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Art Masterclass  September 2005 


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.


In the company of dancers

Able to sit in at the rehearsals of Scottish Ballet Helen Wilson found a stimulating new subject for her paintings in oils..



  Mark, oil on board, 15x20in. (38x51cm)


Mark, oil on board,

     15x20in. (38x51cm)

Inspired by her daughter, who is training to be a dancer, Helen Wilson became increasingly interested and involved in ballet, and it was not surprising that she eventually considered it to be an exciting subject to explore. A Portrait of Scottish Ballet, the title of a recent exhibition, was her first body of work devoted to a particular theme, and it is one to which she is keen to return in the future. At the same time she continues to develop her portraiture and figurative work, for which she has established a solid reputation.

"As well as the wonderful visual quality of the ballet, having watched someone become a dancer has given me an added insight into this subject," Helen explains. "Scottish Ballet were generous enough to allow me to be present at rehearsals, where I had the freedom to work as I wished — provided, of course, that I did not get in the dancers' way. None of this work was commissioned, so I was able to concentrate entirely on the ideas that appealed to me personally.

"I have always found figurative painting more challenging than any other subject. Although I regularly paint portrait commissions, it is people rather than portraits that are my main interest. For the ballet paintings I was happy to include other objects and ideas, as long as there was a specific connection to the dancers. I wanted to encompass all aspects of the ballet company, and this is why I have painted Star Dog, for example, who belonged to one of the principal dancers.


Star Dog, oil on board, 16x20in. (40.5x51cm)

Star Dog, oil on board,

16x20in. (40.5x51cm)

Yellow Study (Lillian), oil on board, 8x61/2in. (21.5x16.5cm)

Yellow Study (Lillian), oil on board, 8x61/2in. (21.5x16.5cm)


"Especially with this body of work I wasn't thinking in commercial terms, although

despite this, paintings such as Whose Shoes?, far right, sold very well at the exhibition. Nor did I want to recreate Degas. I suppose initially I was aware that comparisons would be made with Degas, but I did not find that inhibiting. Once

I got started and involved in the work, Degas was never an issue! What I

especially enjoyed about the whole project was that it gave me far more scope

than usual. It was very different from a portrait commission, which might have

to be quite formal in its approach and, of course, satisfy a particular client.


Starting points

"My aim at rehearsals was to gather as much useful reference material as possible. There were some limitations in that generally I had to work from a certain area and therefore it was a matter of what I could get from that spot. However, I was never short of subject matter. Many of the ballet movements are just too quick to capture by sketching and so I relied on lots of photographs. But I also made some sketches, mostly pen drawings, which had the added benefit that they helped me absorb the atmosphere of the scene. And I made various notes to help jog my memory and provide additional information."



Whose Shoes? oil on board, 81/2x81/2in. (21.5x21.5cm)

Whose Shoes? oil on board, 81/2x81/2in. (21.5x21.5cm)

Back in the studio Helen sorts through the location material to select those references that will make a strong image for a painting. She looks for qualities

that she can respond to and that will trigger the starting point for an idea. Sometimes, as in Mark, she works from a single photograph; for other paintings

the composition evolves from a variety of sources. Helen usually paints in oils, although she also occasionally works in gouache or watercolours.

"Oil paint perfectly suits my style of work," she says. "What I especially like

about it is that in-between stage, when the paint is tacky and malleable. I've

tried painting in acrylic, but acrylic is either wet or dry. For me, it limits the way that I can develop the paint surface. In contrast, with oil paint, because it is

slow drying, I can scrape into it, rub through it and so on to create various


"I normally work with a palette made up of a fastdrying underpainting white,

titanium white, cadmium yellow, cadmium yellow pale, cadmium orange, yellow ochre, raw sienna, scarlet, alizarin crimson, sap green, viridian, cerulean blue, French ultramarine, Prussian blue and ivory black. Additionally there are two

colours that I find ideal for glazing — Daler-Rowney Italian pink and brown pink.

"I paint on prepared plywood in preference to canvas. I like the firmness of

plywood. It is much more suitable for techniques that involve working into the

paint surface. The board is treated with two coats of acrylic primer, which I deliberately leave white. This gives me the scope to partially rub away some of

the layers of paint and so create an effect of light coming through."


Because Helen instinctively considers the design and impact of an idea right from the beginning, in the initial photographs and drawings, she doesn't feel it necessary to make any preliminary composition sketches. Instead, she works directly onto the prepared board, using a brush and some thin paint to create a loose drawing that indicates the main elements of the subject. Then, also with thin paint and a limited palette of colours, she blocks in these shapes to establish a satisfactory underpainting.

Now, having covered all the white surface and with the thin paint soon dry, Helen is able to start developing the work. Essentially the process is a combination of building up areas in some places and in others wiping off colour, scratching through the paint to create appropriate surface textures and effects. Occasionally the painting is left to dry and perhaps then treated with an overall transparent glaze to unify the result.

"Sometimes I scrape over the whole surface, to stop it all getting too precious and to keep it interesting," she explains. "Throughout, I keep in mind the fact that the painting must work as a whole. Sometimes there is one area that looks very successful and the temptation is to hold onto that and try to get the rest to work around it. But this is seldom a good idea, I think. It can be a distraction and too much of an influence on the subsequent development of the painting. Usually my response is to remove the surface paint in that area so that I can reconsider the whole composition.

"I also find that if I have spent a long time toing and froing with a painting, it is best to leave it for a while and work on something else. Often, if you come back to a painting afresh, and perhaps with the benefit of what you have learned from other paintings in the meantime, it is easier to decide a way forward. I normally have several paintings in progress at the same time and generally one painting will inform another.

 Fitting Tribute, oil on board, 11x11in. (28x28cm

 Fitting Tribute, oil on board,

11x11in. (28x28cm)



Robin, gouache on paper, 71/2x5in. (19x12.5cm)


Robin, gouache on paper,

71/2x5in. (19x12.5cm)

"It is difficult to say why some paintings work better than others. However, I never set out with an agenda or vision for the finished work. Each painting is an adventure: I don't know exactly where it will take me. That is why I find painting so interesting, because creating the right marks and colours can be so elusive. Especially with portraits, it is often impossible to determine why a certain handling of paint will produce a likeness of somebody. It is not just technique — painting involves a lot of gut reaction, I think.

"There comes a point in every painting when there is nothing more that can be added that will benefit the work. That is the time to stop! Somehow at that point the painting feels right. If you were to pursue it further, then most likely the painting would become overworked and lose its impact. I think it is very difficult to say what makes a good painting, because every work is different. Again, it is an instinctive quality: the main thing is that you feel comfortable with what you have achieved."





Pink Tutu, oil on board, 11x6in. (28x15cm)


Pink Tutu, oil on board,

11x6in. (28x15cm)





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