspects of art.  This would be fine if the world of art was exclusively the domain of conceptual artists, however this is not the case. 

A good training in all the fundamentals of art is needed, I despair when I learn that artists who last set foot in the life room decades ago, if at all, are teaching in the life room.  Likewise, it's equally wrong for an artist whose skills are the primary domain of the life room to solely teach conceptual art. 

It may seem I have a chip on my shoulder, I do.  The world of art is something I have dedicated my life to, I hate to see the quality of our education eroded by 'bean counters' and 'paper pushers' who are cutting costs with little care for students.

Below are some of my favourite drawings that I produced from life over the past year.

Compressed Charcoal, prolonged gesture drawing.

Quick tonal study, charcoal and compressed charcoal

 Conté crayon


Conté crayon

Charcoal and conté crayon

 Charcoal gesture drawing

Sepia chalk

Charcoal and conté on toned paper

If you are a disillusioned art student, try reading 'Letters to a Young Poet' by Rainer Maria Rilke.  It's a book with particularly poignant observations for the student of creativity, It helped me ground some of my thoughts about art while I was a student. 

Thank you for reading.  Please check back soon. 

If you are interested in my work, please take a look at my website, or my facebook page.  Thanks again.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

Dragon Sculpture

So, I really admire the work of the Shiflett Brothers, google them because their work is incredible! I thought I'd like to try something similar, and so went about researching the materials and techniques that I would need to create a piece of sculpture in the style of these amazing artists.

I should mention, that I've not finished the sculpture. Typically, life gets in the way. I do really want to carry on with it because it's great fun!

First I started work on the armature, then later using wire attached it to an MDF board with a bolt, secured by a nut and washer. I found this a little inadequate, so if you're doing something similar make sure your armature is sturdy, I've tried various times to pad mine out. I found some artists using pieces of pipe, and next time I'll try that. Unfortunately I couldn't find a proper attachment to use a pipe from the local B 'n' Q.

Next, I fleshed out the skeleton by using more wire and milliput, I've researched that many artists in the States use plumbers putty, which is impregnated with metal for this...though I don't think it's available here in the UK. If you know of a better substitute, please let me know, apparently milliput is resistant to baking but it's not entirely heat resistant. So, when I get round to baking the sculpture it could be a mistake waiting to happen.

For the wings I went on to attach mesh around the skeletal structure of the wings. The mesh should make a good base for the sculpey to stick to.

I should point out, that in order for the sculpey to stick to some of the metal wire, I took the precaution of creating a 'tooth' by rubbing the surface with a small model maker's file.

Using the sculpey you can see I've started to pad out the muscle structure of the dragon. The sculpey I'm using is the pink stuff, I find it's a little too malleable for me at the moment. I read that some artists mix it with the firm sculpey (grey) to get a good consistency, so in the future I will probably buy an old pasta roller to try that.

This is a close up of the work I'm doing on the face of the dragon. I will need to make the structure a little more girthy. Here  I'm using the firm sculpey on parts of the sculpture that I want to remain sharp looking so the detail is retained.

At the bottom of the picture, you can see the bolts that I've used to attach my sculpt to a board. I found that while I was trying to model the detail, the sculpture would move on the wire, and when I tried to hold it, I would smudge some of the detail. This is a learning process, however!

You can also see that I started to pad out the wings with the firm sculpey, I'll create and add textures later.

I thought I would also attach the dragon to a base, I did a little sketch where the best solution appeared to be perching the dragon on top of a ruined tower. So, after making little bricks out of tinfoil, and scrunching up the basic form of a landscape, I started to cover it in sculpey. Below is the progress so far on the base.

Well, that's the progress I've made. I hope that in the year ahead I'm able to find the time to make more progress. Keep checking back to see how it goes...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


I have a 'thing' for portraits.  It may be because portraits are so challenging.  If you don't get the detail correct, down to fractions of a millimetre, the likeness just isn't there.  Portraiture is the challenge of capturing the essence of what makes someone who they are, this holds true whether you believe in the existence of the soul or not.  Though the challenge of capturing a likeness is fleeting, it is something tangible...measurable, it is within reach.  

With the ambiguity attached to the value of art these days, the comparatively clear cut nature of portraiture makes it a safe haven for me; a dark cave that I can crawl into when I'm feeling fragile, when the integrity of everything else I do seems under attack.

Self-portrait, oil on panel.

I enjoy making portraits from life.  The challenge of drawing from life compounds the difficulty of maintaining a likeness, after all your subject is moving and breathing!  I enjoy that in front of your model, drawing and painting, or sculpture, becomes a social experience...after all art can be so lonely and in that sense even a little masochistic!  It's that social experience that can help gain an insight into the model's personality, which in turn can be injected into the artwork.

Of course, all this isn't to dismiss making art with the aid of a camera!  Working from a photograph can help to get a likeness, it can help to tune your eye into noticing the smallest of details.  It is also incredibly convenient.  However, those benefits come with problems.  The eye is no longer the eye of the artist, the artist is mechanical or digital.  I think it's because of this disconnect between the model and the artist that helps us to become more objective when drawing from a photo.

The complexities involved in trying to make a viewer engage with a portrait, to make it such as they could almost commune with that 'person', are what makes portraiture so compelling for me.  The minutia of likeness does not necessarily mean you have a good portrait, beyond likeness is the personality...what some would call the soul.  This can only be grasped through an intuition and only when the artist has communicated with the model, until then the portrait remains a shallow interpretation and without any graphological reference that can easily relate to the personality of the sitter.

Every week I work with adults who have learning difficulties.  I help them to make art.  From time to time I make sketches of them as they work.  In some cases I can produce a likeness that I am happy with from only seconds of drawing, I think this is because with some people, their personality is etched onto their faces!  This isn't to say that I find people who are difficult to draw conceited, simply that they have more delicate features.  For this reason, I find men often easier to draw from than women! Older people are easier for me to draw, too.

Pencil sketch on copy paper.
The above drawing was done on scrap paper while I was running a class at an adult resource centre.  It's quite simply drawn, taking up to or just over a minute or so to complete.  No measuring took place to map out the proportions of the figure.  Note, he is holding the brush in an odd way,  he was actually doing that!  If the portrait was of a young woman or girl,  I don't think I would have been able to achieve a likeness within that time because of the delicacy of feminine features, I would have to refine the proportions repeatedly by measuring.  In a face with more 'character', where the primary features are larger, I find that the distance between those features does not matter quite as much to achieve a likeness.  I need to be careful not to step into the realm of caricature sometimes though!

Pencil drawing on scrap paper, before handing the drawing to the service user for him to work with.
Again, the above drawing was completed on scrap paper, taking a few minutes.  Once I was happy with the drawing I gave it over to the subject for him to work with.  I'm always interested in the model somehow imprinting their identity onto the work.  I particularly like how the subject's bold, incised, marks sit right over the top of mine, even though they exist in the same space.

Drawing with felt tip pen additions.
In this particular instance, I gave my sitter a different media to work on the drawing with, felt pen.  I really like how she worked around my drawing, showing it some respect.  Unlike the last drawing, where the service user drew right over the top of my work.  It doesn't bother me either way, if my work is destroyed by the model, I find the behaviour of their 'signature marks' really compelling in how they reveal something of their personality, certainly more than I could alone.  

I am interested in revealing something of the person modelling for a portrait.  Sometimes I find that difficult to do, and often I can 'overthink it', preventing me from making work!  It would be far easier to just do the portrait and let it speak for itself, but I have a habit of complicating things!

When I was an undergraduate, I deliberately worked from photographs to achieve the 'conceptual' aim of imbuing the final portrait with some form of personal history relating to the person I was drawing.  There are benefits from working from a photograph.  A photograph can help distance the artist from the personality of the sitter, making it easier to achieve a likeness.  However, I often feel this can bleach the character out of the work.  As an artist, your viewer ends up looking at your interpretation of a photograph, rather than an interpretation of a personality. 

I deliberately worked from photographs in order to focus on expressive mark making, rather than being distracted by personality.  In this way, I wanted my drawing and marks to be more visible.  I took small passport sized photos and enlarged them manually, using willow charcoal, to A1 in size, thereby making it easier for me to work losely.  I wanted the viewer to somehow glean a little of my personality from the marks that I made.  If the portrait was tightly or photographically rendered, it would be difficult to seperate the work from any other photorealist drawing or painting. 

After completing my drawing, I displayed it alongside some sort of artifact relating to the history of the person presented in the portrait.

Apocryphal, A1 charcoal drawing on Fabriano paper, displayed with handwriting sample and graphological analysis.

The 'artifact' I used for the above drawing was a sample of handwriting that I had the subject write.  I asked her to note a few paragraphs that somehow described her as a person.  Interestingly, she chose to write an exerpt from "Desiderada".  I then had the writing professionally analysed by a graphologist to present the viewer with a deeper insight into the person drawn.

Token, A1 charcoal drawing on Fabriano paper, handwritten letter notifying recipient of the death of a soldier, wooden porthole looking onto a wall drawing.

Fashion Statement, A1 charcoal drawing on Fabriano paper, fox 'scarf' with imitation label sewn on.
In these portraits, I deliberately I took something out of them by using a photograph to draw them from.  The subjects were young in the photos, vital.  Different people than how they exist today.  I then tried to put that distant element of personality back into the work by presenting a component of the subjects' life alongside the drawing, this took the form of an object that meant/means something to them. 

The following drawings are done from life.  You might be able to tell the difference from those completed from photos.  The first two are from the same model, even though you might be led to believe there are from two different models!  The difference between the two drawings is in part due to a change in media, pencil over pastel.  When working from life, the demeanor and mood of the model can change from sitting to sitting.  In fact, it's often a good idea to let the model relax into a pose for a few minutes before drawing.  This change in mood could also contribute to a change in likeness.  Becoming familiar with a model's personality also alters the way you see them and can also contribute to the challenges of working from life by altering your interpretation of the way they look.

I asked this particular model, Gemma, to sit for me because of her particularly striking features.  I knew I would have a hard time drawing her; she has very delicate eyes and subtle jawline in contrast to strong cheekbones and dynamic angles in the facial features.  I would like to complete a painting with her as the main character.  I've got a few ideas as to what form that might take, but nothing concrete yet.

First drawing of Gemma, I think the distance of the philtrum- between the lips and the nose is a little too long, the cheekbone may also be too sharp.  Sometimes, you can only see those things after being away from a drawing for a while.
Sometimes, when drawing from life, you can get to close to the work.  I don't mean physically close.  I mean that your mistakes can often be difficult to see.  At this stage, take a break and look at the piece in a mirror.  If you have time, take a photo of the drawing or painting and flip it, rotate it and zoom in and out with photoshop or another computer program; it can help to see your mistakes by distancing yourself from the work.

My next drawing of Gemma was done with pastel on a toned ground.  The stylization wasn't really deliberate.  I think it was a result of feeling more relaxed with her as a model and also with pastel  being a more liberating medium.  The angle of her head is slightly different to the last pose, with more of the cheekbone visible. 

Pastel on toned paper.
When drawing a long pose, I tend to map out the features as best I can, lightly at first, after sketching in the basic angle of the head.  This process is easier if the person has more obvious, less delicate features.  More time can then be spent refining the details, adding tone and resolution to the picture as a whole.

Alex.  Long pose drawing.  Graphite on paper.
One of the things I admire, particularly in painting, is when a likeness is captured in as few brush strokes as possible.  That, to me, takes more skill than an almost photographically rendered portrait done with thousands of tiny brush strokes.  For this reason, when I'm painting a portrait, I tend to paint them Alla Prima style.  That is, I paint them opaquely and spontaneously.  It has been quite some time since I painted a portrait in the imprimatura style, essentially layers of semi-transparent paint in the fat over lean manner, painted over a toned ground. I tend to reserve the tighter painting style of imprimatura for when I am attempting to illustrate an idea or concept.

Alla Prima portrait study. Oil on Canvas.

For all the reasons mentioned, I love the challenge of painting a good portrait.  Sometimes I yearn to paint a photorealistic portrait, in the imprimatura fashion, almost to prove to myself that I can.  Perhaps that's what I'll do for the painting of Gemma.  Of course, then I wonder...why paint it like that?  What is that manner of painting adding to the concept of the portrait?

I want to work on a portrait for next year.  I need to think on it less, and just paint!

Friday, September 10, 2010


Around five or six weeks ago I rented a space on Kinnoull hill, near Perth, to see if it would be suitable for art classes.  The space is a structure that looks a little like a shed but it has heating, water, toilets and even a cafe on the other side.  While I was there, I used the shed as a base to go painting from and to do a little drawing over the weekend...

The Shed, Kinnoull Hill, Perth

The shed was a decent space, however there were a couple of drawbacks.  One problem was that the heating seems minimal, I mean, you can see daylight through the gaps in the planks of wood, and that means that in Scotland it would be uncomfortable to run classes from there any time after September.  Another problem with the shed is that the toilets, to the back of the class room, are advertised by the forestry commission as public toilets.  This means that during a class, you could potentially get loads of people disrupting the class trying to make their way to the loo!  Still, other than those shortcomings the space is good, provided that it's a warm day, and there are no bus loads of thimble bladdered tourists!

Inside the shed.
So, after having a look around I went for a wander, taking pen and paper with me.  The first drawing I completed while at the shed was...

Dip pen and ink drawing.
A fir cone of some description.  The reason for my hesitation, was that I wanted you to guess.  You see, the first passer by that looked at the finished article had absolutely no idea what it was!  Maybe she wasn't wearing her glasses!  

The second drawing of the weekend took a good couple of hours!  I set up my little stool, donated by Nicky from the cafe, in the middle of a forest path and began to draw some branches and foliage.  This was to the chagrin of several passing horses, who seemed startled to see a five legged person attached to a pencil and drawing board!  In fact, I was lucky at one stage not to be tramped by a VERY large Clydesdale horse!

Pencil on paper.
Finally, I ventured out with my easel to complete a painting.  I made sure I was not blocking any paths and picked my position well.  No cross-winds to blow the panel off the easel or dry my acrylic paint too quickly! 

View from Kinoull over Perth, Acrylic on Panel.
After a reasonably productive weekend of painting and drawing from nature, I was able to give the prospect of hiring the shed some real consideration.  However, I think for this year, I will give it a miss.  Next year I'll make sure to produce a programme of classes in advance that participants may sign up to.  It's no use stumping up money for a venue when people may not even appear!!

Friday, July 23, 2010


I have a few things in the pipeline for y'all to look at in the next wee while. I've been working on some portraits for a project that I plan on completing within the next six months or so. It's going to be a large scale painting in oils, based off a live model. I have been working on the prep for that but also continually working on some pencil drawings that include some of the people I work with. Anyway, those are for another day, today I want to post some of my photographs for you to look at.

I won't mess around with titles or implied 'content', I'm just going to let them speak for themselves. Please remember, these pictures are mine, do not repost or use them without my permission. That would be a breach of copyright, and dishonest. I've not put watermarks on them because I don't want to interfere with the integrity of the photos.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


I thought it was about time I posted some of my landscape work.

Recently, I went on holiday to Skye, the landscape is incredible there. I managed to spend a day painting up in the hills, looking over to Kintail and then in the other direction, towards Kyle.

I think I composed this picture better when I took a photograph of it, however, I am still happy with how a few things turned out, notably the water and mixture of trees and heather in the foreground.

This picture is my favourite of the two I painted overlooking Loch Duich. It's my favourite because of the way the loch meanders past the sandy bank and leads the eye into the composition. I also think that my treatment of the undergrowth, with the heather in the distance is more successful.

When I made this painting I met with a friend of mine near Blairgowrie, we decided to go to a spot I always noticed when driving over the bridge in the picture. The painting is of theTay, where it meets the Ericht in the distance. It's quite a popular fishing beat, so boats would frequently drift close to the shore to see what we were doing.

This painting is, I think, one of my more successful landscape paintings. It was such a beautiful evening, the light was perfect. Although, a horse in the field opposite kept trying to scare me by galloping, full pelt, straight at me. I like the posts, colour combinations and composition in this painting. Even though it's painted very roughly and opaquely.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Life Drawing

Those of you that know my work, will be aware that I put a big emphasis on drawing from the human figure. It keeps me aware of my drawing process and helps me to stay loose in my work. I'm a firm believer, that people who teach drawing, or art from observation, should also practise. It's no good to have a teacher that cannot remember the pitfalls of observational drawing from when he or she last worked from life, perhaps in their first years of art school!!!

The figure drawing classes have finished for this block, and so I'm going to post 10 of my favourite drawings from this session. Please, feel free to comment.

I find that since I left art college, I did an MFA in the States, my work has lacked the sort of drive that can only be achieved through constructive criticism. Without some sort of measure, there is no way of knowing how good...or bad my drawing is. So, tell me if it's crap, but if you do please also tell me why!

OK, if you want to know sizes, media etc, just ask. The same goes if you have any questions about technique.

This was a really quick pose, between five and ten minute. I like it because of the articulation of the foot. You can tell it's going behind the right leg. I'm quite chuffed I managed to describe that in such a short space of time. I think the quick shading works on this, but I've drawn a few where the texture of shading with the charcoal on its side picks up too much texture from the board underneath the page, and it ends up interfering with the detail of the drawing.

I completed this pose on a charcoal ground, I was happy with the way I managed to define the tone. If I had a little longer, I may have added white highlights and depth to the shadow with compressed charcoal, but then I may have overworked it. I'm a little unsure if the ground plane actually looks convincing, but that's just a little niggle.

I really enjoy working with conté. It's really hard to cover up mistakes because it's not nearly as erasable as other media. The entirety of this drawing is very immediate with no erasing, I'm pleased with the way it turned out. I like that sepia conté can convey temperature as well as tone. Sometimes I find reclining poses difficult, but if I can crack them they often become my best drawings.

This drawing was a very quick iterative pose. This is a pose where you are given a minute to describe each action, and then the model goes on to the next stage of the pose. This was completed with compressed charcoal, rubbed down between each stage. I'm really happy with how it turned out. I had this one framed by the "picture framer" in Perth. It sits really well in its frame, I think I might keep this one and put it on my wall.

For this picture, we were given a set time to lay down the drawing, ten minutes or so, and then we were asked to put in a few selective, but descriptive lines. Again, it's done on a charcoal ground, I do that to tone down the paper and give 3 tones to the drawing from the start.

We don't often get to draw from the male model at our group, simply due to a shortage of models. I can't quite place how long this took, but I'm happy with the results. Again, it was on a tonal ground with rubbed highlights and blocked in shadows with compressed charcoal. We had a spotlight to produce a dramatic shadow behind the model, it definitely adds to the drama of the pose. Perhaps I was in a little danger of being fussy with the feet and some of the verticals/diagonals. Still, I'm happy with the depth in the work.

This is one of my favourites from the session. Toned cream paper with sepia chalk, white and black conté. Ended up giving the model one of my sketches. It's not often I'm asked to do that, and he did a good job, so I gave him one of the gesture drawings.

This drawing is a big one, done on large format pastel paper. It's basically compressed charcoal with white conté.

Conté crayon with some very selective white highlights. I'm pretty happy with this one, the model has pretty toned shoulders, I'm guessing she swims or something. I found it a little tough to get the right proportions there.

Large scale drawing on lining paper. Conté again. I'm happy with the amount of this drawing I managed to resolve in the given time. Roughly an hour and a half.

All the drawings here will eventually be offered for sale through my website, if they're not already. Check there for details.

Prices range from $70. Note, I'm based in the UK even though prices are in dollars.