As a student, with oil paint on my brush

I’ve been wanting to learn how to paint with oils, so I few weeks ago I enrolled in a night class taught by fellow LAA member  David Kelavey. I like his loose approach to landscapes and city scenes, and even though in the past I have tried to learn a bit about oils on my own, there’s nothing like watching someone paint to really understand how it’s done. Even though these are quick 7″ x 9″studies, scenes of Charlevois, each done in under an hour, I thought I’d post them and explain a bit about the process.

The way David works is to start by covering the canvas or panel with a layer of burnt sienna acrylic paint. You can see it showing through on my sketches. From there he paints the darkest areas in with a thin layer of burnt umber acrylic, and then adds in the lights with white acrylic. He calls this step a “notan”, a term I wasn’t familiar with, but it is very much like the value sketch I often create in pencil or paint before painting a watercolour. I wish I had taken a photo of that step too, but I was a little too eager to put colour down.

When the notan is dry — and acrylic dries pretty quickly — we add colour, in oil, starting with the darks. You can well imagine that as someone who has working almost exclusively in watercolour, this is a leap for me. I always know before I start out where the darks will be but I usually build up to them instead of beginning with them. From there we work the various midtones (those are the burnt sienna parts in the underpainting) and end with the lightest areas in the painting.

Last week I was quite frustrated with the process. I think I mixed too much of each colour and painted a bit like I was painting a wall, but thicker. This week I watched David a little more closely, and realized I was mixing up too much pigment with my knife. I tried to mix a little more slowly and carefully with my brush, and this week I probably went in the opposite direction. Instead of having great gobs on paint on the canvas, I used layers of paint that may be a little too thin. Eventually I hope to get it right.

There’s no need to state the obvious differences between oil and watercolour. But there is one thing that I rely on when painting in watercolour and miss when painting with oil. Watercolour surprises you. It does stuff right on the paper, stuff you can’t anticipate, as pigments combine, granulate and dry. You’re always living a little on the edge of chaos as you paint. There are no surprises with oil as you put down the paint. I guess that’s a good thing too, but what I love about watercolour is the looseness you can achieve by letting water and paint do their thing. Looseness seems harder to achieve in oil because it has to be more deliberate. It is completely dependent on how you put paint down with the brush. I will have to work on that for sure. In the meantime, I’m really enjoying learning something new. Next week: the start of a bigger painting.



My favourite tree, year five

It’s become a yearly tradition to paint this maple tree in my neighbourhood. Here it is in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. It’s still a perfect tree in every way — with a trunk to foliage ratio of 1 to 10, a perfectly intact crown (no chainsaws hacking away chunks to make way for power lines), and an unobstructed spot on a corner lot. But I think it’s getting too big to fit on my paper. When I look back at my first sketch of this in 2012, I can see that I had the same problem as today — I just couldn’t fit all of its beauty onto the page. Some things never change.


Festival du cône orange

If you live in Montreal, you’ve certainly partied at the “Festival du cône orange” this past summer. You know what I mean. Construction and traffic everywhere you go. Detours, delays and irate, impatient drivers. It hasn’t been fun. Even in my own neighbourhood, there’s some infrastructure work going on. Streets dug up, water lines crisscrossing the roads, and our own festival of orange cones. A real party.

I painted this on a sample of Fabriano Artistico paper that was shipped with my copy of Watercolor magazine. On the back of the sample it says “Try sheet (test other side)” and I always follow orders. If you received a copy too, be sure to answer their online survey, as they will send you more sample papers. Seems like a fair deal to me.


This time of year

I love sketching in this weather so much that I went out twice today. What is it about this time of year that makes it so perfect? First of all, it’s chilly enough to have to sit in the car but not so cold as to be uncomfortable. The days are getting shorter too, which makes the afternoon shadows more interesting. And with the shorter days comes the colder temperatures, the bright leaves and a crisper quality of light.


With the wind we’ve been having, the cloud formations are very dramatic and they create a deep blue backdrop for the bright foliage. This short period of intense brightness and contrast precedes a much longer and less vibrant one, so I’ll try to get out as often as I can in the next few weeks before it all turns grey.


Tin and brick

The view from the west side of La Grande Bibliothèque faces the backs of the buildings on rue St. Denis. I love to paint that checkerboard of chimneys and back doors that faces out onto the alley by using a complementary colour scheme of oranges and blues. Painting brick can become very monotonous, but I made an effort to get a slight colour shift as I moved across the page. A little more Burnt Sienna on the left, a bit of Alizarin Crimson on the right, and in the middle, some Ultramarine Blue added to the Burnt Sienna to neutralize the reds and oranges. alottawind


From the window

Days and days of rain in the forecast, and possibly some snowflakes tomorrow. Sigh. Painting from indoors or from the car may be the norm for the next few months. I wanted to get out to sketch some of the autumn trees in the neighbourhood but there was too much rain so I painted a view from my window today.

If you are planning on joining Urban Sketchers Montreal this Sunday, please take note of the change in venue. Instead of Carré St. Louis, we will be meeting and sketching at La Grande Bibliothèque where we will stay warm and dry. There’s plenty to sketch from there — the architecture, the views from the windows, or the visitors in the library. More details here, and hope to see you Sunday.


Green with envy

Last week Australian sketcher Jane Blundell was in town giving a workshop, but at the last minute I had to give up my spot as a participant because of work commitments. At the end of the session I stopped by to have a look, and I have to admit I was a little envious of the beautiful paintings of pears that people had done. I love painting pears, so I did some of my own today. No matter which way they stand or fall, pear shapes are always interesting to draw. And it’s a great exercise to paint green pears on a green striped cloth without using any green pigment. I painted this using Cerulean Blue and Hansa Yellow Medium, with a little Organic Vermilion washed in for the reddish blush on the pears.


The colour of fall

This is the week to paint trees in Montreal. They truly are at their autumn peak. When the sun hits the yellow and orange leaves they glow, but if you try to paint them that way, or at least if I do, they look garish. So today I took the intensity down a notch and simply suggested the colours of fall. A little red here and there, some muted oranges, greens that are a little softer than in midsummer, using mostly Quin Gold, Phthalo Blue and Permanent Alizarin Crimson. Dark trunks are painted with Phthalo Green and Alizarin Crimson, a combo that gives you one of the richest blacks you can make in watercolour. Painted on my lunch hour from a window at school, in a Handbook Watercolour Journal, 8″ x 8″.


The best-laid plans

When I give an outdoor workshop demo, I love to have the luxury of a little time beforehand to sketch in my location. Since I like to paint in the shade, it helps to give me a sense of the light at different times of the day. As well, I can see if there’s pedestrian traffic, wind, noise, or other factors that might affect how I teach. Plus, it helps me work out problems in the composition and think about colour too. But the best-laid plans don’t always work out.

At the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Manchester this past July, my workshop “Bare Bones: working with limited palettes in watercolour” took place at the restored Castlefield Urban Heritage Park and Rochdale Canal district. I chose the location because the canals, the longboats, the restored brick buildings and the train viaducts offered endless sketching opportunities.

The day before the start of the workshop I did a series of sketches in the area, using different combinations of limited palettes, mostly primary triads. For the first one I chose Phthalo Blue, Permanent Alizarin Crimson and Quinacridone Gold for my sketch of the longboats on the canal.


The second sketch was done sitting beside the historic Rochdale Canal, and for this I used a combo of Hansa Yellow Medium, Permanent Alizarin Crimson and Ultramarine Blue to capture the traditional Manchester brick.


For my third planning sketch, I combined the unlikely trio of Cobalt Teal, Permanent Alizarin Crimson and Quinacridone Gold to paint another section of the canal (and more brick!) where the River Medlock flows into the canal.


But despite all my good planning, for each of my three workshops, the skies opened up, the rain poured down, and we had to take shelter under the arches of the train viaduct. So for all that good planning and research, well, we didn’t get to sketch any of it. The view from our location was of, yes, more viaducts. And if you look closely at the sketch below you’ll see that even under our shelter, the wind managed to drive fine droplets of rain onto our sketches.


I was still able to do series of demos (the one above uses Cerulean Blue, Organic Vermilion and Yellow Ochre) and as a reward to all the shivering participants who toughed out the wind tunnel and the rain, we finished our sketches under the welcome warmth of the outdoor heaters at the restaurant next to the canal.



Since Canadian Thanksgiving (today) coincides with an anniversary (five years since I started this blog) I thought it might be a good time to send out a message of thanks.

I am so grateful for all the feedback and comments I receive for my posts. Even though I don’t always respond as promptly as I’d wish to (there are still some unanswered ones from this summer!!), I read them all and appreciate them more than I can express. This blog has brought drawing and painting back into my life, has allowed me to travel and teach in so many places, and most importantly has connected me with other artists from all around the world. It seems kind of silly to mark a blog anniversary, doesn’t it, but this has changed my life is so many ways, and I really am thankful for that.


As a way to celebrate this anniversary, Jane Blundell and I sketched at my favourite Montreal landmark: Jean Talon Market. With temperatures cold enough to frost up the grass this morning, the vendors (and the shoppers) were bundled up in hats and coats but the produce is still abundant and colourful. Happy Thanksgiving!