Before commencing a painting I study the subject and look for the areas of highest contrast. Where are the darkest darks? Which way does the light come from? What to include and what to leave out, this is important as many people, when they start to paint, include very little detail in the scene. Not only is this hard to do but can make the work very confusing and detract from the main point of interest.
The next stage is to decide where the eye level is and then work out the vanishing point. The point of interest should preferably be on or near the Golden Mean, one third in and one third up or down.
I never approach a painting with a view to selling it as I feel this is the wrong approach. I paint subjects that interest me or subjects that I enjoy painting and find that this way of working very satisfying. Funnily enough these are the paintings that usually sell or win prizes; probably because I have felt happy when creating them. Commissions are a different matter altogether. I have done a few but prefer to avoid them as I would be painting someone else’s idea and what they see in their mind would be different to what I, as an artist, see in mine.
METHOD OF WORKING
I do not often work en plein air; I work from on-site sketches or photographs that I have taken, often using elements from several photographs and from computer enhanced ones so that details in shadow can be observed.
Usually I start by doing a charcoal sketch on an A3 sheet of cartridge paper to work out the composition, where the darkest areas are and to establish the centre of interest but mainly to warm up and get a feeling for the subject.
I quite often start the painting by using black Indian ink to do a full tonal underpainting. I have tried gouache (it dries too quickly for me); watercolour (not very effective on Art Spectrum Colourfix which is my favourite surface on the other hand Fisher 400 accepts watercolour readily as well as acrylic, oil and charcoal); and acrylic (fill the tooth). I find Fisher 400 extremely strong and pastel can be washed off using a wet piece of towelling which brings you back to the original tooth. Ink is good as it can be diluted easily to provide the full tonal range and dries very quickly without disturbing the surface.
Another useful way with difficult subjects like street scenes and architecture is to grid up the surface using willow charcoal or a soft charcoal pencil as these are both compatible with pastel. Renowed Australian artist Jeffrey Smart uses this method and I don’t regard it as cheating if it helps to provide balance and ease of composition. I divide the longest side by 4 and the shortest side by 3 and where the lines intersect I draw diagonal lines. A piece of clear acetate the side of a 4 x 6 inch photo with the same grid drawn on it with a Chinagraph pencil will help when working from photographs.
To fix the pastel and thus prevent particles falling onto the matt I giave a light spray of fixative to the dark areas, particularly dark blues as these are the colours most likely to come off and are the very devil to remove from the matt board.
Another method is to place the work face up on a hard surface, cover it with a piece of flat, unwrinkled paper, newspaper is idea; then using a heavy roller, a brella it is called, or a rolling pin, roll over the paper using lots of pressure to push the pastel into the paper. It is important to ensure that the covering paper does not move and smudge your work.
CHOICE OF SUBJECT MATTER
The choice of subject is a personal thing. It can be a flash of sunlight cutting across a vista or the way it strikes a tree; an approaching storm; in fact anything that stands out and strikes your artistic eye.
I was taught by one of my tutors, the late Brian Allison who was proficient in all mediums, to vary my subject matter so I have never been short of painting ideas. I only have to look around and there is a prospect waiting to be painted. I will work on a short series of beach scenes then move on to another subject, e.g. horse racing, street scenes and wet days.
Recently I have been portraying street scenes of Adelaide, the State capital of South Australia, in the rain which is a rare occurrence here and also in sunshine which we have in abundance. People walking, standing talking and just sitting drinking coffee fascinate me. We also have some wonderful old buildings in the city and the streets are lined with London Plane trees which turn a beautiful colour in Autumn.
Vineyards are another favourite of mine. We have magnificent beaches backed by the Mount Lofty Ranges and we are surrounded by vineyards, so I am never short of material to paint. I live in Victor Harbour which is on the Fleurieu Peninsula where we are visited by whales from June to August during our winter. My house looks south to the Southern Ocean, the next land is Antarctica and the two bays that I look down into have several islands just offshore. Many wellknown artists live on the Fleurieu Peninsula where we have a wide subject choice.
CHOICE OF MATERIALS
I have worked with pastel for almost 20 years since meeting with English pastellist John Patchett whilst he was living in South Australia and I attended two workshops run by him. I was amazed by the wonderful light and vibrancy the pastels produced in my work and it is now my only medium because I like the immediacy, I put down a stroke and it stays there.
Pastel is the only medium which is fully permanent. It is composed of pure pigment bound in gum tragacanth and as such will never fade, as evidenced by the wonderful pastel portraits by Quentin De Latour and Ingres; and the fine detail work by Degas in his ballet dancers.
My preferred brands are Art Spectrum, Rembrandt, Unison, Lucas,and I love Schminke for their soft buttery texture. The only white I used to have was Schminke as it is so intense but that is hard to come by, and I find the new Art Spectrum soft white is up to the same standard and as it is Australian made I am now using that. Another brand, of which I have a 150 pastel set, is Geoff Waterson hand made pastels. These are large, flat sided, almost oval in shape and are easy to hold. Unfortunately Goeff died a few years ago and the artist who purchased the business hasn’t yet resumed production.
I find Art Spectrum Colourfix paper or Fisher 400, a new paper that I’ve recently discovered, are ideally suited to my way of working. The weight of the paper makes it very robust and the pumice bound in acrylic medium, with which it is coated, takes an enormous amount of pastel without using fixative. It does, however, discourage excessive blending with the fingers as it does tend to remove a layer of skin. The range of colours in Art Spectrum (16) is enough to be compatible with any subject matter. Fisher 400 only does a sand colour and it is covered in silica.
In closing I would like to say that the key to success is perseverance and practice, practice and more practice, and don’t be afraid to try new ideas and subjects.