(a Painting Truth you can Learn too Late)
How often have you heard yourself say “I’d love to paint but I’ve got too much going on… I’ll have to wait till I’ve finished work….the kids have grown up….
“I wish I had more time to paint but… but, but, but”
Just finding space to set your paints out means upheaval of something else and squeezing a free window of time feels too difficult to plan in an already jam-packed calendar.
And then, having to learn how to paint on top of that ….uh, I can see why you’d think you’d have to wait until you retire!
But is it possible by not painting now, you’re missing out?
What if you don’t need more time to paint, but you need to paint, to give your mind a much-needed refresh?…
The Power of Painting
Painting is seen as a way to relax and empty your mind as you merrily wash great swathes of colour over a canvas.
But the reality is, it takes real concentration, planning and broaches a whole new set of visual problems.
So why does this help?
Because when you make decisions and solve problems of any kind, whether its work, organizing a holiday, choosing what to wear or designing a painting, you use an area of your brain called your prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is helpful for:
- Solving problems
- Setting goals
- Imagining the future
- Thinking creatively
The only issue is there are limitations:
- It has a limited capacity to remember things – about 4
- It can’t multitask – it single task switches.
- It gets tired easily and needs glucose (tea and biscuits – did you say you were putting the kettle on?)
So when it has too many thoughts and things to remember, it gets tired and our planning, reasoning and self-control all suffer.
Change is the key.
By changing your task and focusing your mind on a new set of problems, in our case painting, the tired parts of your mind become rested by using this new subject of interest.
Your mind doesn’t just switch off into a Zen-like state, it’s working hard to solve the problems of your painting, giving all of your other worries time to take a back seat, opening up space for clarity and a new perspective when returning to them later in the day.
“Painting came to my rescue in a most trying time.
I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind. Whatever the worries of the hour or the threats of the future, once the picture has begun to flow along, there is no room for them in the mental screen.
All one’s mental light such as it is, becomes concentrated on the task. Time stands respectively aside, and it is only after many hesitations that luncheon knocks gruffly at the door……”
Sir Winston Churchill, Painting as a Pastime, 1948.
Churchill wrote with real enthusiasm about the joy of painting and how it became an important method of rejuvenation, keeping his mind keenly focused.
The Daily Practice of Painting
So if you’re feeling inspired to experience some of these benefits yourself, I thought I’d share with you my painting practice from today, a little colour sketch inspired by my trip to Venice.
When artists talk about their work, they often refer to it as their painting practice, just like yoga, meditation or mindfulness. Thinking of it in this way encourages you to do just that – regular personal practice. Making the shift from the pressure of creating a finished piece to embracing the power of practice, encourages small studies, simple line sketches and the absorbing ritual of just mixing colours.
What really matters is the actual doing.
“Do not fail as you go on, to draw something every day, for no matter how little it is, it will be well worthwhile and will do you a world of good”
Cennino Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook, circa 1400
I often like to revisit reference images I’ve taken and look back at them in a more close up view. This photo was a small bridge next to the Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, also called San Zanipolo, the largest church in Venice. (See: Sketching the Light & Landscape in Venice)
Reviewing photos can be a useful exercise especially when the weather is too cold to sit outside and sketch, or there isn’t a still life set-up in your studio space and it gives an achievable subject matter. It’s also a great way to practice your composition by looking for a pleasing balance of light and shadow and there were 3 contenders from within the wider view above.
The Power of Projects
I find it useful to create a set of guidelines for a mini-project before you begin.
This will help you make quick decisions on what you’re going to paint that day, keeping you on track resulting in the momentum of creating more studies throughout the year.
Starting with too vast a subject matter will send you down a rabbit hole of new decision-making problems, which will tire out your prefrontal cortex, and the idea of having a brew and a biscuit will become much more appealing!
‘I want to paint Venice’ is not specific enough.
Limit your choices to what you’ve already got to hand, so for my practice today I said to myself:
- I want to paint 8 x 10 inch – because that’s the size board/canvas/paper I already had in
- A Venice street scene, with an element of a bridge – I know I had photos with this in
- Use soft pastel colours – I’ve got a new warm white pigment I want to experiment with
Now I was off to the races, this changed my thought process into the ‘next easy step’ with a clearly defined path.
“It is the limitation of means that determines style, gives rise to new forms and makes creativity possible.”
George Braque, Cubist Painter and Sculptor, 1882 -1963
In the first crop of my Venice scene, the archways had nice dark and light contrast which appealed to me and would make a great high contrast sketch, but my warm white wouldn’t get a look in so I moved on to my second crop.
In this, the man checking his watch in the window reminded me of some of Vermeer’s street scenes of Delft, which I really liked. It had a nice bridge arch and elements of the warm white but there wasn’t a wide enough range from warm white to cool white – so onto crop 3.
I decided on the third crop, as it had more focus towards the row of buildings within the centre of the composition. The white edge of the Basilica on the right-hand side helps to frame the image and the range of warmer hues and tones are quite close together, so I’ll be able to achieve a lot of the colours just with a couple of pigments.
Titan Buff Light, New Masters Acrylic, Old Holland
I’d wanted to experiment using my new purchase of Titan Buff Light from New Masters Acrylics from Old Holland.
You can make your own by mixing Titanium White and Yellow Oxide, but this pre-mixed tube is a convenient way of working with a warmer white, handy when painting white stone and buildings that are slightly warmed by the sun.
I had a pre-prepared 8 x 10-inch board that had been primed with a muted pale blue in my studio, the ground colour was a mix of Ultramarine Blue, Titanium White and a little Burnt Umber to mute down the blue.
Sketch using Liquitex Neutral Gray 5 Acrylic marker
I sketched in the drawing using a Neutral Grey 5 acrylic marker from Liquitex, due to the darkness of the ground, the drawing is nice and muted. I can now start to introduce some warmth with a Burnt Umber
I’m diluting the paint with water so I get this watery wash effect. Varying the consistency of the paint depending on the lightness or darkness of the tones.
The faces the buildings are now easier to judge because of the warm shadows that have been painted in, so I can now introduce the warm Titan Buff Light.
Again, just using water, I then dilute the paint slightly and block in using a small flat edged synthetic brush. As the light is brighter on the buildings on the right, I mix in more Titanium White to lift the value and cool the mix.
Now I add some of the Titanium White in with the Burnt Umber, this gives us a warm muted brown that can block-in the base for the buildings.
I glaze some watery Burnt Umber over the Titanium White, this creates an optical mix onto the paint surface. You can see how the water separates on the black duck tape.
To add some more saturation into the warms, I introduce a Light Red from Winsor & Newton.
This can be glazed over to warm up the buildings, and then mixed with the Titan Buff Light for more solid areas of the orange.
Total planning & sketch time: 40 minutes
Total painting time: 30 minutes
Here’s the finished, sketch, is it perfect? No, but there are some areas I really like and my favourite part?
This little area of the doorway. For me it’s got a nice balance of optical mixing with the Burnt Umber glaze at the top, the saturation of the solid Light Red at the bottom and I like the way the post on the right has been subtly ‘outlined’ by the blue ground.
President Eisenhower sometimes quipped that he was able to devote more time to painting during his tenure in the White House than afterwards because his time was so efficiently scheduled.
So if you’ve been putting off creative projects because your mind is busy racing with other things, try and block out 30-45 minutes practice time a week and enjoy the benefits of a refreshed outlook.
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