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Planning Retirement Online

Art Masterclass   

                              January 2007

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  'Artists  of the world' feature from the current edition of The Artist, the magazine for amateur and semi-professional painters.






Caught in the act

Inspired by the narrative quality of film stills, Shaun Ferguson gives the subjects of his figurative paintings a life beyond the frame 



The majority of Shaun Ferguson's wonderfully atmospheric and sensitively expressed paintings are inspired by the figure, and usually this is the figure caught in a quiet, contemplative mood. His work involves an intriguing balance between subject matter, painterly considerations and interpretation, offering challenges and qualities that lift it well beyond straightforward portraiture, which in fact is never his objective. Interestingly, although he quite often adopts the conventional head-and-shoulders 'portrait' composition for his figure subjects, in seeking a more individual, painterly result he instils in the work a strong sense of energy and tension.

Sometimes the image is cropped in a very interesting way and this adds to that tension. In fact, the cropping technique was inspired by looking at classic film stills.

Beneath, acrylic on canvas, 24X32in. (61X81cm)


Dog, acrylic on canvas, 28X32in. (71X81cm)


"I like the idea of the painting having a filmic quality," Shaun says, "and also a narrative, though one that is not too explicit. Very often what I am hoping to achieve is a sense that there is something going on beyond the frame of the canvas — that the figure is distracted by or addressing something that we cannot see. But I want to avoid this being overtly illustrative. Similarly with the still lifes that I occasionally paint; I like playing with the convention of the genre, but not making the results too predictable."

Shaun generally works from numerous drawings, small painted studies and photography. "I like the freedom and detachment that photography provides," he says, "but equally I am very aware of its limitations. My experience of working from the model for many years has helped me understand how to use photographs to support other reference material."


Normally the starting point for a painting is a totally imaginative idea with its associated narrative or scenario, this perhaps inspired from watching a film, reading a book or viewing paintings by other artists. Often implicit in the idea is a sense of the ephemeral — like a film still, the painting is capturing a certain moment in time and we are aware that a second or two later the scene will be quite different. The figure might be a juggler, for instance, or maybe someone playing music, cutting a cake or lighting a match. "
Then I usually explore the idea further by making some thumbnail sketches," Shaun explains, "before finding a model and taking the photographs. The model is nearly always a friend or someone I have worked with before. I feel more comfortable with someone I know, and consequently I am able to work in a more spontaneous manner. It is important that the model comes across in a very natural way, so I don't specify a pose as such, although I may just ask them to look at a newspaper, sit in a chair, or whatever."

Using the photographs as the initial reference, I work intensely in my sketchbook, striving to find a design that will have a strong impact and interest. Often, having worked with the model, the idea I originally had in mind is adjusted.



Juggling, acrylic on board, 231?2X171?2in. (60X44cm)


Lilies, acrylic on canvas, 24X32in. (61X81cm)


Blue, acrylic on canvas, 28X28in. (71X71cm)


In fact, although it appears that I plan things out quite thoroughly, I am continually reappraising the content and composition and I sometimes make quite radical changes.

It is the abstract relationships, the underlying rhythms and shapes, that help make a successful painting, and this aspect must be kept constantly under review.
"For me, the colours, the marks, the formal painterly qualities are extremely
important. My aim is that the painting should stand as a work in its own right, rather than simply being a portrait of someone.

Combined with this is the predicament of the figure and the suggested narrative, so that in fact the  individuality of the person is never the most dominant aspect. Within this context creating a likeness is not an essential requirement, although having said that, more often than not the final image does look very like the model."


Change to acrylics



Shaun paints in acrylic, which he started using about eight years ago. "I chose it as a sort of antidote to oils," he says. "Before then I was painting in very heavy oil paint, and there came a time when I wanted a change. Acrylic proved to be a cleaner medium and also an incredibly versatile one.

Interestingly, a lot of people still think I paint in oils, presumably because I use acrylic in a similar way."

Jenga, acrylic on canvas, 26X26in. (66X66cm)


"I paint on canvas or board which is prepared with two coats of acrylic gesso primer. As with oils, I lay down a ground colour, usually a deep green or salmon pink, and then I work vigorously and broadly in an alla prima, essentially wet-into-wet technique. A characteristic feature of acrylic, of course, is that it dries fast, but for me this is not a problem. I quite like the fact that it encourages me to work quickly."
For most paintings Shaun works from a limited palette of Liquitex Heavy Body acrylic colours, consisting of yellow ochre, cadmium red, phthalo blue, ultramarine, raw umber and white. However, depending on the subject
matter he may add black to this range, or lemon yellow, and sometimes he includes cobalt blue instead of the ultramarine.
Generally there is only a small amount of colour mixing on the palette: most of the mixing takes place directly on the painting.
"It is a matter of getting to know the colours and the possibilities, but I am amazed at the huge variety of colours that can be created from such a limited palette," says Paul.
"If I do mix a colour on the palette, then it is done quickly and intuitively. Again, the advantage of having to work fast is that it encourages a decisive approach; it stops you fussing."

Brush drawing

"I start each painting by drawing with a brush to indicate the basic areas of the composition. I have the photographs and sketches to refer to if needs be and, in my mind, a general idea and mood for the painting.

Actress, acrylic on canvas, 24X32in. (61X81cm)


In the early stages I work quickly and freely, just letting the painting develop. At the point when the paint begins to dry I put the work aside and switch to something else. Then a day or two later I go back to it and, again working quickly, adjust and read adjust things, perhaps in quite a dramatic way. I might repeat this process for a further one or two sessions."

"Gradually I slow down, working in a less intuitive, more conscious way and using thinner paint, sometimes in the form of glazes. To make the glazes I mix the acrylic with matt medium which, incidentally, is the only medium I use. I also thin and mix colours with water, but it is prudent to remember that
water is essentially a solvent and consequently too much of it will affect the adhesion of the paint."

"The mood of the painting is achieved through the use of particular colours and colour relationships combined with other aspects such as chiaroscuro effects, the graphic element, the expression of the figure, the tilt of the head, and so on. As the painting becomes more resolved so it is likely to reach that magical stage when it begins to speak for itself. This is the moment I'm always looking for — that moment of realisation, when you can see where the painting is leading and how it should be finished. Often, a good painting holds some surprises."

"I may work on a painting over a period of many months and usually I have about a dozen canvases in progress at the same time. It is often helpful, I think, to put a painting aside for a while and wait for it to suggest a way
forward. Additionally, ideas from one painting can feedthrough and inform others."

"The artist Willem de Kooning once described painting as like modelling a clay ball; you can never quite shape it perfectly, and the process could go on for ever. I try to stop at the point where there is a sense of balance, but also a tension. In a successful painting everything relates to everything else, yet at the same time there is a sense of awkwardness, a pictorial tension. And that is often a difficult thing to achieve!"





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