I hope you are ready for a big read...
Speaking of 100 Faces, it was a great success. 60 artists took part and we were able to show over 100 paintings. We even squeezed one in from Giles, a student of mine, who arrived with it in a Transit van he had hired.!! Great painting that made quite an impact - probably my fault for suggesting he work larger!
This year we supported Childline and I’m very proud to say that we raised £4000 which, coupled with the Government’s contribu- tion in kind, will enable the charity to recruit and train 3 counsel- lors. Each will be able to support a large number of youngsters in need over the coming year - a really tangible result for our hard work.
I hope you find the newsletter enjoyable and fun and please let me know if there is anything you might like me to cover in the future.
Help chat and ongoing news
As you can probably imagine I get lots of calls and emails from people seeking a bit of advice. It occurred to me recently that many of the questions I answer could also benefit other artists. Consequently I have set up a Facebook community page where anyone can post a question, and I will do my best to answer. It may also be that other artists visiting the page can add their ‘three penneth’ worth. You can also post a painting or any recommenda- tions that take your fancy. If you would like me to offer up a comment or two on a picture just ask.
Here’s the URL : www.facebook.com/mikeskidmore-portraits Please go on there and ‘like’ something so that we can really do some good work.
Mediums and other useful stuff
Within the next few weeks I am launching a set of medium mixes and instructions for use. There will three types of medium in a set for different situations - Mikes Magic Medium (the old favourite), a thicker version Ideal for working directly onto the canvas, lovingly entitled ‘Mike’s snot’ (you can thank some of my very creative students for that one), and a solid version that can be mixed with MMM to create a variety of thicknesses.
I’ve also got a few new surprises in the pipe- line which I will reveal in due course.
Glazing & impasto
Imagine waking in the early hours feeling thirsty. You get out of bed and head downstairs to the kitchen, leaving the lights off so as not to disturb anyone else. You have to negotiate your way through the house by perception and memory. Yet, even though you can see very little, you can sense the space that surrounds you.
A vase on a table has the merest touch of light down one side, yet that is all you need to resolve its size, shape and three dimensions in your mind. And the shadows that lurk in every corner seem to pull you into their depths. Now imagine painting that very same scene, except it isn’t really a scene, it is an experience that draws upon your senses and forces you to use your imagination to resolve what can only be suggested. If you paint-in all of the answers, you remove the intrigue and opportunity for the audience to employ their imagination. So how do you create what is better sensed than seen?
One answer is glazing: layers of thin, transparent paint, diluted with medium, and overlaid to create indistinct shadowy areas and blurred shapes that hint rather than commit. This kind of approach can be seen in many Old Master paintings developed, no doubt, in response to the poorly lit, deeply shadowed dwellings of the time. But this is only one way in which glazing can transform pictures. Being thin, transparent paint, a glaze’s job is to change what it is beneath it. Glazing tints, fogs, softens edges and suggests rather than ‘tells’, so mastering this technique is essential if you want to paint with a classical influence. But first let’s put glazing into context.
The Old Masters
Spanning many years, covering many different genres and encapsulating individual artists who worked in individual ways, The Old Masters are impossible to talk of as ‘one’, except perhaps in their genius. Frans Hals tended to paint in one sitting (alla prima), whilst Durer worked over a series of sittings, Vermeer drew with chalk onto smaller canvasses whilst Rembrandt drew with paint. Some of the Masters used canvas, others wooden panels, some used thin mediums for their glazes, others used ‘jellies’. But what is for sure is that there were common denominators linking many of these great artists, glazing being but one.
The importance of process
Glazing then, as now, is not the be all and end all. It is a technique employed as part of a process. As such, it is important to know its place in the plan. For many of the Masters painting was a business and they were the photographers of their day. Commissions needed to be executed promptly and effectively in order to get their money and get onto the next picture. Consequently, process was essential for them to keep everything moving, and glazing allowed them to achieve desired effects at the right point in the process of creating an artwork. The same approach lies behind the work of many of today’s portrait artists, proving that classical foundations are still relevant.
Glazing and the under-painting
Once a drawing onto the canvas had been completed and the paint had dried, most of the Old Masters would produce a tonal painting using colours such as burnt umber and white, or black and white to produce a grey tone painting (grisaille). This allowed the effect of light and dark within a painting to be explored, without the added complication of colour. It also provided a neutral underpainting that could painted over with glazes, solid paint or both.
This is very much the approach I take when teaching my students. It is easy to understand the goals at each stage, helping them to learn in bite-size pieces and putting techniques like glazing into context.
Because they are transparent layers of paint, glazes are dependent on what is beneath them to be effective. They also depend upon what is adjacent to them to create magic. For example, it is the relationship between thin layers of dark, suggestive paint that pull you inwards, and more opaque, lighter paint coming out of the canvas towards you, that creates the illusion of three dimensions. This can be seen on many of the Old Master’s paint- ings where the paint becomes more substantial as it gets lighter and more certain. Caravaggio’s ‘Supper at Emmaus’ and ‘The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist’ are good examples. The effect is sculptural. Think of a Rem- brandt face where one side is semi-obscured in darkness, hinting at round- ness as it disappears into the gloom, and the other half, bathed in light, jumps out of the painting towards you. It is an incredibly effective technique.
A good exercise to try, using this technique, is to paint an apple against a dark background. Paint the background and dark side of the apple (let’s assume it is red) in a thin mix of burnt umber and alizarin crimson. Once dry mix a glaze of the same colours with a touch of ivory black and add density to the darkest side of the apple. Then mix a mid tone of whatever red is appropriate (only add a touch of medium if the paint feels too dry to blend) and apply it to the lighter side of the apple. Using a blending brush (fan) carefully blend the edges of the red and dark glaze. Finally, apply a simple highlight (I often do this with my finger) and soften its edges before placing a final impasto highlight into the centre. The 3D effect this creates, as a result of the thin and thicker paint working together, can be quite spectacular.
Don’t rush it!
I’ve been asked a number of times about the key to successful glazing, and my answer is always the same. Patience! Glazes can only be applied to dry paint, and each glazed layer needs to dry before a new layer can be added. I might glaze an area several times before I am satisfied with the result, and I know, to my cost, that chancing my arm too early when I haven’t allowed enough time for the paint to dry, can have disastrous consequences. After all, a glaze is created by mixing oil paint with a glazing medium that contains a good quantity of turpentine. Consequently you can be sure that no mercy will be shown on any areas that are not fully dry. If the surface is only slightly tacky, it is still not dry enough, and you could ‘lift’ what is underneath.
It can take as little as a day or as long as two weeks for a painting to be dry enough for glazing, depending upon the medium, ambient temperature, gesso, brand or type of oils, and how much paint is beneath the glaze. The more consistent you are with materials, brands and their use, the easier you can predict
Many of you will have seen family albums with old black and white photographs that have been hand tinted. The overlaid colours are applied in a glaze-like way, with the intention of ensuring the detail on the photograph could be seen through the inks. We can use an identical approach with glazes to create effects both subtle and dramatic. For example, a glaze of vermillion with a touch of burnt umber might be used to warm up a portrait’s cheeks, burnt umber and ivory black might be used to glaze-in the dark recesses of eye sockets and add shadow to teeth and hair. One of Rembrandt’s techniques, particularly in his later work, was to cover his painting in a very light glaze using black. He would then gently wipe away the surface glaze leaving the residue inside his impasto brushstrokes to reinforce them. Very dramatic and well worth a go!
Glazes are also invaluable for muting colours and softening, or blurring, edges such as on the side of a face or hairline. I use a sable brush to gently paint along a hard line with a glaze containing burnt umber for example. I then let it dry and repeat the process until I get the effect I want. It is always best to build up the density rather than going in too heavy too soon – less is always more in this technique.
We can also apply glazes, much like those sweets with the colourful, see-through wrappers, to work with the colour underneath. A glaze of blue will create subtle purples over a red base colour or greens when painted over yellow. Hair colour can be transformed, lips reddened seductively and fingers or cloths used to scumble the surface.
Finally, when the paint within the glaze becomes more opaque, deliberately obscuring some of what is beneath, it is known as velatura.
These are crucial to make glazing work for you, but they are also very personal. If we were to take a straw poll of portrait painters in this country we might find a consensus for turpentine, linseed or poppy oil, but beyond that we might expect big differences. What this means is that you must experiment until you find the medium that works for you. For example, if you like to work with thinner paint throughout your artwork, the obvious choice might be a thin medium. However, you may find that using a jelly-like medium creates a translucent texture from your brush strokes that adds something new and still feels comfortable. Try it, you might be surprised!
The Old Masters employed many different ingredients for their glazes. Turpentine, linseed oil, poppy oil, black oil, litharge, beeswax, mastic varnish, dammar varnish, Venetian turpentine and other ingredients were combined in different ways to produce glaze and thinning mediums. These ranged from ‘jellies’ to a watery consistency, depending upon the master’s preference.
The tale of the surfing cow
I own a boat and I love her. To me she is a fine sight, with her confident lines and crisp white finish. And she has performed her role honourably, as a small day-cruiser, fishing boat, and occasional ‘get-away-from-it-all-for-the- night’ recluse. She has a large outboard sea-engine that draws derisory looks from other boaters as it rumbles along, no doubt they see such a powerful engine as vulgar for the pedestrian river scene. But I don’t really care, because for all that engine has brought me near to injury on several occasions (more on this later), it has also been a life saver, as you will see.
Sadly, I have put my boat up for sale recently. I need the money, so that’s that! However, I will shed a tear when she goes after ten years as my partner in crime.
When I last used her several months ago, I had no idea that it would be my final ‘voyage’, but the memories of that day are now all the more precious because of it. It was a fishing day. Just me and my boat, the river, and an occasional circus of ducks were all the company I was anticipating, as I headed up-stream, away from other boats and civilisation.
Early morning, light just breaking and a chill in the air, brought me around a bend to be confronted, some fifty yards hence, by a large Fresian cow. It was stood in the middle of the river, wide-eyes regarding me with suspi- cion, whilst snorting clouds of dewy breath. Given its predicament, it looked reasonably calm, and I felt no real concern about appoaching it.
The banks on either side were high and lined with reeds and hawthorn bushes, but a stream inlet on the right hand bank looked the likely way in for a curious cow. It seemed like an easy enough task to nudge her towards the inlet, so as a good Samaritan, I moved purposefully into position.Without notice she reared up, giving me a wide-eyed death-stare, bellowed in expletive-coloured cow-speak (or so I imagined), and head butted the side of my boat with enough force to do damage. I gunned the engine, shot forward and decided to leave the ungrateful beast to it. I think I even yelled back at her in expletive-coloured human-speak.
As soon as I had rounded the next bend, however, guilt began to set in. I called the lock keeper and established the name of the likely farmer who owned the adjacent land. A quick call to 118 118 and contact was made, ownership of the cow established, and a grateful farmer primed to rescue his waterlogged asset.
A couple of hours later, sat peacefully with rod in one hand and freshly brewed coffee in the other, my mobile rang. It was the farmer, who immediately asked how big my boat was. “Not large enough to hold a cow” said I!
It transpired that the cow had moved into some reeds on the far bank and refused to budge. A second intrepid Samaritan, by way of a canoeist, had attempted to persuade the cow out from its ‘nest’, only to be met with the same response lavished on me. Unfortunately canoes are not renowned for their cow rustling qualities, and the owner was pitched head over paddle into the river. He had evidently left the scene without so much as a good- bye!
I was asked to undertake the role of persuader. As the fishing was a bit slow and the drama of the situation appealling, I set off to the rescue.
Getting the cow out of the reeds by nudging her with the bow of my boat proved surprising easy, but unfortu- nately she then moved purposefully across the river and under the cover of a giant, overhanging Hawthorn bush. Nasty, spikey things Hawthorns, so I was quite wary about moving into the cow’s new sanctuary, where it could barely be seen within the shadowy depths of the tree. Try as we might, me shouting, the farmer above the bank hitting the bush with his stick, and his farm-hand honking the horn of a nearbye tractor, the cow refused to budge. A bit of head scratching all round ensued, until I remembered that somewhere in the cabin I kept a relic of my sea days – a compressed air-driven fog horn.
Did it work? You bet! I leaned over the prow and got the horn as close to the cow’s backside as possible, then let rip. The beast lunged forward, then dove down under the bush and headed diagonally across the river at one very un-cow like pace. It eventually reached the sanctuary of another bed of reeds some 30 yards up river. This began to look like a long haul, as we still had several hundred yards of water to navigate until we reached an area where bank was kinder.
Time for a new strategy! It came in the form of a rope and a farm-hand, who knelt on my bow in a fair old Cap’n Ahab impression. After several aborted attempts, due to the cow doing a 180 degree turn each time we got close, we managed to get the rope around her neck and tied off to a cleat at the rear of the boat. A slow tug of war ensued, with the cow stubbornly dug in and me gradually applying the throttle. My engine proved the mightier beast on the day, and we were able to get the cow into the deeper water, where it had no choice but to cow- paddle after us as we headed towards our chosen port.
The farm-hand and I exchanged congratulatory back slaps, as we made our way towards the gesticulating farmer. We thought at first he was waving us in enthusiastically, but soon realised his animations were a little too frantic for that. Looking behind us, we were horrified to see that there was no sign of the cow, just a foaming bulge in the water above where the beast was meant to be. I cut the engine in a panic and the boat slowed immediately. After what seemed an eternity, the cow’s head broke surface and it took the deepest, noisiest gaaarrrooooop of breath I have ever heard.
Lesson learned, we moved gingerly forward, watching the cow for signs of any further submarining. It seemed like an age, but we finally got to the bank, where the cow was unceremoniously hauled out of the water by a harness attached to the tractor. End of the adventure, or so we assumed.
Minutes later, when the driver removed the harness from the cow, she lurched to her feet and head-butted him into the air. As soon as he landed, she set upon him with some gusto, eventually to be driven away by the farmer, a stick and a sheepdog.
The postscript to the story is that the cow was fine but the tractor driver was hospitalised with suspected broken ribs. I motored away with the gift of a crate of beer, and permission to fish from the very desirable private stretches of the farmer’s land.
Which ‘you’ should you paint when you paint a self portrait?
have such a blank canvas on which to do your thing.
The choices are many: do you want to paint yourself as you really see yourself or maybe as you believe others see you. You may want to paint yourself as you would like to be seen (this is often the most difficult to ‘admit’) or you may just want to make a point about yourself. A particular mood for example or a setting filled with personal ‘props’ that are important to you.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the opportunity and go for something too safe, because in my experience the whole process around painting yourself provides a valuable opportunity to explore issues and get to know yourself even more than you do now.
I’ve painted myself a few times over the years and find the chapters in my life that each picture represents come vividly to the surface when I look at them. So much more rich in memories than any photograph, some of which are still painful.
In particular, I want to explain the self portrait (below). I painted it to explore and explain something about myself, which is that I am bi-polar (manic depressive to give it a less trendy title).
On the whole I am seen as a very positive, energetic and motivated individual, particularly around other people. But privately, and especially on mornings, I can find life a bit grim.
To cope I have to go through a daily ritual, lying in bed and wrestling with my demons, before I can give myself a kick up the backside and face the day. Medication also helps, although these days I seem to take so many pills I could make a mosaic out of them!
On the rare occasion I find myself in a dark place during the day, in amongst people who know me quite well, I am asked things like ‘what’s up with you, you miserable bugger?’ Once I have explained, people often find it hard to believe and try to sympathise with unhelpful comments such as ‘yeah, I get a bit down too’! So I thought I would produce this painting to try and get across what it feels like to have an illness that is so misunderstood.
So what words of wisdom can I pass on here as a result of the story I’ve just told? Firstly, if you have any challenges about yourself that you want to explore, this is a fantastic way of doing it. I talked to myself, cried, laughed and got angry throughout my self portrait journey, but I’m convinced it did me the world of good. Secondly, by painting a ‘deep’ self portrait you can choose to keep it private or hang it at home for others to mull over. You don’t have to explain it, but you might just make them see you a bit differently. Finally, when you compare the painting to other ‘lighter’ self portraits (as I often do), it helps to get things into perspective.
Never forget, our ability as artists gives us the very rare gift of being able to express things pictorially.
First of all, try to make sure that you take your photographs for reference. This ensures you get the pose and lighting you want, as well as ensuring you ‘own’ the whole artistic process. I usually find this initial stage invaluable for getting to know the subject.
Next, it is much easier to work from black and white pictures in the early stages of a painting, without the added ‘noise’ of colour.
If I use colour photos (and I often don’t at all), I manipulate them on my PC to ensure as realistic flesh tones as possible.
I then work with my PC next to me and paint from the screen image. This allows me to set the image at the perfect size.
So what is the perfect size? Well, if you hold
a large photograph close to your face whilst painting, this would be equivalent to standing toe-to-toe with your subject. You would then
be overloaded with information and forced to copy what is in front of you.
Painting from life at a distance, removes too much detail and allows you to paint an impression. Consequently, for a more realistic and impressionistic painting, set your photographic reference to a size that mimics the distance you would paint a live model from. The largest head size I would use in a painting would be about 4” set about 2-3’ away from me.
An artist I admire
Thomas Eakins, the American realist, created paintings of incredible depth and soul. His techniques were amazing and I have learned heaps from his pictures.
You can see his work at: www.thomaseakins.org
Well that's your lot until the next one which will out around Christmas.