Wokingham Art Society
Demonstrations by Keith Morton
Contact him at km_art@blueyonder.co.uk or visit www.saa.co.uk/art/keithmorton
Portrait
2014
Return to Archive Still Life
2017
Acrylic Still Life, 21 November 2017
It was good to see Keith again, this time with another type of painting: still life.

He had prepared a sheet of Winsor and Newton acrylic paper by scrubbing a very thin layer of Burnt Umber over it. A mid-tone background is much easier to work on than dead white. This paper is thicker than others and so doesn't need stretching.

Keith had arrange a small silver cup, an apple and a teapot in an enclosure made of three sheets of card (one side and the base white, the other side black). This was lit by a carefully placed light opposite the white face.
His palette is limited: two sets of the three primaries. For well-lit surfaces he uses a red-biased set (cadmium red, cadmium yellow and french ultramarine) and for shaded surfaces a blue-biased one (lemon yellow, alizarin crimson and prussian or phthalo blue).

His initial drawing is in very thin alizarin crimson put on with a smallish round brush.

Much of his work is portraiture. Precision is essential if you want a good likeness. The precision habit carries over into his other work, despite the acceptability of using more artistic licence there. Asked about painting something different from what you see he said "You have to be clever for that"
He did much one-eyed measuring (holding the brush up to compare vertical and horizontal distances) before touching the edge of the brush very lightly to place the top and the bottom of the cup. He then carefully compared the height and width of its rim, made two more tiny marks and drew a "vertical" centre line. I say "vertical" because when he continued, later, with the construction of the sides of the cup he realised that it was not actually so!

Comparing distances is what you usually think of when you see an artist squinting past a thumb on a brush. Much more important for Keith is measurement of angle. In his mind he divides curves into very short lengths, aligns his brush with each one, carries the brush across to the paper and just touches it down, almost flat to the surface, leaving a short mark.
I would call his method "construction" rather than "drawing" - and it certainly works. The repeated measurement of distance and angle allows the whole composition to be gradually constructed and frequently checked. Keith said shape was particularly important for fruit (to distinguish an apple from a coloured tennis ball). Each mark can be checked to verify that it is the right distance and direction from several points around the picture. If you get an angle wrong and ignore it, the whole painting suffers and you cannot see why.

When he constructed the tip of the teapot spout he discovered that under demonstration pressure he had not placed the cup as far to the left as he might have done.
But this was no problem. He simply outlined the area to which he would crop the picture and washed over it with another quite thin wash of alizarin and ultra.

By this time he had moved to a larger flat brush to show where shadows were. Highlights were introduced very early (white slightly softened with yellow).

As new colours were introduced he washed his brush more frequently, removing excess water by touching it on some kitchen paper.

He aims to mix the right colour on his palette before putting it on the paper. Since he mixes with his brush he can hold the brush in line with what he wants, to compare colour.
As he added shadow he moved to the cooler (more blue) side of the palette. Shadows contain many subtle shades and so he was continuously remixing slightly different shades.

"Never fill in" he said. Even apparently flat areas need slight variation, so these were done with short strokes rather than just painted over. One of the things he learned at art school was to "mix colour, dab it on, do not scrub" - an invaluable lesson.

The last half hour was a continuation of this process: comparatively small marks being made in almost individually mixed colours all over the area. The base and background were rushed in near the end.
The result was a very pleasing interpretation of the still-life composition.
I think we all went away with some inspiring ideas that we wanted to try for ourselves.
Thank you, Keith, for a fascinating evening.
Portrait
2014
Return to Archive Still Life
2017
Acrylic Portrait, 21 January 2014
Straight in - no nonsense. Keith had already taken great care to pose and illuminate Glynis exactly as he wanted and had pre-prepared a sheet of paper with thin "red-brown" acrylic. One hand held a small tin with a squirt or two of alizarin crimson, the other an old well-trimmed round brush (almost a short rigger) between four (4) fingers and thumb.

He likes to make heads, top to bottom, about the span of a hand:- thumb to little finger. He made two tiny marks by aligning the brush with the top and bottom of what he could see of the head and touching the side lightly to the paper. These defined where the head would appear and became his initial unit of measurement. Then a third mark - where the face ended and the top of the head started (visible because he was looking from above). He seemed to see a clear division between "the face" and the side or top of the head.

The last mark, before really serious placing of features, was about half way up the face - for the eyes. Measure. Is one "half" slightly bigger than the other?
Keith's measuring was meticulous, particularly angles: the angle of the line of eyes; the centre of the face (one touch) and then, going across from left to right, the relative spaces (and check resulting angles) between cheek, eye, centre of nose, tear duct and end of eye. Then the nose length (shorter than you think), the angle of the nostrils and finally the line of the mouth. All defined by short marks with the side of the brush. One eye shut, one eye almost shut, feet in exactly the same place. Check positions, check angles, check a different way, correct the odd 1 mm error. Re-check. "Which side of her right tear duct is the tip of her nose?"

Then another tiny mark for the back of the head - always further back than you think. With the brush strictly at right angles to the line of sight, compare the height and total width but also check the angles from there to facial features (add top and bottom of ear).

For a good likeness, the eye-to-eyebrow distances are as important as the line of the lips. I understand he was quoting John Singer Sargent when he told us that a portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth
Measure the collar: this is easy to underestimate. Check angles! Re-check distances: "How many times does this fit into that?"

With the drawing complete, Kieth's next stage was to start shading. For this he used the same colour but with more water and a bigger flat brush.

Then colour. He had put out 6 colours (and white) onto a home-made stay-wet palette - one set of "primary" colours (red, yellow and blue) each side . One set was "warm", towards the red side of the colour circle, for use in areas lit by direct light. The other "cool", towards the blue side, for shadowed areas.

Immediately after telling us that oil and acrylics should be put on from dark to light the first colour he added was the brightest skin tone. Challenged, he said that the darks were already there: in the alizarin shadows!
His application of colour was just like his drawing, but with a flat brush: single short marks, put on and left. The straight edge of the brush was always carefully aligned to the edge of some feature. Each brush-full of colour was mixed on the palette and adjusted there, so no two were exactly the same.

Finding that some of his alizarin drawing marks had been hidden by skin or hair colour, Keith went back into his carefully-measured-drawing mode. His whole approach, if you haven't already realised, was to make tiny decisions, check them and stick to them. He paints accurately but not neatly. For example, time was needed to get the tones right where the lip turns into the mouth/teeth and to indicate where the face becomes the side of the head (more shadow, more blue). He works all over the paper: when he notices something interesting he captures it immediately.
As always there were little asides:

Was it Ruskin who said "I draw in order to understand"?
When setting up a portrait, you need side lighting (use a piece of paper as a reflector if the contrast is too big).
If you want to mix a pink make sure there is not a trace of yellow
If you do something right, leave it - don't try to reinforce it
Be sure you know where the lightest and darkest points are
A background doesn't just complement the adjacent colours - it gives you a final chance to correct tiny errors in shape
Painting from a photo is dull.
By the end of the demo, Glynis was happy to be given the painting. Keith had spent 90 minutes of what would, if it were a "proper" portrait, be a couple of weeks' work. I would have been very happy if I could get such a good likeness.


Thank you Keith for a very interesting evening and a salutary lesson: you can't get a likeness unless you really look.
Portrait
2014
Return to Archive Still Life
2017
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