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Painting Preseli pebbles

11 Dec 2005 / in about art

These pebbles are not just any old pebbles. These are from a beach in west Wales where the Preseli
mountains sink into the sea. The Preseli mountains are where our prehistoric ancestors quarried the famous bluestones to build Stonehenge. Then they transported them more than 200 miles to Salisbury Plain, where they still stand.

I like these pebbles not only because of their ancient significance, but also because of the appeal of the random stripes and swirls.

It takes a while to arrange them. The shadows they cast have to be pleasing. The rhythm they create across the composition has to be right. There has to be a balance of dark to light shapes. The swirls and stripes have to be seen from their best angle. Since I took started painting pebbles, I can understand how Paul Cezanne tooks days to arrange apples for his still lives, carefully propping them with coins and scrunched up paper to position them exactly how he wanted them. In my haste to get my brushes wet, I take about 35 minutes!

Once I’m happy with the composition I start drawing: just the outlines, no details or shading which is all drawn with paint later on in the process.

Next, using a rubber solution masking fluid, I carefully mask out the areas within the body of the pebbles that I want to stay white. Then I paint in the shadows. This anchors the shapes before I have applied any paint to them at all and helps me consider their volume and weight.

Then I start painting the pebbles themselves. I work steadily over the whole composition, blocking in wide, wet washes and keeping it free and loose. Sometimes I drop in extra colour to a partially dry wash to make it bleed and blur, or I mop some paint off to pick out highlights. Once this stage is completely dry, I rub off the masking fluid and begin to add the tiny details: little cracks, dimples, crevasses, lines and speckles.

It’s always hard to know when a painting is finished. It’s very easy to overwork a piece a ruin it at the very end. I now know that when I start to think “I wonder if it’s finished yet?” I know its time to stop!

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