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Demonstrations by Melanie Cambridge

Visit her at www.melaniecambridge.com (includes details of new courses).

Heatset Oils
Back to History Page 30-Minute Oils
Using photos
Acrylic Landscape


"Gouache", 22 March 2019
We knew from Melanie's earlier demonstrations that her favourite medium is oil paint. She'd decided we needed a water-based alternative that didn't set as quickly as acrylic. Gouache comes to mind but she was not satisfied with conventional low-pigment, white-based gouache. So she developed her own "Artist Gouache": The colours contain no white, have very high pigment content (opaque or transparent) and lots of glycerine (to slow the drying).

Using a lovely big German Oval Wash brush, she demonstrated how well it covers, how you can use it like oil or watercolour and even mix it with her own water-based "putty" texture medium.
Melanie had stretched a half-Imperial (22" x 15.125") sheet of paper using her Ken Bromley stretcher (worth every penny, not least because it lets you use thinner/cheaper high quality paper).

She was going to do a Venetian scene tonight using just the three primary colours from the introductory set. The set also has Burnt Sienna.

First she mixed an orange (cadmium red and cadmium yellow) for the brighter part of the sky. Next was a grey blue mix of orange and ultramarine blue which covered the rest of the sky.
The same grey blue was quickly dabbed in the distant buildings on the skyline. No attempt at precision. The paint at this point was quite thin, like watercolour or a first glaze of oils.

The same colours were used for the water, with more of the orange in the distance and more of the grey blue in the corners and edges.

When she dabbed in reflections of the buildings she immediately realised that they were too strong. No problem: a baby-wipe soon got rid of the excess.
"How about some clouds?" She painted these in with a slightly different blue/red mix.

Melanie then moved to a smaller (No 7) round brush and less watery, more opaque mixes of the same colours. With these she flicked in horizontal ripples/waves in the foreground water and put recognisable detail and slight hints of other colours into the buildings.

A very greyish green (yellow, blue and the slightest bit of red and white) hinted that some of the features on the skyline were trees.
This first appearance of white introduced a new phase. The setting sun was to be just to the right of the tower so she lightened some orange with white for its sunlit side.

With an extra-long filbert she highlighted the tops of clouds to give the impression of backlighting. She added a patch of white (softened with a touch of yellow) where the water met the horizon. Many little horizontal flicks of the brush with the same white made a long reflection of the sun.

Melanie had referred initially to some photos of Venice, one with a gondola and another with the characteristic mooring posts. "Where could I put a gondola?" Mid distance seemed best. It was a lovely gondola but too sharp and too dark.

"Perhaps darkening the water around it would help?" At this point she started altering all sorts of things. She put a shadow under the gondola. A lot more orange went into the water. She decided the sparkle was over-done so she reverted to the previous ripples in the foreground.
We were nearly at the end. The feel of the scene had changed drastically. "It's trial and error. If you don't take risks you fail".

One good thing, she said, was that the mount she was using was A3, which is smaller than half Imperial, so she can "edit" the picture by moving the mount.

But she wasn't quite finished. "I don't like the gondola there". So it was scraped off and painted over!

Which did bring us to the end of yet another very enjoyable evening. Thanks Melanie.
Before showing the final painting, I should mention that Melanie had presented us with a free pack of 5 tubes of her "Artist Gouache". We raffled it. She uses genuine cadmium pigments, so don't lick your brush!

I'd also noted some general comments:

For your approximation to the golden section (where you put significant things), two-fifths is better than a third.
If you don't like where you first drew the horizon, just turn the paper round 180 degrees.
Blue and yellow don't make green if there is enough red in the mix.
Don't use fingers to adjust water-based paints. The grease can have a bad effect.
Working with gouache has improved her oil-painting technique.

Thanks again, Melanie.

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"Acrylic Landscape", 16 November 2018
The write-up is currently a pdf file, here, by Carole Head.

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"Painting from photographs", 10 June 2016
I first met Melanie when she introduced me to Genesis Heatset Oils in 2000, below
. . . and I'm still using them. But tonight's demo uses conventional oils.
If you cannot paint outside, then photos you've taken yourself can be a starter for your imagination. Other people's photos don't have any memories to help you make the painting say more than the photos themselves.

Several decisions should be made before you start. For example:
the size and shape of the canvas
how many photos to use
how much detail to include
where to put the main features (she prefers a 2/5 ratio, 0.400, to the more conventional 1/3, 0.333, - the golden section, 0.382, is too difficult to remember!)

"Planning sketches" help - she draws them lightly in charcoal - easily rubbed out. A couple of examples illustrated the process.
A photo of a beach scene had a cliff and an offshore outcrop which was exactly in the centre. So Melanie did two planning sketches: one with the outcrop 2/5 from the left (resulting in too little horizon) and the other with it 2/5 from the right (still leaving enough space for people from another photo on the beach, perhaps). Both had the horizon about 2/5 from the top.
The second example was from a group of three photos in an allotment.

Although the main photo was landscape format
a square format looked better
a dominant tree was moved to 2/5 from the right
a greenhouse was omitted but
a shed, a gardener and some bean poles were given much more prominence.
"What shall I paint tonight?" asked Melanie. There was a call for "something with people" so she rummaged through a handful of photos and found a page with an unusual picture of Topsham jetty, looking down from the churchyard - plus a close-up of the people on the jetty.

Decisions: The photo was square with no horizon. Square paintings can be very effective but here she thought portait would be better. This would give her room for both an horizon and more jetty. She even went for a 20" x 14" board instead of a more conventional 20" x 16".

She outlined the 20" x 14" shape on a bit of paper, marked some 2/5 points, drew the horizon close to the top, extended the jetty (3/5), did a sqiggle for the water's edge, labeled the sand and located two of the three boats in the photo and two groups of people.

Photos and paper sketch
Now for the real thing. She cleaned some old charcoal off a piece of MDF board. This had already been primed and washed thinly with yellow ochre (acrylic?).

The charcoal sketch was then more or less reproduced onto the board - no precision but there were several more trial and error adjustments before she felt it was ready for paint.

Her fairly limited palette included naples yellow, venetian red, turquoise, a couple of other blues and three or four more (see note on Melanie's art materials below). She had a small pot of medium: alkyd linseed resin medium to minimise odour and speed drying.
Melanie started with a darkish blue at the horizon, some turquoise and then more yellow as the water got shallower. She moved up and down the painting to make the colour transitions less obvious and more interesting.

The sky was created very quickly, sea blue and white, dulled down a bit by the yellow underpainting.

The distant strip of land was made green and yellow by adding Naples yellow to the blue.

Foreground sand can be done with purple and yellow. Either can be on top but tonight she started with the purple and added the yellow later.
Nearly all detail was done wth a small flat brush but she actually used a small round one for the distant boat (to get detail).

For the "White" reflections and foam she used titanium white softened with Naples yellow. Turquoise and white, very thin, modified the purple sand.

Flecks of dark brown made stones on the beach and the jetty was "dirtied" up a bit.

Finally the figures. Venetian red, Naples yellow and white make good skin colours for ths type of painting (as opposed to portraits). Stripey shirts are effective. Don't forget the shadows.

Then she started worrying. "Is the big boat right?" Ah! the beauty of oils! Let's try painting it out and putting in a smaller one, under sail!
Nearly final demo version
More final demo version
Oh, I nearly forgot. Her commentary was a fascinating "stream of consciousness" and I noted some of what I felt were the more interesting points:

It's better to paint outdoors than in
You can paint whatever turns you on: sea; landscape; street; still life; portrait . . .
Charcoal is much better than pencil for drawing under oils (pencil makes indelible marks)
Don't be afraid to leave things out or add extras.
She likes MDF board, double-primed with proper artists gesso primer followed by a wash of mid-tone colour to kill the white.
Melanie is not keen on round brushes unless there's a good reason: use flats and filberts
Hold your brush in different ways: it makes surfaces more interesting
The eye sees detail only in the centre, so make your painting the same (blurry towards the edges)
Melanie is very keen on consistent quality paints and brushes. She has chosen some German-made soft hog brushes for oils and has created a range of such colours which she is having made in her own factory and will market under her own trademark. Keep your eye on her website:

She was not sure if she would do any more to this painting but if she does I hope she can send me a photo of the finished version.

It was another interesting worthwhile evening.

Thank you, Melanie.

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"30-minute Oils", 15 April 2011
You could see the artist coming through as soon as you walked in. Melanie had arranged a black sheet to show off some of her quick oil paintings, copies of her "30-minute oils" book, some brushes and very attractive greetings card prints . . .
. . . and she started on the right foot by giving us a copy of the book for the FSCA library. Many thanks.

The first "secret" of 30-minute oils is to paint wet-into-wet with big brushes onto small boards.

Her upright easel carried a 16" x 20" MDF board which she had prepared with a couple of coats of white acrylic gesso. I couldn't help noticing a second board underneath prepared with a pale yellow-ochre sort of colour. I give you one guess!
The palette is not the mess it looks. There is a logical progession: a big blob of alkyd (faster-drying) titanium white near the Liquin pot and then, from left to right for her, from cool/light to warm/dark: through half a dozen yellows, 3 oranges, a few reds, some raw umber and below that a row of 4 blues. Her left thumb points to a mixing area that she several times scraped clean so that the mixtures kept fresh.

But first she spent a few seconds on the top half of the board, lightly sketching a generic tree in charcoal and blowing off any excess. One nice thing about charcoal is that it's easily removed if you get it wrong.
In 30-minute oils you need to add new paint over wet, and so the first coats should be applied thinly but with a minimum of added thinner, which tends to make then too easily picked up by later ones.

She illustrated this with three patches of French Ultramarine: one straight from the tube and the others thinned witth increasing amounts of Liquin. Even in my rather dodgy photo, below, you can just see that the white overpainting goes more crisply over the unthinned paint. Contrary to conventional oils practice, the medium seems to be used more towards the end of the work.
Melanie is another fan of Rosemary Brushes: tonight a No.7 (1"?) nylon flat and a small softer round one.

Burnt Umber and French Ultra give a good dark brown. She picks the paint up with the brush and works up the colour she wants on the palette. Using the flat brush, Melanie painted over the charcoal marks, establishing the branch structure and the shadow.

For the greens, it's better to avoid colours that are too warm (although you can take this too far and become unnaturally vivid). Here she dabbed a dark green mix of Cadmium Yellow and Ultra all over the tree, then picked up increasing amounts of yellow, and finally white, for the sunlit side of the tree
She likes to do the sky last, because it avoids the possibility of ending up with a "cut-out tree pasted onto a background".

The sky needed a well-washed brush, a scraped-clean palette, some Ultra lightened with white plus, very importantly, a tiny touch of Light Red (or Burnt Sienna or an orange would have been as good). The amount of "white and red" increases as you get closer to the horizon.
Incidentally, Melanie cleans her brushes in (smelly) white spirit or turps but is meticulous about putting the lid straight back on. Because she was working wet-into-wet she could take the sky into the outline of the tree, adjust the greens and add sky-holes, keeping nice soft edges.
She then did a generic summer landscape.

Again we needed well-washed brushes and a scraped-clean palette but now Melanie followed the charcoal sketch with Cerulean, again lightened with white but modified this time with a tiny touch of turquoise (and Naples Yellow Deep lower down).

The same mix, greyed with a complementary orange(?), made the clouds. More white was used in the distance and a slightly yellowed white made the "icing" on top.
It's worth remembering to make harder edges on the tops of clouds and softer ones below.

The rest followed a similar sequence to before: dark green to start the trees, then more Yellow Ochre, a distant light green field, then an Ochre field and a Raw Sienna foreground stroked on with the brush held vertcally. All this was done in a few minutes.

I've trimmed it to leave the earlier blue patches so you can see how different the Cerulean feels from the warmer Ultra-based sky.
After the break Melanie started the real 30-minute oil, on the other 16" x 20" board (a bit big for 30 minutes but one can try). She usually pre-colours the board to give an overall feel to the painting.

She did the charcoal sketch from a tiny one in her sketchbook, and you can see one or two places where she moved things. She had obviously used the same sketch as inspiration previously - there was a 60-minute oil on the table!

Darks first, so she made an Ultra and Burnt Sienna mix for the cliffs. She mixed this with quite a lot of Liquin because she didn't plan do do much overpainting and wanted brush strokes to give a rocky effect (still with the flat brush).
Towards the top of the cliffs she introduced Cobalt with Raw Umber and, higher, Raw Sienna until, for the grassy tops, the Cobalt had only Cadmium or Indian yellow. Remember this is all wet-into-wet.

The Cobalt continues into the distant hills, this time with Raw Umber to give the grey-green, with even more white in the far distance.

She first tried to continue the Cobalt into the distant sea but it didn't work and she scraped it off. She might get a better idea for sea colour if she did the sky first. For the sky, a mix of Ultra, Cobalt and white, and maybe a bit of Turquoise, was put on - thinly enough for the yellow background to show through.
She used the earlier technique for the clouds (Ultra with Burnt Sienna and white) and for the distant sea a mix similar but darker than the one for the sky.

Waves need practice. They are greener and darker in front and the spray needs a slightly creamy colour.

As you approach the edge the water takes on more of the (Raw Sienna and/or Light Red) sand hue. The sand colour gets warmer inland.
"Do what I say, not what I do"? The wet look relied on a heavily thinned Cobalt/Magenta purple. Unless she was just making a point, Melanie forgot her warning about trying to work on top of heavily thinned pain and was not at all happy with the look of the patches of foam.

Nor was she pleased with the figure.But this was a demo, with as much talking as painting, she had used a larger board than she would normally recommend for a 30-minute oil and she was very pressed for time.
It's proved to be a very enjoyable and worthwhile evening.
I've always been more pleased with the look some of my less-laboured paintings and so
I'm inspired now to get my heat-set oils out again and see what I can do.

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"Seascape in Oils", 2 June 2006
Webmaster's notes:

Although her earlier demo, below, had been in Genesis Heat-Set Oils Melanie has now moved back to "real" oils but using (odourless) Liquin instead of conventional thinners.

She uses a fairly limited pallette (2 or three colours around each primary) and only a couple of brushes (a flat #7 and a round #5, both nylon from Rosemary Brushes).
For this demo she used a 24" x 20" MDF board. This is too big for out-of-doors work. Her biggest pochard box takes 14" x 10" although she usually works smaller than that. She expects to get several sketches done during each outdoor session.

This time she had three sources: a pencil sketch (for composition and colour notes) and two unrelated oil sketches to help her with the sky and sea and a central boat.
Much of her outdoor work is devoted to sketching in oils. Sketches can be used later either as source material (like here) or as under-paintings. The problem with painting over your sketches is that you may well ruin them and lose them for ever.

She would not normally paint over a pencil drawing but she finds it so easy to make mistakes with sailing boats that she didn't want to risk it for a demo (where time is so important). Only the boat was drawn with any precision.

She started (unusually for her?) with the sky, using several blues greyed down with orange and magenta. This allowed her to go straight to the sand, mud and water and establish the atmosphere of the whole picture before getting any detail in. There was a fair bit of trial and error in the colour mixing.

Although white was put into the blue/grey sky for cloud-tops, mistakes were never painted over - they were wiped off with paper hand-towel (gentler than kitchen paper and stronger and less fiddly than toilet paper) so that the colours stayed fresh. Similarly the palette was very frequently cleaned.
Lots of snippets of advice were offered - I noted a few:
  • Remember to make sure the horizon is cut by the mast
  • The reflection of a headland should be cooler than the headland itself
  • To paint silvery water, mix an orange with a greenish (eg cerulean) blue and adjust with a cobalt (and of course plenty of white)
  • Stick to fixed canvas sizes (so your frames fit)
  • Don't be afraid to talk to yourself: about warms and cools etc.
  • Don't work too long on one painting - stop and do something completely different for a while. If you are working hard, have 2 or 3 pictures on the go, returning to each a day or so later
  • Fiddling? Quote: "The million-dollar-brush-stroke is the one immediately before the brush-stroke-too-far"
  • Use touching varnish, not full conventional varnish
  • A glazed frame with a spacer (to stop wet paint touching the glass) is a good way to carry wet oils

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"Genesis Heat-Set Artist Oils", 3 March 2000
It wasn't fixed. Honest! I'd agreed, even before Melanie started, that I'd do the write-up of the evening. Then I won the raffle prize: an "Introductory System" (proceeds to the Mozambique flood appeal). There is justice in the world!

Genesis Heat-Set Artist Oils have been in this country, not heavily advertised, for a couple of years. Gerry does not sell them yet but you can get them from Genesis (American Art Clay Co) in Stoke-on-Trent (01782 399219) or Jacksons. A quick look at a USA retailer on the Web (www.dickblick.com or 001 309 343 6181) showed prices roughly the same number of dollars as the UK price list shows in pounds but beware of customs duty and postage costs - can double the price.
Note added in June 2016: As far as I know, Jacksons are the only UK stockists now.

Odourless, non-toxic, buttery-textured, thixotropic and strongly pigmented, these paints NEVER-dry under normal conditions. Your palette hardly needs cleaning - your brushes never (she claimed - just wipe with kitchen towel to remove excess paint, although if you object on principle to preserving your brushes with paint you could use isopropyl alcohol). You can work on almost any support that can survive temperatures up to about 140 C (say 280 F), so paper, card, canvas (Melanie's choice) and board are OK, but not canvas board (it bubbles). The support must not have an oil-based primer (or be previously oil painted), although acrylic's fine if it's thoroughly dry.

You are advised not to try to mix the paint with oils, acrylics or water (it comes with its own special mediums) but isopropyl alcohol can be used. When you first start a picture it is much like oil or acrylic except that even if you leave it for months the texture does not change. BUT HERE'S THE MAGIC BIT. When you decide you need a dry surface, you cure the paint with a special electric heater (or in the oven). This leaves it as tough as well-dried acrylic - scrubbable without damage and ideal for further coats. These can be transparent glazes or thick enough to obliterate the original completely.

Melanie took us through the painting of a very pleasing London street scene, deliberately making errors to show how easy they were to correct. She was also refreshingly relaxed and honest about the limitations of the new paints. There is a very wide range of colours but she took time to find the ones that suited her. The dried surface is slightly matt (like unvarnished oils) and she was not sure what effect the glazing medium gave (conventional varnish is hopeless). The need for a power supply means that this paint is perhaps better suited to studio use than to al fresco painting.

Since the jars of paint are not cheap (although they seem to last for ages) one tends NEVER to clear ones pallet - this also means that you need a pochard-like box to carry it. If you fail to heat ALL the areas with paint on (e.g. round the edges of the canvas) you are likely to get wet paint on your furniture, clothes and car! All in all, a great evening.

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