Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Secret History of a Painting, part 2

In the previous post I explained how I came to remove an old painting from vellum. In this post I will run through the process of creating the new work of a leaf skeleton on the same piece of vellum.

My desk set up for leaf painting, the actual leaf ( and twig) attached with tape on the left, with colour testing on the same sheet of paper. I also have an enlarged photograph so that I can keep track of the vein pattern and a piece of watercolour paper on the right for colour testing and drying off the brush during the dry brush work. I take only the colours that I intend to use and keep them at hand. This is a relatively small piece of vellum so I have taped it to the board with masking tape.
I selected a leaf that had decayed to the point where it had become part skeleton. This is part of the process of decomposition when the softer tissue is decomposed, usually by fungi, leaving the tougher leaf skeleton behind. The remaining skeleton reveals the elaborate transport system for water and nutrients running through the's like a network of interconnected hollow tubes.  Dried leaves make great subjects for beginners simply because unlike live material they don't move and can't wilt or curl up!

To find skeletons look in the leaf litter. I found these holly leaves while wandering around Queens Park, Longton, where I collected a bag full of old leaves, twigs cones and flowers that fallen or been picked and discarded.

Queens Park, Longton. I used to visit this park as a child 40 + years ago! It's much the same today. 
I tape the selected leaf next to the vellum and light with a lamp from the left. Working at x1.5 actual size,  the initial drawing is made on tracing paper and then transfer to the vellum, this keeps pencil lines to an absolute minimum on the vellum.  Erasing on the vellum can leave marks so if you do need to remove anything use the pumice as described in the previous post.  I'm painting a twig with lichens as part of this composition but this post deals specifically with the leaf.

After transferring the drawing to the vellum with tracing paper. I paint a very light quick wash on the remaining dried leaf tissue, using W & N Raw Umber with a touch of Brown Madder, I used Cobalt blue for the highlight. I try to look for the underlying colour first, which is generally quite a bit brighter than the 'overall' look of the leaf.  This initial wash doesn't have to be particularly neat with a subject like this,  apart from at the outer edges which should always be sharp and clean looking! The important thing is to work fast and do not be tempted to go over it. The vellum doesn't like to be too wet and buckles and becomes sticky with too much water. Also if you use too much water the colour will separate and form an ugly thick line at the outer edge, so judging the right amount of water is the key to success when working on vellum.  Remember that unlike paper vellum does not absorb the paint in the same way, the paints sits on the surface.  

When the initial wash is dry add a very light indication of the veins on the leaf tissue and begin to build up the colour  using a dry brush technique. To achieve this effect I use a size 1 Rosemary and Co. spotter brush, The spotter or alternatively miniature brush works well for dry brush because it has short hairs so the paint is almost stippled on. The brush is made wet and dried on kitchen paper to take away the excess water before dipping into the paint. I also keep a piece of watercolour paper at the side of my work to further dry off any excess - it's rally just a case of experimenting to get just the right amount of paint. I find watercolour pans are better for dry brush because they are obviously dryer but also because the can be added in thinner layers. The paint needs to be gradually built up using the same technique but too much paint becomes ugly and lumpy. To achieve the darker cooler shades I add some French Ultramarine to the Umber mix, for the darker parts I added Neutral Tint. Don't be tempted to keep adding more of the same colour to make it darker ( it doesn't! - but instead makes it thicker) but darken the paint using neutral tint. (Neutral tint can be made using red, blue and a touch of yellow, it takes the tone down without altering the colour.    
I continue to build up the dry brush work in layers, gradually modelling the surface of the leaf and working carefully in between the main veins. There were various layers and darker patches, probably degrees of decay caused by fungi.  

The skeleton network is painted using a combination of  small brushes for fine lines. Initially with raw umber and then adding shade with same darker mix as used for the leaf. 

Finally the finishing touches are added to the leaf after putting it away for a while and looking again with   'fresh eyes'. This always gives a better overview of the work.  I find it allows me to see the lights and darks more clearly than working constantly on a piece. My main observation is that the mid rib is too light and needs to be darkened to set it further back into the leaf.

That's it for the disappearing painting and emerging leaf painting! Please feel free to ask any questions.

NEXT:  I'm going to start looking at the colour spectrum. Looking at colour mixes, starting at the warm end with red and pink flowers and working my way through to the cool end.



Sunday, 2 June 2013

Secret History of a Painting, part 1.

This is a two part post about the removal of a painting from a piece of vellum and the emergence of a new work on that same surface.  The piece I'm removing was a small 8 x 10 study of Aquilegia vulgaris with a nectar robbing bee, painted from observations in my garden in Scotland in 2008. It was part of a set exhibited at the RHS Gardeners World show in the same year, for which I was awarded a silver medal. I'm going to replace it with a painting of a decaying leaf  and lichen encrusted twig, found near to my new home at Queens Park, Longton in Staffordshire.
 I used to visit this park as a child and so both paintings have some significance to me .... The old painting has gone.... I know it used to be there and if you look very closely tell tale signs of the impression remain.  I may have put a lot of work into the original painting  ...but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's worth hanging on to.

This June it will be almost a year since I moved back home and time to knuckle down to more painting. Sometimes it feels like I've wasted a lot of time.... but with painting, the thinking time in between productive times can be just as important. In rethinking my approach to work it's apparent that I've barely scratched the surface in learning about light, colour, form and composition etc. I feel  at times that my work has become driven at by the desire to participate in certain exhibitions, joining societies and striving for awards and the 'approval' that seems to accompany botanical art. Not that these things aren't important but of late I find I'm painting things for the sake of meeting some criteria or brief, rather than the things I set out to do when I first started painting plants. So it's time to  remind myself that the work comes first, then if it's good enough it can be entered for an
 exhibition, rather than painting for these shows. Sounds obvious and a bit silly but it's easy to get caught up in this system and for the balance to shift, so it's time to pull things back to the start! For me I can only progress by regular painting and self -exploration of techniques with no particular goal in mind. For others it may be a different story.

 With all of this in mind I've been having a look through some of my older paintings and looking at what I feel is right and wrong with them. With a few of the vellum works I decided to reclaim the vellum and give it a new lease of life. These paintings, some of which are unfinished or gathering dust....have been banished to the work cupboard for a reason....I simply don't like them!
  The fact that paintings on vellum can be removed, altered or corrected is one of the things I love about vellum. The reason for this is that unlike paper vellum is non-absorbent and the paint sits on the surface, although this property makes it more difficult to paint on in the first instance it also makes it easier to remove or correct. 

Some might think it's a shame to remove a painting because it's part of your history as an painter but if it's something that I'm not happy with - it's better to make good use of the vellum by hopefully creating a better painting.
I always enjoy a painting more if it has a bit of a story or personal association with place or person, rather than painting a plant for the sake of a likeness.  I've always been intrigued by corrections and hidden paintings, makes it so much more interesting because it demonstrates the thinking process! I recall reading about a visible correction to the stem position on one of Rory McEwen's tulips in Shirley Sherwood' s book Contemporary Botanical Artists, until I read that I didn't know it was so easy to erase from vellum. 

The work that I'm removing is a relatively small study of Aquilegia with a nectar robbing bee biting into one of the spurs. It's an interesting enough 'story' for a painting, in which the bee effectively 'cheats' the plant out of the nectar reward without offering any service as a pollinator.
But I was never happy with this piece, also it has a mark bottom left over the painting that needed to be cleaned up. The dissection etc. on the left hand side is satisfactory but the right hand side painting of the plant could have been much better, particularly in composition, it looks too stiff and lacks depth....and it's just a bit lifeless and naive.  The decision I had to make was whether to remove the right side and repaint it or to start again with something completely different. Given that there were a few issues, I chose the latter option.

A word of caution: Some colours are easier to lift than others be careful with paints that have staining pigments always check your paints to for staining properties. Cadmium red, cadmium yellow and Winsor violet dioxide are a few of those that stain. Doesn't mean they can't be lifted but they can be difficult.
Also removing large areas of work from larger paintings can be difficult because of warping of the vellum from the original painting.

I use a fine grade pumice powder 240mesh, the type used by jewellers is fairly easy to find online.
A little goes a long way! I start by sprinkling some on the area I want to erase. I also create a small bag of pumice using an old stocking filled with about a teaspoon of pumice and use circular movements to erase the paint.   

Rub gently in circular movements to remove the image.

Once the image is removed, go over the entire piece of vellum with pumice  to ensure the surface is even. For the final smooth finish you can add chalk to the pumice although I haven't found it necessary on this piece. Any stubborn marks can be carefully erased with a scalpel. Sometimes a slight indentation is left but pressing the vellum flattens it out.

Going....going....almost gone!

Once completely cleaned and flattened under some heavy books,
it was time to start the new work.

 The next blog post will be about the emergence of the new work.