Wokingham Art Society
Demos by Robin Mackervoy
Visit his page on the Mall Galleries website
Contact him at mackervoy@btinternet.com
Still Life 2009 Return to Archive Still Life 2012

Still life in Oils, 15 May 2012
It was good to see Robin again. Do look at the 2009 write-up below, too. One development since 2009 is that he is now President of the Wapping Group.

This time I made sure that I got a photo of the arrangement from as near as I could to Robin's own position. He spent some time placing the objects and adjusting his lights to give the reflections and contrasts he wanted. For a still life this process is the fundamental important starting point of the painting. You have to choose shapes, colours, textures and lighting to get your dramatic effect.

A 20" x 24" canvas panel had been painted all over with a warm brown to help harmonise everything.
He likes to start demos at the beginning and make as much progress as he can in the time available - you never know how long an art society is going to take over other business, coffee breaks etc!.

Tonight he started using cool well-thinned ultramarine and a fairly small brush to draw lines which illustrated, first, his initial comments about not putting important things on the half-way lines of the picture but preferably nearer the two-fifths ones.

He drew vertical and then horizontal lines to define the relative positions of the various objects and then the curves for the eliptical tops and bottoms. He draws light things oversize, so that the line is all outside the object.
His palette has warm and cold versions of all "primary" colours, plus black and, in this case, permanent rose.

Remember, with oils you work dark-to-light, thin-to-thick, lean-to-fat and back-to front. So here Robin started scumbling in the dark background using big hog brushes and frequently re-mixed combinations of Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine and Yellow Ochre with very little white. Darker mixes (black, with ultra and raw umber) went into the spaces between the flowers and pots.

Robin referred to the first half as drudgery (just composition, darks, backgrounds, tones) but for the second half he moved to sable brushes and started getting into the brighter, lighter, oilier, thicker part of the work.
He doesn't paint objects - he marks darks and lights so that the objects just appear by themselves, understated (to keep the viewer thinking). He says he paints things he can't see in the way he can't see them! He squints, so as not to be confused with detail.

He was continually adjusting the colours and moving around the canvas: softening edges with a cloth, edging redder toward the front; brushing in the direction of curved surfaces, pulling colours back (adding a touch of red to kill the green of a blue/yellow mix, adding yellow to stop Permanent Rose and Ultra going violet), putting lighter paint into the darks, darker into the light, adding lost-and-found broken highlights, darkening behind light edges.
By the end of the demo the painting was still not really finished. What's next? In a couple of weeks Robin will look again and decide what it deserves - I hope he decides to conjure up a few magic strokes and send us a photo of the really finished work*.

It was, once again, a great evening. Robin's demonstrations are more inspirational that strictly instructive. These shapes don't really appear by magic. I'm sure it would need more that careful watching and listening on my part if I were to try to achieve this wonderful sort of effect - but, again, I'm not the President of the Wapping Group.

* Robin responded to this with "It is a pity that I had not got further with the painting but, if I take it further I will send the result."
Sam Dauncey
Still Life 2009 Return to Archive Still Life 2012

Still life in Oils, 15 Dec 2009
Robin Mackervoy is a member of the Wapping Group and of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and it shows.

Everything looks so easy. Although he gives enough information and hints for the most avid student, brushes were being rinsed and changed with scarcely a mention (there must have been a dozen or two to hand) and you suddenly realised that different colours had started to appear and that features were being painted over and moved. The best demonstrators, like Robin, give us a "stream of consciousness" as they work, but his brain obviously thinks too fast for the voice to keep up.

But first things first.
Robin had set up a bunch of fresias and a selection of pots. "The most important part of the process has already been done: arranging objects that complement each other and lighting them to emphasise their interactions and guide the eye to the most interesting part". It would have been rude of me to push him out of the way to get a photo from his viewpoint when he said that - and I completely forgot afterwards. Sorry.

Snippets of advice just kept coming. I'll save these until I've described the progress of the demo itself.


There was an unfamiliar icon on the camera screen all this evening. I've done a lot of fiddling to try to improve the photos but you'll just have to excuse the poor focus and the inconsistencies of colour and tone.

Sam Dauncey
The canvas panel had already been prepared with a thin layer of raw umber. Robin then started in with thin applications of even darker, low-key mixes of French Ultra, Raw Umber and Yellow Ochre. He worked around the outside of the canvas, almost scrubbing the (hog) brushes, in all directions with no attempt to make the result even. Background, cooler for distance, was first, then more distant foreground and then, slightly warmer, the nearer foreground. It gradually became apparent that it had been left lighter where the fresias were to be. Some lighter areas were actually rubbed back with a cloth and the darks reinforced where they met the lights.

Then the drawing started, using even darker colour. Robin stood well back, holding a long brush well away from the bristles and making sure his head stayed in the same place. The aim was to define interesting shapes, not specific objects, the drawn lines not necessarily following the areas that had been painted
Marks were short and deliberate and the drawing merged imperceptably into further darkening of the dark sides of the lines and lightening on the light sides, so that the lines themselves disappeared.

Robin kept going back into the shadows, making them increasingly dark. Lights appeared first in the right general areas, without too much precision.

As the drawing continued he was subtly shifting things, and allowing the shapes to become better established. Lines were lost-and-found, the brush skipping around from one part to another, always with only the tip being used, so as not to disturb the paint underneath.
The colours at this stage are always combinations of all three "primaries", normally chosen from a warm or a cold set. Brushwork alone is sufficient to suggest the background.

As the painting progressed the paint became lighter in colour, thicker in texture and fatter (more oil). Each mix of colour, enough for only a few strokes, was slightly different and Robin kept modifying areas repeatedly.

Surprisingly, as he got to the finer detail he abandoned the hog brushes in favour of sable, rolling the brush as he laid on individual petals, each with separate strokes for the more and less brightly lit sides.
The last few minutes were fascinating. Robin was mixing small quantities of whites, warmer nearer the light source and cooler where more shadowed. The foreground was lightened and highlights were added, but more darks were still being emphasised to define edges.

The most vivid colours are kept for very limited use at the very end. They are best placed right next to the darkest darks.

At the end of the demo Robin said that a little more work was still needed. You could have fooled me.

This had proved to be a most absorbing and instructive evening. Many of his points of advice were specific to oils but I am sure that everyone in the audience was both instructed and inspired by Robin's performance.


End of demo, in frame
Finally, here are just a few of the many hints and ideas that were dotted throughout the demo:
Start with plenty of clean brushes all pointing the "wrong way". When you finish using one you put it back pointing the "right way", so you can see which ones you've used and will ultimately need cleaning.
Use Zest-it diluent (and odourless white spirit for cleaning) if you want to avoid smell. Zest-it is nearly as good as turps.
Paint with your canvas in subdued light - it will result in a brighter painting.
Paint oils from dark to light; from thin (more thinners) to thick; from lean to fat (more oil).
Try not to get it right too early - it makes you inflexible.
Paint shapes first, particularly by defining their background, then decorate right at the end.
Don't use black or white on their own.
Mix up only enough for a few marks and then mix again with the same colours, so that surfaces are not boringly flat.
Horizontal brush-strokes normally look lighter than vertical ones (I think this assumes the light is above).
Nothing is the same shade or tone at both ends.
Be aware of which are your warmer (for better lit and closer areas) and cooler colours
Reflected light includes the colour of the surface it's reflected from.
Draw all the ellipses at the same time, to make them consistent.
Use marl stick for accuracy of final touches.

Sam Dauncey
Still Life 2009 Return to Archive Still Life 2012

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