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The final part of my Art A to Z - U to Z

First published Thursday, 8th November 2018

Art A to Z

And so to the final part starting with . . .

. . . U is for Universals

Image: Hot Shoe

As I research my work and teach I find more and more universals – themes and approaches that are not limited to art, but go across many disciplines. In fact a lot of my teaching practice comes from the dressage trainers that I had in my riding. How to learn, how to see, posture, preservation and promotion of expression, the ‘Art of Riding’ all contain universal themes with art, and from my discussions with my partner’s sister in the USA (a dancer and dance teacher), in ballet as well. In teaching and writing, I use examples from dressage, music, literature, even from golf! (which I don’t play by the way). One thing I have learned about universals is that they are truth, not opinions. Another thing I have learned is that once discovered, universals create connections between disciplines and practices that can lead to wonderful conversations between people, not only other artists from different genres and approaches, but also with people whose work, study and discipline seems totally unconnected to Art. I know nothing about golf, but I do know universals that exist in both art and golf and that gives me access to learning in a conversation with a golfer. Learning, not necessarily Art, is my favourite thing.

V is for Values

Image: Cobalt Greys, Forget Me Not

and Arabian Son Value sketch to painting

Values are the tones in a painting – at its basic: the lights and shades. I remember a lightbulb moment at school when I saw values in shading for the first time and started to understand how to render a subject. Now I know that values are so much more than simply rendering and that value exist in colours as well. In fact, when I taught my first American watercolour workshop, one of the participants wrote a blog saying that she was stunned to see in my demonstration that I used colour to define the form. It was only after much thought that I decided that indeed I did do this – another lightbulb flash – I naturally use colour as tone. Doh! - I should have worked that one out before as I am naturally a draughtsman rather than a painter, but that is the great thing about teaching – I learn too!

V can also be for Value Sketch – a simple sketch done using four tones before a painting to work out where the lights and darks will go. Simple, but valuable as here is the start of the design of the painting, where rhythms, transitions and inflections are noted that will (hopefully ) bring atmosphere and expression to the work.

W is for Watercolour

What else could W be for me? My love affair with watercolour sort of started with my illustration work as I have never liked acrylic and found gouache too coarse. Oils take too long to dry for the type of illustration that I was painting.

We have had our rocky patches. Watercolour can be an unforgiving partner, and is often seen as the hardest medium to dance with, but once some steps are mastered there is so much that can be done. From the palest wash to paint straight from the tube, the interaction of water and, well, colour can be awesome and inspiring. Sometimes to just stand back and let the pigment dance with the water and other pigment is incredible, but it takes a lot of practice to even start to understand ‘How Wet’, ‘How Much Pigment’,’ ‘How Much Choreography’. Maybe for me that is the thing. More than anything else, I love to learn, and with watercolour I learn more with every new painting – I don’t think that will ever stop.

10,000 hours? I passed that long ago. 100,000 hours? I’m probably approaching that after painting for nearly 40 years! I sometimes have little flirtations with other mediums, and enjoy my dangerous liaisons. I am actually planning have a fling with some oil paint for my latest series, but watercolour knows that I will always return to my painting soulmate.


Xylanthrax is the name for burnt wood most likely used for the very first forms of drawing on cave walls around 28,000 years ago. Xylanthrax can be the charcoal that you can use on your barbeque, but can also be the more refined version, also called Fusain but more commonly known as Vine or Compressed (artists) Charcoal.

Vine Charcoal is sticks of usually willow or vine that are burnt without air. Compressed Charcoal is made from ground burnt organic matter shaped with gum or wax binder into sticks or encased in wood to form charcoal pencils. Vine charcoal gives the greatest range of marks and tones, but is less stable than compressed charcoal ie it lifts off the paper or smudges more easily and has to be protected by a covering. It is also gloriously messy.

Two of my artist friends were having one of those conversations – you know, if you were on a desert Island what is the one thing that you would take, and they both agreed that I would take charcoal. They were right. I started as a draughtsman and drawing is ‘my thing’. (vine) Charcoal is the king of drawing. True it is hard to get tight detail with vine charcoal, but for learning to imply detail, for expressive marks, for one tool that gives the lightest stroke to the darkest, intense black it is unbeatable. I have reams of paper with charcoal Life Drawings on them waiting to (fittingly) become fire-starters for our stove this winter (fire born and fire died). While I do occasionally produce a charcoal drawing as an art piece to hang on the wall, 90% of my charcoal work is process not product. It is for the joy and the learning, the practise and practice of drawing. Show me the way to the Island.

Z is for Ziggurat

What is a Ziggurat? For those that do not know, it is a stepped pyramid. It is also the name of the Graphic Design & Illustration business that I ran at the start of my career long before I became a Fine Artist. I can’t remember exactly how the name choice came about, but I do remember a lubricated evening with my accountant going through possible choices based on my surname. Buchanan is a Scottish clan title with two tartans and a clan location on the eastern bank of Loch Lomond in Stirlingshire, Scotland. Apparently, the lowland clan made whiskey and sweets and also bought and fattened cattle form the Highland herds. The name’s most likely derivation is ‘buth-chanain’ meaning the ‘seat (house) of the canon’, so probably had an ecclesiastical origin. Somehow seen through the bottom of a wine bottle that morphed into looking at names of religious structures and we ended up with Ziggurat.

Nowadays I still use the term Ziggurat, but in teaching. I am an avid believer in learning and practising the basics. A concert pianist practices scales every day, a ballet dancer has ‘class’ every day, sportsmen and women warm-up running basic exercises, but artists . . . well we just paint. Applying the same rehearsal of basics that I used in schooling my horse to my artwork improved it tremendously, as did going back to class in the form of some workshops and in finding a great Life Drawing mentor in Andrés Jaroslavsky (The Corner Studio, York). I also have co-mentor relationships with a couple of other artists and as well as being sounding-boards, supporting and encouraging, we have days where we challenge each other to experiment or consolidate our learning. Teaching workshops myself also made me revisit basics, which is NEVER wasted time.

Back to the bible – do you remember the parable about the two men who built houses: one on sand and one on rock? The rock foundation house was harder and slower to build, but withstood the onslaught of wind and rain. I can extend that metaphor to the Ziggurat (although that was most likely built on sand as well – so more reason for a bigger, wider base). The height of the Ziggurat is determined by its base. If I only have a small grasp of basics, then my base layer, or bottom step, is small. I can only build up a small number of steps before I reach the top and can go no further without the whole thing tilting, falling or collapsing. By expanding the basics, I can make the base step bigger and build higher with more steps. If I find myself stuck or my creative practice starting to creak and crumble, then I know that I need to go make the base bigger, which means learning more which, as you may have discovered by now . . . is my favourite thing.


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The contents of this article or blog are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this article or blog. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this article or blog. Ruth Buchanan disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this article or blog.

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