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  • Writer's pictureHazel Manley

Marks on Paper

Any painting is, in the end, marks on paper creating an illusion for the viewer.

Some of my studio essentials

Behind the Painting

I thought for this blog, I’d take you into my studio to see what was going on as I worked on Balance 2. I worked on this over the summer as a way of to reliving some of the joy of being in my favourite spot on the planet and an antidote to the various other jobs that I was tied up with at the time. I didn't video the work, but took lots of photos as it progressed.

Working With Photos

Whilst on holiday in June, I had spotted that a missing board in the sea defences created a handy shelf on which to balance a pile of stones and provided a frame at the same time. Usually, I take photos, go home and play around with the images until I have a composition I am happy with. This time, I spent time playing with the shot so the painting was composed before I left the beach. I’ve written previously about how aphantasia influences my working processes which involve using lots of photos. Working in very changeable weather and light conditions in a spot where the tide will be head high in less than six hours is definitely another reason to work from photos!

A Combination of Delights

The location offered me an unmissable combination of delights. The fascination of balancing piles of stones is something I have in common with many others and watching the tide come in and sweep them away is bizarrely satisfying. Added to this is my love of painting the sea defences. The colours of these utilitarian structures are so beautiful as bright greens and orangey rusts sit against the blues and greens of the sky and sea.

Back Home

Back home, I realised my photo didn’t quite capture the energy of the original scene, so I played around with the colour curves and contrast to reproduce the feeling of summer brilliance I remembered.


At this point many artists will use a grid to transfer an image to their paper, but I was just itching to start playing with the colours and, for me, gridding is a frustrating way to produce the same result a scanner, enlarger, printer and tracing produce when getting my composition onto paper. I spent time choosing colours and adding a test strip to the side of my paper. I wanted to capture the brilliance of the sunny day reflected in the stones, wood and metal.

Covering the Paper

I like to work from light to dark preserving areas that are intended to end up very light. This is probably a hangover from starting out painting with water colours. Once I'd decided which areas needed to remain light, I covered the rest of the paper using a pale version of the final colours. Adding a light scribble of the pastel and working with thinner, I worked the diluted layers into the grain. It provides a layer which tends to stop the next layers from sinking into the paper allowing me to (fairly) neatly remove subsequent areas of colour if needed.

Marks on Paper

I continued to build the layers using my various tools. Many are not from an art shop, but there are also brushes and colour shapers all of which allow me to move the oil pastels around or blend the colours until the marks on the paper are what I was hoping for. Any painting is, in the end, marks on paper creating an illusion for the viewer.


The painting had a number of challenges. I wanted the sand to be pin sharp as it is in the foreground, but this is not easy when using a medium which is very creamy! The other challenge was the relationship between the sea and the sky. The range of blues in my set is quite good, but the sky is often paler than one often imagines, so it took lots of checking the values and adjusting to get the balance right. The other problem was the stones. Stepping back I realised they didn't seem quite real, and appeared almost to hover, and I was about to try to make them look weighted, when I realised they have that same appearance of hovering in the original photo. I decided that making the scene look more 'real', would take something rather magical away from the moment.

Balance 2: A Captured Moment

An oil pastel of stacked stones framed by the sea defences
Balance 2

There's an old saying about a painting not being finished but abandoned and the temptation to continue to fiddle is immense. However, after looking at it on and off for a week or so, I eventually decided that it was as finished as it was going to be.

So, here it is: framed by the almost sculptural sea defences, a pile of stones is suspended in a moment in time. I hope it takes you a little closer to the smell of the sea air and the warmth of a bright yet breezy day. I hope it catches the moment.

If you would like to see more about how I work, I will be launching a new YouTube video very soon. Subscribe to my channel so you don't miss it.


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