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From penciller to painter

From penciller to painter

A fortnight ago, while Franklin was thrashing about in frustration, looking for anything Eunice might have missed, I drove down the A303, with a watchful eye on every swaying tree and both hands firmly on the wheel, to spend a week at Dillington House, where my Pencil To Paint course was part of a programme that included crime and social history, ecclesiastical architecture, artists’ lives, willow sculpture and stained glass making.

The Dillington, residential Winter/Spring and Summer schools are something of an institution and habitués will return season after season to try their hand and/or their brain at something new. Given the variety and quality of courses on offer, they’re also as certain of an interesting conversation at supper every evening as they are of their full English breakfast every morning and tea and cake at four in the afternoon… and that, come the Thursday evening quiz, the answers will remain vexingly on the tips of their tongues!


For most of us, our experience with art begins with drawing. As children, we draw freely and fearlessly, taking pleasure in just making marks without worrying if we’re doing it right. It isn’t long, however, before doubt creeps in. In the end, the effort required to make our drawing look like the perfect picture we have in our mind’s eye becomes too much and our pencils and crayons are no longer an invitation to play and let our imaginations soar, but a reminder of unwelcome feelings of frustration and inadequacy

‘Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.’ Salvador Dali.

How would it be then, if we could experience again that feeling, when we drew without judging ourselves? When the end result didn’t matter? When making a mark (or making a mess!) was pure pleasure?



Our week began with a long table, laid not for supper, but with sticks of charcoal, Conté, carbon and graphite and a CD of (mercifully) short pieces of music. Artists assembled at the table, picked up the drawing tool in front of them and made marks that expressed what the music meant for them. These weren’t mindless doodles, mind you! Everyone was obliged to concentrate on evoking with line the mood of each piece. And as one piece ended and another began, artists moved around the table, swapping one tool for another as the paper filled with a joyous riot of gestures – bold, delicate, thoughtful or hasty – one over another over another…

‘My line drawing is the purest and most direct translation of my emotion. The simplification of the medium allows that.’ Henri Matisse




Inhibitions were lost this way and artists, whether experienced or just beginning, were able to connect with the pure, physical pleasure of mark-making without having to worry, ‘Am I doing this right?’

We then looked look at some of the many ways we can use our lines to depict real things… using continuous lines, for example, or straight lines only.

The next step was to do away with lines altogether! These boxes began as line drawings in order to establish their positions and proportions, relative to one another, but then, differences in light and shade were employed to give the impression of three-dimensional objects occupying a lit space.

Our last and quite testing, drawing exercise was to produce a well-proportioned, value study of our still-life objects that also worked successfully as a composition.

To help us, we studied the still-life paintings of Paul Cézanne and noted how he often placed an unobtrusive object at the centre of his painting and arranged others along the diagonals from top left to bottom right and top right to bottom left of the picture plane. Cézanne also broke up the picture plane by varying the height of the horizon line and as many artists have done before, he placed vertical objects on the boundary of the square formed by measuring the height of the picture and marking this on the width. Note that the diagonal (X) of this internal square is actually equivalent to the width of the entire picture.


‘[Smith’s painting] tends towards a complete interlocking of image and paint, so that the image is the paint and vice versa… the brush-stroke creates the form and does not merely fill it in.’ Francis Bacon on the art of Matthew Smith

Having moved from line to plane, we were now ready for the second half of the week. We didn’t actually begin with paint, though, but with black paper which we tore or cut to create positive and negative shapes, when placed on white paper. Side-by-side, the black can then be said to be balanced with the white

These exercises are developed from the Japanese brush-painting technique of Nōtan (literally, ‘light/dark harmony’), with which artists strive to form a balance between the black of the ink and the white of the paper.

By applying Nōtan to our still-life painting, we could more easily see if our idea for a finished composition would be successful without the distractions of colour, texture or light.

From black and white, we moved on to black mixed with white to derive any number of greys. Note how by ‘breaking’ rather than blending colour, I need only use about half a dozen.

From here, with our tonal values firmly established, we added another colour; in this case, yellow, which when mixed with black, produced a range of useful grey-greens.


When we added red and another distinctly warmer yellow, our still-life study really began to look quite wholesome!

One last challenge remained, which was to put all we’d learned about line, proportion, value, colour and composition into one complete work!


Using the same black, yellow and white combo, some of us even tried our hands at the landscape beyond the studio window. We found that simplifying our palette in this way made it easier to concentrate on mark-making and texture.




‘Every movement of the brush on the canvas alters the shape and implications of the image. That is why real painting is a mysterious and continuous struggle with chance…’ Francis Bacon on the art of Matthew Smith

Pencil To Paint returns to Dillington House this summer… when I’ll be setting the quiz questions!


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