Firm Gently, Gently Firm and the I Ching

What’s with the name?

Yang (unbroken line) and Yin (broken line)

Ok, originally I found the phrase “please firm gently” on the back of a packet of seeds. I loved the juxtaposition of concepts (firm it!.. but gently!). And I liked the yin-yang nature of it too.

I Ching / The Classic of Changes

I use the I Ching, an ancient Chinese book full of deep insight, wisdom and observations on nature, especially human nature. The name translates to Classic of Changes and at 3,000 years old it’s the oldest of the Chinese classics and one of the oldest books in the world. This book knows a lot.

Taoism and the concept of Yin/Yang come from the I Ching.

The version I use has been translated as follows:
Chinese > German > English > shortened/simplified English.

So a lot will have been lost from the original. It keeps it short and sweet though and as you have to interpret the meaning of the text in your own way I like the distilled version, uncluttered by other people’s interpretations.

Inner Truth hexagram, the first tattoo I ever had. It reminds me to do the right thing, to not be selfish. Of course it doesn’t always work, I’m human. But whenever I see it I am reminded.

The Joyous: A trigram representing joyousness and the image of a lake.

The I Ching is a book of 64 pages, each based on one of 64 hexagrams (‘6-lines’).

Each hexagram is made from two trigrams(‘3-lines’).

There are eight trigrams, each represents a base concept (shown below) and when combined in pairs they represent another less primitive concept.

  • The Creative   Heaven
  • The Receptive   Earth
  • The Arousing   Thunder
  • The Abysmal   Water
  • Keeping Still   Mountain
  • The Gentle   Wind, wood
  • The Clinging   Fire
  • The Joyous   Lake

So, the logos?

So the Firm Gently logo is made up of the trigrams for KEEPING STILL (firm, a fist) and THE GENTLE (the open hand), reading from right to left to keep it Chinese. The Gently Firm logo has the trigrams in opposite positions.

KEEPING STILL (firm, a fist)

THE GENTLE (the open hand)

8 x 8 = 64 pages of wise words.

The I Ching does not try to predict the future. To use it, you find a random way of being ‘directed’ to a page, often with a particular question or situation in mind. So the idea is that you’ll be guided to a page which helps you to understand your question or situation.

I use the 3-coin method. You take 3 coins, toss them and the results (how many heads/tails) get converted into a line in your hexagram. It might be an unbroken line (yang), a broken line (yin) or a special ‘moving line’ which changes from yin to yang or vice-versa (moving lines happen when you get 3 heads or 3 tails).

Do this another 5 times to get your 6 lines for your hexagram. Look up the hexagram on the contents page and it tells you which page in the book to read.

“I threw the I Ching yesterday…it said there’d be some thunder at the well…”

Interpretation for today’s world

Even this ‘modern’ version requires a lot of work on the reader’s part to make use of it today. Being aimed at ancient Chinese Emperors the language is all very male and talks a lot about being a leader, warfare and ‘controlling your population’ and so on. But the concepts covered are much broader than that, you just have to work out how to convert them into modern ideas and goals.

The original book was compiled and refined over centuries by some of the wisest people around. A lot of cultural changes have taken place since it was written. I don’t think human nature has changed at all in that time.

To be inwardly firm and outwardly gentle is the way of true joy.

Painting with Subtractive Primary Colours (CMY)

How most of my paintings only use four colours

Most of my paintings are made from a very small number of mainly primary colours. As any child who has ever painted quickly learns red, yellow and blue can be mixed together to make secondary colours like orange and purple. With these colours and a couple of whites (titanium white for bright or opaque areas, zinc white for translucent mixes) pretty much any colour can be mixed up.

Flor de Noche Buena Painting
There’s no black here

there’s no black here


I rarely use black paint, for example this painting of the red and green-leaved poinsettia didn’t involve the use of any blacks. The darkest areas are actually a deep purple but they look black. Actually one of my art teachers in school forbade us from using black, justified by it not appearing in nature (although I’m guessing black holes are pretty dark). She did have a point, but she applied it too bluntly. Since then I make my own point of using pure black in some paintings, one of my justifications being Paul Cezanne (a major influence on my work) and his well-known use of blacks. In the main though, I stick to primaries and whites.

image to illustrate tonal optical illusion

the circle on the right looks darker, but mouse over the image to see that both are the same colour


Tonal Relativity

When there is no literal black in an image the darkest tone will tend to be perceived as a black anyway. We judge colour tones relative to their surroundings and our visual system performs a kind of automatic contrast adjustment.

I like the primitive nature of only using three colours, it encourages me to get to know the properties of each pot of paint well and a limited palette helps to bring an overall coherence to a piece of work.

There are problems with the approach though, some hues can be difficult to mix and it’s easy to end up with muddy dull colours. This is partly because there is no such thing as a perfect pure pigment and some manufactured paint colours end up being naturally stronger than others.

equal amounts of blue and yellow end up as very dark blue with a hint of green

more yellow and less blue is needed for a medium green


Pigmental Imbalances

For example the Deep Pthalo Blue that I like to use is very strong so I have to use a tiny amount of it relative to other colours. If I want a medium green, rather than mixing 1 part blue to 1 part yellow (which ends up as dark blue with a very slight hint of green) the ratio tends to be more like 10 parts yellow to 1 part blue.

Apart from anything else this can end up being uneconomical because adding too much strong blue to a colour can make it far too blue and mean I need to counterbalance it with large amounts of the weaker colours, which equals wasted paint.

red and yellow make orange, blue and yellow make green, that’s normal

yellow and magenta become red, magenta and cyan make blue, that’s weird


Cryla Subtractive Primary Colours

I was running low on a couple of colours and due to buy some new paint when I found out that Daler and Rowney’s decent Cryla range (scroll down to read about the primaries on that link) had a primary (C)yan, primary (M)agenta and primary (Y)ellow. These are the subtractive primaries used in CMYK or process printing. People who are into printing will be more than familiar with these colours but for those who aren’t, cyan is a kind of sky-blue and magenta is a pinky-purple (approximately). Yellow is yellow.

Whereas painters are used to mixing red with yellow to create orange, blue with yellow to create green and so on, these rules don’t apply any more when using cyan, magenta and yellow. In fact things are quite different and go against deeply ingrained habits. To make red, you mix yellow and magenta. To make blue you mix magenta and cyan. This is weird.

How They Worked Out

I’ve been painting since the days of Rent-a-Ghost and Jossie’s Giants so the idea of having to think in new ways about how to mix colours seemed like an interesting change and as these paints had been created specifically for primary mixing I thought it might end up working better than my old red yellow and blue method. I got myself some of these paints and grabbed a picture of a CMYK colour wheel to refer to when I got confused with the new colour-mixing rules.

After a few hours of painting and a few colours having been mixed I realised I didn’t need the colour wheel and that things weren’t so different. The magenta is deep enough to feel like a red, and mixing it with yellow still makes orange, just not the same type of orange I got with the old reds and yellows. Colour mixing for me is always about adding a little at a time anyway so my process barely changed; although there was a shift in the colours I was producing I didn’t have a problem getting to where I wanted to be.

Gone Sun a cyan/magenta/yellow landcape


One thing I did notice was that the colours tended to be fresher and less likely to end up muddy – this is great and exactly what I was hoping for. The colours have also been formulated to be closer to each other in strength, and while this hasn’t been perfectly achieved none of them are as far out of whack as my old pthalo blue so this is also a welcome improvement.

I like these paints a lot and they’ve now become my standard for any primary-based paintings.

En Plein Air

En plein air (painting on location or from life as opposed to from a photograph) is a nice idea but as with so many things art-related a daft snobbishness wafts around it (illustrated by the fact that English people suddenly start speaking French at the thought of it). I think the presumption is that there’s something more ‘real’ about it, in a similar way to how food is supposed to taste better if it’s prepared using ‘authentic methods’.

another artist’s work that hangs in my flat, £1 from a charity shop, a baccy-stained paint-by-numbers but I love the laid-back feeling of it

I’ve never understood this idea of promoting the intellect above the senses where a sensory experience is involved. I use my taste buds to decide if something tastes nice, not a history book. Similarly, my eyes tell me if a particular picture is something I want hanging on my wall. Actually my walls are covered with my own paintings but that’s not because I think my art is better than other people’s, it’s because I like to keep them in view so I can work out what I like and don’t like about them (and I have nowhere else to store them).

art college taught me to draw men with no clothes on


I’m not copping out due to simple lack of ability, I can draw from life – or at least I think I was on par with most of the people I went to college with when it came to drawing naked people. It’s definitely harder and I do have respect for work carried out in this way. One of the challenges of painting realistically is the conversion from our 3D stereoscopic view to the two dimensions of the canvas, and when using photos for reference this bit of the job is already done.

There are practical reasons against painting outdoors for me. I live in England – this means it’s usually cold or windy outside, which leads to numb fingers or having to chase equipment down the road. I hate being watched when I work, and passers-by will always want to stop and look or talk to a painter. Light changes with the time of day/season/weather.

Although the literal translation of en plein air refers to being outside, the same snobbery is applied to painting from life indoors. Ok so the weather is less variable indoors and passers-by are more controllable but the lighting is still prone to variation and there are other problems, for example models get bored and can’t sit still.

I was here, I soaked up the atmosphere, I smelt the cow shit…do I really need to have stood working in the mud?

Some people will enjoy the challenging conditions of working from life. I can understand that, I enjoy a challenge myself. I did my fair share of life drawing at college and I did enjoy it, but when it comes to paintings that take a long time I don’t want to jump through unnecessary hoops. We have cameras now. If I have stood in a place and felt the atmosphere, then framed and captured some images on my camera to take home and refer to when I paint I dont feel like I’m cheating, I feel like I’m being pragmatic. Who knows how many famous painters of yesteryear would have made use of today’s technology if it was available to them, I bet some of them would.

Would a steak taste better if it was served in an abattoir?

To Each His Own

Sketching is important for artists, I wouldn’t try to say otherwise. It’s good training for hand-eye coordination and is very immediate and direct. Sometimes I start a painting by sketching myself, but then again sometimes I throw planning out the window, grab a brush and start painting. A white canvas can be intimidating so I often want to get it covered in some kind of colour as quickly as possible.

I’m not saying painting from a photo is better than painting from life, or that there isn’t any value in doing the latter, but I just don’t think there is anything wrong with using photos for reference especially when you’ve taken them yourself. After all, photography is an art in itself. For me, the camera is useful for capturing the static image, then the paintbrush is used to create the tangible object (and there are still some people in the world who like paintings).


Semiautonomous Painting (Splashy Messes)

After many years spent painting with a brush I find that when I try to make abstract paintings my hand has too many engrained, restricting habits. I want to get away from those. Over the past year or so I’ve been developing an abstract style which I’m going to loftily call ‘semiautonomous’ until I come up with something better. This word refers to the idea that I exercise only a little control over where the paint falls and leave the rest to physics and the properties of the canvas and paint.

abstract detail 1
this blend effect comes from painting onto wet canvas

With this method I treat paint as the physical object it is. If you spill milk on a table the liquid milk forms a blobby splotchy shape. Paint thinned to the same viscosity as milk will behave similarly. Paint mixed to the thickness of jam will behave jammily. So I choose my consistency and mix up the paint accordingly, then throw, drip, spray or flick it onto the (usually horizontal) canvas.

The canvas might be in any stage of wetness between bone dry and dripping wet. Painting onto wet canvas will lead the edges of the splotches to feather out and soften, dry canvas will preserve the hard edges of the blobs.

abstract image 3
these trees (shown upside-down) were made by paint running down the canvas
abstract image 5
after the thick yellow paint dried, brown and red ran into the valleys

Using Gravity

I put the colour onto the canvas then set it at an angle and literally sit and watch paint dry. If the paint is mixed thinly the pigment (which actually consists of very tiny specks) moves in the planes of water just like sediment does in sea. I watch the water roll slowly across the canvas depositing pigment as it goes, more in crevices and less in flat areas. At the right time I change the tilt of the canvas and send it back in the other direction, or maybe encourage two differently-coloured sediments to flow and mix into each other.

I like to watch the image grow out of nothing. Peaks and valleys of paint build up so then subsequent layers have a non-flat surface to interact with, meaning more cracks and crevices for it to interact with.

abstract image 4
these cracks came from putting thick paint onto wet canvas then slapping it with a knife until it split

Slap and Trickle

This process is very physical, paint gets thrown, slapped and squished in. I have a pump-action water bottle with an adjustable nozzle (I know I shouldn’t boast). I use this to blast the paint with a thin jet or give the canvas a light misting, or sometimes I fill the bottle with thin paint and use it as rudimentary kind of airbrush.

There is a lot of waiting time involved in all of this. Oil painters will be used to waiting but I’ve always painted in acrylic so am used to short drying times. The canvas gets very wet sometimes, together with the occasional addition of slow-drying vegetable oil this means I can only usually do two colours per day – one first thing in the morning and another last thing before bed.

abstract image 2
vegetable oil created these circles

Mess = Fun

Here’s a list of some of the methods used in semiautonomous painting:

  • Squirt water onto a lump of paint and watch it break up and spread around.
  • Spray water onto the canvas then splash or drop paint onto it while wet.
  • Throw the paint at the canvas.
  • Make a puddle of paint on the canvas. Drip vegetable oil onto the paint and watch it cut clean circles through the pigment as it spreads.
  • Drop some washing-up liquid onto the canvas and watch the change in surface tension pull the pigment towards it almost magnetically.

Overall as a technique this is a lot of fun to work with. The results can be hit-and-miss but some of the work that’s come out of it has garnered some good reactions (see more). I’m currently taking it to the next level and producing a couple of semiauto portraits, which been fun so far but now I’m at the final stage where refined detail is needed and things are getting tricky to say the least. I’ll be posting them up as soon as I’ve finished!