Last painting of summer

| 31 May, 2014 03:06



"Queens Gardens Fountain" Late autumn. 9 x 12in. 


Over the years I have learned that you never actually know when the last painting of the summer season has been completed. Sometimes there comes yet another lovely late autumn day, calling one away from the studio. Other times there may be a definite project I want to finish, or a subject that has been niggling away for weeks, but somehow the day never comes, or the weather or light is unkind. Looking back I realize that something I painted weeks before was in fact the last painting of summer.


That is the case of the painting above. We had been having a delightful indian summer, with lovely mild weather going on for weeks. Late autumn is a lovely tme to paint. The sun is low and raking, and the shadows do not change as dramatically or as fast as they do in high summer. Also autumn colours are more gentle and warm. Unless of course you are facing the blazing furnace of the Branford park foliage.


On this day I decided that we could go back to where the season began six months ago, in the Queen's Gardens. On that occasion I adressed the challenge of a rather battered banana palm. A nice tropical subject to celebrate the departure of winter. Now I was drawn to the fountain. The small boy looking a trifle battered himself, after a long summer holding aloft his basin of fruit and flowers.


I think that on this occasion it was the unexpectedly brave display of late golden roses, beautifully leading the eye into the fountain at the centre of the garden, that caught my eye. Of course the rules say that having a strong single central object is an awkward composition at best, but I do think that on this occasion it works, probably because of the roses.



Mapua in Summer

| 29 May, 2014 10:33



"Preparing for Sea" Mapua, early summer. Oil on panel. 12 x 18 in.


One of our plein air painting group's favourite sites on a hot summer's day is the little port of Mapua. It is a charming destination. In past years it was a working port, where barges brought in fertiliser for the orchards and farms, and gravel was shipped out. It had a fleet of small fishing boats and a fish procesing plant, as well as warehouses for other goods.


Of course, all this has long gone. Big trucks carry cargo from Nelson these days, and the fisheries have gone to the Port of Nelson too. None of the ocean going trawlers could possibly use Mapua. It became a sleepy backwater until it  developed into a popular seaside suburb, and was discovered as a tourist destination in its own right. 


Today development moves on apace, but there still remains something of the old Mapua in the wharf and cargo sheds, although these are now cafes and craft shops. The only vessels that tie up to the wharf today are pleasure craft, such as this beautiful ketch, preparing for a cruise. Later in the holiday season Mapua becomes a busy bustling palce again, but  in early summer there is still a delightful, sleepy Mediterranean atmosphere, making it a wonderful place for contemplation, and of course, for painting.

A Perfectly Sized Photo

| 27 May, 2014 00:10


"Bastia Hill Tower" Wanganui  6x8 in. Oil on panel


That is, I think, I hope, that it is correctly sized.


I absolutely refuse to go into any detail about the  precise nature of the journey that led to this moment. Even now I am not sure that the above photo is in fact  the right size, but I am pretty sure that it is. I carefully followed all the instructions given on how to resize photos using the Mac. I can only liken the experience to being lost in a great city. Then you turn on your iphone, go to maps, follow the instructions, and there you are.




I still don't know how it all works, and undoubtedly I never will, but the wonderful thing is, that I now have instructions: clear, concise, and unambiguous, that if followed precisely, will deliver me to my preferred destination, no drama, no desperation, no despair. confidence, however fragile is a wonderful thing.


Of course I admit nothing, but one can readily imagine that if the three "D" words above reflect in any measure the nature of my floundering before I achieved my aptheosis, then you can imagine what the past few days have been like . And thank you again for the patience of friends without whom the journey would have been dire indeed.


The little study above was painted one morning recently when I was in Wanganui on a family occasion. As a small boy I used to bike up to the tower on Bastia Hill, both for the wonderful view from the top, and the exciting (and frightening) swoop downhill again. It was great to be able to take a couple of hours to revisit Bastia Hill once again, although these days the tower is closed to visiters. It is inaccessible, there to be contemplated, but sadly as remote as are the days of our youth.

Old Friends

| 25 May, 2014 01:31


"On the beach" Mt. Maunganui   oil on panel  7x12 in.


One of the nice things about sorting out work for an annual show is that you get to look at all the paintings in the rack again. Sometimes they surprise you. Just looking at them can bring back memories of the day. 


This little painting was the first from a painting trip I took last year that started in Tauranga and ended at the top of the Coromandel Peninsular. It was a journey through places I had not seen for over twenty years. Much had changed of course, but they were the superficial things like buildings and  towns. The roads were much better than I remembered too. Yet some things remain unchanged and yet eternally new. The sea, the sky, the coast and the mountains. A gloriously beautiful coast. 


When I looked at the painting I remembered what a tricky little challenge it had been. The Mount has become very built up now, and to get a good view I had to go further and further back along the coast. I finally found a good vantage, but the composition was tricky. The tide was well out, and if I painted by the road the sea vanished. When I moved my easel down close to the watrer's edge the foreground looked enormous with a poor lead into the mount, which I wanted to be the focal point. I decided that it worked best with a double square format, so I put a piece of masking tape across the bottom of the panel. No problem. 


I had been working away for a while when I saw a figure approaching in the distance. As is my wont I when concentrating on the task at hand I tend to ignore anything that is not directly  part of the composition. Imagine my surprise when a voice beside me said, "It's Ross Whitlock isn't it?"


An old friend I also hadn't seen for over twenty years. New Zealand is a small world indeed. 



| 22 May, 2014 17:32



This is a little painting I completed some time ago. It is a small yacht at anchor behind Monaco peninsular, in the Waimea Estuary. It is moored in a tidal stream, facing the rising tide. A huge amount of water comes and goes every tide, and the water moves very fast. The tidal stream here can reach up to 5kph at its peak, faster than you can row. The yacht is moving through the water almost at displacement speed, although it is at anchor, and going nowhere.


A bit like my life over the past couple of months. I have to be in the UK for my daughter's wedding in June/July. I have a couple of exhibitions to prepare for: The Annual Nelson Plein Air Painters Exhibition, and the Nelson Expo. Apart from that there were the usual maintainance issues to be addressed on any block of land before winter, and the Easter gales brought down a huge eucalypt tree and blocked the drive. 


On top of all this, I have moved to a Mac, as it is more suitable for a working artist, especially as I needed to upgrade this website and my blog. When it is all working well it is a huge improvement. The only problem is learning a new computer culture while attempting to improve personal performance: A bit like rebuilding a boat at sea: Challenging at best, but difficult to the point of despair when working to rapidly approaching deadlines, and with the weather unhelpful. 


It is at this point that an angel intervenes. I haven't had the opportunity to thank her properly, nor to ask her permission, so she must remain nameless, although infinitely appreciated, at this stage.


What she has done is to reshape my website into a thoroughly professional entitiy. The content has not changed, but has been refined, and is much easier to follow. She has made me look as good as I can be, considering the material she has had to work with. 


It has removed a huge burden that was bearing me down, and allowed me time to get on with all the other challenges that lie ahead. I have even been able to find the time to write something for this blog! 


Thank you so much.


From the Life Room

| 10 February, 2014 01:52

Resting, between poses.                              Oil on Panel.    6x8 inches


Funny how making art seems to generate its own priorities. I never expected to find myself spending hours in the studio reworking life paintings from lasst year. I suppose that it has been partly a consequence of a very poor summer in terms of weather.

I had intended to spend a lot more time at the beach, down at the marina, and in town painting people eating their lunches under the umbrellas. Never mind. Instead I found myself more often than not back in the studio. I had thought that perhaps I could paint still life, but having painted several portraits recently using the Zorn palette, (Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red, and Ivory Black) I was drawn to rework some of my life paintings from last year.

They had been painted with my usual plein air palette, of Cadmium Yellow Light, Alizarin Crimson, and Ultramarine Blue. No problem there, but when I went to rework them with the Zorn colours I found that the new palette of colours produced a wonderful soft light flowing over the model's form. Very appropriate to convey the soft beauty of the undraped female.

Of course, the original painting was a quick sketch, that usually took no more than fifteen to twenty minutes to complete. I have since worked on the painting above for several hours now., and I am still not sure if it is finished.

It has been a fascinating process, and at this stage one thing I can be sure of is that I may well finish up with a collection of softly lit nudes: "From the Life Room".


Portrait of Phoebe

| 31 January, 2014 01:56



This is my latest portrait using the Zorn Palette. As I mentioned in the previous post, i was going to use lead white. In the event I didn't as I couldn't find the tube. I know that it is somewhere in my studio, but since my sitter was waiting, (a delightful young woman whi is the granddaughter of an old friend), I had to press on with my faithful Titanium White, that thankfully was just to hand.

I am pretty pleased with the result. In fact I think that I am perhaps being just a little unfair to Titanium. Certainly to seems that the more I use it in portrature the better the result. I am going to put this painting on display in the Nelson Saturday Craft Market tomorrow morning and see what the response will be. Certainly it is quite different from my earlier portrait of Robyn.

What do you thnk?





| 27 January, 2014 21:30

                            Robyn.                        This portrait is 14x10 inches. painted from life using the Zorn palette.


This was an informal commission by a friend. She wanted her portrait painted for her friend. Not a lot of money involved. Just the cost of materials and framing. I wanted to paint a reasonably serious portrait using the Zorn palette: Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red, Ivory Black and Titanium White. It worked out for both of us.

The portrait took several sittings over about six weeks, at random intervals. Both being busy people I suppose.

It worked out really well. I think it has a very cheerful presence. I also think that the titianium white I use is a little cold, and a bit edgy. I will try painting another portrait soon, using lead white. It is not easy to get hold of these days as it is very toxic. On the other hand, it is a lovely warm white, that just melts into other colours, producing wonderfully soft flesh tones.

All the old masters used it, and it was a key component of Goldie's palette. Unfortunately, he smoked roll your own cigarettes, and inhaled raw lead every day over his painting lifetime. He died of lead poisoning.

Personally, I don't smoke or eat in the studio. Never have. And I guess that I'm old enough now that I will probably die of something else before the demon lead gets me, especially if I use it sparingly and carefully. I do use latex gloves in the studio.

I know that I have a tube of it somewhere. I'll have to look for it.

Cheers, Ross

Managing a blog. An apology

| 02 January, 2014 21:14


I note with some embarrassment that it is several months since I last wrote in this blog. Many reasons naturally, but the most pertinent is that once you miss a post, it is all too easy to miss another. 

I kept meaning to write, but kept putting it off until the time was right. And it never was.

I have had a very upsetting past few months, nothing to do with painting, and nothing shattering, at least on a personal note, but even so, very unsettling.

Three friends have died in that time, all with various cancers, and all younger than me. Three funerals. Quite a lot of travelling. I continued to paint through this time, but found that I really did not want to write about it.

I have continued with my stall at the Nelson Market on Saturday mornings. I have done a bit of woodwork, making doors for the new tractor shed. I started that in February, and it is almost finished now. It has taken a year of spare time, but I find building a pleasant diversion. More relaxing than painting, as I don't have to please any client, or sell it on completion.

At the same time I had to finish scrub cutting the hillside in front of our property before summer. It was overgrown with gorse, blackberry, broom, old mans beard, and wild fuschia, and a potential fire hazard. It is clear now, and is growing grass and soft weeds that are easy to control with a brush cutter.

Keeping busy has been good through this time, and has enabled me to pursuade myself that writing this blog was an unnecessary distraction and not a particularly productive use of my time.

I was wrong.

In fact it has haunted me continually, and of late I have found myself talking to you in my thoughts, explaining stuff, explaining why I wasn't writing. And explaining is losing. Sorry about that.

In fact I write this blog for myself. I have found that it helps to sort my thinking out. Somehow it stabilises my weeks work, making it imperative that I think about my painting, to analyse my feelings about it and my ongoing relationship, often conflicted, with my subject matter.

If this blog amuses you, informs you, and is perhaps helpful to you in the development of your own practise then that is good. Let me know. 

Regardless, I realize now that I will continue to write it. For the sheer peace of mind!

Kindest regards.



| 08 December, 2013 09:28

If you can read this post, it means that the registration process was successful and that you can start blogging

Pat and Zorn

| 01 October, 2013 03:12

"Pat" Oil on panel  14 x 11in. Demonstration using the Zorn Palette


This post has been somewhat delayed. I don't know why this happens, but sometimes events just seem to conspire against us. Never mind. The above painting was essentially proof of concept. As I have written before, I have been exploring the Zorn Palette. I have found it to be surprisingly sensitive, and produces beautiful colour harmonies . It is essentially an indoors palette, and most suitable for portraiture and I presume figure, although I have not tried it for that yet.

I had arranged to give a demonstration of alla prima portrait painting for a local art group. I decided to centre the day on the Zorn Palette. I brought along the colour chart I had made previously, and is was most admired. I was fortunate to have a lovely patient lady as my sitter. The whole demonstration took two hours, although I was only painting for half of that.

The above head is really only blocked in, but it was enough to enthuse the group who then set about mixing their own colour charts, and using them to start on a head study of their own. A second coat of paint would make the head much richer in colour and detail and further refine the form.

The Plein Air Painters of Nelson have begun the summer season. We spent a few hours at Miyazu Park this past weekend, painting the blossom which was lovely.


Zorn Palette

Conversation at Lambrettas

| 11 September, 2013 02:34

oil on panel

"Conversation at Lambrettas"   Oil on panel. Studio painting 16x12 in.


I don't know why it is, but some subjects, some locations really work for us. Others, apparently just as worthy, simply don't. Lambrettas, a cafe bar in Nelson, is one of those that works for me, and I simply don't know why. Not that I'm complaining. I must have painted "Lambrettas" half a dozen times since I moved to Nelson. Yet I don't think that I have ever had coffee there.

There are other cafe bars I regularly frequent, but have never painted, others I may have painted once. At one stage I set myself a simple challenge: to paint all the coffee places, bars and restaurants in Nelson. I did quite well, but eventually gave up on the idea, as it progressively became a documentary exercise, perhaps more suited to photography.

To make a good painting is a rather different exercise from simply recording. It is a complex dialogue between the physical appearance of the subject, the artist's emotional response, the nature of the medium used, something about aesthetics, perhaps a story being told, perhaps even the lyrical feeling centered in the chosen colours and composition. Basically Art, I suppose.

Lambrettas as a subject works for me. I still don't know why, and I don't really care. I just intend to keep on enjoying it.

O yes: the palette of colours chosen.\: Not the Zorn palette, but my usual trusty plein air selection, with Cadmium Red added for the umbrellas. In my next post I will return to portraiture, and Zorn's selection.

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The Zorn palette

| 21 August, 2013 03:23


The Zorn palette was developed by Anders Zorn in the late 19th Century. Zorn was a contemporary of John Singer Sargent. Like Sargent, Zorn was a portrait painter. He also liked to paint alla prima, finishing each section of a painting in a sitting.

His palette is very similar to the Velasquez palette, except that Zorn substituted Cadmium Red for Burnt Sienna. The Zorn palette then is Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red, Ivory Black, and white.

I have been frankly amazed at the incredible range of hue, tint and tone that is possble. I have spent the past couple of days making this colour chart to explore some of its possibilities.

Next. I will paint a portrait with it. Actually I have painted several already, but I feel that with this experience I will be able to get even more subtleties. Watch this blog for more revelations.



Coffee Cart, Nelson

| 12 August, 2013 02:25

"Coffee Cart, Nelson"  8x10 in.  oil on panel.  Painted with palette knife, en plein air.


Its that time of the year again, when people start to drink coffee out doors, and plein air painters are there to record them. I had a lovely time painting the snowy mountains down south  a few months ago. I also enjoyed the challenge of painting en plein air in Australia. But I must say that it is a real joy to be back painting in what has become my home town.

Over the next few months through spring I will be painting the city streets and markets of Nelson and Tasman Bay. Then when summer arrives it will be down to the beaches, and the waterfront. I also love painting the boats in the marina. Actually spring is good there too, painting the boats on the hard as their owners work on them.

There is something so lovely about the curve of a hull. Then when the boats are launched they come alive, curtseying to their reflections in the water. A painters paradise. The next few months will be a joy.

Then the wonderful colours of autumn, the first snows of winter, and the year all begins again.


Painting from life

| 09 August, 2013 00:49

"Sleeping Nude". Oil on panel. 12x9 in. Painted in 30 minutes using Zorn's selected colours


Painting from life is not dissimilar to painting en plein air, in that in both activities the painter has a strictly limited time to complete his work. Outdoors the light changes, clouds shift, it may even start to rain. Indoors, in the life room, these eventualities may not happen, but the model is human. Any pose can only be held for a few minutes, certainly less than an hour. 

Of course, the model may take a break, and resume the pose for up to a week. This was the case in the academic studios of the 19th century. The pose was set for a week, and the students studied it and painted it over and over.

These days, especially with willing but amateur models, this sort of dedication is unknown, at least in my experience, in contempory NZ. The norm is five minute warm up sketches, some ten minute studies, and perhaps a couple of thirty minute poses.

In turn, this means that the artist has to work fast. Normally I work with charcoal, and with pastel, as dry media are much quicker to work with. I have worked with water colour, but basically prefer oil. For me the essential piece of painting equipment to enable me to work rapidly and to produce clean colour is the palette knife.

I can work fast with a brush if I am working with earth colours, or monochrome. But when using a set of three or more prismatic colours a fast turpsy painting can rapidly become a muddy mess. The advantage of using a knife is that painting mediums are not necessary. Large broad masses can be placed rapidly, mistakes can be rapidly scraped out, and fresh colour can be knifed back in.

For this latest series I have been experimenting with the "Zorn" palette. This is a set of three colours developed and used by the Norwegian realist painter Anders Zorn. Normally I have been using my standard plein air palette of Cad. Yellow light, Alizarin Crimson, and Ultramarine Blue. A lovely bright triad of colour that can handle just about everything the NZ landscape can present you with.

The Zorn selection surprised me: Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red, and Ivory Black. I knew that Ivory Black makes a lovely subtle subdued blue, but I was doubtful about whether Yellow Ochre could balance Cadmium Red.

Well, it does. I was more than surprised. I was frankly impressed. It is a wonderful triad of colour for painting figure and portrait indoors. I can't wait to explore it further over the next few weeks. Life drawing has finished for this year, and the plein air season has yet to begin in earnest. I will be painting a few heads instead, using this delightful, sensitive, and pleasingly sensitive selection of colour.