Squaring up

Medium: Acrylic paint
Support: Galeria acrylic paper, 300gsm (140 Ibs)
Colours: Titanium white, phthalocyanine blue, yellow ochre, cadmium red, burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow
Brushes: Daler Rowney System 3 brushes – 1” short flat, ½” short flat, filbert size 4, round size 4 and filbert size 0.
Other materials: Natural sponge, cocktail sticks
Size: 40cm x 28 cm (15” x 11”)

This exercise involved using squaring up as a method of enlarging an image. I had been doing some research into Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and been inspired by the confidence of her drawings especially those of coastal towns or fishing villages.

I decided to use a photograph of what I thought was St Monans in Fife though I’m now not so sure as the photo was taken a good number of years ago. It is one of those views of villages in the East Neuk of Fife that I have always wanted to try and paint but have been daunted by the detail and how to approach drawing it.

Village in East Neuk of Fife

Village in East Neuk of Fife

I had also read an article in Homes and Interiors Scotland magazine about artist Angie Bee [1] and liked the vibrant colours that she used and the way that buildings were loosely painted and reduced to their basic shapes. 

Despite the detail in the view I decided that I would try to work along those lines by using a limited palette of blues and earth tones and concentrating on the basic shapes and tonal range.

Squaring up

Initial drawing using the squaring up process

Initial drawing using the squaring up process

The process of squaring up can be intensive but I found it a useful exercise, especially the number of times that, despite the squares, I veered into drawing what I thought was there rather than what actually was. This was particularly true in relation to the proportions of the houses.

Colour palette

I didn’t want to create a realistic representation of the original photograph and decided to try and work with the idea of simple shapes, looser brush work and to create texture by scraping though to the underlayers.

For the initial layer I used a mix of cadmium red, yellow ochre and phthalocyanine blue to create a rusty red. I liked the idea of scraping through from the cooler blues and whites of the top layer to show glimpses of the red-orange below.

Initial session

Red underlayer and background

Red underlayer and background

Initially I added the red layer of paint and then blocked in the darkest and lightest values. For the darkest tones I mixed cadmium red, ultramarine blue and burnt sienna to create a dark aubergine hue.

I gave the scene some context by adding in hills in the background and a loose wash of phthalocyanine blue and titanium white for the water.

Development of scene

Development of houses

Development of houses

I then began to develop the houses to the left focusing on the tonal values and blocks of colour rather than detail. For the larger building to the immediate left of the blue house I added in a little more detail . At this stage I liked the contrast of the blues and more earth based colours which gave an underlying glow to the scene.

Detail of houses

More detail added to houses

More detail added to houses

For the next couple of sessions I added more detail to the houses leading to the blue house specifically the addition of skylight windows and being more definitive with areas of light and shade on the rooftops and in the street.

After a bit of debate I added a wash of green over the grassy areas to the left. I wasn’t sure if this would be too jarring given the rest of the palette but once done it added an accent of colour without detracting from other areas.

Work on background

Work on harbour area and background

Work on harbour area and background

To balance work being done in the foreground I added a darker wash to the water in the background and scraped through the surface to show a glimpse of the russet underlayer. I added a little more detail to the harbour area but with a light touch to ensure that a sense of distance was maintained. Similarly, I toned down the beach area in front of the harbour by scraping through to other layers.

I wasn’t sure about the colour of the roof of the building to the left of the blue house feeling that it needed to be more of a mid-tone. I scraped back some of the darker layer and added a wash of phthalocyanine blue which created a better balance with the darker blue colours in the foreground.

I then added a little more detail to the houses on the right-hand side and developed the chimneys and roof of the cottages in the foreground.

Trees and green space

Development of trees

Development of trees

At this stage I decided to work on the grassy area to the left of the picture. Given the overall style of the image I wanted to create a sense of the foliage without the detail of individual branches. I started by adding in the main tree trunks using similar tones to the buildings.

Working on detail of trees

Working on detail of trees

I wasn’t quite sure how to approach the trees on the left so decided on a bit of experimentation. To begin with I used a natural sponge to dab on titanium white to block out the areas taken up by the tree branches. Using the darker aubergine colour I then used a cocktail stick to scrape lines onto the white area to represent branches. This was time consuming and I wasn’t sure if it was the effect I wanted so I changed tack and painted thicker areas of the aubergine colour onto the surface and began to scrape through this with a scraperboard approach. This seemed to work better allowing me to more easily shape the lines in relation to the branches and show glimpses of the grassy area beyond.

For the final session I still had to work on the trees in front of the cottages and the houses to the right. I didn’t want all the trees to be the same colours so added an initial layer of red before the final session.

Final session

Finishing touches added to trees, harbour and water

Finishing touches added to trees, harbour and water

In the final session I added another layer of the dark aubergine colour to the red layers of the trees in front of the cottages and scraped through to create a sense of the branches. I then used different tones of a mix of cadmium red, cadmium yellow and white to create highlights in the branches of all the trees.

At this stage I decided to stop. I think more could be done with the trees in front of the cottage but the paper was becoming fragile with scraping through to the underlying layers. To finish off I added a wash of phthalocyanine blue to the buildings near the lighthouse and lightened the water a little.

Learning points

Ideally, I would like to be able to tackle a drawing like this from observation and create it freehand but, in the meantime, this did allow me to tackle a more involved drawing and to try out a different approach with colour.

With hindsight, given I wanted to work with basic shapes and blocks of colour, I think I would have made the image bigger which may have allowed me to be a bit looser with the brushwork. It does, I think, have a sense of distance and I like the light and shade on the buildings. The initial layer of red also gives an underlying glow to the image. Despite the squaring up process there are areas which I still managed to get a little bit out but, overall, it is a useful technique.

  • With the squaring up process I found that I still needed to think, in some ways, as if I was drawing freehand. It was necessary to follow main lines across several squares and concentrate on getting larger shapes working first before moving onto details.
  • Initially, thinking it would save time, I drew onto acrylic paper which, because of the texture, made it difficult to get straight lines. I realised it would be better to trace it anyway in case I needed to redo the painting and then, at least, I still had access to the drawing. In future I would be inclined to draw on cartridge paper first and transfer to support.
  • I lost my way a bit with the trees but at least that allowed me to experiment a little. Looking at how other artists tackle trees would be a useful exercise.

Postscript – revision of exercise

Revised version of 'Squaring Up' exercise

Revised version of ‘Squaring Up’ exercise

After submission of this exercise my tutor suggested adding some revision to the left-hand side of the painting as she felt this area had ‘too much pink and red’ and needed to balance more with the right-hand side. Following her advice I added washes of white to some of the buildings on the left and made a slight adjustment to the roof of one of the houses. On the harbour wall I also darkened some areas using washes of burnt sienna and phthalocyanine blue.

The changes are more obvious in the actual painting than from the photo but, if your eyesight is good, you might be able to spot the differences.


[1] Patience, J. (2012) Ever-Changing Moods. Homes and Interiors Scotland. Issue 83, 102 – 107. Available from: http://content.yudu.com/Library/A1y1rv/HomesandInteriorsSco/resources/index.htm?referrerUrl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.co.uk%2F [Accessed 31 July 2014]


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