Thursday, 31 July 2008

Brush Envy

I really look after my brushes.

In the same way that I have a 'thing' about buying quality brushes, I am also almost obsessive about making sure that they are maintained properly.

I recently received a comment from someone who envied my brushes, and declared that they could often not find their brushes - or that they were clogged in dried paint.

On the few occasions where I've forgotten a brush, hidden among all my other bits and pieces, I've had to bin it when I found it. You see, unless you clean and maintain your brushes immediately after finishing each session they are as good as gone.

This is another aspect of my work which requires discipline and organisation. There is nothing I feel like doing less when I've finished a session than standing in front of a sink covered in oil paint, soap and washing-up liquid.

I go through this routine during a day's painting in the studio as well as at the end. So if there's a break - for the model, for lunch etc - I'll always clean those brushes I've used up to that point.

The way I clean is to use ordinary cheap bars of household soap, and washing-up liquid. I ensure that I'm washing in the direction of the bristles. I'm careful about this, and consequently my brushes do not splay, not matter how long I've had them. For this reason I have a well-maintained collection of brushes old and new.

I also use these breaks to change my white spirit, and to clean and reorganise my palette ready for the next session.

For me there's nothing as satisfying as starting or resuming a session with clean brushes, clean white spirit, a clean area for mixing on the palette and clean rags.

Clearly when painting outside in the landscape all day this discipline has to be modified. There I use plenty of white spirit and vast quantities of rag to clean the brushes, and equally frequent changes of white spirit. This all gets carried home at the end of the day, and sorted out for the next session.

Thursday, 10 July 2008


I want to explain a little about how I manage my palette.

In my previous post I said that my focus when painting is on the subject, then the palette - and then, a long way after those two, my canvas.

Looking when painting is vital. Second only to this is organisation of the palette, and of your 'set-up'.

Those who know me, or who have seen me paint may be rather bemused by the apparent irony of this assertion. To an outside observer I probably appear to be really messy. Paint seems to get everywhere, including on me, the landscape and the model.

The reason for this is that my level of concentration while I am painting is such that I am entirely focussed on the few things that are vital to what I am doing at that moment.

The process tends to work like this:

Look at subject...

Mix on palette...

Look again at subject...

Mix on palette...

Look again...

Place mark on canvas....

Look at subject...

Re-mix and adjust colour...

Wipe mark off canvas with rag...

Look at subject...

Place new mark on canvas...

Look at subject...

etc etc.

This process involves the use of white spirit, rag, a palette knife for mixing colour, various brushes, the palette itself, and the canvas.

While I am painting it is only these elements which are important to me. I need to have each immediately to hand to ensure that I do not lose the thought behind the decision I have just made, and which I am about to represent on the canvas.

This is why 'organisation' is crucial. It may not be your idea of organisation, but it works for me.

There are some principles or disciplines to which I always adhere. Many of these originate in the training I received from tutors at the Slade.

At Manchester I used to mix on the palette with a brush. On arriving at the Slade I was advised that I should slow down this rather slap-dash mixing process. An effective way of achieving this was to use a palette knife. I use this only for mixing, and for scraping paint away from the canvas where necessary. I don't really place marks on the canvas with it.

Use of a palette knife forces me to give greater consideration to colour mixing on the palette. 'Arriving' at a colour with a brush is a quicker, more intuitive process, and this has its place on occasion. It can however lead to colours becoming muddy. And the 'quick-mix' approach can mean less considered mixing.

Of course organisation of the palette means far more than simply 'mixing' colours. It is not a matter of red and white makes pink.

I am attempting to represent much more with colour alone. When I look at a landscape, at a river, at the model's skin, I don't only see colour - hue and tone. I have to achieve depth, luminosity, resonance, brightness, saturation, warmth or coolness. And so many other intangible things.

And even if I can produce on the palette what I believe I have seen with my eyes, it may well be altered in character once it is placed on the canvas, particularly in relation to other existing marks.

While painting I have to regularly scrape my colours to the side of the palette, as it can become very crowded. I use the palette knife for this, and a white spirit-soaked rag to clean and re-clean the mixing area.

As a painting progresses I can make colour comparisons on the palette by referring to those previously mixed colours which I have scraped to the side.

Finally, good brushes are essential to an organised set-up. They carry a good quantity of paint, retain their shape and firmness, and enable consistency.

The top photograph above shows a recent order I made from Bird & Davis, including a bundle of new brushes.

On my first day at the Slade, Euan Uglow examined the equipment I had brought with me. He immediately banished me from the studio, saying that I shouldn't return until I had a long-handled round sable Kolinsky number 4 brush. Of course I bought one straight away, and found that I could now actually produce a thin line!

Having spent the previous three years almost entirely untutored in painting, at Manchester, I was aware that such good quality brushes and paint were available but I had avoided them because of the cost. The enormous difference that such materials make had never been explained or demonstrated to me until my first day at the Slade. Since then, every time I place an order for artist's materials I include one of those brushes - and I never use anything but artist's quality paint. My recent order of paint and brushes, pictured above, cost over £1,000. The best materials do not come cheap.