Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Earning my wings at The Angel Academy of Art, Florence.

I'm just back from a wonderful workshop with the Maestro, Michael John Angel, in Florence. I have learnt so much, and it is an experience I will never forget.

Thirty-one students gathered from all parts of the globe (Dubai, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, USA, New Zealand, Pakistan, England, Holland, Russia, Ireland, Brazil, Spain) to learn to paint using the "Grisaille underpainting and glazed overpainting method", by copying from a master painting by either Bouguereau or Leighton.
On the left, the art shop, and straight ahead
 in the sunlight, a peep of The Duomo...
Not sweeties, but yummy pigments

I chose a portrait by Bouguereau, because I was interested in studying skin tones and form modeling of the face. The course was a technical one, designed to teach us a system of working, to show the steps involved to create a long lasting painting.  There are many ways to work in Oils, but it is vital not to mix the systems.

"Grisaille" is a classical method, which means painting in grays, using the 9 value gray scale to firstly block in the subject, then establish a 'map' for the overall form and eventually more carefully render an accurate, subtle form painting. Once the grisaille is complete, the colour is laid on top. It sounds so simple when written down..

Mr Angel is an amazing teacher. He is incredibly generous with his knowledge, approachable, open and keen to assist everyone, no matter what their level of experience. And, thank goodness, patient too. During the two weeks he gave us a succession of lectures and demonstrations, with follow-up emails, directly relating to our task, as well as giving us a broader context to the work.

The Maestro, M John Angel, giving the first demonstration

After getting our drawings onto canvas, it was great to have a demonstration, showing us to be general, not specific. To quote, Maestro said "don't expect a result straight away. Relax and don't mind it being roughly painted!"

Of course, it is vital that the grisaille underpainting is, eventually, as good as you can possibly make it. This is where mistakes should be ironed out and adjustments made, so as to form a solid foundation for the colour. So there was no pressure to rush, only an expectation of commitment and 'slowly slowly wins the race". So, with that encouragement, I took a deep breath and started the scary process of whitening up my drawing... She didn't look too well to begin with, poor thing, but once started, there's nothing for it but to carry on!

Day 2                
Day 3
Above - the left image shows a close up of the slather-system I adopted after three days in an attempt to beat the Oils into submission. I had been a little timid, and still getting used to using the Calcium Carbonate in with my white paint, and if you look closely at the image, you will see little white lumps. This is the calcium, not blended forcefully enough. 

end of day 4. Still on the rough side
 I was discovering that the oils like to darken as they dry overnight, so the serene, pale girl you said goodnight to as you left the studio, greets you the next morning with a 5 o'clock shadow - oh, pu-lease!! This 'game' lasted several days, with Herself always having the last laugh.  The image above is the end of day four. This was harder than it looked. 

If you look closely, you might detect a few mosquito bites on my neck. This was to be a recurring theme of the trip... 
End of day 5
By the end of day 5, a lot of work had gone into blending and modeling, and the mouth was moved a few times too. By now, some of my companions were starting to apply colour. But I was determined not to rush. The photo is a bit fuzzy because the camera got a bit sweaty..! It was 38 degrees outside, and 37 degrees in the studio.

I was so lucky to be working next to Fiona Merlin from Australia. She was the sweetest person in the world and answered my (silly) questions kindly and helped settle my butterfly tummy. Fiona was a teacher, and we shared some great conversations about learning and art and Everything. She's a great painter and a great painting buddy. 

Fiona and I working (I'm the one with the white antannae...) 
End of day 6, and the final pass before colour
I was much happier with the face by the end of the sixth day. By now I was the only one not working in colour. But it was better to make the corrections at this stage rather than in colour.. I appreciated that I could have spent a few days more moving things around, but decided to get on to colour. 

Back of canvas neatly pinned

Above - a break in the proceedings for a demonstration by M John Angel on stretching canvas. Such is his gentle nature that all aspects of techniques were explained thoroughly, and logically, demistifying all processes as if veils were being lifted from our eyes. Lovely. 

I was a little apprehansive about colour until I actually put some on, then, ah... delicious relief. We do, after all, live in a world of colour. I felt at home. and I remembered, I love colour! 

end day 7
As you can see, I continued working slowly-slowly but hadn't fully appreciated how much the gray underpainting still wanted to override the subsequent layers. The battle was still on. Oh no. 

I didn't realise it until the end of the day, but day 8 was to be my final day in the studio. 

End day 8
I was really enjoying the venture into colour. The grisaille system is not like any painting I have ever done, and it is interesting manipulating the layers, to see how much underpainting can be used, and how I might do the underpainting differently next time. What is very clear is how the paint performs, and how an understanding of mediums is essential for any degree of success. As you can see, the face is still blotchy, and the gray underpainting is dominating. Grrrr!!! There are so many good lessons to be learnt from this. 
Unfortunately, my whole trip was punctuated (!) by regular visits from mosquitoes. Now, I didn't scratch EVER, and I hardly complained, but they kept on coming. It started with one big one, then a scattering of smaller ones, then a total free-for-all. By day 8 I had 80 bites, mostly on my legs. One of the tutors at the academy, Martinho Correia, stopped in his tracks in the corridor one day and asked me loudly, 'are you IRISH? Gee, I could tell - the mosquitoes LOVE the Irish".  Nice. 

So, on the doctor's insistance, I got an early flight home, two days earlier than I intended, to give myself a chance to recover. I've had a few days now of extremely strong antibiotics and I'm lapping up the cooler air. I was so sorry not to be able to say goodbye to my studio companions - that was the worst bit.  I had a wonderful experience, met great people - WONDERFUL people, and I'd do it all again tomorrow, even with the mosquitoes. 

I have spent more time on the painting since my return. I have done some hair (which is a little big at the moment!), and a beginning of glazing on the fabric, and more layers on the face. I have another day, or two, or three still to go. 

Not quite finished yet...
I'd like to thank Maestro M John Angel for his kindness and his friendship. I highly recommend his courses to everyone who has a desire to improve. He is holding a two week workshop in Liverpool in August 2015,  see

and I'm delighted to say that he will be coming to Belfast in 2016 to deliver a workshop here too.  

For information on this or all my courses, please email julie@juliedouglas.co.uk