Painting by numbers

There’s no time like the present.

I’ve been hearing that phrase my whole life, and it’s utter crap: almost every time is like the present. Even though I’m writing this at 6am, it’s still exactly like every other 6am: it’s just that I’m not usually awake to see it.

You see, I’ve been awake for 3 hours, and even though I’m going to feel cross at 8:30, I feel *bing* wide-awake right now. And I have to get up and do something, or I’ll go berserk.

So I’m back to blogging (hussah). I haven’t done much of this recently, for which I blame three things: work, sex, and painting.

I’ve been kinda busy with work. I’m always kinda busy with work, but I’ve (almost) arranged my life so that I can make time for myself: I work from home and start at 10am, so I can easily rot in the fart-sack until 9:45 and then drag my lumpen carcass 15 feet down the hallway and do my job. My job consists of doing random, probably quite pointless things relating to websites. I’m officially a designer and project manager, but unofficially I colour stuff in, chat with clients, and tell programmers that they’ve done it all wrong. It pays (some of) the bills.

Sex has also interrupted me (damn, damn, damn). But my sex life is private, unless you happen to be the tranny who lives next door, in which case you’ve probably heard all about it already. Sorry John/Jane, we’ll try to be quieter in future.

(We won’t).

Anyway, the fact that I’m sickeningly, puke-inducingly happy with a laydee has meant I’ve had fewer reasons to get in a right old huff about the world, and being in a right old huff is my main incentive to blog.

And finally, I’ve been distracted by other creative endeavours: painting stuff. I need creativity in my life. My brother, who is (in case you’re new to this blog) a cunt, has a permanent urge to run around like a kid with ADHD and a bellyful of Sunny-D. He can’t get past breakfast without yomping up some poor unsuspecting hill, running round a poor unsuspecting reservoir, or playing toy-soldiers with poor unsuspecting British Military Fitness types. He’d have joined the army, but the didn’t have any openings for generals.

I mock him for all that idiotic running around, because it’s easy to mock. But I really shouldn’t: it floats his boat (and once his boat is floated, he immediately rows single-handed across the Pacific).

But the thing that floats my boat is being creative. Actually it’s not even about boats. I doubt it is with my brother either. I doubt he does all his macho shit because it excites him: he does it because he needs to. Like his overwhelming, terrifying, nauseating urge to be fit and healthy, I just have to make something. If I have a particularly desk-bound week, writing documents and sorting out paperwork, I feel this creative pressure building up in me like a benign boil that I simply have to squeeze.

Often the result of all the boil squeezing is a spurge of blogs drooling all over your computer screen; what a delightful image.

I hope you like the blogs, but to be honest they’re not for you. I write them because there’s a boil that needs lancing, and when I’ve written one I feel the pressure is gone, and I can go about my daily life without this nagging urge to create.

But recently I’ve been doing other creative stuff: painting.

I was a bit arty when I was a kid, but mainly drawings and caricatures. I was never much of a painter, and I don’t think I’ve done anything more complicated than a second-coat on a door since 1984. But I suddenly found myself single and with a couple of canvasses in the house, so I did 2 or 3 pretty basic paintings in January, enjoyed it… and then stopped.

For the last few months my creative stuff has been blogging, cooking, and adventurous mixed press-ups with my other 51% (she’s not my other half, because I think she now has a controlling interest in me); but a couple of weeks ago I decided to get my brushes out and have a go at something more challenging than blurry candles and abstracts that look like Picasso got locked in Guantanamo.

A dead bloke.

This is a picture of my dad. He’s dead, so it was easy to paint him because he didn’t move. I’d imagine it would be an absolute bastard to paint him if he was, y’know, wandering around, drinking tea and grumbling at the telly (which is pretty much all he did when he was alive).

I’m not here to show off. Oh, who am I kidding, of course I’m here to show off. But only a bit: mainly I’m writing this one because I think it might actually be easy to paint a portrait. I have to admit to being gobsmacked that it came out so well: it’s literally the 4th painting I’ve ever done, and the first portrait of an actual person.

Another dead bloke. Gee, I’m cheery.

So I decided to see if it was a fluke. In my job I do a lot of analysis, so I put my “work head” on and did some thinking about the process of painting. When I was actually painting I just did it from instinct, but I decided to see if I could work out what it was I’d actually done – and realised there’s a pretty straightforward trick to it. So as a test I decided to do this one of Lennon, using my new-fangled painting analysis. (There’s a spreadsheet and everything).

And now I’m pretty sure I’ve worked out how to paint. There’s no big mystery, it’s just a few simple steps and very little skill. So last night, before I had my virtually standard 3 hours sleep, I did a painting of another hero of mine: Stephen Fry.

I found a nice photo of him – do a Google of Stephen Fry and you’ll probably find it too. And I stuck it on my iPad so I had a reference next to me. Then I did the process and took a photo at every stage.

This is my version of painting by numbers:

1: Do a bad drawing

I’ve increased the contrast in this photo so you can see the lines. In reality, the drawing is should be really pale.

As you can (perhaps) see, it’s not a great drawing of Stephen Fry. It doesn’t look much like him: his jaw is all wrong, his mouth is too wobbly, and I had 3 simultaneous goes at his nose. But I don’t think it needs to be great. The drawing is just to give you a very rough guide about how wide his face is, how big his nose is, and where his mouth and eyes sit.

I’m sure if you’re a tremendous draftsman (which I’m not) you can do a wonderful drawing of Fry. But all I tried to do was get a rough guide. You can see plenty of places where my first line was wrong and I did another one to correct it. It’s all going to vanish under paint, so it doesn’t matter.

2: Do a black and white painting… in colour.

OK, that sounds weird. But all I’ve done here is get a small, pea-sized blob of burnt umber acrylic paint, and a big, ping-pong-ball-sized blob of white acrylic paint, and mix them.

I slapped that on all the “medium” tone parts of his face using a reasonably wide dry brush – don’t try using water or a fine brush at this stage.

Then add a little more burnt umber into the mix, and do the shadows. And then pure white to do highlights. It’s not really back and white, but it might as well be – it’s brown and white!

You’re just roughing out the light and dark bits. Step back every few brush-strokes and squint at the painting – squinting helps you to evaluate the tone, which is all this stage is about. Not detail – tone.

Almost all of this stage will disappear under another coat of paint, and it’s really just to show me where the shape of the face is right or wrong. I know this sounds like it’s a magic trick, but it isn’t – just look at each small part of the photo (his eyes, his nose, etc) and copy it. Don’t try to draw his whole face. Draw bits, and then assess how those bits fit into the face. If they’re wrong, change them with more paint.

3: Start making improvements

Stage 2 gives you a rough guide. Now you need to start working each of those rough bits into detail. I like to use small amounts of crimson, deep blue and black, working them into my underlying mix of 95% white, 5% burnt umber to make things lighter, darker, warmer or cooler. You can see bits of pinky-red and blue around his mouth and chin.

Dark shadows can be made very dark by adding pure midnight blue. Don’t use black, it doesn’t work as well – too cold and unnatural (pure black doesn’t really exist in nature, except in caves).

You’ll see in this picture I’ve done a lot of work on the lips. Lips are tricky! Try adding a very small amount of red into your “flesh” mix to make them subtly pinky, and use a fine brush. I mentally divide the lip into 6 or 8 sections and look carefully at the photo. Then paint each section in the right tone – the corner, then the middle, then the other corner. And then the bottom lip.

Don’t attempt to paint the glossy highlight on the bottom lip – instead, paint the whole lip in the “lip colour”, and then go back after. Get a tiny amount of pure white paint on a brush, and wipe it a couple of times against an old towel to remove some of the paint – then lightly brush the highlight onto the lip.

Remember the lips also include the way the skin “bends” into them, and the mouth won’t look right unless you do that too. Focus carefully on the corners of the lips and the faint shadow under the bottom lip – again, just look at a couple of square cm, and paint what you see with a fine brush.

I’ve also done some work on the top lip, the lines that lead from the nose to the corner of the mouth, and the shadow under the nose. I reworked this several times, adding little bits as I painted. If my brush had some paint of the right tone on it already, I’d do a small dab around the shadow/nose area every few minutes. Don’t assume it’s finished, just keep looking at it and seeing if it still looks right compared with the rest.

4: Give him eyes

It’s tempting to do the eyes first, cos they’re big bold areas of the painting. But I think you should leave them until you’ve got the mouth right.

I start by painting very small marks in pure burnt umber with fine brush – just the darkest part of the shadow of the eyelid, or a dot at the corner of the eye. Then, with lighter and lighter shades, I work out from there along the eyelids, and then into the shadows under and above the eye.

It’s easier to do one small dab and check if the colour is right, rather than sloshing paint all over – if you make a mistake, there’s more to paint over. So a few tiny dots under the eyes, then (once the tone and colour look OK), expand on that. Much of the paint you’ve already put on the canvas will be dry, but it stays wet for 5-10 minutes. So use that time to “merge” light and dark paints directly on the canvas. That gives you a soft, merged feeling rather than hard lines – you can see that in the shadows and highlights on the right-side of Stephen’s chin and jaw, or around the sides of his nose. These are all soft parts of the face, rather than hard shapes – the eyes and mouth are hard, and have definite edges. But the shape of his face will come from the soft, merged areas.

6: Baby steps

From now on, the process is just a repetition of what’s gone before – and I’ve started to add a warm yellowish brown to some places, just to warm the skin tone.

Do small, incremental changes using small amounts of paint. It’s often best to load your brush with paint, then wipe some of it off by wiping it lightly against an old towel before you apply it to the canvas. That way any changes you make will be small, and you’re not likely to make a big mistake you can’t correct.

Don’t think about areas which are already good (like the eyes or mouth). Don’t think about areas which are simple (like the very dark shadow on his neck). Those bits are either fine, or will be very easy to get right. It’s all about the subtle shapes of his cheeks and the shadows under his eyes.

And I haven’t shown this stage, but I also painted out his eyebrows. Eyebrows on some people are genuinely thick, black and lustrous. But on Fry they’re actually quite thin, and you can see his skin though them. My earlier stages had brown blobs for eyebrows, so I painted over that with skin tone, and then dabbed in his eyebrows as individual hairs (or rather, as short blobby dabs of dark brown, mid-brown and black). This also gave me a chance to improve the shape of his eyebrows and make him look more querulous.

7: And finally

A couple of dabs of dark blue or red in the shadows will make it warmer. Use red very sparingly in places where (oxymoronically) there’s a warm shadow. For example, his mouth is a warm part of his face: there’s blood and pink lips and personality. So in the shadow there I added a tiny dab of red. Also a very, very tiny dab of red at the corner of his eye – unless you look you won’t know it’s there, but it adds a sense that there are minute veins and the pinkiness of the tear duct (without having to spend ages painting those in with a paintbrush as thick as a human hair).

In the shadows under his chin, nose and on the left side of his face, a dab of blue (sometimes pure midnight blue, sometimes mixed in with his flesh tone) will make the shadow look a little darker and cooler, and add some depth. Use sparingly!

Hair: simple. Do a mix of grey and dark brown and slap it on as a very rough shape. Then use very dark blue/grey mix to do a few of the darkest areas of his hair. And over that do a light, dry brush of white and/or pale blue to indicate the highlights or grey hairs.

And do his shirt and jumper, which are simple applications of grey and dark blue. I also painted the background white – I know it’s white already, but I wanted the whole canvas to have paint on it, so the texture of the background is similar to the texture of the face (i.e. a bit splattery and rough). I didn’t cleam my brush properly before adding this white, because I wanted it to have very faint hints of other colours (from whatever the brush had on previously). It makes it less cold if there’s a touch of colour running through it.

And then nail it up, like a naughty Jesus.

I hope I’m right, and that doing this stuff is actually just a trick. Because if it’s just a trick, anybody can do it, and it’s a lovely thing to spend time doing.

I honestly lose myself in painting, whether or not it’s going well (and sometimes it doesn’t). I recommend it. The canvas, brushes and paint will cost you £20, and each 16 inch square canvas is only about £7.

And when you’ve finished you can have a few original paintings your wall, like I have. My particular paintings fit in with a weird personal-religion theory I have.

I don’t like religion, but I do think it’s a good idea to have somebody that you feel you shouldn’t let down, which is (I suppose) the main role that God and the Baby Jee play in the life of the deluded. Instead of believing all that shit, believe science which is actually true rather than actually myth.

But even without invisible friends who live in a cloud, you still act like a good person if you follow good examples. Just pick examples who happen to exist! Choose 4 famous people who you wouldn’t want to disappoint. You can pick your own, but mine are:

  1. David Attenborough
  2. Stephen Fry
  3. John Lennon
  4. Richard Feynman

If you can live your life as though those people are judging you, you’ll probably do OK. After all, who would want to live with themselves knowing Attenborough doesn’t approve of what they’re doing?

It’s not much of a theory, but it beats the hell out of Christianity.

So I’m doing a wall of people I shouldn’t disappoint, who can look down on me (as most people do). I’ve got Fry, Lennon and Feynman, and next I’m gonna have a go at Attenborough.

Painting

When I’m on my own I like to paint.

I’ve recommended it to a few people, but the response is often “I’d love to, but don’t know how”. So here’s some advice.

I used to draw a lot when I was a kid, but at the age of 18 became a professional designer. When you do it all day every day, it stops being fun. Over the years I’ve moved away from designing every day, and into technical management.

So art hasn’t been part of my life for 25 years, and I was never any good at painting. These paintings are the first things I’ve done for quarter of a century. If I can do it, you can do it. Just start!

What you need:

Go to your local hobby shop and buy a starter-kit of acrylic paints. It costs about £18, and includes a dozen tubes of acrylic paint, brushes, palette knife, palette, pencil and brushes.

Buy an extra tube of mixing white, because you’ll definitely need it. It costs about £6.

Buy a canvas. A 12 or 15 inch square is a good way to start, but smaller doesn’t necessarily mean easier – it depends on the subject and style!

And you’ll need some sheets, a glass of water, old clothes, and a table near to natural light. Don’t try to do it by artificial light, because the next day all your colours will look wrong.

Abstract painting 1 (100cm x 100cm)

This was the first thing I did, and it was surprisingly simple to do. It’s figurative, but doesn’t have to be accurate – it’s not intended to be a photographic record. So it’s an easy way to get used to using paints.

Sketch out your idea on a scrap of paper, and think about the colours you want to use. I wanted something warm, so chose oranges and reds for the figures. But I wanted it to feel outdoors, so the background shades are sky blues, grass greens, tree greens etc.

Next, use a brown/orange tone, like burnt umber. Make a thin wash of it by mixing about 1:3 ration of paint-to-water. Use this to very roughly mark out the main shapes on the canvas. Don’t use pencil – it shows through the paint unless you’re using very dark, strong colours.

And don’t try to be extremely accurate. You’re not drawing it for final viewing, you’re just marking out rough areas as a guide. And don’t try to copy your drawing exactly – you can be creative throughout the process, you don’t stop being creative when the sketch is finalised. If you think of something better, or different – just do it!

Keep stepping well back, and looking at the overall composition. Does it (more or less) match your original sketch? Don’t be afraid to use a slightly less “thin” wash of the burnt umber to correct lines.

Remember the rule: thick over thin. Use thin paint, and then use thicker paint to correct, improve, and eventually to add the final paint to the canvas.

Then start painting in colours you like. There is no right or wrong, and the great thing about acrylics is that (once they’re dry, which is about an hour) you can paint over any mistakes. My painting used to have lots more green, and the blues were much darker. But it didn’t work, so the next day I went over it until I was happy.

And listen to your favourite music as you paint. I loved listening to Sigur Ros, because it made me think of nothing at all. But whatever works for you!


Abstract expressionism (40cm x 40 cm)

This is the painting style used by Monet and other very popular artists. It’s a great way to start using paints. This painting is based on a photo of a candle that I found online. I just kept the painting open on my phone by the side of me, so I could see it. And then I started in the centre with light colours, and worked my way out.

There is no white and no black used, in spite of what the photo suggests. Black and white look weird when you see them on a canvas, because they don’t really exist in nature. Instead the flame is a very pale yellow, with pale blue to indicate the hotter flame near the wick. Browns and oranges indicate the glow around the flame, and then it works into a series of dark blues, reds, greens and purples.

Don’t try to keep all your colours separate on the palette. I prefer to use a big white plate, with black and white at the edges (for mixing only, never to go straight onto the canvas), and the rest of the colours just mixed around. Keep intermixing them until you get the colours you want to use. Acrylics look almost identical wet on the palette to how they look dry on the canvas, so they’re easy to use. And if it looks wrong on the canvas, re-mix the colour and paint over it.

I did that, just adding splats of colour with a wide, flat brush. Then I stepped back and squinted. Squinting is a great way to evaluate the tone – you lose all the detail of your view, but you get a greater sense of the tonal values. And in this case, that’s what matters.

Up-close it’s a mess, but that’s expressionism for ya! Stand 10 feet away and it starts to look like a candle. It took maybe 30 minutes, and another 5 minutes the next evening to tweak a couple of splots which didn’t seem to work right.


Painting a face (40cm x 40 cm)

It’s a bit harder to paint a face. But the preparation uses my recommendations from the first two. Sketch it out on paper, and try to understand the elements that make up the face – the shadows, the highlights, the structure of a face.

Use a light wash of burnt umber to mark out the key areas – the cheeks, the eyes, the position of the mouth and nose, etc.

Then go one step further. Don’t attempt to get an accurate painting done on the first day, just use very approximate colours to indicate the light and dark areas. You don’t need to be accurate about the skin tones, just get the shapes down roughly.

Don’t make any attempt at detail. And ignore things you don’t need to worry about, like (in the final drawing) the highlights on the nose and cheek. Just shove the paint into the canvas, stepping back every so often to squint and assess it.

Then go away. Stop painting as soon as all the canvas is covered. Leave it to dry, and come back another day to work on the detail. Start with the light colours, and work your way towards the dark – it’s much easier than beginning with (for example) the man’s eyes or the dark shade under his cheek, and then working towards the dot of light on his nose.

Finally, when you’re almost complete, and more-or-less happy, try this little tip: mix a dark blue, and use it as a small splot or rough stroke of the brush on the darkest areas of shadow, such as under his chin or in his moustache. And then mix a deep red, and use that for areas which are warm – such as where light hits but doesn’t cause a highlight, or places where the skin is thinner and the blood is closer to the surface. It’ll add a mix of warmth and cool to your painting, even if it seems like a weird colour to add to a face!