Tuesday, 17 November 2015

A Conker to Call my Own

I love this description of autumn from, of all places The Spectator: 

Autumn: season of mists and mellow pumpkin soups. Of new leather boots and sausages with red onion chutney, of sheepskin slippers and mushrooms mushrooming through the mulch. 

For quite some time I have been delighting in the paintings of others, especially when there appeared to be something of a frenzy of conker paintings. Loads of deliciously shiny conkers, with or without strings attached ready for a game, or the spiky shells discarded by children or squirrel's eager for the over sized seeds inside. Beautiful depictions all, and I really wanted to add to the growing gallery myself, except for one omission, a conker.

Back home in Woodford there are some wonderfully statuesque Horse Chestnut trees that have been there since I was very small, and are still going strong. Every year during conker season, you had to watch where you walked, just in case a falling shell stabbed you in the head. Of course, we risked this occupational hazard in search of the finest, largest conkers to thwack, and be crowned that year's conker champ. Alas, where I am now there is a distinct lack of trees bearing these delights, and I have had to make do with other autumnal fare. Until now that is.

A couple of weeks ago, during one of my workshops I was presented with a bag of conkers and shells by one of my students. My delight could not have been more evident, and at last I knew I had a conker to call my own. Well several actually.

Choosing a nice looking half shell with plenty of texture, structure and a gloriously golden hue, I decided to work on a small study. Sizing up a bit to give it a bit more impact, and again to focus on the inside details, the drawing was quite simple, with a smooth outline and just a couple of spiky bits here and there. As the shell was getting on a bit, the green outer had mellowed to a deep reddish brown, while the once creamy inner, was now a burnished gold. Plenty of interest still to be had in there, with all the wrinkles and variations of tone.

The colour palette

A quick chart

As the shells had lost the colours of their vibrant green skin and creamy flesh, the palette took on a distinctly autumnal tone. Colours used.

Natural Sienna
Perylene Maroon
Indanthrene Blue
Quinacridone Gold
Pyrrol Orange
Lemon Yellow
Raw Umber

The early washes to establish light and tone

Building up the shade and starting some of the details of texture


Autumn is very much the season of conkers and new boots.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Botanical Year

A little while ago I introduced you to one of the projects I have planned for 2016. The Botanical Year is revisiting my love of sketchbooks and will give me the opportunity to get back into creating, and having fun without the commitment of something overly planned or finished. See Needful Things to get the idea of what I am up to.

"Never, ever underestimate the importance of having fun."

Randy Pausch

A Sketchbook Year, (well, almost)
Some of my favourite bits

During the SBA botanical painting course I had to keep a sketchbook as part of their curriculum, and I really enjoyed the freedom of playing around with techniques, colours, and new subjects. Since completing the course, I must admit to letting this part of my practise slide a bit, with my own sketchbook being somewhat neglected, as I have got busier with other commitments.

A couple of pages from the SBA course

For 2016 I really wanted to get back into keeping a sketchbook, but rather than just using it as a working documentation of progress and ideas, I really want to create something unique and beautiful, that reflects the passing months with all the bits and pieces that I love. 

As with all my sketchbook pages, there will be a certain amount of ephemera going on, with collected bits, random phrases, poetry, postcards, typography, and quite possibly the odd RHS ticket or map. I'm not good at those classic pages, where one subject is beautifully done, I have to be random, with lots of things going on. A bit like a nature table, but on paper, with little collections of random subjects and objects to make each page a unique and happy place. I'm really hoping that I will fall back in love with my sketchbook.

Of course I have my good friends on the Natural Sketchbook Exchange to thank for all this enthusiasm for sketchbooking. Their support and collaboration on our year long project has really fired my enthusiasm and enjoyment of the ideas and working out process again, and I have really wanted to do a good job by making my little piece of all of their books, a happy, fun and slightly eccentric place to settle for a while.    

"When you have confidence, you can have a lot of fun. 
And when you have fun, you can do amazing things."

Joe Namath

My latest page for the exchange

I had no idea how this was going to turn out or what was going to be on it.

All I wanted was an autumnal palette.

It grew as things presented themselves

Here on the blog, I will be creating a dedicated page for the project, so you can see how it all progresses. And, as life is always better with friends, if you would like to join me in the studio to create a unique and beautiful reflection of your own botanical year, I have a programme of study days that you can book on the tuition page of the website. It would be great to see you.

“No matter how much time passes, 

no matter what takes place in the interim, 

there are some things we can never assign to oblivion,

 memories we can never rub away.” 

Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

See also:

Enjoy What You Do

Playing with snowberries and snails
My last workshop introduced the idea of adding extra bits to paintings
The collection box came in handy

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

All White on the Night

This week I decided to give my students a white subject to tackle. For an Autumn workshop you might expect bronzed leaves, rosy red rosehips and blooming dahlia's. Not at Squirrel HQ! I like to look at things a little differently and always try to offer an unexpected challenge. Hence onion and tomato baubles at Christmas, pah! who needs holly and mistletoe.

'If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it,

for it is not to be reached by search or trail'.


A scan of the finished painting

Mistletoe from last year's sketchbook
Adding a light cerulean wash to the berries

Against a whiter background, the berries take on a gold/yellow tone,
and don't appear white at all.

Enter the Snowberry, or Symphoricarpos. Also called the Ghostberry, the popping fruits of childhood memory is from a small genus of about 15 species of deciduous shrubs in the honeysuckle family, Caprifoliaceae. With the exception of the Chinese coralberry, S. sinensis, which is indigenous to western China, all species are native to North and Central America. The name of the genus is derived from the Greek words συμφορειν (symphorein), meaning "to bear together," and καρπος (karpos), meaning "fruit." It refers to the closely packed berries the species produce.

In folklore the extreme white of the glass-like berries has led to the plant being described as the Corpseberry and seen as a food for wandering ghosts. As children, my friends and I would have great fun popping the berries underfoot. They make a great noise, (well to a six year old anyway). 

Early sketchbook piece featuring the Snowberry.

It's been some years since I tackled a a sprig of snowberry and as it grows so abundantly int he garden, thought the time had come to give it another go. For my students, I thought this would be a good opportunity to practise those neutral tones and shadow mixes.

To start with, it's good to observe the 'colour' of white subjects against a white background as this will show that there really is quite a lot of colour in a seemingly white subject. Against a table top or garden background, it's difficult to see these subtle variations.

Snowberry against a very bold red leaved plant in the garden
Even with a dense background, the snowberries show up very white
Against the same plant, and in the same light conditions, but this time with a sheet of white paper between them.

As with the image of the mistletoe.
against the whiter paper, the snowberries appear more grey, with hints of greenish yellow and blue.
Only with a white background can you easily see these variations in colour.

The leaves appear clearer and greener too.

Next, I make a colour chart, just to get a feel for what's going on in the subject. There may be subtle blues, pinks or buff tones in the 'grey' and you want to preserve those colours, otherwise the colour would look very flat and bland. Never be tempted to revert to a pre-mixed grey such as Payne's Grey or Davey's Grey, as these can make your colours too muddy. They have their place, but in my view not here, as they are just too harsh and flat.

Having a practise at mixing blacks and neutrals

An early neutrals chart where I did still use Payne's grey and Cadmium colours to mix.

It's funny how once we get going with our colour choices and techniques, and have the confidence to select more carefully the better quality pigments, we find it in ourselves to ditch the unnecessary, (possibly once favourite) colours. Only this week, my good friend Shevaun from Botanical Sketches was talking about how she often used Terre Vert in her olive leaves but, 'wouldn't touch it with a bargepole now!' as it's too sticky in it's consistency. Quite so there Shevaun, I feel the same about using Payne's in my neutrals. Oh, and I've ditched the Terre Vert too    

Colours for the snowberry: Indanthrene Blue, Sennelier Yellow Light and Perylene Maroon for the leaves. Indanthrene Blue, Cobalt Blue, Sennelier Yellow Light, Quinacridone Gold, and touches of Perylene Maroon to make the greys and golds for the berries; Perylene Maroon, Indanthrene and Sennelier Yellow Light for the stem. The mixes I use tend to be used to mix a multitude of other shades, so the green might be mixed with more red to make the colour for the stem.

Just a little study of the Snowberry with stem and leaves
Some of the test mixes can also be seen here 

One for the sketchbook

A multitude of golds, greeny/yellows and blues went into the berries and with the deepest green to add balance, the berries really come forward. I love the little 'bottles' of the developing berries.

See a couple of related posts
Paint it White

Fast and Furious

Friday, 16 October 2015

The Nature Table

Just a thought here, did you ever have a 'Nature Table' at Primary School? Now I don't have small ones myself, but I have heard a rumour that due to health and safety, school nature tables are no longer around. As a child I loved our school nature table, and I am sure that it was here that my love of nature really grew. For me there really was nothing nicer than foraging around the hedgerows and trees on the edge of our school field looking for berries, leaves, acorns and other stuff. If you were lucky you might spot a squirrel and there were always the birds singing above us in the trees. As an inner city secondary school teacher that sort of thing really wasn't the done thing, but why deny children the joy of being amongst nature, wherever it is.     

Hidden in the hedgerows

Not quite a nature table but I applaud the achievement

I see I'm not alone in a desire to bring nature to our more urban lives

Now I don't think I ever thought of this as a use for my old hard hat.

Just now my favourite word would seem to be 'ephemera', playing on the theme from my post 'Needful Things' and for the whimsical reflections of my childhood. For a little while I have again been collecting bits and bobs from around the garden, creating my grown up version of the nature table. Feathers, snail shells, seed heads and small pebbles have all made it into one of my many useful 'Ferrero Rocher' boxes. Also, whenever I head out, I tend to look downwards or upwards, searching the hedgerows and pavements for any interesting objects. There's a particularly nice oak tree just up the road from where I live and every time the acorns drop, I pick a couple up. Well, you never know when they might come in handy.    

I got the 'Nature Table' bug early 

An early school piece

Worked in mixed media on A2 paper

Rather reflecting my love of the nature table

Poppy seed head, thorny branch, pink shell, crispy fallen leaf, nutmeg and a piece of charcoal

Still foraging

Some collected seed heads from the garden.

Pine cone, acorn cups, snail shells, feathers and pieces of coral
from a far away beach.

Anyway, back to that sketchbook. For this one I used the little dahlia study I started as a demonstration for my last workshop class. The flower was already heading in the right direction, and my palette still had the mixes ready to go, so I just carried on to finish it.

Looking in the collection box, I spotted a pigeon feather with the soft grey colours that blended well with the rest of the page. With the feather I concentrated a little more on the shadows going on underneath to 'lift' the feather off the page. That, along with the berberis leaves brought a softer touch to the page with the dahlia. Of course I couldn't leave out some lettering, and painted these in lilacs and muted russet tones.

The eclectic mix of finds and garden treasures. Something for all the senses, even smell and touch in the scent of the dried lavender flowers.

A mixed page of autumn tones

Dahlia, berberis leaves, pigeon feather, poppy seedhead, smoke bush leaf

Hand painted lettering and a small bag of garden lavender flowers complete the page

And just a hint of my collection box 

If you fancy creating a Nature Table for your own small ones, there are some lovely ideas from Anna Ranson, an ex-primary school teacher who started her website, The Imagination Tree as a way to 'channel some of my frustrated creativity'. There are some lovely ideas for her take on the 'Nature Exploration Table'.

Image care of Anna Ranson, The Imagination Tree
Oh and don't get me started on Ladybird books 

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Colour Casting Couch

"Well, it's lovely to see you, thank you for coming and do take a seat while I take a look at your resume".

Ha ha ha, I often see the selection of paints for a new piece as something of an interview. Which ones will make the final shortlist and which ones will face disappointment this time around. Of course I haven't gone quite round the bend and look at my paints as little actors all waiting eagerly to be taken out of the box, but it's a fun way to look at it. Well, for me it is anyway.

'Be eccentric now. Don't wait for old age to wear purple'.

Regina Brett

For my latest piece, 'Fade to Grey' I had so many lovely comments it was quite overwhelming. Many of the comments focused on the colour, and quite a few were asking specifically which particular brands and colours I used for it. For this post, I decided to go down this road a little further and give you a flavour of how I choose my colours.

My current favourite watercolour brands are

Daniel Smith
Winsor and Newton
Schmincke - Transparent Yellow and Transparent Orange

A selection of my M.Graham paints.

Of these I love the Azo Yellow, Anthraquinone Blue (Indanthrene),
Quinacridone Violet and Maroon Perylene

Although there is a wealth of variety for the artist to choose from out there, I generally stick with these, as not only do I find the pigments really pure, but the texture, layering quality, transparency and general handling all superb.

Other brands I have in the box

Sennelier, but only Lemon Yellow and Sennelier Yellow Light
Holbein Ultramarine Light

For me, I like to keep a relatively spartan palette when I begin a piece and try not to introduce too many as I go along. In mixes, I try not to add too many colours together, and generally only add three. If I need to darken or make a shadow tone, I'll use some of the mix and add something to it, but that's about it.

Generally these are my starting colours, using only six on the palette, and I mix everything from them.  

Warm Yellow - Sennelier Yellow Light or DS Hansa Yellow or DS Quinacridone Gold
Warm Red - Perylene Maroon
Warm Blue - French Ultramarine or Ultramarine Light

Cool Yellow - Azo Yellow or Lemon Yellow
Cool Red - DS Anthraquinoid Red or Permanent Rose or both
Cool Blue - Indanthrene Blue

All the colours used in the painting.

The odd one in the pan is the Quinacridone Purple.

Here is everything used on, 'Fade to Grey'

Indanthrene Blue
Ultramarine Light
Quinacridone Magenta
Quinacridone Rose
Quinacridone Purple
Anthraquinoid Red
Perylene Maroon
Permanent Rose
Transparent Yellow
Lemon Yellow
Sennelier Yellow Light

No 3, No 2 and No 0 brushes

Sticking with six doesn't always suit the painting and you have to have more or specific colours, (especially primary colours) on the palette. Here I have used two or three more reds as I am working mostly in purples or pinks at the moment. For this I will also include my favourite Quinacridone Magenta, Anthraquinoid Red and Quinacridone Purple as well.

The ones here from Daniel Smith are fabulous.
My current favourites and the ones I turn to for a lot of purple subjects are
Imperial Purple and Quinacridone Purple.

Ultramarine Violet has a lovely, soft granulating quality and Cobalt Violet Deep is very potent.  

When I need to mix greens, I don't really use pre-mixed greens, (but did weaken to M.Graham Azo Green) but mix all my own from the palette. For me I find I can get a more accurate 'family of greens' from a custom built job.

Just now I have branched into some specific purple mixes by Daniel Snith. Shared via a fellow artist friend, I have used these colours several times on recent pieces, and find them superb both on their own, and in mixes. If I have a new purchase I tend to head towards the sketchbook for a trial run, mixing with my stable favourites and playing with techniques to see how they perform. if they pass the test, they get in the box, and then onto the shortlist. "Next Please!"

'I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere

 and don't notice it'.

Alice Walker

Strong words there Alice, but I think I know what you mean. Who can't be struck by a field of lavender in full bloom?

Fade to Grey
The finished piece

For this one I made sure there were plenty of warm and cool areas to keep the interest.
To the left is warmer, as is the stem and stamens.

Bluer areas and the cooler greys recede the painting to the centre and to the far right where
the light picked up the folds and wrinkled bits.

The area of palest shine against darkest shadow on the central petal throws this area forward somewhat more
and I have been really practising this technique.

'The forward violet thus did I chide:
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love's breath? The purple pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells
In my love's veins thou hast too grossly dyed.
The lily I condemned for thy hand, 
And buds of marjoram had stol'n thy hair:
The roses fearfully on thorns did stand, 
One blushing shame, another white despair; 
A third, nor red nor white, had stol'n of both 
And to his robbery had annex'd thy breath; 
But, for his theft, in pride of all his growth 
A vengeful canker eat him up to death. 
   More flowers I noted, yet I none could see
   But sweet or colour it had stol'n from thee'. 

Sonnet 99 by W. Shakespeare

For this very pink and purple rich subject I seriously 'upped' the amount of reds in the palette to five, including a couple of purple and pink mixes. The main mixes for the pinks and purples were:

Quinacridone Purple + Quinacridone Magenta

Above mix + Indanthrene Blue

Permanent Rose + Quinacridone Purple

Quinacridone Purple + Quinacridone Magenta + Anthraquinoid Red

Anthraquinoid Red + Quinacridone Purple

Above mix + Permanent Rose

Adding a bit of this and a little bit of that alters the temperature and depth of each mix, so it's hard to be exact, but these were the main mixes.

Yellow / Stamens

Sennelier Yellow Light + Perylene Maroon

Lemon Yellow

Sennelier Yellow Light + Permanent Rose + Indanthrrene Blue

Green / Stem

Ultramarine Light + Lemon Yellow + Perylene Maroon

Lemon Yellow + Indanthrene Blue

Shadow tones and deepest darks were all mixed using the colours in the palette by adding just a touch more of  Lemon Yellow and Indanthrene Blue to the deepest purple mixes and to the green to get colour-rich greys and blacks.

A very purple palette
The cerulean and cobalt had been for a previous painting, so were not actually used here.
If there is paint left on the palette, I just wipe off the mixes from the middle and reuse

The main colours are squidged around the edge of the plate with the other colours in little half pans, ready to add a bit here and there should the mix need it.

And here's the latest little sketch for the sketchbook exchange. A small study of a Dahlia started as a demonstration in my last workshop and finished in the studio

Dates for the spring series of the new sketchbook study workshops, 'The Botanical Year' are now available on the tuition page of the website. x