Monday, 24 February 2014

A Sense of Proportion

At the end of my last post Prep School I set the small tea-time teaser of spotting the difference on, 'The Green Belt'. This post tells you why there is one. With this new composition well underway and almost finished, I can see there are a few ugly gaps giving too much negative space between the subjects. In compositions the negative space between the subjects is really important as it is these areas that give the eye a chance to have a small, restful pause before moving on and recognising the next shape. Too much negative space gives a disjointed feel where objects or subjects are too far away from each other and the eye is not drawn smoothly around the piece. Too little means the subjects are lost amongst each other. The balance is key and everyone gets it wrong at some point. A good starting point is this informative guide by Katherine Tyrrell, Composition - Elements of Design.


Mind the gap there.

Adding an extra stem and curved blade of grass
bridged the gap and filled a too-big negative space to the
top right of the composition. 

Here too there was far too much space
and not enough focus in this central area.

The extra grass fills the space and a small pencilled-in feather
(once painted) will add a little more focus.

Any botanical piece needs to focus on the identification of the subject, even where there are a number of different ones together. With this mixed piece, I still wanted an element of identification and included seed heads, buds and finished flowers wherever I could but how to make a pleasing composition? From the outset, I wanted to make sure that there was a relatively even spread of interest across the piece. Again, ratios and proportions need to be taken into account for a pleasing composition, and at this point I could go all mathematical, (is that even a word?) getting technical about the geometry of the  Golden Mean and the Rule of Thirds and how some artists use a lot of a + b algebra and thirds to get their compositions right. Again, The Making a Mark blog has a superb resource for this, Composition Thinking in Threes.

You can blame this guy.

Michael Maestlin was the first to
publish a decimal approximation of the
Golden ratio in 1597

(Image and text Wikemedia)

For those of you who like a diagram, this is a
typical demonstration of the Golden Mean or Ratio using a spiral.
It even has a value 1.6180339887....
and is represented by the Greek letter phi
(Image Wikimedia)

The lowercase letter of phi
is used to represent the golden ratio
(Image Wikemedia)

Enough of all this, it's scaring me now. All I know is what my dad taught me about gardening. When planting flowers and bulbs in our plot, he would always show me that planting odd numbers together was far more attractive than evens. So, threes, fives, sevens etc. works far better than just two or four. Same applies when painting, odd numbers of features such as buds and blooms work better than even numbers. One is an odd number too but it doesn't always work in a composition. Although, a large, single pineapple plant can look stunning.

Three Calla Lilies with a single leaf.
Although I think a second leaf at the opposing angle
might have worked just as well here.

Something else that's important to note here is how you have your elements facing on the page. Now this was something I really had to get my head round, but it would seem that compositions work really well when the main elements are facing outwards. It's almost like you have to think about the centre of your page as radiating outwards, placing the main blooms and buds first, with prominent focus in the centre leaning subjects out towards the edges. Having the stems and flower heads leaning in towards the centre would not allow the eye to move smoothly around the composition. The eyes have it.

Three Lilies are the predominant focus in this one with all the 'action'
going on near the middle of the page.
The three elements of the lily are facing outwards,
towards the edges of the paper.

One is fun, (and an odd number).
The single Freesia has one fully open bloom, the back of a bloom
and a large bud as the main elements.

Although this piece was well received,
the single camellia flower looks a bit lonely, even though
there are five buds and blooms there.

Looking at it all now, the prunus berries and rose hips
could have done with a third stem each.

The central group of camellia buds and the inner rose hips
are facing slightly too much towards the centre.
Luckily there are other elements, guiding the eye around the piece.

Shall I talk triangles? Before starting the lily composition above, I finally got the triangle thing. Once you have your three blooms and are getting them facing outwards, you tend to find that you can draw a perfect triangle between them. The Calla flower heads also have a bit of a triangle going on too. A bit like joining the dots. Again, it's all about ratios, proportion and that Golden Mean again. Don't even get me started on Pythagoras and his theorem (The sum of the areas of the two squares on the sides, equals the area of the square on the hypotenuse). Arrgh, You would think I should have got all this straight away, as I learnt all about this sort of thing when I studied Architecture all those years ago. Ta dah!

The ancients knew exactly what they were doing.
Proportion, balance and perfect mathematical division.
The red box demonstrates the diagram of the Golden Ratio.

Note how the fine detail and focus is all going on in the smallest area.
This has been repeated across the elevation of the building.

Image with thanks to

Just look at that symmetry.
Another example of perfect execution of the Golden Mean

The Villa Rotunda
Andrea Palladio 1508 - 1580
One of my architectural heroes
Image with thanks to Wikipedia

My head hurts now. And there was me thinking this sort of thing would be easy. All I want to do is produce nice paintings. Well, we shall see if I have succeeded with this one of bitten off more than I can chew. Ah well, now what did I do with that protractor?  

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Prep School

Oh my goodness, I can't believe it's been over a week since I was here with you last. As you know, it's a busy time at Squirrel HQ just now, and I have been painting at a furious pace to try to get my last piece ready for framing. However, as I tend to get up at a seriously unsociable hour (05.30, 'Husband' is out the door for work before 06.00) there are a couple more hours of the day that I can put to good use. Once I have fortified myself with a large cup of tea and packed my beloved off to his daily chore, I can catch up with online admin and check in to facebook to see what everyone else has been up to. It's actually my favourite time of the day. Just me, a cup of tea and the radio, a precious, quiet time before the hectic onslaught of whatever the new day holds.

Yesterday was such a lovely day. Finally back into teaching and having a lot of fun demonstrating techniques, getting to know enthusiastic students was so rewarding and with 12 of them, very busy. It was so pleasing to hear the many compliments at the end of the day, and overhearing how much people enjoyed it and thought they would book a place on the next one, especially as some had not picked up a paintbrush for some years. Ooh, I'm chuffed to bits and already thinking on how I can improve the experience. If you were one of the 12, it was lovely to see you and I am looking forward to seeing you next time. Buds and blooms will be on the menu methinks.  

The chilli pepper worked on in class
with some of the charts used by students
A colour copy of a previous chilli study
helped with tonal values and colours

In school, as a teacher I was very aware of how individuals learn. We all have a different style and if you think about how you learn something new yourself, you will see how it works. There are three main types, listening, seeing and kinesthetic learning. Some people learn something simply by listening to an instruction and acting on it, (don't touch that pot, it's hot), others watch someone carrying out a task and follow their lead, (oops, you touched that hot pot and hurt yourself, better not do that then), and some prefer to learn by doing a task themselves and learning from experience, (ouch!). Ensuring that there is something for everyone is one of the hardest parts of the teaching job and trying to include a bit of all three learning styles helps keep everyone happy. So, with this in mind, I provided a demonstration of  a complete study, talking through each stage and technique as I went and taking questions. The colour charts, notes and tonal copies I provided of a finished piece helped as a visual aide memoire, and of course, everyone had a good go themselves. These last additions went down really well in the feedback, so I am glad I included them.  

Elsewhere, I am really chuffed to have got a Sketchbook Squirrel YouTube channel started. No videos as yet, but I am planning to share tips, projects and more, with step-by-step guidance on techniques and colour mixing thrown in. The idea is that the videos will that work alongside my blog posts and workshop projects. That's the plan, so I hope you will join me soon.

Oh, and see if you can spot the difference with The Green Belt. Deadline day is looming large and I have yet to get this monster of a piece tamed and to the framers.


Here there was something of a large gap at the top
between the grass and bramble, and again
between the bramble leaf on the right and the stem


Just working on an extra grass stem
with a couple of leaves filling the gaps a little.
An extra rose bud will fill that little space at the bottom left.
Oh, and a small feather snagged on a thorn.  

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Time Waits for No-One

This week is already shaping up to be a busy one, with bramble leaves and thorns galore on The Green Belt and the Sketchbook Trail getting into it's first phase, time is certainly pressing. It's a daunting task, painting in someone's sketchbook, but with so many good friends participating in this project, I know it will be a great pleasure to add something to the pages of each one. With the first one ready and waiting on my desk, it's time to think of something suitable for February, the month of romance.        

It's also been great fun to share some of my techniques on the blog, and I have been so pleased that many of you have also found them useful. Just now, I am still tackling the bramble leaves, with a few more to go and then it will be time to turn to the rose leaves. As these also have tiny serrations, I think I will be on them for some time. Hopefully, if I really get motoring, I can get this tricky job out of the way in time to meet my time allowance.

Nearly there with this little group

Then these ones will need some attention

It's in my habit to work backwards from a deadline, calculating out how much working time I have to complete a painting. For this, I work out a time management plan, giving time for planning, drawing and painting, but also allowing a little extra time for any emergencies when I may not be able to work on the piece. If the piece is particularly big, with a number of subjects, I give specific time for each one. With this one, I need a whole working week just to do the bramble leaves. This way, I know if I am hitting my deadline, ahead of myself or running behind and can adjust my pace accordingly. With The Green Belt, I am just about keeping to the deadline, but it will be a tight one to get it to the printers and then to the framers in time. As always, I will keep you posted. 


Friday, 7 February 2014

Tasty Tips on Tackling Leaves

Ah now, have you ever come across a really good tip and held onto it like a precious, warm blanket? Me too and I was really delighted that my recent post Tip Top and Top Tips came in handy for so many of you. The blog had so much traffic in one day, I thought the poor darling would need a lie down in a quiet, dark room. Of course, I am not reinventing the wheel here as many of the techniques and methods have all been done before and shared around, but it's nice to share the love.

So, onto the leaves. Tackling larger leaves like those of the bramble is actually quite nice, as you don't have to paint the whole thing at once. Leaves that have a really obvious mid-rib can be made into a game of two halves, with each side being painted separately.

Firstly,I apply a light 'tea wash' of a number of pale green washes To get the lightest tones in place and get a good foundation of colour that will glow from beneath the subsequent layers. Layering really is what it is all about with this kind of painting, and some paintings will have may layers of delicate washes, all melding together to create a glowing finish. The idea, is to get a harmonious blend of all the washes applied, not to cover them.

Laying on the first washes.
A mix of Indanthrene Blue and lemon Yellow.
The leaf on the left has a 'tea wash' of very pale spring green.

The leaf on the right has a second wash that also maps out the veining.
Adding a bit more blue to the spring green, strengthens the mix.
Light red was added for the 'rust' spots
All pencil marks can now be rubbed out. 

To do this, I wet an area of one side of the leaf and wait for the sheen of water to settle a bit before applying the paint and moving it about to achieve a nice, graded wash. Before it dries too much I can drop in another colour and let the colours 'bleed' into each other. Once this is dry, I can re-wet some areas and drop in more colour to strengthen the areas of light and shade. Always remembering not to apply too much where the light hits the leaf. At this stage, I map out the main veins using a fresh green mix and, once dry rub out any pencil marks. 

After the veins are mapped out, more washes give form to the leaf.
Whilst still wet, the colour is pulled down
to form the texture and pattern of the leaf surface.  

Details can be added wet-on-dry
Further blending of specific colours such as the rusty tones
gives a uniform appearance.

A bit of Cerulean in the pale green mix of Indanthrene and Lemon
gives a lovely bright feel to the palest highlighted areas.
There will be no white paper left for these leaves as they have more of a sheen
than a high shine. 

Colour, tone and shade can be built up with every wash applied, although I try not to overdo the re-wetting technique as this can quickly disturb the paint underneath, making work look overworked and muddy. Working from light to dark through the mid tones, I feel most comfortable in getting the balance of tonal values right. A successful painting achieves as many tonal values as possible with areas that are very light and shadows being as dark as you dare. To get the really dark areas and small details, I apply the paint wet onto dry and use a clean, damp brush to gently blur and blend any hard edges.

Just a few little touches here and there.

A little overworked at the edges but this can be tidied up.
A final light wash of the bright green mix with some Transparent Yellow
applied to the greener areas brings everything together.
The finished leaf and the two in progress.
Nibble holes and blemishes
keep to the natural characteristic of the bramble leaves

I may need to sharpen up a few points,
but this will all be wet-on-dry using a fairly dry brush.
Adding more water at this stage would lift and overwork the layers.

Using these techniques, I can tackle pretty much any leaf in much the same way.   


Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Tip Top and Top Tips

This week I have been making sweeping, large brush strokes with the bramble leaves on The Green Belt but have also been tying up some of the more fiddly jobs too. Hairs on stems, shadows of stamens and overlapping stems, and tiny points of light are always the last minute, but vital botanical features that always seem to get forgotten until it's almost too late.     

Thinking that I had best not leave these tricky little numbers until the last minute when I might forget completely, I decided to tidy a few bits up before moving on to all the leaves. Starting with the shadows of the stamens on the Dog Rose, I used a very light violet grey mix, (made using the pink mix for the rose and a little more Indanthrene Blue) and the tip of a size 0 brush to carefully stroke in a little shadow. The brush needs to be fairly new as the tip will be very pointed, an old brush would not give a good, sharp result. For other stamens, just a little spot was needed where the head of the stamen made a shadow against the petal.

Adding the shadows of the stamens to add to the 3 dimensional look

Next came the hairs of the Cranesbill stems. It's really difficult to see these hairs but they are there and the painting would be botanically wrong if they weren't included. For this job I mixed a little Perylene Maroon and some of the green mix used to paint the main stem. This made a sort of brownish grey that would give the hairs a bit of body against the white paper. Later, I would use the tip of a scalpel to pick out the hairs where they appeared against the green leaves, remembering the rule of light against dark and dark against light.

Speaking of which, the last job would be down right dodgy as, lastly it was out with a nice fresh but more importantly, sharp scalpel blade. For the tiniest points of light on a painting, such as light hairs and highlights on very small berries or stamens, I use the tip of a very sharp blade and a quick picking movement to remove the paint. Taking a blade to your work feels awful as this actually damages the paper, so this is the very last job to be done where I am no longer going to apply any paint.

By using a dry brush that has splayed out a little
allows the tips of the hairs to be dotted along the edge of the stems.  

Using the tip of a brush to create a darker edge
where the stamen faces against the light. 

Using the tip of a scalpel to bring out the highlights
 on the bramble stamens...

...and on these ones too.