Work Small, Learn Big | Pens

Francis Boag Blog

Many years ago I worked as a freelance cartoonist (I was never very good) - the humour was ok but the drawings were terrible! Yet I had spent countless hours trying to create a ‘line’ that was uniquely mine.

I tried dozens of pens and used acres of paper looking for that elusive quality that is the stamp of a good cartoonist and although I was having my work published, I was never really happy with what I was creating. But, I did learn an awful lot about what makes a line ‘alive’…how did the ink flow? How thick should the line be? Was board or paper best? Did the ink sit on the surface or was it absorbed into the paper? Was a fast line better than a slow line etc. etc?

The variables of pen and paper are infinite and often produce minuscule changes of which only the artist is aware. Don’t be afraid to look for inspiration in the ‘Funnies’… these are professionals working at the top of their trade, and they can teach you a lot if you open your mind. I eventually decided that I didn’t have what it takes to be a good cartoonist and stopped trying but the lessons I learned during that time have since proved invaluable.

Time spent with a pen or pencil in your hand should never be wasted. You can even make writing your grocery list a learning experience by experimenting with different pens and paper...


Work Small, Learn Big | Tools

Work Small, Learn Big Blog


For the sake of my sanity and my bank balance, I have taught myself to strictly ration the time I spend in my local art supplier. The tools of our trade, pens, pencils, brushes, sketchpads, paints etc. have always been a source of fascination to me and I could happily spend hours browsing through the delights on offer.

I have even been known to pore over art catalogs and brochures looking for the magic ingredient that will solve all my artistic problems and change my life. Like the golfing ‘rabbit’ who is convinced he can get round in par if he could only find the right putter or new driver, I am always looking for the ideal pen or perfect paper.

One of the ’perks’ in my post as Head of Art was the requirement to purchase materials for the department and so I could indulge my passion for art products with a clear conscience. It was during this time I discovered that there was no substitute for quality and I have carried this lesson with me into my career as a professional artist.

I remember many years ago reading an article by David Hockney where he explained that when his work began to sell for quite large sums he realised that he should stop using the cheaper paints and boards he was accustomed to as a student and use only quality materials which would stand the test of time. Work offered for sale should only be produced using materials tested for reliability and quality. On the other hand, work produced as preparatory studies, or for your own use can include any media you like. One of the homework tasks I set as a teacher asked the students to make a self-portrait with anything they could normally find around the home.

One drawing I particularly remember was made with lipstick, rouge, shoe polish and mascara on a piece of fine grade glass paper. It had a unique quality which made it look as if it could have been found in Tutenkamun's tomb! Items like lipstick and eye pencils make very expressive lines and anything that stains i.e. red wine, coffee, turmeric, food colouring and so on will make a colour wash. You can also, for instance, make a lovely, subtle ‘drawing ink’ by diluting a carton of cold water dye in a jar. Try it and see…there are no rules.



Winter Hills Dunoon


My normal method of beginning a painting is to create as much excitement as I can with liquid paint applied in bold strokes and splashes. Most of the time, this is then refined and painted over as the painting progresses, but I always try to retain some of the original marks as they are usually the most freely painted and full of energy.

However, in this painting I was so pleased and excited with the qualities of the early stages of the work, I determined to leave as much as I could in the finished piece. I anticipated some difficulty in resolving the completed work with a recognisable landscape element, but knew instinctively that the transition between the two areas would be a river bank.

My first thoughts were to integrate the coast at Cowie in Stonehaven, as seen from the harbour area, but then another image began to insinuate itself into my thoughts and I decided to go with that.

Several years ago, I was given the use of a cottage on the Cowal peninsula by a gallery in Glasgow, who were hoping it would inspire me to paint some west coast landscapes. We had a lovely family holiday and I did manage a few paintings from my travels round the local area.

The view in this painting is my memory of the ferry journey across to Dunoon, which we took a couple of times towards the end of the day. It is now quite a few years since I made that journey, and I am not sure why it popped into my head, when I was contemplating this canvas.

However, I have learned over the years to trust that 'wee inner voice' and so 'Winter Hills, Dunoon' was the result.


What Makes a Painting?

It is always so encouraging when people take the time out to write to me and share with me their enthusiasm for my work. It fills me with great joy when someone can find some inspiration for their own work in my paintings and I am always happy to provide any advice I can to help.

The essays I wrote for 'Work Small, Learn Big' and 'International Artist' are now almost 10 years old but I put a lot of thought into the articles and think they still stand up today. My work has moved on in many respects but essentially my approach to painting remains the same.

A few years ago, for the first time, I gave some painting workshops and this has caused me to deconstruct my working methods in an attempt to pass on to others not only 'how'  I make my work but also my thought process as a painting progresses.

When you are looking to make a painting, the subject matter, in my case, fields, farm buildings etc are only important in that they have stimulated you to want to create. Once you have begun your painting, once the first mark is made, the subject ceases to have any importance, all your attention should now be on the surface of the painting. Only make marks, add colour, draw lines, splatter paint which you think make the painted surface look better. The world of your painting is your world, you are the supreme being and only you get to decide what looks 'right' and only you can decide if something is 'wrong'. You have the power to make grass red and the sky black, or even the other way around but you must also apply your  own internal logic to your creation.

You probably know what you want your painting to look like, don't let your knowledge of the natural world inhibit you as you create your new personal world. It will be difficult at first to make complete paintings which satisfy you but parts of your work will be everything you hoped so treasure these parts and try to develop and grow them until you are making paintings which are expressing your inner vision.

I hope that doesn't sound too 'spiritual' and helps you a little. Happy painting!



Why Sketch

Sketching isn't just about drawing, it's all about 'being there'. The experience is more than merely visual. Sounds, smells, the weather, are among lots of factors which make up your  experience of  a place or  a moment.  How you feel inside yourself - happy, sad, stressed, relaxed, etc. -  will all effect your memory of the experience when you try to recall it in the studio.


Taking the time to sit and sketch will not only give you a visual record but the time spent in one place even if it’s only a ten minute sketch allows the other factors an opportunity to have an impact. Taking time to sketch means staying in the same place, looking at the same thing for an extended period. 

With the hectic pace of life today, taking time for passive absorption is almost unknown. When was the last time you stood still and observed any of anything around you for more than a few seconds before shifting your gaze or moving on?


In a car or a train the experience becomes similar to the sort of subliminal advertising that was banned a few years ago. The images flash into your mind almost without you being aware of them but they are implanted in your memory and are a resource to be used.



I first wrote this nearly 20 years ago as part of my application for the M.A. Course at Grays and reading it again I'm struck by how much it still informs my work today.

In my work, I am trying to evoke in the viewer, a childhood memory of a day or a long forgotten moment, and to reawaken the sense of pleasure and lost innocence this memory brings.

I hope to achieve this response through a combination of visual references, intellectual elements and emotional triggers.

In the paintings, the visual references are the trees, cottages, dykes ( stone walls ) birds, sheep, cows and so on, which I interpret in a naïve simplified style.

The intellectual element is the sense of it being a visual record of an actual place i.e. Cookney or Glen Isla and the emotional triggers are chiefly the expressive, vibrant colour I use, but the texture, shapes and rhythmic 'marks' I make as the painting develops are also important.

In my current work, I am slowly working toward diminishing the intellectual elements, refining and simplifying the visual references and trying to rely more on the emotional triggers, to elicit a response.

My aim is to make work, which will impact on the person seeing it in a sense similar to that felt on listening to a familiar or favourite piece of music.