Friday, 28 March 2014

Adventures with Vellum

Well now, after all the excitement of the last few days, it's time to come back down to earth and get on with some work. My next workshop is looming fast and I have yet to paint the lily bud project ready for the step-by-step demonstration. This time I will be using photos to work by in the class, as the lighting in the room is not that great. Photos can be really useful, especially were a flower is opening too quickly and it is difficult to maintain the composition. For this project, I already have the photos ready and the materials list went out a while ago, so really, I am nearly there with it. Thinking about it, I might put the step-by-step onto my You Tube channel.

Now that I have achieved my first BIG goal, I am looking forward to keeping the happy momentum going by getting some new pieces under way. One of the challenges I have set myself for this year is to work on vellum, a surface I have little experience of, but am eager to try. Artists I admire who have really mastered this unique surface include Kate Nessler and the late artist Rory McEwen. Their work has a truly luminous quality with a purity of colour that is not possible on paper and some have said that once you start on vellum, it becomes quite addictive and you don't want to go back to paper. Well, we'll see.     

This week I took the plunge and contacted William Cowley Parchment Makers in London to find out more. Their staff are really knowledgeable and helpful and gave me the option to buy some offcuts of smooth Kelmscott Vellum to try. Having announced this remarkable feat on Facebook, I was immediately applauded and given lots of helpful hints and tips on how to approach the challenge. Thanks folks, I knew you would come up with the right stuff.

The vellum arrives

After unwrapping the many layers of carefully
wrapped card and paper, here it is.
Lots of small offcuts will help me to get the techniques right
before moving onto a bigger piece.

Vellum is most associated with manuscript production, think about the medieval illuminated Book of Hours and you're not far off. There are also a number of sources, with calf, goat and sheepskins all being used for the manufacture of vellum at different grades, with Manuscript Vellum being the finest and Cloudy Calfskin or drumhead vellum being used for, well drums! Natural variations in colour and texture on the vellum can also add character that may be exploited by the artist, placing their subject to incorporate this. Kate Nessler is a great advocate of this, (see link below).

One of Rory McEwen's tulip paintings on vellum

The book 'Colours of Reality'
that accompanied the highly successful exhibition of the artists work
at Royal Botanic Garden, Kew.

Many of Rory McEwen's pieces are single subjects
such as a flower bud or leaf on vellum.

The surface of the finer vellum for writing or painting is prepared with a fine, powdered pumice that almost acts as a very fine sandpaper to ensure the surface is completely smooth and free of any greasy residues prior to painting. Even oils from our fingerprints can prevent the paint from adhering. The pumice is best used as a 'pounce' with a small amount formed into a tight ball within a fine mesh (old tights work well), and worked by pressing the ball in small circular movements across the surface, (see Dianne's link below). Vellum is also very expensive, depending on what type you get, smallish pieces of Kelmscott can start from around £9.00, so start small and work up. Oh, and don't forget to practise first, that's what I plan to do. By cutting a small piece and using it to produce little colour swatches, I aim to practise the dry brush technique to achieve a smooth 'wash' of colour. Then I will plan a small study. 


Robersons : Pumice Powder 240 mesh 1kg
L.Cornelissen & Son powdered pumice
available from Jackson's Art Supplies

Now to find a suitably elegant, classy but simple subject for this most particular of watercolour surfaces. If I get this one right, I will really believe I have arrived at a turning point in my work. But before I get too carried away, I really must get something into the next exchange sketchbook that is starting to gather dust.    

Other helpful links. Dianne and Kate have really hit the nail on the head with their informative posts, so do read them if you have an interest in painting on vellum. I have bookmarked both links and will probably wear them out!

L. Cornelissen & Son Artists' Colourmen. Also: parchments and vellum

Dianne Sutherland - Botanical Artist. Dianne is extremely knowledgeable and shares her experience on her blog.

Kate Nessler: No Really, That's How I Do It. Painting on Vellum. A blog post on the ASBA website giving loads of valuable advice on painting on vellum.

Monday, 24 March 2014

The Story Continues

There have been exciting developments here at Squirrel HQ, not least some VERY BIG news from the SBA. After a year of hard work and preparation, last Monday i finally submitted six paintings to the SBA, hoping to be accepted as an Assocate member. Last Thursday evening, whilst spending a few days in London with my Mum and Dad, I received a lovely phone call from Sandra Wall-Armitage, President of the SBA to tell me that all six of my paintings had been accepted unanimously by the selection panel, and welcomed me as an Associate member of the society. Of course, I was very excited, and as such probably made Sandra go temporarily deaf in one ear. Happy is a bit of an understatement. This was a gorgeous end to a lovely week, and as my parents had helped me haul the paintings into Westminster, it was lovely for them to hear the result too.  This gorgeous news set the wheels in motion for the forthcoming events.

So, how exactly do you celebrate a success? Champers perhaps or a big meal out? No, here at Squirrel HQ, it means putting new windows into the studio. Oh goody, just what I always wanted, and in my case dear readers, you know that I am actually telling the truth, I REALLY do want new windows.  

As always, the family gathered with a car full of wooden frames and tools and set to work on Friday morning to get the old windows out.

The time has come.
Broken, odd and missing bits of glass along with rotting wood
is not good, and frankly dangerous.

So, after some swift demolition, the view improves.
Bit nippy though.


"What do you mean you don't serve Espresso?"
'Husband' wonders why this cafe doesn't do coffee.
Just hold your horses, and I'll put the kettle on.
The windows and frames were removed, with any decent glass carefully taken out and kept for future use. Having taken the measurements from the old windows, dad had carefully made the new window frames at home in London, and brought all the extra timber for the job with him. All the glass for the side opening windows is recycled from the old windows of a greenhouse we took down last year and, after careful cutting fitted perfectly with the new frames. The large, middle windows had to be cut to size by a local glaziers, who was able to do them while we waited. These ones don't open but give loads of light and a lovely view.  

Perfect proportions.
Keeping the middle window to one large, fitted piece gives loads of light,
and a great view of the bird feeders in the garden.

The frames what my dad built.
Some little girls get girly stuff from their daddy,
I get new windows, yippee!
Mum taking a well earned tea break.

At last.
After an awful lot of hard work by everyone, the windows are in.
Now for a good clean.

The first set of frames went in like a dream, and all the glass was fitted in no time. the second frame unfortunately proved to be somewhat of a nuisance. As with everything else on this building, the actual window aperture was out of line, and couldn't be changed as it was structural error. So, there was much toing and froing and cutting here and there to get the frames to fit. it wasn't a job that dad was happy with, as he would have liked them to look perfect, but they look fabulous to me. Just one of those quirky little features this place has, and I love it for it.

Just to give the look of the outside a pleasing appearance, dad insisted on dying the putty before using it on the outside of the glass. Dying the putty? No, I hadn't thought of that one either. Somehow, and i won't ask, he managed to get hold of some powder that is used for such applications and set to work kneading the stuff into the putty. He did look very much like he was making bread, and from a very unpromising start, it really did do the trick. I just wish I had got a picture, but I was the one sprinkling in the powder, and got filthy in the process.  

Ever thought of dying your putty to match your wood stain?
So, onto fittings. The old windows had some very rusty fittings which looked quite nice. After taking them off and giving them a bit of a rub with some wire wool, the details could be seen more clearly. Not having any idea as to the history of this place, it did seem that it had been built to a high standard with some quality fittings that had been sorely neglected.

Now, what can we do with this little lot?

Give it all a new coat of paint.
the curled ends will be painted once they have fitted to the windows.

A quality item for a shed.
This little handle looks a bit Art Deco.
Unfortunately, there were only three of these lovely little handles and we needed four. So, a little improvisation and hunting around needed to be done. When we first moved in, the shed was full of old bits and pieces, including for some reason, an awful lot of old windows, handy. These are all out in the garden waiting for recycling. Before they get there though, we will take the handles off.

Just some of the windows we 'inherited' with the house.
I spy a handle.

After some cleaning and a little paint, it doesn't look too bad.


Looking good.
The new windows with their furniture.
The hanging baskets were a little gift from my husband.
Some more holes have been filled too.
These ones on the front held the original holding bolts.
Thank you to the family for a weekend of hard, uncomplaining graft. Hmm, now for inside...

Ah, our old sink, perfect!
This was taken out of our kitchen two or three years ago.
See, I told you we were Wombles.


Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Problems with Pricing

Just how do you price your work? It's a seriously thorny issue, and although many artists would consider their work to be worth beyond the price of rubies, there really does need to be a sensible price tag on it. Although I have had work in a couple of exhibitions before, I didn't really know if what I was doing was realistic. I have since had the advice that I had perhaps priced my work too low. For my first SBA exhibition, I really wanted to get the balance right. So, how do you go about it?

What price on this one?
One month of research and drawing
Three weeks painting
Framing and scanning

After reading a number of articles, there appears to be a number ways to go about pricing, but for most the time it takes to complete a piece, and the size of it seem to be the main areas of focus. If you start to take into account itemised materials, you really are on a hiding to nothing. How do you itemise a size 0 paintbrush and a squirt of Indanthrene Blue exactly? Tricky one that, so what about size? Some botanical artists are working on large scale pieces and currently, 'the bigger the better' appears to be the order of the day. Of course, working bigger means lots of everything being used to produce the pieces. More paint, more brushwork and bigger paper, not to mention more time. Everything is up scaled when you, well, erm up the scale! Pricing for specific sizes may help here with the price going up according to the size, which reflects in itself the extra time taken.

After much discussion and conversation on this hot topic, my view is that as artists, we should be pricing our work to reflect our own confidence and professionalism in it, but not how emotionally attached we are to it. After all, for many this is our sole living and art is a business after all. We should be using every opportunity to the full, and exhibitions are a great opportunity to get our work to a wider, targeted audience. A collector will travel a long way for a good piece of art, and often it is the subject matter and quality that is more of a consideration than the size or the time it has taken. Quality is always rewarded, but often an exhibition is just a showcase for our work with few sales. The value here is that the work is on public view where collectors, buyers and the movers and shakers can see it. Price beyond rubies? I should say so, the exposure and ability to make new connections alone is priceless. And, you may just find your email inbox getting a little busier.

For what it's worth, my own work tends to be on A3 just now, which seems about average when looking at other artists work. Each piece can have many layers and washes of paint and can take a month to complete, not including the preparatory work and research. For me, pricing is generally dependant on size, (including the amount of detail in the piece and subject matter), the complexity of the subject and, to some degree how long it has taken to complete. A complex mixed piece or a subject with large amounts of detail will of course be more expensive than a smaller, simpler study of maybe one subject such as a flower head. Of course, I often get input from fellow artists working in the same field who are generous in sharing their own experiences and considerations. This helps enormously, so you should never be afraid to ask questions of fellow artists about pricing.  

Robert Genn's Ten Commandments of Art Pricing

Thou shalt start out cheap.

Thou shalt publish thy prices.

Thou shalt raise thy prices regularly and a little.

Thou shalt not lower thy prices.
Thou shalt not have one price for Sam and another for Joe.
Thou shalt not price by talent or time taken, but by size.
Thou shalt not easily discount thy prices.
Thou shalt lay control on thy agents and dealers.
Thou shalt deal with those who will honour thee.
Thou shalt end up expensive.

Ah, good to see I am on the right track then. Perhaps I ought to have these writ large on the wall.

The following link is a great resource for pricing artwork, and I have found Katherine's knowledge extremely useful and valuable many times with this issue. 

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The Big Move

It's a bit like moving day here at Squirrel HQ, as the paintings are being prepared for their big journey. Packing up paintings for a big move is always a daunting task and it's not like we are just shifting a couple of prints to bung on the kitchen wall. No indeed, these in my eyes are priceless, and if anything catastrophic occurs, I think I will cry. As it is, even before I could think about wrapping,  was to ensure all the submission criteria had been adhered too. Labels, swing tags, fixings, hanging cord or wire? There is a lot to get right when submitting to exhibitions and then there is the form. Titles, sizes, medium, pricing, it all has to go on and you find yourself checking and double checking everything.

Swing tags all ready to be attached.
Just checking over the spelling and I can see already on the Iris
I need to print another label.
Verticle is actually spelt VERTICAL, oh silly one.  

Don't forget the important bit.
The SBA Exhibition Entry Schedule

Getting the packing up right is crucial, and the selection of your packing material even more so. Last year, I sent two of my paintings to an exhibition in Ireland and found myself performing some kind of Blue Peter audition in my hallway. There was bubble wrap, cardboard and enough packing tape to go around the world (slight exaggeration but you know what I mean). It was all very nerve-wracking, but after a lot of faffing about, the pictures were pretty well wrapped and only a drop from a very great height would have damaged them. After the exhibition, my very good friend Shevaun looked after the darlings and arranged to send them back. However, the packing she used was a revelation

As you can tell from this, 'Mother Load' of bubble wrap,
we've been here before
This is how my framer packs my work to bring home.
With all the layers of bubble wrap as well,
can you imagine trying to unwrap and re-wrap six like this.
Not likely. 

What arrived at my door looked like something out of a space station. A big, silver bubble wrap bag that was tough, firm and looked like just the ticket for hauling framed paintings about. Stiffy Bags are perfectly named as they do exactly what their title suggests. The bags are made from a thick, stiffened and reinforced bubble wrap with a silvered, waterproof foil outer layer. The bags can be made to measure, fitting snuggly around the measurements of your work, thereby holding everything securely in place and in one neat package too. No more jiggery-pokery with cardboard edging and layers of this and that, which all has to be taken off and put back on again. With these little beauties, you just take your work out of the envelope for the exhibition and put them back in again when it's time to go home. Simple.

Starship Stiffy Bag.
These look like they've come from NASA

For extra protection on the glass, especially if you are travelling a distance or by plane, here's a great tip. passed on again by my good friend Shevaun Doherty, who is always a great source of info. The type of sticky backed plastic film used to cover school books can also be used to cover the glass on your paintings. The film peels off quite easily if you leave a small corner free of film, and apparently leaves little residue. Any sticky leftovers can be swiped away with a little glass cleaner and cloth, or even those eye make up remover pads you can get down the chemist work well. If a nervous first time film user, try it out on a window first.

And finally...

...the last minute vital kit.
These will all go to the drop-off area with me.
Glass cleaner, kitchen roll and a soft, lint free cloth for a last buff-up.
Masking tape to cover the 'D' rings on the back of the frame to prevent scratches.
The scissors and packing tape are for repairs to any unlikely splits in the bags en route.
And extra labels.
Just in case.

This time I will be in London to take all six paintings to Westminster myself, with my able assistants of course. Oh, how I will breathe an enormous sigh of relief when I get them there and hand them over. We will definitely have earned our pub lunch by then.

Breaking News!!! The Facebook grapevine reliably informs me that the foil bubble wrap used for the art bags is also used as insulation for buildings. This is handy as it means you can buy rolls of the same stuff from Ebay, Amazon and all good building suppliers such as Wickes here in the UK.

Here are some handy links

Stiffy Bags - The Art Bag. Made to measure and standard sized bags.

Air Float Systems - Custom made boxes with sturdy foam inserts for shipping artwork.

Saatchi Art  - How to Package Artwork

Making a Mark - How to pack, post and ship art - resources for artists.

Art Moves of Chelsea - Storage and transportation of artwork. Also used by the SBA

Art Move - Storage, Installation and transportation of artwork

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Ecstasy and the Agony

Oh my, now it's all done, I feel quite emotional. The pictures are finished and framed, and there is nothing else to be done other than to get them safely to their destination. For this delicate exercise, I shall enlist the experienced assistance of 'Dad', with support from 'Mum' and some rather humorously named 'Stiffy Bags. It's quite odd and I actually feel a bit like a spare part, as I have no other contribution to make to the creative process of these pictures. Does everyone feel that way or am I just a bit bonkers? Mad as a bag of badgers!

On the whole, I am pleased with the set of paintings and although they are vastly different in composition and content, they all look like they were painted by me. For good or bad I hasten to add, and the proof, as they say will be in the tasting, or should that be the judging. It's all about what the selection panel like, and if your style is a bit too 'out there' it just might not go down well. The risk is always down to personal taste, but you have to be true to yourself and do the work you love, and not what you think will be liked. That is just a waste of time, doesn't always work out well and will make you unhappy. As it is, I now have seven framed paintings that I am, actually quite happy with. So, once chosen by me, it's over to the SBA where all six will either get in, or they won't.

The new batch, back from the framers. In case you were wondering, the mounts are made with pale ivory Arqadia acid free, conservation grade mount board with a pale cream, painted finish wooden moulding.

'The Green Belt'

'Alternative Alliums' and 'In the Hedgerow'

'Callas' and Iris reticulata 'Purple Gem'

The new family group.

The last two are of course old favourites, which you have already met.

'A Hogarth Curve'

And finally good old
'Sammy & Lucy'

My friends and family here and in the virtual world of the blog, facebook forums and emails have been wonderfully supportive and have helped no end to get me through the process. Here on the blog, your comments have been most welcome, as there have been times when I have had absolutely no confidence whatsoever in the quality of my work and felt like just not bothering. So a very big thank you. Goes with the territory methinks. At least I can blame it on the artistic temperament being a delicate balance between the heights of ecstasy and the depths of agony, (now wasn't that a film with Charlton Heston playing Michelangelo, painting the Sistine Chapel no less)?  See, I'm not bonkers, I'm just trying to be an artist here.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

The Sneeze of Spring

And, the next one. Oh yes indeed, now I am on a roll why stop, and thoughts are now turning to the next piece. With sketches for the Nature Trail really taking shape this month, there is lots being done in the studio and I am keen as mustard to get cracking with another painting. Just as a quick aside, I got these fab Facebook business cards printed by Moo this week. they do everything for you, all you do is add your web details and a rather lovely quote.

A bit of fun.
Facebook cards by Moo
including one of my favourite 'arty' quotes by Rousseau.
Botanical friends always bring the best gifts when they come for tea and yesterday, one of my loveliest friends brought this absolute gem with her. Snakes-Head Fritillaries are a beautiful addition to the early spring garden, but I have not had great success in growing them myself from bulb or seed. These plants are just perfect, and once I have finished painting them, I know the perfect spot in the garden.

I love the elegant, bobbing blooms of Snakes-Head Fritillary
These may end up as a small study in the March sketchbook 

Reworking the hedgerow really gave me an idea to perhaps rework some more of my earlier pieces, or at least use the same subjects for a new one. Early flowering rhododendrons are beginning to come into bloom about now and the camellias are always a delicious subject with their big blowsy flowers and dark, glossy leaves. The only issue with camellias is if the frost comes to get them, the blooms turn brown and look quite awful. Spring is only a sneeze away too, which brings the blossoms of cherry and apple. With their gorgeous scent and delicate, blush tinted blooms, the warm lengthening days bear the promise of treasures to come. Divine. Just thinking on these, there was an early rhododendron cilpinsense graphite piece I would quite like to do in colour.  

Next on the radar.
Rhododendron cilpinense study in graphite
The delicate pink blooms and deep green leaves
of this early flowering shrub, would look great in colour
Anyhow, there are a few good options to go for and as I can now relax a bit and just enjoy my painting, I can take a bit more time over this one and really choose a subject I am keen to have a go at. There is a always that pineapple waiting in the wings, and those beautiful Snakes-Head Fritillaries of course. For the time being, I have got a few more sketches for the next sketchbook and my next workshop project to prepare.

Here's a sneak peak at the study I have been working on.
To see the full glory of Februrary,
The finished pages will only be available to view on
the Nature Trail Blog
Please show your support by giving us a look.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Last One

After all the mathematical shenanigans of the the last post A Sense of Proportion, it's time for a little pause and to reflect on the finished task. Yes, I have finally finished The Green Belt. As always, the last minute details and general 'tidying up' of edges and sharpening of shadows seem to take forever, and although there are a couple of areas I would have liked to improve, I am pleased to have got it finished, and I do think it is a more pleasing piece than the original. Along with the five other pieces that I am currently getting framed, this will be the portfolio of work I will use for my submission package for the SBA exhibition this year. The next job will be to get everything framed, packed up and securely to London in time for the submission day on the 17th March. To give you the full  picture, here's the before and after. You can decide which one you like best.

What a difference a year and a whole heap of confidence makes.
here, I centralised the whole piece, turned it portrait
and focused attention on fewer elements.

A little too much of each plant gave a muddled direction to the composition.
Although it was well received, this was the piece I was least happy with.

The yellow Tutsan was an area I wasn't too happy with, although I love the berries. 

As always, I started this piece by tracing the elements of the composition that I wanted to keep. Luckily, I had all the drawings and reference material from the original composition and the tracings I used. By cutting out the pieces I wanted, I could move them all around on a piece of paper to get the basic composition how I wanted it, adding bits here and there to get it right. As this was not going to need any dissections, I left out the berries, rose hips and seeds, focusing instead on the main stems and flowers.  

After moving all the drawings around, a tracing is made.
The Rotring pen got a bit stressed.
Fine details such as leaf serrations and thorns are added later.    

Keeping one stem of the Cranesbill, but adding lots of buds, blooms and a seed head gave all the information needed to identify this delicate subject. A similar treatment was given to the other flowering subjects, with lots of buds and backs of flowers included. Moving the tall stems of the grass to the opposite side of the piece gave some height and delicacy to give a better balance against the linear Cranesbill.

Winsor Violet and Cobalt were among the colours used in the mixes
for the delicate Cranesbill flowers.

The abundant buds are a fundamental piece of this subject.

The bramble wasn't really a dominant force in the original and certainly if you have ever been out walking in woodlands, you'll know that brambles are everywhere. For the new piece, I decided to give the bramble prime position in the centre, with all the other subjects in amongst its stems and leaves. Lots of lacy holes and nibbled edges not only gave a more natural appearance but gave a less hard edge to the finish of the leaves. Adding a small pigeon feather as if caught on the thorn gave some idea of their sharpness. Plus, I love adding these sorts of little extras. A bit of fun.

The original photos came in handy. Keeping a collection of reference photos means a subject doesn't have to be in season for a painting.

For the Bittersweet, I decided to keep most of the elements as they were, only taking out the bottom stem to keep a nice linear line at the stem termination point at the bottom. All of the stems end in the same place with only the grass leaf and rose leaves falling below this point. With the dog rose, I had hoped to place in another rose bud to make three elements, but felt it would have looked a little awkward, plus time was pressing. More shadow colours were used on the open rose than before, so the petals have a more wrinkly appearance, which I quite like.

Well, that's all finished, so several cups of tea and a large bag of chocolate buttons later, the feeling of 'Empty Easel Syndrome' has yet to subside and I really do already miss having something to work on. At this stage, it is incredibly tempting to take 'just one last peek' to see if there is any more that can be done. It's a bit like being in an exam and being told you have five more minutes. Lucky for me there is the next sketchbook in the Nature Trail to grab my attention away from such jiggery-pokery, so with ideas aplenty, it's time for some little sketches and colour charts.