Australian Fine Artist

Fiona Bilbrough

Venue: McClelland Guild of Artists

Topic: Still Life in Oils

I found a great bio for Fiona on the web and to introduce her am placing it in to begin this blog:

“Fiona Bilbrough was born in 1967. She studied at the University of Melbourne and graduated with a Bachelor of Education in Fine Art in 1989.

Fiona took a two year course with John Balmain in portrait and still life painting in 1988 and 1989. She received regular feedback from him until his death in January 2000. Fiona was an art teacher for multi-aged groups in oil painting at the McClelland Guild of Artists 1986-1995. From 1988 onwards Fiona was a contract Art teacher and Artist in Residence in a number of schools. From 1990 to the present Fiona gives private tuition for children and adults in her own studio. Fiona teaches still life, portraiture, plaster casts and in open air painting utilising the Meldrum methods of casual observation.

A special achievement is receiving the Alice Bale Scholarship in 1995. This enabled Fiona to study master paintings in Europe.

Fiona is a member of the Victorian Artists Society and Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors. Winning numerous awards her work has also been published in the Australian Artists Magazine in 1996, 1997 and 2004. Fiona received the Victorian Artist of the Year Award in 2001, 2002 and 2003. Fiona has work in private collections in France, Italy, Spain, England, Scotland and throughout Australia.”

Courtesy of the Kew Gallery Web Site

Fiona has a wonderful touch with the brush and even with all her accomplishments, is still learning and adapting her style. For both Still life and portraits, she likes to set up her own lighting and prefers to work from life rather than photos. With this amount of control over the setting she is able to get some dramatic effects.

Fiona achieved in the time of the demo another thing that quite a few other demonstrating artists have not and that is getting two works mostly done, whilst passing on a heap of valuable information.

Both works were done on board with linen on it, the type of linen a little different for each one.

Fiona’s goal for the session was to give us as much good information to help us improve our painting skills as she could, rather than just showing us how she completes a painting. This is such a good idea, as many walk away from a demo thinking “oh that looked easy”, then give it a try to find out to their dismay, that they don’t have all the necessary facts to be able to do it, or indeed the hours of practice in front of the easel.

There are several things that Fiona does to make sure she is efficient when getting to work. She marks the floor with a ruler so she never has to look down from her viewing point to check she is in the right place. She has a regular way of setting out her paints so she always knows where a colour is. She has all her tools at hand such as a tub of dry brushes and a tub for the used ones, or she may lay the brush down on the palette near its colour.

Her medium is mixed and ready, even though it looked like she uses very little, relying on the good quality Winsor & Newton and Daniel Smith paints to have enough in the tube to not require much. If she does use a medium to thin out paint it is a mix of Linseed Oil and White Spirit.

Even though the paintings were fairly small, the blocking in was done with a large brush. Getting the surface covered and covering the white makes it easier to get on with the painting. Painting dark to light is also easier this way. the dark background is loosely painted in and the paint kept thin. With the use of rag (old nappies or flannel) the items for the painting are wiped back out of the paint.

By stepping back and checking a lot, Fiona was able to quickly get the shapes of the painting in and begin painting in the colours as soft stains to begin with which were built up with simple strokes of the brush making sure that the colours were kept clean. As she painted Fiona said that if you are not sure of what you are looking at because of lighting or it being out of focus, lose the edges and keep the sharp edges for your focal point. This is where your harder edges, your bigger contrasts and thicker paint should go.

Fiona also said that we should buy the best quality brushes and canvasses that we can afford. It helps to paint better if your tools are not letting you down. The surface you paint on can differ a lot as well and some take the paint so well it makes painting on them a real delight!

Practice was another big point from her session. If you want to excel at anything you practice, the more you do that the more you are comfortable with your subjects and materials. No one who wants to be considered a professional or at the top of their field would consider not learning as much as possible or practicing a lot. The whole life of being an artist to be honest is a lifelong calling to keep learning. There is always something new, some aspect of painting or drawing that you can improve, modify or adapt. There is also the need to understand the medium you are using, we need to know what it will do given the circumstances. Not that we know it all, especially with water colours as they can sometimes give us happy accidents, but the more you practice, the better the chances of being able to mix the right colour first go and knowing how your paint will react on the canvas.

If you are tired or hungry when painting – take a break. You can’t concentrate 100% if your body is making demands of you. Similarly, if your time is being taken up with tasks that you can delegate out and you really feel you don’t need to do them personally, do it. If making up canvasses, framing etc is taking you away from painting and that time is more profitable, pass that on toe someone you trust to do it for you. this is done in business all the time and an arts practice is no different in this regard.

Surrounding yourself with like-minded people who will challenge you as an artist is also a great idea. Join a society, go to workshops, go to exhibition openings and learn to network. The artists we are lucky enough to have in this country are amazing and many are very generous with their time and information. There is a great support network out there if you want to tap into it.

As Fiona was painting in the shadows and highlights to the fruit, she reminded us of the way that light works. There is the area where the highlight is and the area with the darkest shadow. These are never on the edge of the shape but in a little. As the ball or rounded fruit such as a grape or apple sits on a surface with a light on it, there will be reflected light coming back up at it from underneath. There will also be an area of mid tone as you go towards the edge near the highlight. These changes in tone are what makes the object look round.

By the break Fiona had produced a really lovely painting, not completed to her very polished standard but there was a lot of information, questions and talking done. For the next painting she used an oval shape to paint on to. this suited the subject of a silver urn, wine glass and fruit really well. The background was painted in the same as before, and the subjects wiped back with a rag. The centre point of the board was marked  with the rag and a couple of marks for proportions. Fiona used Windsor Green instead of Viridian for the fruit, as she is of the opinion that Viridian os not as transparent as it used to be before manufacturing went to China. The transparency helps to wipe back leaving the stain to begin the fruit rather than too much paint to go over.

The glass in this painting was achieved with very little work, as the hint of light touching the edges and a little sheen was all that was required to indicate a glass you could see the background through. The silver was done using a mix of colour for a cool grey rather that black or Paynes Grey. The highlight achieved by very light touches from the edge of a flat brush rather than trying to get it done by drawing a line with a small one. The shadow side of the objects were kept soft and the focal point had thicker paint and stronger contrast.

This painting was not completed either, but what I was so happy with from this demonstration was the amount of quality information I came away with. Some of the tips I am happy to say I have just discovered and am using to make my time in front of the canvas more productive, some were new and I can’t wait to try them. Some of the methods Fiona used looked similar to what I am now applying so I am happy about that also.

I like the idea of getting into the studio and setting yourself a time limit, a limit of colours on the canvas etc. By giving yourself a clear idea of what you have to do with a deadline and no confusion about your materials, it somehow leaves you free to be totally clear-headed about the creativity and processes. There is also the logical point that if you want to be in business you can not spend all year painting only a few or less paintings (unless of course you can charge a year’s salary for it and sell).

This was an especially good session. Fiona is so knowledgable and a very good speaker. I have seen her work before, showing us how to paint portraits and each time has been enjoyable and a good learning experience.

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