I asked John Dinan if he would pretty please write me some words to upload to this blog after he had read my Diary of an Artist's First Landscape Painting Course (here, below). Being the great guy that he is, he happily obliged, so you now have a very balanced story - by teacher and student - of a painting course and 'what goes on' ..... hope it helps you aspiring painters .... and, of course, I highly recommend you take John's course. He's a great artist and a confidence-inspiring teacher. Read what he has to say at the end of this 5-day diary:
Diary of an Artist's First Landscape Painting Course
A few weeks ago I attended a week-long landscape painting course run by John Dinan in Cross, Co. Mayo. Images of my fellow artists on the course are scattered amongst the words below.
John Dinan advising fellow artist Naimh Slack
It rained that day, so we painted indoors after a 45-minute introductory talk and lesson from John. He encouraged us to make use of a few dry minutes to go out into the garden, which faced onto rolling stone wall-enclosed fields of black-faced sheep, and a cluster of pine trees in the distance, and to pick out a scene or a subject which inspired us to paint. I chose a tree with interesting branches, not too many leaves, and the landscape of fields, stone walls and sheep stretching out beyond it; although I could have picked trees or bushes in the garden, or the pot plants on a wooden deck, for my inspiration.
Full of false hope about my abilities, I faced the blank canvas for mere seconds before enthusiastically applying an oil and turpentine wash in the colour John suggested …. and hit my first challenge. Colour.
Colour is an extremely personal thing, to which we all react differently. I’ve read many an article on the emotional and healing effects of colour but hadn’t as yet tested my own reactions so directly. I tried – I really did – to work with colours that were alien to me, to which I have never been attracted, but I felt no sense of excitement, no thrill of creation, and no sense of anticipation as I put brush to board and slowly tried to create my scene. John passed by a few times - well, squashed himself into my corner in the room a few times - peering over my shoulder and eventually muttering in frustration: “Put paint on the board Lynda … come on. Your tree looks like a tarantula … and I’m afraid of spiders!” He grinned, and left me to it, sauntering off in that maddeningly confident way that a teacher has and a pupil hasn’t, I thought as I grimly battled on.
I felt lost and hopelessly inadequate as I put paint on and then scraped it off again. In an effort to save myself I retraced my steps through the process he had taught us that morning, but I still couldn’t find the spark that I needed in order to create, and to begin to learn what I had come to learn.
Dorothy MoorheadWhat had I come to learn?
I have long admired John’s ability to portray light and shadow in his landscapes and still life paintings. His paintings are so alive with his ability to paint the subject as it should be and yet bring in a looseness and freshness which shows his skill with technique and his excellent handling of colour. His paintings are uncluttered and he really does make it look like an easy process. That’s what I wanted to learn. How to portray light and dark; how to use colour more subtly than I do; and how to have confidence in painting landscapes according to nature instead of according to my imagination.
Ha! And here I was with half a board covered in muddy brush strokes of greens and browns, a purple stone wall forlornly marching across the bottom of the painting, and a leafless tarantula tree painted in a myriad of rebellious colours with a palette knife, my usual weapon of choice. My pine trees in the distance had started to look good, thanks to John’s help in encouraging me to paint the sky in around the trees instead of trying to paint the sky first and then put the trees in. His way was much more painterly and skilful, giving the little forest a place within the landscape instead of a place on the landscape.
I didn’t finish my painting that day and felt it to be lifeless, crying out for palette knife work and colours that weren’t there, to be put in. I hadn’t yet begun to learn anything and was childishly yearning to hang on to my rebellious techniques of comfort and habit. I turned my back on it at the end of the day, left it in the studio forlornly sitting on my wobbly travel easel, and went home thinking “mud, mud, mud” with the only redeeming feature being the indication of where my sheep were going to be.
As I write, the painting is still no closer to completion and life than it was at the end of that day, so I shall photograph it to show you, before I either paint over it in frustration and shame, or manage to finish it and post it up on this blog at some future date. Here it is …………
Sheep In Cross
A Bill for Eye Anti-Wrinkle Cream
John’s way is to squint at the view before him to discern tone, the lights and the darks in shape and shadow, in the scene. As you screw your eyes about 90% shut, you can easily pick out, for example, the dark of a clump of trees, the medium tone of distant mountains and the light tone of the water in the lough.
Tuesday, the second day of the course, and only showers of rain threatened, so we drove out to Inismachatreer, an island linked to the mainland by a low stone causeway. We set up our painting gear in a spacious public area where there were a few fishing boats pulled up onto the lakeshore. There was ample space for the eight of us to spread ourselves out and I settled myself on a waterproof groundsheet, with legs pushed out in front of me, into the sneeze-inducing deep grasses to paint the lake and a couple of boats from waist-high (where I was sitting) water level, peering through grasses and lilac flowers.
I battled again with the darks and lights thing, and with using brushes. Also, I had chosen to start with yellow ochre instead of brown, and as John had warned, it instinctively caused me to choose lighter colours than I was actually seeing. After a bout of no self-confidence, and muttering to John that I was going to send him a bill for eye anti-wrinkle cream with all the squinting I was doing, I snatched up my favourite palette knife, resorted to my favourite pure colours, and produced a small painting of a couple of boats prow-nesting into the grasses, entirely using my well-entrenched personal style, preventing myself entirely from learning anything at all from the course that day.
Boats on Inishmacatreer
I felt pleased with myself even although I felt the niggle of guilt and under-achievement knocking on my thick-skulled head. I was still refusing entry to the ability to learn, while smiling sweetly at John when he finally found me hidden in the grass, complaining about my inabilities (poor me, not my fault, not my usual style, moan, moan, moan) and battling to take up his challenges. The day ended with my fellow artists saying nice things about my efforts and me feeling probably more hollow than the day before.
I went home that night and recalled the words of Philip Gray, an artist I had interviewed a couple of weeks previously, who said, “I paint emotion.” That’s me, I decided, and offered this as my excuse to the group next morning. Actually, I truly believe it to be so, but I had signed up for John’s course because I have a lot of respect for his method of working and for his finished paintings; for the way he can express light and dark, giving life to a scene without putting any people in it – and that was what I should have been trying to do. I should have been putting in 100% effort and removing 100% ego for the five days of the course, even if I did revert to some of my personal techniques afterwards. It’s not so easy but I vowed to try better.
Day three looms .....
Wednesday, the third day, with good weather, we set off for the ancient ruins of the Abbey in Cong. From the shade of the huge, old trees in the grounds of the Abbey ruins, you cross a small bridge over a stream glittering with tourists’ hopeful wishes and coins, walk through a picturesque archway with no purpose (as far as I can tell) other than beauty, and follow a short pathway which leads you to the Monks’ stone fishing hut on the river. I’ve often been there to peer through the hole in the floor of the hut, through which the Monks would cast their line, while being warmed by a smouldering fire in the fireplace. Evidently a rope and bell system had been rigged up so that when a fish took the bait at its peril, the Monks tugged the rope, which rang a bell in the Abbey, and one of the Nuns would hurry down to the hut to fetch the next meal for cooking.
From the Monks’ fishing hut you can return to the path, take the bridge over the main part of the river, wander under another historical and decorative archway, and spend either a brisk or a leisurely hour or so wandering along the circular walk, through the forested area at the back of Ashford castle.
For my painting challenge of that day, I selected a position at the edge of the river, beneath the ancient trees, peering through a gap in the foliage at the reflections in the water of a yellow-leafed bush on the other side of the water. Surely that view would provide me with the necessary darks and lights.
I started off well, again with a yellow ochre wash and the darks marked in well on the canvas. Today however, we had an audience. People wandering through the park also wandered up to the artists’ easels to peer over their shoulders … and that’s my excuse for again reverting to my tried and tested painting techniques – palette knife more than brush and pure colour more than mixed colours. Again I depicted emotion rather than nature, and this time, I wasn’t even that proud of the end result. I felt quite desperate, being able to hear what John was saying but not seemingly able to put his lessons into practice.
The River Runs Past the Abbey in Cong
Perhaps over-working and putting too much paint onto the canvas, not adhering to “more is less”, is my problem. However, knowing what your problem probably is, and being able to correct it, are way too far apart in reality for ease of learning.
After the session, we all trooped up to the Cong Art Gallery run by Sheila Byrne, John’s wife, to let our eyes wander over the selection of paintings and to discuss how the artists had put the basic techniques of shade and composition to good effect. A painting by Irish artist, Manus Walsh, really impressed me and was to influence what I did the next day.
Day four coming up ......
Disaster Day and The Really Awful Painting
The second to last day of the course, Thursday, and we again piled into our cars and headed out a little beyond the turning for Inishmacatreer where we had been on the second day. This time we headed to a part of the lough-shore where the only inland lighthouse in Europe still stands strong and accessible. In its prime, a flame would be lit to guide the fishermen safely back to shore between the rocks and shallows; nowadays it’s a fun spot for the local children to gather and to slither into the cold lake waters on a hot summer’s day.
I chose to paint a silhouette of the tower, planning to create a monochrome effect, with abstract in mind. In other words, I was planning on using only one or two colours in different tones, with a small depiction of the tower in the top third of the painting tapering down with a textured effect into the lower two thirds of the canvas. Like I mentioned, with Manus Walsh’s painting, the one I saw hanging in Cong Art gallery yesterday, in mind.
Hearing, but not adhering to John’s words earlier in the week about the colour to choose for the base wash, I used blue, yellow and warm pink, blended into each other where they touched, pure and unmixed. My choice totally ruined my plan of a monochrome painting. Boy, it was proving difficult to rid my system of pure and bright colour! John had warned that the choice of base colour will always influence your choice of colour for the rest of the painting. I completed my painting long before anyone else in the group and ended up with something that would fit in with goods on sale in a tourist bazaar. I don’t feel comfortable describing it here, and by the time you read this, it will have been destroyed, which may give you some indication of how bad it was. I went home that day absolutely determined to make good for the whole week on the last day.
I have a photograph of “the awful painting” as it leans against the wheel of my car:
Aaaargh! No title for this one!!! And anyway, it doesn't exist any more :-)
One more day left .....
Did I learn anything?
Friday dawned, the last day of our course. I knew John planned for us to stay in the studio for the day, using the time to finish incomplete paintings and giving us a chance to use his guidance for the last time that week. I decided to take up his offer, select one of his paintings and copy it as directly as I could. If I couldn’t learn by applying his suggestions and lessons in my own way, perhaps I needed to be a copycat to understand where I was going wrong.
It was the best thing I could have done at that stage in the course, and although I feel the painting is very dark indeed for me, and there were a host of differences between his finished painting and mine, it’s the painting I feel most proud of from that week and I went home feeling that I had finally learned a lot of what John was teaching. It just took me a while to work through a process to get to the beginning of my real learning curve.
Inishmacatreer After John Dinan
So what had I really gone through? Had I learned what I set out to learn from John’s guidance and excellent teaching?
I had begun by wanting to learn how to use the light to best effect, to create interest and life in the painting, not only with the darks and lights of shadows, but in guiding the eye to the core of the subject of the painting by the correct use of colour.
John’s wise words and suggestions will always ring in my ear and I’ll always try to achieve what he achieves, but what I really learnt this week was how hard it is to learn a different painting technique. It took me back to when I was five years old and, using flash cards, I was learning to spell. I just couldn’t remember the word “the” when it was flashed in front of me … I wanted so much to remember which word that pattern of letters made, I dreaded my mother’s grim face when I couldn’t remember, and finally tenacity won and the word became a familiar friend. Maybe, just maybe, it’ll happen with painting too, one day.
And here are the promised words by John Dinan:
A Tone, Atone ( with apologies to the Irish pun Ochon, Ochon)
I wondered last week, in the midst of a Portrait workshop, how many more times in my life might I utter the phrase 'lights and darks', or 'tonal range', or the short but demanding verb 'squint' !
Or should I stop teaching Art and save the world from these endless entreaties.
Having read Lynda's wonderful recollections of her week on my Landscape Painting workshop recently, I'm minded of the gulf that can invisibly divide Tutor and student, artist and fellow artist. In my teaching, I try to share the learning that's taken me over thirty years, in the hope that my students might fast-track their picturemaking skills to a point of expertise that took me so long.
Lynda has given a gem of an insight to the mental angst that any student might feel about even the most well-meaning tutor's advice and guidance. And also, how difficult it is to resist your natural impulses regarding such things as Colour, Texture or the like. That's why Art and picturemaking is so personal, so important to each individual student.
And that's why I try to be respectful of every studen'ts work, no matter how inexperienced she/he may be. I try to give practical advice on the process of picturemaking, and on what constitutes a 'good' painting - in terms of composition/design, light/dark pattern, colour scheme, movement etc, and within that I will try to work with a student's own personal style (if they have one). I've really no desire to create a class of clones, but I do believe that all good 'representational' paintings should have these elements properly developed.
All my students admit they recognise the difference between a local 'amateur' art exhibition and a professional artist's work, and I believe the difference is that the 'amateur' doesn't understand how to properly create a 'good' painting in terms of design, composition, colour planning, movement, use of line, centre of interest etc. On my workshops I try to explain these factors as clearly as possible, and get my students to practice them each day, so that by the end of the week they may have become more familar with them and hence be well on the road to being better painters.
Lynda has thrown up the dilemma when a 'student' attends my workshop and resists this process, either deliberately or by default to a comfort zone, to a familiar well worn way of painting. I guess there's only so much a tutor can do, after that it's up to the student how much they're prepared to let go, to trust, at least for the period of the workshop. After all, they can go back to their usual way of painting once the workshop is over, but of course I hope they will see the benefits of my approach and that they will continue on the process of painting I've taught.
In the meantime I've just one thing to say - Squint!