Putting a horse in a painting

...Is not a simple matter. Everything you choose to paint has to function as a design element, as a piece of a harmonious whole.

Some things are easy to incorporate in a composition. A house is a rectangle, a mountain is a triangle, a hill is a breast; all simple, pleasing forms. A mass of trees or a cloud share the happy facility of being pretty much any shape you choose.

But a horse has uncompromising facts of anatomy which must be accommodated without upsetting the balance of the picture. As a living thing, it will draw the eye no matter where you put it, even if it's only incidental to the main focal point of the painting.

And it is a collection of shapes: the truncated triangles of head, and neck, the sagging barrel of the body, and last, and most awkwardly, the legs. Many, many legs. Put those legs against a plain ground, like a grassy field, and they will divide it into beautiful, interesting paper cut outs, with nuanced straight lines, graceful curves, and odd little sharp angles. Which might be bad, because these shapes are too interesting, and could take attention away from where you want it to go.

One solution is to incorporate the horse into a tonal mass so that it doesn't stand out too much, blending into the background a little.

Paint the horses lying down, and you either have rounded boulders that fit in easily, or a sprawling mess with legs pointing everywhere. Painting is about as honest as stock photography, in that you're always looking for the best angle to show off your subject, and trying to avoid the awkward views. 

If you want to see what to do with horses' legs, check out Uccello's 'The battle of San Romano'.

Work in progress.

Just uploaded this recent painting to my Saatchi account:

Right now I'm working on a 12" x 30" 'Ramsons', for which I started painting studies and taking photographs a couple of years ago.

Actually I've painted everything but ramsons, as they haven't started flowering yet, but they're in bud, so all we need now is a warm, dry spell of sunny weather...

(Sits and twiddles thumbs.)

No matter. I've got a monthly 'Oak in a field' on the go, with only five more to do before I end up with a year's worth of 8" x 12" paintings of the same corner of a field in different lights and weathers. Standing in the same spot for a couple of days every month has probably set the farmer on edge, given the risk of travellers opting to squat on his land. But he's not come after me with a shotgun yet.

Painting the same subject in different lights and seasons is great practice. I've been forced to deal with painting things I'd usually avoid: snow, bare branches, open ground. But when you don't have to worry about drawing or composition, since they're the same from painting to painting, you're free to concentrate on the look of things.

I've also been forced to deal with passers by, given that it's beside a busy road. Most of them are lorry drivers, confused by the sudden countryside, and anxious in case they've taken a wrong turn.

The most memorable was an unusual couple who walked past. She, twenty something, pretty, brunette, talkative. He, same age, shirtless (on a cold autumn day) and raving while he literally wrestled with the air. I suspect chemicals were involved. But they were polite enough, and soon on their way, she chatting amiably, while he shouted at the trees and hedges.

I'm just about to draw out a 12" x 24" of an autumn hedgerow on its support, from drawings I did last year. Small paintings I'm happy to start on site, but bigger works need more rehearsal, and a preliminary drawing helps sort out problems of scale and composition before I take the painting to the subject. I will be working mostly on site, even on larger works, in future. I find both kinds of painting - plein air and studio -  are necessary, for every painting.

I tried painting a large studio painting from studies, last year, and it pretty much died on the easel. Without the injection of a real response to the real subject, actually there in front of you, a painting has an uphill struggle before it gets within reach of success. I find myself using photographs less and less every year.

For sale, one previous owner.

So I'm selling the mitre saw I bought.

Stop laughing at the back.

Why am I selling it?

It's not the right tool for the job. It's not accurate enough. And, let's be honest, I'm not the best woodworker around. The mitre cuts are close, but just a little out. When I assemble the cut stock to make the frame, there are gaps.

Not huge gaps, you understand. Nothing that would make the average joiner blink an eye, but unacceptable in a picture frame.

I've tried fixing this. Test cuts every time I set the blade, the cut pieces examined against a compound square. Excess wood shaved off with a block plane and a mitred shooting board. I even built a rotary framing sander from an old grinding wheel.

All to no avail.

Failure is not always a challenge. Sometimes it's life's way of telling you to try a different approach.

I'm a handy sort of chap. I could, for example, in theory, learn how to make my own shoes. But there are many excellent reasons why I don't.* Similarly, I have never tried to do my own dentistry. Just last month I also discovered that I really, really shouldn't attempt plumbing.

And I'm not going to do my own framing any more, but I'm going to pay someone else to make a really good job of it.

What valuable life lesson can we draw from my humiliating about face?

'Enthusiasm and determination are no substitute for surly acceptance of one's own inadequacy.'

Sounds a little harsh. Let's put a better spin on it.

How about this:

'When a task requires resources and skills you don't possess, pay an expert to do it.'

Better. Here's a cloud study:

* Not least being that it would be weird. Who does that?


I hesitate to attribute to a tree any such thing as character, but there are trees around my home that are as recognizable to me as old friends.

Off the top of my head, I can bring to mind two fine examples of Aruacaria aruacana, the 'monkey puzzle', in gardens. Add to them, at the side of a country road, the ivy covered oak that looks like something out of a Disney animation. Then there's the handsome cedar on the front lawn of a local National Trust property.

They draw the eye, and give pleasure. I have drawn, and painted, and photographed them.

Over the past few weeks I've ransacked old sketchbooks and pored over folders of paintings to gather together the best tree pictures I have made. They are collected here, in a book, for your viewing pleasure.


Algernon Blackwood wrote a story, The man whom the trees loved, about a painter who specialized in portraits of his favourite trees. While I share that character's affection for his subject, I hope that I'm not only a tree painter, just as I hope to evade his fate. (The trees steal him away.)

I also hope this small book gives you some of the pleasure I have enjoyed in making the drawings and paintings that fill it. I have always found the countryside to be a place of beauty and pleasure, and the trees in these pages have played a large part in that.

Photographing your paintings: Using GIMP to get the best out of your image capture.

Taken a picture of your painting?

Disappointed in the end result?

Looking a bit flat and dull?

Read on, and follow my GIMP recipe for getting the best out of your image captures.

Open your image file in GIMP. Then open the Colors > Levels dialogue.

You'll see a box with a histogram, which is what you'll be adjusting. Note the channel, just above this, which is probably set to Value. Press the arrow to access the menu, and pick Red.

You'll see a graph, with a black curve in a white box. It probably doesn't extend all the way to the sides of the box. At the bottom you'll see three arrows. Slide the right hand (white) arrow to the left until it's just outside the final range of the histogram curve. Watch your picture get a little lighter and warmer. If the curve doesn't go all the way to the left, slide the left arrow a little to the right, just outside the limit of the curve. Watch your picture get a little darker.

You're not done. Select the Green channel. Repeat the process.

Next, select the Blue channel. Same again, never adjusting more than improves the image. Use a light touch, but experiment to see what happens when you go too far. You can always undo any mistakes you make.

Lastly, repeat with the Value channel. Use a light touch, and make use of the central slider to adjust the overall tone of the image.

Think you're done? Click Edit > Undo, to see the original file, then Redo to reapply the changes you've made. Have you improved it? Save your file. This process really helps when your initial capture is a little flat and dull. It separates out the tones and colours and makes the whole thing pop.

Frame making with a compound mitre saw.

Readers may recall this post I wrote about buying a new hand mitre saw, some years ago. Unfortunately, that proved to be a poor replacement for the previous saw*, and still languishes in its box, waiting on me finding an eBay punter to take it off my hands.

So just after Christmas, I bit the bullet and ordered a powered compound sliding mitre saw online. I read some reviews for models in my price range beforehand, and looked at some review videos on YouTube, before settling on a Metabo I could afford.

It came in record time, with the wrong plug attached, a glitch the seller was quick to resolve by sending me an adapter free of charge. I read the manual through several times, given that learn as you go while using a razor sharp whirling wheel of death and dismemberment seemed like a really bad idea. I fixed the saw to a sturdy slab of plywood, only to discover that its cast metal base was tilted up at one corner. Not in any hurry to send it back for a replacement that was not guaranteed to be any better, I soldiered on and made a test frame using the saw.

The mitres turned out well, which was, after all, the point of buying it in the first place. I cut some picture frame moulding to fit a couple of small paintings and assembled the pieces to make sure the corners looked okay, which they did. Tight, accurate mitres.

And now I need an underpinner and a point gun.

Things to bear in mind:

1) Safety. You'll need safety glasses, hearing protection, and a dustmask. A turning blade can throw things in your face. The saw is surprisingly loud, and will damage unprotected hearing. And wood dust is just plain nasty.

2) RTFM. Read the manual before you turn the machine on and use it for the first time. Again, YouTube is your friend. There are a lot of videos about using mitre saws.

3) Make sure the wood is firmly clamped, and let the saw get up to speed before making a steady, smooth cut. This helps avoid tear-out.

4) Keep your fingers well away from the blade.

5) There's a work light and a laser on the cutting head. The work light is useful, but I find the laser distracting and not much use for its intended purpose of showing you where the blade will cut.

6) The sliding function is useful in dealing with wide stock, and the turntable for cutting mitred angles is smooth and accurate; but the tilting head for compound angles is a liability when it comes to cutting simple mitres. If it moves, it can get out of whack and mess up your cuts. Something to consider if you have a model in mind. I've fixed the head bolt upright at a measured 90 degrees and never touch the tilt lever at all.

In fact... if all you want to cut is picture frame mitres, you might be better off getting a table saw and making a mitre sled.

7) Lastly, never get complacent when using a tool like this. If you're slightly anxious about using it every time you plug it in, that's a healthy attitude. 

Accidents with power tools can turn very ugly very quickly. (Do a 'woodwork accident' image search on Google if you don't believe me. A little stomach churning, but very educational.)

Is this a good solution to the problem of framing my work?

Meh. In a perfect world, I'd send my PA up the road to Bramptons to see if my huge annual order was ready, and have her pick them up by the skip load in my personal hovercraft. I wouldn't waste a minute making frames or priming boards, or stretching canvases, because time you spend doing these things is time you could spend painting.

But it is a solution, and the best one available to me here and now.

Framing your work presents it in its best aspect. It's an essential part of professional practice. Learning how to do it yourself, and do it well, is one solution to a problem all painters have.

* I lent my previous mitre saw to a relative. Never, ever, do that.

In fact, if anyone ever asks to borrow one of your tools - your precious, lovely, useful, expensive, well maintained and cared for tools -  just stab them until they go away. Use a freshly sharpened pencil. Make an angry face. Say, 'No. No. No,'  repeatedly, in time with the little stabby motions, as you advance on them. Go for the soft spots, and strike with venom.

They have to learn. It's for the best.