Friday, 20 November 2015

Blackberries on Natural and Kelmscott Vellum

A few weeks ago a deadline loomed, this painting on natural vellum had to be completed before I left home on my travels to the other side of the world. The subject, blackberries, is a great one, simply  because they grow in such abundance, being available over a long period from around end of August until November, and they are beautiful! For me they grow within easy reach - just outside my window and down the lane where I live.
painting of blackberries on vellum
A detail from the painting on natural vellum reveals the dark hair follicles, which are characteristic of a calf skin taken during the cold winter months. The finish is also softer on this vellum when compared to Kelmscott vellum.

finished painting of blackberries on vellum
Almost finished! you can see the colour and venation in the skin as well as the variation across the skin. I tried to use the veins sympathetically with the composition and could probably have added more, however the clock was ticking and the work was posted on the morning I left for Indonesia! Apologies for the slightly poor photo I didn't have time so took this on an iPhone.
This piece of vellum is cut from a winter calf skin, it presented a few new challenges, most of which I haven't encountered before. The surface of natural vellum has dark hair follicles
and stronger venation also it accepts paint differently across the surface. In some area it seemed to absorb the paint and in others it repelled it due to the oils. The latter problem is resolved by a light rubbing with pumice, which I tie in a bag made from old ladies tights!

preparing vellum for painting by rubbing with pumice
Preparing a piece of vellum with fine grade pumice and French chalk fine
 It's also more difficult to achieve shiny highlights on natural vellum but I wanted to avoid the use of any titanium white or gouache, which I think would spoil it in this particular case. The addition of opaque white paint, traditionally known as body colour can work on some subjects but it should not, in my opinion, ever be used as a substitute substitute for poor maintenance of highlights on fruit or leaves but can work for bloom, flower detail and hairs.
In addition to the natural vellum painting I had previously made a smaller study on Kelmscott vellum which is easier to work on, it's also easier to achieve that desired shine but nevertheless I quite liked the softer finish on natural vellum......a different look but still appealing.

watercolour of blackberries on Kelmscott vellum
A small study  of the fruits on Kelmscott vellum, a much easier surface to paint on because it has a chalk wash which accepts the paint more readily

detail from watercolour of blackberries on Kelmscott vellum
A detail from the Kelmscott study shows that it's easier to achieve sharper edges and shine when compared to natural vellum, which gives a softer slightly 'diffused; finish.

There's another story behind the Blackberries on natural vellum! It had previously been completely ruined by me, or so I though, when experimenting with mounting vellum on different surfaces this piece had gone very wrong and looked like this! It was bent and crumpled but I was determined to rescue it. Read about how to mount it here in a previous post
damaged vellum
A disaster had happened when I tried an early experiment mounting the vellum, it buckled and resisted the glue so I had to remove it leaving this mess. I rescued it by soaking it for about 10 minutes before remounting using a method that I now know works, I used Ampersand conservation board and rabbit skin glues. It was completely smooth after mounting onto board but the board did bend ever so slightly. 

I don't consider myself to be a fruit painter but blackberries are a bit of an old favourite, one of my very first paintings was a blackberry and bindweed, which my mum still has. Both grow in the lane where I live and I love the intertwining nature.
blackeberries photograph from artist locality
Blackberries of varying stages of ripeness fill the lane near my home, mid August and there are still a few fruit in mid November. The colours are a gift to the botanical artist.

This year I've also painted another study of blackberries, this one in my sketchbook alongside bindweed...... I never tire of blackberries!
Sketchbook painting of blackberies and bindweed
Sketchbook entry, featuring blackberries and bindweed. I used this a a demonstration video on my  Creating a Sketchbook course

On the subject of  fruit, I heard this week that another fruit project completed earlier this year has finally made it into the shops. This was a series of illustrations for Method + Standard fruit vodka; strawberries, raspberries, apples and baby cornstalk were illustrated for this project, it was another tight deadline of around two months for all drafts and completed artwork. I've worked on a lot of labelling illustrations over the years, and this was a really lovely project to work on but very different from a typical botanical painting. The spacing and text layout positions place significant restrictions on the composition. The images have to work around the text and wrap around the bottle so only just peeping on to the front. This is tricky given the shapes, and, they also have to work as paintings and be used in other contexts for marketing, so two or three drafts are usually required to get it just right. Here's an composite image from the company posted on Instagram however due to copyright restrictions I can't post images of the product but the full the outcome can be seen at Method + Standard Fruit Vodka
I'm very happy with the outcome and worked with a lovely design company on this project, you can see more of the packaging here in this article

Composite image of illustrations courtesy of Method + Standard

I've now caught up with the old blog posts so will post a blog on the sketchbook travels to Australia and Indonesia next week.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Photographing and Editing Botanical Artwork, Part 1

Being able to share work digitally is important for an artist, whether on websites, blogs, social media or for exhibition submission the quality of the image should always be good. However photographing botanical artwork is notoriously difficult and can yield some pretty poor results, with loss of fine detail and grey uneven backgrounds. Even with the best photo editing software - a bad photo will always be a bad photo. We can of course always get a professional to do it but it's pretty costly so that means getting to grips with the camera.  I'm definitely no photographer but have recently found that with reasonably small investment and some perseverance it is possible to take fairly clean sharp photographs which are certainly good enough for recording my work. They may be of some use apologies for the 'wordiness'!

photographing botanical artwork
Photographing artwork in my small work space. Two softbox lamps, a DSLR entry level camera, tripod and a vertical surface to support the work does the job! You will also need some basic editing software, I use Photoshop Elements 13

Print Quality
This post is not about print quality images but discusses digital images only. If I need images photographing or scanning for a print always use a professional with a good colour correction is service. Computer monitors are not generally calibrated for viewing print so what you see on screen differs from what comes out of the printer, and home printers and scanners are not up to a professional standard job - so my advice is get a pro to do it! Make sure that they are a member of the Fine Art Guild if you are in the UK.

Scan or Photograph
Personally I prefer photographs for capturing images at home. I have found most scanners tat I have used to be 'lossy' at the top and bottom end and do not give a good enough impression of your work, scanning work on vellum or very fine work is virtually impossible on a home scanner.

Digital Image Submissions for Exhibitions or Web Quality Images
These days most exhibition submissions are initially sent online, this can save a lot of time and money but it is vital to have accurate images of your work. Images requirements usually have specific dimensions or should be the same as the original in dimension and a minimum of 300 dpi. They tend to be very large files e.g. 10 MB or more, so check that your email is capable of sending large files there are other ways of sending these large files, such as Dropbox. Sending a poor quality image is likely to result in automatic rejection. I tend to use a professional service for some jobs but find that I can now actually photograph high resolution images myself with a little effort.
Web based images do not need to be of the same quality but the initial photograph should still be of the same high quality. Web images are sized to 72 dpi and the dimensions are much smaller too, say a 400 x 500 pixels image for a web page entry will do. Keeping images as small file sizes means that they load quicker and there is less chance of your image being printed 72dpi the image looks good on screen but is low resolution for print.
It's worth spending some time to get it right - after all it's just part of the job. A photograph taken under different conditions can give totally misleading representation of your work, as shown below.

Jade vine painting photograph comparison
On the left: This is the first photograph I attempted using the new lamps, although it still needed a little editing, it had a slight yellow cast and darker at the top but it's clear to see how much better it is than the dreadful photo on the right, The photograph was a RAW file was taken using the set up and equipment described in this post and edited using Photoshop Elements, it was saved as a JPEG here, I have a life size 300 dpi version a web sized 72 dpi version ( shown here ). On the right a poor quality photograph taken in uneven natural day light on a dull day ( admittedly an extreme example!). It's easy to see the difference, the image is grainy, grey/blue and and has uneven light, the colour is completely wrong! It is possible to take reasonable images in natural daylight but in general they are not up to standard. I tried to edit the image but it was a lost cause. The left hand image also maintains the natural colour of the paper unlike many 'Photo-shopped' images which have an unnatural white background yet the image itself is darker then it should be so has a hard edge compared to the original.An example of the stark 'over-photoshopped' image below, close inspection will reveal small missing bits and ragged edges.

Unnatural! Photograph taken in natural light on a tripod. The original was too dark so I attempted to edit it in Photoshop. The result is completely inaccurate colour and hard edges cause by using the Photoshop Magic Wand facility to grab the image and clean the background, this always leaves the image too dark and bold compared to the original, also because botanical work has some soft edges it can leave white gaps! It's a complete misrepresentation of the work. Scroll to the bottom of the post for the final image.

Equipment  and Software for Photographing Work
Doesn't have to cost the earth but but you will have to spend something. You will also need photo editing programme. Don't be scared of  Photo editing because you only need to know a few moves, such as image size, crop and editing such as colour and levels. I'll deal with the editing in a separate post.

editing painting images in photoshop
Using Photoshop Elements to edit your images isn't so difficult if you have a decent photograph to start with, I use only a few functions, Edit ( for cropping) Image ( for sizing) and Enhance ( for colours and levels). These functions will do most of the work

So what to buy and how much will it cost? ( assuming that you have a computer)
A decent DSLR camera - this can cost a lot but an entry level camera is good enough e.g. Nikon or Canon. I use the Nikon D3200 or Canon 100D ( my daughters) , cost about £350 -£400  I also have an older Sony and they're all good enough to do the job. 

Tripod -  £50 plus. Obviously the more you spend the better in terms of stability 

Two soft box lamps for diffused lighting - £60 - £100
softbox lamp
Soft Box lamp - a cover goes over the front and diffuses the light.It folds away into a bag for storage. The large bulbs are 5500K ( Kelvins)  which simulates natural white daylight. Lower K bulbs give a yellow light and higher K bulbs a blue light. They also have a CRI or colour rendering index of over 90 which is essential for accurate colour.

Photographic grey card- not essential but can be handy 

Memory card for the camera for transferring images - you will need a decent sized card as the files are large, such as the compact flash card, San Disk I use a 64 GB or 128GB card, cost around £20 to £40. Check compatibility with your camera, some only take smaller cards.

128 gb memory card

Software, Photoshop Elements 13 for editing, cleaning and sizing the image  - the latest version is 13 but previous versions will do the same this cost approx £85 as a bundle with Premiere (Movie editing software). Make sure it's compatible with your operating system

Total spend was under £650, so it soon pays for itself when considering that a hi resolution digital photo approx A1 from a photographer costs in the region of £80

What are the best camera settings? 
All cameras are slightly different but the settings are the same, referring to the manual will enable you to easily find these settings

  • Aperture set to A - this will keep the aperture locked, as shown below
camera apeture setting
Set to A on the dial

  • F stop should be set to f8 - f11 for more focus in the image. This is usually operated by a dial on the back and will change on the display screen 

camera f stop setting
Set between f8 and f11 by using the dial usually located top right
  • ISO set to100 - this lower setting reduces 'noise' or graininess. ISO is the sensitivity to light.

camera ISO setting
Set the ISO  to 100 via the main menu for camera settings

  • Shoot in 'RAW and JPEG' - RAW gives most digital information and JPEG is a compressed smaller file.

Camera RAW and JPEG setting
Set the Image to RAW and JPEG
  • White balance - you can use the preset  Auto, daylight etc

The Set up
  • The work should be fixed flat  to a vertical surface , such as a plain or neutral coloured wall/ greycard. I fix mine to a large piece of MDF on an either a desk or standing easel. It should not lean backwards. As shown in image at top of page.
  • The centre of the image should be the same height as the camera - measure this. 
  • The camera lens should be perpendicular to the image 
  • Make sure the camera and tripod are level
  • The distance of the camera - not too close as this will distort the image - you can use the zoom. You need to be able to view the whole image - don't worry about the surrounding extra space- this can be cropped later
  • Position the two softball lamps at 45 degree angles from the work - so approx half way between the artwork and the camera on either side of the work.
  • Do not have any other light entering the room, close the blinds
  • Set the camera to timer to avoid camera shake
overhead diagram of camera and lighting
Set up from above: Camera directly in front of artwork and lamps at 45 degrees.

  • Turn on the soft ball lamps
  • Looking through the camera viewfinder, the image of the work should sit comfortably inside the viewing frame when shooting, there will be surrounding space. Don't worry about this it can be cropped later. 
  •  Fine tune the focus manually or with auto focus
  • Use the timer, to avoid camera shake
  •  Take lots of shots! Leave the camera set up in place just in case you need to do it again. 

Viewing the Photographs
Once you have your images you can put them onto the computer and view them by putting the memory card into the computer. Some new cameras have wifi so can be transferred direct.

File format 
There will be two formats on the memory card the RAW file and the JPEG. A RAW file is unprocessed digital data, so not compressed, it's a larger file but allows more scope post editing, especially with colour correction, which is all important with artwork. The RAW image will be grey looking but this is the better format particularly for the high resolution image. By contrast the JPEG is a smaller file and brighter on screen, which seems more appealing however every time the image is edited it loses quality, so if you adjust it several times it is compressed each time and the quality lessens. Once you have finished editing you can save a file as a JPEG.  The smaller JPEGs may be useful for web images etc. but the RAW files can be reduced in size and converted to JPEGs later. 

Colour space 
With regard to colour space management  ( the range of colours displayed in camera, monitor and printers)  your settings should be consistent. Use either sRGB for on screen images or Adobe RGB, which is better for print and higher resolution images. If your camera only offers sRGB then use the same in Photoshop for consistency. A RAW image does not have a profile so you can set it in Photoshop to by going to 'edit >colour settings' 

The monitor should also be colour calibrated, what you see on screen can look very different on different monitors, but you need to ensure what you are seeing are the actual colours, there are also various software and devices for this or in windows ( use the correct version of windows)

View the files in any file viewing software and select what looks like the best and most in focus image from you shots 
The file will be large blow it up to view by using zoom to 100% or use the 'ctr' '+' keyboard shortcut and scroll around the image.

When you have decided on a contender open the RAW file in Photoshop you can also save your file. You can now begin editing.
final JPEG image of jade vine painting saved for web
Final low resolution image after editing,  saved using the Photoshop ' Save for Web' facility

Apologies if this is a bit of a dull post but hopefully it's useful reference though. I usually write posts based on my own experience - so what I wanted to know but nobody ever told me! and wish I'd been able to find similar info years ago without all the hard work....... I've still much to learn but thought I'd share it.  More to follow at a later date on what you need to know in Photoshop and watermarking your image for online.

My next post will be back to painting and also one coming up on the sketchbook in Indonesia and Australia

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Thirty Day Vellum Challenge Concludes....feathers, bugs and a few old favourites

Having made a late start to the challenge on Sept 5th, I was a bit worried that it wasn't going to be possible to paint 30 small vellum works in the 25 remaining days in September but forged ahead regardless but as predicted fell short of the full 30. I posted the first 10 previously so here are the remaining 15 - in no particular order. These are quick snaps taken on the phone but I'll photograph them properly before uploading to my Etsy shop where they will be for sale. All are painted life size with the exception of the feathers (x1.5)

Watercolour on vellum of a peacock feather
No 17. Peacock Feather, collected from the David Austin Garden back in July. I try to find one of the feathers every time I go there. The contrast from the glossy vibrant top compared to the downy base make this a great subject. It also has the tiny distinctive barbs which are tricky to paint at this size...W& N series 7 miniature, size 1 required! Colours winsor blue green shade and winsor green blue shade with some violet dioxazine. the feathery base is a mix of paynes grey and van dyke brown. I scratched away a few small highlights. This image is approx 4 x 3.5 inches.
It was a good opportunity for me to paint a few things that I might not normally have time for, such as feathers and insects.Feathers are great subjects because they are very ordered and smooth at the top but also have the light floaty base which is great to paint. Definitely a good exercise in painting texture!
Peacock feather painting
Number 16 The first small  Peacock feather painted. It has a very iridescent tip and great colour. I added a little of the Daniel Smith iridescent paint but I don't think it really added that much. I also used some titanium white on the downy parts but wished I hadn't, again not needed.

Blue Peacock feather painting in watercolour on vellum
No. 20 Another peacock feather, such a beautiful colour I don't think I do it justice, might try it again sometime I particularly like how the light catches one side of the feather and makes it so vibrant, whereas the other side appears quite dull until it's turned to the light and become this electric blue/ I used winsor blue green shade and prussian blue wit some winsor green ( blue shade). Both colours that I would almost never use in a botanical painting....with the exception of the Jade vine.

Small brown and green peacock feather painting, watercolour on vellum
No. 19,  I love this very small peacock feather, it's not one that I would recognise from this beautiful bird. Its very delicate and floaty

Small grey pigeon feather painting, watercolour on vellum
No. 22. Small Pigeon feather from down the lane. I'd found  a dead bird at the roadside so collected a few of it's feathers. This is on natural vellum using titanium white over a mix of paynes grey and van dyke brown washes. Not sure if it works or not.

Insects are always fun to paint on vellum, so I added a couple from my daughters collection. I had intended to do more but had to spend a few days away unexpectedly.

Red beetle painting on vellum, watercolour
No. 11 Gorgeous red beetle. The colours change in the light shimmering from red to green and making this very tricky. Vellum has to be the perfect surface to achieve these rich colours, shine and fine detail. Image is approx 2.5 x 2.5 inches

Green spotted beetle watercolour painting on vellum
Another Flower beetle for day 12. The white spot are easily removed from vellum with a scalpel so much easier than using masking fluid on paper. I also added a touch of titanium white on the spots catching the light to make it brighter than the background vellum colour.

Of course I also painted some of the more usual subject material for a 30 day challenge and there's no better time for this than late summer/autumn here in the UK. I did want to avoid repeating too many of subjects previously painted so although the rose hips were tempting I gave them a miss this year but couldn't resist the acorns again.

Three Acorns on vellum, watercolour painting
I did this in one day but I'm claiming it as days 15-17 because there are 3. Again collected from the graveyard next to my flat. These are pretty tiny acorns which I thought really cute.

Branch with Lichens, watercolour painting on vellum
No. 23, A lichen encrusted branch on Natural vellum. I did this very quickly, maybe 90 minutes in total so it's less detailed but I quite like a less detailed finish on natural vellum.

Decaying leaf painting, watercolour on vellum
No. 24, This old leaf was found in the lane and really was falling apart, there was no shine on it but I liked the holes and decay

Arum fruit painting, watercolour on vellum
No. 14 I discovered a patch of Arum fruits at the bottom of the lane which had been trampled on, so managed to rescue this one and paint it  before all the fruits fell off

Autumn leaf painting, watercolour on vellum
Day 18 - this one was featured in last weeks post - along with a video of the painting process
Honeysuckle berries, watercolour on vellum painting
Out of time! I made a start  on this honeysuckle fruit but have too many other things to do.... so that's all folks!

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Thinking About Leaves, more on Vellum

This week I've been continuing with the 30 day challenge and came back to the old problem with painting leaves....nothing lets a botanical painting down more than poorly painted foliage and the worst case scenario is badly painted leaf on vellum! Don't think no one will notice if your leaves aren't up to scratch....they will! It's always worth brushing up on leaves so this week I've been preparing new tasks for some of my students and leaves are always firmly on the agenda for me too. ...they need constant practice.

Here's a video of a leaf I painted on vellum this morning, sped up x16 so that gives you an idea of the actual time frame.

Almost finished, the autumn leaf on vellum
I love to paint leaves and autumn is the most exciting time with a variety of rich colours. Tidy edges are vital, as are clean highlights which should not lifted, overworking is an absolute no-no! it's always obvious if you do any of these, so there is no hiding place with leaves. Best advice is to keep it clean.... if it's not.... well forget it and start over until its right!

Rough measurements of a leaf in perspective

I believe that it really is all about observation of the the light and shade, so often I see leaves painted in a 'stylised' fashion, with 'tramline veins' that don't mirror the actual venation of the leaf. My recommendation is always to 'really look' at leaf and forget what you think know and just 'see' what's really there. Yes always take basic measurements of height, width and widest point etc. get the facts first but then look at how the light hits the subject. Start with a leaf portrait first and then move on to leaves perspective. Here are some of my leaf portraits from over the years.
Cherry leaf on vellum from around 2007. The thing I really love about vellum is the way its possible to 'polish' the surface and creates a shine. Work on vellum should never have thickened paint at the edges and should take full advantage of the translucency that can be achieved on this surface but you can also create that lovely texture using the different dry brush techniques

Decaying lime leaf on vellum, again vellum is great for detail and translucency, A sharp pointed brush is required, such as W & N series 7 miniature, size 4 and 1

Hydrangea on Fabriano artistico..... the technique is much the same as for vellum, lots of dry brush work over the wash.

Herb Robert on Fabriano artistico, love the rich autumn colours. Transparent colours are a must. I like Transparent Yellow and Nickel Azo Yellow in leaf mixes is a favourite. Steer clear of opaque yellows and try to have no more than 3 single pigment colours if you want to keep it fresh looking.

One of my early leaves on vellum. Horse Chestnut on Kelmscott, maybe 2008

Cherry with a leaf minor cast, 2010

Lime leaf on vellum, 2010

Mahonia on vellum, with some lovely dacay!

Red Maple on vellum

Red Maple on paper

Shiny dark greens with the Camellia on paper. Cerulean or Manganese blue makes a good 'shine' colour on those dark green leaves

Building up the layers on vellum.....doesn't always look so neat in the early stages. I use a 5 stage process which I've developed and I believe it works. can get a great shine in the end!
This one on natural vellum is perfect for decaying leaves but a little less suitable for flowers

My process is pretty much the same on paper but less washes are possible on vellum, this is  a rhododendron leaf on paper.Stippling dry brush over a wash similar to vellum

Leaf portraits are fun to do and you can learn much from them! They always sell well too, so why not start a leaf library.