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Gardens and the dreaded ‘foliage’!

January 6, 2018

Emerging from an incubation period, never fun for me. Painting dried up, writing not working, all that is left is busy work and household tasks. Am I one happy camper during these phases? Well, what do you think? Still, as so often happens, getting back to work after an uninspired stretch something new emerged. What I’d been waiting for, actually.

It started by pinpointing what I really care about, right now it is gardens, the ones designed by Piet Oudolf in particular. I’ve already done some felt works based on his urban prairie compositions, and I knew I didn’t want to get into depicting garden scenes realistically. (So fiddly with all the flowers- little dots and lines was not where I wanted to go.) So I just worked with super simplifying the shapes of clumps of plants, and concentrated on the wonderful interplay of colours and light. I also started a painting of just foliage- the dreaded foliage! There are good reasons why many painters shy away from trees and shrubs- all those leaves, and those pesky green shades! It is so challenging to not get lost in detail, and to differentiate the blue greens from the red and grey and yellow greens without everything getting muddy.

dream garden

Dream garden  Acrylic

In this painting you can see my attempt to translate a subject from felt to paint. I was aiming to keep it more decorative than realistic, it is still in progress. What I would do differently now is to separate the middle ground from the foreground, and also. either make it more graphic and abstract, or more realistic.

Here is one done at the same time, also not completely resolved (the right hand side needs more work), of what was essentially a green scene.

kl plantage1

Kleine plantage   acrylic

My breakthrough moment came after watching several YouTube tutorials. I may be a professional artist and painter, but after many starts and stops, I’ve only been painting continuously for about 6 years, and even if it was 36 years, I’d hopefully still be learning. So after I saw Colley Whisson’s tutorials in particular, I went to the easel and suddenly doors opened up.

There is a way painters see and think that is radically different from the way a draughtsman sees. The painterly way is to approach a scene through the values first, in big wide swathes of thinnish paint. Then the background and middle ground are coaxed out gradually by blending in different colours and strokes. Finally, the foreground is added in the same way. Big brushes, no finicky details and very little going back and fiddling with something. (Oil paints are best suited to this, but I work in acrylics for health reasons, so I miss a lot of that creamy blended look.)

This  bold approach requires one thing, though –  no,  several things, I’ll list ’em:

1 Complete control of technique and materials. If you are still searching for how to paint certain elements, I doubt you’re going to be able to work spontaneously and freshly.

2 Knowledge and experience of how to paint anything and everything. In other words, you have to know how to paint it before you start.

3 Before a brush even hits the canvas, you’ve already made some important decisions: palette, overall colourway (ie is the painting going to be mostly earth colours? or blues, or greens, pastel or vivid?…). What is your focal point? How is the light behaving, and how does that affect your subject?

For me, learning to paint means unlearning a lot of habits from a lifetime of precision work-  illustrating, graphic design, harpsichord decoration.

This one is going in a direction that feels right. What I love best about Colley’s work is how juicy and fresh it stays through every stage. A lot of that comes from working wet in wet, probably. My  working method of layering colours tends to gradually tighten up without me really meaning to, and eventually losing that freshness. But progress is being made. Right now I use retarder with my acrylics which keeps them moist longer. This one below is almost done. Can you see the difference in approach?

autumn garden less contrast1 copy

Autumn garden      in progress  acrylic

And this one was added after I posted this, I felt the one above didn’t have enough light in it, so added the lemon yellow strokes and some other highlights. Now it is done.

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2 Responses to “Gardens and the dreaded ‘foliage’!”


  1. Nice work on the gardens! I’ve tried water soluble oils but couldn’t really get the hang of them(supposed to be safer). You’ve shared some great wisdom here (once again). One forgets how the draughftsman sees versus the painter. I’m prone to the former and sometimes miss the painterly way of thinking. It’s true we often forget that painting requires some type of thought, even planning as you say. I often wonder how other artists ‘think’ when approaching their work but even more so as they are in the moment of creation. Sometimes I talk to myself , in a way. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sarah!


  2. kevin, your comment much appreciated. As we’ve been corresponding for awhile now, I’ve gotten familiar with some of your work, and yes, I think with your graphic approach, you have the draughtsman’s eye. There is also a sort of precision painting which works very well with that sensibility. Just depends on where you want to go with things.

    I found that the millimetre precision required from graphic design work started to influence other areas of my work. I think my whole process since my 30s has been/is about finding a kind of ‘place’ to free me of that kind of obsessiveness. Where I can be myself and play, yet still be engaged in a growth process.


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