Monday, 26 January 2015

Treasured Transparents

'Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.'

George Bernard Shaw 

Moving on a bit from my previous post on the possible replacements for cadmium colours, this one will cover a few other things to consider when choosing paints and colours and some of my favourites. It's time to embrace change. See Complicated Cadmium At the end of the post I have included a number of resources that you might find helpful.

The early days.

Cadmium pigments played a large role in my palette choices.
A number of the colours used here also contain black and are therefore not transparent.
When you try to layer these colours, they end up looking muddy.

Later on I started introducing Quinacridone colours.
More transparent colours here but still a few stubborn favourites.

Cadmium Yellow was still around though  
An early green chart with cadmiums and colours containing black.
Not a great selection of transparent pigments and colours here

A few years ago, I discovered Transparent Yellow by Schmincke, and since then it has become my go to friend for glazing over greens. In the palette, this particular watercolour looks decidedly unappealing and unpromising, but once on the paper, wow it's amazing.

Hmm, how very unappealing
Schmincke translucent Yellow in the raw 

These bramble leaves have had a bit of a 'facial'.

A thin glaze of Schmincke Transparent Yellow washed over various areas of the leaves,
gives a bright, fresh look and adds warmth.
Cerulean Blue in a thin glaze is also washed onto the leaves in areas where I wanted a cooler look.

With leaves I love to vary the temperature, as I think it really makes for an interesting contrast.    

I really like using transparent watercolours, but of course for me, this hasn't always been the case. As a Graphic Designer, the brief often required a design to be as flat and uniform as possible, important for the printing process and to keep streaks at bay. Without the assistance of the ever-present Photoshop or equally clever studio computer software, this had to be achieved with hand-rendered artwork.

For the 'Hello' exercise I demonstrated in my Topical Typography post I would have preferred to use a Gouache mix to get a beautifully flat, matte surface with a good saturation of pigment. However, getting watercolour to a similar consistency, (single cream) and using it on fine lettering can give a good finish. For larger type though, watercolour would not have the strength to cover evenly.

Perylene Maroon mixed quick thick to give a saturated consistency 

The medium of choice for many a designer in these circumstances was Arcrylics or Gouache, an opaque "poster paint" type watercolour medium that dries to an extremely uniform, matte and flat surface, (we also had these marvels called Magic Markers, but that's a different story). Although some of the "en plein air" paintings of J.M.W Turner contain Gouache, This type of medium was most recognisably used in 20th Century in animations, cartoons, illustrations and backgrounds, but some artists in the Pop Art movement of the 1950s brought this flat style of work into the public domain, with their bright, illustrative styles.

One of my favourite 'Pop' artists is Roy Lichtenstein. His works were mainly done in oils, but his control and use of the medium as well as his witty, (and somewhat dark) humour has always caught my attention.

Roy Lichtenstein 'Drowning Girl'
oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas
Solid colours and graphic, black outlines are so reminiscent of the style

The MoMA Collection
Image care of Wikipedia
Andy Warhol
'Campbell's Soup Cans' 1963
Synthetic Polymer paint on canvas

c/o The MoMA Collection 

Opaques, such as the cadmiums have more of a covering quality, that does not allow previous layers or the white of the paper to shine through. The more opaque the colour, the flatter and greater covering quality it will have over previous washes, making it very difficult to layer washes over opaque colours. The varying transparency and opacity of a pigment will affect the optical character of the individual colour as well as how the colour mixes with other colours. The most transparent colours will enable you to create a pure glazing effect by applying a number of washes on top of one another. Just what I'm after.

Some of my new favourites in the transparent armoury
Anthraquinoid Red, Pyrrol Red, Pyrrol Scarlet and Transparent Pyrrol Orange are the reds

M.Graham Azo Yellow is a lovely bright lemony yellow
and the Daniel Smith Hansa Yellow Deep is my new alternative to Cadmium Yellow

So why is transparency so important for botanical work? Well, This is particularly important as transparency is the key characteristic of any watercolour, with its thinness allowing the reflective quality of the paper and previous layers to come through. Transparent pigments also have a refracting quality in much the same way as stained glass, making a jewel-like brilliance, and clean, pure mixes. The more transparent the pigment, the more purity and clarity you get.   

The latest tomato painted in transparent colours

About four layers of washes went into this one
plus some dry brush work to really build up the impact 

As I will be working on some really important projects this year, it will be important to invest in the right paints and colours to ensure the very best result. For me, these will all be transparent colours with single pigments not mixes, (many colours contain more than one, so when you try to mix them with other colours, they don't mix successfully). The old saying goes that a poor workman blames his tools. So, if it all goes wrong this time, it will be all my own fault.

'To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.'

Winston Churchill

(Well, practise might help a bit there too Sir Winston, but I like the sentiment) :)

My choice of translucent and transparent colours.

Quinacridone Gold is a beautiful transparent yellow and perfect for mixing greens 

Colour swatches and tests still play a large part in my early experiment with colours.

Here, I have got my hands on some lovely transparent purples too.

Extra Reading

For further assistance in selecting transparent colours visit the Handprint website

Yellow - All the technical data on all of the watercolour brands

Reds - technical data for red watercolours and brands

Blues - technical data for the blue watercolours

Want to find the best transparent colours? here are a couple of tables that shows you the properties of the colours in the range for W & N and M. Graham

Winsor and Newton Professional Watercolour - permanence and composition table

M. Graham - Watercolour composition table

Where to buy in the UK

M.Graham watercolours are available at Lawrence Art Supplies

Schmincke Horadam watercolours are available in the UK at Jackson's Art Supplies 

Thursday, 22 January 2015

The Social Butterfly, (and other bugs)

Ha ha, well after my last post on not being the most social of butterflies I thought at least I could have a go at painting one. Earlier this month, my good friend Shevaun Doherty painted a beautiful Painted Lady butterfly on vellum using some pretty iridescent paints from Daniel Smith to highlight the shimmer on it's wings. Elsewhere Dianne Sutherland posted some beautiful paintings of butterflies on Facebook and Sarah Morrish has been at it too with specimens from the Winchester Museum Service collections. These paintings all looked stunning and with so much inspiration, I remembered that I had taken some photos of a Red Admiral Butterfly in the garden that came out quite well, and thought, go on give it a go.

'Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man.'
Vladimir Nabokov

Just hanging around.

This Red Admiral butterfly appears to have got a little tipsy on rotting apples 

Ah, that's better.
By the magic of PC we get a better view of this handsome beast.
The shimmer on the wings is so beautiful, especially when the sun is on them

(and he has his dignity back)

The great thing about these butterflies is that I can use the lovely Daniel Smith reds that I have. The scarlet shades will be really useful and if I can get hold of them, a touch of the iridescent colours to add the characteristic shimmer on the wings. There are loads of these shimmery colours to choose from but below are just two that caught my eye.

Duochrome Saguaro Green by Daniel Smith
c/o Jackson's Art Supplies

Iridescent Sunstone by Daniel Smith
c/o Jackson's Art Supplies

The iridescent look amazing, especially when used on dark paper. To capture this, I think an underwash of darker tones will allow the shimmer to shine. In the palette not only have I got the lovely Daniel Smith samples but also the luxurious M. Graham colours I recently treated myself to. These are becoming a firm favourite of mine and I am just finding any excuse to buy more. Added to this are the new brushes I got as a present for my birthday. I'm all out of excuses.

Anthraquinoid Red, Pyrrol Red and Pyrrol Transparent Orange all make superb mixes.
Quinacridone Gold and my favourite Perylene Maroon will have to make an appearance too. 

Dream Carrier, Bringer of Sleep, Bringer of News

According to a Blackfoot Indian:
You know that it is the butterfly who brings us our dreams — who brings the news to us when we are asleep. Have you never heard a man say, when he sees a butterfly fluttering over the prairie, ‘There is a little fellow flying about that is going to bring news to someone tonight.’? Or have you not heard a person say after the fire burns low and the people begin to make up their beds about the lodge, ‘Well, let us go to bed and see what news the butterfly will bring?’

You never know, once I get going with these critters, I might not be able to stop

One of my favourites from the garden last year.
This dragonfly just landed right in front of me and landed on a branch.

And who doesn't love a big bumbly bee
Plenty of pollen and nectar carrying plants and flowers will get grown in the garden.  

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Topical Typography

This is a longer one from me today, so you might fancy getting yourself a cuppa to sustain you.When I started the Nature Sketchbook Exchange, I knew right from the beginning that I wanted to add some lettering to my pages. At college, lettering and typography were my favourite aspects of graphic design, and I loved the quirky aspects and personality that choosing the right type and style of letters could add to a piece. Plus, I love playing around with words, so I have never lost the passion for this art form. Having posted some of the pictures of the pages, I have had a number of requests to write a post on how I do it. So, here it is.

This is a great play on letters to get us started.

Tiago Pinto
'The Type Faces'
A witty and creative take on using the type to make faces.
Image c/o 99designs

First, let's get over the difference between Typography and Calligraphy. According to the dictionary, this is the actual definition of Calligraphy

Calligraphy is a visual art related to writing. It is the design and execution of lettering with a broad tip instrument or brush in one stroke (as opposed to built up lettering, in which the letters are drawn). A contemporary calligraphic practise can be defined as, "the art of giving form to signs in an expressive, harmonious, and skillful manner".

And here's the definition for Typography

Typography is the art and technique of arranging type to make written language most appealing to learning and recognition. The arrangement of type involves selecting typefaces, point size, line length, line-spacing (leading), letter-spacing (tracking), and adjusting the space within letters pairs (kerning). 

Essentially, a calligrapher will design and create the type themselves as they write it using a specialist calligraphy nib, where a typographer will use either a font they have designed or created typefaces to set and manipulate the type according to the setting. This is what I was trained to do. Having been a graphic designer, I would select typefaces and adjust their size, spacing and so on to create what the client wanted. Think about any printed material you see on a daily basis, from packaging to magazines, all written material has to go through the hands of a typographer, typesetter or layout designer. Now of course, it's all done by computer, but when I was at college, it was done by hand. 

Modern examples of typography used as art form

I love this one by designer Lauren Hom called
'Daily Dishonesty'
Simple, elegant and to the point. Simple leafy flourishes and sweeping lines tell the story
Image c/o Creative Bloq

'To Define Is To Limit'
A motivational series of posters taking quotes by some of our most creative thinkers
by the clever folk at
Baron Fig
Edgy and sharp, the playing visual of different sizes of type and use of quote really is spot on
Image c/o Creative Bloq
Typography quite literally on the streets of Berlin
A big, simple type face with bright yellow grabs the attention of visitors
Outside the Berlinische Galerie
Image c/o Creative Bloq  

Now, I'm not going to go into nauseating detail as to how I measure all the type and set the spaces too much here, but what I will do is give a bit of an insight into choosing type, setting your page, transferring the letters, and finishing them. So, if you fancy adding a bit of lettering to your work but don't fancy learning calligraphy, this might be the way to start.     

Reference books are a great source for material

First up then, choose your typeface or font. For a modern effect, you will probably go for one that doesn't have 'serifs', the little strokes at the ends of the letters. Sans-serif and Helvetica are examples of these simple types of font. For the more flamboyant, handwritten, formal 'script' styles, then Palace Script and Antiqua styles might suit. Either way, you should try to use a style of type that suits the setting. For the sketchbooks, I used a formal, script style of typeface. 

Here's good old Helvetica. Simple and easy to read, Helvetica has been used for public signposts in countries all around the world.


And for something a little more formal with serifs there's Times, Also called Times New Roman, this font is so called as it is the typeface used for The Times newspaper in Britain


The set up

My chosen typeface. This is my favourite just now.
I love this typeface as it most resembles my own handwriting,
(when I do it properly with a fountain pen)

You can see on this page that some of the guidelines you will need are also shown.

Don't panic for this little intro, you won't use them all.

Tip: Pick a typeface that isn't too light or too small and has some 'body' to the letters. A nice thick letter is easier to paint that a wispy one with lots of flourishes. You are seeking the Goldilocks of typefaces

Some useful kit.

Tracing paper, rulers, fine brushes, sharp 2H pencil, fine Rotring pens
and different sizes of Ruling Pen

French Curves are also useful, but just now I can't seem to find mine.

Before you start to even think about drawing out your words, you need to set up your tracing to fit the area where you want to place them. It would be a disaster if you went to all the trouble of drawing and tracing out your phrase, only to find it won't fit. it takes a little time, but it's worth the effort for a lovely finish. 

Setting up the lines on the tracing paper

Measure your space carefully and place a couple of pencil markers onto a clean piece of tracing paper, before drawing a straight baseline between the two. This gives you your overall size, including spaces. Next, you need a typed or printed alphabet in the typeface and size you initially want to use, (remember, you are not designing the typeface yourself and you may need to change the size). Ideally, you want some space between each letter so you can see what you are doing when you trace them.

Another lovely typeface but the spine of the book distorts the letters.
A clean photocopy of this would make it perfect for tracing.

Bit of a pain to paint as a starting effort though 

Place the tracing paper over the first capital letter at the start of your lines and draw a box around it, (to get it's perimeter), Using the lowercase letters with the tracing paper over, count the accurate number of lower case letters you have in your word or phrase and place a little pencil mark at the end, (this is the approximate space for your first word). Leave about a 1cm gap for a space, (this can be made bigger or smaller to suit) and do the same with the other words. 

If once finished, the words overlap your original space markers, you will need to adjust the size of the font or reduce the spaces a little if it's only a small difference. This is easily done on computer by changing the point size. Adjust the size up or down until you are happy with the overall look. (There are other, more technical ways of doing the sizing and setting up thing, but this is simpler)

Once you have your size of typeface correct, you can set up for the tracing. Place your alphabet under your sheet of tracing paper, with the base of the uppercase or capital letters lining up with your pencil baseline. Carefully draw a fine line using a pencil and ruler along where the very top of all the letters sits. This is your topline. The letterform of some letters like A, B E F and so on have a central line, or crossbar. To keep this accurate, you will need to draw another line across your paper. 

The first letter I want to use.

All the guidelines are in place and the letter lines up with them perfectly.
The lowercase and descender line is also seen along with the crossbar 

With the lower case letters you will need another line where the bottom of the ascenders, or bases of letters like y j and g are. And another line where the topline or x height of the lower case sits. This sounds like a lot of lines, but unless you have them, your letters can end up very misaligned and awkward looking. 


You will need an exceptionally sharp pencil for this job, preferably one that is a 2 or 3H. You will also need to sharpen your pencil every three or four letters or you will begin to get an inaccurate size. Carefully and lightly trace your letters, (you can use a ruler for the uprights). Now you can transfer this to your paper either using a lightbox or other transfer method that you prefer.

Ready to go.

All the letters are traced.

You can see where the 'e' has it's little tail end doesn't quite meet with the first upstroke of the 'l'.
Here you need a little 'artists licence' to create the joined up nature of this sort of typeface.

Squeezing them in a little to meet each other as you trace gives a good level of space between letters.

To show how much a very sharp pencil is needed, the 'O' was traced using a slightly blunter 2H.
The final tail of the 'o' has been extended a bit to fit the space more comfortably.

Once complete, any adjustments in accuracy and sharpness can be done

On the paper, and neatened up.

The baseline and lowercase guidelines are in place to keep the letters straight.

You may want to put the other lines in as a guide for when you are painting.


This is the bit that takes practice and care. Your mix needs to be about the consistency of single cream, so not a mix that would be good for painting a subject. Gouache is also a great medium for lettering, but it can also work with watercolour as long as the consistency is okay. You can also use a Ruling Pen for the straight lines in your letters. A Ruling Pen is a device that has a little reservoir for paint and a couple of sharp nib points that you can bring close together to only allow a fine thread of paint out. A steady hand can do the job just as well.

For letters I use a very fine brush with a long point. A rigger brush is great for signwriting and letters as it has a lightly elongated point, but a 0 or 00 does just as well. To start, if the typeface is large I tend to outline the entire letter with paint before filling in. For finer, script type fonts, the pressure you apply with the brush as you go can be enough to fill the area for you. 

For this exercise, I used a size '0' da Vinci Maestro 35 brush that has a slightly longer point.  

Using a very small brush and a 'single cream' mix of paint you can start painting.

On the 'H' I started by painting a consistent line along the outer edge if the upstrokes.
By turning the paper around you can do the other edges.

An even pressure should infill the area for you but if not just go up between them. 

The very fine flourishes are done with a very light pressure.

First, I completed all the straight lines.
For this, I could use a ruler and Ruling Pem but here I didn't bother.

Then, using the natural curve of my wrist, I gently painted in the curves.
It's a good idea to keep turning the paper so that your wrist is comfortably using it's natural motion,
giving the curves a cleaner finish

Keep the pressure very light and use the length of the point of the brush to help.

Once dry, any slight errors such as the the slight wobble on the upstroke of the 2nd 'L' can be scraped off with a very sharp scalpel.
Now, very gently rub out all your pencil lines    

For these following pages, the pressure applied was enough to get enough paint where it was needed on the Palace Script lettering. Lifting the brush to a few hairs with an even stroke gives the lighter flourishes. 

The set up for 'Summertime' was important to keep it straight, evenly spaced and within the space left by the flowers and the edge of the page. 

Choosing a bright pink shade for the summertime theme complemented the colours of the flower heads.

Using the same script font for the typography but placing the type at different angles gave a nice effect  

Hand rendered lettering for a Christmas card theme in this sketchbook
maintained the 'handmade', personal touch appeal.

A berry red is very festive and matched the hanging tomato beautifully.
Using a traditional script font always looks lovely for Christmas.
Leaving enough space between the lines of type prevents the ascenders from crashing and colliding into each other. 

You can see the straighter lines on Happy Christmas are a little wobbly at places. Here I could have started with the Ruling Pen to get these really precise. Let the paint dry before finishing letters with the brush.

Well, there are loads of different ways to add type and lettering to your work and everyone will find their own method of doing it. This is one of my methods and I hope it gives you a starting point to get going with one of my favourite art forms. Give it a go, I'm going to try gilding letters next. So, I'll keep you posted. 

If, like me, you love a good typeface you can see more of the top 10 favourite fonts chosen by designers for 2014 on the Hypefortype Blog 

Care of Hypefortype

here's a late addition. If you love illuminated works, artist Kelly M. Houle is working on a superb illuminated edition of Darwin's Origin of Species. Take a look at her progress here  

Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Way Forward

New year's resolutions for me are a complete waste of time. Generally this is because I forget them, get bored or change my mind and go a completely different way. As my family have written me off as, 'mad as a bag of badgers' being that organised would be something of a revelation in itself. So why frighten the horses. However, it is an opportunity to re-evaluate priorities and the direction you want to go in. To get us going with the resolutions, Katherine Tyrrell has come up with the goods once again on Making a Mark.

So, a plan is a good thing to have in mind, and last week a friend of mine spurred me on to do something in this direction. Having to sit down with a pen and a pad and think about what it is that I actually want to achieve in a year is a daunting prospect, and a year is a long old time. Perhaps if I break it into quarterly achievements and little goals, this might be more realistic. Let's face it, I'm not going to be the next Damien Hirst or Banksy any time soon, but a bit more exposure would be good.

Last year I made a 10 point challenge plan for myself, and I pretty much covered all those bases, (with varying degrees of success I hasten to add). See Enjoy What You Do and Five Challenges. So, what's in store for 2015?


The first workshops were a great success, with a good few being sold out. Such a boost, and I am really hoping to be invited back later in the year to do some more of those. Of course, I am on the move to a new venue with the one-day workshops, so I really hope these will be equally successful and fun to do. Also, the first of my Studio Days went really well and the new studio will be back in action this year with loads more seasonal classes. Check!

My first workshop venue.
Thank you for having me.

The first Studio Days went really well

Let me entertain you!

All ready to go for another year of happy painting

Goal: For this year, I am also looking for some lovely new venues to hold the workshops at, and although a few have come forward, (and one let down) I am still working on this one.


Good old trusty Squirrel HQ. There were a few moments when I thought about throwing in the towel with the blog. There are so many other platforms for botanical art now and loads more bloggers. There were times when I thought there were too many of us chasing very similar ideas, and getting a bit 'samey'. Still, I have to hold up my end and defend Squirrel. After all, we've been here a while and earned our stripes, so I think we'll stay. Check!

Getting by for the winter.
Come spring, I'll be raring to go again.

Goal: A bit of a freshen up might well take place, and I am looking to introduce some beasties into my painting collections too. There will be all the usual studio news, tips, tricks, techniques and step-by-steps, but I will introduce some fresh ideas too.

Social Media 

The word social and me don't really go together too well it has to be said. Being something of a socially awkward, totally un self aware individual who was always an outsider in my youth, the mantle of individualism and a need to rebel and be off-kilter has stayed with me. I'm not a great joiner and 'don't play well with others', especially with the over confident, competitive 'social butterflies' who were always picked for the netball team and always had to run everything, (sigh). So, how does someone like me navigate their way through the most social of networks? Well, it's not without difficulty, but I give it a damn good go. Check!

Once more navigating the obstacle course that is social media

Goal: Twitter has been great fun, as I love the immediacy and speed of a tweet. No fuss, straight to the point, and I can still share loads of pictures and links. Facebook is changing its policies and is becoming more complicated. For me, there's just too much of it and unless you get everywhere, your Page and posts don't get a big enough reach, but you get totally flooded by notifications. Good to have, but I want to paint more.


This one got off to a flying start, and I cannot thank the subscribers enough for making this new venture a success. Check!

Goal: I am really enjoying putting the newsletter together, and as it's only a quarterly missive, hopefully there won't be an overload of Squirrel news.     


February will see the first of the 2015 submissions for exhibitions for me. It will be both a nerve-wracking and exciting time as I will be submitting my next five new pieces for consideration to full membership to the SBA. Coming after acceptance to the SFP last year, this will be a lovely addition. So fingers crossed. Check!

The next annual SBA Exhibition is coming soon 

Goal: There are a couple of other things in the pipeline, but I don't want to be too descriptive yet, just in case. So, it would take those sneaky chaps at GCHQ to break my silence on that topic.


Oh this is such a biggie and I am already going a bit weak at the knees at the enormous prospect this one will be. Still, I must make a start. I have the subject, and I have the plan. Check!

Time waits for no one on a big project.
The tissue is ready in case it all ends in tears 

Goal: Time to go for it, hell for leather, all or nothing.

Enjoy what I do

Goal: Ha ha, well this one has never changed and although there have been plenty of ups, downs and even sideways manoeuvres, I still feel very privileged to be able to do what I enjoy, and enjoy what I do.    

Friday, 2 January 2015

A Year in Sketchbooks

Well, it's here, 2015. Here we go again with another load of resolutions and another round of detox January. For me it's back to the gym and back to getting on with the next sketchbook for the exchange.

Started last January, The Natural Sketchbook Exchange is still going strong, with all members still present and correct and ideas still coming thick and fast. My style has always been a little eclectic and imperfect, with colour swatches, favourite prose and poetry, silly stuff and unfinished bits. A perfect sketchbook is a bit too intimidating for me, and I like to add a bit of fun, like the typography, especially for friends. Lots of people have asked me how I do the typography on these sketchbooks, and I am planning to do a little post on this.  

So, just as a little recap, and rather in the style of the last post, here's a round up of some of the pages I have completed for my lovely friends.

It'll be a while before I see my one again 

And off we go.
The start of something special.

Er, this might actually be in my one, but I can't remember

A little romance with soft pinks and blues

Seeds, periwinkle and memories of camping trips inspired this page.

Taking a different approach with snowy trees and milky, winter skies.
Working on a rougher textured paper helped give a bit of 'life' to the washes

At Easter, I couldn't resist adding a little bunny

For someone who keeps chickens what could better, than a chicken.

A little bonkers here as I added a leaf rubbing and song lyrics from Disney's Bambi
Drip, drip, drop little April showers...

And the living is easy.

Hazy, lazy, crazy days of summer

Honeysuckle and Shakespeare.

Winter approaches

Christmas needed the festive touch 

So what have I got in mind for the next lot. Simple answer. No idea darlings. For me, I tend to only know what I am going to do when the next book arrives. For each one I try to be a little personal, and maybe a bit 'left-field' with the extra details. Never one for convention, if a page needs a chicken or an orange tent, it'll get one.