Artist: Richard Smith

Image result for richard smith paintings
Painting, 1958, oil on canvas, 1520 x 1221 mm

I saw this painting at the Tate Modern over the Christmas break and was immediately captured by it. The vibrancy and warmth of the colours pulled me in. Then the depth, energy, movement of the brushstrokes kept me in front of it; taking in the whole painting.
The painting reminded me of the kind of work I was making first year second & third term.

The richness of the colours is due to the use of oil paints, which seem to always create a richer hue than acrylics, even when thinned.

The way the paint has been applied appears kind of structural – see photoshopped lines over image of the painting.
The flat canvas has the illusion of depth and dimension.
This dimension is created in the pure colours of yellow. Possibly because the different shades of yellow imitate highlights and shadows of a structure, and add the illusion of depth.

Around the time of the making of Painting Smith was also developing a growing interest in the physical and mental properties of environments generated by the mass media.

Tate website:

Learning what the subject and focus of Smith’s work was, shows how subjective his work is. I see this painting as a link to my landscape paintings, and I’m sure other viewers would find equally personal links to their own lives in the painting which doesn’t reflect Smith’s intentions.

Richard Smith, ‘Piano’ 1963
Piano, 1963

This area sits in the grey space between painting and scultpure, although Smith insisted that these works were purely paintings, since a canvas has three dimensional sides so it is already not flat.

The ink lines and rough brushstrokes have remind me of how I’ve been working, and the play with structure and illusion in his work is something I’ve been interested in. Could this be a prompt to work with three dimensions in my own work?

In series: Sixteen Pieces of Paper ‘Interval’
MEDIUM Screenprint on paper
DIMENSIONS Image: 392 x 372 mm
ACQUISITION Presented by the artist 1976

The direction of these marks creates strong movement and to me, the sense of wind rushing through something. I want to try this idea of direction of marks in my own painting. If brushstrokes are angles upwards, or in flat planes or shapes, how does that effect the space and the level or movement?

Piet Mondrian Revisited

I looked at Mondrian when I first started painting the woods nearly a year ago (post here). His method of working still inspires my practice.

He spent his life working on abstract paintings and also painting trees. There was no linear transition from trees to abstraction, but a constant relationship between the two parts of his practices.

Having two types of work moving in parallel makes sense to me, there is the possibility that one practice informs the other, or that having the space to step away from either practice is important.

Oils vs acrylics

Oil paints on right. Acrylics on left.

Underpainting is 50/50 Gesso and acrylic paint, one layer.

I did both of these paintings right after being outside sketching in the woods. So these paintings are memory paintings. I did the oil painting first, and with the acrylic painting I tried to keep the brushstrokes and colour palette similar to the oil painting, so it is easier to compare.

Same coarse air brushes used in both paintings.

The oil paint is 3:1 oil paint and Liquin medium – for more transparency and faster drying time.

Acrylic paint is 3:1 acrylic paint and gloss medium – for more transparency, gloss and flow. Not sure how this affects the drying time.


Drying Time 
Oil paints still wet when painting finished, so could only work wet-on-wet unless you left the painting for a number of hours.
Acrylics dried extremely fast in comparison – with brushstrokes drying in minutes so mostly dry-on-wet was the way to work. 

I already have a larger variety of colours in oils than I do in acrylics, so I have more colour options without having to buy more paint.
Colours are much more intense and vibrate against the dark background much more than the acrylic paint.
Oil paints have more subtle colours. 

Oil paints have a much more radiant transparency and would have more interesting layers when applied dry-on-wet. (But drying time makes this an issue to do fast).
Acrylics have good transparency with the gloss medium (and have the big advantage of drying in minutes). Radiance when layering semi-transparent paint not as good.


Brushes carry paint slightly smoother and longer with oils, but not much difference, especially with more gloss medium added to acrylics.


Oil paints have more possibility for colour work, but the process would be much slower, and would have to be done in stages if I wanted to layer dry-on-wet. Also cannot paint in oils in sketchbook!
Acrylics better for fast studies and when I want to layer dry-on-wet in one sitting.
Oils better for bigger pieces, that I don’t mind painting in stages.

Digital Structures

After drawing some structures in the woods in a sketchbook, I was still struggling with using the three point perspective to get the shapes I wanted. So I decided to do some more practices digitally – where I could extend the drawing off the edges of the photograph, and figure out the method more.

This method of digital drawing is less fun and interesting that drawing en plein air! And I think the results are not as good. You need to be under the canopy to get a sense of the height and surroundings. However this was worthwhile doing to get more familiar with this three point perspective, and this method definitely creates more believable and new structures than drawing freehand like I used to do.

Comparing photo reference paintings with sketch reference paintings

Left: painting from series of sketches. Right: painting from one photograph.

There is definitely a visual difference between the paintings I have done from sketches, and the paintings done from photographs. 

Paintings from photographs I think look far more confident in brushwork, colour palette and paint application. 

But I think the paintings done from sketches are also a lot more mysterious somehow. They seem more ephemeral, whilst the paintings from photograph are quite literal. By this I mean the photo ref. paintings, although they have conceptual meaning behind them, appear to have less of a process behind the making of them. And this is true! 
When painting from sketches I apply so many layers of paint; it is a process of trail and error. 
When painting from a photograph I apply the paint with far more purpose. There are hardly any mistakes covered up or layers painted over. The photograph gives me one perspective which I follow. I just paint and complete it.

This is something to explore further with my practice. I want the movement and, I don’t know, something there that I can’t put into words yet, from the sketch based experiments. But I also want the confidence and impact of the paintings done with a photograph. 
How do I achieve both in one work? That is something to keep in mind and experiment with. 

Finished duvet painting

I took what I had learnt from the test painting to complete this painting. 

The finished painting 

What Works

Two shades of white – blue tone and ochre tone 
Adds subtle dimension and light to the piece. 

I applied white without any Liquin so it was a much thick application than my tester or previous paintings. I did this because I thought there was something missing from the tester – it looks too flat and washy. Making the highlighting paint thicker has solved this issue. 
The thickness of the paint in contrast to the underpainting and shadows gives the highlights a luminosity that makes the painting striking. 

The way I painted the sheets in the bottom right of the painting – letting the shadows be the underpainting, instead of a dark brown I applied. Painting the sheets like this works well because it helps to differentiate between where the duvet stops and the sheets start. The shadows are softer on the sheets than they are on the duvet so it makes sense to not use the dark brown shadow in areas such as this. I want to use this technique on all of the sheets for future paintings. 

The size and frequency of the flower pattern. I followed the photograph roughly, and then added more flowers on top. I looked at what the painting needed more than following the photograph and this worked in the paintings favour. 

I decided not to add a mid-tone grey. I thought with the tester it complicated things, and add more tonal variation where it wasn’t needed. It makes this painting starker. The two different shades of white make up for not having the mid-tone grey. 

I was unsure about how to paint the top part where, in the photograph, the wall is. I liked the idea of leaving the underpainting there, the texture and colour worked well. But I didn’t want that part of the painting to look ignored and unfinished. So I add a wash of warm off-white, thinned with turpentine. Leaving the canvas bare where the shadows of the pillows are.
This works well because it is subtle and doesn’t draw attention from the rest of the piece. I didn’t want to apply thick paint which would create a high contrast area, because that would have drawn the eye too much. 

Hiding the face of the figure and just having her hair and wrist showing works really well. The focus is very much on the materiality of the duvet, and the shape the fabric is creasing in that follows the position of the body underneath it. 

As a viewer of the finished piece, with the pattern on the duvet being so bold and colourful,  I try to find some meaning in it that reflect the person under the covers. The blooming flowers seem a reflection of the character of the person – whether that is how the artist perceives the person, or something else. I know this is a self portrait, and the flowers are just what I had on my bed that day. But it’s interesting that even knowing that, my mind tries to find narrative in the pattern. <<This is something I could work with moving forward! 

What doesn’t work 

Areas of the sheets where I added this dark brown as the shadow. The contrast is too high considering the sheets have a softer shadows than the duvet. It makes it tricky to see where the duvet ends and the sheet begins. 

I think generally, the sheets need more experimentation. I am unsure what would look best with them – but I think the direction is to use more of the underpainting and remove the shadows. 

Conclusion and moving forward

Overall I’m happy with the outcome of this piece. It felt like quite a stylistic experiment, but the painting does have conceptual implications. 

I think the pattern on the fabric has so much potential. I could be painting portraits of people under duvets and using the pattern on the fabric to reflect them, or get them to choose a pattern? There is a lot to be explored! This painting is a good start.