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.



Wednesday, 1 June 2016

It's June. Why So Grey?

Here we are on the 1st of June, the start of the Northern Hemisphere's Meteorological Summer, and it's pretty nippy if I may say so. Cold winds, rain and a very dull, grey day is forecast. Hmmm, not very inspiring. Well, here at Squirrel HQ something is always made out of very little, so here's a post about greyscale, (or grayscale if you are Stateside).

Def:
A range of grey shades from white to black, as used in a monochrome display or printout

In the world of Game of Thrones however, Greyscale is somewhat different and described as:

  ...a dreaded and usually fatal disease that can leave flesh stiff and dead, and the skin cracked and flaking, and stone-like to the touch. Those that manage to survive a bout with the illness will be immune from ever contracting it again, but the flesh damaged by the ravages of the disease will never heal, and they will be scarred for life.

Well I never. Luckily in the real world of botanical painting, greyscale takes on the formal definition by taking in the shades of grey from white through to black, usually in the form of a graphite pencil drawing. Thank goodness.

White to black and back again

And everything in between.

Think about it in terms of your pencils and practice the chart.
Leave the first block white, then use all your grades of pencil to gently shade each block,
 all the way to the darkest black with your softest, darkest pencil.

Looking at the top row of the diagram above,
the middle grade is HB, with everything lighter to the left being H grades, and everything darker to the right, B grades. 

Working in graphite pencil is a lovely way to capture the beauty of plants, by bringing focus to the more architectural aspects without the distraction of  colour. Very often, courses in botanical illustration and painting will introduce monochrome pencil exercises, and studies as an initial element. By doing this, students can really focus their skills in drawing and understanding tonal contrast, without the pressure of colour recognition or watercolour technique.   

Rendering shapes such as spheres, cylinders and blocks is something I was very used to doing when I trained as a draughtsman, and luckily I haven't lost my touch. To shade the shapes below, I used all my pencil grades from the hardest 3H to the softest 9B, and a technique of gently, circular movements for the spheres, and strokes in one direction for the sides of the cylinder.

It's a really good way to get the hands and fingers warmed up for the day, and I still like to do little pencil exercises in my sketchbook now, especially when working on a new piece. For this exercise, I was asked to render a cylinder, block and one sphere. As I wanted to study the change in the direction of light and its effect on the sphere, I completed three. To get the shading right, I used a large ball bearing, and moved the light around it.        



Moving on to a larger pencil study of a dwarf rhododendron, again using all the pencil grades, and the same techniques as used for the exercises.









Pencil can also be used to lovely effect in combination with watercolour. For one of the hedgerow pieces, I decided to combine colour and graphite on the cranesbill element. Here, I wanted the focus to be on the flower species with the grass as a background suggestion of the growing habitat. The bright blue of the flower looked particularly pretty with the shades of grey.  









Botanical illustrations can look really good when you combine graphite pencil details with the watercolour painting of the subject. Here on the study of Iris reticulata I decided to use pencil for all of the dissections, and kept them to a margin to the right of the painting. Allowing the bud of the painted element to come slightly into the space of the dissections brought them together.   




Dissection of Iris reticulata


Greyscale is also really useful when you want to judge tonal contrast in your paintings. Very often I will use the scanner or phone to take a greyscale image of a work in progress to see how the contrast is looking. Without the distraction of colour, it's much easier to see where the areas of light and shade are, and where things could be improved. Here's how some of my paintings look without their colour. Weird, but somewhat satisfying  



Even when a scan goes wrong, it can create a useful image

Just the hint of colour amongst the greyscale.

Like one of those really old black and white photos that has been hand coloured
  
Without the colour, you are not wowed by the visual impact you expect. Instead, you may find yourself focusing on the finer detail, textures, shapes and contrast. Even when I think a piece is finished, I may look at it in black and white later, and think, oh that could have done with a bit more. 








Give it a go, and be surprised.