Monday 15 May 2017

Arctic Corsair - painting from a sketch and believing in the sketch

The best thing about painting from a sketch is that you've already made most of the decisions about what to leave out.

The worst thing about painting from a sketch is that you've already made most of the decisions about what to leave out.

When I made these two sketches, I wasn't really thinking about whether or not I would use them for a painting, I was just enjoying sketching. Which is what I usually do. Still, with detail in the line drawing, focussing on the boat, and colour in the drawing of the buildings alongside it, I thought I would be able to do a passable job of recreating the scene.

The following is a description of how I painted this. I used a painting knife with oils on a clear-gesssoed linen canvas.

I started by blocking out where the dark areas were going to be using a mixture of burnt umber and ultramarine. Then I wiped my knife clean and blocked in the sky (with clouds) using phthalo blue and titanium white. Because the canvas is that lovely natural linen colour, I like to leave some of it showing; the sky is often the most loosely painted area in my work, and a nice place to leave bare canvas. I moved on to the refletions in the river without wiping my knife, picking up extra white and a bit of extra colour and then placing some suggestions of greys and oranges where I thought they would work best.

I wiped my knife clean and picked up a darker mix of phthalo blue with white and a touch of rose madder quinacridone (my red, which is close to magenta) for the shadow of the boat on the mud. It was January when I was in Hull, and I remember a distinct cool blue cast in that shadow. The blue moved around the painting and became redder, aquiring yellow as it went. Eventually a brickish red-orange emerged. With the addition of more white, it became the basis of the yellowish-cream Shotwell building directly behind the boat.

And here is where I made a BIG mistake. I looked at someone else's photograph, taken from a subtly different angle. Oh. It looked like I had got the colours of the boat's bridge upside down. There was a brown bit underneath a white bit. I had drawn a white bit with a smaller black bit on top. And look - I'd missed out the painter rope. It was bright blue in the photograph. I painted in the painter. I didn't quite like it; it looked clumsy and wrong, but maybe I'd just got it too thick? I attempted to reconcile my sketch and the evidence of the photograph regarding the bridge. I also made a mental note to add white railings at the front. No railings were visible in my sketch. I must have seen past them, ignored them.

I did other things, too - added the masts, fleshed out the buildings and the path, had a go at representing the river-water patterns in the mud. And the river: the water was pretty much done by this point.

But the mud was too cold and blue. I wanted a bigger contrast with that chilly shadow.

So I made the mud more orange. It was beoming a blue and orange painting - I liked that.

I thought I'd finished when I took this photograph (still on the easel - the window was to my right and there is a lot of reflection off the wet paint on that side). I'd suggested the rigging, added the railing, and (based on a faulty recollection) made the anchors in the hawse pipes at the front red, giving the poor old Corsair a rather grim and sharky visage.

That evening, I looked again at an assortment of photographs of the Arctic Corsair on the Web. It dawned upon me that my sketches were right - the angle at which I was viewing the boat meant that I could only see the top of the bridge, the white part. The black thing was its funnel and assorted other  gubbins. And - less importantly - the painter wasn't always blue. Some photographs showed a chain and a white rope. But I could make it more subtle. I also looked at the shape of the hull and the size (and colour) of the hawse pipes and decided that, here, at least, I could improve on the information in my sketch.

And as for the railings - well I had barely seen them when I was sketching them. They shouldn't be such an obvious part of the painting.

So today I scraped off the clumsy "correction" of a bridge and repainted it according to my sketch. The railing reappeared only as a narrow scratched-in suggestion. I de-sharked the hull and refined its shape. I made several other, largely pointless, minor changes, and rephotographed it:

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