Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The Power Palette

The colours you choose to put on your palette can be a deeply life-affirming experience. Artists will defend to the last their decision to use a specific red or blue, and some artists are famous for their use of a colour, think Vemeer and that blue, (Natural Ultramarine or Lapis in case you were wondering), Rembrandt used quite a bit of red in his portraits, and then there's the black argument. Many of my students will come to a workshop with a whole plethora of colours, where this artist says to use this, and that artist says to only use that, but there is a real danger of getting lost in it all and not discovering yourself.

From 'Husband's hero:

Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, 

do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.

Bruce Lee

The colours used by Vemeer in his celebrated painting can be found on Girl with a Pearl Earring Palette and see more on his colour choices in this National Gallery article 

Image C/O Wikimedia
Girl With a Pearl Earring
Johannes Vemeer
Now in the collection of the Mauritshuis in The Hague

I'm very much into the 'try it and see' method of learning. You will only know if it works for you by giving it a go and seeing what results you get. Over recent years I have decided against the use of Cadmium colours but that was mainly instigated by the European legislation to ban the use of Cadmium in paints. As it is the change has been a real bonus, and I personally wouldn't go back now, but I know many artists who still swear by them, and that's okay too. See Complicated Cadmium 

Whenever I am working on a painting, I tend to start with a limited palette of six colours on the warm and cools spectrum, and add any specific colours as I go. After colour testing and matching during the sketchbook stage, I soon know which ones I will need and don't overpower the palette with colours I don't need.

A multitude of different colours using just one purple and one other colour

Winsor Violet with Quinacridone Magenta,
and Winsor Violet with Indian Yellow  were my favourites here

My 'Power Palette'. The basic six colours that tend to be a starting point for many of my paintings.  

Lemon Yellow
Sennelier Yellow Light 

Ultramarine Light
Indanthrene Blue

Anthraquinoid Red
Perylene Maroon  

Essential addition - Transparent Yellow See also Treasured Transparents

The Power Palette in action
with a few additions

For some subjects it's necessary to have a subject specific palette. For 'Fade to Grey' for example I needed some really specific purples and pinks, so had to change the palette to suit. My favourite additions are:

Quinacridone Magenta, 
Permanent Rose 
Quinacridone Purple 

These extras to the basic colours provided some beautiful variations to the purple palette, and I wouldn't have achieved the depth of tone or complexity without them. It's important for me to be flexible and not stick rigidly to the same colours.

Now we're on the subject, don't get me started on how I put the colours on the palette. Some students get very itchy about how to put their colours on the palette. Does it matter? You just squeeze the tube somewhere around the edge and away you go. I couldn't tell you if there's any order to where they go, do I keep the reds yellows and blues together, or all the cool and all the warm together, it's generally shove it on and go for it. Of course, I can understand why there should be some plan to a palette. Familiarity, knowing where everything is and even labelling your palette will help you along the way, but I am not that organised, tend to have too many palettes on the go at once and really just tend to recognise the colours I have. A limited palette also helps.    

Playing around with some new additions

Always best to try first
Getting that purple

Of course half the fun of being an artist is trying out new paints, brands and colours, and there will always be new technologies making better products, giving us even more choice. On the other hand, it's difficult to ditch an old favourite or, heaven forbid, the company stops making it, but sometimes this can be the spur we need to get our work into a higher gear.

Just to demonstrate that I do have quite a few colours, here are my collections. I do keep reds and pinks together, blues and any greens and yellows and golds in separate in boxes, so I know what I've got, but that's as good as I get. when it comes to organising colours. 

Not so limited

Mixing neutrals

Although I do have Sienna and Umber in my palette, I like to mix browns, bronzes and golds from the colours I have. Quinacrdone Gold is a new favourite, and it was used a lot on the 'Gone Conker' painting. Mixed with Anthraquinoid red, it makes the most delicious bronze.

As with everything else, my attitude to the colours I use is to experiment, go for it and enjoy the happy mistakes and joyous successes. It's all a learning curve, and a mighty pleasurable one at that. But getting back to Vemeer and that blue, do I have a colour that truly lights the fire? Yes, but I'll let you think on that one... ha ha.

Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. 

If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.

Albert Schweitzer

Monday, 25 January 2016

Photos: Friend or Foe?

The dahlias were out of season, but I painted them anyway.

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” 

―Dorothea Lange

Now, this one is an old argument, is working from photos a cop out? For some, yes very much so and of course working from a love subject is an experience we all savour. By having the subject in front of you, you can observe it's characteristics, it's movement and the very fine details. By getting a magnifying glass out and really getting up close and personal, every hair and vein comes sharply into focus.

Are you ready for your close-up?

Ways of looking.

That's the ideal but sadly, it is not always possible to work from a live subject. Seasonality or availability will often put a subject out of reach and in commercial art, there is not the luxury of waiting. If there is a requirement for such a subject, what do you do?  Well, let's face it, you have to use a photograph.

Using a photograph to work from is not a sin in my view but merely another tool in the toolbox to assist and provide knowledge. It's not just a case of snapping away and leave it at that though. By giving a little careful thought and preparation to what you are doing, you can gain a useful portfolio to work from. 

“The eye should learn to listen before it looks.” 
― Robert Frank

By using the Macro setting, you can get a better look

“What I like about photographs is that they capture a moment that’s gone forever, impossible to reproduce.” 

― Karl Lagerfeld

Lovely to see the fine details close up

My Top 5 Tips for Working from Photographs

1. It's best to take photographs outside on a bright, but slightly overcast day. Bright sunshine will cast too many harsh shadows.

2. Try to take your photos at the same distance from the subject, this will give you the best idea of size in relation to other plant elements. By placing a small ruler in the shot, you will even get some accurate measurements and perspective.

3. Close-up, or Macro photographs will be needed of fine details such as stamens, leaf vein patterns and petals. Make sure you have enough so take more than you think you need. The Macro function is usually a small flower symbol on your camera  and will give you really close up pictures.

4. A white background against your subjects will take away any distraction of other plants. A piece of card or white plastic works really well.

With a white background, the colours of the tulip are isolated and easier to see.

Although the painting was started with the love subject, it didn't last very long so photos were needed 

Colour chart of the mixes used, in the order they were painted.

5. It's a good idea to make some colour notes and sketches of your subject at the time. If you can, take some accurate measurements and draw your subject, making note of leaf connections, nodes, position of petals, size of stem etc. It's an idea to consider composition too. By taking a good photograph, you may find the composition works too. This was the case for 'Fade to Grey' and the dahlia studies. The more information you have, the more successful and less stressful the final painting will be.   

Working from a photo and an image on my tablet
as well as colour notes and drawings in my sketchbook,
gave me all the information I needed for the dahlia painting

All thanks to photographs

And I definitely needed the snaps with this one 

A more in depth video, with further tips on how to take successful photos to work from will be available in the 'Technique Tool Box' section of my new website when it launches. 

See Also:

The Pleasure of Sharing

Monday, 11 January 2016

The Light of Creativity

Today the light of creativity dimmed a little with the death of David Bowie. A unique, continually innovative, forward thinking artist from an ordinary background, who wasn't afraid to push the boundaries of his craft, David Bowie really was the whole package.

'I don't know where I'm going from here,
but I promise it won't be boring.' 

David Bowie

It's true to say that just now I don't know where this year will take me, who I will meet, or what opportunities may come my way, but in the words of David Bowie, "I promise it won't be boring". Or at least, I bloomin' well hope it won't be.

Reflections of a year can take so many guises, be it diary, blog, letters, or in my case for this year, a sketchbook. Sketchbooks are great for really getting under the skin of a person as they can reveal so much, and are a myriad of thoughts, colour and texture. For the artist, a sketchbook is often just another area of creative expression, where inspiration and new pieces can be nurtured and developed, but it can also be as I call it, the light of creativity, where dreams, promises and hidden depths get explored. 

Edward Hopper, A Corner

Frida Kahlo, Diary

Eugene Delacroix, Notes from a Journey to Morocco

Of course, many of the great artists kept meticulous notes of their works, but what has always interested me are the additional asides, quotes, and thoughts such as what the weather was like, who they met that day, who annoyed them, how their painting was going, that sort of stuff. A link to a moment in time that is so precious across the ages, and gives insight to a lost time and era. 

With sketchbooking and journaling still going strong, there are a number of dedicated Facebook groups showcasing the remarkable work of artists from all over the world keeping up the tradition. Within the group that I am a member of the amazing Cathy Johnson, keeps us all going, and continues to inspire with her beautiful pages.

In my own humble way I like to keep something of the year as it goes by. Ephemeral things such as RHS tickets as a reminder of a lovely day with a friend, collected seeds from a favourite tree, menus from a quirky cafe, even beautiful packaging has been flattened out and stuck in a book. Anything quirky that appeals to my sense of fun often finds it's way into a sketchbook, along with daily thoughts, quotes, lines of favourite poetry and of course, sketches, like the snowberries and snails.

A parrot illustration from a beautiful wallpaper 
These petals of iris reticulata have been in this sketchbook for a few years
 and still haven't lost their colour
Just can't resist that lettering,
even on a colour chart in a sketchbook

To kick start January, I decided to keep a rather special stamp and postmark from the USA. This modest little notice came with a letter welcoming me as a new member of ASBA, (the American Society of Botanical Artists). Membership for me was like one of those birthday promises you keep for yourself and finally get round to making. Visit and take a peek at my new member page  With so many of my lovely painting friends already there, (many of them chivying me along to join) I know this will be another great community to be part of.  

Yep, I keep just about everything.

Happy Holidays and Happy Birthday present to me!

 And where it all began: Sara Midda's Sketchbook from Southern France. A delightful romp taking in baguettes, espadrilles, window frames and of course, the stunning French countryside.  

One of my favourite little books
It's true that I don't know where I'm going from here, but I'm going to have a blast along the way. And, in the fine tradition of my favourite Wombles, I'm going to make good use of the things that I find, things that the everyday folk leave behind, (or just don't see beauty in) x 

Monday, 4 January 2016

New Direction

With the arrival of January comes all the usual promises of change for the new year. Well, not this time, a lovely friend hit the nail right on the head when she came out with this one, and I have to agree with her, and will certainly endeavour to follow the advice. 

"every year we make a resolution to CHANGE ourselves. 

This year make a resolution to BE yourself"

The finished Chili painting for the first video tutorial

The first video tutorial is now all wrapped up, so things are bobbing along quite nicely in that department, along with the build for the website and the new series of 'The Botanical Year' sketchbook study days about to get going, I'm looking forward to a creative start to the year. 

Here's a sneaky peek at the process, vastly speeded up of course, my hands aren't that fast. Sometimes, I wish they were. Bit of fun though.

The Botanical Year page is also up and running here on the blog too. Over the months there will be loads of updates from my sketchbook pages, along with thoughts and observations.