Option 4: The unknown: Project 2: Gaps and Spaces: Exercise 4:1 Leaving space/making space: 2nd pain

2nd Painting (Redacted)

I started by thinning my paint (with thinner) and making a flat block of green/black in the middle of my canvas. I had added a tiny bit of white to lift the green so it didn’t look too ‘black’, but when it went on the canvas the white lifted it another tone… so I remixed some green/black and painted it directly onto the canvas which gave me the colour I wanted.

Then I mixed up different greys and mixed them with an assortment of greens, olives, yellows, blues, burnt sienna and permanent rose. My aim was to make a patchwork underpainting that I could redact as I added more layers on top of it.

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Underpainting, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm

My idea was a mixture of sunlight penetrating vegetation, reflected light and a pleasing abstract composition. I used about 30 different brushes, at least one for each new colour.

I like the top right with the olive line penetrating the light green… and the combination of colour in the top left hand corner which were all mixed with quite a substantial amount of different greys. However, I used less grey in the bottom third and the colours may be too saturated. I’m hoping that I can change the overpainting to validate these colours and blend the painting together.

As it’s undiluted (and I didn’t add any fast dry medium) I’ll have to wait at least a week between each layer.

Sketches of leaves and flowers to add as forms:

I selected a range of spring flowers and newly grown leaves, picked them off the plants and brought them inside. I then drew them and colour matched all the colours, checking I had the right colour/tone/saturation by painting on top of the petal or leaf.

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A3 sketchbook with oil sketches.

There were some very interesting results:


  1. Nature is full of patterns.

  2. Some patterns (so far) are universal such as how petals are overlapped – even number petals both sides of the petal are over or under and it goes; over, under, over, under and so on. Odd number of petals have a crossover petal with one side over and one side under the petal next to it.

  3. There are a series of basic shapes such as the rose with one leaf on top and two pairs underneath… another like the poppy has a long vein and separate ‘leaves’ growing off it… others are single leaves (of many shapes) arranged round a stem like nettles – these can be paired, offset or spiral.

  4. Leaf surfaces vary from plant to plant but there are some basic structures that are repeated with variations. You get bumpy ‘cellular’ leaves like the primrose, and grass type leaves such as the tulip where the veins run top to bottom and there are no ‘bumps’.

  5. Leaf edges can be smooth, spiky or in little ‘u’ shapes.


  1. Flowers are almost saturated colours, especially commercially bred ones.

  2. Colour varies subtly over the petal even in areas of the same colour, this may be patterned; stronger near the stem and fade; veined or mottled.

  3. Petals are very thin and translucent so it’s a bit like trying to paint stained glass. On paper they look darker and the colours aren’t as bright… I think a god way to paint petals would be in glazes.

  4. Apart from any damage, leaves also have colour changes (there are no flat colours in nature).

  5. Stems often have red in them… permanent rose seems more common than cadmium red.

  6. Leaves are much less saturated than petals and nearly always need grey to take the edge off the green.

  7. Sap green (not surprisingly) is a good colour to start with but they range blue green to yellow green.

My plan for the second layer is not to copy vegetation or even ‘make up’ plants, but to paint organic shapes in ‘natural’ colours. I may enhance some of the colours a little. The shapes will be opaque so will ‘redact’ what’s beneath them.

As I don’t want to go towards the decorative route I’m going to make my layers progressively ‘fatter’ and more textured.

I’ll then let this layer dry and add a second and third layer on top so the canvas is covered with overlaying shapes.

2nd layer:

1st ‘redacted’ layer, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm

On one level I find this strangely attractive. I think it’s the unsaturated colours which sit between a natural saturation and tube colour. I mixed my colours and added grey to de-saturate them. Using unsaturated colours in abstraction is a new direction for me and opens up a world of exciting possibilities.

Grey is a tricky colour because my black (I mix French ultramarine with burnt umber) varies slightly between blue black and brown black. This is complicated by the white… titanium white adds a blue tinge but offers opaqueness where the zinc white is transparent, doesn’t add blue, and you need more of it; so it makes a completely different kind of grey. Depending on which white you use it’s easy to over-lighten or darken your colour. There’s a sweet spot where you have unsaturated the colour but not turned it into an exotic grey… in the same way that you can have many shades of grey you can also have many ‘shades’ of saturation.

Light grey with titanium white will quickly lighten most colours so if you want to desaturate a colour it’s best to add a grey that is a similar tone to your base colour.

It was also the first time I’d let oil paint from the tube dry on my canvas (7 to 10 days) before painting over it – most of my oil painting has been wet on wet because I’ve been working on single canvases. Wet in wet means I have to be very careful and controlled… or paint a canvas all in one go and be very loose and quick. Painting wet on dry gives me the freedom to apply paint as I want without fearing that I’m going to muddy my colours.

This freedom changes your mental and emotional relationship to the canvas. Instead of using a mahl stick and tiny soft brushes I can use my arm and stiffer brushes, which adds texture in the form of brushstrokes, scumbling and broken edges; and gives my marks a much more lyrical quality.

I like the lack of definition in parts of the composition where shapes are blurred and tonal differences reduced so the viewer has to struggle to decode the canvas. And the parts of the canvas that are abstracted, so that they don’t make sense as vegetation, but are engaging. The background painting works to warm and unify the painting.

However, parts of the canvas are becoming decorative and too clearly defined, such as the shapes I based on rose leaves.

I would like to make all my marks indistinct and abstract but allow enough mental space so the viewer can read them as vegetation.

I’m not quite sure how I will do this… I think I might blur the edges of my sharply defined shapes. I don’t want to destroy the forms altogether and leave the canvas as a multicoloured patchwork of blotches. It’s a very fine line between being abstract but allowing the abstraction to suggest natural forms, and painting a decorative painting using plant motifs.

3d layer:

Redacted Painting, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm

As a painting this is weak, but as a learning exercise it was very useful.

For some reason, I tried to turn my ‘abstract’ shapes into vegetation, and I don’t have the skill or the inclination to paint vegetation out of my head.

Scumbling was interesting as wet over dry produced some interesting effects, but I ended up overpainting them so most of this layer ended up wet in wet as I struggled to make the painting work, and instead produced a structureless mass of busy marks.

Maybe if I had formalised shapes (like the red leaves) and built the painting up out of those – a bit like Hockney paints vegetation – then it could have worked. However, I wanted to paint an abstraction not a stylised landscape.

Here are some details.

This was so awful, I couldn’t live with it… so I tried sanding it.

Sanded, Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm.

This is the first time I’ve tried to sand a canvas. Surprisingly very little paint came off and the surface of the paint ripped my sandpaper to shreds. After much rubbing and three sheets of medium sandpaper I have taken the heat out of the lemon yellow… and the blurs of paint help.

I thought paintings were fragile, but if this is typical (once dry) they are quite difficult to damage.

As I couldn’t sand away the surface I decided to occlude the painting by adding very thin cadmium yellow and runny blue green.

This cadmium yellow and blue green added, Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm.

This is a big improvement. Now I’m going to add thin cadmium red.

Final cadmium red layer added, Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm.

I like the way the red dabs are translucent and disappear into the painting, which give it a depth.

The different ‘bands’ are interesting too, and this has elements of a stripe painting.

Because the canvas was so much ‘in relief’ the thinned paint didn’t run. I had to really fill my paintbrush to get a single drip, I’d wanted multiple small drips. I went over some areas and ‘dobbed’ water on top of the brushmarks to make them drip. Also, I couldn’t find the shape I wanted in my paintbrush and ended up with much smaller brush than I’d intended.

It’s very difficult to not see this as abstracted flowers or fruit, but that’s okay as it was a rescue mission and I’ve ended up with a painting that is aesthetically pleasing, and have used redaction in the form of overpainting.


Which route to leaving or making space in your painting did you prefer?

I preferred leaving my painting open and adding thin veiled layers which let you see into the painting and interacted with each other.

What do you feel the two processes offered you as a painter or to the viewer?

The open process offered me the opportunity to work with chance so my focus was on the canvas not on myself. It was like a conversation where you don’t know what is going to be said so are reacting not thinking. This suits my personality and lets me be in the moment.

I think this offers the viewer an aesthetically pleasing canvas where the focus is on the picture surface and the subtle interplay of line, tone, colour, transparency, and colour etc. When they look at the canvas they can engage in an aesthetic conversation with it like I did when I was making it.

Redacting is an interesting technique that produces ambiguity and encourages the viewer to interpret the painting in their own terms.

Were you influenced by your contextual research?

Yes, I liked the work of Ian McKeever and how his paintings were both intellectual and aesthetic, and had a life force of their own.

How might this exercise inform or develop your studio work?

I have discovered that I love working with both layers and chance because they put me in the moment and releases my creativity. And I can use my materials (such as paint or canvas) as tools.

I love glazes (where the pigment is suspended in a medium such as linseed oil) because your colours mix like light, but I also love the way paint thinned with terps or water (which evaporates) leaves a thin almost transparent layer of pigment.

How you treat your materials affects their finish such as mixing thinner and oil to produce a broken surface or using thinned paint on a smooth canvas to create drips.

This makes me think that I should focus on formalism, working in layers, the picture plane and gestural abstraction and move away from semi-abstracting nature.

I love nature… drawing nature… being in nature… it is part of what I am and will come out in my art, but I don’t think my practice should be about copying nature.

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