Thursday, 19 December 2013

Venturous Harbinger of Spring, (hopefully)

Receiving new materials is always exciting, and this week I finally bought myself the Stillman and Birn Zeta series sketchbook I had been promising myself for ages. As soon as I opened it, it oozed quality. A beautifully bound, hardback book with 270g smooth, natural white paper, thick enough to support watercolour washes will be a treat to use. Of course, I have loads of sketchbooks in my collection (hence the name of the blog), as the family always think of them as useful gift ideas, but this one is a bit special and will be used for a very special project in the new year. But more on that later.

With Christmas just around the corner, I have been out and about, finishing off those last minute things that always seem to take ages and keep me away from the desk. Still, it's a fun time of year and I enjoy the smiles and joy that my efforts bring to family and friends. Alas, methinks the desk will stay rather empty until after the festivities. Well, I deserve a bit of a Christmas this year, as last year I was busy working on a leek and onion for my SBA Diploma. Very festive, ha, ha.

Lots of lovely fresh green, but the petals are a little too grey
This time around, I am working on something a little more seasonal, snowdrops. I love the simplicity and pure delicacy of these flowers, they look tender, but are in fact quite hardy little plants. In the language of flowers, snowdrops represent hope. Quite apt really when snowdrops are some of the earliest flowering plants of the new year, and herald the start of spring and the warmer weather to come, hopefully. Historically, snowdrops are native to damp woodland and meadows but are not believed to be native to the British Isles. The first recording of snowdrops growing wild here doesn't appear until the 18th century. However, they have certainly become very popular since.  

LONE Flower, hemmed in with snows and white as they
But hardier far, once more I see thee bend
Thy forehead, as if fearful to offend,
Like an unbidden guest. Though day by day,
Storms, sallying from the mountain-tops, waylay
The rising sun, and on the plains descend;
Yet art thou welcome, welcome as a friend
Whose zeal outruns his promise! Blue-eyed May
Shall soon behold this border thickly set
With bright jonquils, their odours lavishing
On the soft west-wind and his frolic peers;
Nor will I then thy modest grace forget,
Chaste Snowdrop, venturous harbinger of Spring,
And pensive monitor of fleeting years!

William Wordsworth 1819

If you fancy a wintry day out, top spots to see snowdrops planted breathtakingly en masse include Kingston Lacey in Dorset; Anglesey Abbey Gardens, Cambridgeshire; The Argory, Co. Armagh; Nymans, West Sussex; Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire and many other fabulous locations. It really is a wondrous site to see snowdrops peeking out from the snow in such huge numbers.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Accidents and Accessories

Yet again it has been an eventful week here at Squirrel HQ. 'Husband's' terrible near miss bicycle accident last week, with a trip to our local Accident and Emergency department certainly made for a nervous (and long) evening. Luckily it all looked worse than it was and no bones were broken, thankfully.

Preparations for the festive season are also in full swing, with wrapping paper, baubles, baking and ribbon rather taking precedent over any painting just now. However, things have not been neglected totally this week, as my delightful printer yet again works his magic on a couple of pieces, making them ready for printing. Updates on the website soon.   

Elsewhere, my little flower accessories have been doing really well, and I am having to source new bits and bobs and off-cuts of fabric to keep up with demand. As these were a bit of fun and an accidental side line, I have been really pleased with how well they have gone down. Thanks to everyone who has bought one, I am currently working on some pieces for friends and family who have birthdays soon. Here's how I go about making them. Oh, and now you know what you're getting girls.

Step by step
The cotton fabrics I love to use, have natural themes such as leaves and flowers. Colours are always bright and cheerful, so oranges, pinks, reds and purples are favourites, and work nicely with the greens and steely blues of the plain material to give a complimentary finish. Cutting, folding and pinning are the fiddliest bits before stringing and tying off. Then comes the fun bit, finishing off with the buttons and finds.

Making good use of the things that I find.

My family consider me to be something of a magpie, or more likely, a Womble. Whenever I'm out, I always seem to find something, and can often be found with my head down, scouring the area for dropped treasures. The flotsam and jetsam of life. The little bird was found a good few years ago, on a side street near Trafalgar Square, just after a delicious lunch with the family. The Mother of Pearl earring is something of an antique, but no use on it's own. If I see something pretty or useful on the ground, it finds a new home.

And you can never have too many buttons

All ready to go.
Just a couple more of these to finish off, then it's back to the botanicals for workshop ideas and that new piece I have been avoiding. 


Monday, 9 December 2013

The Revival Continues

Once again, Squirrel HQ was a hive of activity as the family again pulled together for another weekend of fun and frolics working hard on the shed. Of course, it is looking less and less like a shed every time we do something to it and now all the plasterboard is installed, it looks more like a proper room. The outside hasn't changed too much , apart from the new roof, but this will all change when the new door and windows go in.

All the plasterboard in place and power points fitted

This weekend, I had the added pleasure of seeing my brother for the first time in months. He and his girlfriend are currently in the stomach churning experience of buying a new house, so it was delightful that he was able to make time for the trip out to, 'The Sticks' (the countryside). Now, 'Brother' is no slouch when it comes to hard work, and I was really impressed with his determination to get the job done, getting to grips with some of the more 'unique' aspects the building poses to the unsuspecting. As it was his first time working on it, he was not prepared for the out of line walls, and not quite straight doorway. Ah bless you, you really did give it your best and I am forever grateful.

My brother and my hard working mum          

Mum and Dad of course did their usual swarm of locusts attack on the job and before I knew it, there was a completely finished plasterboard shell, plastered edges where the plasterboard pieces join, (there is a slight dip at the edges that gets filled with finishing plaster for a smooth finish), a skirting board, a door frame that actually isn't rotting away and the beginnings of a dado rail and some cupboards made from the window frames Dad made that he isn't quite happy with, as they are just a bit too big.

Finishing the edges of the plasterboard

The edges of the plasterboard gets finished with scrim. This is a kind of tape that secures the edges before plastering. Oh and all of the electrics have now been given life.

These were going to be my new windows

The window frames are now going to be the framework for a series of cupboards along the end wall. here I will have a lovely worktop where the all important tea will be made. Along the top of the worktop there will be a Dado rail as a finishing touch. Our old fridge is still in good working order, so I will have that in here too.

Skirting board. Hurrah!!

An unexpected disaster with the frame around our garage door meant that my poor husband was tied up all weekend with replacing all of the wood and rebuilding the frame to support the door. His joinery skills were certainly tested and he learnt some new skills, (as well as some new swear words). At the end of Sunday, all was well, thankfully.          

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Seasons to be Cheerful

With the chilly days of winter, (although that doesn't officially start until the 21st December, the shortest day) starting to set in, it's time to stay in and stay warm. And so, with the woodburner lit once more, it's time to snuggle up with the tomes from the bookshelf and dream of spring.  

Wishful thinking there. Of course not, there's no time for such musings, there is work to be done and no time to do it. Back to that sketchbook then, for ideas and practise and a romp round the garden to see how things are doing. Many of our trees still have their leaves on and the last of the roses are just about hanging on too with a couple of late blackberries giving the blackbirds a treat. The faded glories of summer are still there, if we look.

As you know, I have been pondering the next piece and it has been a real struggle to settle on a subject. Thinking about the pieces I already have, I don't really have any studies of flowers that I really like. That sounds a bit mad for a botanical artist really, but I haven't got a good, classical composition of a single plant subject, so now is the time to address that. Keeping it seasonal, interest in the winter garden may come from flowers, foliage, berries and dramatic evergreens. Classic winter blooms include Hellebores, Camellias, Witch Hazel and early flowering Iris, while foliage and berries can be found from Ivy, Holly and festive Mistletoe.

The ivy buds berries and flowers are always useful

An early graphite study of a variegated ivy leaf

Garrya elliptica has long tassel flowers. These don't arrive until Feb

My first painting of a Holly leaf for the leaf challenge last year

Last year, whilst completing the mixed and illustration pieces for my diploma, I had much the same problem and in the end settled for a mix of berries and catkins and an early flowering camellia. This time around, I would like something with a little more zing and I rather fancy the glossy evergreens and the architectural interest of cyclamens and early flowering rhododendrons, (they also have great looking buds). Although, I think I might keep it contemporary by selecting opening buds and backs of flowers as these are the bits that always hold my interest the most. We will have to see what I can get. 

Dahlia 'Party'

The back of a flower gives so much information as to the anatomy of how it forms and opens. The colour of the back of a petal can also be quite different from the front, so although this might be considered the 'showy' side, the back can also be quite beautiful. The dahlia I painted had a gorgeous 'raspberry ripple' effect that was more pronounced on the back of the flower, with green and burnt umber tones from the bud still in evidence. Really pretty. And buds too, I love buds.

Dahlia 'Party'


Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Prurient Apparitions (according to Ruskin)

So, with the bramble piece heading to it's happy destination, and some more of my pieces off to my printer for scanning, the studio feels rather empty. Time to cheer myself up with a nice cup of tea, and a trawl through the books and sketchbooks in the hunt for inspiration. And onto a couple of quick studies to get me going again. 

Waiting for plants to come into their own can be a bit nerve wracking. I was hoping to capture the gloriously festive blooms of my Camellia sasanqua 'Yuletide', but alas it would appear that my little specimen is not quite grown up enough and isn't going to produce any flowers this year. Now that really is a nuisance as I was really looking forward to tackling their bright red, open faced-flowers. Of course, there are lots of other things in the winter garden but I did have a bit of a sulk.

Elsewhere, the step-by-step chili study was really fun and I think I might post a few more of these little practise pieces as I found the process rather insightful. Something that caught my eye in the sketchbook was the preparation page I got going about a year ago for an orchid.

I am always attracted to the backs of flowers

The back view of a flower not only gives anatomical information for the botanical artist, but is often a beautiful subject in itself.

A white background helps to retain the colour information

Finding the right colour mix from the archives

Now, orchids are a strange beast, native to every continent, they grow by relying on sustenance from a symbiotic relationship with other plants. But never mind how they grow, it's their reputation for inducing rather naughty and suggestive thoughts. Let's just say that the Victorian critic, artist and leading social thinker John Ruskin called orchids, 'prurient apparitions'. Ooh I say! On the other hand, Martin Luther King Jr said of the exotic bloom,

"when two friends understand each other totally, the words are soft and strong, like and orchid's perfume"

Ah, that's better. Now onto the sketch...

The colours I used for this sketch are, Permanent Rose, Carmine Genuine, French Ultramarine, Perylene Maroon, Lemon Yellow and Winsor Violet

A mix of Winsor Violet and Permanent Rose for the first wash

Using a clean, damp brush to pull out the highlights

Carmine, Permanent Rose and Winsor Violet

After a number of layers
Here I was beginning to think that I hadn't got the colour quite right but decided to finish the flower anyway to see how it would turn out. A bit too purple for my liking.

Hmm, this one will go into the sketchbook, but I must go back to my colour theory.


Friday, 22 November 2013

The 'Beastly Bramble' is Slain

Ah yes, well, a rather whimscal title and perhaps I am still thinking about the recent folklore post, with it's tales of witchcraft and demons. Needless to say, the 'Beastly Bramble' is all finished and packed up ready to go. That last sprig of fruits really was a tight squeak to get done in time, but I am so happy that I did paint them, as I think it does complete the picture.

The leaf for the sprig was made a little more ‘rusty’ and autumnal in appearance, to reflect the change of season when the berries appear. The mixes had a bit more of the Perylene Maroon in them to give that aged look, with the greens being a bit deeper. And again, the serrations were the trickiest part.

With the leaves almost done, it was onto the berries. These would be a different matter altogether, with their jewel-bright sheen and deepest purple-black colour, blackberries are like little plastic baubles. Although I was a bit disappointed not to keep the purest white, shiny spot, I was happy with the overall appearance of the berries, that had a rather old-fashioned, book illustration look about them.

A more illustrative feel to the berries looks quite nice 

The first wash was a mix of Cadmium Red Deep with a touch of Perylene Maroon and Indanthrene Blue, laid in quite a watery wash. This would give a lovely, warm background that would continue to show through the next layers. using a stronger mix of the same colour, I continued to build up the colour and tone. With the light coming from the left, I had to make sure that all the berries maintained this and so I kept the left side quite light. The right side, in contrast would have the deepest shadow and tone, so here I mixed a strong purple-black using the deep red mix of Cadmium Red Deep, Perylene Maroon and Indanthrene Blue, adding more blue and using plenty of colour to get the best tonal value.
My earlier attempt was far too heavy and didn't have as much depth           



Monday, 18 November 2013

Paint it White

About a year ago I wrote a blog post about black flowers, see Paint it Black and I thought it was high time to complete the set by sharing some of my forays into painting white flowers. White flowers pose a number of issues for botanical artists, the main one being that white flowers against white paper can be 'lost' So, we need to use colour in a sparing way to create texture, light and shade without losing the 'whiteness' of the flower.

When tackling a white flower, I first decide if it has a cool or warm tone. Having mixed a range of warm and cool neutral colours, I can mix very pale washes that will help to give shape and form the petals. Shadow plays an important part in any painting but is vital when tackling a pale subject, as this will often be where the only paint used will be applied.

The snowdrops were quite cool and needed a very pale blue/grey to give the tiny flowers and unopened buds shape and form. At the time this study was painted, I was still using Payne's Grey to mix many of my neutral colours, but also mixed a mid-tone 'botanical grey' using French Ultramarine, Cadmium Yellow and Cadmium Red. Mixing slightly different proportions will alter the colour slightly, so for this study I used mid-tone with a touch more blue in it.  

Neutral colour chart

Lots of white paper was left to keep the flower light

In contrast, Clematis montana 'Avalanche' has a warmer tone

The Clematis montana 'Avalanche' is a beautiful white clematis with lovely large blooms. Looking more closely, there is a warm, creamy yellow tone to the petals and towards the centre, a lovely fresh green. Touches of Winsor Lemon and Cobalt in the neutral grey mix kept things fresh whilst  a slightly darker mix in the shadows and folds gave a little more form.

Rhododendron 'cilpinense'

The palest pink blooms of this dwarf Rhododendron got the monochrome treatment when I had to complete a study in graphite. Without colour, the study really had to focus on the light and shade given by daylight, so most of the attention of my pencil was to the right side, emphasising the dark shadow away from the light. Here I used the H grades of pencil, from 3H to H.

And just to finish... first 'white' flower

Taking the lead from botanical artist Billy Showell, I followed her advice for completing white and neutral flowers by making a quick copy of the Calla Lily from her book, 'Flower Portraits'. Books are of course a great source for practise exercises, but I digress. Again, as with 'Avalanche' plenty of warm neutrals with Lemon Yellow and Cerulean Blue was used to give shape to the slender bloom. Looking at it now, I can see how heavy-handed I was in the early days.  


Wednesday, 13 November 2013


Today was the first proper frosty morning of this autumn and just for laughs, and to get away from the delicate intricacies of the bramble, I decided to tackle a chili pepper, my first one too. With their cheery colour, fun architectural shaping and gloriously shiny skin, chillies bring a real pop of colour to dull November days. So, with the rather apt tune, November Rain by Guns and Roses seeing me on my way, I started a little series of sketchbook studies.  

The overall shape of a chili, appears quite straightforward, although I did need to make sure that the stalk was following the correct line. I also wanted to have a good number of wrinkles in there too, to give plenty of character, so on the drawing, I made sure to outline the areas of high shine carefully.

The chili
Although I had to shift it to get rid of the shadow from the window

With the first washes of Cadmium Red Deep
mixed with a little Cadmium Yellow Light.
Dropping colour in whilst the paper is still damp
allows the early build up of colour and tone

Some of the colour testing before adding it to the piece.
here i have also started to add colour to the stem
using Indanthrene Blue and Lemon Yellow

Re-wetting the entire length of the  chili,
I was able to build up more layers to
give a more 3D effect.
A slightly darker mix was used to give a good
contrast with the shine. 

Pulling the colour out towards the middle gives the
 streaky appearance that chillies have
in the wrinkles of their skin 

The colour of a chili pepper is a really luscious, bright red, so the tube of gorgeous Cadmium Red Deep came out of the box again. For the deeper shadows, I used a deep purply-red to get some depth and shape to the fruit and kept loads of fresh white paper for shine.    

Shine is a difficult area to get right as too much white can make a piece look false and too little makes it look flat. The Goldilocks moment of just the right amount has to be balanced and in order to make sure the washes didn't go where I wanted white paper, I used making fluid. Once rubbed off, the areas can be blended and softened to look more natural.

A deeper red was used to give the deepest shadows.
here I have used my favourite Perylene maroon with
some of my earlier Cadmium Red Deep mix.
I also added a touch more Indanthrene Blue to give a
more purply shade.

Again, I pulled the colour out using a damp brush to
break up the harsh lines and soften the shiny areas. 

Adding a deep green to the stalk.
Some of the really deep red mix works well with a little
more yellow and blue to give a really dense green.
The finished piece.

And the colour notes.
Well, it is for the sketchbook after all.

Monday, 11 November 2013

The Plasterboard Dash

Just to show that the poor old thing hasn't been completely neglected, here is an update on the 'Shed Revival'.

Finishing the insulation.
This insulation board is quite nice to work with.
To get it to fit, you can cut it with a kitchen knife,
remembering to leave holes for the electrics to come through

In this pic, behind the ladder,
you can just see one of the window frames that Dad has made
to replace the rather sorry looking ones we have.
It was all hands to the pump again this weekend, as more work was done on the shed. Last time we, (or should I say the family, as I was on the bench, sitting it out) got the floor down, some of the insulation up and some of the electrics had been run in by our friendly electrician. This weekend gave us typical November rains and cold winds that made working very difficult but determination to get the walls started didn't stop progress. Plaster board is notorious for being ruined when it gets wet, so Dad and 'Husband' had to make dash visits to the DIY shop in between the showers to bring it home on the roof of the car. 

Dad just makes sure the first board has a nice tight fit.
The hole is for the power point,
fitted at cupboard height.  

Plaster board is also quite heavy, so getting them in can be tricky. Two people have to be on hand to hold it in place while the first screws are fixed. The fixings have to go into the joists behind the board, so it's a good idea to mark where these are on the front of the board, otherwise it's a bit like, 'pin the tail on the donkey'.

The first three boards in place, with the switches neatly fitted.
Mum and 'Husband' made quick work of getting the whole
building fully insulated.
I quite like the 'A' frames and have been considering keeping them on view. To get the roof insulated, we are thinking about fitting the insulation board between the frames, then finishing off with plaster board, leaving the 'A' on show. These can then be stained, varnished or painted.

You get a better idea of the space available, now that everything is looking a bit more square and room-like. Loads more plaster board to go and then skirting board to finish. It's really getting there.     

Monday, 4 November 2013

Fabulous Folklore

Although Halloween, with it's trick-or-treat parties and pumpkin carving is not a traditionally British festival, All Soul's Day (2nd Nov) and All Saint's Day (1st Nov) are old Christian feast days that have become collectively entwined with All Hallow's Eve and it's associated folklore. Plants traditionally play an integral part in folklore and I have found it quite an eye-opener to find out what the scribes say about my latest subject, the blackberry or bramble.

Interestingly, according to some English folklore, passing under the archway formed by a bramble branch will cure (or prevent) all manner of afflictions including boils (of course). In Greek mythology, the hero Belleraphon was thrown into brambles when he dared to ride Pegasus to Mount Olympus, and was blinded by the thorns and wandered outcast and alone thereafter. Another tale says that Lucifer landed in brambles when he was cast down from heaven and thus cursed them so that they would be an ugly plant, (that's a bit harsh). It is said that he hates them so much, he stamps about on them on Michaelmas Day and after that, it's unlucky to harvest them. Other folklore says this happens on Halloween (ah there's the link).

The thorns on the blackberry are extremely sharp and can be found on
every part of the plant.
Tiny 'hook-like' barbs can even be found under the leaves, along the main ribs.
I may add a few more thorns here.

The thorns develop right to the very tip of the plant.
Just peeking in from the left is the new addition to the piece.
You can also see the grey wash.

Even so, blackberries were considered protective against earthbound spirits and vampires. If planted near a home, a vampire couldn't enter because he would obsessively count the berries and forget what he was doing. Spooky!

Not quite finished after all.
Adding a stem of berries to the top left corner may balance
the composition and fill that gap.

Keeping the stem separate from the rest of the plant
demonstrates that flowers and berries would not generally
appear together.

Less spooky is the fab news that my good friend Shevaun has just started her excellent blog. Shevaun has great knowledge and techniques that we can all learn from, and I am so delighted that she is now sharing her exquisitely observed studies with us. Do pay a visit to Botanical Sketches, you can see some beautiful work in progress just now. 

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Fallen Apples and Cream (or Paint)?

Ta-Dah! The bramble is finally finished, grey letter and all. Yesterday, the final touches and grey were applied to this epic Alphabet piece, and I was quite relieved when that brush was put down for the last time. As you know, this one has been a bit of an ordeal, not least because it was the first one I attempted to do after my op. Perhaps I shouldn't have pushed myself on it, but at least it's finished now and I am quite pleased with the result.

So, with the work off my desk, it was time for a bit of a clean up. It feels good to have a tidy desk, clean palette and clean piece of paper sitting in front of me. New beginnings are the most exciting times, as this is the most creative stage of putting a new piece together. Subject, composition, scale and colours all come together here and there is always frustration before that most satisfying 'lightbulb' moment, when it all feels right, and away we go again. Although, I don't think I will be using that grey again.

The storm on Sunday night brought many apples down from the tree.
This one is relatively unscathed and has a couple of leaves attached

This morning felt like the first real cold-snap of the Autumn. Out of the window, the leaves are really starting to turn and the last of the Bramley and Cox apples are hanging off the trees like jewelled baubles. Mmm, I love baked apples, all buttery gorgeousness and plumped up fruit. I wonder if we have any cream? Or perhaps I should paint one first.

A trial run getting some cards printed.
Perhaps a little OTT with the pink raffia,
but who cares, it looks pretty.
More on the way.