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 January, 2007 New Directions and Reflections

Happy New Year! The month of January offers a perennial opportunity to eliminate some old habits (personal and artistic) and seek some new prospects. It’s about this time that I make my yearly resolution to expand my design parameters, take on new subject matter, find new approaches to old subject matter and generally overhaul my painting technique.

Nothing facilitates this more than diving into my sketchbooks, where I can experiment and take risks, away from prying eyes.  

I was recently looking back through some old sketchbooks and came across a painting from Morocco. I recollected that I had taken some photos of the painting in progress and thought that they might make an appealing demonstration. Let me say, at this point, that I generally hate stopping to take photos in the middle of a painting. It interrupts the tempo and tends to break my concentration. I can tell by the skewed horizon line that I shot these photos pretty hastily and jumped back into the painting. Nevertheless, the procedure might be of interest to you.


Actual photo of the scene


Essouira is a small seaport town on the west coast of Morocco. This beautiful little village on the Barbary Coast boasts a thriving market, ancient battlements, sea walls and a pristine beach that looks out on the Purple Islands. One of the battlements rose up about seven steps, took a right angle and allowed me to set up without disturbing the hooded fellow cogitating on the tide pools.

Step One:                        

I began by floating the sky down to the tide pools and painting the buildings, peninsula and the warm battlement color over the top. I charged some complimentary colors into the wet passages for interest and aerial perspective. Notice that, within those areas, I saved some key whites that I could later utilize as highlights. Remember we only get those beautiful lights once. So I tend to leave more than I can use, knowing full well that I can eliminate or adjust them at a later stage.


Step Two:                              

 I immediately went after the tidal flats with mixtures of warm and cool greens and some complimentary colors thrown in. I needed to establish some rich darks as a measuring tool for the overall value scheme. In retrospect, I think this passage got a little busy and heavy-handed. I also added a little over painting to the battlement and the walkway. This helped to simulate texture and aging.


Step Three:                            

Now I started to bring it all together. I addressed our foreground figure, added the shadows from the buildings, turned some of those saved whites into suggestions of promenading figures and put a few windows on the structures. I also painted a darker shade of the sky into the tide pools. A bit of splatter added some interest to the walls and the tidal flats. The busyness in the tidal flats doesn’t seem to bother me as much now. I suspect that this is because I kept the rest of the painting fairly simple. It’s fair to note that I left the cannons out of the final composition. When painting on location, one has to be judicious about what elements are essential to the final statement. You don’t always have to put the whiskers on the kitty to say “cat”.


This is only one approach to one subject. In a hot, arid climate, like Morocco, I am inclined to work in a more fragmented way, completing smaller passages before moving on to the next. Conversely, in a country like Ireland, with more humidity and a longer drying time, I’m afforded the luxury of working wet into wet over the whole painting, if I choose. The bottom line is that you have to keep your technique flexible and your options open. Take that sketchbook out and expose yourself to various painting conditions. It will keep your eye fresh and force you to add to your arsenal of techniques. After all, the aim of our efforts is growth.

So as we face the new year, let’s all resolve to take some chances, expand our artistic horizons and ensure that this year’s body of work will open new avenues of expression for all of us.