Back to Black

Top Myth

Chiaroscuro or ‘Light-dark’ in art often refers to the practice of smashing some very dark paint next to some very light paint in the expectation of creating drama and spacial depth.

Disappointingly this rarely leads to the desired result. 

Surprisingly, too much contrast tends to flatten an image. 


To create the illusion of real depth in a painting it helps if the viewer can see into that space rather than be hit by an inpenetrable darkness.  

If  the viewer feels as though they can walk or reach into the painted space and know how that would feel it will help them to achieve a greater empathy with the subject .

Yeah but how?.

Think about the air itself around the figure, ‘feel it’!, what is the temperature in the room or landscape?. 

Pay as much attention to the relative warmth of the colours as you do to their tonality. 

Pay particular attention to the transition between the figure and the space around it,  How hard or soft is that ‘edge’?. 


Some opinionated arty type will often say that you should never use ready made black oil paint. That’s horseshit.

Personally, I think it’s better to say that you should be very cautious about when you use it and to apply great sensitivity when you do.

Sure, black can be ‘deadening’ to a painting and make it feel ‘heavy’ but maybe that’s what you want. 

In my view however the greatest difficulty when using black paint is in attempting to make subtle, nuanced blending. Specifically, a ready mixed black will tend to turn flesh tones into a muddy mess. That is why personally I very rarely, if ever, use it.

Top Tip

One alternative to using black is to combine Alizarian Crimson, Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow to make a deep brown.  Several layers of this will achieve a ‘black’ and you can easily nuance the mixture to achieve the desired warmth.

Bonus Tip

A little cerulean blue mixed into the ‘black’ makes for a really cold darkness.

Ant n Jed’s Big Night Out

In 1993 I Won 1st prize in the B.P Portrait Award. The prize includes  a commission to paint a portrait that will become part of the NPG’s permanent collection. After a little negotiation I painted the Royal Ballet’s former principal male dancer and at that time head-honcho Sir Anthony Dowell.

When the portrait was completed  and framed I received an invitation to the unveiling.

I had anticipated a low-key affair, I was mistaken.

The reception, meal and unveiling was perhaps the swankiest affair that I have ever been involved in.

At the reception I quickly realised that I was completely out of my depth.

The highlights included my cracking a particularly shit joke to Darcy Bussell, Asking principal dancer Jonathan Cope what he did, getting blanked by Andrew O Neil and spraying water all over the front of my trousers (The NPG restroom’s powerful faucets and shallow basin design having made this something of a cherished tradition).

The dining room was packed with the great, the good, apparently every member of the Royal Ballet and a number of people who were in my view of debatable merit. 

Perhaps 15 tables of 8. 

I don’t know who was paying.

To my delight I was seated with the great British artist Eduardo Paolozzi. After shaking his great sausagey hand I was keen to talk to him about all things art, he was keen to talk to me about ice cream, so we talked about ice cream.

At some stage he took a graphite stick out of his pocket and drew something to demonstrate it’s merits, no idea what he drew as he carefully pocketed the no doubt valuable sketch. 

I did keep the graphite stick as a souvenir though.

At some stage it was decided that everyone was arse-holed enough to risk Jeremy Isaacs doing the unveiling. 

No one booed.

Feeling every bit as uncomfortable as I looked.

Sir Anthony Dowell looking perfectly comfortable. 

Portrait of Sir Anthony Dowell, 36” x 16”, Oil on Linen, 1994

NPG permanent collection.

The biggest highlight of the evening was accidentally turning down the opportunity to paint the portrait of Lady Diana, but that’s another Blog.

Repetition and Deviation

This is my painting ‘Figures at Ebb Tide’, It was finished in March 2000. 

It took 15 months to paint.

It is a large and complex painting. 

You don’t need to understand it to feel it but it might help.

It’s about the cycles of life, repetition, evolution and death.

The landscape is loosely based on an area called Sowley Marsh which lies on the New Forest coast. A wall once defended the area from seawater but was breached over half a century ago. Over
time the oaks, stranded in expanding brackish waters were reduced to dry
husks. As one ecology dwindled, another thrived. The inter-tidal plants multiplied, new patterns in the landscape emerged. 

Marsh grasses thrived. I painted them in repeating patterns. They repeat and then those repetitions fade and reform into new patterns.

In the evolving landscape Inter-tidal plants take hold as the dry surface soil peels away.

Oaks stranded in the Brackish waters die, fall and decay. 

Transitory figures pausing under a changing sky. 

The waking figure, a transitional state.

Here on show in the Forum at The ‘Reality’ show at The Walker Gallery in Liverpool, 2015.

Using Format