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Art Materclass         February 2005


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

The Artist is a monthly magazine 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.

See the website for further information.

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

Painting the Home Town

Henry Kondracki, a prizewinner in both The Hunting Art Prize and Singer & Friedlander open exhibitions in 2004, reveals how Edinburgh inspires his paintings..


Many artists are inspired by the immense variety of ideas that can be found in our cities, but there are relatively few who manage to create images that convey both an emotional response to a place as well as what is observed.

The most successful paintings of urban scenes are more than simply interesting pictures of buildings and people.
Irrespective of whether or not we recognise the subject of the painting, the best works demand something more of us than mere admiration. They have strengths and qualities that are independent of the subject matter; and are able to stand as paintings in their own right, dependent as much on the skill of the artist in handling paint, using colour and arranging shapes as on the specific content.

Autumn at Inverlieth, acrylic and oil on canvas, 30 x 36in. (76 x 91cm)The lively and distinctive paintings
by Henry Kondracki embrace all of these objectives. Deeply meaningful and personal, they are of places and scenes that are charged with mood and feeling; subjects that are expressed powerfully through a sensitive use of brushwork and paint handling. His city is Edinburgh, where he grew up and where he now lives with his own children. Many of his paintings are of places that he knew as a child and which now, he says, "I'm seeing filtered through all my memories."

What interests him most is the fact that the streets haven't changed but, of course, the people have.

"There is a flux and flow of humanity; it's a kind of marker of time," he says. "Life evolves and changes. And although in that sense my paintings have a personal perspective, I believe they can also mean something to other people. For when looking at a painting, we all bring our previous experiences to it, if not consciously.

Inspiration and ideas

"One of my tutors at the Slade once described Edinburgh as 'the unpainted city'
, and while I probably did not appreciate the full significance of his remark at the time, there is no doubt that I now know exactly what he meant. Although the city has been the inspiration for most of my paintings over the past decade, the scope for interesting, challenging ideas remains as strong as ever. Edinburgh is an inexhaustible subject: I have hardly touched it. And the great thing is that I never have to search for ideas; they are constantly presenting themselves to me.

"Usually my ideas come from images that have, quite by chance, impressed me when I am out somewhere; perhaps when I am taking the children swimming, for example, or to some other activity.

"When I return home the strength of that image in my mind's eye
might be such that I start to consider how it could be produced as a painting. I make an initial sketch to evaluate the idea and then, if I think it worth pursuing, I go back to the location to make drawings and to take some photographs.

"Sometimes I take my children with me to photograph them in that particular environment.
This reference information provides the starting point for a painting. However, I firmly believe that every painting should have a life of its own; it shouldn't simply be a copy of a drawing or photograph."

The location drawings are made in pencil or pen and often they are quite detailed.

"Sometimes I spend hours and hours on the drawings,"
says Henry. "Normally I do not need all that detail, but initially it helps me understand the subject, and by so doing I can determine what is essential and what to eliminate. Also, of course, the idea that I have in my mind for the painting, although inspired by a particular event or location, won't necessarily match the reality. The more you paint, the more you see things in terms of paintings rather than straightforward fact. The camera is factual; the artist is subjective."

Acrylic underpainting

Henry used to paint almost exclusively in oils,
but for the past two years he has modified this process and now usually begins with an acrylic underpainting, subsequently refining and completing the work in oils.

"I started using acrylics as a flat background wash," he explains, "and it has developed from that. Now, sometimes as much as 75 per cent of the painting is acrylics; sometimes even the whole painting. I like the predictability of acrylics: you know what they are going to do. With oil paints this is less so. But they work well over acrylics, creating a more interesting surface and enriching the colour quality."

The preferred support is acrylic primed cotton duck canvas
which, being more absorbent than linen, is more suitable for the acrylic/oil combination. Henry usually prepares the canvas with a thin stain of raw umber acrylic colour to block out the white surface and give a mid-tone from which to work. But this depends on the subject matter and the effects required. At other times he likes the white canvas to shine through thinly applied glazes and so create a result similar to a watercolour. Rather than working from a set palette, the colours are chosen specifically for each new painting.

"I like to feel my way into a painting," he says. "The painting dictates the palette."

Referring to the location sketches and photographs Henry begins each painting by drawing on the canvas in charcoal to indicate the main areas of the composition. While the drawing is regarded as a very important stage, he does like to keep it as spontaneous as possible.

"I often draw just the merest dividing horizontal line and a suggestion of where the buildings will be,"
he says. "In the past I used to develop the drawing in much more detail and, like the early 20th century painter Max Beckmann, sometimes I would really define it by redrawing the salient lines in pen and ink. The advantage with such lines is that when you cover them with an oil wash they still show through. But that is also the problem. If you need to make changes, the lines are very difficult to paint out.

Further work in oils

"I spray the charcoal drawing with fixative and then I start with the acrylics, initially blocking in the main shapes with thin colours and then developing them further. Because acrylics dry quickly it is possible to build up quite a range of effects in a relatively short period as well as tackle various technical aspects that would be much more difficult to solve in oils. For example, where there is a figure against a background, it is easier to create a convincing sense of space around the figure when using acrylics.

"Somehow this stage of the painting seems to dictate its own life, so there comes a point when I feel that the work in acrylics has gone far enough. Then I usually put the painting aside for a time while I work on something else. This time delay means that when I have another look at the painting I can do so more objectively. I may decide that the painting is best left as it is, or that it needs further work in oil paint to enliven it.

"The oil paint can be applied as a thin glaze
— by brushing it on and then wiping most of it off — or, where appropriate, in a more textural way. Oil paint will also enhance the colour, making it richer and more resonant. My aim is for an image that has sensitivity and impact, and I rely mostly on various types of brushwork to achieve that effect. But there is no set method of working, of course. Every painting presents a fresh challenge and it is rare if there aren't doubts or even touches of despair sometimes!

Falling Snow, The Meddows, acrylic and oil on canvas, 31 x 36in. (78 x 91cm)"Perhaps this is how it should be.
I find that paintings seem to go through a stage when they almost have to be destroyed in order to further the process of creativity. One of the most important things to learn as an artist, I think, is the ability to say 'no' to passages that aren't working within a painting. A technique that I now use when a painting is not going so well is to scrape most of the wet paint off with a rubber squeegee (the sort used to clean windows). This leaves an interesting 'ghost' of the painting, which can then form the basis for further work. The painting is reborn, invigorated and ultimately more successful."

Other artists may not be prepared to adopt such drastic measures.
But whether they do or not, it is evident from the highly individual nature of Henry Kondracki's work and the way that he creates energy, mood and a real sense of place in his pictures, that to paint with feeling, you must avoid preconceptions.



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