Getting Started with the Biggest Brush Possible

Dear Friends,

Drawing can be a lovely activity, but the transition from planning a bacchanal on paper to painting in the fun bits on canvas can include arduous tasks. One could hand off these duties to an assistant, but doing them myself charges my subconscious for the last-minute flourishes that can make a painting come alive.

I am happy to answer questions!
Very truly yours,
Hilary Harkness


  1. Hi Hilary,
    Thanks so much for the peephole into your studio. How and when did you get into mixing your own paint? Did it have a big effect on your relationship to your process and the painting itself, or was it just a practical move? I would love to hear more about that. Looking forward to the next update!

  2. Hello Emily,
    I was taught to mix paint using a much more thorough method in school. To find out more about it, I would visit the shops of Doak or Kremer, which sell raw pigment.
    As a whole, I am so on love with process and craft that it can be hard to finish work in a timely fashion. For instance, halfway through a painting I might decide my gesso was wrong from the start, and I will start tinkering with succeeding layers of paint to try to get the feeling of painting on magnetic ivory. Or, I will simply have a cry and put the painting away for a future self to solve its problems.
    In school, I decided I would never, ever grind my own paint because I hate it! But when visiting Kremer pigments a few years ago, I became smitten with a reddish ochre that you simply can't buy in a tube. I manned it up and ground it into paint myself. I am still using that tube and it is by far the brightest earth color I have ever seen.
    Also, sometimes i grind lapis lazuli since that can't be found in a tube.
    I use Old Holland tubed paints in general because the colors are very dense and fine-grained, but they can't match the brilliance of what I grind myself.
    Thanks for asking!

  3. Hi Hilary
    Thanks for your generosity in sharing a little bit of your practice with us! I'm curious to what degree is painting from direct observation a part of your work? The complexity of the architecture in some of your paintings makes me wonder -- do you build sets? I get the sense that the figures are invented but I wonder about their environments. Do you make up the whole thing and plot it out analytically in perspective? If so, how are you able to imagine the light and color? Is it a matter of deciding on a particular logic to directional light and sticking to it?
    Thanks again - I'm a great fan of your work.

  4. Thanks, Colin!

    What an idea! I wish I could hire architects to build me models of buildings and ships to paint from life - I would be so happy!
    In fact I use floor plans to meticulously plot out the illusion of 3D space, and perspective can get very tricky when I place the ship or building at an angle to the viewer. Most recently I have cross-sectioned the townhouse of Ron Warren, who owns a major art collection. I had to get all the measurements correct so my depictions of the artworks would be the right proportion within the space.
    When I paint battleships I feel that things will be most interesting if I closely follow the blueprints. It's really important to me that I know exactly where the trash compactor is in relation to the ship's darkroom because the military put a lot of thought into controlling groups of people within a confined space, and also because my work is all about re-imagining real history with the difference being that all the characters are women.
    Local color is pretty basic for me, then I typically choose a light source within each room, assign it a color, and approximate how it would fall. When I am doing a scoop-away view, I will also decide on an external light source, perhaps the moon, and throw a gentle light over the whole setup including the cutlines.
    As for painting from life, I cannot do without painting landscapes as studies even though the results in my finished paintings are far from real.
    Thanks again for your complement,
    ps...i just remembered that I did buy a kid's scale model of the Mighty Mo', calculate where the inner decks would be in relation to the outside of the ship, and then draw the interior lines on the exterior of the model, which I then photographed. Using that as a guide, I then laid out the interior of the ship for the painting.