Oil painting colour chart

Know yourself, know your colours

Since finishing the school year at Sarum Studio at the end of June, things have been very quiet for me over the summer. Unfortunately there has been no getaway on the cards for us as we sadly have another sick dog to nurse at home. Meg is doing well in many ways, but her health is slowly declining. Given that her melanoma diagnosis was not at all optimistic over a year ago, she is certainly exceeding all expectations. There are problems however that need gentle management and as such it’s one day at a time and we try to enjoy as much sun as possible from the garden.

I decided to have a break from summer school this year too. It was a difficult decision, but after the last few months I thought I’d keep things simple and try to have a breather, look at lots of inspirational work by other people, push my painting further in its evolution, and most of all experiment a little. Things haven’t necessarily gone to plan. Looking at the brilliant work of other people has made me feel dissatisfied with where my own work is. Most of my attempts at new things have not really pushed in any exciting directions either, and with a very few exceptions everything has been scraped back and discarded. Over time I’ve come to reassert to myself the only things I know to be true: keep going, don’t over-think it and let experience be your teacher. In short, practise, practise, practise.

My biggest hurdle at the moment is subject matter and composition. I enjoy still-life work and want to paint simple things from my everyday life. I want to remain within the representational tradition but I don’t want to search out gimmicky items to paints. Rather, I’d like an unusual angle, or refined colour palette to add a contemporary edge to what I’m doing; assured brushwork, the maturity of effective editing, and so on. Artists who I feel achieve this very well, and whose work I have been enjoying looking at lately, include Jason Walker, Alex Fowler, Robert Dukes, and Felicia Forte.

As well as being disheartening at times, it is also of course difficult to look at other artists and then find your own voice, style, point of difference. How can you all paint the same subject – say, a lemon – but leave people in no doubt as to which hand each painting belongs to? In the case of several of the artists I have listed above I can see their own influences, the one that most clearly resonates being Euan Uglow, who I have previously written about and certainly share as a point of reference. Each artist has expressed that reference in their own way however. The genre is the same, often the subject matter too, and even when you can identify such common influences they are still unique. That can be a challenge, but it is one that these artists have risen to. A lot of people tell me that they are able identify my work in a similar way, and I believe that I do have a style that shows consistency. Currently however I don’t think it’s definite enough in any of the ways that really matter. There is no shortcut to resolving any of this other than to acknowledge where you’re at and keeping going, it will come in time.

This solution is one that also applies to plein air landscape painting. I simply don’t do enough of it to improve. Of course there are many things it has in common with other genres of painting, and from a technical perspective there are things to do with knowing how to paint that don’t require the learning curve of starting from scratch. Still, it does require a different way of seeing, condensing, formulating a composition and so on. The light-shifts and time-constraints bring their own set of challenges and again there is no substitute for practise. With this in mind I recently ventured out for the first time in what is now getting on for three years. I went to Purton on the Severn Estuary, a place I last visited twenty years ago when it inspired a photography project and some large scale lithographic drawings – now lost.

Painting of Ghost Barges on the Severn by Helen Davison

Ghost Barges on the Severn

This painting is the result of my visit. It’s not great (and the photo is worse), but it narrowly won a reprieve from scraping back because despite the problems I see in it, there is something that attracts me to it. In all likelihood it is nostalgia for a life that now seems so far away. In case it is not clear what the subject of the painting is, all along this stretch of the Severn old barges were sunk into the mud to shore up the banks. They are decades old and although they have degraded further since my last visit, and now are fenced off in places and almost invisible amongst the summer explosion of long grass, they remain impressive and eerie; like rotting whale carcasses or haunted longships. You can read more about them here.

On my return from this trip I found myself admiring the work of an artist I have only recently discovered. Mary Gilkerson has some wonderful paintings on her website and a fantastic section of tips and observations that I have really enjoyed reading. Inspired by her colour palette I decided to add some new colours to my usual limited palette. Of course, you can’t do this and then go out blind, so I then created some colour charts where I mixed the new colours in combination, adding my stalwart colours too, in order to see what they do. It’ll take a lot more work with them to know if I like them and to instinctively know what to reach for in any given situation. It can be quite a tedious exercise, but it is invaluable and I recommend any serious student to start getting to know their colours in this way.

Well, I think I’ve written quite enough for one day. The sun in shining and so the garden is calling. It’s a case of making the most of what you have.