Monday, 30 January 2012

Paint it Black, (or as dark as you dare)?

Ah, now then, using white as a touch up and 'cosmetic' application on watercolour is one thing but what about black? There are loads of black watercolour products out there with Lamp Black, Payne's Grey, Indigo and Neutral Tint all containing black pigments. So where to start?

Learned wisdom is, of course, to steer clear of ready mixed black paints as they have a chalky, sooty appearance when dry. Mixing your own dark shades for the job is best but care must be taken to avoid 'muddy', nondescript colours. My early colour chart for neutrals and mid-tones formed a good starting point before moving onto darker, more saturated colours.

Greys, Neutrals and Mid-Tones
Most mixed without the use of black pigments
Some addition of Payne's Grey was used in the four mixes to the
bottom right but these were less, 'colourful' than the other mixes

Here to help are some tips from the best:
  • Use a range of cool and warm yellows, blues and reds to mix black.
  • Always work layers and washes from light to dark, the darkest to be worked with a dry brush, 'stippling' technique to avoid lifting previous layers.
  • Combine Complementary Colours, e.g those opposite each other on the colour wheel, Red and Green, Yellow and Violet, Blue and Orange , (those closer to each other can also work well). Remember, the mix here is a Primary and Secondary colour.
  • Avoid using colours with black pigment. e.g Payne's Grey, Indigo, Neutral Tint or Sepia. 

These precious pearls of wisdom came from Paul Fennel SBA, Rosie Martin and Meriel Thurstan SWSBA. More top tips can be found at Artists and Illustrators: 20 Tips for Painting Better Botanicals 

Mixing blacks, using a range of cool and warm colours helped to
get a range of dark shades from blues to reds

The range of cool and warm Primary colours used

Pittosporum tenuifolium
Gaynor Dickeson captured this beautiful
watercolour study of
Pittosporum Tenuifolium
Now that I have some of the darker spectrum of shades, what to paint? Yet again, the garden has provided one or two subjects that will provide the challenge of painting 'black' in nature. Firstly, there is a rather splendid Pittosporum Tenuifolium that is about 8ft high with a glorious 'mop-head' on it. I love it, and although I can take no credit for it's shape or magnificent size I admire it greatly. Pittisporum's have fantastically curly grey-green leaves which I use in the house for adding foliage to flower arrangements. Later in the Summer, they can, if you are lucky produce tiny flowers. These flowers have the appearance of being a deep purply-black and the contrast between the leaves and flowers is just stunning. I would love to have a go at a composition including them, (just as soon as the flowers appear).     

Secondly is a slightly more obvious 'black' flower, Tulipa 'Queen of Night'. I started growing these a couple of years ago and they really do make a statement in the front of a border mixed with white and pale pink tulip varieties. I wasn't sure just how much of a black flower they would be but the deep, velvety reddish-purple-black is delicious. Mine are emerging now but have a way to go before I can enjoy their luscious, sensual velvetyness.

Coral Guest posted this stunning
example of Tulipa 'Queen of Night'
on her blog in 2008
Extraordinary depth of colour
and those highlights are just beautiful

When you start thinking about it there are loads of black flowers, fruits and of course, berries. One of my favourites is the berries that appear on the Tutsan, (Hypericum androsaemum). The gorgeously shiny berries go from green, to red, to black at the end of the season and add some welcome colour to the Autumn garden, and are great in flower arrangements. Bonus!

Turning red but they go black, trust me!


Thursday, 26 January 2012

A Disciplined Approach, (or not)!

Being a bit of a sucker for punishment, I always take on the things I find most difficult. Just now I am trying to improve my technique with very straight, smooth, fleshy stems. You know the ones, they tend to be on bulb varieties such as daffodils, tulips and lilies.  My first attempts although drawn well came out decidedly wobbly and the thickness was a bit inconsistent. Hence the snowdrops this week. More fleshy, straight stems.  

Not much to look at, but it's still early days. I've just
got to try to keep a nice, steady hand.

The first wash on the stems but it's the leaves
that will give it some oomph.
Olive Green was mixed with Cadmium Yellow Light
and some Ultramarine Light

Using the same mix, the first wash of the
leaves goes on.

Speaking of Daffodils, how about this for an early bloomer!
Caught on the, 'phone-cam' at a roadside location
near our house.

Whenever I have to tackle something difficult or new I try to practise with lots of accurate drawings. When I'm being disciplined, studies and sketches go in the sketchbook, along with lots of measurements and written notes. I also try to capture the subject from different angles to find the best composition. I find one of those little stands with pinchers on arms and a magnifying glass very handy for holding the subject still. It can be arranged in a variety of ways to allow for a change in position. Probably lots of you have got one of these things so you know what I mean. 

Rosa, 'Golden Wings' with lots of colour notes

Once I have got lots of sketches and dissections I will begin to make the colour notes. This is handy for flowers that change in tone as they age and open. This was particularly useful for the rose 'Golden Wings' as they go very pale quite quickly and the blooms are very short lived. One of the best tips I picked up on how to keep subjects fresh is to put them in the fridge every couple of hours or so for about 20 minutes. Then I get to have a cup of tea.

Janene Walkkly wrote on her blog recently about the usefulness of an initial, 'road map' of sketches and tonal studies for her ideas. She puts me to shame with her disciplined approach and convinces me to try harder to be more prepared at the early stage to avoid problems later on.   

Monday, 23 January 2012

Hooray for Hellebores, (and other gems)!

Hellebores, like snowdrops bring a cheerful and colourful display to a winter garden. When we moved to our new house there were many plants already in the, once beautiful but sadly overgrown borders. It was evident that the previous owner had been something of a skilled plantsman but advancing years had prevented the upkeep and we now have something of a faded delight.

A patch of Helleborus Foetidus taking up residence
in our, 'woodland' garden.

Helleborus Foetidus as a monochrome exercise

Hard work over the last couple of years has brought forth some little treasures, including the Hellebores that now inhabit the shaded area beneath an old Poplar tree. Having tackled Helleborus Foetidus, (yes, the name rather suggests that this plant has a stinky reputation), for an early monochrome assignment, I feel ready to have a crack at Helleborus Niger in all it's colourful glory, with it's glossy, palmate leaves and large flowers. However, this will have to wait until I finish those snowdrops. Speaking of which...

Here we go again. Hopefully I will get further without disaster

This is the second attempt at snowdrops as an, 'incident' put paid to the first one. I will spare you the gory details but needless to say a poorly placed dirty water jar was the culprit. Ah, well it happens to us all I dare say and I just started again. Good thing I still had the tracing.

With buds galore these are bound to give a lovely display

This plant came as something of a surprise. We found Sarocococca doing badly in a neglected corner and shifted it to a more open spot. The plant has somewhat insignificant leaves that provide a useful evergreen layer but it is the flowers that are the true bonus. They are small and not at all showy but the smell, my goodness. Spicy, strong and exotic, one to paint I think.

A great little evergreen, Sarcococca or 'Christmas Box'
has magnificently fragrant little flowers followed by berries

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

More Botanical Challenges

Spring would appear to have arrived early and everyone is gearing up for another successful year of painting. After the painting marathon that was the 30/30 leaf challenge back in October you would think that would be enough of a trauma for anyone to get over. Don't you believe it! Botanical painting challenges are everywhere just now.

The work of Mindy Lighthipe always catches my eye and I love her insightful blog posts that offer loads of advice to would be professionals. This year Mindy is attempting to complete one piece for every week of the year, 52/52 as it were. This week's flying fox is just lovely and I urge you to take a look. A little closer to home, ex SBA student Dianne Sutherland is also challenging herself to painting one flower for each week of the year.

Although I attempted the 30/30 leaf challenge, I think I will give these ones a miss for this year as I am preparing to resume the SBA course later this year. That will be enough of a challenge for me. Good luck to any of you attempting these, or any other challenges. Here are some of the leafy lovelies from the October challenge and my sketchbook.

Having a go at a single wash exercise, a la Syriol Sherlock
a very loose style but I quite like that quality here

A Lilac leaf from Assignment 3 'Leaves'

Monday, 16 January 2012

To use White, or Not to use White?

Whenever someone in my family looks at something I have painted that has a dull or chalky look, I can see the question begin to form in their head, and then out it comes, "have you used white on that?" Ah, using white, the controversial question in watercolour painting. Watercolour paints are admired for their layering, transparent quality and do not contain any white in the manufacturing process.

White paints are based with Titanium Dioxide, are opaque when used and are unsuitable for certain applications in watercolour. The use of White in a mix is a watercolour 'faux pas', and would receive some very disapproving remarks from the purist camp, as well as ruining any transparency from the glazes and washes of other colours. The use of 'body colour' or white Gouache on top of a finished wash to create hairs, a bloom or other effect is considered acceptable and was used in this way by many of the 'old masters'. However, the traditional English School style of pure watercolour with no white used at all is still considered to be the best way to go. This is the rule I try to follow as I cannot trust myself to use white with any subtlety, therefore I have to use other techniques such as using resists, the white of the paper and washes including blues such as Cobalt and Cerulean to help achieve a similar effect.      

For the Snowdrop leaves I am working on, I have used a range of greens on the blue spectrum to try to capture the chalky look that is so reminiscent of Spring flowering bulb varieties. Looking back over some of my previous assignments and sketches I have attempted to capture this effect before with varying success.        

Spring Onions have squeaky, dull, blue-green leaves 

No, I didn't use white on these Blueberries. It's all smoke and mirrors and
well placed Cerulean / Cobalt Blue 

Cobalt in the mix and a light touch help add the chalky look
to this Aquilegia

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Snowdrops but no Snow!

Like so many other January babies I am used to frozen pipes, slush on the ground and rain, rain, rain.  Not so this year. As my birthday approaches mild weather and clear, bright days have put an early spring into everyone's step. Let's enjoy it while we may. Never mind all that get on with some work.

As with the snowdrop study worked on the Sketchbook page, I started these flowers with a very light cerulean / cobalt wash in the shadow areas, but leaving some white paper still showing for the highlights, (snowdrops are white after all). I find the blue actually makes the flowers look whiter and gives them more depth. Strange but curiously true! Next came a slightly darker mid-tone of the blue mix with a touch of Lemon Yellow and Cadmium Red. Experience has taught me to go really easy on this bit and to allow each layer to dry before deciding whether or not to add more. White flowers are so temperamental and it is so easy to make them go prematurely grey. Something none of us want!

Snowdrops have this great little feature of bright green amongst all the white. It gives them a much needed boost of personality but needs a careful hand and a small brush. Here I have used a ready mixed Sap Green, but also found a mix of Indanthrene Blue and Lemon Yellow gives zing and a rich depth to the darker areas. Up next, the leaves...

Not too grey, I hope
The green was a mix of Indanthrene Blue and Lemon Yellow with
a touch of Perylene Maroon and Neutral Tint for the darker areas 

Monday, 9 January 2012

Tracing v Light Box

Working on the Snowdrops got me thinking about the methods I use to transfer a drawing. Everyone has their own idea and really it is down to what works best for you, whether it's drawing directly onto watercolour paper or preparing a drawing and then transferring it. 

A light box is a simple device that allows you to see the drawn image through watercolour paper. The benefit of this method is that you can trace your drawing very lightly directly onto your paper, turn the lights off to see where you have been and you can leave it for a cup of tea and come back to it later. With tracing paper there is a lot of pencil work and the more you have to go back over your own pencil lines, the more there is room for error. Tracing is useful, particularly for small pieces or when I want to add other elements to a composition or reverse the image. Lately though, I have been using the light box more often than not, as tracing has a tendency to leave marks on the paper and I can't be bothered to keep going over pencil lines.

One of my ever resourceful Dad's classic 'makes'.
When the lights are on, WOW!!

Although there are loads of really good light boxes available now, (Artograph has a good selection of light boxes and pads and are available in the UK from The London Graphics Centre and Jackson's Art), the one I use was knocked up by Dad some years ago. At the time, light boxes were hard to come by, expensive and too small for the job. As you can see this beauty is more than capable and can take paper size of A3. In the shops, a light box of similar size could cost you upwards of £300. Ouch!!        

Thursday, 5 January 2012

New Year Inspiration

Getting going again after such a long break is always difficult. The Christmas and New Year festivities make you feel sluggish, and as the first working week gets underway there is much catching up to do.

After having a bit of an early spring-clean with the blog, I needed some fresh subjects to reflect the, 'new broom' feel of the new year. Just now, the shops are full of delightful little pots of dwarf narcissus and snowdrops to bring cheerful colour indoors along with the more traditional Hyacinths, Amaryllis and Poinsettia. The mild winter has also led to an early show of spring bulbs in many gardens, (including my neighbour's). Hopes were high for my next project.      

Step 1. Getting it right. The initial tracing. 

Settling on a small A4 composition of Snowdrops and perhaps some Cyclamen, I headed outside to find some suitable blooms. The garden was a bit sparse, especially on the Cyclamen front and I didn't want to raid my neighbour's patch. The supermarket on the other hand had some adorable little pots of snowdrops with bulbs both in bud and bloom. Perfect! Firstly, I 'built up' the composition accurately on sketch paper and traced it carefully. I have found that by using a tracing I can make necessary corrections without spoiling or marking the watercolour paper. Also, I can use multiples of the same image and even reverse the paper to get even more, (another handy tip I picked up from the SBA seminar last year).

Step 2. Some time later and it's onto the proper stuff! 

Once on the watercolour paper, the image can be sharpened up lightly with a sharp H grade pencil, added to or whatever, plus I can keep the tracing for use later on if it all goes horribly wrong. Now for the addition of gorgeous colour...

Monday, 2 January 2012

Same Squirrel, New Look!!

Well, here it is, the new look Sketchbook Squirrel! Only up and running for a few months, I sensed Squirrel had outgrown the basic, off-the-peg, plug in and play layout and needed a change. Hopefully I have not lost too much of the quirky charm from the original by going all minimal but it's still me and I plan to add more bits and bobs as we go along.

Firing up my gorgeous new laptop over Christmas gave me the excuse to play around with the Blogger templates and have a bit of fun trying out new ideas. Most of the family added their opinion on how it should look, (all in good humour, of course) and there is something amusing about creating something via a committee. Your comments are always welcome.

Project-wise, I am on the hunt for early flowering Spring plants and bulbs. After all the ivy leaves and rosehips of Christmas, I fancy something blowsy and completely different. Snowdrops, with their pure white petals and fresh green foliage always look elegant and stunning in the snow and I love the bright exuberance of cyclamen. Hmmm, an idea is forming...