Oil painting how-tos

Helen Imogen has been drawing for as long as she can remember, possibly inspired by an early memory of a Brilliant Teddy Bear pricked out on a piece of newspaper by her Grandad, Maurice Williams, as he could not find a pencil.  He used to draw cartoons of folks for beer money, and some of his WW1 notes from the trenches are in the Imperial War Museum, London. He talks about the soldiers being desperate to wash and be clean, although water was in short supply…

First art lesson from Dad who worked as a draughtsman at British Leyland when it wasn’t a defunct car firm, in Swindon. He taught HI about shading with multiple layers of parallel lines.

School was so much fun, with lots of painting, mosaics and handicrafts. We worked all morning and created all afternoon (but when HI mentioned how great it was it all seemed to stop). Creativity is now proven to be good for kids’ brains. HI won a bunch of awards from the ‘Road Safety Competitions’ and she won an unknown Poster competition in her senior school, which her art teacher suddenly entered her for, and she had a painting mastered from a doodle on an exercise book, which took up residence in the Headmaster’s study. Little of this early work remains.

HI has painted in oils from 1990, learning from masters in portraits at the Art Student’s League of New York opposite Carnegie Hall. Professional portraitists would ‘take you off the street’.

The privilege of working with Hananiah Harrari (sadly now deceased) who loved a picture with a story, the first list of oil colours (palette) – and HI still favours Alizarin Crimson Permanent.

Ronn Scherr taught HI how to model round limbs and curves, by blending streaks of precisely coloured oil paints, how to leave things well alone that were perfect (an arm). He advocated putting most detail into the part of the painting that was to be its focus, and leave loose the painting around the edges (Rembrandt used to do this). Ronn also pointed out that a great painting will appear awesome from across the room (looks amazing small). A good test for whether a work is complete.

Hilary Holmes had an argument with HI about the use of Indian Red, which was not in Hananiah’s palette, and after trying it, HI never failed to use it. Shadows in flesh are best toned down with Viridian green, and Indian Red adds life to them. HI learned about tone, in this class – the colour doesn’t matter but the tone or shade does. Spending several weeks on one portrait was an experience.

Oldrich Teply was a master of the 3 hour sketch portrait. One class, one picture. Some worked and some did not (HI still has one or two pictures from that class). He was also master of the social, and late on Friday nights the class would turn out to the local diner. Many of Oldrich’s students were Graphic artists by trade, and pleased to get back to basics in the class, actually creating – there is nothing like it. Oh, the conversations, excited about light, light. A good friend from that set, who does beautiful portrait drawings, still meets up with HI.

The final teacher was an uncle and artist, John Williams, who made a study of the old masters and managed to convey most of his knowledge, in a conversation lasting about 3 hours. About  having a base colour that is medium in tone (HI later changed to white as it helps the colours to shine through – although it is a bit more difficult to lay down the basic painting on white). Then the first ‘idea’ of the picture starts with a scumble (hope that’s the right phrase) all in one colour and ragging, that is using a rag to make some parts lighter. Then layers, all in black and white (because old masters could not afford colours. The colours go on in a varnish layer and they glow (particularly seen in Helen’s picture ‘Angel Island’ which looks different in different lights, due to greens and blues in varnish layers. JW advocated copying, with the aim of laying down the darkest darks and the lightest lights, quickly. He also had an exercise of the 5 minute painting – all from memory, postcard sized, mixing paint colours included in the time. He did amazing work copying old masters and creating his own works, but never pursued it professionally, enjoying his work as a master electrician, programmer and generally interested, self-taught genius.

After doing a whole bunch of theatre work, with the help of a Millennium Fellowship award, HI restarted painting in 2005 with a bunch of amaryllis (she was really good at growing amaryllis in those days. Nine-headed amaryllis, painted large, with flowers in orange and blue to distinguish one from another, had a spell in the Genetics Department at Cambridge, where some curiosity was generated as to how the colours came to be! The artist’s privilege is to paint what is required not what is there, and to embrace happy accidents (the drips and the little tiny fly). It is HI’s family’s favourite painting and hangs over their dining table.

And then the iPad arrived… and HI liveSketched her way around on her travels, when time permitted

And painting loosened up and more techniques were tried, so later work is in acrylics, inks and watercolour, forcing a more rapid picture.

And then an even bigger iPad arrived… as well as the opportunity to really focus on producing amazing drawings

Finally, the totally HI e-style, arrived, vivid electronic art, that look great small!. These are created on iPad with ArtSet’s big ‘oil paints’ and are really loose and fauve in character. HI is currently painting Edinburgh in this style.

Read about HI’s Happy Electric ART (He-art) and follow its development on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr and even Facebook.

HI is still painting. It is addictive and the smell of oil paints just mmmmmmm…