27 February 2017

A is for Art when B is for Babies

Good things are better when they're shared. My dear friend Natalie and I share a love and talent for art and have spent many afternoons together chatting and painting (more chatting than painting usually). I started this painting during one of our afternoons a number of years ago and ambitiously decided that palette knives were the only applicator that could do justice to such a lively image. Understandably the painting was abandoned the moment I started work on the facial features; the intricacies of which don’t lend themselves well to liberally, ladled oil paint. Frustrations aside, the colours and textures were entertaining at least and my friend remarked that the final product would like nice in a child’s bedroom. Jokingly I offered the painting to her in the event that she should ever welcome a baby into her life one day. Fast forward 2 years and I was face-to-face again (quite literally) with the little girl in the funny hat in anticipation of the birth of my friend’s little son.

I was still determined to create her facial features using palette knives and tried several strategies to achieve the final look. These were….

1.   Use the longest, thinnest pallet knives for fine detail

2.   Clean your knife between applications of paint. Small detail is very unforgiving towards mixed colours unlike large surface areas.

3.   Lay the painting down on a flat surface to help angle your hand better.

4.   If using oils, allow each layer to dry to avoid mixing or smudging colours

5.   Use a small paint brush for very fine detail to finish the piece.

6.   If the paint is getting too thick and risks peeling off, thin out some oil paint into a wash and with a broad paint brush paint in highlights and lowlights. This will give the painting depth without adding additional thick layers.

This final piece was finished a month before his due date and is now part of a mini art gallery his mum has created in his room. Welcome little Theodore, our newest artist in residence!

25 March 2016

A simple palette

I was in grade 6. We had a substitute teacher that day. She had an “exciting” art project for the class. Paint a picture using no more than 3 colours. Well, just feed me peas off a palette knife then! I was appalled. What an insult to my greed at the paint trough; scoffing every blob of cheap acrylic paint onto the underside of an ice cream lid. How dare my appreciation of all 48 shades of magenta be repressed to just 3 colours. Am I being asked to choose my favourite child when my family is more colourful than Mardi Gras on steroids? This visually astute child drinks milk with her Skittles as a way to experiment with tonal value. Not surprisingly I pronounced my resistance to the task with a full palette of colour and completed the project in contented silence.

Fast forward 22 years and I can finally see the purpose behind the 3 colour art project set by the teacher. Minimal palettes are a great way to explore harmonious colour schemes while forcing you to look at colour in an atypical way. This is where I really recommend referring to a colour wheel. You can find a good one at www.colorwheelco.com. The above oil on canvas painting of our young boy with the tennis ball was achieved using a Split-Complementary Colour Scheme. Australian Grey (yellow-orange spectrum) and Olive Green (yellow-green spectrum). Both colours were used as mid tones over the Payne’s Grey and the Zinc White. I originally started the painting without the Australian Grey (which contrary to its name is actually a flesh colour), but felt that the Olive Green needed a lift that wasn’t as harsh as the white. I used chisel brushes to create movement and the thick, spherical brush to create the fur-like texture of the tennis ball. My signature was completed in Australian Grey; following Claude Monet who always signed his work using a colour directly taken from the painting.        

17 March 2015

His royal chubby cheeks

I'm a quiet Royalist at heart and it was only a matter of time before the newest Prince's precious locks, rosy cheeks and cupid bow lips became the subject of pencil and paintbrush. The top image is in Winsor and Newton watercolours on watercolour paper. The bottom image is my usual Derwent on sketch paper.

As the Royals are pressed to modernise their image, I have often wondered how this shift will influence the portraits of future Regal posers. Is it possible that non-traditional art mediums may make an appearance in re-branding the Royal Family as an accessible, inclusive and humanistic entity? I will be interested to see over the years ahead, if opinion of the Royal Family bears any correlation with their representation in artistic form. 

05 January 2015

The mystery bonny babe of brisbane

A few years ago during a Mother’s Day trip to a hidden antique shop in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, I came across a wicker basket of old photographs. Each photo (a little larger than a credit card) was sealed individually in a plastic sandwich bag and marked at the attractive price of $5. Along with my raspberry scones and tea I purchased two prints, both of chubby babies donned in the day’s attire which no doubt reflected the wealth of the families to which they were born. These little babes in their sandwich bags have been stowed in my pyjama draw for some time now, with the promise of a sketch in the future; a promise finally fulfilled this week.

I chose the younger of the two babies as the image was less tarnished by time and the baby’s subtle smile seemed to offer a slightly rebellious nod towards the stern poses and expressions more familiar to portrait photography of that era. I’ve only offered up a modest sketch in Derwents using a minimal pallet and coarse pastel sketch paper to keep in tune with the simplicity of the original image. Drawing in such a small scale presented a challenge as Derwent colours refuse to sharpen to a fine point. I admit to cheating a little with the eyes by introducing my Progresso Graphite pencils for extra detail. 

Drawing portraits is quite an intimate process which is made easier by knowing a little background on the subject’s personality or quirks. Of course this would not be the case for this young sitter from the past, however a little research did unfurl a small narrative behind this baby. 
Queen Street Brisbane in the late 1800s

The photograph was taken by prominent Brisbane-based photographers John and Thomas Matherson who owned Matherson & Co which was based in now popular Queen Street in central Brisbane between 1870 and 1889. Although the photo did not come with a date, I estimate it to have been taken in the early 1880s based on similar photography presentation of the time. This era saw Brisbane grow as a commercial city with trams and the world’s first publicly available electric street lighting. As such, our baby likely came from a family employed in architecture, engineering or commerce. Originally Ipswich was marked out to be Queensland’s capital which is interesting given Matherson & Co moved their business there in 1890; narrowly escaping the Queen Street floods in 1893. The photograph itself is known as a Carte as it was printed from a glass negative and mounted onto cardboard and then produced in sets of twelve to make them convenient for swapping or sending overseas. Possibly there are 11 more of my bonny baby across the world somewhere. This style of photography was popular with the middle classes and represented one of the first times babies could be photographed with greater ease and in greater clarity. New camera technology and a faster shutter speed had finally caught up with baby’s restless nature. Subjects also started to be photographed with props that reflected their wealth, hobbies or personality. Our bonny baby is clearly holding a treasured toy but as it’s obscured by a chubby hand I can’t determine what it is (though most probably a small boat, animal or doll made of tin). Something else which leaves me pondering is the baby’s gender. Both boys and girls were dressed identically during this period – lace, flowers, bows and all. Unfortunately this would complicate things in the search to uncover the complete identity of this little one, but I do admire how the attire of the 1880s was more about practicality than signifying a rigid gender division.

That’s where the search ends for now. A small sketching project has momentarily brought to the fore a little life from long ago which will only ever be known as the mystery bonny baby from Brisbane. Perhaps serendipitously in 130 years’ time, my baby portrait from the early 1980s will be found protected in a sandwich bag in a wicker basket in the nook of an antique shop for $5, purchased by an inquisitive artistic over raspberry scones and tea.    

A lucky find in the year 2112

14 June 2014

Finally back to a sharp pencil

It's been a while! If only I could say I'd been bogged down with all things creative and adventurous! Not to be. My day job (of which the only art opportunities are brief moments of sketching with cheap biros during lethargic teleconferences) has been demanding most of my time. I've really only just started to sharpen my pencils very recently when my mum bought me a beautiful wooden box of Windsor and Newton watercolours as a birthday gift. Very lucky! My first memory of watercolours was at the age of 6, experimenting with giant tear drops of colour on thick, textured paper. Trying to paint a flower, I was fascinated at how the bright pink and vivid purples would bleed into each other like they were trying to help you create your masterpiece. I think watercolours are good for kids as they are easy to clean up and prefer artists who aren't self conscious. With watercolours there's no going back once you commit to a stroke, the colour sucks into the welts of the paper and claims its residency irrespective of whether its placement was intended. You forfeit the usual control you have as an artists when you can't just add a layer of white paint to hide an error. It's been a fun process and I'll use future posts to share hints, tips and tools.

Another teleconference, another doodle.

19 August 2012

A work in progress

One of the things that has really helped me to progress as an artist is seeing a painting's transformation over time. It's a great way to see how colours are layered and blended and which parts of the portrait are worked on first. I've included progress shots of one of my most recent portraits. It was a really tricky one given that the girl's skin comprises of two different tones; one pink (the face) and one yellow (the hands). It was also a challenge to really capture her anxiety and the movement in the picture. Loads of fun though.

27 June 2012

Painting light

I've been doing a series of portraits using images by one of my favourite photographers Jill Greenberg. She has a certain way of using light that is a key signature of her work and is so inspiring to paint. The light is so intense that I use a perfect white in places; no softening with the usual blue or yellow hues. It adds a harshness to the finished piece which is why I think the images can be so confronting. They're very honest and very clean. She also exaggerates the features of her subjects in post-production which serves to emphasise the emotion; just perfect for painting! The human face is also recognised not by the shape of its features, but by the way our eye perceives the light and tone reflected off those features, This is why light is so important when painting a portrait and why it's been such a joy to work from Jill's photos.

- oil on canvas