Friday, 29 April 2016

Paper on Parade

There has been a considerable amount of debate among the online forums recently concerning the recent  problems with certain paper. Yes, it really can be that interesting, and so important there is now an online feedback group to take up the cause on our behalf. So what's all the fuss about. Well, in case you haven't been privy to the number of artists chatting about it, here's the nub of it.  

Fabriano, an Italian paper manufacturer who create the universally popular Fabriano Artistico Hot Press paper have recently put the cat among the pigeons. Just about every artist I know uses this one and having started using it myself a few years ago I can really see why. It's super smooth and has a lovely, soft white that really complements deep mixes and the fine detail that is evident in botanical painting. Or at least, it did. So what happened?

It would appear that something has occurred at the Fabriano mill to upset our arty apple-cart. It may come as news to us, but paper mills make more than just fine art papers, they make money too. Well, the paper that is used to make it anyway. The move to manufacture more currency paper has led to a bit of a shift at Fabriano, that means the press and roller gear that make our beloved Artistico has undergone a bit of jiggery-pokery, and altered the feel of the paper. Now, I don't get the whole situation, but it means a lot of unhappy artists scrabbling around to try to find an alternative.

A favourite on Fabriano Artistico

Crisp edges, softly blended washes and excellent surface make Artistico a popular choice 

Our apparent knight in shining armour is St. Cuthberts Mill with their Saunders Waterford, a paper mill located in the South West of England, and makers of some very fine art papers. They have created a new improved surface for their Hot Press, and gave out some free samples st this year's SBA exhibition for everyone to try. What nice people.

The three papers

Botanical Ultra Smooth from RK Burt is a very white paper with 50% cotton
The two Saunders Waterford papers are both 100% and available in White and High White

The Botanical Ultra Smooth with only 50% cotton is not something I would consider using now for my botanical paintings, but is a useful paper for watercolour sketches, and more illustrative pieces. It's not an archival quality paper, but as with the Fabriano Classico 5, is one I might suggest to students when they are just starting out. Whilst on the SBA Diploma course I used Classico 5 and found it okay. The very harsh, bright white is also something of a switch off for me. Not that I am a great authority on paper, I leave that to those who have had greater experience of using a range of surfaces, (see Dianne Sutherland's blog link below) 

Starting on the Saunders Waterford High White, (I'm not one for the creamier traditional white of some papers just yet) I tried out a few painting exercises, just to get a feel for it. Rather than go for it straight away with a study, I prefer to try out a few techniques to see how a paper holds up to a range of brush work.

The surfaces compared

Fabriano Artistico on the right with the new Saunders Waterford on the left

The colours are almost a match, but I'm sure the surface texture is rougher on the SW

Now, I don't know about how other artists feel about it, but I thought the surface felt a little rough in comparison to Artistico. I know you shouldn't really judge a new thing with your old one. Take it on it's own merits should be the mantra, but it's a human thing, and we tend to like the familiar and the comfortable. Still, give it a go I said to myself.

Starting out

Petals, leaves and stems are what a botanical artist paints, so that's what I did,

with some single wet-in-wet washes

The little boxes are one and two washes and a test to see the lifting quality.

So far, so good, but those edges could be crisper  

Really going for it.

More leaves, more petals and more stems.

Spheres are great as they represent berries and I could be better at those.

I also like testing the full movement of a brush too,

so in one movement I go from the finest tip of the brush,  to the fullest part of the brush, and back again.

Of course there are loads of paper manufacturers out there all making perfectly desirable Hot Press paper, and everyone has a favourite they will absolutely swear by. For me, the jury's out on this one, so the search will go on, and I will try just about everything, hopefully with an open mind. Luckily many manufactures are more than happy to provide you with samples of their papers, so I will make a list and get onto it. 

Further reading

Dianne Sutherland - Paper Matters More in depth analysis of the paper debate


Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Race Favourites

It's been a busy few weeks, with the whirwind that was the SBA exhibition and a couple of things taking up precious time, it's time to take the brush back up again and get on with some painting. Next year's SBA exhibition title is 'Blooming Marvelous', which at first reading sounds like a bit of an easy one to capture. Hmm, I think not.

Get on with it

Painting to a title can be quite a daunting prospect, and if it's for an exhibition as big as the one the SBA holds, you really want your work to stand out. This year, as in the past few years there have been some enormous paintings on display. Now, these will of course take up a whole wall on their own, and you can't really miss a painting of that size. And they seem to be getting bigger. There were fewer too. Well, it seemed to me that there were fewer this year, but the class of work was higher. Even my mum, who is no art critic herself, thought the quality of work was much higher, and she picked out some real gems as her favourites, (after all of mine of course). Go mum!

This year I was nervous about making the grade for full membership, after my fatal slip up last year. For this submission I concentrated on content and diversity of skill, rather than satisfying the brief. But, the selection panel evidently thought my work did fit the bill quite nicely, and the pieces were eventually hung in a rather nice position in the exhibition. That's always a boost.

My favourite of the group was the faded tulip, but when I was showing my family my little display, I did overhear a number of other visitors say how much they liked the brambles. Yes, those darn brambles again. It always surprises me that the one I really like, is not always the one that is the favourite with everyone else.  

Visitor favourtie

My favourite
The tulip was a real change for me. First, it was painted a twice actual size, and was of a fading bloom rather than a perfect flower. The previous year I had played with the idea of flower heads, and for the tulip stayed with that simple treatment. It was much more complex, than the dahlias from last year, and I payed particular attention to really getting the shadows really punchy, and above all,  right. It's always that 3 dimensional appearance that is the hardest part of getting a painting to jump out of the page at you. 

The dahlia from the 2015 SBA Exhibition

For next year's exhibition the pressure is off a bit. Being a full member means that I don't need to go through the rigours of selection for membership, just the rigours of selection for exhibition. Well, it's a different kind of pressure, and it means now that I can explore new directions for my work. I've got some things in mind subject-wise, and I know I want to go bigger and bolder. Maybe not as big as some of the works by Billy Showell or Ann Swan that were on show this year, but just a little bit larger than life would be nice I think.

A favourite colour palette might make an appreance

Beautiful peonies by Billy Showell adorned the cover of this year's catalogue

Inspiration for next year from Ann Swan

Friday, 8 April 2016

Are You Ready?

Just today I read this rather profound statement by Hugh Laurie, and it got me thinking. Are we ever ready for anything. We often hear people say, "I'm ready for anything". But are they? Really. Or are they just more prepared to take a chance.

When I had to make a massive choice over whether or not to go back into teaching to earn the family crust, or to follow my dreams of becoming a professional artist, it was tough. In truth, (and after nearly 8 years at the chalkface I can say this) teaching in schools can be a seriously thankless job, where just about every child at some point either hates or disrespects you, parents blame you for their child's failings, and colleagues, (lovely as they are) are too stressed looking out for themselves to give much of a thought to anyone else. Did I really want to go back to all that, and not forgetting the soul destroying paperwork and targets. Not on your life, but it really was a serious choice, not a hang it all, let's just go for it, throw caution to the wind and see where it takes us chance. As it turned out a serious health crisis took the decision out of my hands. It wasn't something I was ready for and it wasn't something planned, it landed in my lap and I had to deal with it. Would I have waited?

"Life presents many choices,
the choices we make determine our future."

Catherine Pulsifer

When I was younger, I was one of life's waiters. Waiting almost became a profession, and if you had ever challenged me to a game of chicken or last man standing, I would have won. I'm not being big-headed, I just would have been the one prepared to wait it out. Getting back to Hugh, it's true to say that if you wait, you miss out, and there is always someone else who will quite happily take the opportunity you pass on. It's a painful lesson and one that as an artist, we tend to face quite frequently. We are always full of doubt. How many of these can you tick off: 

  • My work's not good enough
  • I'll go in for that one next year
  • I've got too much going on
  • I'll make a fool of myself
  • I can't do it    
  • No-one will buy it
  • No-one will come
  • I don't have time

Who cares? Do it anyway. If you don't, later on you will become resentful and pained by the what could have been question. The only person who is missing out, is you, and great opportunities don't come your way every day. Things will go wrong along the way, they always do, but if you really want to do it, you will find a way. Take courage that nearly everyone else in this business is going through exactly the same doubts as you, they just hide it better.

It goes back to what I now choose to live by, Enjoy what you do, and do it. Why waste any more time, you never know what is around the corner, as 'Husband' always says to me, "put on the game face and go for it". What are you waiting for? Here's to now, and never being ready.

So, you want to be a botanical artist?

Yes please!

My very first attempt at botanical watercolours. I was quite proud of this

Starting from a low base, and after not painting for many years,
 I didn't have high expectations,
and there were so many students much, much better than me.

I just wanted to enjoy the process and see where it took me.

It's not about them, it's all about you   

'Changes' is a great track used in a classic car add of the '80s, (you know, 'if everything in life was as reliable as a...). Hugh Laurie does a great jazz version here, so in case you needed any more convincing about making a big change and grabbing chances, have a listen.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Karma Camellia

Work in progress on a camellia bud and leaves

"The beautiful spring came; and when Nature resumes her loveliness, 

the human soul is apt to revive also". 

Harriet Ann Jacobs

Camellia buds are particularly welcome at this time of year when there are fewer exuberant flowers to paint. The first time I painted a camellia bud was a few years ago for one of my portfolio pieces for my SBA diploma. The brief was to place a variety of subjects into one painting creating a mixed composition.

The composition of the mixed study I chose was to focus on a selection of hedgerow plants I foraged from a nearby hedge, along with a couple of extras from the garden. Prunus berries, Garrya tassels, rosehips, hazel catkins and camellia buds all featured, with some being more dominant than others.

Although it would have been lovely to paint a fully open camellia flower, the buds were reluctant to open, so I just went with a semi-open flower. Looking back on it I quite like the spartan quality of small details against the larger leaves. Of course I would do this piece much differently now and have steered away from mixed pieces. One to look back on.   

My favourite camellia buds and luscious green leaves

The full piece with five species from a winter hedgerow

Some of the same winter elements used again for a sketchbook study page
With my camellia looking rather resplendent with buds galorein the garden, I decided to use one as a demonstration piece for my first demo to the Portsmouth and Hampshire Art Society. Having started the drawing and colour chart beforehand, a lively evening ensued with lots of questions and a wonderfully warm welcome from the 40 odd that had gathered, (there may have been more, the room was packed).

It's difficult to cover as much as you would like during a two hour evening demo, so after introducing the botanical basics of accuracy and the technique of wet-in-wet washes, it was onto some details and dry brush. That half time tea-break was most welcome, and the enthusiasm of the group, particularly at 8pm on a Tuesday evening was inspiring. The painting didn't look too bad and was taking shape nicely, so the group could see elements of how it would come together. Having promised that I would finish the piece and get a scan of the result to them in due course, it was time to get back to the studio and get on with it.   

Going for the green
French Ultramarine, Sennelier Yellow Light and Perylene Maroon are the main colours used here

For the bud
Opera Rose, Permanent Rose, Anthraquinoid Red and Perylene Maroon were all used in parts

Working back in the studio

The colour chart on the right of the piece was completed for the demo and helped out enormously

The bud finished and right leaf done
The deep shadow of the bud against the leaf gives a bit more oomph!

Time to finish that left hand leaf 

My favourite nibbled bits

"Sweet April showers do spring May flowers".

Thomas Tusser