Thursday, 27 November 2014


oil painting, still life, copper, metal,
A little still life painting I did to enter a Daily Paintworks challenge. I bought these props for £1.50 each in a charity shop. The coffee pot (?) is 10 inches tall, the other two correspondingly smaller. 
I draped my little still life corner with black felt, then stood these pots on a mirror and shone a spot on them. The reflection was almost perfect in real life, but I knocked it back to try and achieve a bit of mystery. 
Apart from the use of a mop brush where I wanted to knock back paint ridges, this was painted with a palette knife.
The colours I used to paint the copper were Rembrandt Cad Yellow Deep and Transparent Oxide Red (wonderful colours); then Winsor and Newton (Griffin Alkyd) Lemon, Cad Yellow Medium (hue), white and black. There is also a fair bit of purple in the blacks.
That's all on the blog for this week. Happy Thanksgiving to all US readers, and thank you to everyone for looking at my paintings.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014


Miss Whiskers, oil palette knife painting of cat, pet portrait by karen
Another palette knife painting, but not the eyes or whiskers - I did those with brushes. The whiskers were the attraction of this subject, as well as the thing I feared. I cannot say how many hours I have spent practising whiskers. A lot. I have probably bought a dozen or more brushes specifically for the purpose. 
As well as what tool to use, the other problem with whiskers is the need to have a nice, relaxed hand. As soon as you tense up, the wobble-problem begins and the whisker ends up more zig-zag than a nice sweeping curve. But it is difficult not to tense up. Whiskers are like going to the dentist: just relax, they say. Relax?? HA.
Here is a summary of my various attempts:
Soft flat brushes, used on their sides and chisel-edged: feasible but difficult to create super long whiskers using this method. Mine tended to get fatter near to the ends instead of thinner
Sable round brushes: good for short whiskers. They run out of paint for long ones and cheap brushes start to splay so you get the "fat end" problem
Teeny-tiny brushes, meant for miniature work: only good for super short bristle type whiskers. They either run out of paint for long ones or the whisker goes wobbly
Palette knife on its side: good for a representation of a whisker but you can't produce a nice curve so this method has its limitations
Riggers of various sizes: I used a number 3 for most of the whiskers on this cat. The consistency of the paint has to be just right. I have a practice board to hand and mix white with mineral spirits and maybe a tiny bit of Liquin - not too much or it will make the paint translucent which is no good for a nice, firm whisker - and practice on the spare board until the consistency is right
If I get it right, I avoid blobs along the whisker (not a good look) or running out of paint or producing big fat chunky whiskers or producing whiskers that look like they are draped with cobwebs.
If I get it wrong, well I have to wipe it off. 
Which brings me to my show-stopping conclusion: don't put whiskers on your cat until your cat is dry. Then,  you can scorn defiance at blobs or wonks or splats and simply wipe them off.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Shoulders back, chest out

oil painting, Shoulders back, chest out a rooster at dawn, pet portrait by karen
A palette knife painting, except for his beak and eye. I was interested in capturing the iridescence in his breast and tail feathers, as well as the colour of dawn. 
I went up to the top of my (long) garden in the very early dawn light with my dog the other morning and was struck by how everything - all the trees, the grass, everything you might expect to be green - was many shades of a violet tinged grey. At the very top of the garden were some larger shapes, much darker, also a violet-tinged grey but with flashes of white. I thought it was curious as those shapes weren't there yesterday. 
All of a sudden, the shapes seemed to shimmer and dissolve, like shapes in one of those kaleidoscopes you held to your eye as a child. And a small herd of deer shimmered across the lawn and over the bank. 
I thought a small, shimmering herd was beyond my powers, so here is a rooster instead.
The concept of painting shapes rather than things is illustrated by this story. I have found it hard to understand how to work this way, although I know this is how all the masters painted. But I am getting a little better. I no longer say 'this beak' or 'this nose': I look at the large shape of whatever it is and then try to paint all the smaller shapes of dark and light within it. It does make for accuracy if you can do it. Maybe one day I might be able to do it well enough to paint a herd of deer shimmering in the dawn. But not yet.

The iridescent blue green was made using Rembrandt Sap Green and Managnese Blue. Fabulous colours, very strong pigments but also transparent. They also take an age to dry. I painted this last week and it is still too sticky to ship.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Merle Collie

blue merle collie, oil painting, dog with blue eyes, a pet portrait by karen
This dog was painted a while back and I was never happy with it but unable to put my finger on why not. When I pulled the painting out of the cupboard the other day the reason was immediately obvious: I had failed to put the shadow in the dog's eyes cast by his upper eyelids and eyelashes. Two tiny strokes of paint and I was happy with the painting.
It's not the first time something like this has happened. 

Very often, when I think a painting is or should have been a "wiper" the actual problem is quite minor. Correct that, and all is well with the world once more (or the painting, anyway).
Here are some things I do when I have that miserable "there is something wrong with it, but I don't know what" feeling:

  • IGNORE it. Put it in the cupboard for a week and ignore it. The problem may spring out at me next time I look.
  • USE A DIFFERENT VIEWPOINT. Traditionally, this means reviewing your work in a mirror by holding a mirror up to the painting or the painting up to a mirror and looking at the reflection. For some reason, this shows up issues that have previously been hard to spot. It is very good for showing up wonky bits. I find mirrors a bit tricky to use and prefer to photograph the painting and then review the photo on the computer.  It is the same principle, though. Sometimes I then import the photo into the Brushes app on my iPad and make changes to it by drawing them in one or more layers so I can see whether that will sort the problem.
  • ANGLES check them. If it is a building this is easier - are the uprights actually upright or on the wonk? Are the angles correct or shooting off in the wrong direction? The same principle applies to animals though: often the nose angles are wrong. It can make the animal look like it has a large button on the end of its nose that has been stuck on upside down or sideways, when in fact it is just one angle that is off.
  • SHADOWS. Are there any (or enough)? If not, the painting might look like a cartoon.  Eyelids cast shadows; muzzles cast shadows on the neck, ears cast shadows on the head (unless they are the sticky up type) and the entire animal casts a shadow on to the ground even if just the occlusion shadow (the very dark one wherever his body touches the ground). Absence of the occlusion shadow can make the subject look like it is floating.
  • VALUES. Squint at the painting. Is there a pattern of lights and darks or is it just mush? If it looks mushy (or foggy) there is the answer: not enough distinction between lights and darks will make the painting look formless, lifeless and dull. Unless you are JMW Turner painting fog. In which case ignore this.
  • COLOUR. Does it leap out at me like the entire contents of a Toys R Us catalogue? Did I want that to happen? If yes to the first question but no to the second, then the answer is to introduce more greys into the work. This might be a re-paint job, though. I find this problem particularly difficult to correct after the event. 
  • MUD, mud, glorious mud. If the painting looks muddy, step one is check the values. Perhaps there is just not enough distinction between darks and lights. Often, though the problem is using the wrong temperature colour, introducing warm colours when they should be cool or vice versa. I check for consistency in my use of cool and warm colours: that lovely sunny day where the shadows should be blue-ish (cool) but I have accidentally sneaked in a warm, dark earth colour.  Correcting that may put the whole painting right. If there is a very sea of mud, though, it maybe a wiper. 

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Great Dane

Great Dane painted with a palette knife
This Great Dane (called Oakley - from a photo by Robert Reid) is the first dog I have painted entirely with a palette knife. It is a small painting (8"x6") and I had a few moments of thinking there was very little point using a knife instead of a brush when working at this level of detail, at this scale. The whole point for me of using a knife was to force myself to work more loosely. 
My downfall was his eyes. I can't bring myself to paint eyes loosely, they are very important to me. 

So I ended up using the side and point of the knife - an awkward and inflexible 'brush'. Doh. 

I will have to see if a brush/knife combo will work or not for future portraits. Either that or I must overcome my desire for well-rendered eyes. I checked out how my hero David Hockney managed to resolve this: that master of loose brushwork. 

One of his books is entirely devoted to paintings of his daxies. Guess how he does it? He paints them more-or-less exclusively when they are asleep. Yep. That would work.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Brown Collie

Oil painting of a brown collie, painted contre-jour, a pet portrait by karen
A beautiful brown collie, painted contre-jour. Contre-jour lighting is a type of backlighting where you place the subject right in front of the light. In French the phrase literally means “against the day”. Wikipedia talks about it only in terms of photography, but painters have known about the impact of contre-jour for far longer. 
Most cameras tend to turn the subject into a silhouette when photographing contre-jour, but painters can choose whether to add details or not.
Here is a lovely example from 1884 by John Atkinson Grimshaw, where he plays it both ways for maximum dramatic impact:
painting of Humber Docks, Hull, by Atkinson Grimshaw to illustrate contre-jour painting

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Look

The Look - a beseeching look from a poodle puppy. Painted in oils, impasto by Pet Portraits by Karen
Continuing to work on a looser and more expressive style of painting, this poodle was painted with a brush but a larger one than I normally use and I made a really big effort to build him with the smallest number of marks I could manage. It is still a lot of marks, though.
To see dogs expressed "just so" with the smallest number of marks, you need to look at David Hockney. This book is the one:
David Hockney, Dog Days - painting dogs using the smallest number of marks
all I can say is that it is so much harder than it looks. Hockney says he set up palettes and left them all around the house so he could seize every opportunity to paint his dogs, Stanley and Boodgie. Inevitably, most of the paintings show them asleep, as it is tricky to paint them any other way, from life. My dog would want to grab the brush (stick?!) and run off with it, if he saw me trying to paint him.
Painting from life would be helpful, though, in efforts to move away from the tyranny of the photograph: it would be  easier to avoid getting bogged down with "photocopying" every detail, if your subject was liable to run off at any moment.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Maine Coon

Oil painting of a Maine Coon cat  by Pet Portraits by Karen

Cats, for me, can prove to be particularly difficult to paint, especially as a 'daily painting' (when I am seeking to complete the work in one sitting). About half of every 'daily' cat painting I begin turns into a wiper.  I know this fail rate would reduce if I worked over several days in layers, instead of alla prima. But that isn't the point: if I do that, it would not be the process I am seeking to gain proficiency in - it would be a different process. The results would look different, too.  
This Maine Coon was my 3rd attempt. I think he turned out alright.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Remembrance Sunday (Veteran's Day)

Remembrance Day (Veteran's Day) painting. Oil painting of poppies and dog
To commemorate the numberless legion of animals who have been bereaved, lost, injured, abused or killed in human wars.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Still life with red

still life of vase, brushes and teapot using impasto red oil paint and a palette knife
This still life, painted largely with a palette knife on A4 board, was heavily influenced by the work of David Cheifetz, which I have fallen in love with. On his website, if you follow the link "Impasto logs" it will give you access to 6 podcasts about how he paints. I have learnt so much from them.

So I set this arrangement up in a newly created still life corner of my work station. Here is "still life corner" in the context of my room, with some of my bits and pieces visible. I swap that white fabric for dark when I want a black background
The still life corner in my studio at Pet Portraits by Karen
I drew the arrangement out using the sight size method, and following David Cheifitz's approach, I painted the teapot first. Everytime I completed another piece of the arrangement I took my knife and slapped a bit more red on the pot to try and ensure it remained the most vibrant part of the painting.
For the dripping brush, I took a tube of cad red medium and squeezed it directly on to the canvas then dragged the blob down with a metal skewer. Great fun, but it took forever to dry.
That's it for the blog for this week. Thank you very much for looking at my paintings.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014


palette knife oil painting of a poppy for Remembrance Day
My palette knife poppy for Remembrance Day. 
I thoroughly enjoyed using lavish amounts of Cad Red and Cad Yellow Deep to paint this poppy. I finished it maybe 3 days ago and it is still so wet I had a job moving it about to photograph it. A scan was completely out of the question. 

I am not used to using "ordinary" oil paint - normally, I use W&N Griffin Alkyds, which are reliably touch dry within 24 hours. So it is a bit of a shock. But it has been such fun playing with my new paints. Here they are:
My selection of Rembrandt oil paints
From left to right: Transparent Oxide Brown (which I use all the time, instead of Burnt Umber. Much better: much less likely to turn muddy); Transparent Oxide Red (also one I use all the time, instead of Burnt Sienna), Permanent Red Light, Manganese Pthalo, Yellow Ochre Light ( a fabulous colour: I also use Michael Harding'a Yellow Ochre Deep); Cadmium Yellow Deep, Olive Green, Sap Green, Ivory Black and Transparent White. 
I bought the Transparent White because I thought it would be useful for scumbling: to add mist and fog for example, or the breath of animals on a cold morning. It is hard to do this with Tit. White. 
I only ever use W&N Alkyd Tit. White, by the way. I tried another brand, not alkyd, and felt myself growing visibly older waiting for it to dry .

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Sergeant Stubby

Sergeant Stubby, oil painting of most decorated dog of World War 1
A week of Remembrance this week. Here is Sergeant Stubby.

Sergeant Stubby is said to be the most decorated  dog of WW1 and the only dog to be nominated for rank and then promoted through combat. He took part in 17 battles over 18 months on the Western Front.

His sense of smell enabled him to save his regiment from mustard gas attacks; he could hear the whine of incoming shells before people could and warned them; he found the wounded, stranded in No Man’s Land, and they could help themselves from medicines he carried in his coat. He once caught a German soldier and held on to him by the seat of his trousers until help came.

He was smuggled on to a troop ship by Corporal Robert Conroy from Connecticut. On being discovered by the commanding officer, he was allowed to remain when the dog saluted the officer, as Corporal Conroy had taught him to do. He earned many medals and insignia. His chamois coat was made by the residents of a French town liberated by his regiment.

Robert Conroy and  Sergeant Stubby both survived the war. On returning to the USA, Stubby accompanied Robert to University in Washington DC. He met and was honoured by no less than 3 US Presidents and led many processions and parades. Stubby died peacefully in his sleep in 1926.

As you might imagine, there are very few reference photos for me to work from, none of them in colour and all of them very tiny. So I have done my best with this painting. I know that Stubby was a brindle, but I do not really know his colour. I suspect it was darker than I have painted him. Here is one photo from the BBC website:
Corporal Robert Conroy and Sergeant Stubby
I used a brush for Stubby’s face, but otherwise I used a palette knife. On his coat he actually carried many more medals than I have depicted here, and of course I do not know what colour the ribbons were, but I have painted an impression of his decorations: it is not supposed to be a literal rendering.

In memoriam, Stubby.