Follow by Email

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

In Praise of "Fiddling"

I submitted an article to Leisure Painter last year, which was eventually rejected as the magazine editor didn't think the illustrations would have shown up well on the printed page - and she was probably right.

However, I think it will work here: and feel it needs to be said: so I'm publishing it myself.   Comments appreciated.


"Don't fiddle", they say; "less is more". And I suspect this is why I'm seeing more and more paintings in exhibitions which just aren't finished at all. The advice has been taken so literally that oil and acrylic paintings are left thin and scratchy, looking like nothing so much as a paint-by-numbers effort (where the paint is thin because they give you too little of it, and most p-b-n'ers stick rigidly to the lines).

Thing is, this is good advice for watercolourists, on the whole. Once you've applied a wash, the best thing to do with it is often to leave it alone - fiddle with it and you get back-runs and mud.

But there are reasons for this. Watercolour is a medium which relies on its transparency and purity of colour. There are opaque colours in watercolour, but many of us avoid them because they can quickly ruin the light, evanescent appeal of a watercolour painting.

Oil and acrylic, save in special circumstances (glazing, particularly) are not primarily employed for their translucent qualities. They can certainly be used as such, but the usual approach with both is layering of one colour over another, or one tone over another to achieve depth and form.

So it should go without saying - but it doesn't - that you aren't going to get the best out of these opaque, layering pigments if you don't actually layer them: this doesn't mean you have to add finicky, nit-picking detail - that is true "fiddling"; but it does mean that the subtlety of oil and acrylic is best exploited by a process of addition; a painting may actually accrete layers - we can work them up in stage after stage, each one strengthening the image, establishing form, shape, tone, shadow, light.

Oils and acrylics are, in short, USUALLY additive rather than subtractive media - whereas in watercolour you might, as a matter of your usual technique, take something out, in oil and acrylic you're generally going to be doing the reverse. Yes, you'll sometimes find you have to take the sponge, cloth or knife to the paint, to remove a claggy mess of mud: but this isn't something you'll actually be planning or hoping to do. It may form part of your technique, but only because you haven't yet mastered it.

There are of course those of the plein-air persuasion, who very reasonably point out that there's no way they can apply careful layering in oil, because it just doesn't dry fast enough out there in the field - in fact, it IS possible, but only with a delicate and at the same time sure touch. Even so, one takes the point - yes you can work over several days; or finish off your plein-air study in the studio; or of course use the plein-air sketch as the basis for a larger painting to be tackled indoors. But the typical plein-air work requires mixing the right colours to start with, and getting them down in relatively quick, unrehearsed, and unfussed strokes of paint. Such paintings have great immediacy - they might however sacrifice subtlety. Many of us, perhaps most of us, sketch en plein air, and either finish the painting in the studio, or start a new, larger one, using the sketch as our guide.

One of my recurring nightmares is that I drop dead in the middle of a painting - because most of my opaque work reaches a stage that might generously be described as god-awful: a stage at which you could only think the poor old chap's lost his touch; to think it should have come to this, etc.... But then, it's a work in progress - true, if a watercolour starts to look as though something horrible has happened, it probably has. But oils and acrylics - mine, anyway - nearly always go through the "oh dear, surely he can't have meant to do that?" stage, and by way of illustration I offer an acrylic painting of mine that did, in the end, represent what I had in mind, but had rather painful birth pangs before it got there.

Here's the sketch – the tones are broadly indicated, plus as much of the detail as I felt necessary:

Figure 1
I toned my board with a mixture of Burnt Sienna and a touch of red, to produce a map of the tones; no detail – just putting the big shapes in. And I roughed in the sky with ultramarine and white. I decided at this point that I didn't want a complicated land-mass and a busy sky – if I do this again, I think I might make the sky more interesting, since it occupies quite a large area of the painting.

Figure 2

At this stage, it doesn't look too bad at all: the profiles of the cliff are about right; I've mixed ultramarine and burnt sienna for my darks, just placing the foliage areas. In fact, if I'd been a bit more careful with these shapes and darks, I could even have glazed over the top to finish the painting in half the time (in theory at least).

Fig 3

Had I been going to pursue that route, this is the stage on which I'd have based it: just firming up the darks, lightening the lights, and refining the drawing, then adding transparent glazes. However, that wasn't what I was after: I wanted a rather more rugged look than that approach would have given. So rather than refine shapes, I built the painting up from the broad shapes I'd already established – remember, I had my sketch to show me those details I was about to cover with opaque white, mixed at this stage with varying amounts of ultramarine, burnt sienna, and yellow ochre.
This is the stage at which I would not have wanted to drop dead (any other time, fine: but not just now). Because it looks … well, vile, don't you think? But – I've got the big shapes; I've got the build-up of opaque paint which will give me my textures, especially in the near cliff. What have I got to do now? Well – this was perhaps the most important stage of the painting. It doesn't look it, maybe. But all I've really got to do now is – fiddle. Take a good, chisel-edged flat, and a fairly large rigger, and turn these blocky shapes into convincing rocks and trees.

And this, completed in one stage, is it. I've removed the fence from the bottom left (without which I would never have stood on that bit of cliff, but it wasn't needed in the picture). I've added a little chunk of cliff beyond the first promontory, which isn't there in reality, but the composition needed it. And using no more extra colours than viridian, a little Naples yellow, and a touch of prism violet, I've just built up detail by, well, fiddling. The hard work was done at Stage 4 – you've GOT to get those basics down, however awful they look, before you can put clothes on them.

There are things I would do differently if – when – I tackle this again: a bigger canvas (this one is 30 by 40cm); a livelier sky; and next time I might actually try getting to Figure 3, establishing some lighter lights, and apply transparent glazes. And I might do a version in oil, which lends itself better to the textured approach (especially if you're using only paint, and not any kind of texture paste). But without a bit of fiddling with detail, I'd have had a different picture. So long as you remember that the time comes when the fiddling has to stop.

No comments:

Post a Comment