Owlets and Shadows – Part 1 of 2

Finally I’ve understood the lesson from my painting book on shadows – the penny has dropped!



I decided to sketch a couple of owlets (baby owls) just coming into their adult colours but still a bit fluffy and ragged – on account of their awesome cuteness!

I’m posting one of these today and the next on Monday.


Then I painted very simply with watercolour what is called ‘local colour’ which is the colour of something without any effects of lighting or reflection or shadow.  (Actually with no light all local colour would simply be black.  What is really meant here is the colour of something in steady, medium, all-around lighting.)


Now I failed at this a bit because my green paint flowed downwards and rather than correct it I decided to use that for shadow.  Also, because I’m working in watercolour and can’t add highlight afterwards I had to think about that with my owlet and his branch too.  So, not perfect but OK.

Now the rule I’ve been trying to understand is that to darken an object (so the ground for a cast shadow or the dark side of something for a body shadow) you do two things   – (1) you choose a darker shade of the same colour (e.g. paynes grey, to me looks like a darker shade of phthalo blue) and then (2) you add a bit of the complimentary colour (which is the colour on the opposite side of the colour wheel).


Now it’s part (2) which I have been having trouble with so I decided to use just that effect for this little A6 painting to see what it does for myself.

Here, I came upon another difficulty, brown isn’t a primary or secondary colour.  In colour theory it’s regarded as a ‘warm neutral‘.  According to a colour theory called ‘Munsell Colour Theory’ (which I know nothing about except what I read on the internet today) neutrals are regarded as a less bright version of a primary or secondary colour.  So I looked at the brown on my owlet and decided that it’s a less bright version of the secondary colour orange.  The opposite of orange is blue.  So I used blue as my complementary colour.  I added just this for the shadows – just to see what effect it has.


So here is my little owlet dude with just the complementary colour used for a shadow.  So now I can see what adding this colour to my shadow colour does – it dims the colour -it makes the colour more grey and pasty.


So my instructions for mixing shadow colours could them be written as:

(1) you choose a darker shade of the same colour

(2) you reduce the strength of the colour by adding a bit of the complimentary colour

So now I understand what this step is doing I’m going to paint some more owlets and put the whole shadow-colour-mixing-plan into action!  I’ll post that on Monday.    Have  a great weekend!  🙂

Shadows in an Autumn Landscape 2 of 2

I continued work on my autumn landscape painting today.  Yesterday I had painted in the foreground with white to allow me to put another layer over the top.


So today I worked on the trees, their leaves and the detail of the bushes neaby.


I used a tissue to apply the paint for the leaves still on the tree.  At the time I thought it looked messy and horrible and decided to overpaint it with brush strokes to some extent.  This is something I wish I hadn’t done now as I think it looked better before.

This is the painting with the additional detail to the bushes and the leaves overlaid on the tree:

autumntree not yet trimmed

I really think it’s lost something in that change.  However, unlike working in a digital medium, I can’t go back with real paint so I have to live with it.  Another thing I didn’t like is the small tree in the distance.  I just think it looks really quite silly.

So I decided to trim the painting to try to recover something from it.  This is how it worked out:

autumntreefinishedand trimmed

Although the painting hasn’t turned out as I had hoped I did learn something about how I’m handling shadows.  What I learned is that my mind is just not focused on them.  I had a think about this and I suspect that the reason I’m struggling to focus on the shadow work I want to do is because I’m using gouache.  The gouache is still very new to me and I haven’t fully worked it out in my own mind as a medium.   I’m still exploring it, not mastering it.

I very often find it hard to start something else if I’m not finished yet with something I’m already working on.  Even in conversation, if someone says something I don’t understand I get stuck on it – working away at that tiny proportion of the communication which I don’t understand and missing the rest of what is said.  I don’t know if this is an autistic response or just something I do.  Anyway, what I’m going to do tomorrow is paint a small picture in watercolour, which I’m much more familiar with, and really focus on the shadow colour.  I’m going to keep it really simple so that my mind is free to focus only on the shadow colour thing.  I might paint the shadows, not in smooth gradations of tone but more like a cartoon where there are sections of shadow in one clear tone and sections of light.  I could go for three main tones – shadows, local colour and highlights.  I think it would work as a simple picture but it would also free my mind to focus on what I want to learn.

Shadows in an Autumn Landscape 1 of 2

I wanted to have another go at working on my shadow colours today.  I am, yet again, overwhelmed with the colours of the trees this autumn.  I’ve been tramping through a local wood recently trying to find the home of what I think is a tawny owl I heard hooting during their mating season earlier this year.  But I’ve found myself constantly caught in wonder at the colour and shape and form of the leaves.  So I thought I’d try to paint an autumn landscape.  I want it to be slightly unreal and otherworldly, but to use the colours I’ve seen so much in the last month.  I began with an A3 sketch of an autumn landscape:


Then I used a watercolour technique with dilute gouache paint for the sky and dabbed out the clouds with kitchen roll.

Next I painted the background:


Again I struggled for control over my colour.  I had intended not to use greens at all – just the colour range from yellow to red and including browns, but my brain seems to default to colours I have, myself, seen in the hills.  I find it really really hard to break away from the exact memories of the things I’ve seen.  I always knew that the mild autism I have makes me quite literal, but I thought this was just something which affected my language.  Now I can see that it also affects the way I think visually.  It’s something I’m going to have to work on in terms of my art.  While I love photorealistic art in terms of the ability of an artist to absolutely reproduce something perfectly, we kind of have camera’s for that nowadays.  Also, less realistic art that I’ve seen makes me feel in ways I don’t always understand.  It’s this unspoken visual language that I want to learn but I have to somehow break away from painting like some kind of android and learn to paint from my heart as much as from my eyes and memory. (If that makes any sense.)

In terms of my task to paint the shadows todayI did manage to get the shadows in a darker shade than the non-shadowed sections of the same hue but I didn’t manage to reduce the chroma and make them look more grey.  It’s not because I don’t know how to do this with the paint, but because in my mind’s eye the shadows were not greyer than the non-shadow colour.  This lesson for me is just an experiment to see what shadows done using the method in my painting book look like but some part of my unconscious mind doesn’t see it that way.  I never realised how much of this painting malarky involves my unconscious self.  Perhaps it’s because when I was painting this one I was still feeling a little unwell so my willpower was down a bit?  I will have to work some more on this shadow technique in another picture once I’ve finished this one.

My next job was to paint the foreground.  I did think about changing the mountain colours and that of other places where I’d used greens to reds to keep to my original plan but I do quite like the mountains so I decided to let that go.  To paint the trees in the foreground clearly without the paint behind making too much of a difference I painted the whole area for them out in white.  Although all the paint underneith will still reactivate when I paint over the top, having the white in between the foreground and background colours should allow me to seperate foreground and background more easily.

This ‘painting out’ is the furthest I got today – more tomorrow:


Colour 1 – Shadow colours

Today I wanted to work on shadow colours.  According to the oil painting book I’m using as a training course the things to do with shadows is to darken the tone where you want a shadow and reduce the chroma of the colour (which mean to make the colour more grey and less saturated).  In the book the author goes through a method with oil paints to achieve this.  The basics are:

  1. Find a darker hue of your colour – so if your working in yellow, for instance, you might go for yellow with some burnt umber in it.
  2. Reduce the chroma of the colour – so it looks more dull, more grey but still with the same darker tone that you want.  You do this buy finding the opposite colour on the colour wheel (opposite colours produce greys), then match the tone of that colour with the tone of the shadow you’ve chosen and then mix a bit of that tone-matched opposite-colour into your shadow.

The author of the book I’m working from doesn’t recommend using black to darken a colour because it changes the hue (the colour) as well as the tone (how dark or light the paint is).

All of this contrasts with the method I’ve used for ages which is to use black to darken the tone and then play around with it adding other colours until I get the exact shadow colour I want.  On top of that, with gouache, especially with the starter set I’ve got, I can’t match the colours the author has.  Anyway, I think her ideas are excellent and could produce some lovely effects so I set out to paint a small picture of a fisherman and use her methods to put in my shadows.

I’ve been unwell again for a few days (I had to stop for a while after I finshed the ‘Retreat’ painting posted yesterday) as I have another sinus infection.  (My GP has recommended that I get a wisdom tooth remove because x-rays show that it’s partially inside the maxillary sinus and could be causing repeated infections.)  Fortunately I’m feeling a bit better today apart from my head and face which still hurt quite a bit.  I find it really hard when I can’t paint – my life feels like a sandwich with no filling.  So I am painting I tiny picture on A6 cold-pressed watercolour paper and hoping it’s not too taxing.

While I was unwell I stayed on the sofa reading and watching TV and I saw this great series about the king crab fisherman in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska.  The images really sparked my imagination.  I ended up sketching an amalgum of the fishermen I saw with an old felt tip pen which was lying around.  The pen was running out which gave me some interesting effects to play with:


While I was sketching this I was thinking of one of my favourite hymns.  In the UK it’s known as the Naval Hymn.  My grandfather was an officer in the Royal Navy for a while.  This is the first verse and the refrain…

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep,
Its own appointed limits keep.

Oh hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea! Amen.

Anyway, I then made a big mistake – I got right into painting the picture and completely forgot to use the shadow technique I was planning to experiement with.  D’oh!

So, this one is done, unfortunately,  with my usual slightly unconscious, suck it and see, style.


I was also hoping that, in using a tiny canvas, I would not be tempted to remove all brush strokes – mainly because it’s much harder to do on a tiny scale.  I think this worked ot a small extent, but it’s still not as loose and painterly a style as I am aiming to try.


Figure Painting 2 of 2 (contains partial nudity) – ‘Retreat’

I finished my figure painting today.  I played around with the light, especially the reflected light on the dark side of the woman I was painting.  I also corrected some errors and filled in some gaps.  Then I painted the background.  I wanted to keep it plain and dark to clearly show the figure.

I feel happy with the final result.  It feels to me like I’ve got to a place (metaphorically) I’ve long been travelling to in terms of my painting.  (That’s not to say that there’s not a long way still to go – just that I’ve wanted to be as comfortable in paint as I am in pencil and as able to paint what’s in my head as I can draw it for a very long while and that’s happening now.)

I’ve called the painting  ‘Retreat’


Figure Painting 1 of 2 (contains partial nudity)

Today I wanted to do a figure painting.  So I began with some sketches.

I used a couple of books where models pose for photographs which you can then draw from:

model books

Here are my sketches:



manlaughingorinpainI liked the above one but I wasn’t sure if he was laughing or crying.  I tried to draw him again to see if I could figure it out…

manlaughinginpain2But I was still unsure.


Then finally I drew this:

womansittingsketchThe model had her legs together but not crossed in the photograph.  If I sit like that though I feel really uncomfortable so I drew the woman with her legs crossed which would feel more comfortable if it were me.  I was quite happy with this sketch.

Now last time I painted a figure I used a grisaille technique with a blue / grey underpainting.  I found the underpainting colour really got in the way.  So this time I decided to paint mainly from reference and do the whole thing at once (I think that might be called ‘Alla Prima’ – not sure though.)

At first I struggled to get the warm skin tones I needed – the paint kept looking too grey – but after some work I got there(ish).

Here’s how it looked at the end of my first session of painting:


I worked on putting in reflected light on the shadow side and I really like the way it works so far.  I need to fiddle with where the light is showing a bit more.  On this first session I just painted what was there – exactly – according to the reference photo.  But looking at the painting away from the photo it feels like it would be better if I tweaked the light a bit to fit the painting more than reality.  That sounds like a strange thing to do to me, because the light in reality was absolutely true, but I think it would still look better with more reflected light across other parts of the right-hand side of her body as we look at it.

Another change I made was to close her eyes.  In the photo she was staring at the camera which I find quite off-putting.  With her eyes closed it’s like she’s just taking some time-out.

In my next sesssion I’m going to work a bit more on the light, correct some imperfections and put in a background.


Lesson 2.2 – Brushstrokes

Today I worked through an exercise in different ways to use a paint brush.  The course I’m following is for oil paints and I am seeing how it can be applied to gouache painting.

Here’s the way I set the exercise out:


Here are my findings:

Flat strokes – these are very easy with gouache paint; gouache seems perfectly suited to clear flat brushstrokes.  It also had a peculiar quality which I’ve not seen with any o0ther type of paint where, once dried brush strokes can’t be seen at all.  This quality had enormous potential but also mean that one has to specifically work to make brush stokes visable when they are wanted.

Painting edge strokes – with a flat brush these were easy – thicker paint worked better than thinner paint for this.  Although not shown on my exercise sheet, by using a smaller flat brush i could get some really ultra-fine edge strokes.  These might be useful for painting hair on humans and animals.

Lines – curves and ‘grass’ effects – these are really easy with gouache.  It’s almost like using a brush with ink.

Impasto – this can be done with gouache when it’s thick enough but the final result is still rather flat looking becuase the paint dries very matt – with no shine or lustre at all.  I guess this could be corrected for with a gloss spray varnish but this can change the colours a bit.  It is something I’m going to try out as it can protect the painting quite effectively.

Dry brush work – this is easy with gouache and really effective.  It would work well to provide texture if you painted some flat colour and then used a second colour or shade over the top with a dry brush technique.

Bumpy texture – this is easy too but again the lack of shine in the finished paint leaves it looking flat compared to oils.

Flip flop strokes – these work well in gouache and provide some gentle and easily controllable texture.  I likes teh result.

Scumbling – this looks cool and is fascinating to watch as it goes onto the paper in an irregular way.  Like all of the raised, textural techniques, it’s not as effective as oils because the paint is so matt when dried.

Blending – gouache paint is a dream to blend.  For me this is it’s greatest strength as a medium.


I think I learned quite a bit from doing this, but I do find exercises like this a bit of a chore compared to the excitement of making an actual painting.  Perhaps there’s a way to paint pictures and explore these exercises at the same time?

Lesson 3.1 – Colour Families – part 2

Today I finished my ‘Green Colour Family’ picture.

First I painted flat colour (which wasn’t as flat as I wanted becuase I was trying to use dried out paint):



Then I added shadows and highlights to this mid-tone starting point.  I was aiming for a surreal slightly abstract look with smooth transitions between different tones and sharp divisions between objects.    Here’s how it turned out:


Its not how I saw it in my mind and I’m surprised at how yellow the green/yellow sky looks.  I wonder if my camera adjusted the colour balance?  (I’m pretty sure it’s not set up to do that.  I keep it on ‘P’ mode which means than I am required to make all my adjustments manually.  My dad taught me to use an SLR when I was young – so I still work to those kind of ideas.)

Also, oddly enough, the trunk of the tree, which was less smooth than I was aiming for, looked better to me in the end than the stuff which ended up as smooth as I’d been planning.


As you can see the owl, which is my focal point, has some red mixed in to it’s colour.  This breaks my rule about using only shades of green, but I thought that it would make him stand out.

I called the painting ‘Greenhills‘.

Lesson 3.1 – Colour Families – part 1

Today I decided to try to paint a picture using only the green colour family (only shades of green).  I decided my definition of green can go from ‘almost blue’ to ‘almost yellow’ since green is a secondary colour anyway.  I also wanted a focal point which did use (as part of the colour mix – not on it’s own) a bit of red.  I was hoping that having this red hue mixed into this one object would make it stand out.  (My ‘object’ is another owl – sorry – I just love those little feathered friends.)

So I began with a sketch:


Then I began to lay down flat colour.  I was using a gouache method called ‘The Mid-Tone Method’ where you paint the middle tone and then darken and lighten that later to give texture and form.


It was really odd using a yellowish/green for the sky.  On the palette it looked really too green for sky but against the more green greeens it looked yellow.  I didn’t realise that colour could change with context to such a significant extent.


Another experiment I’m doing at the moment is that I’m seeing how gouache responds to being dried out and reworked on the palette.

Here’s my palette:


I found this worked perfectly for watercolour paints.  I thought it would work well for gouache since it reactivates so easily but I’m finding that it only works well when I want to use the gouache in a dilute form like you would with watercolour.  For the flat colours I needed it to be just a little bit thicker than I could easily mix from the dried out paint.  This is a pain because the flat colour I wanted looks less flat.  It probably also means that, long term, I’ll need to move to a different palette system to work with gouache.  I think I’m going to go for a paper palette since it’s nice an easy to clean up.  As you can see (in the partially completed painting above) the paint is not as flat as I wanted.

I’ll finish it tomorrow…    🙂