Click here to print this page

Planning Retirement Online

Art Masterclass      March 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.


Freedom of choice



Alan Thompson finds excitement and stimulation in a wide range of subjects for his paintings in oils, in locations varying from his Cumbrian studio to Tuscan towns





Alan Thompson discovers inspiration in a shaft of light on a wall, the volume

of an apple, the look on a face. "Everything has a significance," he says.

"There are so many exciting things to paint." Consequently, unlike many

artists, he does not specialise in a certain type of subject matter, nor is

there a particular quality that he must express. For him: "Whether it is an

apple or Venice, it is a matter of responding to what I see; painting what is

in front of me."


His varied subject matter includes wonderfully skilful and sensitive still lifes, landscapes and figure compositions, and evocative scenes of Venice, Siena, Florence and other magical places. However, the fact that these are different subjects is irrelevant to him — more to the point is the fact that they are different paintings. The common denominator, perhaps, is that each one is treated with the same integrity, the same search for what he describes as "a parallel to reality". He works in paint to convey something of the solidity and other qualities in what he sees.

Although essentially a figurative painter who has spent many years working from life, Alan has recently begun to modify his approach somewhat to rely more on his imagination and his interaction and response to effects and qualities that evolve during the painting process.

"In the past," he explains, "with the excitement of looking and reacting, the painting was secondary; it happened. I was intent on trying to capture the yellowness of a lemon, for example, perhaps at the expense of getting involved with the impact and nature of the paint itself. Now I work with a much greater awareness of those qualities."



  Harbour, Keffalonia, oil on board, 12x153/4in. (30x40cm)




Florence, oil on board, 14x231/2in. (36x60cm) 


Varied palette

Alan paints mainly in oils. "I have tried all kinds of media," he says, "including acrylic, which in my view has a slightly plastic, artificial quality — the colour lacks the depth and resonance of oils and it doesn't handle as well, particularly when using a painting knife. Watercolour has a transparency and it is a very attractive medium for some types of work, as is egg tempera, which I have used for paintings of fungi, in which I needed a certain delicacy. But I always return to oils. I like the fact that, because it is relatively slow-drying, you can move the paint around and there is time to consider, adjust and rework areas if necessary.

"My palette varies according to each painting. The exact choice of colours depends on the subject matter, but there are perhaps ten or so colours that I regularly use. I am always trying different brands of paint to find the best colours. The basic colours are zinc white (for glazing), titanium white, cadmium yellow, lemon yellow, burnt sienna, raw sienna, yellow ochre, viridian, ultramarine, cobalt blue and a crimson. I never use black.

"Because I often work with a painting knife I prefer a firm surface to paint on, and therefore I normally use prepared MDF (medium density fibreboard). This is first sized with a rabbitskin glue size and then given two coats of primer, preferably oilbased primer, if this is available. Generally I like a very slight texture to the surface. I also occasionally paint on fine linen. The surface is left white, which I think adds vibrancy to the subsequent colours.



Venice - Backstreet Canal, oil on board, 12x15in. (30x39cm)





  Lemon Tree, Kefalonia, oil on board, 14x231/2in. (36x60cm)

"Especially when I am using painting knives, I apply the paint as it is, without

adding any medium such as turpentine or linseed oil. But for glazes, I mix the

paint with Liquin, which helps with the transparency and also speeds up the

drying process."

Ideas and inspiration

As well as painting the landscape in Cumbria, where he lives, Alan also paints landscape and townscape scenes from Italy and France. He enjoys visiting new places, particularly because of the different qualities of light and colour that he finds: the contrast in light between Florence and Cumbria, for example. "I've just been to the south of France," he explains. "The turquoise sea against the red roofs is just wonderful. It is not something you come across in the UK, so that's why I travel."



Siena Rooftops, oil on board, 14x231/2in. (30x60cm) 

Alan also paints still-life and figure compositions in the studio. The still lifes are painted mainly from direct observation, though relying on memory when the fruit or vegetables deteriorate. Similarly, with the figure compositions he will work from models for as long as these are available, supplementing this approach with reference to photographs. He regularly makes life drawings and once taught this subject at Carlisle College of Art.

On his travels Alan relies on photography for recording anything that interests

him. He no longer does much sketching on site, and in any case he regards

drawing as a separate process — as a means of expression in its own right,

rather than a preliminary to painting.

He welcomes the advent of digital photography: "When there is some good

light I rush out and take hundreds of photographs. Back in the studio I consider

the photographs and decide which subjects I would like to paint. Usually I refer

to more than one photograph and I may adjust what is there to suit the needs

of the painting. It does not have to be topographically correct."


Thick and thin

Essentially the composition evolves during the painting process, rather than being preplanned in the form of sketches or other preliminary work. Alan likes to get straight on with the painting and to block it in very quickly. As he does so, he moves shapes around and gradually develops a composition with which he is happy.
"I think if you hold back, things become too precious," he says. "If you were to X-ray a painting such as Around a Table you would probably find figures all over the place. And sometimes, in this process, the painting becomes so confused that I have to start again, where the first painting left off.

"Initially I draw on the prepared board or canvas with a brush and some diluted paint to indicate the principal shapes, such as figures, and then block in the background. Or I sometimes start straight away with a wide brush and roughly block in all the main areas. The actual process varies considerably. However, typically the aim on the first day is to establish a satisfactory underpainting.



Helvellyn, oil on board, 11x19in. (38x48cm)


Derwentwater, oil on board, 24x43in. (61x110cm)


Usually, when that is dry I work into certain areas with a painting knife,

although there are some paintings for which I use only brushes.

"The paint is applied thickly with a painting knife and subsequently I will

probably work over it with glazes and restate the colours. Further layers are

added in this way. I may scrub or scratch away the paint in some places as well,

depending on the effects I want. For example, I sometimes apply a wash of

burnt umber over the whole painting, to darken it, and then lift out those

parts that I want to remain light. Things come and go; the painting changes

and evolves in stages. Whatever the painting, I am never quite sure how I am

going to tackle it — it just happens!

"The various techniques contribute to a final work in which some areas will

have an impasto feel, achieved with loosely handled colours, while others will

show a much more controlled approach, using thinner layers of paint. Where

the colour has sunk and dulled I use some retouching varnish to enliven it.

"However, I am often reluctant to call a painting finished. It is easy to let go

when I feel I have exhausted an idea, but there are other times when I think

I could have made a far better job of expressing what I wanted to say about

the subject. In many cases I only stop work on a painting when I have to

send it off to an exhibition. But even then, should it be returned, I might be tempted to do more!





laterlife interest

The above is part of the features section of called laterlife interest. laterlife interest contains a variety of articles and columns of special interest for visitors to

It includes both one off articles and also regular columns of a more specialist nature such as healthwise, reports from the REACH files, and a beauty section called looking good in later life.

Also don't forget to take a look at our regular IT question and answer section called YoucandoIT by IT trainer and author Jackie Sherman.

To view the latest articles and indexes to previous articles click on laterlife interest here or above.  To search for articles about a certain topic, use the site search feature below.





back to laterlife interest

Site map and site search



Advertise on

LaterLife Travel Insurance in Association with Avanti

If ever is inaccessible you can access