Cromaboo Bridge & White Castle

Cromaboo Bridge & White Castle, Athy

‘The Pale’, as it was called, was an area around Dublin which was directly under the control of England in the Middle Ages. The Normans who had invaded Ireland, starting in 1169ad, had become assimilated into the Irish culture and became ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’. By the 15th century they were not answering to English control and England’s interests had shrunk to the fortified area known as ‘The Pale’. Easily defended borders were established these included rivers. Elsewhere ditches were built, all to protect the English settlers from the wild Irish.

This bridge was an entrance into ‘The Pale’. The castle and surrounding town were the defensive structures. It is known as ‘White Castle’ possibly because it was extended and restored a few centuries ago by a man called White or maybe because the lime mortar used in the building seeped out of the stonework producing a white stain. Nobody knows for sure. This bridge was built in 1795, long after ‘The Pale’ was no longer needed, replacing an earlier structure. It was named after the Fithgerald war-cry ‘Cromaboo’. The Fitzgeralds were the local Norman aristocracy who figured prominently in Irish history over the centuries.

Painting a well known area, especially involving structures, is very restrictive. The proportions of relative sizes of buildings will be noticed if not correct. This painting may need retouching which I might do after it dries for a few days.

I used three colours, Raw Umber, Cerulean Blue, Cadmium Yellow, which were added to my usual range used in previous paintings (Three Cows, etc.). At the end I included touches of Cadmium Red which adds a busy ‘peopled’ look to a landscape. The surface was a Daler-Rowney Oil Painting Canvas which I’m trying out at the moment. It seems to be OK. So far, so good. In a few days the usual dull patches will appear but these are peculiar to the different paints used. Recently, I’ve been ‘oiling’ the dry paintings with a light coat of ‘Liquin’ to add a uniform sheen and restore the dull patches. This appears to be working well.

The time to completion, so far, was about 2 hours in a single sitting. Please excuse the ‘gaps’ as I sometimes forget to turn the camera back on after I stop to clean brushes etc.


Camera Presets and exposure

The Garden

My current camera is a Panasonic GH1. Having used a range of SLR and finally an Olympus E500 the Gh1 had a range of features such as HD video, swivel screen, 10x zoom and more, which the ‘normal’ DSLR did not have. One feature of the GH1 is its iA (intelligent auto). This is not something that the ‘serious’ camera user would use and so did not influence me one way or the other when deciding to acquire a Gh1. This feature, apparently, requires a lot of processing power and although the camera is relatively very small the space for this processor was found by not having the prism/mirror optical system found on other DSLRs. How it works is by analysing the scene and deciding which set of presets it will apply to take a good photo. And mighty good it is. For example, if I have a landscape framed in the viewfinder, the optimal settings for landscape are automatically set. If a person walks into the scene the settings change to ‘portrait in landscape’ and the appropriate changes occur in a fraction of a second. In this instance it finds the face and changes the focus to the face. Exposure, colour balance, sharpness and a host of other items are changed to facilitate the ‘portrait in landscape’. Likewise pointing the camera at a close object changes the camera to ‘macro’ with all the settings you would need to take a good close up shot. The only manual over-ride is the exposure and this leads me to the point of this post.

I learned photography in the era the ‘film camera’. There were no previews. You discovered if your photos were OK when you had the film processed and the prints made. Furthermore, there were a very limited number of shots on a film roll so you had little scope for extra ‘safety’ shots. Although the technology has changed and become very sophisticated the basic problems are the same.

Of all the auto-settings on the camera which needs to be altered the most, its exposure. You zoom to frame the shot, the focus happens automatically telling you what the camera has decided you need sharp, which is usually correct, the exposure is decided by taking the average of lights and darks and you are ready to release the shutter. You can decide beforehand if the calculations are based on the entire area or a particular part of the screen but the final ‘correct’ exposure is an averaging process. This is the problem.

Learn how to over-ride the assigned exposure settings or manually adjust the settings to achieve the effect you are looking for. In the photo above I underexposed the photo by 1 stop which created an underexposed foreground but correctly exposed the sunshine on the grass showing the shadows from the trees. Without making this adjustment the bright green grass would be ‘burnt out’ and the less important foreground correctly exposed.

You decide what is ‘correct exposure’ based on the information supplied by the exposure meter in the camera. Look at the presets, an example is the setting for ‘snow and beach scenes’. Snow, because of its brightness, will trick the camera into deciding the scene is very well lit so it will reduce exposure, darkening the colour of the snow to a mid grey. If you use the preset, the meter measures the exposure and then over-exposes by about 2 stops to produce white snow. This was an issue this winter as we, unusually, had an extended period of snow. When comparing photos I was asked how was my snow so bright compared to those of my fellow photographers. I over exposed the photos! The preset would have achieved the same effect but many of the ‘digital generation’ of photographers were not even aware that this could be done ‘in camera’ and not afterwards in the computer. There is only so much you can do in an application like Photoshop. ‘Burnt out’ or deep shadow areas of the picture have no details and really cannot be recovered.

This advice is aimed at the amateur casual photographers out there recording as JPGs and will probably seem daft to the experts recording in the RAW format.

I hope you derived some benefit from this little rant.

Reflections in paintings

When creating a landscape picture, a painting for example, in which there are items reflected in water, the behaviour of the reflected image is not always as expected. If you are viewing a scene in which there are perfect reflections, you can record the scene as you see it – no problem. However, lets say because of wind the water surface is disturbed and you can only see a featureless surface but you would like to paint the scene with perfect reflections. How will you construct the scene?

The Scene as you see it

This imaginary scene shows an island on which there are 2 towers reflected on the surface of the water. We see the towers appear of equal height but we know the blue tower is much further away from us because it is less clear and the atmospheric haze makes this obvious. We can then deduce that the blue tower must be much taller than the red one because distance makes it appear smaller and we see it as the same size as the red tower. We don’t consciously work this out. Our spacial awareness computes this automatically.

Why then is the blue tower in the reflection shorter than the red one? The drawing below explains whats happening. The dotted line is the line of sight of the observer viewing the scene. You can see the line of sight places the two tower tops as of equal height (on the same line). But in the reflected image the lines of sight from the 2 tower tops are not the same line. The top of the blue tower lines up with approximately half the height of the red tower (where the dotted line crosses the reflected image of the red tower). The critical element here is the distance or height of the point of view. We rarely ever view a scene from water surface level. The higher we are above the surface of the water the more extreme the effect is.

The scene, side view

So what does this mean for the artist? If the painter paints the scene correctly (as in ‘The Scene as you see it’) and does not make the further distance of the blue tower very obvious, the shorter reflected image will be considered as a mistake. If, on the other hand, the painter shows both towers reflected as equal lengths but paints the blue tower as in the distance, this representation of the tower will now be considered a mistake. Optical phenomena in paintings are always considered as mistakes. Whether it is the faithfully represented, but very unusual, sunset or the bizarre arrangement of objects you sometimes find in a landscape, they are regarded as mistakes.

Optical phenomena in photographs are accepted almost without question. This seems strange as digital manipulation of photographs is very easy to master and within the scope of anybody with a digital camera and a computer. Yet the image is not analysed by the viewer in the same way as a painting. Will this change in the future? Who knows. We, as painters, have to be aware of this. As a ‘mistake’ (like the one above) in a painting can block the viewers further involvement in the painting.

The actual painting of the reflections in a landscape is best described by demonstration. I’m working on this and will have a demo video in the near future.

Randomness – or so it seems

Three Cows
A blustery Spring day, the surface of the pond is shimmering from the breeze. 

In a landscape painting, as in the real world, the element of randomness is expected and considered normal. Creating this look is difficult in a painting if we are trying to achieve an overall design. Deliberately painting randomness is almost impossible. Our instinct is to put order in our creations. Our efforts at producing a realistic cloudy sky, for instance, will have straight lines of clouds, perfect circles and various shapes from fluffy toys to cartoon characters we only notice after we’re finished painting our masterpiece.

As an aid to producing a pattern which has to look natural, for example a cloudy sky, I apply the initial dark paint layers in a vigorous and almost haphazard way. The result is chaotic. These shapes are used to develop the various clouds. Also ‘cross hatching’ blends the colours and adds further accidents of shapes. The ‘cross hatching’ (sweeping brushstrokes at right angles to the previous strokes) also creates a softness which is appropriate for painting skies. This is never easy and requires practice.

Look at the above demo and hopefully you will see what I mean. The time to complete the painting was 1 and a half hours in 1 session. This is compressed to under 10 mins. in the video.

Too much absorption

When I started Oil Painting there were no ready prepared surfaces for painting. Stretched canvas was of course available but out of the question because of the price. To produce enough painting surfaces to experiment with and try out different techniques you had to produce your own. This was a tedious and time consuming job. Wooden boards like wallboard was a popular painting surface but would ‘buckle’ at larger sizes not to mention the weight. The most critical part of the process was ‘sizing’ or sealing the surface. If the surface is too absorbent the oil in the paint will soak in leaving a dull colour similar to gouache. The beauty of oil painting is the brilliance of colour achieved by keeping the dry powder pigment (from which the paint is made) perpetually wet in oil. The oil then hardens as the painting ‘dries’.

Nowadays, there are prepared surfaces from various manufacturers for oil painting. Most are too absorbent. They are sold as suitable for oil or acrylic painting. Whatever about acrylic these will ‘kill’ an oil painting. I have been experimenting with various ‘sizing’ materials in an attempt to rescue the numerous pads of prepared surfaces I have acquired over the years. PVA, a sealant for concrete prior to painting looks promising. It is resistant to the chemical corrosiveness of cement so the mildly acidic nature of oils should be OK and it dries to a waterproof skin. If Leonardo da Vinci had sealed and protected the paint from the caustic elements of the plaster in his Last Supper mural it would not have deteriorated as quickly as it did. Apparently, in his own lifetime the paint was beginning to flake off. PVA, of course, is a recent invention and obviously not available to Leonardo.

A quick test of the suitability of an oil painting surface is to place a drop of Linseed Oil on the surface and leave it for a few days. It should harden to a glossy patch. If not, it will be because it has soaked in completely, leaving a matt, straw coloured stain. No good for oil painting.

This work of ‘modern art’ is a photo of part of the ‘sizing’ experiment. You can see the difference in the gloss on the paint strips. The piece of canvas was ‘sized’ with increasingly more concentrated PVA (mixed with water) going left to right. At the extreme right is 100% PVA. This part is still ‘wet’ but the rest of the strips are already ‘dry’ due to the absorption of the oil in the paint. What you probably cannot see is the ‘richness’ of the colour in this area. Hopefully it will ‘dry’ (oil harden by oxidation) and still retain this richness of colour.

More about this in the future.

Still Life with Two Glasses

The finished painting

Still Life is a form of painting which requires a different approach compared to landscapes. I like to strongly create an illusion of realism with the marks of creation (brush strokes) in contradiction to the realism we witness. To see daubs of paint which transform into a solid real world is magical.

This requires more colours than I used in the previous paintings. There are no atmospheric effects on the colours so they will be richer with less ‘misty distance’ tints. My basic Burnt Sienna (red), Yellow Ochre (yellow) and Cobalt Blue (blue) does cover the range but each one is helped by stronger colours. Burnt Umber, Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Yellow and Ultramarine Blue.

The basic drawing is simple enough. If you have your subjects positioned and you are using solid objects, as I have, the basic shapes are spheres, cones and cylinders. An interesting grouping or composition of objects is found by moving the objects and observing the scene. I would not spend much time on the initial drawing as it will be covered several times before you are barely started.

Because I like to finish a painting in the one sitting this requires a different treatment when painting a still life. Its the most interesting part of this demonstration. Paint has to be placed on top of previous layers without much mixing taking place. The painting of the glasses illustrates this and is probably the most difficult thing to do ‘wet on wet’. You have one shot to get it right. If I waited a few weeks for the under layers to dry I would have the opportunity to paint the glass and wipe off and try again if I was not happy with the previous attempt. These results, I think, are rigid and hard and not as interesting as the ‘wet on wet’. But if this is what you have to do, so be it.

As you can see from the demo there is an uneven reflective gloss from the surface regardless of the angle of view. This is because there is very little medium in the paint. The colours are ‘dry’ and the brush bristles leave ridges which catch the light. I have to work this way or subsequent paint layers will lift the under layers rather than sit on top. An essential component of this method is ‘Liquin’. I mix it 50/50 with Linseed Oil and use a lot of White Spirits. You will notice I do a lot of vigorous brushing which thickens and makes the Liquin ‘tacky’. I would take a few days for this to happen if I used Oil on its own without the Liquin. When the delicate parts (as in this case the glasses) are in place I then try and reintroduce the brush strokes which are an attractive feature in this painting.

I think the time lapse video is better than the real time, which would require several videos as in the Impressionist Style Painting. This painting took 2 hours to complete.

P.S. I used the handle of a brush to ‘scratch’ an image of the glasses into the underlying wet paint. The brush which had the background colour is then used to remove any scratch marks not required.

The Lighthouse and the Sea

2 mediocre photos were used to produce this digital painting. The application used was Photoshop. I was thinking about the lighthouse keepers and the loneliness of their lives usually in isolated places and separated from their families and friends. The ferocity of the sea and the power of nature is very much in the news lately as these forces destroy the works of men.

The text which runs around the edge of the painting is as follows:

The howling gale
has forced the sea birds
down upon the tower
lonely and windswept
cylindrical with power
full of watchful nights
and card playing.

Nature is shown as contorted and angry, twisted into monstrous shapes while the Lighthouse is rigid, hard and resilient.

The photos used.

Mortality, a life threatening condition.



The sweltering heat at hand
and along a stretch of beach
made hard the shadows
and the imperfections on her skin,
footprints on sand,
far from its reach
and its bathwater flows
erasing all but Adam’s sin
lapping at the edge of land.

The above picture is a combination of photography and digital painting. The text is part of the picture and I have included it in the event you cannot read it in the picture.
Its a comment on modern society. Especially the obsession with physical appearance which we see everywhere today. Films, TV, advertising, its everywhere. The human form is presented, flawless as a classical statue. The feeling of being physically inadequate must haunt the susceptible. Especially the young.
Even though we know that photographs can be ‘Photoshopped’ we subconsciously accept the image as real. I think this media was appropriate for this ‘painting’.

The elements in the picture are:
the beach – where the D-Day scene from the movie Saving Private Ryan was shot (Curracloe, Co. Wexford, Ireland)
the statue – Venus de Milo, even she suffered from the ravages of time
the beach litter – Leonardo’s da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man. Vitruvius (born c. 80–70 BC, died after c. 15 BC) described the human figure as being the principal source of proportion among the Classical orders of architecture (Wikipedia).

The computer application used was Photoshop, appropriately.

An Irish Landscape Painting

Whenever I see a film which has an Irish Landscape included I recognise the look of the sky, the colours, the flavour of the scenes which more often than not are only background glimpses. I love painting this ‘flavour’ of the Irish Landscape as opposed to an actual scene.  It is a collection of cameos lumped together to produce a scene which has a familiarity we almost recognise as somewhere we’ve been. In midland Ireland its the flatness with the distinctive Ice Age sculpted hills on the horizon that does it for me.

As usual I used a very limited range of colours. For red – Burnt Sienna, yellow – Yellow Ochre and blue – Cobalt Blue. You can’t go wrong with these colours. Any combination results in beautiful natural colours found in the Irish countryside. I never use a green from the tube – they all look so artificial. Very rarely I would add a pinch of a Chrome Green or Viridian to a mix of cobalt and an earth yellow (Ochre or Sienna). But only a pinch. These colours, especially Viridian, are so invasive. Is is always the last colour to leave the bristles as you clean your brushes.

On the subject of cleaning your brushes, always, always clean them as soon as you finish painting. My technique is to rinse in White Spirits (the hardware variety), squeeze out the excess with absorbent tissue paper and wash in soap and water. Put a few drops of washing-up liquid in the palm of your hand, rub each brush in turn in the soapy liquid to work up a lather taking care not to break any of the bristles. Rinse out in water and repeat the process. Squeeze out the lather  and repeat the process until there is no trace of the colour remaining. Rinse out again thoroughly and hopefully you will not have to repeat the process. If any paint or soap accumulates, especially where the bristles join the handle of the brush it will cause the bristles to spread and the brush will loose its shape. Its a chore but it makes starting your next painting session a little easier.

This video is condensed down from 1 hour to less than 10 minutes. Its in HD so you can watch it in full screen and stop the video to study any of the processes involved.

I hope you are inspired to ‘have a go’ using this simple fast technique.

After the snow – Snowdrops



In Ireland we get very little snow. In my life I could count on one hand the number of really big ‘snow events’ (snow remaining for more than 3 days). Our winter temperatures hover between -5 and +5 Celsius.

Last year it started to snow at the end of November and remained until the end of the year. On Christmas Day, as we drove home from midday Mass through the snow, the temperature was -11 Celsius. Many of the exotic plants we had accumulated over the years were killed by the low temperatures.

The appearance of the Snowdrops in January was a welcome sight. Those hardy little plants need no maintenance just the right place to live. Our little colony live on a North facing bank under old Ash trees. They like the dry shaded bank for their long summer sleep.

Two interesting things about the attached photo, the low angle of the shot and the narrow depth of field (blurred background). I recently got a new camera, Panasonic GH1, which has a screen which can be swiveled out to be viewed at any angle. I was able to take this photo with the camera on the ground and I looking down at the screen from above. I would have to lie down to look at the screen on my previous DSLR to get this shot. Swivel back screens are not ‘only a gimmic’ as I was told by a friend, a serious photographer. The GH1 also has a great video recording ability. The swivel screen is very useful for recording painting demos with the camera mounted on a tripod. You can monitor the video even when the camera has its back away from you.

The ‘blurring’ of the background isolates the foreground and creates an emphasis. This is achieved by having a lower aperture number than an automatic exposure would decide. Again the screen is great as you get a ‘live view’ as you make the changes to the exposure settings. Whether you are in semi or full program mode the camera will compensate by increasing the shutter speed to maintain correct exposure.

P.S. If you want to propagate your Snowdrops now is the time to do it. Unlike other spring bulbs you dig them up when the flowers have died back and the green leaves are still showing. Replant them in bunches.