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How I Create My Paintings

People often ask me how I do my paintings and, to be honest, it is not an easy question to answer. I just love my subject matter and have a compulsive need to recreate it via the medium of paint. I cannot imagine not doing so. I think painting comes naturally to me, but I am a firm believer that there is an artistic side in everyone although they may not have discovered a way to express themselves.

I am also asked when I started painting and if I was taught. To answer that is also not so simple. I started drawing as soon as I could wield a pencil so I have always had the interest. I went to art college not to learnt to draw as such, but to develop my personal talent. I had a few good lecturers who inspired me, as did some of the other students, and certainly some of it sunk in. I also got to try different materials and techniques and discovered what I didn’t like too! I enjoy and appreciate other people’s art which is all part of the passion. Over the years your particular style changes and evolves and, like anything, you improve with lots of practice. I don’t think I shall ever stop learning or finding inspiration which is what makes it so fascinating. It is good to push your boundaries and climb outside your comfort zone occasionally! This is why I like mentoring - I think I get as much, if not more, out of it than my students!  

Another question that comes up is do I work from life? Not usually as most of my subjects are animals and unless you want a painting of it asleep in its basket I wouldn’t stand a chance of getting a full painting done from life! A few rough sketches maybe - gone are the days when people would be prepared to pose for hours on end for the convenience of an artist! Whilst on this subject I don’t like painting outdoors much either - sounds great in theory but usually results in you getting frozen, sun glare on your paper, your stuff blowing away, bugs in your water and interruptions from well meaning interested passers by. Not for me, I like the comfort and privacy of my den. And good coffee on tap... not thermos stuff if its all the same to you. Oh and a nearby loo is handy too.

The photo is a marvellous invention as far as I am concerned and, provided they show the subject off to its best, using them is the easiest and most practical way of achieving my ends. That said, if it is at all possible or practical then I really prefer to meet my subject just because I will then get the chance to fix the personality, character, expressions and the real colouration etc into my memory. This is why ideally I like to take the photos myself so that I get the chance to study the subject face to face. It is also part of my work that I really enjoy as I love meeting new people and pets although sadly this just isn’t possible sometimes.


Now to the nitty gritty - this is the process I follow when doing a painting in acrylics: -

All paintings start with a preliminary sketch - I think about where the focus of the painting is going to be and then draft the basic outline of the subject with the main features positioned. This is the most vital part of the process - if your drawing is wrong then no amount of pretty paint on the top is going to change it and make it better. It will always look ‘off'. At this first stage thought must be given to the basic composition i.e. the shape of the subject and how it will be positioned on the canvas as a whole. Once I am happy that I have the basic structure right and that it is correct proportionally, then, and only then, will I start adding paint. I often get up and stand back and look at the sketch from a distance as this gives a better impression of the overall image. If something does not look quite right, but you can’t see what exactly is wrong, then check your image in a mirror - this can be very revealing as it will exaggerate any flaws in your design. I think the reason this works is we all draw with a bias depending on wether we are right or left handed and not many people have perfectly matched eyesight either - I certainly don’t!. Well it works for me!

The second stage is the application of a base coat. This is usually a thin wash layer of the predominant colour/s of the subject about mid range. I again stand back at this point to make sure the image looks the correct overall basic colour.
I then begin to build up thin layers of colour deepening the shadows particularly. When you stand back at this point you should start to see the subject shaping up to look more 3D and structured.

Once it is blocked in to my satisfaction I will start to apply more detail. This takes time and care and the image should start to look much more like the subject. I think the eyes are the most important feature of a portrait - so these get a lot of careful attention from me - they are what makes the subject look alive. This is the bit that requires the most patience - the gradual building of detailed layers until the portrait starts to come to life. Again getting up and reviewing the picture at a distance is important.  

At this stage I then mask the image with Frisk/Friskette film (or similar) and airbrush the background. Frisk is a low tack (expensive!) type of clear sticky backed plastic which you lay carefully over your image whilst trying not to trap any air bubbles! (Do not mistake Frisk with the sort of Blue Peter style clear plastic film you can use to cover exercise books etc. - that is high tack and will stick fast to your picture and ruin it!) You then, as accurately as you can, cut around the outline of your image with a scalpel blade and peel off the outer part leaving the image covered. Make sure you no not press the film down too hard onto your image - if you do it will create a capillary action and the sprayed paint will bleed underneath - you have been warned! You can then airbrush over the top of the protected image - watch out for overspray too. This is just how I do it - there is no right or wrong way to do your backgrounds, this is what works for me. I like to do it this way because I prefer to counterpoint the darkest parts of the background to the lightest parts of the image and vice versa as I think it makes the portrait stand out better. I usually try to blend the neck of head portraits into the background so that they do not appear to have been decapitated! For me a misty or subtle background if preferably for a portrait because, after all, you are trying to showcase the subject rather than create a landscape - unless that is the effect you are after of course!

Peeling of the Frisk is good fun - revealing the nearly complete image set in the background.  Now the fiddly bit - I then add in the highlights and very fine detail such as the wisps of hair or whiskers that drift over the background. Again patience is necessary.  This is the final stage when the image becomes the reality and lifelike. I will often take a break and leave the painting alone for a while at this point, so that when I walk back into the room I can look at it with a fresh eye. I find having a fresh look will highlight anything I need to change or tiny details I may have missed. If you are not careful you can get too bogged down and not see that you may be over working it. Also now I’m getting older I find my eyes could use a rest occasionally!  Either that or my arms appear to be getting shorter? Anyway don’t be afraid to leave it and come back to it!

When I think I have done as much as I should I stop. Really. There is a point when you must - otherwise the painting can become muddy and overworked. The last thing I do is sign and date it and then take a few photos of it as a record. 
Finally off to my brilliant framer, Anthony, to be either framed or mounted. The frame can make a real difference to a painting - it really can make or break it. I always use bespoke framing as anything less and you are not doing your work any favours.  

Hopefully now that I have given you an insight into the different stages involved in the creation of a painting -  the many hours of time and care and patience that are required to achieve a fine detailed portrait - you may now appreciate why they cost more than a print from your local department store, digital reproductions or those mass produced efforts which are imported from Asia! All of my paintings are originals - hand drawn and painted by me and unique.

As I have said, I enjoy teaching so if you would like to come and have a go why not contact me?  Its fun!  Have a try!