Chasing light with a brush – my painting process

Helen White painting of sun through treeI’ve just finished a trio of paintings on a “sunset” theme and whilst the three work well together, there was nothing deliberate about the shared theme other than the fact that I was longing to chase after some of the most memorable light-effects encountered on recent walks.   Perhaps just the very fact of having experienced sunset overload during December and January – literally one momentous sunset after another in quick succession, even if many of them were glimpsed fleetingly between trees or buildings as I sat in traffic – is what inspired me to paint this trio as it is one of the most profound joys, the upside of the cold and the dark, that the winter months inject such an intensity of colour into the prelude and (often) grand finale of each day.

Helen White winter sunset painting

What always stuns me is that these incredible sunsets are “just there”, day-after-day – it doesn’t matter if you are out walking the dog and looking for them or are stuck in a traffic jam a mile from your junction on the M4, the backdrop for even the most dreary of winter days can turn into this spectacular colour and light show at sunset. If your mind is on other things, a spectacular setting of the sun is so easy to miss or take for granted and yet here it is, freely accessible food for the soul. And yes, winter does tend to bring an added intensity to the sunset-effect but, I have to admit, the first of these paintings is taken from a memorable evening walk in Swallowfield Park over the summer, as you can see from the amount of foliage on the trees, and so the theme in common has more to do with the spectacular, transformatory light-effect than the seasons.

Helen White Artist

Being more considered and “blog-minded” than usual as I set to work on these first paintings of 2012, I thought it would be interesting to take photos along the way to show how they evolve from nothing and so giving some insight into my technique.  This idea occurred to me some months ago, if I’m honest but, up until now I’ve failed to pull it off because I tend to get too carried away when I’m painting to remember to take pictures until its too late – by which time far too much paint has been laid on the canvas to show how I got from blank canvas to there!  The same thing happened (again) with the tree – which, ironically, would have been a good one to use as a demonstration – but I was far too carried away to stop myself which is probably why, out of the three paintings, that one  is resoundingly my favourite; I had the kind of fire in my belly, as I worked on it, that is literally unstoppable and nothing short of the fire brigade turning up would have shaken me out of “the zone”.

Even then, I rarely finish a painting in one sitting and, more typically, it takes me 3 weeks to finish a piece like one of these as I allow a week’s drying time between stages.  That’s why I like to work on 3 or 4 paintings at a time, giving me something that I can progress each day of the working-week, working on a different canvas each day, before I rotate back to the first one after its initial drying time in week 2 and then again for a final session in week 3.  The time in between each session also allows me the perspective to decide where I’m going with it next – I leave the canvases drying where I can see them and, in a week’s worth of glancing at them I probably make a zillion subliminal “decisions” (about light balance, tone and other adjustments) which then inform where I go with the next stage of the painting-process when I come back to it.  Whilst painting wet-on-wet is wonderful, there is nothing more satisfying than coming back to the now-dry canvas in week 2 or 3 and being able to refine the painting all over again.

Helen White winter sunset painting

Here’s the first painting that I remembered to photograph along the way – a vibrant winter sunset through trees and across a deliciously textured farmer’s field, as experienced on a walk that I did in early December. If you have read my blog before, you will know that I work from my own photography and take shots with my painting very-much in mind – which means that I never shy away from pointing my camera at the sun or taking pictures that are likely to be over or under-exposed (although, if I can, I take a selection of the same view, at both ends of the scale).  I then use Photoshop to reclaim the best of both extremities of light so that I can print off, typically, two images to work from – one that makes the best of the foreground and any other peripheral details that are going to be key to the composition and another that does best justice to the main subject-matter itself – in this case, the very intense, fiery sunlight coming through the trees.  Occasionally, I will morph the two images together and play around with them as a whole before I start work on the painting. At the very least, I typically use Photoshop to heighten the image back to what I can recall from the actual experience – which is usually quite different to what the camera would have you recall as the eye is capable of taking in massive extremes of light, colour and tone in just one sweeping assessment of a scene whereas a photo will always concentrate on one aspect at the expense of another, something I have touched on an earlier post.

Here (below) is the next painting underway: a sunset that was made all the more vivid for being against a bright-white sky on a walk across fields opposite St Mary’s church, Silchester a couple of days before Christmas. From both sequences, you will get the idea that use an undercoat – grey gesso or white gesso with an additional coat of Paynes Grey acrylic (which dries well within an hour –  enough time for a cuppa and to get my paints and easel set up) and then sketch out a rough skeleton outline – just enough information to get everything in the right place –  in white chalk.  The undercoat is the only acrylic that I use as oils are always my preferred medium, allowing me to keep playing with the paint long after it goes onto the canvas. So, the next stage is that, using oils and sticking to (typically) half a dozen complimentary colours that I will have selected in advance plus Titanium White (and never black!), all of which can be mixed to make further shades, I block in the colour – with no hard and fast rules about doing light or dark first but just following my instincts and maintaining balance across the canvas by adding as much as I can of the same colour in all four quadrants of the picture before moving on to something else.

That’s pretty much where logic leaves the building and instinct takes over – I marvel at artists who can give a detailed account of the rationale behind each and every brushstroke as I leave it all to my subconscious and am usually “off with the fairies” for the whole time that I paint; it is, after all, about the most surrendered of right-side-of-brain activities there is and so there really is no describable logic to it (nor should there be, if inspiration has any part in it) –  the subconscious takes over and you just have to surrender to the flow and let it happen.

Helen White sunset paintingThe same applies to the final stage and knowing when a painting is finished.  Before considering a painting finished, I take to much moving the canvas into various positions around the room and take the long view in various different lighting conditions, which helps me to “see” if anything needs to be tweaked.  I like to slip the still wet canvas into one of my deep, dark frames at this stage as the very act of doing this completes the painting (I have designed these frames as the perfect complement to my paintings and they are very-much part of the overall effect) and so any glaring imbalance in colour, tone or composition will announce itself to me as soon as I do this, making my job so much easier.  If it stands the test of a whole evening, propped in a frame in my line of vision as I go about my business or sit casting it furtive glances when I’m meant to be reading then I know I am done.  And that’s about it.  Such as I can call it a process, this is mine!

About Helen White

Helen White is a full-time professional artist (painting moments of everyday radiance in oil on canvas), a photographer, fabric designer and published writer with several blogs, on various topics, to her name. Light on Art is her art-related blog sharing recent artworks and inspiration.Living Your Whole Life is a health and lifestyle blog sharing all the many highlights of learning how to transform your health and wellbeing (spiralling out of ten years recovering from fibromyalgia). Spinning the Light is a very broad-based platform of self-discovery where she explores the everyday alchemy that is available to all beings just as soon as they open up to life's fullest potential.Helen White Photography is a portal for sharing her Fine Art photographs which are available as Limited Edition prints.
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One Response to Chasing light with a brush – my painting process

  1. Pingback: Eat Pray Love – an inner journey compared | helenwhiteart

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