Wednesday, 1 June 2016

It's June. Why So Grey?

Here we are on the 1st of June, the start of the Northern Hemisphere's Meteorological Summer, and it's pretty nippy if I may say so. Cold winds, rain and a very dull, grey day is forecast. Hmmm, not very inspiring. Well, here at Squirrel HQ something is always made out of very little, so here's a post about greyscale, (or grayscale if you are Stateside).

A range of grey shades from white to black, as used in a monochrome display or printout

In the world of Game of Thrones however, Greyscale is somewhat different and described as:

  ...a dreaded and usually fatal disease that can leave flesh stiff and dead, and the skin cracked and flaking, and stone-like to the touch. Those that manage to survive a bout with the illness will be immune from ever contracting it again, but the flesh damaged by the ravages of the disease will never heal, and they will be scarred for life.

Well I never. Luckily in the real world of botanical painting, greyscale takes on the formal definition by taking in the shades of grey from white through to black, usually in the form of a graphite pencil drawing. Thank goodness.

White to black and back again

And everything in between.

Think about it in terms of your pencils and practice the chart.
Leave the first block white, then use all your grades of pencil to gently shade each block,
 all the way to the darkest black with your softest, darkest pencil.

Looking at the top row of the diagram above,
the middle grade is HB, with everything lighter to the left being H grades, and everything darker to the right, B grades. 

Working in graphite pencil is a lovely way to capture the beauty of plants, by bringing focus to the more architectural aspects without the distraction of  colour. Very often, courses in botanical illustration and painting will introduce monochrome pencil exercises, and studies as an initial element. By doing this, students can really focus their skills in drawing and understanding tonal contrast, without the pressure of colour recognition or watercolour technique.   

Rendering shapes such as spheres, cylinders and blocks is something I was very used to doing when I trained as a draughtsman, and luckily I haven't lost my touch. To shade the shapes below, I used all my pencil grades from the hardest 3H to the softest 9B, and a technique of gently, circular movements for the spheres, and strokes in one direction for the sides of the cylinder.

It's a really good way to get the hands and fingers warmed up for the day, and I still like to do little pencil exercises in my sketchbook now, especially when working on a new piece. For this exercise, I was asked to render a cylinder, block and one sphere. As I wanted to study the change in the direction of light and its effect on the sphere, I completed three. To get the shading right, I used a large ball bearing, and moved the light around it.        

Moving on to a larger pencil study of a dwarf rhododendron, again using all the pencil grades, and the same techniques as used for the exercises.

Pencil can also be used to lovely effect in combination with watercolour. For one of the hedgerow pieces, I decided to combine colour and graphite on the cranesbill element. Here, I wanted the focus to be on the flower species with the grass as a background suggestion of the growing habitat. The bright blue of the flower looked particularly pretty with the shades of grey.  

Botanical illustrations can look really good when you combine graphite pencil details with the watercolour painting of the subject. Here on the study of Iris reticulata I decided to use pencil for all of the dissections, and kept them to a margin to the right of the painting. Allowing the bud of the painted element to come slightly into the space of the dissections brought them together.   

Dissection of Iris reticulata

Greyscale is also really useful when you want to judge tonal contrast in your paintings. Very often I will use the scanner or phone to take a greyscale image of a work in progress to see how the contrast is looking. Without the distraction of colour, it's much easier to see where the areas of light and shade are, and where things could be improved. Here's how some of my paintings look without their colour. Weird, but somewhat satisfying  

Even when a scan goes wrong, it can create a useful image

Just the hint of colour amongst the greyscale.

Like one of those really old black and white photos that has been hand coloured
Without the colour, you are not wowed by the visual impact you expect. Instead, you may find yourself focusing on the finer detail, textures, shapes and contrast. Even when I think a piece is finished, I may look at it in black and white later, and think, oh that could have done with a bit more. 

Give it a go, and be surprised.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Wednesday Motivation

Start by doing what's necessary; 
then do what's possible;
and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

Francis of Assisi

Following on from the post  I wrote the other week, Are You Ready?  where I discussed the idea of being ready for anything and taking life's chances, this got me thinking a bit more about the reasons why we wait or let artistic opportunities pass us by. In the post I put it down to these main points.

  • My work's not good enough
  • I'll go in for that one next year
  • I've got too much going on
  • I'll make a fool of myself
  • I can't do it    
  • No-one will buy it
  • No-one will come
  • I don't have time

After some thought, I can also add lack of motivation or inspiration to that list. Some of the nicest comments I had recently came as feedback from one of the Squirrel Archive pieces I wrote. I focused on inspiration, and motivation, where we get it from, and how we can keep it going. Well, as it was so popular with the readers, and Wednesday is always said to be 'Peak Efficiency Day' when we are meant to be at our most inspired, motivated, and work orientated, I thought I would post it here.

One of the hardest things to maintain over time is motivation, and where to find our inspiration to keep our work fresh. Without inspiration, we find it hard to get going, our motivation flags, and painting becomes a chore rather than a pleasure. There are however things we can do to keep us cheerily painting away. 

Here's my Top 5

  • Draw everyday Sounds obvious this one, but keep up the skills by spending at least 10 minutes of everyday on a small drawing. Nothing too big or complicated, but maybe something new or challenging.
Sometimes just a chart of colours and a few thumbnail sketches are enough to keep things fresh  

Off the beaten track 

A really new challenge

Worked up a bit

Got there in the end

  • Find inspiration everywhere. Flowers on a cafe table, a wallpaper design, the park where you eat your lunch, the veg aisle at the supermarket and even good packaging. If you think about looking for the next big thing everywhere you go, you will find something exciting.

Hello there

Spotted on a street in Greenwhich, near the old Naval College

  • Keep a mood board. Inspiration can take the form of a 'mood board'. Mostly used to demonstrate an interior design idea, mood boards can also really boost confidence and motivation. Favourite things, pictures from magazines, fabrics, wallpapers, cards and our own paintings placed in sight are all positive messages to keep us going.

If you don't have room for a mood board, create your own online,
 and look at them from time to time.

  • Take pictures. With superb cameras on our smartphones, we can take great pictures wherever we go. If you see something beautiful, take a picture of it, (mind out if you need permission though). The way we see things can influence many aspects of our lives, so take time out in your day to look around you. Even in the middle of a city, nature finds a way of being around.

And who says builders don't care about nature.
Spotted at a very busy junction on a massive building project.

The amount of bees buzzing around this little oasis of green was quite astonishing

These guys get the award for best use of a hard hat

  • Be brave and get out there. Being an artist working away in a studio can be a very isolating business, and not everyone is blessed with a whole army of friends cheering them on. It's still important to get out and about. Joining a local art group is a great way to meet like minded people, and if there isn't one in your area, why not start one yourself, or join a group to do something totally different but enjoyable. Pottery, Zumba, Yoga, walking or even an evening course in wine appreciation, (as if we need help there), anything that keeps the positive messages flowing.  

Didn't have to go far for this one.

It's not every day a Dalek rolls on by

Vintage fabrics are a passion

True inspiration

This guy cycled his way from China to London in 2012 to promote the Olympic message

He was so lovely

Someone to share the moment

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Peek of the Week

All this week on social media, I have been releasing little snippets from the new website using the hashtag #peekoftheweek. As someone who creates visual art, it's a funny thing to be living in a time when everything is measured by it's visual impact. Selfies, 'here I am on holiday' and, this is my cat / dog / children / hamster doing something funny pictures or videos posted on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook can all go viral in a matter of seconds  if it hits the right note. The mind boggles.

My new logo


Some of the media 'in crowd' are even saying that we are near a time where websites themselves will become a thing of the past and unless there is something else on offer other than 'here I am and this is what I do' type pages, there will be no point in having a website at all. For myself, I have found much more of my traffic and conversations taking place on other online platforms. The immediacy of being able to chat to people on a more personal basis is much more appealing.

What's on offer? A subscription membership website with lots of step-by-step videos.

The new website will be more community orientated, offering a platform for learning in an informal and relaxed way. Many artists are offering all styles of online learning, and I guess it's because we all have this need to pass on our knowledge and reach a wider audience. Well, it is for me anyway, and unless I can actually interact with the people who choose to learn with me, it loses something and becomes more of a business.

What else will I get if I join? Plenty of extras including my Technique Tool Box videos of tips, Masterclass projects and more. There's been lots of hard work to make sure there is plenty of content, to keep everyone who joins happily busy and painting.

Journey is not how I would describe the creation of my new baby, after all, I haven't actually been anywhere. But it has certainly been a learning curve with ups and downs along the creative way. There is so much more to it than you can ever expect. But here, at last are some of the elements that will welcome visitors to my new site. Launch date coming soon  

And not forgetting the old favourites. The blog has it's own update sections, and you can still sign up for The Squirrel Archives.

Please note that all web pages are currently under construction and some images / content may be different to what is shown here.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Paper on Parade

There has been a considerable amount of debate among the online forums recently concerning the recent  problems with certain paper. Yes, it really can be that interesting, and so important there is now an online feedback group to take up the cause on our behalf. So what's all the fuss about. Well, in case you haven't been privy to the number of artists chatting about it, here's the nub of it.  

Fabriano, an Italian paper manufacturer who create the universally popular Fabriano Artistico Hot Press paper have recently put the cat among the pigeons. Just about every artist I know uses this one and having started using it myself a few years ago I can really see why. It's super smooth and has a lovely, soft white that really complements deep mixes and the fine detail that is evident in botanical painting. Or at least, it did. So what happened?

It would appear that something has occurred at the Fabriano mill to upset our arty apple-cart. It may come as news to us, but paper mills make more than just fine art papers, they make money too. Well, the paper that is used to make it anyway. The move to manufacture more currency paper has led to a bit of a shift at Fabriano, that means the press and roller gear that make our beloved Artistico has undergone a bit of jiggery-pokery, and altered the feel of the paper. Now, I don't get the whole situation, but it means a lot of unhappy artists scrabbling around to try to find an alternative.

A favourite on Fabriano Artistico

Crisp edges, softly blended washes and excellent surface make Artistico a popular choice 

Our apparent knight in shining armour is St. Cuthberts Mill with their Saunders Waterford, a paper mill located in the South West of England, and makers of some very fine art papers. They have created a new improved surface for their Hot Press, and gave out some free samples st this year's SBA exhibition for everyone to try. What nice people.

The three papers

Botanical Ultra Smooth from RK Burt is a very white paper with 50% cotton
The two Saunders Waterford papers are both 100% and available in White and High White

The Botanical Ultra Smooth with only 50% cotton is not something I would consider using now for my botanical paintings, but is a useful paper for watercolour sketches, and more illustrative pieces. It's not an archival quality paper, but as with the Fabriano Classico 5, is one I might suggest to students when they are just starting out. Whilst on the SBA Diploma course I used Classico 5 and found it okay. The very harsh, bright white is also something of a switch off for me. Not that I am a great authority on paper, I leave that to those who have had greater experience of using a range of surfaces, (see Dianne Sutherland's blog link below) 

Starting on the Saunders Waterford High White, (I'm not one for the creamier traditional white of some papers just yet) I tried out a few painting exercises, just to get a feel for it. Rather than go for it straight away with a study, I prefer to try out a few techniques to see how a paper holds up to a range of brush work.

The surfaces compared

Fabriano Artistico on the right with the new Saunders Waterford on the left

The colours are almost a match, but I'm sure the surface texture is rougher on the SW

Now, I don't know about how other artists feel about it, but I thought the surface felt a little rough in comparison to Artistico. I know you shouldn't really judge a new thing with your old one. Take it on it's own merits should be the mantra, but it's a human thing, and we tend to like the familiar and the comfortable. Still, give it a go I said to myself.

Starting out

Petals, leaves and stems are what a botanical artist paints, so that's what I did,

with some single wet-in-wet washes

The little boxes are one and two washes and a test to see the lifting quality.

So far, so good, but those edges could be crisper  

Really going for it.

More leaves, more petals and more stems.

Spheres are great as they represent berries and I could be better at those.

I also like testing the full movement of a brush too,

so in one movement I go from the finest tip of the brush,  to the fullest part of the brush, and back again.

Of course there are loads of paper manufacturers out there all making perfectly desirable Hot Press paper, and everyone has a favourite they will absolutely swear by. For me, the jury's out on this one, so the search will go on, and I will try just about everything, hopefully with an open mind. Luckily many manufactures are more than happy to provide you with samples of their papers, so I will make a list and get onto it. 

Further reading

Dianne Sutherland - Paper Matters More in depth analysis of the paper debate


Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Race Favourites

It's been a busy few weeks, with the whirwind that was the SBA exhibition and a couple of things taking up precious time, it's time to take the brush back up again and get on with some painting. Next year's SBA exhibition title is 'Blooming Marvelous', which at first reading sounds like a bit of an easy one to capture. Hmm, I think not.

Get on with it

Painting to a title can be quite a daunting prospect, and if it's for an exhibition as big as the one the SBA holds, you really want your work to stand out. This year, as in the past few years there have been some enormous paintings on display. Now, these will of course take up a whole wall on their own, and you can't really miss a painting of that size. And they seem to be getting bigger. There were fewer too. Well, it seemed to me that there were fewer this year, but the class of work was higher. Even my mum, who is no art critic herself, thought the quality of work was much higher, and she picked out some real gems as her favourites, (after all of mine of course). Go mum!

This year I was nervous about making the grade for full membership, after my fatal slip up last year. For this submission I concentrated on content and diversity of skill, rather than satisfying the brief. But, the selection panel evidently thought my work did fit the bill quite nicely, and the pieces were eventually hung in a rather nice position in the exhibition. That's always a boost.

My favourite of the group was the faded tulip, but when I was showing my family my little display, I did overhear a number of other visitors say how much they liked the brambles. Yes, those darn brambles again. It always surprises me that the one I really like, is not always the one that is the favourite with everyone else.  

Visitor favourtie

My favourite
The tulip was a real change for me. First, it was painted a twice actual size, and was of a fading bloom rather than a perfect flower. The previous year I had played with the idea of flower heads, and for the tulip stayed with that simple treatment. It was much more complex, than the dahlias from last year, and I payed particular attention to really getting the shadows really punchy, and above all,  right. It's always that 3 dimensional appearance that is the hardest part of getting a painting to jump out of the page at you. 

The dahlia from the 2015 SBA Exhibition

For next year's exhibition the pressure is off a bit. Being a full member means that I don't need to go through the rigours of selection for membership, just the rigours of selection for exhibition. Well, it's a different kind of pressure, and it means now that I can explore new directions for my work. I've got some things in mind subject-wise, and I know I want to go bigger and bolder. Maybe not as big as some of the works by Billy Showell or Ann Swan that were on show this year, but just a little bit larger than life would be nice I think.

A favourite colour palette might make an appreance

Beautiful peonies by Billy Showell adorned the cover of this year's catalogue

Inspiration for next year from Ann Swan