Saturday, 24 December 2016

Season's Greetings

Well, I've been away from the blog for a little while, but fear not, I have been very busy at Squirrel HQ with lots of new projects, and will be back in the new year with lots more news to share with you. 

The tutorials on the website are also having a bit of a technical upgrade, and will be bigger and better, and back on the website in February. The archives are really growing, with seven full length tutorials, 3 sketchbook exercises, lots of Technique Tool Box videos, and plenty of extras arriving in inboxes to keep everyone busy over the festive season.

In the meantime, I would like to wish you all a Very Happy Christmas, and here's to a fabulous 2017. See you soon. x

Friday, 14 October 2016

The Treasures of Autumn

Seasonality is generally something that affects what goes into my fridge. The short season of asparagus, Jersey Royal spuds, strawberries, and many other delicious delights means we love them all the more for their limited availability. Well, so it is with subjects for botanical painting.

This week I finally finished a study of a shiny conker in its prickly shell, and immediately felt a sense of achievement. You see, I have waited two years to finally have the time, and a specimen to paint. Of course, I could have worked from a photo, but there is a fine and worthy tradition of painting from a live subject, and I love to have the real thing in front of me, sharing its finest features. A bit like a silent teacher, helping me to understand its form, colour, and character. It's not just any conker, it's this conker.

"A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination,
 and instill a love of learning."

Brad Henry

Starting with an accurate colour chart, and an accurate outline drawing on tracing paper, I decided to work the composition at three times actual size. Making an impact with a small subject gives it a certain sense of gravitas I find, and makes the most of the interesting textures and architectural form of the conker. After all, they do look pretty unusual.

Working a series of initial wet-in-wet washes is a good way to create some early texture, and changes in tonal contrast, achieving a good base for the depth and detail. There is also a certain amount of spontaneity which allows the paint to find its own way, adding to the textures.

Once several layers are worked, the finer details are applied using a fairly dry brush and darker mixes. Careful, and slow progress is made here, as it's so easy to get impatient. Lots of breaks and a critical eye help at this point.

Highlights are maintained for as long as possible, before subtle colour is introduced to break them up and take away the false brightness. Only a very small portion of the brightest highlight is left, with the rest being softened into the form of the conker.   

Finished. Just as it is easy to get impatient, it's also easy to get overly carried away with the detail, by overworking the painting. When I think I am done, I will often leave a painting for a few days, and come back to it. If I'm still pretty happy, I'll leave it, and if it needs a little more, I'll work on it for a bit.

"Have patience with all things, But, first of all with yourself." 

Saint Francis de Sales    

The full step-by-step tutorial for 'Conkertastic' will be available on my website later this month. For further info please visit Sketchbook Squirrel, where you can sign up for a FREE video tutorial package, or join my full membership subscriptions for the full tutorials library.  


Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Growing Your Own Rainbow

This year I had a go at growing something of a horticultural novelty. You may have seen images of Glass Gem corn on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and like millions of other people thought, that's been photoshopped, corn isn't that colour, it's not real. Well, I can now confirm, it is!

"The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest." 

William Blake

At the beginning of the year I was gifted (from an extremely generous, and rather lovely new gardening friend) with a small brown envelope containing a small amount of the precious seed, and after reading up on when to sow, where to place and how much water to give, I planted the precious, but rather unpromising looking dried out brown seed and waited.

Glass gem corn is a stunning variety selected over many years by Carl Barnes, a part-Cherokee farmer and breeder from Oklahoma, now famous for his work in collecting and preserving rare varieties of native crops. Selected from crossing several traditional, heritage corn varieties and saving seed from the vivid, translucent kernels Glass Gem corn is being shared and grown around the world. By saving the corn ears that have the best colour variations to dry out for their seed, the following year's harvest is more likely to continue to have good colours. See Native Seeds

My little supply came from a lovely grower who trials new varieties of all sorts of plants, is passionate about heritage varieties, and writes about his results. He's a lovely guy, and offered to send me some of the Glass Gem corn seed to have a go at growing, and painting. With just a handful of seed to play with, I was a bit apprehensive, and only planted a few, to give it a go. It's pretty straightforward to grow, but gets huge! And although you can get quite a few cobs, it's all a lottery when you grow this stuff, as you can't tell from the outside, how colourful it will be on the inside. When it was getting to about 7ft tall with a number of swelling cobs, I was pretty sure we would get something out if it.   

The advice I was given is that it's best to wait until the leaves around the cob are beginning to yellow before you harvest it, and waiting was the hardest part. However, this week I was able to start bringing in my few cobs of corn to see what I had managed to get. The first two, although pretty were a bit devoid of the now famous, vibrant gemstone hues, with paler blues and pinks, or a mixed combo of yellows.  

Pretty Pastels

As with all plants, the harvest and colours of the corn are determined by the conditions
How much rain or sunshine or the position where the plants are grown will all have an impact on the colours.

it's best to wait as long as possible too. |I think this one could have been left a little longer,
to help the colours to develop a little more  

Number three however, came up with something really quite astonishing. After peeling off the papery husk, a bit like pass the parcel, the colours were slowly revealed. Just how good they would be, I had no idea, and was completely bowled over by the multicoloured, glistening pearls that eventually came out.

It has been a very great privilege to grow this most unique, and rare variety, and like many who have a go, I am completely hooked. Now to dry out the best of my corn, ready to sow for next year.  

"Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant."

Robert Louis Stevenson

Well, being unsure if the glass gem would actually be successful, I hedged my bets and had a go with another variety of corn that caught my eye. Having seen these before in the Sarah Raven catalogue, and being quite intrigued by their deep maroon colouring, I decided to give Strawberry corn a try.

Choices, choices, choices. Hmmm

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Harmony in Autumn

It is once again the time of year for a change in the seasons, when we all start going on about mellow fruitfulness, and the second spring and all that. Well, yes that's true, and the title her is credited to Shelley. For me, autumn is a time for collecting in the leaves, garden bonfires, and hot chocolate with melted marshmallows while gazing to the starry night skies through my telescope.

Fiery reds are reminiscent of autumn, with leaves and fruits showing off their final, and most spectacular flourish. Red is such a warming colour, and as the nights turn cold, and dark, warmth and the cheerfulness of comforting earthiness is something we all seek.

Student work from the tutorials and workshops

Getting ready for this year's crop of autumnal offerings, starting with 'Conkertastic', my oversized conker in it's prickly shell. Going along wholeheartedly with my theory that if you are going to go for something in life, make it a big one. 

 And some seasonal favourites from yesteryear...

Tutsan berries have a fiery hue before turning deepest near black

Peony seed heads look amazing in the autumn garden 

"Autumn wins you best by this its mute appeal to sympathy for its decay." 

Robert Browning

As you can tell, I have also been very busy with the brushes, creating more of the online tutorials that have really taken off since their summer launch. As time marches on, and the leaves start to fall, I can't believe how quickly this year has flown by, and how our little online community has grown. With four lovely new projects, sketchbook exercises, the Technique Tool box videos, and the new live sessions all coming in for the website, it's no slowing down and hibernating for this busy squirrel.

Current Botanical so Beautiful tutorials

The latest tutorial, deep velvety dahlia was another flower study that was worked at twice actual size, so I could really focus on the texture and details. Lots of beautiful new quinacridone colours from Daniel Smith and M. Graham were used, and I had fun building up the complex centre with lovely golds and glowing bronzes.

See the technique video on how to paint the centre of a dahlia flower, often the trickiest part of the painting.

First wash of lilac-blue

Building up with magenta pinks

Working up the centre

Finally there with golden yellows and deepest bronzes
The finished dahlia painting

Elsewhere, I have some lovely new big projects planned for 2017. Autumn is not just a time for nature to begin the long, slow progress into winter, but is the perfect time to plan for spring, and the exciting plans for the new year. Of course, for me that means lots more painting, lots more tutorials and getting going with workshops again. If you're signed up for the archives, you can see all the latest news soon.

And, just getting back to that mellow fruitfulness. Conkers are so evocative of this time of year, and remind many of us of our childhood. Still finding enjoyment in searching for these shiny jewels of the forest is one of the joys of being an artist. Only last week I was given some very funny looks by a couple walking their dog as I was on the hunt.

"There is a harmony in autumn, and a luster in its sky, 

which through the summer is not heard or seen, 

as if it could not be, as if it had not been!" 

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Working in a looser style.

This little sketch was completed before I even started botanical painting 

Latest drawing for a shiny conker in its prickly casing

The conker case |I painted last year.

Finding a case without a conker is a bit of a second prize, but still a good find 

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The Pleasure of Sharing (more)

Well now, I knew the first post with this title was popular, but I hadn't expected it to be quite so popular. it really does go to show that we are all in need of really good advice, and when we find some, we hold it close to ourselves like a warm blanket. 

"Move out of your comfort zone. 
You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new." 
Brian Tracy

Many new tips do indeed get us to move out of our comfort zones, but I am a great believer that by doing so, we learn so much more and make greater progression towards our aims and goals. Of course, it's been over a year since the original post, The Pleasure of Sharing and so much more has happened, including picking up more tips. So, for today's post I thought I would introduce some new tips and ideas to add to the armoury.

"Each of us finds his unique vehicle for sharing with others his bit of wisdom."
 Ram Dass

Tip 1 Painting Black

I love the 'dark as you dare' hues that really make a painting sing, but achieving such dark mixes can be daunting. 

For all of my black mixes I only mix Primary colours of red, blue and yellow together or those colours which are complimentary to each other (opposite each other on the colour wheel. Cool and warm hues work to create a whole host of neutrals and black mixes. The best tip here though is to only mix colours you already have on your palette for the project you are working on. Don't introduce new colours on your palette, just to mix the darkest tones.

Tip 2 Tracing in Colour

Time to get the colour pencils out again with this one. A great tip I picked up from artist Denise Ramsay, when she shared her latest painting via Facebook. When you transfer a complicated composition from tracing paper to your watercolour paper, use colour pencils to help you see which bits of the drawing you have transferred. Change the colour whenever you move on to a different section of the piece. Simple but very effective, and stops you missing bits of your drawing, particularly on very complicated pieces.

"Scientia potentia est: Knowledge is Power"
commonly attributed to Sir Francis Bacon

                                                                                        (my personal favourite)

Tip 3 Picking out Highlights

This one means taking a sharp, pointy object to your painting and actually damaging it, on purpose. Sounds remarkably careless, but with a little care and precision, you can achieve very effective, tiny points of highlight on your painting by using a very sharp scalpel.

This should be the very last thing you do on your painting, as you cannot paint over damaged paper. Carefully, and lightly use a picking motion to gently lift the paint from the paper. Only do this for very small areas.

Tip 4 Black and White

I've been using this one for a very long time, as it often throws up things you can't see when a painting is in full colour. If you think a painting is finished, take a photo of it and turn it to a greyscale image, (many smartphones can do this very easily). By looking at your painting is tones of grey, you can see the tonal variation across the painting much more easily.

Colour can be a distraction when you are trying to judge contrast and tone. By looking at images on a greyscale, this becomes much more straightforward.

 Tip 5 Photo Finish

Taking photos to work from is very different from taking photos for pleasure. One of the big things to consider when taking photographs to use  as a reference is the background. A garden background that is full of colour can be very distracting, and can actually alter the colour you see in your subject. By bleaching out the background by using a large piece of white card when you take your pictures, you can take out the distractions and isolate your chosen subject.

Of course, there are some very clever pieces of software, (Photoshop) that can do this for you (if you have the time and the know-how) but a piece of card is a quick and simple solution.

Same subject, same light conditions, totally different look.
Even if I whitened the background using Photoshop, the first image would still be influenced by the darker bushes behind.

The second image shows more clearly how yellowy-green the snowberries really are.
Something that would be missed in the first image. 

Tip 6 Thumbnails

Working out a good composition can be a tricky business, especially of the subject is a new one for you. Thumbnails can be a really quick and instant way to see how something will work for you. For me, these little vignettes are a really important part of the painting process, and I can do loads of these before deciding which one works best for me.

Sometimes, to really get a feel for a painting, I will add a bit of watercolour to the sketches, to see if I am happy with the subject overall.

Tip 7 Tiny Hairs

Painting the very tiniest of hairs individually can be a very time consuming job, and may produce very uniform, unnatural looking hairs. By keeping your paint mix quite concentrated, you can use a dry brush technique, and paint several hairs at a time.

With a little paint on your brush, carefully splay the hairs of the brush out a little to form a comb effect. By stroking the brush along the edge of the stem or leaf, you will get a gently hairy effect. Use this technique best where you have very fine hairs on an edge. You can refine the hairs afterwards, and add any others individually. Sometimes you just can't get out of painting them all separately.

Tip 8 Draw a little every day

Practice makes perfect, and some would suggest 10,000 hours is needed to get very good at anything. Well, I'm not suggesting that but a good tip is to just do a little something in your sketchbook every day. 

By keeping your eye in, searching for subjects, interesting compositions and new challenges, your work will continuously grow.

Tip 9 Colour charts 

Like many artists, I love creating colour charts, and now have a good many to refer to. Colour charts are not only a useful reference, but of you get a new colour, you can see exactly where it will fit in with your current palette.

When I tackle a new painting, if I do nothing else, I will create a colour chart for it. Sometimes this might just be a general chart for the main colours, and go from there, but sometimes I will go further, with many mixes be tried out first.

The tip can go even further here, and I know there are several other artists who also do this. When making a colour chart, and working through a sketchbook study for your new painting, rather than just listing your colour mixes, put them also into the order you used them. Colours can change when you overlay them with others, so it's a good idea to know in advance what will happen

Neat and tidy
Pre mix chart for the Iris reticulata illustration 

A working colour chart for the peony seedhead painting
Tip 10 Pass it on

"If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it"

Margaret Fuller

Friday, 29 July 2016

What a Week! (and Painting a Lily)

Phew! What a truly exciting couple of weeks it has been. With the Squirrel Website already proving popular, the tutorials and Technique Tool Box tip videos going down pretty well, and the first of the sketchbook in practice exercises going online, it's been a happy whirwind of a month. Many of the new members have said that being a member is like a lovely get together. Just how I wanted it to be. 

Thank you to everyone who has dropped by, left a lovely message, signed up for the Freebie or taken out a subscription. 

Elsewhere, the You Tube channel has had something of a boost, with lots of new subscribers, eagerly waiting for the preview tip video for the next tutorial. It's been such a surprise, as just now I only have two videos on the channel. I'll have to make sure I keep adding plenty of lovely content, so everyone has something new to watch when they come on by.

Here's the trailer I made for the channel.

Speaking of which, the next tutorial for August will be a delicate pink lily bud. It's quite a challenge to capture white and pale flowers without them looking overly muddy, or flat. The disappearing edges are the most tricky, as without enough colour here to give them an obvious placement, the flower can have little shape or form against the white paper. A lovely challenge, even for complete beginners to tackle.

Here's the Pink Lily Bud, with some insights into it's progression

Starting with a sketchbook exercise to get the colours and tone right.

Generally, with all my botanical paintings, I start with a worked up sketch in my sketchbook. This one was actually done some time ago as a demonstration for one of my workshop classes, just to give a general look at how to tackle the subject. As I go, I make loads of colour 'dabs' in the margin, and if I remember, jot down the initials of the colours I used, and in which order I applied them.

It's a good idea to start with the palest colour, or hue that you can see and work up from there. In pale flowers, it's down to the shadow tones mostly, to bring forward all the dimension, forming the roundness of the subject. This can be very difficult as shadow tones tend to be quite grey. By deciding which colours I will need for the complete painting, I find I can mix naturally harmonious shadow mixes from these. But I won't spoil it for you, the rest is on the tutorial.

It was ages before I finally got the chance to work this little study into a final piece, and thought it would make a wonderful tutorial for students wanting to paint a pale flower.

Working the early washes and beginning to get the shape and form

My 'first wash' is actually a series of washes, to build up the whole piece to an even level of finish. Subsequent layers build up the initial layers to give a greater depth of tonal variation

The finished piece
After working wet-in-wet washes, the dry brush techniques can be deployed to really work up those fine details and surface textures. This one was an absolute pleasure to paint, and as it only took a couple of days to do, quite a quick little project.

Final thoughts: 

Last week, I was asked by the lovely Charlie O'Shields over at the amazing blog Doodlewash, to be a guest artist with the ever popular Guest Doodlewash series. It was a great honour and a lovely surprise to be asked, and be among so many wonderfully talented artists. In the interview, Charlie asked me about how I got into botanical painting, where I started, how I paint now, the kit I use, and what keeps me going. It was great to share my experience, and read back all the wonderful comments from the readers. Take a peek  

My happy badge of homour
Proud to have been Doodlewashed!

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Lift Off...

Ta Dah! Oh my, what a busy week it's been here at Squirrel HQ, and there's an awfully big reason why that has been so. The new tuition website has reached lift off...

Visit the shiny new home of Squirrel HQ, the Botanical So Beautiful video tutorials website at

With huge thanks to my lovely web design group at
Design Image

The site launched, with very little fanfare on Wednesday (also my wedding anniversary), just to see how things went, (and to get any early glitches and gremlins out of the way). And boy, did it go! 

It's been something of an outrageous whirlwind, and you all know me, I'm never one to go over the top with the me, me, me thing, so I was very surprised how quickly the whole thing took off. It has been so delightful to welcome so many people to my new site,(it's been hard to keep up) and with lots of wonderfully supportive feedback emails from many of the new members, I really hope we all continue to have loads of fun with the tutorials for many years to come.  

Already, the Little Red Chili has gone down a storm, and the Technique Tool Box videos, offering lots of practical tips and advice are proving popular. In the production line are the new In Practice... Sketchbook, and tutorial project videos for July and August, so I've got a busy few weeks ahead of me here at Squirrel HQ.

Little Red Chili and Prickly Bramble Leaf videos from the You Tube Channel, are now available as full tutorials on the website.

It would be really lovely to see you over on the new website. To welcome everyone, there is a FREE package on offer, as well as all the usual Squirrel quirky style. I'm not going to ramble on, telling you all about it, I'll let you all see for yourself. 

So, grab a cuppa, a nice slice of cake or a favourite biccie, settle down and have a good browse. I would love to hear what you think, but, be kind, it's a bit like my first day at school. Fun times indeed. An enormous thank you and huge hugs to absolutely everyone who has supported me on this one. You are genuinely wonderful.

Normal service will, of course resume once the pace slows down a little. We'll all have a get together here in a few days time, for a quiet regroup and a nice little chat. 

Thursday, 30 June 2016

From the Ashes

Crikey chaps, it feels like an absolute age since I last posted something for you. Well, even artists need to take a break now and then, and for the first time in a good few years, I went on holiday! Nothing outrageous, just a lovely relaxed week on the delightful island of Crete.

Across the Alps...

While on the island I came across the most wonderful botanical park. The Botanical Park of Crete is a delightful place, and even in scorching heat, there is much to see and enjoy. Tropical, Mediterranean,vineyards and citrus fruit orchards combine with a beautiful lake and even a small menagerie of goats and peacocks across the hillside site. As a welcome wherever you go on Crete, there is always something to intrigue the taste buds. For us at the park, it was slices of their homegrown oranges.

The flora was of course stunning, but this is a place in transition, and is still relatively new when compared to other botanical gardens. The fact that the place even exists is something of a miracle.

Even familiar species seem more vibrant in a sunny setting.
The colours have so much more zing too

The area around the park 20km from the main town of Chania is home to many small villages, including the small hamlet of Skordalou. In October 2004, a severe fire, caused by the strong winds from Africa bringing down an electrical cable onto the hot dry forest trees devastated the entire area. Within 24 hours sixty thousand 400 year old olive trees had been lost, and an area of 200km had been destroyed.

A family of four brothers lost their entire livelihood but immediately could see how the land could be used once more. The idea for the Botanical Park of Crete for education and enjoyment was formed. It's still very much a growing idea, (pardon the pun) but having got to know the Cretans, they are not people to give up.

Crete is an island full of flowers.
Even their highway roadsides are ablaze with colour

Rats! At this point my SD card gave up on me. Still, I've got some happy memories of this exotic corner.

Due to the economic recession in Greece, much of Crete is an island in waiting. Across the island there were many areas due for development that have yet to be completed. Many houses are built as a concrete outer skeleton that is then filled with brick and blockwork. Earthquakes occur in this area, so buildings must be pretty strong. Plans were in place for more homes on this hillside, and one or two were started. Many still lie empty.

The people were gorgeous, and so welcoming, Everywhere we went we were brought delicacies and wine, just for coming. Somewhere I hope to return to again.