Media…why use this one?

There are a great many different media available to the fine artist (oils, watercolours, acrylics, charcoal, graphite, tempera, and so on), So how is one to choose? I have heard many newcomers ask which medium they should use. Which is the best?

The answer is none. They are all good, and without knowing a persons tastes or interests how can any of us experienced artists say what is the best. I could say that I use acrylics ergo they are the best. That is disingenuous at best. It is the medium that I like the most, but that certainly does not make them the best, only the only that I like the most. So let us look at some of the media and make some comparisons.

Acrylics: I like this one because of its versatility. It can be used as an opaque medium similar to oils, or as a transparent medium much like watercolours. It dries rapidly and has a wide range of colours available. It mixes easily and is easy to work with. The rapid drying works well with glazing techniques and makes it great for working on location. It dries through evaporation, when the water is gone it is pretty much water resistant and dry. So subsequent layers can be painted over previous without trouble. Some of the colours are opaque, and some of the others are quite transparent. This can be difficult to adapt to, but not impossible. Clean up is done with water. Some drawbacks (there are always drawbacks) are the fact that the colours dry on value darker than application, the rapid drying can be problematic (there are drying retarders and other methods to compensate for this) for large wet into wet techniques.

Oils: The traditional painting medium, used for centuries and well understood by the art world oils use fine ground pigments in a oil medium, such as linseed or walnut. The dry slowly, which is the attraction as well as the curse. Because of the slow drying pace wet into wet techniques work well and the colours can be blended beautifully. But they do require different painting techniques than acrylics. Painting dark colours atop light does not work well if the colours are wet, as the darks will pick up the light colour beneath and change. But if left to dry all bets are off. Oils also dry as they are when wet. No colour shift. Some of the solvents used for clean up and thinning can be quite toxic, and the slow air drying can be a concern for travelling

Let’s leave it at that for now. But in the next writing I will look at some of the others. Watercolours, pastels, coloured pencils, tempera, pencil…

Art as Communication

Communication would, on the surface, be a relatively simple subject. But is it? At its basic it is two people talking one on one, alternating between speaking and listening. But there is more to communication than spoken language. Animals use scents, movements, colours, sounds to convey their message. Think of a rattlesnake with the audio clues of the rattle and the visual clues of the coiling to indicate displeasure and the possibility of an attack. Hiker take warning.

People have a diverse array of communication tools at their disposal. Spoken language, writing, body language, music, and, I believe visual art. At its most basic a painting is a representation of something, such as an apple, but it can also tell a story. I find normal communication to be quite difficult at times. I have a very soft speaking voice, and when I am in groups of people I find that I tend to disappear in the overall noise of the room. So I have found other routes to express my thoughts. Writing, painting and drawings are the ways that I express my thoughts and share them with others. Of course that is no guarantee that the message is being transmitted to others. Even with writing poor grammar, bad syntax, or poor sentence structure can leave the message clouded and vague.

So what do my paintings say? My paintings are, for the most part, subjects that have some meaning for me. I paint things that I find interesting, such as trains, or places that I have been to, or something that catches the light just so. When I paint a close up scene of wheels of a locomotive I would hope that others can share in the excitement I feel in the play of light off of the polished metal, the streaks of rust, the mass of the machine, the possibility of movement. I just would like people to be able to see what I see. When I look at an object I see more than the object. I see the shapes, and the colours and lights and the darks, and I try to convey that in my art.

Aerial perspective

The reasoning behind aerial perspective is that when we observe objects everything that we look at it through the earth’s atmosphere. The further away something is the more atmosphere that we have to look through. Although all of the gases that make up the bulk of the atmosphere, the distant objects do not look the same as the nearer objects do. Part of that is due to the other things that are present in the atmosphere such as dust, water vapour, pollutants and the like. All of these impact the colour and appearance of things in the distance. The key things that painters must remember is that the further away things get, the less contrast between values there will be, and the more blue colours will take on. Value is a scale of light and dark. So in the farthest distance visible there will be very little difference in value between the lightest and darkest tones. So the artist, to maximize the sense of depth in a painting, should have the highest contrasts in value in the objects that are in the foreground, mid range contrasts in the middle distance, and virtually no contrast in the background. Also the further away the objects get, the more that the atmosphere will affect the colouring of the scene, and the far distant objects will be bluish.

So, the far distant mountains in a scene should be a greyish blue, and have very little in the way of lights and shadows visible. And to add more atmosphere (such as smoke, or fog) the distant mountains could well be virtually indistinguishable for the sky.

Vanishing points

2014-09-07 17.07.30 Once the horizon line has been established, a decision has to be made about vanishing points. The simplest is to have a single point perspective as in the locomotive, where everything in the picture is pretty much on the same plane and all depth and form is done with shadows(more on that in a future posting). There is in fact vanishing points, but they are all so far off of the canvas as to be essentially irrelevant.

station But single point perspective, while interesting, is certainly inadequate for all subjects, which brings us to the use of vanishing points. In the train station painting there are two main vanishing points, one to the left and one to the right. The one on the right is quite some distance off of the canvas, and in order to lay the lines out the painting had to be laid on the floor and string used. The horizon line is close to the base of the windows, and therefore all parallel lines will converge on the same point. That is the top line of the roof, the eaves, top of the doors and windows, base of the windows and base of the wall on the left of the building will all merge with the horizon line on the left side. Everything above the horizon line will slope down to the horizon, and everything below will slope up. The primary things to keep in mind with perspective and vanishing points is:

  1. All parallel lines will end with the same vanishing point
  2. Vertical lines also will go to a vanishing point, but they are so far above the canvas that they are in fact non-existent. Therefore….
  3. Vertical lines should be plumb with the edges of the canvas
  4. Very complex subjects can have many more than two vanishing points.
  5. Circles also are subject to perspective rules, and will become ellipses. These will take some practise to get right.


DSC_0449What is perspective?  Perspective is a tool that the artist can use to create the illusion of depth on a two dimensional surface. There are two basic types of perspective,  linear and aerial.

Linear perspective takes advantage of the fact that parallel lines appear to converge in the distance.  It can be as complex or as simple as one wants. The primary component is the horizon line. The horizon line would be a horizontal line drawn across the surface of the artwork at the eye level of the artist.  It can be above the main subject (think of a painting of a canyon from the rim), below (an airplane viewed from the ground) or somewhere in between. The cityscape above is an example of an horizon line above the subject. The mountain painting is an example of a low horizon line.  In the first painting the horizon is far in the distance and all of the buildings are below that. In the second the horizon line is around the top of the shortest tree and most of the subject is above this.