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Art Masterclass     September 2006

Each month presents a feature from either The Artist or its sister publication, Leisure Painter.  

Art masterclass

from The Artist, the monthly magazine for amateur and semi-professional painters, giving practical instruction in painting and drawing in watercolour, pastels and oils, as well as news of art events, exhibitions and competitions open to leisure artists;

This month: an Art Masterclass featured in the current edition of The Artist, the magazine for amateur and semi-professional painters.


Bold Design in Mixed Media

The Scottish artist Claire Harrigan works in several media, including collage, within the same painting to create her dynamic compositions


Bold Design in Mixed Media

Claire Harrigan's exciting, joyous paintings are characterised by the adventurous use of colour to create a wonderfully lyrical sense of structure, movement and balance as well as an immediate visual delight. Her work relies on a strong, emotive response to her subjects, which are often quite ordinary objects or everyday scenes. But through the confident, inspired handling of colour and her highly individual approach she is able to infuse everything she paints with much interest and beauty.

"The subject matter can be almost anything," Claire explains. "It depends where I am and what attracts me from the surrounding environment. The key qualities are colour and light. I always work directly from the subject, so at home the starting point is usually domestic objects, flowers or something in the garden, while when I am travelling abroad the theme could be a landscape, buildings or architectural details, or a scene with figures.



  Mountain  Cottage, acrylic and oil pastel, 24x38in. (61x96.5cm)


Hens at the Door, acrylic and oil pastel, 38x24in. (96.5x61cm)


A lot of the time I paint outside. If there is a beautiful landscape or a lovely garden accessible, then that's where I will be. But if it is winter in Scotland, then I focus on still-life subjects in the studio.

"I only paint in situations where I can work without distraction. I find it very difficult to paint while being observed or interrupted. This is not a problem in my studio, of course, but when I am travelling I like to find places where I know I won't be disturbed. One of the best locations in this respect is the West Indian island of Nevis, which I visit often as it is where my husband's family lives. Here people seldom pay any attention to me, so I can paint in the most wonderful places, confident that I will be left alone.

"Although the subject matter is important as the instigator of the painting, gradually it becomes less significant as the emphasis shifts to composing with colour, shape and texture. I am not trying to recreate what is there. In effect I am interpreting the subject matter through a process of analysis and selection together with an ultimate concern for painterly qualities. This tends to produce a degree of abstraction in the work, but nonetheless every painting retains a connection with the initial inspiration: the still life, landscape or whatever.


"The dominant expressive device is always colour. My interest in colour has been influenced by quite a number of painters — obviously the Scottish colourists, but also artists such as Gauguin and Degas. For example, I love the way that in a Degas pastel portrait you can find a touch of bright pink in the corner of an eye, or perhaps a blue outline somewhere. From such artists I learned that the selection and use of colour is not just about local colour, but you must also consider how colours are enhanced, modified or otherwise influenced by their context.

"I work with the colours that are there, within the subject matter. But as with the shapes and content, I may simplify or adapt what I see to suit the needs of the painting. The positioning and relationship of colours are very important. For instance, I know that if I place a certain colour against another specifically chosen colour I can make it recede or come forward. And I might decide that the particular blue of an object needs enriching with a touch of pink to create the right harmony. All the time I am considering the overall balance, variation and modulation of the colour.


Open Doors, acrylic and oil pastel, 14x10in. (35.5x25.5cm)


  The Catch (detail)acrylic and oil pastel, 21x29in. (53x74cm)


"Essentially the shapes of colour define the composition. I regard the composition as fundamental to the success of a painting and I believe it has to be resolved quite early on, otherwise you can spend a lot of time adjusting and reworking areas. So from the very beginning I will be thinking in terms of blocks and spaces of colour and how these interrelate to form a coherent, exciting design. Obviously in the studio, when I am painting from still life, I have complete control of the content and arrangement, whereas out in the landscape I need to be far more selective about what I include.

"In fact, even with the still lifes I won't necessarily stick to the initial arrangement — I often remove an object or change the position of something if I think the composition will benefit. And in any case, after a while the objects themselves become less important, as I become more involved with colour relationships and surface qualities. I seldom do any preliminary work or use sketches or other forms of reference material. I prefer to start directly with paint."


Claire works in different media, often combining techniques in acrylic, watercolour, collage and oil pastel within the same painting. She doesn't feel it is a problem to use this mixedmedia approach outside as well as in the studio, while the great advantage is that it allows for more scope in creating different colour and textural effects. Mostly she paints on 140lb (300gsm) Saunders Waterford watercolour paper, but she also occasionally uses other papers, including various handmade papers. The essential points about the choice of paper are that it must be of good quality and well sized.

For the large paintings Claire selects a heavier quality paper. Interestingly, she doesn't stretch the paper initially, but instead does it when the painting is finished. With unstretched paper she is able to work with greater flexibility, swapping the sheets around on the same drawing board — which is a particular advantage when painting outside. Each completed painting is carefully wetted across the back and then stretched on a board in the normal way.




Blue Bird, acrylic and oil pastel, 14x10in. (35.5x25.5cm)

Boys, acrylic and oil pastel, 10x14in. (25.5x35.5cm)



The first stage of a painting involves blocking in the principal shapes of the composition with washes of watercolour or acrylic, using a large brush and working quickly and freely. The choice of medium depends on whether dense, opaque paint is more suitable for the subject matter, in which case Claire uses liquid acrylic colours, or whether transparent watercolours are more appropriate. From the basic underpainting she then concentrates on developing the tonal relationships of the main shapes, at the same time perhaps simplifying some of them to help the colour and design work more effectively.

"The palette of colours depends on the subject matter," Claire explains, "although it can also be influenced by certain colours that interest me at the time. I have a big collection of plates for mixing colours, and I use one plate for each colour.

Usually the majority of the painting is made in acrylics. I especially like the jars of liquid acrylic colours, which are more fluid and workable than the tube colours, and are particularly useful when painting outside on hot days.



  French Manor House, acrylic and oil pastel, 21x29in. (53x74cm)


Caribbean Fruits, acrylic and oil pastel, 32x21in. (81x53cm)


"As the painting develops I may decide to introduce collaged shapes where these will enhance the composition and surface quality. For the collage I often use handmade papers, cutting or tearing the shapes as appropriate. Once it is in place I sometimes paint over a part or the whole of a collaged area, depending on the sort of impact I want. The collage creates a slight relief effect and it offers the potential to exploit interesting contrasts between the texture of the paper used and the adjacent painted areas.

"Where I need further definition I use oil pastels. These are very controllable, will give a different type of mark and textural quality, and are useful for restating highlights and accents of colour as well as developing the drawing where necessary. I prefer Caran d'Ache oil pastels, which are quite soft and have the advantage that they never seem to dry out in the heat.

"Perhaps the most crucial decision in any painting is knowing when to stop."Sometimes this decision is quite easy to make, but on other occasions it is far more difficult to resolve an idea successfully. The ideal point at which to leave a painting, I think, is when it is no longer worrying you — when you look at it and are quite satisfied with everything. Every painting is a challenge and this is something I enjoy. Essentially I strive to resolve each painting for my own satisfaction, but of course I hope that the end result will also give pleasure to others."





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