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The Blank Canvas Syndrome

What better place to start than with a blank canvas. The painter’s equivalent of an empty page and everyone knows how hard it can be to write the first word.

People often ask me how I decide what to paint. Maybe they would like to paint or draw but wonder how to get started. What is the way to get past the empty canvas sitting there mocking your attempts to turn it into “art”?

Fortunately it’s not rocket science or I’d be doing something else for a start. Not every artist will work like this, but I’m a planner and list maker so I usually have an outline idea for at least the next 6 paintings which I’ve sketched up very roughly and that makes my road map. Then of course it’s about putting one foot in front of the other.

As an avid photographer I have to stop and capture everything that catches my eye. My family are (usually) so patient as this makes me a very annoying person to go for a walk with. The painting of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, Christchurch, started with one such photo. You know there will be very tricky bits to do, so some close ups are useful reference.

From here I choose a canvas from my stash bought at sales time which has the right proportion. This one is landscape and 550mm x 700mm. Next I’ll draw a rectangle in the same ratio in my sketch book and draw a rough and ready version of how I see the finished composition to try it out. Always in pencil of course at this stage as you’re thinking and drawing at the same time.

Then it’s a question of drawing a grid over the sketch just as you may have done at primary school when making images larger. As your sketch has the same length /height ratio as canvas, it’s easy to make the same grid over the blank canvas with pencil and ruler. With this technique it’s not too hard to draft in the larger outlines of the painting whilst keeping the relative proportions of the building accurate. So the main outlines are all drawn in before I start.

This is the time when you can have fun. Because it’s your creation you can shape it as you wish. I love architectural detail and try to be as true to life as I can with this. But who said I couldn’t imagine what the Cathedral walls might look like if they had a modern wallpaper on them? It’s your story to tell and painting allows so much freedom. On this occasion I had help from the younger generation (thanks Frankie and Harry) who created the wallpaper in perspective using my stag’s head image and photoshopping it in perspective. From there it was printed and ripped to size before being stuck in place. That part was actually far from straightforward and next time I wanted to add wallpaper? I decided it was easier to paint it! Still pretty old school at heart.

Last words…

Whether or not you have a firm intention to paint, start collecting photos that interest your curiosity or just appeal to you. Keep them in a folder or pinterest and one day they may be the seed of all manner of creative projects.


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