In the Face of Uncertainty

A common characteristic linking the activities of all creatives, whether writers, composers, or visual artists, is that there are virtually never any certainties. Our tools and materials are probably the only true constant we will ever have, although even this cannot always be relied on. Whatever our individual approach, working conditions are rarely just as we would like them and, are we ever really certain about what we are trying to say, or are we likely to ever be entirely satisfied with what we might ultimately produce?

Such apprehension is inevitably part of any creative process, so it is essential that we all learn to adapt to it in our own way. For me, this can sometimes make painting feel like a delicate balancing act, hovering between achieving something that might bring me somewhere near to my original expectations, on the one hand, to complete disappointment and frustration on the other. There are, of course, those rare occasions when we may produce, ‘milestone’ paintings, images that feel somehow to turn out completely ‘right’, seeming to surpass anything we may have produced before. But all too often this is short lived because, in my experience, uncertainty and unpredictability remain the dominating factors. At best, this can serve as a catalyst to open up new and possibly untried approaches, that may never have been considered, had we have remained within the safety of the well tried and tested. At worst, these knock backs to our expectations can overwhelm us and lead towards despondency and possibly even into ‘blank canvas syndrome’, the artists’ equivalent of ‘writers’ block’.

So how might we get ourselves through these rather bleak periods? In reality, our perceived difficulties are all in the mind and can be the result of a multitude of influences, however, retaining a positive outlook under such circumstances can be very hard. Interestingly an article in a recent issue of ‘The Society of Authors Newsletter’ put forward the suggestion that psychological therapy could help writers who might be suffering from such problems. Not surprisingly, it was written by a psychologist and whether this might be a worthwhile route for visual artists, would have to be a matter of individual choice. But what struck me in particular was that such feelings were being seen as a form of disorder, which would benefit from professional intervention, rather than something to be expected as an inevitable part of the creative process. Although the road we travel as artists is rarely straight and probably includes several cul-de-sacs along the way, it has lead us to where we are now, for better, or worse and is the culmination of everything we have done before. The writer Alan Bennett puts this rather more poignantly by suggesting that our ‘style’ of work is, “simply the sum of our defects.”

When we get stuck, more than likely, it has something to do with changes in our working methods, or approach, because logically if we apply the same processes again it should work out, as with those times when we are very productive. I have come to realise that the most effective way for me to deal with these disheartening times is to paint my way out of them. Whilst other artists I know recommend cleaning the car, or going for a walk to clear their heads, I have never found this to be anything other than a temporary respite, because the problem is still there when I come back. Also, any amount of soul searching only serves to increase my inner doubts and, in truth, this can often make things worse. So as a way of getting myself back to feeling good about what I was doing, I put the work to one side: fully accept my situation: never question it: see it as a temporary impasse and I then set myself a different, well defined painting exercise that I produce in a well tried and tested way.

The example below, ‘Come Not Between the Dragon and his Wrath’, depicting the Shakespearean character King Lear, was painted ostensibly as a means of getting me through a period of despondency, when my enthusiasm for what I had been doing had evaporated and I found myself at a standstill. Although the intricacies of portraiture can be difficult, it is an ideal subject because the determinants are clear and the technical challenges of trying to create a lifelike image, with everything in the right place, require my complete concentration, coupled with a methodical approach. To enable me to see the subject in a more abstract way, as shapes and patterns, I painted it upside down, which also prevented me from becoming too distracted by the individual features. The focusing effect of the process is, itself, usually enough to restore the positive mindset from which I have temporarily strayed, which then allows me to be more objective about what I was originally doing and see it with a fresh eye. Maybe this suggestion is rather more analytical than creative, so could the psychologist have a point, when all is lost, maybe a bit of self-analysis can do some good? Or maybe I am advocating a more technical remedy, rather like a musician going back to practicing scales to improve his creative technique, or even a novelist attempting to sharpen his wit by temporarily turning to writing limericks. “There was an young man called Blair….……” On but that’s definitely another story.

Come Not Between the Dragon and his Wrath King Lear 1.1 Oil on paper: 49 x 36 cm (19 1/2 x 15 in)

Come Not Between the Dragon and his Wrath
King Lear 1.1

Oil on paper: 49 x 36 cm (19 1/2 x 15 in)

2017 Plein-air Painting Groups

Come along and join an informal group of enthusiastic outdoor painters in two spectacular locations in the UK, Slapton in Devon in July and at Flatford Mill in August.

Please contact me for a brochure giving full information. 



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Painting in Rye

When visiting family near Sissinghurst in Kent I always take the opportunity to pull in a painting trip to the nearby coastal town of Rye, a short drive away in East Sussex. One of my favourite spots is Rye Harbour with its array of fishing boats which make their way up the river for a couple of miles to their moorings close to the town. Here the river Brede divides, with one arm meandering further into the town where a multitude of yachts and pleasure craft sit perched on the sand banks along the sides of the river when the tide is out. 

My visit on 10th July was on a bright sunny day so I wanted to work against the light. I found an ideal spot looking down towards the line of moorings along the far side of the river. From this position the powerful directional shadow shapes over the ground, coupled with the contrasting areas of glistening reflected light over the wet sand gave the subject  more impact.

I always think of my plein-air paintings as investigative studies, informational sketches that will serve as valuable reference models for future, more considered, studio paintings. I often work in watercolour in a sketchbook making tonal sketches but using two colours, where my painting determinants are limited to light/dark and warm/cool. I find these studies less restrictive when working from them in the studio where actual colour choices can be more subjective. 

My painting location looking into the light

Two colour watercolour tonal study working across the pages of an A4 size sketchbook.

I also did a similar study from a slightly different location this time using a full colour palette and working on watercolour paper. Again above else I wanted to get the sense of lighting.

12 x 16 in plein-air watercolour study on Arches paper.

I am also including a couple of oil studies made during an earlier visits to the area from the opposite side of the river when the lighting was less intense. 

River Brede Moorings: 16 x 20 in: plein-air oil study 

River Brede on an overcast day  : 13 x 24 in: plein-air oil study

New Work

The uncertainty of not knowing where my creative journey might take me next is one of the joys of being an artist.
Each painting is essentially a step to the next whilst taking my inspiration from whatever feels appropriate at the time.
Recently however a new door has opened and I have been excited by a renewed fascination with railway subjects, particularly steam engines and I have launched a range of new paintings and prints depicting these works which are now included on my website. I decided to paint them predominantly in watercolour because it enables me to capture the essence of the subjects with a sense of life, light, vitality and spontaneity.

The roots of my current journey began completely by chance in the Spring of 2014 when I was offered the opportunity to paint in a busy engineering workshop environment, something I had never done before and I have to admit I approached with some apprehension. 

Painting in oils, I produced a range of small plein-air works, (12 x 16in in size) with two larger paintings (13 x 24 in, as below) to follow. My article entitled 'The Challenge of a Different Subject' published in the March 2015 issue of 'The Artist' magazine describes my approach. 

In the Workshop: plein air oil: 13 x 24 in

Today such places are few and far between, so the question then was where to go next.
My proximity to the Great Central Railway and Battlefield Line Preservation Societies seemed obvious choices and enabled me to gain access to an abundance of fascinating subject material both for sketching, (as below) and obtaining information for more considered studio paintings. 

In the Sidings: watercolour sketch: 11 x 16 in

My previous interest in these subjects began in the late 1970's when I produced 17 charcoal drawings for The Talyllyn Railway in Wales and the Ffestiniog Railway at Port Madoc. 

I have recently been looking at examples of railway paintings made by David Shepherd and the late Terence Cuneo's superb oil depictions of the golden age of steam, the memories of which are kept alive today by the many Railway Preservation Societies around the country.

Oil Painting Outdoors - Part 2:

This post contains additional supporting material in respect of my article entitled
"Oil Painting Outdoors - Part 2", published in the August 2014 issue of The Artist magazine, available from 18th July from newsagents, or go to

The article dealt with producing outdoor location studies in black and white and using two colours, as a prelude to working in full colour.

Black and white studies:

Here is another example, produced as described in the article using the pochade box. It was made on a bright January day but looking into the light against the low angle of the Winter sun. This had the effect of making the distant group of buildings and trees appear as a mid-toned silhouette and produced intense reflections on the brightly lit road surface. 

Towards Stoke Golding: 9 x 12 in: Oil study on board

Towards Stoke Golding: 9 x 12 in: Oil study on board

Two colour studies:

Three further examples of two colour location studies.

The first I made on a bright June day using the same Ultramarine Blue/ Burnt Umber complimentary colour combination as described in the article. Compared to the examples in the article, here the colours reflect the added intensity of the Summer light. Time taken just under one hour and a half.

Roadside Trees: 11 3/4 x 16 1/2 in: OIl study on board

Roadside Trees: 11 3/4 x 16 1/2 in: OIl study on board

Two more examples produced with a two colour complimentary palette of Ultramarine Blue but replacing the initial Burnt Umber with Burnt Sienna to give added richness to the warmer tones. Time taken just under one hour for each study.

By the Tap in the Garden: 6 x 14 3/4 in: Oil study on muslin covered board

By the Tap in the Garden: 6 x 14 3/4 in: Oil study on muslin covered board

Patio Corner: 11 3/4 x 16 1/2 in: Oil study on muslin covered board

Patio Corner: 11 3/4 x 16 1/2 in: Oil study on muslin covered board