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Felicia Forte portrait workshop

“Success is a string of failures” Vincent Van Gogh

There is no point in standing still as an artist, if we continue to paint same things over and over, sticking to the same formula, however successful, our work quickly becomes stale, and we tire of producing it, which in turn shows in the works produced. As we lose our passion the work lacks its fire. 

You may know that I trained at one stage as a portrait artist, and for a while did commissioned portraits until my love of animals won over and I went back to painting subjects that couldn’t offer an opinion.

However, I’ve been dicing with figurative art for a year or two now but have not found it easy, much of the work has found its way onto the bonfire, or been tossed, crumpled, into a corner of the studio. I often find that the way out of a rut, or off a plateau is to step out of my routine and studio, and stretch myself a little harder; an etching course, life drawing or in this case an intense four day portrait workshop with a painter I hugely admire – Felicia Forte. She has that effortless style that makes you want to lick the painting, an ease and confidence in her work that is sorely lacking in my portraiture.

I considered joining her at the fabulous London Fine Art studios, but it’s close enough to commute, and I wanted to escape, albeit briefly, my domestic ties, so I could think of painting and nothing else. I signed up for the newly formed Raw Umber studios in Stroud, set up by former pupil of a LARA (a school coincidently I helped found, but that’s a story for another day) 

Felicia is everything one imagines an artist to be; engaging, quirky with an absolute passion and dedication to her craft. (It irritates me that I feel I look so little like an ‘artist’, years ago a friend of my mothers told me I looked like a headmistress, I haven’t spoken to her since such was my fury, it touched a nerve as I suspect she may be right.)

We watched Felicia demonstrate a 3 hour portrait the first morning. She set out her deceptively simple formula for creating an accurate likeness. Drawing, shadow shapes, average tones, then work out from one area. Suffice to say it was considerably harder than it looked, and my first attempt that afternoon, though a reasonable likeness was a pale, chalky, muddled mess. My drawing skills are poor, rusty from over reliance on technology in the studio. 

Three hour portrait by Felicia
Three hour portrait by me…

Day 2 was a full day painting, and I was allocated the same model all day. I spent a lot longer crafting a more considered drawing, and initially made a good start, but as the day wore on I tired, lost the simplicity of my tones, began to muddy the palette, and over work areas. The end result was ok, but not what I was hoping to achieve. I found myself using tiny brushes, dab dabbing at the same spots… 

Day 3 saw another demo, this time, three portraits in three hours. An hour, 40 minutes, and 20 minutes. Watching Felicia, every brushstroke carries a considered conviction, rather than my more slapdash approach. She mixes the values and applies them with sparsity and economy but with a very definite confidence. No dabbing with tiny brushes… I took a quick trip to Pegasus art, a mere five minutes away, and equipped with a wolverine hand of large bristle brushes set to with the triple portrait challenge. 

I learnt an incredible amount from this exercise, each short session revealing something new, and can see a real progression within the canvas of three heads. I think by the last I had finally begun to observe and mix correct colours, rather rely on preconceived ideas of colour. As I grew in confidence I painted faster, so although the third sketch is in less than half the time of the first, I got almost as much information down. A nugget of information from Felicia was that the head tends to get cooler as you move away from the light, so the upper tones are yellow, the middle tones red, and lower third cooler. We were using a ‘Zorn’ palette, which is restricted to Cadmium red, Ivory black, Titanium white and Yellow ochre. It’s been ages since I used a restricted palette, and it was fascinating to find the ranges of tone and colour you can achieve. My plan is to eventually move towards a very extended palette, and colourful portraits but it has been a useful exercise slowing down, and really taking the time to observe & mix the correct colours within the face. 

Most of the class went for dinner that evening, though we resisted the nightlife of Stroud as day 4 was an extended pose, 6 hours on the same model. I was pleased with my mornings work, the drawing coming more naturally by now, and managing to find mostly correct tone and value for a challenging pose of strong shadow and highlights. I changed for the afternoon, to other extreme of light and half tone on the other side of the face,  it my focus and stamina were flagging, and although it is a reasonable job, my mind was beginning to wander towards the following week, and the return to my family and home. 

It was truly a privilege to study with Felicia, to have a few days (thank you Peter/Jane!) to focus solely on my beloved painting, and I feel I have learnt an unbelievable amount in a short space of time. It has come at an opportune time for me, as I was struggling with working in solitude, and after a relentless few months of commissioned work was in dire need of a reboot of inspiration and passion. Art is an odd career, I am often told how lucky I am to do what I love for a living, and I agree, I am. However it is a blessing and a curse, as in order to make a living, your passion must also become your job, and after a while any job, if you do for long enough, starts to feel, well, like a job, and less like something you love to do. Sometimes stepping outside the box (or studio) gives you a fresh perspective and in this case has definitely re awakened my passion for painting. 

I can’t wait to get back into the studio this week, I must just find some socks for my son…. 

A very happy class of artists!
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Studio makeover


The studio, before and after

I’ve been in my studio for over a decade, and I’m aware of how lucky I am to have such a dedicated space, where I can work, largely undisturbed, in peace.

The studio a few years ago.

It is an old building, originally the forge for a local brewery, long since out of operation. They shod the dray horses there, and I assume, made the barrels from the amount of ironwork (and beer bottles!) we have dug out of the garden.  In more recent times my studio was a motorbike work shop, but apart from adding electricity, I doubt much has been done in the way of modernisation since those hairy feet lined up to be shod.


A “before” montage of studio shots

So thats where the mice got in… we cleared many bags of mice nest from the wall cavity.

Old buildings, however quaint, have their drawbacks. The door swung three inches from the floor, on old leather hinges, and mice (please lets not say rats) scampered merrily above my head, and I suspect, at night over the easel, with every corner webbed and netted by spiders. Every winter, I tended to fall prey to some lung or chest infection until I realised my old gas heaters might be the cause and installed an ancient woodburner. This certainly dried the damp in the studio out, but sadly took so long to actually heat the vaulted studio that by the time it was a working temperature, the school bus was honking at the end of the drive, the school and working day well and truly over.

The victorian stove and a variety of pets

The renovation

I worked some winters inside, but I find this claustrophobic, the line between working and home life blurred, never leaving the house. There were objections to the smells, and to the mess. This has been the way for over twelve years, and I began to dread the winters, oil paint is sullenly uncooperative in cold damp conditions, refusing to flow or dry. The commissions began to stack up, and at the busiest time of the year I had to work at my slowest pace, layered in jumpers, constantly feeding my temperamental stove.

This year however I finally took the plunge and the studio has been completely gutted, then insulated, plastered, rewired and painted. We have opened the window up at the back to create french doors, creating a wonderful view of my long neglected garden. The ancient, wonky door, and shoddy, old, glass front have been replaced with a door that shuts and windows that open!

I have had a complete purge of all the rubbishy furniture that had crept into the studio for ‘storage’ to remain mouldering in corners. The old stove, though it has dried many a studio painting, dog, cat and the odd chicken, will be replaced with a modern one. I waved a relieved good bye to the manky, old, red chair, forever impregnated with the succession of dogs that slept in it.


heavy duty clearing!


The first coat of paint on the new plaster


New doors for some much needed light


The finished studio

The building work is finally finished, and I only need to rehang the work, and put back the furniture. The space is everything I have dreamed of; light, airy (spider free!) and I hope come winter, warm. I feel over awed by the studio, it seems enormous, and I suspect I have ‘blank canvas’ syndrome, fearful of making the first mark. The easel is in though, and I have always found that painting, whether good or bad, is the best cure for the hump of artist’s block.


I intend to have a relaunch party one evening this summer, with a private view of recent work and I hope some of you will join me for a cocktail or two! I’ll send out invites through my newsletter, so do please subscribe if you’d like an invitation.

The finished studio

The finished adjoining studio

The front with new windows and door

The view from my desk

The garden, which looks amazing this year, due to the weather rather than my very lacklustre gardening skills!