David Bellamy – Coping with Painters’ Block

Do you ever get painters’ block? You’re not sure what to paint next, and nothing seems to be working? I’m lucky, meeting so many interesting people and creatures (yes, it’s often those wild things out there that give me so much pleasure when I’m out sketching), that it never seems to bother me. If you are finding it hard to get going again, you can try working on different surfaces – tinted papers, perhaps – or a different medium for a while, to trigger new sensations.

Think also about changing subject matter. This can be totally different to your usual work, or simple extending it in a way, such as adding wildlife into the middle distance of your landscapes, or more detailed figures than you normally paint. While I mainly paint landscapes, the impact of stunning wildlife stumbling into my scene (and sometimes getting a bit too close for comfort) has encouraged me to paint more wildlife. Boats and the sea are also favourites, bringing a pleasant change to inland scenes, and I love doing figure work in various forms.

Here, I’d like to talk about another type of subject I find fascinating – the industrial scene. When the coal mines of South Wales were closing down rapidly towards the end of the 20th century I wanted to capture the last of the mines before they all disappeared. This is a watercolour of Penallta Colliery with the miners coming off duty. I didn’t want to include all the intricate detail of the pithead and environs so I introduced quite a bit of atmosphere. This also had the advantage of making the figures stand out against the background, and the whole composition was created from several sketches and photographs. This was especially important with regard to the miners who had to relate to each other. Here and there I have deliberately lost detail, but note how the smaller background figures in silhouette really suggest a sense of depth to the painting.

There tends to be a lot of detritus lying around in a scene like this, but you don’t need to put it all in: some of it can either be simply suggested vaguely, or you could leave it out altogether. As always with a complicated scene it is vital to do at least one studio sketch before the painting, to work out the optimum composition. Consider also keeping the background as an almost monochrome as I have done here. This will further throw emphasis onto the foreground.

Unfortunately Images of the South Wales Mines, the book that resulted from my mining paintings, has long been out of print, but you may be able to get a rather expensive copy secondhand. Most of all, don’t let that painters’ block stop you – we all get a little stale at times, but trying a different type of subject is often a good way of rejuvenating your artistic impulses.

David Bellamy – In Praise of the Tea-Pot

Maintaining morale when out sketching on location is vital, and while some might find a whisky flask useful, I generally rely on tea. Sadly last week in Pembrokeshire the cottage where I stayed lacked that vital ingredient, the teapot. Naturally, this was pretty disastrous, so when out and about I made the most of any such facilities. In the sketch below the right-hand building is a superb tea-shop selling the most delicious cakes, and this is why you might detect a certain hastiness in the rendering of the pencil-work.

However hasty we may be in sketching, it pays to consider the composition carefully when creating a painting from the sketch or photograph. Unless the subject is quite a simple affair I normally carry out an intermediate studio sketch to work out where I wish to place the important elements and the main emphasis, together with the sort of atmosphere I wish to convey. In this instance I would move the composition to the right a little so that the left-hand house did not appear in the centre of the composition, as this would be my centre of interest. I would need more detail to be included above the left-hand wall and figures (detail missed because of the urgency of the tea situation), so I would have to resort to memory, a photograph, or the good old imagination. The main figures would be placed further to the right, a little closer to the centre of interest, and I would make full use of the dark runnels of water descending from the centre right – I have already bent them slightly to come towards the viewer as a lead-in. These are the kind of thought processes that go through my mind before I begin the painting.

Don’t underestimate the value of tea for the artist. I’ve even used it on a painting outdoors on occasion. Last autumn while I was running a landscape painting course a lovely German lady was painting a cottage, which filled her paper. When I asked her what was her focal point she replied, “The tea-pot.” Sure enough, there was a teapot in the window. Such observations may not only bring a smile to your viewers, but might also result in a sale.

Sketching peculiar characters

It’s been rather wet here lately, bucketing down at times, but I haven’t been able to get out much to take advantage of such atmosphere because of too many deadlines. Sunshine is marvellous for walking and sketching, but the countryside has such glories to show us, whatever the weather. Rain can be quite stimulating, and of course you never know who you’re going to meet on the hills – this chap was clearly enjoying himself, and was well equipped for the conditions.

Whether it was his wife’s frilly pink parasol, or his own, I cared not, though the sharpened pole might have caused concern amongst some. Had I not ventured forth into the Alpine monsoon I’d have missed this glorious spectacle, and naturally my sketchbook was quickly whipped out and the vital aspects of the figure rendered on paper that became rather wet after only a few moments.

I have to hand it to these characters, allowing themselves to be seen with such outlandish accessories. Over the years I’ve accumulated many books of sketches of this more outgoing type of person, a wonderful antidote for those rainy days when you are stuck indoors feeling miserable when your sketching/painting/bog-snorkelling or pancake tossing efforts have gone slightly astray. A small A6 sketchbook, a soft pencil and a few quick lines is all it takes to capture the important points, and the image can be embellished later.

I shall be demonstrating watercolour painting for PONTERWYD & DISTRICT ART CLUB at Syr John Rhys School Hall, Ponterwyd, in Ceredigion between 7 and 9pm on Wednesday 6th June. You are welcome to come along – there is a charge for non-members and information is available from Jenny Dee on 01970 890664