Sunday, February 20, 2005

I’ve currently been working on a pastel sketch that I made some years ago on a painting course run by Claire Spencer PS at Westhope College in Shropshire. I think it was Claire’s suggestion to use a portrait format for an in situ pastel sketch of a view along Wenlock Edge. That did not present any particular problem but I never really resolved the composition satisfactorily and my enthusiasm for the painting went off the boil. I discovered the unfinished picture in a folder of work and decided that I ought to take another look at it.

The decision to work on it again was encouraged by my current preoccupation with ‘Land and Light’ as a progressing theme and the happy memories of the late summer weather when it was begun. Thinking about a strategy my first idea was to catch the sunlight on the rising slopes of Wenlock Edge. The second was to simplify the foreground in some way. In the original sketch there was a broken hedge in the foreground. I had been lured by its rampant summer growth much of which had gone to seed. The seed heads created interesting forms but they were really a distraction - but what to do?

The solution was found by simply playing! The joy of pastel is the pleasure taken in just making marks - it offers almost unlimited possibilities to rub, blend, scrape, and add new marks at will. So the first task was to rub out the hedge by making random marks with dark pastels and blending them – great fun. Then the thought occurred that a grassy path emerging from shade would create a simple foreground that would emphasise the feeling of sunlight on the rising ground beyond. All that remained then was to create a little more interest in the sky and enjoy a little more creative mark making in the fields with complementary colours.

After an hour or so of total absorption I felt the painting was finished – and as Alwyn Crawshaw used to say at the end of his TV demonstrations, ‘”I’m happy with that!”

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Whenever possible I try to avoid using fixative because it can create problems. Too heavy application renders the paper surface hard and smooth which makes further drawing and blending difficult. The problem can be solved when using robust grounds like board by roughing the surface with fine sandpaper. This happened when I applied fixative to the face and hair – fortunately Canson is a heavy robust paper which can take a certain amount of rough treatment so no real harm was done.

For this portrait an intermediate fix was needed to seal the underdrawing and prevent it lifting and soiling the final marks. Faces generally have to be highly worked in order to render the subtle tones created around the eyes, nose and mouth. Even the lightest pastel sticks make strong marks which have to be softened when drawing delicate forms. This detail from the completed portrait shows the degree finish that can be achieved.

My strategy was to treat crown of the hat and nightdress more loosely to focus attention on face. The best laid plans though collapse if you get too engrossed in mark making. I began suggesting the straw weave of the hat and the marks took over – I could have brushed them off of course but I was beguiled by the effect they created so it was too late.

Framing is another aspect of the craft of painting that I agonise over. Victor Ambrus lovely pastel drawings on light tinted Ingres paper look fine in a wide ivory mount inside a narrow frame. A full painterly treatment needs a different form of presentation. I had to hand a wide frame which had a gold finish, a slip made from a length of glass bead was used to separate glass and painting. There was a problem – the painting would need to be cropped.

I believe portrait heads need space within the frame if they are not to look imprisoned. The role model who led me to this conclusion is Goya, his head and shoulder portraits are all drawn sight size and the chest is often fully facing the viewer. The width of the shoulders then creates the required space for the head. I had drawn a sideways pose and I think the wide brimmed oversize hat created just sufficient space to allow the painting to be satisfactorily cropped to fit the smaller frame.