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Artists Tips


Drawing and Watercolour

Contributed by: Julian Bruere

In May 2014, I visited an exhibition of The Royal Academy of Arts at the Bendigo Art Gallery. This exhibition highlighted for me the love of drawing and structure in art. It had all manner of developmental and art training exercises on display supporting the Academy's role as a teaching institution. What's not to admire and envy in a Grecian torso cast study or the equine sketch for a much grander work. Perhaps my illustration and advertising background makes me a little more receptive and appreciative of the old academic disciplines, I certainly envy the training they received. My drawing skills were founded in the line illustrations of stereo equipment and speakers for Penny Lane Audio, and later the real estate drawings for The Age classifieds and even later the rendered background layouts for animation projects, they all gave me the opportunity to develop as a drawer, and though not classic did give me a drawing board to learn and perfect perspective, light & shade and touch.

Watercolour is my chosen medium, mostly because its transparency works so well with the drawn line. It is a challenging paint and can be unforgiving and difficult to manage, 'the devil's medium' as an oiliest once told me, these are however the very qualities I most enjoy about painting in watercolour. The medium is also very subtle and delicate which offers sensitivity to a work and is ideal for the coaxing out of detail and texture. The ability to surprise and add excitement to a painting outweighs the occasional imperfection.

So for me my paintings are a balance of drawn detail with watercolour washes and an array of interferences and textures like rubs, splatters, scratches, turps, salt, bombs and breadcrumbs. Some works are more one than the other so a detailed architectural subject will be approached differently to that of a dynamic and flowing seascape. Each work calls for its own 'brush', there is a regard for the value of drawing but a real enjoyment of the less disciplined but more spontaneous aspects of the watercolour medium. 

What artist use...

300gsm Cold Press Saunders or Arches Paper.

A variety of brushes, large to fine with combs and riggers required for detail and a coarse brush for rubs.

Palette: Cadmium Yellow and Red, Pyrrol Orange, Alizarin Crimson, Raw and Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber, Cobalt or Windsor Violet, Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Cobalt Turquoise, White Gouache.

Tissues, Spray Bottle, Bread Crumbs, Salt, Sharp Knife.

Most watercolourists know the different things that this medium offers. It is essential to be able to paint steady flat washes, to blend one colour into another and to have a reasonable understanding of what colours do when mixed or glazed over top of each other. To know the difference between smooth, cold press and rough surfaced watercolour paper and their weights. Paint brushes can offer varied results other than large and small there is round, ovals, flat, filbert comb, rigger, and mop. Watercolour is also a terrific medium to experiment with, different interferences and textures can be used.

Salt, turps, breadcrumbs, create and assist a variety of texture looks and effect the drying time of washes while changing as they dry as well. But my favourites and more often used are, mines, dried spots of colour particularly burnt sienna that go off when a wash is applied across the area. Rubs with a bristly brush or a tissue will remove wet (and dry) paint with gentle rubbing, fantastic for softening edges or working in lighter areas. Splatter with water, some colour or gouache, applied with toothbrush or brush flicks over wet or dry washes, and brings life and sparkle into dull spots. Scratching with a knife, credit cards but the best is your fingernails if allowed to grow long.

Step by Step

The picture presented itself on one of my many trips to Yea (Vic). The shed has obvious appeal but the wintery back lighting across the scene was why I stopped the car.

  • My painting begins with a B pencil and often this is taken to quite a rendered level as I explore the composition, the old shed elements I like to get right early rather than leave to the chance of a brushstroke later.
  • The composition and lighting are of great interest and the pencil exploration helps to deliver a design, you will note that I'm happy to invent some elements from memory such as the foreground fencing and an extra door and room to the left.
  • Some explorative washes over the pencil work in burnt sienna, cobalt blue or raw umber confirm the main elements and cue the light.
  • An overall transparent wash connects all the parts into one painting with warm and cool lighter areas resolved, some light splatters of a stain or water over wet and drying areas create some oddities for later. As this wash dries the moment exists to scratch back some lights in the paddock or a track perhaps, (timing is important and gained through trial and error).
  • On the rusting roof and around the foreground are small nuggets of burnt sienna or raw sienna applied without water with a fine brush and allowed to dry create small colour explosions (hence bombs)when later washes are applied. The beautiful mauves and warms of the leafless trees behind the shed are worked up using a filbert comb brush.
  • The darks and tree information are added in with some variations scratches etc as required. The foreground is given some treatment with a sprinkle of breadcrumbs and various rubs and scratches.
  • As in step three the whole painting is worked to a more finished level with edges strengthened or softened as required and the addition of textures for grass, wire, wood grain etc. Splatters of light and dark continue the distress and roughing up of the painting.

Three drawing approaches to consider

  • From Life, observational drawing and rendering outdoors or studio setup, it is the hardest thing to draw three dimensions by eye alone, however if time permits and you do it regularly your observation and translation gets better. It's a drawing approach that answers questions as they arise because you can go and investigate closer or look from a slightly different view point.
  • From imagination or memory, this is an exciting and less measurable way of drawing as there is no set reference, it's your thoughts imagination and memory after all and yours to judge how well it's been done.
  • From reference, photo etc,

a: by eye, similar to Life drawing but in two dimensions only and the reference remains stable allowing as much time as required to draw up the subject.

b: squared off and re squared onto a sheet of paper, allows for a trusted image to develop as the proportions are easier to record.

c: projection or traced with the ongoing debate as to its integrity, but it is a trusted and rewarding approach.

An artist would like to be equally good with any of these approaches and choose the right drawing method for the moment.

Tonal drawing will provide a foundation that requires only limited washes to produce an immediate painting, the images of 'Plumbing Supplies' and 'A Scottish Peak' are little more than stained drawings with no more than two to four washes applied over pencil rendered drawings. It is stimulating to work on a subject with the hours of drawing at risk with the vagaries of watercolour, not all surprises are good or bad.

Key Points

Find the drawing approach that best suits you or the subject.

The use of stains and glazes with a rendered drawing can deliver a credible translation of a subject.

Maintaining the detail and lighting, turning the drawing into the painting is a personal process but it is good to have a style or look that you are working towards, often pulling back a little helps, subdued colour, softer edges a subtle touch give works a confidence and less heavy handed finish.

Develop, practice and use the appropriate technique for the subject. Bread Crumbs, scratch, rubs, colour bombs, splatter etc. may become part of your brush selection if it creates 'the right look'

4 Best pieces of advice

Paint and draw in a sketch book regularly, this is an ideal way of recording your travels and a personal space for developing your painting skills and thoughts.

Take time to understand your painting/subject. Spend the necessary time within a painting to resolve elements before painting.

Choose the right style and technique to best suit a subject, not every technique or texture will be required in a painting. Subtlety in your work is also important.

Look at other artist's work, particularly Early Australian and Renaissance and European paintings for their academic training and understanding of composition.

Tips for success with Portraits - Pastel

Contributed by: Barbara McManus

Build up the layers gradually using small strokes and there will not be an overload of pastel (no rubbing).  Just as when you work with oils the darks shouldn't be laid on too heavily, but the lights can be applied quite thickly towards the finish.  If a piece of work has failed, more often than not it is because the lights are not brilliant enough.

Tips for both Oils and Pastels

Block in largest areas first ? usually the mid tones.  Balance warm/cool shades by constantly comparing the tones e.g 'Is it warmer?  Cooler? and is it darker? lighter?  Do not leave the background out.  This area creates edges, lost and found.  Placement on canvas/paper is important.  Use a viewer to set the subject pleasingly.  The sitter sliding down at the base with a huge space at the top is not a good look.  Lastly, don't expect the work to look finished almost at the beginning.

Enjoy your journey.

Note About Unframed Paintings

Unframed works have been successfully submitted by our members for many years. Although not a great believer of this practice, especially when applied to traditional paintings, it does allow for a more economical approach, particularly when the painting is of a very large size.

Today's costs of framing can be a real put-off. But I do agree that a minimalist approach to art is often complimented by an unrestricted edge which allows the painting to spill into the room and not be constrained by sometimes flamboyant frames that totally dictate to the work and deny it room to breath.

One issue however has come to the attention of the selection committee when needing to decide whether or not the works qualify for inclusion when unframed. That is the unpainted and sometimes visible stapling on the edge of the painting, which tends to leave a rather unfinished appearance, not to mention an unprofessional finish of the completed works.

The VAS selection committee gives notice that unframed works require the edges of a painting to be included in the works and should show a continuation of the painted surface.

A guide to solvents

Contributed by: Nell Frysteen

Over the years I have been involved with painting, I have heard many opinions concerning the use of solvents or turpentines for either diluting the medium used or for cleaning brushes.

As I am now becoming increasingly aware of health issues concerning what was once considered "safe" products I decided to do some research.

I referred to "The Artist's Complete Health And Safety Guide" by Monona Rossol. As this was written to comply with Canadian and USA right to know laws, I felt that the research would have been rigorous and thoroughly tested.

It was actually REALLY shocking to learn some of the dangerous effects that some art materials can have on the artist's health, with reproductive systems causing birth defects, destruction of brain cells... let alone the explosive or flammable properties that can cause serious accidents.

The section on solvent use had these rules which I have paraphrased:

  • Try to find replacements such as water based products if possible
  • Use the least toxic product possible
  • Collect Material Safety Data sheets and display them where all users can refer to them.
  • Avoid breathing vapours. Work in a well ventilated space and have SEALED containers for rags and cleaning materials.
  • Avoid skin contact. If you need to touch any solvents use protective gloves or barrier creams.
  • Protect eyes from solvents if there is a chance of splashing or spillage. Protective goggles and eye wash products should be on hand.
  • Protect against fire or explosion. No naked flames or sparks, fire extinguishers suitable for the solvents in use to be at hand.
  • Dispose of solvents with regard to environmental issues and other health concerns. They are DEFINITELY not to be put down the sink or into water drains.

From the listings of all the solvents that would be appropriate for oil painting, 2 are the least dangerous/toxic.  This opinion is based on effects of odour, the evaporative rate, the flash point and any specific toxic effects.

Citrus oil or citrus turpentine is recommended as it has a very slow evaporative rate. It is toxic to rats but is safer than turpentine. Turpentine can cause allergies eg. Dermatitis, asthma, kidney and bladder damage.

The other substitute for turpentine is odourless solvent.

Both of these products are much more expensive than turps. My solution is to decant the used solvent into sealed containers and allow the solid pigments to settle to the bottom. Once the clear solvent is settled I then pour the usable solvent into new containers. Note that there can be some staining of the solvent due to some pigments which are dye based but this seems to have little effect on cleaning brushes.