Painting the light

One of our previous Featured Artists, David Hinchliffe from Brisbane, Australia, shares his unique painting technique with us. He paints with acrylics and is able to capture atmosphere and light in a truely breath taking way. Read on and find out how…

by David Hinchliffe

The invention of the camera changed everything for artists. It helped us see the world differently and it freed us from having to record the world realistically. We could see and interpret the world impressionistically, expressively, surrealistically abstractly and most importantly emotionally. In the 21st-century with so much access to photography and video, we have plenty of opportunities to take photographs and videos of our world and produce realistic images of what we see.

I personally believe that the role of a visual artist in the 21st century is to interpret those images rather than copy them. My own view is that if you love a sunset or a landscape, take a photograph of it. I personally believe there’s no need to try to paint it or replicate if a photograph will achieve the same thing.

If, however you want to interpret that image, by all means use photographs as a reference or a starting point for a painting. Of course photographs are useful as a guide or a jumping off point but if we simply tried to copy the photograph, then I think we are missing the special point of being artists – our imagination and our ability to interpret.

I try to paint atmosphere and light. I love the cities of the world and I feel very privileged to visit and paint them, although sadly that has happened less this year because of Covid. Atmosphere and light by their very nature are ephemeral and constantly changing. My painting technique tries to capture that evanescence.

I also try to paint quickly. By making quick energetic brushstrokes I find the action of painting imparts an energy to the painting itself. I try not to overwork a painting. In many cases I find towards the end of the painting I’m actually taking out detail. Often detail gets in the way of seeing the totality of the subject. It’s the old motto: less is more. I enjoy the work of other artists who paint in great detail and may take weeks or months to produce a single painting. But that approach is simply not for me.

Unlike most artists I tend to work from dark to light. By that I mean I like to get as much colour and tone over the whole of the surface of the canvas and then progressively build the painting . In some cases I even choose to work on a completely black canvas. I have been painting and selling my paintings since I was 12 years old, 53 years ago. I changed to acrylics from painting exclusively in oils about four years ago. I was painting in a very humid Hong Kong and discovered that my oils simply weren’t drying quick enough for my exhibition there out of necessity I turned to acrylics and within a week of painting I was converted. I prefer heavy body acrylics because of the nature of my painting style.

All my painting start with an underpainting of the canvas. I generally cover the whole of the canvas with a wash of colours. My most commonly used colours are dioxadine purple, ultramarine blue, Indigo blue, magenta and yellow ochre. I don’t use all of these colours together although on occasions I will have quite a varied palette.

I use a water atomiser or spray bottle to lightly spray the canvas in order to move the paint quickly across the canvas blending in the colours. When it’s almost dry I will drop more water over the canvas and wipe it away to create interesting patterns in the underpainting. I’ve always found painting on top of an existing painted surface or ‘underpainting’, layering gives the completed painting extra texture and substance. Sometimes in the completed painting all of the underpainting is painted over. Most times, however, parts of the underpainting are left showing through in the finished work. Underpainting also allows the painting to be completed more quickly than working with a white canvas.

After covering the canvas with paint and texture, I start by working with the ‘negative’ spaces in the painting. If it’s a streetscape, I work out where the lighter spaces of the composition (the light reflections on the pavement or the sky or street lights) might be. By painting the space around the figures, the figures themselves begin to emerge. I liken this approach to carving or sculpting. A sculptor works with a block of stone or wood and by removing the negative space around the figure allows the figure to emerge from the wood or stone. Initially the paint I’m using to ‘carve’ out the main objects in the composition is several shades lighter than the background colour. Once I get more certain about the placement of figures and objects in the painting I can accentuate those shapes with increasingly lighter tones. Generally the lighter tones are applied towards the end of the painting, with the final touches usually being titanium white to give the painting real sparkle and luminosity.

In the early days of painting I incorporated quite a bit of detail. I find these days but less is more. I strip out a lot of detail in the final composition. I find detail gets in the way of appreciating the atmosphere of the painting.

I’m not fixated by materials. Some of the greatest paintings ever painted have been by Australian indigenous people using sticks and paint made from natural pigments. I think far too many artists get hung up on expensive esoteric painting materials and techniques. I use a number of brands of acrylic paint, preferring heavy bodied acrylics from branch including Atelier, Chroma and Schmincke. I tend to prefer round tipped brushes. They suit my painting technique. You need to use what suits you and your style.