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Art Masterclass      January 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.

Objects and their Symbolism

Saul Robertson is a young painter whose figurative oil paintings with intriguing narrative themes have already won him major awards..

In an age when so many young artists court controversy, often at the expense of genuine skill and originality, it is refreshing to find one who is happy to make his mark within more familiar and well-established territory. Saul Robertson has always enjoyed working from firsthand experience of the subject matter and for him still-life, portraiture and figurative painting (perhaps because of, rather than despite, their long history and traditions) are genres that provide a rich source of ideas and challenges.

His skilful, sensitive paintings demonstrate very convincingly that even within well-tested themes and subjects there remains plenty of scope for innovative images and finished works of immense interest and impact.


The Universe, oil on linen, 58 x 29in (147x 73.5cm)


The Universe, oil on linen,

 58 x 29in (147x 73.5cm)



"As a representational painter, I see the options as still life, portraiture and landscape," Saul explains. "With still life and portraiture you can have the subject matter quite close to you. And because I am interested in recreating the surface of things, objects and figures are the subjects that I choose to concentrate on. With landscape, the surface is too far away and so the emphasis is usually on light and atmosphere, and consequently suited to a more gestural approach."

Themes and symbols

Many of Saul's portrait and figure compositions are painted over a period of months and require a lot of time with the sitter. For this reason the sitters are mostly friends, people he can rely on to give whatever time is necessary. He also paints many self-portraits. In fact, one of the most ambitious and successful of these is The Universe, left, which won second prize in the 2005 BP Portrait Award. To make this impressive painting, which took seven months to complete. Saul had to buy a large mirror, so that he could view himself full-length. he then worked in

his usual manner, starting with a fairly resolved charcoal drawing and subsequently developing the painting, using oils on a linen canvas support. 

The Vertigo Waitress, oil on linen, 8x10in. (20.5x25.5cm)


 The Vertigo Waitress, oil on linen,

8x10in. (20.5x25.5cm)



The Philosopher's Table, oil on linen, 28x30in. (71x76cm)



The Philosopher's Table, oil on linen, 28x30in. (71x76cm)


With the still-life paintings, sometimes there is a symbolic element and on other occasions Saul is attracted to a subject because of its aesthetic appeal, and in his judgment it will be a rewarding subject to paint.

"The approach can be preplanned or, in contrast, quite intuitive," he says. "I do occasionally seek out specific objects to fit a concept, but I am wary of that because it can lead to rather uninteresting, weak paintings. Most of the objects come from my studio, so I suppose they do have a personal significance, although that isn't necessarily an important factor."

For all his paintings Saul finds a title that is interesting, meaningful "and perhaps offers a way in to the work". As the title of That Whispered Phrase (The Heart is a Heavy Trophy) suggests, this is a painting in which he has used symbolism.

"I dislike breaking paintings down into separate parts," he says, "for naturally they should be viewed and considered in their entirety. However, in this particular painting you can see that I have included a butterfly, which is traditionally a symbol of transience, placed on the jacket where the heart would be, and wrapped like a gift. The jacket itself is something that you might wear when it is getting colder, but this is a lightweight jacket. So there is some ambiguity, and instead perhaps the reference is to emotional, rather than physical, temperature.



You said, Morning Filled You With Hope, oil on linen, 8x10in. (20.5x25.5cm)


You said, Morning Filled You

With Hope, oil on linen,

8x10in. (20.5x25.5cm)



She dreamt a Field of Unborn Flowers, oil on linen, 8x10in. (20.5x25.5cm)


She dreamt a Field of

Unborn Flowers, oil on linen,

8x10in. (20.5x25.5cm)

"There was a different concept for The Philosopher's Table. For this painting

the objects were arranged around the vase in two concentric circles. I liked

the idea that they shared the same centre. As I did for this work, I often

stand up to paint and therefore my viewpoint is almost directly above the

objects, which are arranged on a stand in my studio. Sometimes the

composition comes together almost by accident, without much effort.

At other times it takes ages to find a satisfactory arrangement and it can

be quite frustrating.

"Once I have started a painting, I either work totally in daylight or totally in

artificial light. My preference is daylight, especially now that I have a studio

with a north light. Somehow daylight seems more relevant to the idea of

capturing a moment in time - creating something permanent (the painting)

out of something that is not (the subject matter). I occasionally make some preliminary drawings to test out an idea, though as a rule I work directly onto the canvas.

Working methods

"I use linen canvas, which I like because it has a finer texture and not such a regular weave as cotton canvas. In fact, I stretch my own canvases and prepare them in the traditional way with two coats of rabbitskin size and then two coats of white lead primer. The main reason I paint in oils is because they are so versatile. I particularly like the way that you can blend oil colours seamlessly or, if you wish, create really crisp edges.

"My paints are Old Holland Classic Oil Colours and my usual palette is titanium white, lemon yellow, cadmium yellow, cadmium orange, brilliant pink,
cadmium red, cerulean blue, Old Delft blue, purple, permanent green, burnt umber, raw umber, yellow ochre and Naples yellow. I never use black: it is too dark and creates dead areas in the painting. Instead I make a warmer, more interesting black by mixing alizarin crimson with viridian."

Saul works directly onto the white canvas, starting with some drawing to establish the main elements of the composition. However, the design and concept remain open to change as the painting develops. For example, with a still-life painting, sometimes objects are added or taken away. With the smaller paintings the initial drawing is usually made with a fine brush and diluted yellow ochre paint. For the larger, more complex works, he starts with charcoal, which can easily be altered and
corrected, and once he is happy with this he goes over the lines with paint.

The painting process depends on the individual idea. "I dislike recipes," Saul explains. "Particularly with a still life, I might decide to tackle the painting in sections, so that it comes together almost like a jigsaw puzzle. I will complete it object by object, and when everything is in place add the darks, highlights and some glazes to
unify the work.

 Bound to the Night, oil on linen, 10x8in. (25.5x20.5cm)

Bound to the Night, oil on linen,

10x8in. (25.5x20.5cm)



That Whispered Phrase (The Heart is a Heavy Trophy), oil on linen, 16x14in. (40.5x35.5cm)


  That Whispered Phrase

(The Heart is a Heavy Trophy),

oil on linen, 16x14in.


On the other hand, with a larger still life I often start with an underpainting,

by blocking in the main shapes, and then developing the various colours and

effects from that.

"Because I am interested in capturing the surface quality and colour of an

object or figure, which often entails blending colours, I mostly adopt a

'one-wet' or alla prima approach. If this isn't successful, then I wipe off

the colour or, with dry colour, paint over it. The paint can be reasonably

thick, although it never reaches an impasto. I mix the colours with turpentine, sometimes using Larch Venice turpentine which, as I discovered from my

study of Vermeer's work, is better for creating soft edges.



"I think a painting is finished when everything starts working together; when it stops looking like a series of questions and instead offers some answers. However, I seldom work on one painting at a time — perhaps just occasionally with a small still life. The large figure paintings are on-going. In fact, I am painting one at the moment that I have been working on for about a year. And usually there are several large still-life pictures in
various stages of development, and probably some smaller ones, too.

"I like this arrangement because it helps me maintain my enthusiasm for each painting and, from the technical point of view, every time I return to it I am able to consider it with a fresh eye.


On the Coast, oil on linen, 101/2x81/2in. (26.5x21.5cm)

  On the Coast, oil on linen,

101/2x81/2in. (26.5x21.5cm)



As for the way people interpret my work, I accept that there may be an

element of mystery in some of the paintings, but I think it unlikely that

people will see a meaning that is radically different from my own. And the

future? I believe there is a lot of scope for more imaginative and fantasy

elements, both in the still life and the figurative work.


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