Australian Fine Artist

Posts tagged ‘oil painting’

Fiona Bilbrough Portraits in Oils

We were privileged to have Fiona with us to give a talk about how to produce paintings, in particular portraits, at the society. Even more to her credit was that she had recently broken her arm so could not paint, so she had prepared a tutorial like session with loads of colour prints. Asked if she needed to cancel, Fiona replied that she didn’t want to disappoint those attending by not turning up. She has gained my admiration for that.

I will begin with a little from Fiona’s biography. She has impressive training in art and a good amount of experience as a practising artists and teacher.

Fiona Bilbrough was born in 1967 and studied at the University of Melbourne, graduating 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 and from 1990 to the present Fiona has been giving private tuition for children and adults in her own studio. She teaches still life, portraiture, plaster casts and in open air painting utilising the Meldrum methods of casual observation.

A special achievement for Fiona was receiving the Alice Bale Scholarship in 1995. This enabled her 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. She has work in private collections in France, Italy, Spain, England, Scotland and throughout Australia.

With prints spread about the podium to quickly access, Fiona began by asking us why we paint.

So “Why do we paint?”

  • We love it, even if it’s a solitary activity at times, especially in the studio.
  • Painting can absorb us, especially if it is something we love or possibly a tricky portrait to study.
  • Painting from life means different situations all the time, so we get some variety.
  • Painting gives us the challenge of trying to get things right, such as in the case of portraits, proportions, the human anatomy, the unique features of each sitter.

Fiona says that she finds portraiture the most satisfying of all her subjects.

Even though her preference is working from a live model, due to family commitments, Fiona has had to modify her work routine and methods. She now uses photographs more often, especially for practicing the parts of the human body that give her the most trouble. As she likes to go to the best for her inspiration and advice she has taken to going to art galleries that allow photography (without flash) and sketching on site. A good artist to look at is Sir John Campbell Longstaff (1861-1941), Australian artist, followed by maybe a couple of my favourites for lighting and mood, Tom Roberts, Vermeer and Rembrandt (I also like Sir Joshua Reynolds). Keep in mind the lighting in the room as you take your photos, the time of day and the type of lights will effect how accurately the colours come out in your photograph, as well as the fact that the photo may never match the painting exactly, making the colours either cooler or warmer than the original.

This way she is able to take cropped photos of the details in some of our most prized paintings to enable her to practice from them. We have had lessons and tasks at TAFE from our drawing teacher which involved drawing over twenty noses, ears, eyes and mouths to help us with the same task. I noticed that focussing in on just the one detail from a human face and drawing it over and over from various references quickly gave an understanding of how to render them better. Have a look at the shape of the little part just above the lips and under the nose, the corner of the mouth and the shadow under the mouth as well as the angle or slope of the eyes. It is a practice, especially now that I have learnt this bit of advise from Fiona, that I hope to be able to expand to increase my own skills.

Fiona mentioned that something that good judges in portrait exhibitions look for in paintings is the presence of hands that are well executed. Many artists shy away from hands as they find them too difficult. If you can learn to include them as a positive compositional part of your portrait it will help to raise it to a higher level. This again, involves a lot of practice.

Now that we are on the subject of photographs I would like to go on with the pros and cons as Fiona described them.

Photos can be a great resource when you can not get out of your studio, have little time or no model available. They can be the wrong colour as long as the tonal values are correct. A well framed face with a relaxed expression and good lighting can be a great resource. Black and white photos can even be a better picture to use than a colour one if the colours are confusing you as far as getting your tonal values correct.

Balanced with working from a live model, photos can be a great help in practising your skills. Keep in mind that when you have a person sit for you, it is more tiring that you would expect. Regular breaks every twenty minutes are required and the session should not be too long, as the fatigue will come out in the face of the person as they get more tired and muscles start to ache.

Looking at the work of masters will help in recognising the use of the medium and the brush. In the case of many impressionist style painters one stroke of the correct colour and tone does it. The paintings are not overworked and there is not a lot of tedious blending where not necessary. Knowing the right tone and colour BEFORE you take that stroke on the canvas shows the difference between a practised artist and someone who is still learning to master the medium or beginning.

Another artist to watch out for in your practising is John Singer Sargent. His work shows how great artists interpret what they see and make it into art. They have their own rules to follow in applying paint to canvas for their own unique “look” and style. As a tonal painter these are five rules that are basically followed by tonalists that you may see in his work.

In order of importance follow these when what is most important in planning your painting:

Compose the general look of your painting (where things will fall on the canvas) then plan:

  1. TONE (must be important above all others)
  2. EDGES )lost and found, keeping the painting as soft as possible for as long as possible)
  4. THIN TO THICK (keep thin as long as possible as it gets very difficult to layer paint over thickly applied layers already on the canvas)
  5. TEXTURE (showing the surface texture of times, surfaces, skin, hair, folds, creases etc)

When painting don’t be seduced by the colour or detail, we are often rushed into painting the details in a painting too early, keep the brush strokes broad as the details should only be the last five percent of your painting, even if time consuming in comparison. The use of a mirror, turning the work up side down to work on can help you stop the desire to get too fiddly too soon. It may also help in finding where you may be going off track. A black glass or “red guy” as I call them (a red piece of perspex) is also a good help if held up at 90° to your face over your eyes to reflect the painting. You will see it reversed and only in its tones.

If portraits are still causing you a problem in oils, try changing mediums for a new try at them. I go from oils to pastels a lot just for this, apart from loving using both. Sometimes I can sort out a problem in one medium by tackling the same subject in another. It helps to zero in on where the problem is occurring, in the medium itself or in the subject.

Getting back to the photographs, the main difference in painting from them rather than life is the way shadows are shown in many photos. They are black. If you look at shadows you will note that they are seldom this flat or lacking in colour. David Chen has told us that we should look at shadows as having FIVE parts to them, not just one flat colour. They can also be either warm or cool depending on the light source and reflective surfaces. The light areas in many photos also lose detail in a lot of cases. All these are important for you to either use or not, but at least see to be able to decide on. So check your lights and darks, and check your colours in isolation to others in the photo. Adjacent colours alter the way you perceive them. Just punch a hole in a piece of cardboard so you can look at the colour of what ever part of the photo you are painting to check you are matching the colour correctly (this can also be used when matching paint colour to that on a live model).

On the subject of your models, look at the angles and tilt of the heads in many famous portraits. They are rarely straight on. Getting a good angle on the face can also make the painting or break it.

A great tip from Fiona from this talk that I hadn’t noticed about some paintings, was looking at the use of the canvas. Instead of stretching the canvas at 90° with the weave in line with the frame, the canvas was stretched at 45° so that the paint was kept soft on the edges of forms by the way the brush reacted to the weave being on a different angle. As I sometimes have trouble with paintings looking a bit “stiff” or with too many edges, I really like this idea. As the human form is not a pile of lines and edges but form and shape, light and shadow, it would be good to try out this method of stretching a canvas to see how the brush reacts differently as I apply it. It may have broader applications than just portraits.

Finally as we finished up, Fiona re-emphasised that photos are good for composition but nothing matches real life for matching skin tones. Portraiture is about picking up the individual features of a person, the face and the hands. When you decide to tackle one, look for the unique features of that person that you can translate into a painting and the ideas from the masters that have gone before us that made their works so timeless and amazing.

Thanks Fiona for a great session. Some may wonder how you can give a demo and not paint, but you have passed on valuable information and were an engaging and enjoyable speaker.

Lorna Gerard

Venue: McClelland Guild of Artists

Topic: Animals in Action – Mixed Media

Lorna has been a practising artist and teacher at McClelland Guild for several years. Even though I have also been a member since 2005 I didn’t know anything about her. It is a shame since she is so full of fun and has some very innovative and creative ways to present her artworks.

As usual before a demonstration, I look up the artist on the web to see what they are like and what type of art they produce. it gives me an idea about what I am about to see, the style, subject matter and how experienced or educated the demonstrator is. This is not only out of curiosity but also as I am also aiming at demonstrating and teaching, I like to know what people are looking for when they invite someone in for workshops, demonstrations etc. Chance favours the prepared mind as the saying goes – or something to that effect.

Anyway, back to the demonstration. Lorna arrived with a prepared foam board with gold leaf adhered to it. Over the top she had lightly drawn in a couple of birds which would be her main topic. She told us that she won her first award for art at the age of twelve and had loved art all her life. Something I can relate to. From her beginnings learning with oils, which she later had to give up because of the fumes from the turps, she has now mostly settled on mixed media using foils and other added media to acrylics.

Lorna says that her art gives her life challenge and meaning and enjoys the experimenting she does to achieve new effects. Her use of gold leaf as a background to paintings stems from icons done in the middle ages and the beautiful works done in places like Persia for their very old books, which were on display in Melbourne only last year. Her style is also something that is very suitable for book illustration or gift cards (one of which I bought because it just “called to me”!

The backing of “corflute” for her works means that they remain very light and easy to frame and transport. The leaf adheres to this very well and it is fairly archival, especially when well framed and the surface sealed beforehand. The surface is usually left overnight to dry before it is drawn or painted on.

Using mostly her own photos or a combination of copyright free photos from the web, Lorna builds up her images in a manner very familiar to oil painters, starting with her darks and layering the paint on top to building up her tonal values.

One thing I need to point out about Lorna’s mention of copyright. She said that you need to alter 25% of any photo etc to avoid copyright infringement. This is actually not true. The image needs to be “significantly” changed or different. You need to not be able to identify a significant feature or focal point. This area is very “grey” and varies from state to state and country to country. It can be a legal minefield, and even if you paint from your head or memory of something you have seen it may still be dangerous. Ask the Flutist from Men at Work, who did not go out of his way to “copy” a particular song but what he produced sounded a lot like it, so they were sued. We live in a society that it getting more and more litigation happy and I would be remiss if I didn’t warn potential and existing artists who wish to sell their work of the dangers here. If at all possible use your own material or get permission from the copyright holder to use their material (preferably in writing so that anyone coming along afterwards can not accuse you of breaking copyright – such as heirs to estates). Remember also that Royalty Free does not mean Copyright Free.

Back to the demonstration which by the break had white birds with some lovely tonal features showing up their forms happening. White birds does not mean a big blob of pure white in the middle of the painting. Whites come in temperatures, which can be cool or warm. If you look at something white in nature you may also find it reflecting a lot of the colours around it and of course, as it goes into shadow it darkens. Being a painting means also that you have the creative licence to add colours that are of similar tonal value to make the work your own. which I did with the white horse I took for the demonstration competition. He had yellows, oranges, mauves, purples, blues and greys in his coat with surprisingly very little pure white. I am happy to say that he won that competition!

In the background after the break for coffee, Lorna added branches and magnolia flowers as background features and to also create a scene for the birds to be settled in. These were also built up from darks (Paynes Grey and Burnt Umber) to the lighter tones on top which also gave the branches form. The hot pink with lighter highlights really popped of the gold surface behind them and the piece looked more and more like a scene from an oriental storybook. this stage of the painting is where the creativity really takes over and the artist assesses what features they want in, where they want them and how to balance out and finish the painting.

A small brush was used to paint in fine lines and features and the painting was left to dry. Lorna expected to do more finishing touches to it in the studio when she had a perfectly dry surface to work on, so that she could keep the colours clean. It gives her a chance to put it aside and look at it with “fresh eyes” before doing any of these final touches. This can be a good habit, allowing yourself the chance to have a break, walk away and come back and look at your work from a distance with a fresh perspective. It may surprise you how something will nearly jump out needing to be altered, fixed or deleted that you hadn’t seen before.

Overall a very interesting and creative session from Lorna. For those who have not used gold or silver foil before, or looked at its application in history, it was an opportunity to expand their knowledge and hopefully inspire some new thinking. For those of who have used it, it is a good idea to see how other artists use it and possible some new applications. As with most demonstrations and artist chats – you don’t know until you go along and participate.

Bill Caldwell

Venue: Berwick Artists Society

Topic: Landscape in Oils

I am borrowing from Bill’s website to introduce him here:

“Bill Caldwell is an Australian realist artist, represented in numerous international private collections...”

I had the pleasure of meeting Bill and his wife at the demonstration night at BAS and chatting with them not only about art specifically but about their interests and welcoming them to the meeting. His wife is a charming lady by the way and her name is the same as mine, so we really hit it off!

Bill is a member of the Melbourne 20 Painters Group. Not a group that is that easy to get into and only filled with extraordinarily talented artists! He was born in Geelong and started his art career in the 1970s. As he has a background in commercial art/sign writing Bill’s drafting skills are very good and he has an eye for details, especially regarding buildings. He is a past winner of the Camberwell Art Show and describes his style as impressionist/realist which is about what I would call mine – or at least where I am trying to head with it.

Bill is a member of the Peninsula Art Society and teaches there regularly. He loves painting landscapes and especially loves painting plein air so that he can capture the light and atmosphere of a scene.

Bill has 4 fundamental rules to painting:

  1. Drawing
  2. Tone
  3. Colour – including temperature and intensity
  4. Technique – a mastery of the medium, ability to mix the colour you want and apply it effectively

Bill’s first challenge to painting that he sees for all artists is managing the light. Getting what you want in a timely manner before it changes. As the sun moves at 15° per hour your shadows will moves fairly quickly, so we need the ability to work quickly when painting plein air. (possibly creating just small sketches in paint with the additional help of note, drawings and photographs for finishing off in the studio)

The painting for the demonstration was from a photograph taken in Yackandandah in NE Victoria. He has painted this scene before so worked from a print of his previous work rather than the original reference photo. This town, like Bright has a wonderful atmosphere created by the trees lining the streets. The English trees reflect the seasons and add a layer to the colours of the landscape and township that Australian foliage alone does not have.

From a rough outline on linen the surface was covered with a thin mix which was then rubbed back in places to not only start working out the tonal values but also help the surface to dry a little.

Bill uses basically the same set of colours on his palette for all his works only straying from these for portraits and florals. He says that a simple palette allows you to become familiar with the colours and how far you can push them. He also uses a grey scale so that he can constantly check his tonal values.

As with most traditional tonal painters, Bill started by blocking in his darkest darks with both warm and cool darks. He then worked his way through the lighter areas of sky and background and established his lightest lights. After this came the mid tones of the buildings and foreground. With the canvas now covered he moved to a mix of turps and stand oil which is a mix he feels helps him control the paint and give it a nice buttery feel as you apply it. As a sideline here, Bill allowed us to have a play with the mix on his painting to experience how lovely the feel is applying paint this way. It did feel very nice, especially on the beautiful linen rather than canvas which I usually use. I called it “yummy” which he thought was a very appropriate description.

It was interesting at this early stage that Bill rubbed back some of the work with a paper towel to removed excess paint and soften some of the edges. This prepared the surface for more paint and keep it clean rather than muddying up by mixing in with the previous layer. This is also a good time to stand back and asses who everything is going.

Bill was right in the zone as he started on the next part of the process. The luscious feeling of mixed paint applied to canvas or linen he said, was an addictive feeling which he wants to pass on to his students. At this stage it is a matter of blocking in all the mid tones for all the areas on the surface. With the use of several brushes so that colours and tones are kept very clean, areas that are sunlit are clearly visible from those in shadow. Cool areas are shown with cooler colours and the warmer areas by warm tones. The colours and clever use of tonal values push the background to the back and pull the foreground forward and settle items underneath others out of the bright sunlight.

The application of a warmer version of a colour on one wall of the feature building brings it forward and intensifies the feeling of hot sun touching it. The addition of a cool mauve to the white areas in shadow, pushes them back and creates the atmosphere of a cool verandah.

The small features of the street and buildings were not included in this painting, as the demonstration was to show us what level we should expect to be able to get to if painting plein air with the time available to catch the light. Indications of windows, doors etc were painted in rather than every little bit. After he was creating a painting not a photograph.

Bill mentioned as he worked that he uses Winsor & Newton paints and the best quality linen he can afford. If you are intending to sell your work, he said, you should produce the best quality you can. As well as the fact that if you want your work to last for a long time, linen is the best way to go, as it outlasts canvas.

As he was finishing off the painting Bill said that as you paint outdoors especially, remember what it was that attracted your attention in the first place as it is easy to get sidetracked.

The finishing details and mark making finished off the work and changed it from just the representation of a place to a painting, from blocks of paint to something with texture and interest. You can either do this on site or later in the studio. Just keep in mind that nothing replaces the joy of painting in front of the actual scene and the fun of interacting with all the people you meet along the way.

I would like to personally thank Bill for sitting down with me after the demonstration to tell me that he thought I had done a really good painting for the monthly competition. We had a very friendly chat and I am honoured that he took the time to spend with me. I would love to see him give another demonstration in the future – hopefully one of the other guilds of which I am a member will invite him along! He has a lot of knowledge, wisdom and understanding and seems very happy to pass it on.