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David Howell PPRSMA

I’ve started this page as a source of information for painters and enthusiasts - principally because of the Coronavirus lock down but who knows, it could become a regular feature, both here and on Facebook.  The idea is to give an insight to the way I work and to provide a few ideas for others.



Not a bad place to start.  Working from photographs is often a contentious issue and it frequently divides those who like to be outside working directly from the subject and those who prefer the security and comfort of working at home.  Those who know me as an advocate of working en plein air will probably raise their eyebrows when I say that it really doesn’t matter where you get your ideas and inspiration from.  It’s what you do with it that matters.

If you think about it, most painters are trying to create something that is good to look at.  Something that gives them a sense of achievement and perhaps ultimately looks good hung on a wall. The problem is, there are a few pitfalls along the way.  Most figurative painters admire the work of the French Impressionists but it’s worth asking what gave these painters this ability to produce the colourful and vibrant work that we all love?

I can throw in a couple of ideas.  One was the introduction of paint in tubes; their portability made it much easier to go outside the studio and work and secondly they had the huge advantage of not having digital cameras, iPhones, etc.  Old Vincent Van Gogh may have had a few personal problems with his ear and shooting himself but he couldn’t skip outside for a few minutes, snap a dozen shots on his phone and then head home and copy them..  Like his contemporaries he had to go outside and either make a few sketches or work in front of the motif and if you are working this way, you put your own individual stamp on the subject. There isn’t the time to be spending hours being exact.  It’s either too cold, or hot, or windy or wet.  Colours change and shadows move - in short you have to get on with it.  You quickly learn to ignore things that don’t matter, and to frequently re-arrange elements that look better in a different position for compositional considerations.  

For those who prefer to work from a photograph, there’s all the time in the world to carefully re-produce what you have in front of you and there my friends I would suggest is the major problem because more often than not, if you compare a painting that has all the unpolished feel of something produced on the spot alongside a carefully worked re-production of a photograph , the slightly ‘unfinished’ plein air work may will almost always have a vibrancy and excitement that is lacking in an indoor masterpiece.

I will no doubt return to this in the future but more importantly at the moment of course, we can’t go outside, so I want to suggest a way of working from photographs that avoids the copying trap.  You don’t have to copy the photograph and ideally you don’t wan’t to work from it directly at all.  A much better course of action is to make a sketch from the photo and I mean a sketch, not a detailed drawing.  Keep it loose, let your pencil or pen go for a walk, don’t worry about unnecessary detail, don’t mess about trying to enlarge the photo so that you can see every minute object.  Use it as a source of inspiration with your own input and when the sketch is near enough complete, hide the photo - turn off the computer or the camera and DON’T go back to it.  This last bit is hard because there will a continual compulsion to go back and check this or that.  Resist it or you will find yourself back in the copying trap.  The sketch will have things missing - that’s OK, use your imagination and let the picture have a life of its own.

This pen and wash sketch was produced from the photo above. In the process the telephone mast, the tree trunk and the vehicle have disappeared.  The mosque has been enlarged and the tree moved to make a better composition and the dog has been replaced with a donkey.  There is no attempt to be precise but there’s more colour in the shadows - a camera will always make the shaded areas too dark in these conditions.  This was painted with my usual limited palette of watercolours and a Faber Castell PITT artist waterproof pen.

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