The Studio Art School: Dorset

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By Justin Cooke, Dec 16 2014 02:44PM

Figurative Art: It's not to do with figures

Figurative art is a term we use for painting, drawing, and scuplture that is clearly derived from the real world. You could call it Representational Art. It is often used as a term to contrast Abstract Art. A picture being described as either Abstract or Figurative (or most likely, somewhere in between!).

So a figurative drawing is a drawing of a thing.

I know what you are thinking… can that thing be a figure? Umm… well yes it can. But it also be a tree, a box of eggs or a whole landscape.

If you are concerned with ideas and devices such as; use of pattern, the surface texture of your drawing, or optical effects of colour: then you are using abstract elements.

Figurative : Abstract

You will know from your own work, that as artists we rarely fit into those neat boxes: you will often find yourself at various places between the two.

Below is a demonstration I made for a lesson on drawing . It shows some of the different drawing techniques used by artists, when producing figurative drawings.

Beneath it, I briefly explain each method and give some recomendations where to see examples by artists throughout history.

Clockwise from top left.


Contour Hatching

Measured Drawing

"Taking a line for a walk"

Gestural Drawing

The fluid line


With this drawing method, areas are hatched with an even tone. Darker areas can be achieved by using firmer fatter lines, by placing lines closer together or as in this case by overlapping hatch marks. This called cross hatching

No outlines are drawn. The edges are merely described by changes in tone.

This is a quick way of sketching out doors using pencil.

You can see great examples by looking at some by David Hockney from the 1970's . The Tate gallery website has some great examples

Contour hatching

is similar but the lines curve to show the form of the subject; everything else still applies, including cross hatching which in this case can add to the feeling of volume and shape.

We are in the realm of some of the greatest artists here including Leonardo de Vinci and Michelangelo. But some of my favourite drawings are by Rubens and Watteau. If I could have my own at no expense art collection... it would include a Watteau drawing.

The example I have chosen however is by Rubens of his child Nicolaas. It is a truely stunning piece of drawing.

"Peter Paul Rubens, Bildnis seines Sohnes Nikolas" by Peter Paul Rubens - Unknown. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Measured Drawing

Here is a very quick drawing of a head drawn to classic proportions. This is basically drawn using a formula of proportions and lines that have been learned by artists for centuries. A measured drawing can be made in a similar way. The process consists of finding lines and measurements that relate to each other and using them to plot out the basic elements of a drawing; this can be applied to any subject be it a figure or even a landscape. A subject observed and transcribed in this way can lead to a very accurate drawing. It can also be used to discretely mark out very quickly the basics of a drawing which could have a very loose, confident and bold drawing on top.

The Artist William Coldstream was a great advocate of this method when he principle and professor at the Slade School of Art, London 1945 - 1975. The Tate Gallery has some fine examples of his work.

"Taking a line for a walk":

I've taken a quote from from the artist Paul Klee here, but my drawing is much more of a scribble than his. For this method, keep the pen or pencil in contact with the paper as much as possible and draw lots of overlapping and intertwining lines. You need to kind of feel your way as you go. The more ink or graphite you lay down the more it should feel like you're modelling clay or shaping a ball of scrunched up wire; working a bit like a sculptor.

It is no suprise then that one of the best who drew this way was an artist called Alberto Giacometti; and yes... he was a sculptor.

Gestural Drawing:

My own term for this method is gestural drawing. For this, all those marks a pencil or charcoal can make become a vital part of the drawing, in much the same way as an artist uses a brush. This allows us to give the impression of mood and movement, even the weather. This type of drawing also allows us to free up and convey our feelings directly on the paper. When it works well it seems to be completely instinctive as we naturally include all sorts of marks and squiggles into our drawing

There are many artists who work this way. But I would like to let you in on a little secret. Little, because it is a very small thing. In the Victoria and Albert Museum London they have John Constable's 1814 pocket sketchbook. They have reproduced it on their website so you can have a virtual thumb through. These are'nt drawings for exhibition, they are for his own use. They are quick, llively and full of gesture. If you have not seen them before, have a look, you are in for a treat!

Here is the link

The fluid line:

Think Picasso, or the un-inhibited spontaneous drawing of a child. It is a huge challenge to draw this way, you have to just go for it! Try not to hesitate; and draw quickly with confidence. This example is drawn with graphite and is based upon Picasso's dove. In the class we use ink and bamboo pens for this.

There are films of Picasso drawing, some can be found on youtube. If you come across film of him painting or even making sculptures out of soft clay pots you will see the same amazing confidence. For most of us though, this can be a bit of a hit or miss approach giving all sorts of results. But we can take comfort... in one film of picasso painting even he decides his picture is not working. The next one he does however is of course stunning.

By Justin Cooke, Dec 13 2014 08:47PM

A Coloured Ground

A canvas or panel can be painted with a colour prior to being used for a painting. Traditionally this was a mid tone in some sort of earth colour. An alternative name for this is a tonal ground.

Light or Dark

Traditionally earth colours were used to prepare the ground. John Constable describes his prepared canvases as "Flats". A term that describes the flat even tone that he would have learned to use as a student at the Royal Academy in London. Go back a little further and Thomas Gainsborough, (a founding member of the Royal Academy) was using a light brown to prepare his canvases.

A canvas or panel can be painted with a colour prior to being used for a painting. Traditionally this was a mid tone in some sort of earth colour. An alternative name for this is a tonal ground.

Let me introduce you to

Mr and Mrs Andrews

"Thomas Gainsborough - Mr and Mrs Andrews" by Thomas Gainsborough - The National Gallery, London. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This painting was made by Thomas Gainsborough some time between 1748 and 1750. Interestingly for us this painting has been left un-finished.

Take a look at Mrs Andrews's hands in her lap.

You will see that here is an area of the painting that has been left unpainted...waiting for the addition of a baby...maybe. Or perhaps some bagpipes! We can't be sure.

What we see is not bare canvas. We can see the cracking paint of his coloured ground. and it is the light neutral brown that so many artists of that time used for their portrait paintings.

Later,as new brighter colours became available artists found that these colours could look more vivid when painted on a white ground and this is one of the great departures made by the impressionists from their predecessors .

Generally; before Impressionism artists used a tonal ground; Impressionism and after a white ground. Of course there are exceptions. Whistler was one; often using a dark ground, even black, and he was a contemporary of the Impressionists.

Can you use both a tonal and a white ground together?

Yes you can: In this demonstration I'll show you how and you'll see that both have their benefits.

We know bright colours show up best on a white ground, but a tonal ground can unify a painting into a certain mood. Many also find it easier to manage the tonal range in their painting by using a tonal ground. Perhaps by working toward lighter tones and then toward darker ones. But why not prepare a ground that will have the qualities of both.

In this example the paper was prepared with an even grey colour, except those areas that were to be be painted with very bright colours (the beach wind-breaks and parasol for example), these were left as un-painted white paper. Once dry the painting process was continued as normal on top. In this case with little water, pretty much as paint comes straight from the tube.

The paper was quite thin, so if I hold it up to a sunny window you will see the light coming through the areas that were not painted grey. This exaggerates the brighter colours

You may get a better idea if I turn the paper round, and we look at it from the back, with the light shining through.

It looks like this

With our paintings we can not always hold them up to a light and illuminate them from behind in this way. We rely on light being reflected back to us from the paper or canvas. With a white ground more light is reflected back through the paint layer than say a grey ground. So the colours are brighter.

We could definitely use this idea in our painting...and maybe experiment with different colour grounds to achieve different effects.

If you would like to find Mr and Mrs Andrews. Here is where they are.

The National Gallery, London.

Go in the main entrance and straight up the stairs and into the first room. This is the Central Hall. There is a door on the wall on your right, go through that and you'll be in the first of a series of rooms that lead one to another. You need to go on to the fourth room. You'll find Mr and Mrs Andrews there. They are on the left.

Opposite them are some Hogarth paintings, and I always think it looks as if Mr and Mrs Andrews are looking across at the characters in them with a mixture of amusement on his part and barely concealed "well if you must!" from her.

Here is a tip...

Traditionally; artists found it may be useful to use a wooden palette to mix paint when working on a toned ground. Often made of a dark wood such as mahogany or a wood that attained a dark tone over years of use, it made sense to see the colour on their palette as closely as possible to how it would look on a similar coloured ground.

I mentioned Whistler earlier...

I studied Whistler a lot for my dissertation years ago, and always liked the sound of his mahogany table as a palette. The table struck me as a good idea. In my studio I have a long workbench made of recycled pine which has adopted a dark patina with age. It has sheets of glass on top, which I use as palettes and replace from time to time. This would be for oil painting. Occasionally I put a sheet of white paper under the glass if I want to mix colours precisely for use on a white canvas. If using watercolour on white paper, my palette is a collection of white plates, bowls and saucers.

An example painted on a traditional brown ground

Look closely between the brush marks and you will see glimpses of the brown ground colour beneath.

These small amounts of colour, which are all over the painting, help to unify the look. Had the ground colour been blue, the painting may have had a cold, chilly, feel. If I had used red or yellow, it could have given the impression of heat or sunshine. Starting from my mid tone of brown; I painted firstly my lights, then darks and then bolder areas of colour. This was done for speed as it was a demonstration piece for a class. But it is also how you could work if you were outside in front of your subject. It is a very quick way of painting!

By Justin Cooke, Dec 13 2014 03:18PM

This is part two of the series on colour mixing

Darker colours

Did you know there is a way that the colours you already have can be tweeked to make them darker without using black.

We made it darker by adding a lighter colour to it!

Take a look at this example of colour mixing.

In this example we wanted to make our blue darker. The complimentary colour can be used to do this. The complimentary to violet-blues like this one are orange-yellows. By using a little warm yellow mixed into the blue it should go darker. And it does!

There is a point in the blend where you will see that the colour can be described as neither blue nor yellow. It is what we call a neutral colour. If we add a little more blue than yellow we should find our dark blue.

The dark colour at the top is made this way; just using the blue and that warm yellow. No black was used...promise!

We now have a new darker colour that will enhance our painting, and to our eyes relates somehow to the other colours used

You can see how using this idea we could have made a darker yellow by adding a little blue-violet. Or for that matter we could darken a green by adding a spot of its complimentary - red.

So what's actually happening: The Science Bit

The yellow pigment absorbs blue light. The Blue pigment absorbs yellow. Less light is able to be reflected back to our eyes. So the colour is darker

The peculiar thing about the example above though, (and what is a little unexpected) is that the complimentary of our violet-blue colour is much lighter. So in this example we did add a lighter colour to make it go darker.

Which does seem strange!

Here is the tip

Make a colour darker by adding a little of it's complimentary (opposite).

If you add just a little you won't change the colour too much, you may want your blue to stay blue, it will just make it a touch darker.


Dont forget there are loads of pigments out there and paint manufacturers use them to produce a huge range of colours in shades of light to dark. There may well be a darker option you could use that may be closer to the colour you want. Moving from the lighter cobolt blue say toward a darker blue shade like phthalo blue maybe.

Don't forget...

You should choose carefully whenever you mix paints together. With watercolour particularly, painting with a single pigment paint (some paints are made of a blend of several pigments) will always give more luminous colours when mixing paints together. If you want pure brilliant colour use single pigment paints as much as possible. You can find out more about colour mixing on the Colour Mixing,Part 1 page.

By Justin Cooke, Dec 9 2014 08:05PM


Atmospheric Perspective: Giving the appearance of distance by the use of colour and tone; quite often by making distant subjects paler, less saturated with colour and with less distinct outlines.

You do not always have to fade to blue, although this is probably how it is most commonly seen. As this demonstration shows, other colours will work.

In these examples no other useful devices are used give the impression of distance. There are no converging rail lines; no carefully placed people or lampposts of ever decreasing size. The only device we have to show distance is the depletion of colour, tone and definition.

To show greater distance, this could be pushed still further, until the horizon becomes a blur.

Where to see examples

Lots in the British watercolour tradition; and Turner makes use of it exquisitely. That landscape in the background of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa…to give it distance... so it did not overpower the portrait… Leonardo used atmospheric perspective.

Just a note

Atmospheric Perspective is also known as Aerial Perspective. An Aerial Landscape is something else…that's the painting you will do when you’re in a hot air balloon!

How it's done: four examples

Study 1.

A quick study using blue shades. Painted in acrylic paint on acrylic paper.

The white paper was first tinted with a pale pink. For this I used a very thin wash of magenta. This was allowed to dry before painting on top. For speed I used just one brush; a soft, flat square ended brush. Pale cerulean blue was used for distant colours and phthalo blue (phtalocyanine blue) to achieve the darker tones of the foreground. . For the very dark colours mix the phthalo blue and burnt sienna together, this will make a very dark colour (an uneven mix will help give a greater variety of colours), keep some on the side of your pallette. Add some of this mix to your phthalo blue to achieve increasingly darker shades. You should get a near black.

Study 2.

Similar to study 3, but overlaid with a thin wash of titanium white

Study 3.

Using the same magenta tinted paper as the first example, but this time using a pallette of magenta with varying amounts of white, painted a little thicker than before to allow it to be seen on the lightly tinted paper. As in the example above, mix some phthalo blue and burnt sienna together to make a very dark colour, (again an uneven mix will help give a greater variety of colours). Keep some of this new colour on the side of your pallette. Add some of this mix to your magenta to achieve increasingly darker shades. Again it is possible to reach a near black.


Study 4.

This was painted exactly as above but with a rich oarange/yellow in place of magenta. The same mix of phthalo blue and burnt sienna was used to darken the colours in the foreground

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