I am sometimes asked if I hold workshops or produce intructional videos, and unfortunately, the answer is that I don’t as I am usually busy painting (and blogging). There is so much already available on the internet that I don’t feel I can compete. Others have done it better already!
So I have put together, instead, a short list of tips and links for any one who is interested to help them develop. Please feel free to comment or suggest your own. There are no affliate links in this blog. I have included websites and video clips that I have found personally useful.
My Top TEN TIPS
Paint, paint and paint some more.The more you paint, the more your work will improve. Most artists keep a sketch book and sketch and paint in their spare moments. It is important to pratice without worrying too much about the expensive canvas you are painting. I used to work in oil pastels on paper when I was younger but now I try to paint in oils most days. I have also experimented with water colours and acrylics. It is only by doing and looking that you will develop as an artist
Look at Art. Decide what you like. Look at the works of many artists. Think about what they are doing and how they do it. You don’t have to copy them but you can be inspired by them.
I particularly like pre 1950s artists (especially post impressionists like Matisse, Marquet, Derain, Bevan, Gilman) for their use of colour and portayal of light.
There are many fascinating interviews with artists on Savy Painter that are well worth a listen!
It is important to see paintings “in the flesh too”. Van Gogh and Monet need to be seen in real life to appreciate their scale, and how they have used the paint. I once saw a Picasso in Swansea’a Glynn Vivian Museum, and its presence quite blew me away. It was very big. I got a powerful sense of an artist who knew what he wanted to achieve and knew exactly how to do it. If I had just looked at online I would got none of that. I save images of work I like on my pinterest account.
Paint – buy the best paint you can afford. Try out different brands. A paint may have the same name but look very different depending on the brand. Only buy Artist’s oil paints. The student version are cheaper and inferior. They are fine for underpainting only. They fade. My favourite brands include Lefranc and Bourgeois Extra Fine, Lukas 1862 Finest Artists’ Oil Colour, Sennelier Finest Artist’s Oli Colour, Talens Rembrandt Artists’ Oil Colour, Schmincke Norma Professional Artists’ Oil Colour, Michael Harding Artists’ Oil Colours. It took me a long time to really understand what colour opacity and the transparency of paint meant in terms of my painting. I am still learning how to use this knowlege.
Canvas– invest in good quality canvas. I love linen canvas as they are really strong and hard wearing. In my early days, I painted on cheap cotton canvases that years later would tear easily. It was quite heart breaking to realise that I had wasted my creative energy on an inferior product.
I particularly like the natural ones painted with clear gesso. If you buy the white ones, it’s helpful to paint the canvas with a coloured ground before you start painting. Here’s a excellent video on how to do it.
Composition – shapes and how they are arranged, lines and their direction.
I like looking at how photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Vivian Maier, William Eggleston and Harry Gruyaert used light, colour and composition in their work.
“If the arrangement of the big shapes is strong and coherent, it’ll carry the painting. You are 90 percent of the way toward achieving a composition – and consequently a painting – that will work from “Mastering Composition“by Ian Roberts
6. Tonal value – The value of a color is how dark or how light that color is. It is easy to see value shifts looking to an image in black and white or in grayscale; it is a little trickier to see it in color.
Colour – warmth/coolness of colours and their intensity
Get a Colour Wheel
There is more than way to mix a particular colour. Sometimes its a matter of trial and error. Practice mixing colours and understand why some combinations (the three primary colours for example) result in mud. Mixing “warm” and “cool” colours doesn’t work either. See an explanation here. Remember that brands vary. I have found that not all “Vandyke Browns” are the the same.
8. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Yet don’t forget the details!
9. Using Source Material (photographs)
Don’t be afraid to change what is in the source photos you use, leave out things, simplify forms. Sometimes a really good photo doesn’t make a really good painting. I take photos with the express idea of using them for painting, that means they are not necessarily good photos but they have the information I need.
Peggi Kroll Roberts – demonstrates a “high key” painting, where values are kept at a narrow range, in the lighter shades of value.
10. Watch videos and save them – If you want to know how an artist does something, look it up. It might help, it might not. I have found that looking up a technique say “scumbling” is more useful that “how to paint clouds” because I have realised that I have to find my own way of doing something. I save links on my pinterest account.
Finally, find your own voice. Forget all of the above points and just create. Don’t copy. By all means steal good ideas. You have to have your own style, like you have a style of hand writing you have a style of painting. Let it develop. Good Luck.
My work recently has undergone two small but important shifts in focus.
The first is a compositional one.
I have decided to revisit some of the “rules” I first used in 2017 when painting my Welsh “Urban Minimal” paintings (see my paintings for my exhibition in the Cardiff MadeinRoath festival here).
My “rules” for composition and painting this project were:- no cars, no people, bright light. There must be shadows – at diagonals if possible and simplified forms – there must be as little detail as possible. I want to explore the interplay of the geometry of shadows and man-made structures – the tension between the 3D buildings and the 2D shadows. Simplified blocks of colour.
I later extended these “rules” to painting the villages of Gower, labelling them (half jokingly) “Rural Miminal” (read more here).
Lately, I have been reflecting on my recent body of work and have realised that many of these ideas got lost in the heady excitment of exploring the new landscape (and skies) of Donegal. Also much of my energy got diverted into recovering from my operation and subsequent recovery after I broke my leg/ankle. I spent several months painting watercolours in my bedroom (as I could not reach my oil paints in the attic)and that led me to think more about composition and simplifying forms.
When I finally made it back to my easel, I could only manage short bursts of paintings so I focused on smaller pieces. The clear blue skies outside my window in Wales may well have influenced my fascination with the weather back in Donegal. Note that my use of colour has changed, they have softened, become more subtle. That’s because both the light and the landscape in Donegal is quite different to Wales. It’s also because I was observing more carefully.
This brings me on to my second shift. Colour. I was always aware that I played around with colour, brightened them just a little, to create cheerful and vibrant works. For many years I painted cheerful paintings when I, myself, was anything but.
Painting saved my sanity after a breakdown and going back to a teaching job that I found stressful. The bright colours were a bit of an emotional crutch, perhaps? I am not sure. They may have also been a result of hastiness/laziness, over-confidence with a dash of insecurity.
But change has been coming for a while. I was aware that I sometimes struggled with getting the colour of distant mountains correct. Often the problem lay in the fact that some of my colours were too strong and they needed softening.
I read somewhere that distant colours needed not blue or purple added into in them (as I had thought) but it’s complementary colour. That’s the colour’s opposite number on the colour wheel.
I bought a colour wheel to try and perfect those muted tones and watched a few videos on painting about tone and value. They didn’t really hit home with me. My colour wheel did not have brown on it, I noticed. I had to look for another one.
My distant hills improved. I held my paint brush up close to reference image more often before I placed it on the canvas. I used to only do that occassionally. Now I was trying to do it all the time. Work was slower as I thought and carefully considered my colours.
I saw a video that reinforced this growing fixation with getting colours exactly right. I saw a video on artist Mitchell Johnson’s Instagram Stories feed. I don’t know who made the video, otherwise I would include it here. I watched many times. Why was watching this clip so fascinating? I was getting excited about watching paint dry!
The tutor had three pieces of coloured card and he mixed the same exact shades of paint so that the paint seemingly “vanished” into the card. The cards were an acidic green, greyish blue and bluish grey. The colour combination he mixed were fascinating as he added colours that I thought were not going work and yet in the end they did (often a dab of orange did the trick). I noticed that he was using a small pallette knife to do the mixing. I ordered some palette knives to mix my paint with too. I have found that I can mix a larger quantity of paint. It means that the colour remains consistent.
The tutor made the comment that his students often asked him “Isn’t this close enough? Will this do?”. “No” he said. That sunk home. I knew I was guilty of thinking “This will do”. No more.
So I set to combining these two “shifts” in thought. The return to simplified forms and the focus on naturalistic/realistic colours.
My first effort was a large painting of the townland of Maghery in Donegal. One or two houses in the middle distant were edited out to simplify the composition. We decided to call this “The Polite houses of Maghery” because they have all been built looking away from each other! My husband says he finds this painting very calming.
I then revisited Gola Island to simplify my compositions futher. I had to resist the impulse the darken the shadows; to strengthen the colour of the pale pink sky, to add lots of yellow and bright greens to the grass. I think the result is also calming. It is ever so less frantic and a bit more chilled than my previous paintings of the island. There are still details, in the tiny reflections and pools of light on the doors and sills. You cannot have colour without light.
I suspect that these paintings better reflect my post-broken-leg state of mind. I go every where slowly and carefully (at the pace of a tortoise, according to my husband). I look at the ground to ensure that I do not trip. I gave up drinking coffee and caffeinated tea to reduce my swollen ankle so I am no longer pepped up on caffeine either. I always am mindful of where my feet are. I am now mindful of my colours too! Slowing down has helped me see colours better.
There are still many challenges to be solved. How will I include clouds in my rural miminal paintings? Will this approach work on a overcast day? Those are problems for another day!
I have found that my energy is slowly but steadily returning after my operation on my broken leg in March (although painting light is shrinking with the shortening days). I spent much of the spring and early summer sitting in my chair wishing I could go outside into the fresh air or climb the stairs to my attic studio. I painted watercolours instead, and thought a lot about colour and composition. I learnt to simplify my images and edit them with more ruthlessness than I had done before.
I have attempted to carry these lessons into the compositions of my oil paintings. I suspect that I need to go further. I am always torn between a desire to accurately convey what is probably a well-known location to local people, and the need to create an effective composition. In otherwords I want to create an engaging painting, regardless of whether a viewer has visited Donegal or not.
Here’s an example of editing my composition. I used several reference photos for this painting of Bád Eddie (Eddie’s Boat) but you will see that I decide to leave out the all the lamp posts. I felt they made the picture look cluttered. I also left out the the skylights on a couple of the houses for the same reason. I did, however, decide to include a couple of series of fence posts on the right side of the painting as they lead the eye down the hill.
I have gone further with my editing of the reference image in my most recent painting of Arranmore. This is a painting of a (probably abandoned) white house that I had painted a watercolour of earlier in the year .
A lot of the compositional work is done when composing the reference photograph, but there is often a bit more tinkering to be done to clarify the image further.
Here you can see that I have again removed most of the telegraph poles, just leaving one further down the road. The fence posts as usual, get to stay. The ones on the right led the eye down the road. The central part of the painting on the right side is too cluttered for my liking too. It’s very confusing for the viewer. I have since discovered that this is because there are too many “tangents“. The word “tangent” usually just indicates that two things are touching, but in art the term describes shapes that touch in a way that is visually annoying or troublesome. This also describes those telegraph poles I removed. It all makes for an image that is easier to “read”.
I also removed a several of the buildings so that there is a clear view over to the tiny island of Inishkeeragh with its solidary summer home. Finally, I also simplied the pair of yellow buildings to the far right. I found the semi-abstract result pleasing and I felt that the lack of detail balanced the detail in mud, rocks and grasses on the near side to the left of the painting. I like to balance detail with areas of flat colour, such as the roof of the house or the sea, as I think that too much detail all over makes the head sore. The human brain doesn’t process images in this way any way. Our eyes/brains will focus on one or two areas and “generalise” other larger areas of colour.
Thus, I hope I have created a succesful painting rather than slavishly copying a photograph.
Read more about avoiding confusing tangents in compositions here
I was delighted to see my two Donegal paintings “Up Bloody Foreland, Donegal” and “The through Road, Donegal” on the walls of the London Irish Centre (Camden, London). These two oil paintings form part of a “real room” of an Irish family in 1950s Britain installation. The exhibition, which is on during August through to […]
Donegal is a big mountaneous county in a big country. Imagine my shock when I discover that it’s only the 4th largest in Ireland (after Cork, Galway and Mayo) at 4,860 km2 (1,880 sq miles). It seems even bigger as there is no railway or motorways here, so it takes a long time to travel around all the mountains. One of joys of the county is that it’s relatively empty (the 5th least populated in Ireland) with 32.6 people per km2.
There’s a good reason why landscape painters use the “landscape” orientation for their canvases – i.e. the longest side is horizontal – and that’s because you can fit more landscape in that way. I have recently discovered another good reason – social media and wordpress thumbnails don’t like tall narrow paintings and crop them.
Everybody loves the Georgian Houses It seems like certain styles never go out of fashion. Last year Georgian-style houses topped a poll of the most popular home styles. I suspect that people like scale of the house as well as the the pillars and generous sized windows. Nothing says lord of the manor like a […]
New Work & Recent Sales
Arch at Whiterocks Beach, Portrush
The Peace Bridge (Derry) by Emma Cownie
St Eugenes, Derry City
Polite Houses of Maghery- Emma Cownie
Abanoned (Glentornan, Donegal) -Emma Cownie
Low Tide, Summer Morning on Three Cliffs – Emma Cownie
Boat on Inch Island Donegal
Across Whiterock Beach, Portrush
Dunluce Castle from Whiterocks Beach
Towards Bloody Foreland (Donegal) _ Emma Cownie
Houses at Port na Crin, Gola
Errigal reflection (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Washing Line, Arranmore _Emma Cownie
An Port, Donegal_Emma Cownie
House on Ishcoo, Donegal-Emma Cownie
Over Glenlough Bay, Donegal-Emma Cownie
Still, On Gola (Donegal)
Inishcoo (To The Fore of Arranmore) – Emma Cownie
Kinnagoe Bay (Inishowen, Dongal)
A Road through Chalford (Cotswolds)
Painswick Yews (Cotswolds)_Emma Cownie
On Rutland Island, Donegal -Emma Cownie
Sun on the Reeds (Glentornan, Donegal)-Emma Cownie
View from the Pier (Portnoo)-Emma Cownie
From Port to Glenlough (Donegal)
Errigal from Cruit Island. Donegal _ Emma Cownie
Spring on THree Cliffs Bay, Gower_Emma Cownie
Fishing Boat at Port Donegal-Emma Cownie
Portnoo Pier, Donegal_Emma Cownie
Down to Rossbeg Pier, Donegal
Over to Fanad Lighhouse (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Errigal painting – A Commission 2022
From Arranmore (Donegal)- Emma Cownie
Ferry Home (Arranmore, Donegal) by Emma Cownie
Summer Morning on Pobbles Bay
On the Way to Kinnagoe Bay (Drumaweer, Greencastle)
Down to Doagh Strand (Donegal)-Emma Cownie
Lambing Season at Fanad Head
Fanad Lighthouse (Donegal)
Down to the Rusty Nail
Carrickabraghy Castle, Inishowen
Upper Dreen_Emma Cownie
Portmór Beach, Malin Head, Donegal
Down to the Rusty Nail, Inishowen
The Walls of Derry
Painting of Derry City
Derry Walls by Emma Cownie
Shipquay Gate by Emma Cownie
Over to Owey Island (Keadue) Donegal
Lighting the way to Arranmore
Old Stone Cottage in front of Errigal (Donegal
Boat at the Pier, Gola
House on Inishbofin, with distant Seven Sisters (in studio)