No blue skies allowed

April 15, 2012

Yesterday I attended an all day workshop on how to loosen up your painting technique.

We were a group of about 15 people at various levels of ability under the instruction of Antje Sonneschein, a German artist living in Holland. Below is a painting of hers. Here is a video of one of her workshops, in Dutch, but you get an idea of the work and atmosphere.

The Red Farm by Antje Sonneschein. Image from Kunst.nu

Her style is reminiscent of the  (founded in 1918) Groningen Expressionistic group called ‘de Ploeg’ which means ‘The Plow’. They used bold forms and bright colours to paint the Groningen countryside and villages. See below, a painting by de Ploeg artist Jan Altink.

Painting by Jan Altink. From the site of JBalvers .

In the morning we selected a landscape photo to work from.

We could do anything we wanted- with one stipulation, we were forbidden to paint the sky blue.

The reason for this was that the sky determines the coloring for the whole painting, so by choosing an alternative color for the sky, you immediately are thrown into a different palette than your familiar one.

First, we made a charcoal sketch on a small piece of matte board, already making decisions about what to leave out, change or add to make a better composition.

Then we went to work, over the charcoal, in acrylics with a relatively large brush and quickly mapped in the colors. We had 20 minutes from start to finish including the sketch. This resulted in the most spontaneous work of the day. Here is mine.

The photo I selected is fairly close to this. I liked the flowing landscape, the road, and the grouping of trees on the right. The yellow is a mass of dandelions which made a very troublesome foreground, and I chose that as a challenge.

Then we started on a large version of our painting. About 18 x 24″ on a thin piece of MDF board coated with a thin layer of neutral grey. We sketched in our composition with white pastel and went to work with thin paint and a large brush.

I liked this underpainting so much for its rhythm and confidence (sound familiar?), I didn’t want to ruin it so I started another one. (We worked from background to foreground, so the trees will be added later).


My epiphany for the day was when I asked the instructor how to progress from the underpainting and keep the same freedom. Whereby she came along, and with my permission, took an inch wide brush, a huge glob of white paint and some ochre, and in a few quick strokes, painted in the sky.

It is difficult to describe my reaction. The amount of paint she loaded on the brush and the gesture of just slapping it all on was such a shock and so totally different to how I work, that it actually felt like being hit physically.  It was scary and great at the same time. And hey, that’s what I came for, loosening technique, n’est ce pas? Sometimes you just have to get shaken out of your old comfortable working methods.

So after a delicious lunch of homemade soup, wonderful breads and salad (thanks Ankie), all of us struggled for the rest of the afternoon to keep that looseness while developing the painting. I was working way out of my comfort zone most of the time. I noticed that the people who had the hardest time were the professionals who were much further than me qua technique, and seemed to be more invested in making ‘good’ work. Some of them couldn’t let go and use the big brushes. They ended up with impressive work, but I wonder how much they learned. Or maybe they’ll try the scarier stuff out at home…. hm.

One thing I had a hard time with generally, was that even though this was supposed to be a learning workshop, there was a very strong undercurrent of’ pressure to produce visually pleasing work. I wanted to keep experimenting and let mine be unresolved, but an hour before the workshop ended everyone was getting their work ready for the critique/show. I think I would have preferred making 3 or 4 quick studies to get comfortable with a looser technique, than developing one painting for 4 hours.
Later: I think I’d amend the previous sentence. I realize now that making one painting forced me to pull it together in a way that making several studies wouldn’t have, and I learned from that.

The end display was impressive, though, everyone did great work. Didn’t bring my camera, drat. Sorry no pictures of others’work.

I loved this day, it was just wonderful to let go, and work and get good instruction and take some risks. I benefitted to from the constructive criticism of the other participants. So I will definitely attend further workshops.  Thanks Antje, and  Galerie het Raadhuis  (Dutch site).

Oh, here is my completed piece.

Completed workshop landscape

6 Responses to “No blue skies allowed”

  1. Hi Sarah, I’ve just nominated you for the Leibster blog award because I really enjoy reading your blogs.

    • szoutewelle Says:

      Sonia, Thank you so much! I am honored. I think I will need to be a bit creative about how I pass this on. I don’t follow many blogs, and I think most are quite popular ones with more than 200 followers, but I’ll see what I can do.

  2. decorartuk Says:

    Lots of stunning landscapes! I watched the video and I must admit I would love to attend something like that… even if just once… even if everyone would hope to see a good painting at the end of the workshop (I hate working under pressure).

    I loved the idea to choose any other colour than blue for the sky. That’s a bit artificial, but it definitely puts you in an awkward situation… I guess it’s also good to use big brushes – the strokes become “richer” and you’re forced to loosen up.

    Well, it’s a very inspiring post and I must try and have a go. At home… on my own… (sigh…)

    • szoutewelle Says:

      Well, I hope you get a chance to do a similar workshop, having a bunch of others working as well is really stimulating. But you are already working quite loosely, I feel, don’t you think so?

      Yes, I was reconsidering the ‘good painting’ bit. And I realized that the pressure might have been a Good Thing. We were forced to pull together our work at the end, and it forced me to risk some things I might not have done if the pressure hadn’t been there. I think now, that it would have been less rewarding to come home with 4 unfinished loose studies.

      And now for the real work, putting to use what I learned. I”ve already started a series of acrylic sketches of ‘colours I wish i’d used during the workshop’. I’m using the same composition, and I’m working from a few of Jeroen Krabbé’s paintings that I like so much it hurts. (I love when things kind of break your heart with their beauty or truth or some kind of rightness that gets right in there close to yoru soul).

      so they will be appearing in a few days I imagine.

  3. Been browsing again. So many interesting posts. This sounds like a really successful workshop, I will remember and use this ‘rule’ soon. I’m getting so much inspiration from your blog, I feel a still life with bottles is not far away! Thanks for your recent comment. I look forward to any comments and constructive criticism you feel prompted to make.

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