Wednesday, 28 October 2015

All White on the Night

This week I decided to give my students a white subject to tackle. For an Autumn workshop you might expect bronzed leaves, rosy red rosehips and blooming dahlia's. Not at Squirrel HQ! I like to look at things a little differently and always try to offer an unexpected challenge. Hence onion and tomato baubles at Christmas, pah! who needs holly and mistletoe.

'If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it,

for it is not to be reached by search or trail'.


A scan of the finished painting

Mistletoe from last year's sketchbook
Adding a light cerulean wash to the berries

Against a whiter background, the berries take on a gold/yellow tone,
and don't appear white at all.

Enter the Snowberry, or Symphoricarpos. Also called the Ghostberry, the popping fruits of childhood memory is from a small genus of about 15 species of deciduous shrubs in the honeysuckle family, Caprifoliaceae. With the exception of the Chinese coralberry, S. sinensis, which is indigenous to western China, all species are native to North and Central America. The name of the genus is derived from the Greek words συμφορειν (symphorein), meaning "to bear together," and καρπος (karpos), meaning "fruit." It refers to the closely packed berries the species produce.

In folklore the extreme white of the glass-like berries has led to the plant being described as the Corpseberry and seen as a food for wandering ghosts. As children, my friends and I would have great fun popping the berries underfoot. They make a great noise, (well to a six year old anyway). 

Early sketchbook piece featuring the Snowberry.

It's been some years since I tackled a a sprig of snowberry and as it grows so abundantly int he garden, thought the time had come to give it another go. For my students, I thought this would be a good opportunity to practise those neutral tones and shadow mixes.

To start with, it's good to observe the 'colour' of white subjects against a white background as this will show that there really is quite a lot of colour in a seemingly white subject. Against a table top or garden background, it's difficult to see these subtle variations.

Snowberry against a very bold red leaved plant in the garden
Even with a dense background, the snowberries show up very white
Against the same plant, and in the same light conditions, but this time with a sheet of white paper between them.

As with the image of the mistletoe.
against the whiter paper, the snowberries appear more grey, with hints of greenish yellow and blue.
Only with a white background can you easily see these variations in colour.

The leaves appear clearer and greener too.

Next, I make a colour chart, just to get a feel for what's going on in the subject. There may be subtle blues, pinks or buff tones in the 'grey' and you want to preserve those colours, otherwise the colour would look very flat and bland. Never be tempted to revert to a pre-mixed grey such as Payne's Grey or Davey's Grey, as these can make your colours too muddy. They have their place, but in my view not here, as they are just too harsh and flat.

Having a practise at mixing blacks and neutrals

An early neutrals chart where I did still use Payne's grey and Cadmium colours to mix.

It's funny how once we get going with our colour choices and techniques, and have the confidence to select more carefully the better quality pigments, we find it in ourselves to ditch the unnecessary, (possibly once favourite) colours. Only this week, my good friend Shevaun from Botanical Sketches was talking about how she often used Terre Vert in her olive leaves but, 'wouldn't touch it with a bargepole now!' as it's too sticky in it's consistency. Quite so there Shevaun, I feel the same about using Payne's in my neutrals. Oh, and I've ditched the Terre Vert too    

Colours for the snowberry: Indanthrene Blue, Sennelier Yellow Light and Perylene Maroon for the leaves. Indanthrene Blue, Cobalt Blue, Sennelier Yellow Light, Quinacridone Gold, and touches of Perylene Maroon to make the greys and golds for the berries; Perylene Maroon, Indanthrene and Sennelier Yellow Light for the stem. The mixes I use tend to be used to mix a multitude of other shades, so the green might be mixed with more red to make the colour for the stem.

Just a little study of the Snowberry with stem and leaves
Some of the test mixes can also be seen here 

One for the sketchbook

A multitude of golds, greeny/yellows and blues went into the berries and with the deepest green to add balance, the berries really come forward. I love the little 'bottles' of the developing berries.

See a couple of related posts
Paint it White

Fast and Furious

Friday, 16 October 2015

The Nature Table

Just a thought here, did you ever have a 'Nature Table' at Primary School? Now I don't have small ones myself, but I have heard a rumour that due to health and safety, school nature tables are no longer around. As a child I loved our school nature table, and I am sure that it was here that my love of nature really grew. For me there really was nothing nicer than foraging around the hedgerows and trees on the edge of our school field looking for berries, leaves, acorns and other stuff. If you were lucky you might spot a squirrel and there were always the birds singing above us in the trees. As an inner city secondary school teacher that sort of thing really wasn't the done thing, but why deny children the joy of being amongst nature, wherever it is.     

Hidden in the hedgerows

Not quite a nature table but I applaud the achievement

I see I'm not alone in a desire to bring nature to our more urban lives

Now I don't think I ever thought of this as a use for my old hard hat.

Just now my favourite word would seem to be 'ephemera', playing on the theme from my post 'Needful Things' and for the whimsical reflections of my childhood. For a little while I have again been collecting bits and bobs from around the garden, creating my grown up version of the nature table. Feathers, snail shells, seed heads and small pebbles have all made it into one of my many useful 'Ferrero Rocher' boxes. Also, whenever I head out, I tend to look downwards or upwards, searching the hedgerows and pavements for any interesting objects. There's a particularly nice oak tree just up the road from where I live and every time the acorns drop, I pick a couple up. Well, you never know when they might come in handy.    

I got the 'Nature Table' bug early 

An early school piece

Worked in mixed media on A2 paper

Rather reflecting my love of the nature table

Poppy seed head, thorny branch, pink shell, crispy fallen leaf, nutmeg and a piece of charcoal

Still foraging

Some collected seed heads from the garden.

Pine cone, acorn cups, snail shells, feathers and pieces of coral
from a far away beach.

Anyway, back to that sketchbook. For this one I used the little dahlia study I started as a demonstration for my last workshop class. The flower was already heading in the right direction, and my palette still had the mixes ready to go, so I just carried on to finish it.

Looking in the collection box, I spotted a pigeon feather with the soft grey colours that blended well with the rest of the page. With the feather I concentrated a little more on the shadows going on underneath to 'lift' the feather off the page. That, along with the berberis leaves brought a softer touch to the page with the dahlia. Of course I couldn't leave out some lettering, and painted these in lilacs and muted russet tones.

The eclectic mix of finds and garden treasures. Something for all the senses, even smell and touch in the scent of the dried lavender flowers.

A mixed page of autumn tones

Dahlia, berberis leaves, pigeon feather, poppy seedhead, smoke bush leaf

Hand painted lettering and a small bag of garden lavender flowers complete the page

And just a hint of my collection box 

If you fancy creating a Nature Table for your own small ones, there are some lovely ideas from Anna Ranson, an ex-primary school teacher who started her website, The Imagination Tree as a way to 'channel some of my frustrated creativity'. There are some lovely ideas for her take on the 'Nature Exploration Table'.

Image care of Anna Ranson, The Imagination Tree
Oh and don't get me started on Ladybird books 

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Colour Casting Couch

"Well, it's lovely to see you, thank you for coming and do take a seat while I take a look at your resume".

Ha ha ha, I often see the selection of paints for a new piece as something of an interview. Which ones will make the final shortlist and which ones will face disappointment this time around. Of course I haven't gone quite round the bend and look at my paints as little actors all waiting eagerly to be taken out of the box, but it's a fun way to look at it. Well, for me it is anyway.

'Be eccentric now. Don't wait for old age to wear purple'.

Regina Brett

For my latest piece, 'Fade to Grey' I had so many lovely comments it was quite overwhelming. Many of the comments focused on the colour, and quite a few were asking specifically which particular brands and colours I used for it. For this post, I decided to go down this road a little further and give you a flavour of how I choose my colours.

My current favourite watercolour brands are

Daniel Smith
Winsor and Newton
Schmincke - Transparent Yellow and Transparent Orange

A selection of my M.Graham paints.

Of these I love the Azo Yellow, Anthraquinone Blue (Indanthrene),
Quinacridone Violet and Maroon Perylene

Although there is a wealth of variety for the artist to choose from out there, I generally stick with these, as not only do I find the pigments really pure, but the texture, layering quality, transparency and general handling all superb.

Other brands I have in the box

Sennelier, but only Lemon Yellow and Sennelier Yellow Light
Holbein Ultramarine Light

For me, I like to keep a relatively spartan palette when I begin a piece and try not to introduce too many as I go along. In mixes, I try not to add too many colours together, and generally only add three. If I need to darken or make a shadow tone, I'll use some of the mix and add something to it, but that's about it.

Generally these are my starting colours, using only six on the palette, and I mix everything from them.  

Warm Yellow - Sennelier Yellow Light or DS Hansa Yellow or DS Quinacridone Gold
Warm Red - Perylene Maroon
Warm Blue - French Ultramarine or Ultramarine Light

Cool Yellow - Azo Yellow or Lemon Yellow
Cool Red - DS Anthraquinoid Red or Permanent Rose or both
Cool Blue - Indanthrene Blue

All the colours used in the painting.

The odd one in the pan is the Quinacridone Purple.

Here is everything used on, 'Fade to Grey'

Indanthrene Blue
Ultramarine Light
Quinacridone Magenta
Quinacridone Rose
Quinacridone Purple
Anthraquinoid Red
Perylene Maroon
Permanent Rose
Transparent Yellow
Lemon Yellow
Sennelier Yellow Light

No 3, No 2 and No 0 brushes

Sticking with six doesn't always suit the painting and you have to have more or specific colours, (especially primary colours) on the palette. Here I have used two or three more reds as I am working mostly in purples or pinks at the moment. For this I will also include my favourite Quinacridone Magenta, Anthraquinoid Red and Quinacridone Purple as well.

The ones here from Daniel Smith are fabulous.
My current favourites and the ones I turn to for a lot of purple subjects are
Imperial Purple and Quinacridone Purple.

Ultramarine Violet has a lovely, soft granulating quality and Cobalt Violet Deep is very potent.  

When I need to mix greens, I don't really use pre-mixed greens, (but did weaken to M.Graham Azo Green) but mix all my own from the palette. For me I find I can get a more accurate 'family of greens' from a custom built job.

Just now I have branched into some specific purple mixes by Daniel Snith. Shared via a fellow artist friend, I have used these colours several times on recent pieces, and find them superb both on their own, and in mixes. If I have a new purchase I tend to head towards the sketchbook for a trial run, mixing with my stable favourites and playing with techniques to see how they perform. if they pass the test, they get in the box, and then onto the shortlist. "Next Please!"

'I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere

 and don't notice it'.

Alice Walker

Strong words there Alice, but I think I know what you mean. Who can't be struck by a field of lavender in full bloom?

Fade to Grey
The finished piece

For this one I made sure there were plenty of warm and cool areas to keep the interest.
To the left is warmer, as is the stem and stamens.

Bluer areas and the cooler greys recede the painting to the centre and to the far right where
the light picked up the folds and wrinkled bits.

The area of palest shine against darkest shadow on the central petal throws this area forward somewhat more
and I have been really practising this technique.

'The forward violet thus did I chide:
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love's breath? The purple pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells
In my love's veins thou hast too grossly dyed.
The lily I condemned for thy hand, 
And buds of marjoram had stol'n thy hair:
The roses fearfully on thorns did stand, 
One blushing shame, another white despair; 
A third, nor red nor white, had stol'n of both 
And to his robbery had annex'd thy breath; 
But, for his theft, in pride of all his growth 
A vengeful canker eat him up to death. 
   More flowers I noted, yet I none could see
   But sweet or colour it had stol'n from thee'. 

Sonnet 99 by W. Shakespeare

For this very pink and purple rich subject I seriously 'upped' the amount of reds in the palette to five, including a couple of purple and pink mixes. The main mixes for the pinks and purples were:

Quinacridone Purple + Quinacridone Magenta

Above mix + Indanthrene Blue

Permanent Rose + Quinacridone Purple

Quinacridone Purple + Quinacridone Magenta + Anthraquinoid Red

Anthraquinoid Red + Quinacridone Purple

Above mix + Permanent Rose

Adding a bit of this and a little bit of that alters the temperature and depth of each mix, so it's hard to be exact, but these were the main mixes.

Yellow / Stamens

Sennelier Yellow Light + Perylene Maroon

Lemon Yellow

Sennelier Yellow Light + Permanent Rose + Indanthrrene Blue

Green / Stem

Ultramarine Light + Lemon Yellow + Perylene Maroon

Lemon Yellow + Indanthrene Blue

Shadow tones and deepest darks were all mixed using the colours in the palette by adding just a touch more of  Lemon Yellow and Indanthrene Blue to the deepest purple mixes and to the green to get colour-rich greys and blacks.

A very purple palette
The cerulean and cobalt had been for a previous painting, so were not actually used here.
If there is paint left on the palette, I just wipe off the mixes from the middle and reuse

The main colours are squidged around the edge of the plate with the other colours in little half pans, ready to add a bit here and there should the mix need it.

And here's the latest little sketch for the sketchbook exchange. A small study of a Dahlia started as a demonstration in my last workshop and finished in the studio

Dates for the spring series of the new sketchbook study workshops, 'The Botanical Year' are now available on the tuition page of the website. x

Friday, 9 October 2015

Confessions of a Botanical Fraud

This week saw the crowning of the new Great British Bake of champion, and the winning statement by Nadiya Hussain will go down in chez Squirrel as one of the best TV moments of any Bake Off Final.  Struggling to get her words out, Nadiya highlighted something that I am sure affects many people when nerves, shyness, lack of confidence and apprehension prevents them from following their dreams. It certainly did for me.  

When you think you can't

"I'm never going to put boundaries on myself ever again. 

I'm never going to say I can't do it.

I'm never going to say maybe. 

I'm never going to say I don't think I can. I CAN AND I WILL

Nadiya Hussain, Great British Bake Off Winner 2015

For all of you who think you can't
For all of you who think your work will never be important or worthy
For all of you who think you can't do it. 

If you have the passion, if you have the drive and you have the determination, you can and you will. We all have a starting point and a catalyst moment in our lives that brings forth a change, whatever that catalyst may be, it is up to the individual to recognise it as an opportunity and grasp it. Don't get me wrong here, I am not someone who has a clear understanding or belief in fate, just that we need to take advantage of every opportunity that comes our way. The path less traveled by? Maybe.

My mum's curiosity in a small ad in a magazine was my starting point. "Now this is something you should consider". "It's a great idea mum, but I don't think I can, I'm not good enough..." Sound familiar? Eventually I sent off for the details and had a go.   

My very first attempt at a botanical watercolour.

Wrong paper, terribly old brushes and paints and with no knowledge of the historical botanical 'greats'
or Latin for that matter, I really felt like a fish out of water who didn't belong in the botanical art world. 

Veggie Trio 2009

After a stressful couple of days I thought my 'Veggie Trio' looked okay but knew it wouldn't be good enough to get me a place on the Society of Botanical Artists Diploma Course where precision and perfection was highly sought after. 

Well, I was wrong and so it all began for me. All through the course I still felt like a fraud, unable to compete with or match the knowledge or skill of some of my superb fellow students. Of course they are all, (mostly, all will become clear) lovely, and their support helped to bob me along. Their friendships through Facebook et al. has been incredible and I thank them all for being so loyal, cheery and patient. 

Nothing prepared me for the single piece of A4 paper that clearly stated 'Distinction'. For the briefest moment I did wonder if I had read it wrong in wishful thinking. Only a spiteful and devastatingly well placed comment by one individual (who will remain nameless) at my graduation, brought a crushing blow that ruined the rest of my evening and nearly stopped me from ever picking up a brush again. That took a while to get over, while to the rest of the world I was 'fine', in full possession of my 'shield of Normality'. Of course she wasn't to know that I operate best with a bit of anger in me, so once it was simmering nicely, her intentions had the adverse effect and I attacked new pieces with a vengeance. Awfully glad it. Ha ha ha.   

And my latest tulip work in progress

'Fade to Grey' 2015

It all seems like such a long time, ago but after five years and hours of practise, I feel I am getting there with it. Still a lot to learn though.

See also:

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

A Great British Tulipmania

Ha ha ha, well I couldn't resist a bit of a nod to the frenzy of excitement that always comes with the final of The Great British Bake Off, (yes it's tonight and I can't wait). Tulipmania! Yes, it really is a real word and captures a strange period in history when tulip bulbs where a mega craze with some worth more than gold. 

'How can you be content to be in the world like tulips in a garden, to make a fine show, and be good for nothing.'

Mary Astell

Well, they were good for a lot more than just a good show, and how!!

 History time 

So how did this all come about? Well, it would seem that the Dutch were not the first ones to go bonkers for these alluring specimens. Long before the flowers were known popularly in Europe they could be found in Bavaria - in 1559. The flower had enchanted the Persians and bewitched the rulers of the Ottoman Empire. It was in Holland, however, that the passion for tulips found its most fertile ground, for reasons that had little to do with horticulture.

Holland in the early 17th century was embarking on its Golden Age. Resources that had just a few years earlier gone toward fighting for independence from Spain now flowed into commerce and the trade boom took off, big time. Amsterdam merchants were at the centre of the lucrative East Indies trade, where a single voyage could yield profits of 400%. They displayed their success by erecting grand estates surrounded by vast flower gardens. All to display their wealth and success. The Dutch population seemed torn by two contradictory impulses: a horror of living beyond ones means and the love of a long shot. Hmm, nothing much has changed there then.

'Flowers heal me. Tulips make me happy. 

I keep myself surrounded by them...'

Rebecca Wells

Enter the tulip. It is impossible to comprehend the tulip mania without understanding just how different the new tulips were from every other flower known to horticulturists in the 17th century. The colours they exhibited were more intense and more concentrated than those of ordinary plants. Despite the extremely high prices commanded by the rarest bulbs that bore the most stunning blooms, ordinary tulips were sold by the pound. Around 1630, however, a new type of tulip fancier appeared, lured by tales of big profits. These ''florists,'' or professional tulip traders, sought out flower lovers and speculators alike. But if the supply of tulip buyers grew quickly, the supply of bulbs did not. The tulip was a conspirator in the supply squeeze: It takes seven years to grow one from seed. And while bulbs can produce two or three clones, or ''offsets,'' annually, the mother bulb only lasts a few years.

Bulb prices rose steadily throughout the 1630s, as ever more speculators wedged into the market. Weavers and farmers mortgaged whatever they could to raise cash to begin trading. In 1633, a farmhouse in Hoorn changed hands for three rare bulbs. By 1636 any tulip, even bulbs recently considered  unappealing or poor quality could be sold off, often for hundreds of guilders. A futures market for bulbs existed, and tulip traders could be found conducting their business in hundreds of Dutch taverns. Tulip mania reached its peak during the winter of 1636-37, when some bulbs were changing hands ten times in a day. The absolute peak of the mania came early that winter, at an auction to benefit seven orphans whose only asset was 70 fine tulips left by their father. One, a rare Violetten Admirael van Enkhuizen bulb that was about to split in two, sold for 5,200 guilders, the all-time record. All told, the flowers brought in nearly 53,000 guilders.

Ouch! That's not a graph anyone wants to see on a stock market.
How the mighty do fall 

Enough said I think!

What goes up of course, must eventually come down and soon after, the tulip market crashed utterly, spectacularly. It began in Haarlem, at a routine bulb auction when, for the first time, the greater fool refused to show up and pay. Within days, the panic had spread across the country. Despite the efforts of traders to prop up demand, the market for tulips evaporated. Flowers that had commanded 5,000 guilders a few weeks before now fetched one-hundredth that amount. (based on 'When the Tulip Bubble Burst' - Bloomberg Business Week, April 2000)

And so ended what was one of the most outrageous boom and spectacular markets ever to have existed.

All very interesting, but what has this to do with today's post. Well, dear reader I have been painting a tulip. Nothing outrageous, rare or fancy I hasten to add but a somewhat small, faded specimen that I photographed earlier this year for no other reason than I liked the colour. I guess that's no different to those earlier nutcases who spent their fortunes on a bulb! Cheers thanks, but I'd rather have the house!

Making a start

Taking shape

Just a little way to go now