Grant McSherry - Oil Painting Process.

In response to a request from International Artist Magazine, New Zealand landscape painter Grant McSherry documented his painting process while painting 'West end, Ohope Beach'. The magazine article that transpired was based on these notes.

"Mark up" or drawing using charcoal

Marking up in charcoal

People often ask me “So how do you know when a painting is finished?”
The answer is simple. Like everything else you do, if you know exactly what you want to achieve, you know when you have achieved it.

So that’s rule number one for me. Really understand what you want to paint. I think about the image before I start & run through the painting in my mind before I even prime the linen…

I work exclusively from my own photos. I think about what each image should convey and how I need to paint to express that. Once I understand what I want to achieve, I order the linen stretcher made to size and Gesso it myself. Although I like to have as much involvement in the finished product as I can, I accept that the experts can make a better stretcher than I. My core business is about how I transform the stretcher.

Using charcoal, I draw a grid by separating the linen into only four quadrants. This time I drew one extra grid line & split the linen into six quadrants because the image is long and narrow (1500 mm x 700mm). I wanted the extra line to help ensure that gulls remained in proportion.

I minimise the charcoal drawing lines to avoid creating a big black mess but I keep in mind that the better my work is at this point, the easier the painting process will be. It's easier to work basic lines out in charcoal than it is to make corrections with paint later on.

I dislike drawing & I find this part of the painting process tedious…I derive my enjoyment from working with colour. I often need to walk off & do something else after only fifteen minutes or so of drawing or ‘marking up’ as I refer to it.

When I am happy with the "marking up" I rub out the grid lines, then with a rag over my finger, smudge in the charcoal lines that I want to keep. Patience is good here. If you resist the urge to get the brushes straight out and instead look and adjust lines over a couple of days, the time invested getting the basics right at this point is usually regained while painting. This is why I mark up new paintings as I am completing the one I am currently working on.

Underpainting - huge fun!


Here’s where the fun starts for me. After just three – five hours or so, the linen will be full of colour and the spirit of the painting reveals itself. I am completely absorbed in this part of the process and generally stay at the easel for hours when I am underpainting.

I use big brushes and work from background to foreground & from dark to light, never worrying much about detail but still roughing some elements in that I know will soon be covered back over, just to get a feel for the painting. The gull furtherest away is an example. You will see in the next photo he has dissapeared, but will return later.

I use an odourless thinner or spirit of turpentine as a medium for underpainting and at this stage I look to start dialling in colour without being too pedantic about it.

In this case I found that I had rushed the charcoal drawing stage a bit, which meant that I needed to adjust Whale Island in the background and spend some time working out the surf lines at the next stage. You can see the adjustment in the island in the pic above, but it won't be visible later on. I am happy with the underpainting and I’m excited about how this painting should develop. When people ask me what my favorite painting (of my own) is, my answer is always the one I am currently working on. If I lose enthusiasm I will lose motivation to continue and when I get to the detail stage I need motivation!

This will be the first seascape that I have painted since I was sixteen years old, so this is new ground (or sand) for me. While completely confident in my ability to paint the background, the sea and the gulls will represent a challenge... I hadn't painted birds before.

I believe painters need continuous challenge to improve and to energise the enthusiasm necessary to produce great work. I would lose interest and stop painting if I churned out the same material month after month.

Background & mid ground

Having considered the underpainting as a whole, I have broken the image down into a series of components in my mind... the trick is, that the elements have to be in complete synergy with one another.

At this stage of a painting, and from here on, I use a gel that is essentially a Thixotropic alkyd resin as a drying medium.

Normally, I paint from back to front and always begin with the sky, which I believe determines the light and colour of any landscape. Having completed the sky on this painting, I skipped to the headland because I felt that in terms of colour, the headland is the anchor point for Whale Island. This enabled me to consider the colour of the headland and the sky, to convey a sense of distance when determining the colour of the Island.

Next, I roughed in the sea and as usual, slightly accentuated perspective to create more of a sense of dimension. For me a big “No – no” in landscape painting is a composition that consists solely of a series of parallel horizontal lines. I slightly accentuated the angle of the clouds for the same reason, to “open up” the painting and give it some dimension.

Working on the mid & foreground

Above, I have spent some time on the sea with small brushes, adding detail and colour to create a sense of movement and to hopefully gain credibility. I believe that credibility is a basic requirement for any realist / representational painting. To analyse the painting process in a completely logical way you could say the painter is attempting to inspire thought and stimulate recognition (in this case of a real place) by creating an illusion of three dimentions on a single dimention surface. The key tools the painter has to work with are colour (including light and shadow) and perspective.

Back to the painting, next I worked on the foreground to dial in the colour and work through the tidal marks on the sand, which are critical to opening out the painting. I then returned to the gulls to progress them by just one step, concentrating on correcting anything that I considered to be an anomaly in perspective. My plan for the painting from the start has been to put considerable detail into the gulls as they have to be the enhancing feature of the painting. I was very aware that if the gulls are not believable, or (to use a technical term) naff, they would completely destroy the work.

Overall, at this point, I was happy with the way the painting was developing and quite excited about the final challenge of carrying those gulls off. More detail work on the foreground will help bring the painting to life.

West End, ohope Beach by Grant McSherry