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FROM LIFE by Michael Weller


"I paint in a traditional way, from life, in natural light in the studio.

I like to compare the shapes. Big shapes next to small. Intervals and overlap between objects. The overall shape they make into the four sides of the canvas. One or two colours might spark off wanting to make a painting.

When I started painting, I wanted to have more control over tone. I used to paint the same subject over and over again, a piece of garlic next to a blue cup (I still use the blue cup). Then apples. How many apples went into a small canvas board, without looking like there were too many, an avalanche of apples? I took out one apple, then another. Then I painted lemons. A friend said my colours were loud - yellow, blue, red together. Nature is more harmonious and tends towards grey and brown. So I painted pears for years. At the moment, I like satsumas, the colours and the slight wobble. That started in a class, when I was helping a student paint a satsuma. It was a challenge, so I tried it at home. Years ago, I saw a painting online of a plastic shopping bag with some groceries (by Jean Cooke RA, who I’d met in a printmaking class in London). It was gorgeous. I found my subject. Eventually I started to introduce an orange packet of coffee and a bottle of milk. They stopped making the orange packet of coffee, sadly. Now it’s mint green. I like Degas, Rothko and Morandi. I like Degas for his strong dark lines and big areas of oil colour, some thinly painted, some not there at all, just canvas. Rothko I liked for a long time. I used to look at the Seagram Murals in the Tate. They have a presence that’s hard to explain. It’s to do with his control of tone. I tell the students that’s what we’re aiming to achieve in painting - the colours pushing and pulling against each other. I see something similar in Morandi, in his response to subtle subject-matter and limited palette. There’s an economy to the way they paint. Few colours. The essentials, succinct. They are almost rough – colours on canvas, showing patches of blank canvas. “How would Mark Rothko approach this? Don’t dive into the painting straightaway. Spend half an hour looking for THAT colour,” I say to my students. As long as you think about the composition, and the colours are in the right place, it doesn’t matter if the paint is rough. I was tentative about going up to students while they painted. Then I realised I had to step in more and help. “Put the paint down. Now leave it alone. Move on to another area.” Sometimes they’d ask me what I meant. “When you say activate the edges of the painting with the shapes, do you mean have the shapes touch the edges of the board?” “Yes,” I said, “that’s what I mean.” A student wrote to me, “Looked again at the demo. Letters should always be read more than once. Same with paintings.” I start my class with a hot drink. Then I do a short demo. I have three satsumas on the table. One is slightly lower than the other two, and going dark. I block in the big outlines. I show a few things that help me with proportion and light and dark. For instance, hold the brush against a line you see, and bring it back to the canvas. Everything tilts slightly. There is a little wonkiness to everything. It helps the shapes in the picture, too. I go round the students and talk one-on-one. We have a break in the gallery, away from the paintings. The students ask each other about their week. Then we go back in and do some more painting. I teach how I paint, but the students keep their own individual style. The painting is organised into big shapes. They put down their marks in the right place and leave them alone. No tidying up or smoothing out. It’s a painting, their painting. The students are appreciative, and ask me about my terrible train journey to the class. They say no-one’s ever taught them what I did, and I’ve helped them."

by Michael Weller


Michael Weller is a British artist. He teaches oil painting to classes in Winchester and Arundel, and is represented by GrandyArt in London. In 2014, he won the Winsor & Newton Prize.