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Working in Monochrome.

As an artist I usually prefer to work in colour. However, as with photography, when devising a composition, one of the important questions to ask yourself is: How do I best represent my subject?

Sometimes, monochrome is a better fit. Let me explain why.

Family – Graphite on bristol paper, 23×40 cm. Inspired by the photography of Edward Stanton of boys playing on the streets of Detroit, circa 1937.

Your subject isn’t just the person or the object you might be portraying, it is in fact, everything that falls within the margins of your composition. Everything in the frame should count in order to create an even and balanced piece, and to create a visual narrative that is pleasing. Now, how you decide that is based entirely on your personal preferences and your artistic vision, but please trust that your brain and your eyes are very adept at knowing what looks and feels right, irrespective of whatever artistic training you may or may not have had. When deciding on how a piece should look and feel, however, whether the piece should be portrayed in colour or monochrome is a key factor.

Had I decided to work the above piece in colour, it would have made it a very different piece with different visual cues to draw my audience in. Working in monochrome using a medium such as graphite, for example, puts the emphasis on structure. This is because the human brain with the help of the eyes will instantly focus on the lightest and darkest parts of an image, with mid-tones calling for less attention. If you want a part of your composition to really stand out, then you pair very dark with very light in order to create that stark contrast that the brain loves. This technique of course, works in colour too. However, with monochrome the language of contrast is greatly increased because of the lack of variation that colour affords. There is simply less to distract the eye and the brain with monochrome, resulting in the visual landscape changing completely. It gives the viewer of the artwork an opportunity to really engage with the form of the composition, and the composition as a whole.

As with my pot of Marmite below, I, as the artist want you to pay attention to its bulbous form, and the wonderful vintage lettering of the label. I want you to pay attention to the reflections within its highly polished dark glass and wonder what it’s reflecting, because I’m trying to recreate a sense of context. And if you love Marmite – as I do, then it will add all important meaning to you. If I had rendered this in colour, likely the white lettering on the red and yellow background, coupled with the bright yellow lid would have taken all of your attention, and the pot’s form would likely have had less of an impact. By rendering this in monochrome, I have guided your point of focus to the whole object where there is an even balance of very dark versus very light. Everything within the frame counts and feels unified.

Marmite Pot – Graphite on cartridge paper, 19x19cm.

With portraiture, working in monochrome can be a powerfully emotive tool. The area of the face where that stark contrast is very present is around the eyes, for example. Within the iris and pupils alone you have the opportunity to represent the brightest highlights adjacent to the deepest shadows, thus creating an illusion of sentience, because this is what the human eye is used to seeing in everyday life in its assessment of what is and isn’t real. The brain is easily fooled however, but to great benefit for us artists, because the result – if you get that balance of contrasts right, is very pleasing and feels a little bit like magic. Even a carrion bird like the Lappet Faced Vulture below, appears more personable because of the sense of ‘life’ that the one visible eye seems to have, and its rather enigmatic smile created by the creases in the skin coving its beak. Notice the stark contrast of very dark against the brightness of the paper throughout the whole image and how it creates the illusion of form and a sense of familiarity. By eliminating the colour, I am encouraging the viewer to engage with the personality of the bird, rather than with its original colourful form, and risking my rendition of the bird being dismissed as simply a colourful bird.

Lappet Faced Vulture – Graphite and charcoal on cartridge paper, 19x19cm.

We are only able to see because of the presence of light. In low light levels for example, our ability to discern one object or colour from another becomes greatly impaired. The sharp contrasts that usually help inform us of shape and distance are reduced to a mid-tone greyscale, making it very difficult to discern one object from another, no matter its distance in relation to us. We rely on sharp contrasts of light to help us evaluate and assess our environment in a way that is beneficial to us. Of course, we usually have other senses to help us evaluate our environment and sense of reality, however, with visual two-dimensional art all of the emphasis is placed on the what the eyes see, and how what they see makes us feel. And so, as the artist, you have to play to the eye’s strength, so to speak, and to hopefully evoke a strong sense of meaning by creating illusions that evoke emotion and a sense of familiarity. Understanding how light and contrast works within your artwork is a fundamental part of how it will be received once it is finished and you are ready to present it to a wider audience. Your composition is a dialogue that happens the moment someone looks at it. How its audience engages with it is the important part and will be the culmination of all your hard work. Hopefully, it’s a good story.

Mementos – Graphite and charcoal on cartridge paper, 9×12 in.

Your work doesn’t have to be hyperrealistic in order to be emotive and for it to be an effective composition, neither does it have to be in monochrome, but it does need to contain certain elements that inform the eye of the viewer as to where to look and where to place focus, and to some extent, what to feel. The decision then, as to whether to do the work in monochrome or colour is as strategic as it is stylistic, and should be considered in equal measure.

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I Wiped the Smile off of My Son’s Face – Painting dilemmas.

I quite literally wiped the smile off of my son’s face a couple of days ago – no boys were harmed in the process, however. Thankfully!

Portrait of My Son – Work in progress, by Maria Jones-Phillips, 2020.

I wasn’t especially happy with the way my painting of his face was evolving. I think what did it was being taken out of my painting rhythm by the gloomy weather over the past week and the run of power outages that prevented me from using my computer – I usually have a digital image up on the screen as reference for a painting. By the time I felt it was safe enough to return to the task at hand, my head wasn’t in it anymore, thus reinforcing the point to myself that it’s best to leave work alone if I’m not focused and willing. In fact, having known a lot of other creatives throughout my life, despite advice often given to the contrary, walking away from a project while you rediscover your enthusiasm and composure is sometimes the best thing you can possibly do, especially if you find yourself stuck or struggling in any way. The struggle is usually a sign that you don’t really know what you’re doing and that perhaps you need to simplify and rethink the task at hand. As was beginning to be true of my son’s smiley mouth.

Every painting presents new challenges even for the most experienced of artists. Every painting should be a learning process. At least, I think so.

Detailed painting, especially in portraiture takes a lot of concentration and a steady hand to faithfully translate what you see onto the painting’s surface, as well as a good knowledge of mixing colour. The whole thing is a fine balance of acquired knowledge and observation. I often hold my breath without even really being aware that I’m doing so, as I work on details such as mouth-lines and eyes. It’s in these features that the life of the subject is truly captured, and so, it pays to get them right. A couple of millimetres off and you have likely changed the entire expression, and something will seem off. With colour you don’t have to be quite as exact, as long as you capture the tonal variations correctly. I’ve been paying attention, for example, to the fact that one of my son’s eyes is slightly inverted, which has been the case since he was a baby. If I were to correct it, as another artist might due to their own aesthetics, he wouldn’t look right. Paying attention to the details and nuances of expression is what makes a face look real and believable.

For now, however, I’m going to leave the painting to dry a little more before I continue and re-attempt painting my son’s smile. I don’t doubt I can capture it well, I just need to be more focussed when I do. I may instead, try something different today, in an attempt to eradicate the cobwebs from my brain. I will let you know, what if anything, I produce. 🙂

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New Beginnings and Breaking My Hiatus on Oil Painting

Oil paints from my very first set back in the early 1980s. Still have them!

Almost exactly two years ago, I broke my almost life-long hiatus from using oil paints. I remember at age 7 I expressed a desire to learn to paint in oils. My Dad was an artist and his medium of choice was oil, so it seemed like a natural progression for me to follow suit. He subscribed to a weekly art magazine on my behalf, which served as a very comprehensive art course, and which would probably cost lots of money to do under today’s standards. But then, things were way less click-baity back then. I remember many years later subscribing to another art course, and remarking on how inferior it was compared to my childhood ‘Draw it! Paint it!’ series. I digress a little, however. Suffice to say, I studied the course intensely and learned a lot.

On a Christmas morn, not too long after, I received my first oil painting set – I still have it. I kid you not. The paints are still good, albeit close to the end of their shelf-life now (oil paints will last from 35-50 years if looked after). I dabbled a little with them at the time, but decided they were probably way too advanced for me, so I let them sit in their box for years, ever with the intent of resuming and learning how to use them properly. I attempted to sometime after my daughter was born, and produced one painting. But that was it. And then again some years later when I began a portrait that never quite got past the blocking-in stage.

My studio set-up back in 2018 and my first ever oil landscape.

Eventually, in September of 2018 I decided to end my procrastination and began my first ever landscape in oils. It was a terrifying experience. It was a steep learning curve, and I scoured YouTube, books, galleries and whatever else I could lay my eyes and hands on in order to teach myself this most sacred of arts. Two years in and many paintings later, I think I’ve finally got the hang of painting in oils. Honestly, I don’t know what all the fuss was about… Seriously, and to be quite fair, however, it is a very different medium than most others, and so it’s a bit of an adjustment from watercolour, for example. It does help that I am now able to dedicate as much time as I want to it – I wasn’t able to for many years due to family and work commitments, and so, I almost didn’t at all. Plus, oil painting is an expensive pursuit. You also need space to let paintings dry and a lot of patience, which thankfully, I have developed to a degree with age. The space or lack thereof, is still an issue, however. Soon to be resolved hopefully!

Last year I began painting portraits in earnest. I’ve always loved portraiture and have produced a lot of work in graphite and charcoal, though rarely in full colour. The last time I attempted a full colour portrait was when I was 16 and I was working in pastel. The piece was a life-sized mural of all the members of the band I was in at the time, myself included. Though, I never quite finished it, and since my move to the USA it has vanished into the ether. I’ve had a lot of catching up to do, in short. And so, this past year I have been focussing my attentions more on portraiture through the medium of oils. I have completed four oil portraits so far. Three that I consider to be hyperrealistic, and one that is stylised and more impressionistic. I’m currently working on my next portrait which is of my eldest son. Many more in my queue too. In fact, I’ve embarked on a longterm project which I will speak more about in future posts.

Click on the gallery below to see the my collection of colour portraits to date, both in watercolour and oil:

For now though, welcome to my blog and thank you for taking the time to read! 🙂

I welcome all comments and hope to get to know you better.

M.

Sketches in Oil – Grasses on a Beach

Grasses on a Beach – Oil on canvas, 10×10 in., by Maria Jones-Phillips/MXJP.

Yesterday I said I would try something a little different, by way of giving myself a break from working on my son’s portrait. Much more impressionistic and looser in style, I decided I would recreate one of my digital paintings in oil. I’ve been wanting to practise painting skies and clouds for some time now, as I’ve not done a lot of landscape painting. I do like the effects you can achieve with oil when painting clouds, however, and how diaphanous you make them look just with the flick of a hog hair fan brush.

I was up early enough this morning that I caught the sun hitting the canvas as I snapped a picture – the apartment is like a cave throughout the rest of the day as we face almost due north. At least I like how the painting looks in daylight. It looked very grey-ish/green when I finished painting it yesterday evening, and was worried it would look too vivid by morning.

I might try another one today.

Oh, For the Love of Light! – Oil Painting Issues.

Oil on canvas, 16×20 in. Work in progress. Blocking-in stage. Working out the tonal layers of the neck and body.

Summers here on the east coast of America tend to be a stormy affair. This equates to poor light levels in what is already a dingy apartment, which means that on days like today, I don’t get much painting done. The interior lights are not adequate to paint by, and so, I have this continuing dilemma whereby I am at the mercy of the weather gods to provide me with the painting light that I need.
The thing that you learn by trial and error with oil paints is that, having consistent light levels is an important part of the painting’s execution. Not just because you need bright, diffused light in order to see what you’re doing, but because the paint pigment changes in colour by considerable amounts according to the amount and type of light shining through it. Oil paint is highly structured. It has body through which light refracts, and so, a painting that you do by daylight will drastically change in appearance come evening light, not to mention the added texture of the canvas and the chosen ground colour that contribute to the surface texture from which light will reflect through the overlaying oil paint. I have run into problems with this over and over. I’ll paint something by evening and like the colours, but by the next day, it will look completely different and I’ll have to make adjustments. In order to compensate for this dramatic shift in appearance, I just don’t paint in the evenings anymore. It’s a pain, because I lose a lot of painting time on account of the available light. The solution?

Oil on canvas, 16×20 inc. Work in progress. Blocking-in stage.

Move house. Get a better light source for evening painting that emits blue light. I guess.

I’m sure the masters of old had the same issues. It’s frustrating. Could you imagine painting by candlelight? Mind you, painting by lamplight isn’t really much better. It makes subtle nuances with certain shades really hard to see. Blue in particular, loses its vibrancy in yellow light, and so it’s all too easy to misjudge the correct shade when mixing on the palate.

What I really need is a workshop with skylights and white walls, with spotlights in the ceiling, like I had in my house before I came to the USA. But then, that was a purpose built artist’s studio/workshop. I would love to have that again. I can dream.

I’ve begun working on my next oil portrait. My eldest son is the subject this time. He’s sitting patiently on my tabletop easel waiting for the light to change once this rain storm passes. Might be a while…

Oil on canvas, 16×20 in. Work in progress. Blocking-in stage. Working on the tonal values of the face and trying to create structure.

Lots to do yet!

Piercing is not just for body parts!

Brass Raven, still with tracing paper and brass filings - work in progress
Brass Raven, still with tracing paper and brass filings – work in progress

One of the skills you are taught as a silversmith, in fact a smith of any kind of fine metal is piercing. Piercing is the term used for removing sections of metal with a very fine tooth saw. It is a very precise practise that takes some learning before you master it. It is the bane of many silversmiths, as is chain-making, and requires a high degree of perseverance and concentration. Accuracy is paramount.

I’ve always admired very intricate and delicate designs produced in jewellery, from the astonishing filigree work of Moorish silversmiths, to the beautifully complex knot-work of the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, and indeed the work of master-crafts-persons like Faberge. Of course many techniques are often employed in a piece in order to achieve the desired effect, one of which will undoubtedly involve the piercing of metal which is an integral part of being a metal smith. However, what really appealed to me when I was undergoing my own training at college years ago was using the art of piercing and fretwork as the main decorative focus for a piece of jewellery, and being that I like a challenge, the kind that others tend to drop like a hot brick, I decided that I would learn to master it. A relaxed sawing hand, a vice-like finger grip with the other hand, and an acute eye are what’s required, and of course good lighting so that you can see your work clearly without too much glare.

Although I am far from having mastered this art, fretwork has become one of my favourite techniques and I get giddy with excitement at the thought of how intricate I can make a design. All designs are my own (except for the leaves, nature takes all the credit there), although they may reflect certain styles. Here’s a selection of several works in progress, and the first piece of pierced fretwork that I produced as a college student.

Photography tutorial – Photographing Jewellery

Harlequin Bracelet

I’ve spent the day photographing my latest jewellery creations. It’s not as simple as you think to get a professional shot when you intend for the piece you are photographing to be for commercial purposes. I’m still not sure that I manage it, but given that I don’t have professional lamps and backdrops with which to create the perfect image, my own self-made mini-studio serves me quite well.

Your photography set-up

It helps that I have a studio space that has skylights as well as windows facing out onto the garden, so there is usually very good natural light within the space. With computing and digital technology of course it is easy enough to enhance images to get the best out of your subject. However, there is a lot to be said about getting the conditions right in the first place. Not that I’m necessarily a purist per se when it comes to photography, I believe that digitally enhancing images is an artistic pursuit in itself, but obtaining a quality shot to begin with is always a good basis for further enhancement if at all needed.

Setting up your shot well is important and it is worth having a designated space where you can either keep your mini-studio permanently set up, or have it so that it is quick to set up. My temporary mini-studio consists of two hardback sketch-pads . mini-studioOne is spiral bound so that you I can turn the covers onto themselves exposing the white paper. This forms the base. Then I use a large A3 sketch-pad as the back-drop propped up at a 90˚angle so that it sits flush against the corner of the base sketch-pad. The white paper reflects light back onto the object being photographed very well. Although any set-up will do as long as it is neutral, and it allows for your subject to be well lit, and to stand out.

The right conditions are essential: Staging

The reason I prefer to use natural light, especially when photographing jewellery is that a flash can obscure the colours of the beads and components used, and also create very harsh contrasts which can detract from the overall shape and impression of the piece.

It is also helpful to play around with the macro-feature on your camera if you have one, and take close-up shots.

Because I sell my jewellery mainly online it is important that the buyer can see the piece in as much detail, and as true to colour as possible. Make sure that if you are taking close-up shots that the piece is clean and free from dust, fingerprints, and any other smudges and bits of debris, particles and fluff that may have been picked up prior to shooting. Nothing worse than getting an awesome shot only to discover that you photographed the piece of fluff wrapped around a tiny seed-bead perfectly too!

With macro photography no detail is left out, as you can see in the example below. Spot the fluff?

Capuccino Bracelet, fluff detail

It is helpful to use a clean neutral surface upon which to shoot your wonderful piece of jewellery that has taken you possibly many hours of work, it’s your work of art and so deserves all the attention. Your professional clean looking photograph is also a sign that you take your craft seriously and emphasises quality, and oddly enough good customer service.

Props

If you use props then once again ensure that they contrast well with your subject so that they don’t detract from the piece, but enhance it. Some pieces can be difficult to shoot perhaps because of the way they hang, or lay due to different shapes and sizes of components, and in such instances props will have to be used in order to find the best position for your piece.

These earrings were tricky to shoot because no matter how I positioned them there was no way of laying them flat in a way that did them justice due to the different sizes of beads, so I had to employ what props I had to create the shot, and in the process was able to tell a story with them…

Granada Dangles

 

Light

Relying on the natural light to be at its best can be a time consuming process, and one that I am prepared to wait for in order to get that winning shot, or shots. If it isn’t right on the day then wait if possible for a day when the light is better. Sometimes Mini-studio, using propsyou have to make do, especially when presenting pieces online, you can always upload better versions once you have them. However first impressions are everything and a good photo is what will draw business your way.

Also make sure that you get at least one good full shot of your piece. Play around with angles, i.e. straight on, from above, to the side, at an angle so that you fill the frame. Always be aware of the direction of your light-sources so that you don’t cast any unnecessary shadows. Take as long as you need to get the conditions just right.

 

Camera stability is important

Keeping steady hands and holding your breath is a difficult task when trying to take perfectly clear, in-focus shots. Using a tripod or at least propping the camera on a sturdy surface, especially when using the macro-feature is important so that your camera is rock solid guaranteeing that the image is as crystal clear as can be.

Editing images ready for publication

Many standard digital cameras will take shots that are slightly darker and with a shallower depth of field than your naked eye sees, much like an old fashioned camera. So it pays to play around with the settings on your camera in order to achieve the best and most interesting results, but it won’t always be enough. Some digital enhancement then becomes necessary just to make the image jump off the screen.

As a general rule I will take many photos just so that I give myself a broad choice of images, and if I don’t like any of them then I will re-shoot until I have the images I want, and I will do this as many times as is necessary. Granted I am a little bit of a perfectionist, but the time spent getting it right is worth it, also you learn a lot through trial and error which is invaluable in taking good images. You learn what works and what doesn’t. Usually my digital enhancements are minimal which might involve cropping and straightening, increasing the exposure and temperature of the image so that the colours are at their optimum, but don’t look false. Also adjusting the contrast so that a greater depth of field is achieved and your jewellery really stands out against the background.

As you can see from the following images, due to imperfect light conditions my original photo of my Cappuccino Bracelet is very dark, even though the overall composition and focus is good. I was a lot more happy with the result once I had enhanced the image…IMG_5016 Cappuccino Bracelet, Before image

Photography is not an exact science. It is a creative process that serves as another important facet of your craft as a jewellery maker, or whatever your craft may happen to be as the same principles of technique apply across the board. The trick is to experiment a lot, be creative and have fun with it, because that too will come across when you come to publishing.

Thanks for reading!

Any questions about this tutorial or making jewellery, or indeed purchasing custom made couture pieces, then please fill out the contact form below leaving your name and e-mail, and I will get back to you:

Whispers from Venice – Micro Bracelets (Weekly Photo Challenge – Focus)

Venice inspired Micro-braceletI have been inspired by the wonders of Venice during my recent travels there, and since my return I have been busily creating new pieces of jewellery that reflect the typical traditional colours and styles of one of the most beautiful and oldest cities in Europe.

I call these bracelets my ‘Micro Bracelets’, designed to be very delicate and suggestive. Very simple designs with a hint of opulence using only the finest materials and beads. Perfect for those who like their jewellery to be understated, but Il Duomo, Florence, Italysophisticated like a single line statement that speaks volumes.

The above design was inspired by the colours of the dark green and white marble that typifies the grand buildings of Florence, also colours that appear in the traditional masks and costumes of the Venetian masked-balls. The tiny ivory-coloured pomegranate with its golden crown and red flower is another symbol of Venice and the fine craftsmanship that stems particularly from the Jewish Ghetto in Sestiere Di Cannaregio, up in the Northern part of the island city, and where the more opulent jewellery and glass-work was produced for hundreds of years. I love this particular design as it is also close to my own heritage and my own heart.

Pomegranate tree, Giudecca, Venice, ItalyThis design along with others that I will be posting soon, will be available in my online shop. You can also contact me directly for a quote or if you would like a custom piece of jewellery. Just leave me a comment or contact me directly at ishaiya74@yahoo.co.uk.

My Micro-Bracelets currently retail at £25.00 not including p+p.

Black and White Weekly Photo Challenge – Upward

Fern frond

This is my interpretation of this week’s theme ‘Upward’. It is a rather abstract view using the macro feature, of a the underside of a fern frond taken in my garden at the very late onset of spring this year. I love how delicate it is, and how it naturally spirals.

Click here for more information on Sonel’s Black and White Weekly Photo Challenge and to see other entries, also if you would like to participate.

Couture Peyote-Weave Poppy Bracelets

Blue Poppies
Blue Poppies

Poppy shamballa bracelet angle top
Red Poppies

These peyote-weave bracelets are the gem of my collection, and my most popular design. Beautiful poppies drift along the bracelet radiating from the super-sparkly Shamballa and Swarovski beads that form the focal point. Very chic, high fashion, with a boho charm that never fails to draw the eye.

I love making these wonderful seed-bead bracelets, the possible colour variations are almost endless. I have plans to make as many colour combinations as possible!

They are amazingly comfortable and lightweight, fitting snuggly (though not tight) around the wrist. Made to order in any length and colour combination, with or without flowers. Visit my shop MagiRose Designs Etsy and have a peek at what other treasures I have! 🙂

Shamballa and Sterling Silver components

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