Monday, 4 April 2016

Paper Matters: St Cuthbert Mill vs Fabriano

There's been a lot of discussion recently about changes to Fabriano watercolour papers, which seem to be.... well not as good as they used to be. So I investigated the problems and tried out some the new alternatives on the market, i.e., the new improved Saunders Waterford HP and the Botanical Ultra Smooth both produced by St Cuthberts Mill. The best way to decide whether a paper is good is of course to paint on it yourself and see what happens!

Paper Trial using warious watercolour techniques with Indanthrene Blue

Fabriano Papers and the changes
Fabriano Artistico HP has been a leading paper with many botanical artists for some time. Its a 100% cotton archival paper, available in 140lb and 300lb, in natural or traditional white, it has no optical brighteners. It's been my own paper of choice for many years.
Fabriano 5  also sold in the Fat Pad or referred to as Classico, is a another popular paper, particularly with those artists using colour pencil. This paper is 50% cotton and 50% wood pulp, it contains optical brighteners... more about that later, it's very important!

Both Fabriano papers appear to have undergone changes.... without boring you with detail, basically changes in production have occurred and many artists have reported problems, such as 'a fuzzy raised surface and an inability to obtain sharp edges. With Fabriano 5 a slight texture change has apparently occurred, read Jacksons Art Blog for more.
But whatever the reason artists are reporting changes in both papers
Note: In this post I refer to loose sheets of paper.

St Cuthberts Mill:  The Two New Papers on the market
Coincidentally St Cuthberts Milll who produce Saunders Waterford Paper, were making changes to their paper manufacturing and have produced two new papers, which happen to be very similar to the Fabriano papers, these papers are:
New improved HP High white: A 100% cotton, archival paper in High White with no optical brighteners, available in 140lb, 200lb and 300lb. This new paper has a much smoother surface, very similar to Fabriano Artistico, previously the old Saunders Waterford HP was viewed as too 'soft' and more like a 'not' surface. For most botanical artists this paper was just not smooth enough.
Botanical Ultra Smooth: A 50% cotton 50% pulp paper, with optical brighteners, available in 140lb. This is a very similar paper to Fabriano 5

I tried out the new HP Saunders Waterford last year by comparing it to the old HP which had a more  textured and 'gritty' surface. Given the possible problem with Fabriano I wanted to try the new paper  again. Paper distibutor  R. K. Burt were very obliging in providing samples and took the time to call me to discuss the papers at length. 
 Sperkelia bulb, painted as a comparison of the old and new Saunders Waterford papers last year 
Factors to Consider when Choosing Watercolour Paper and the Question of Optical Brighteners

Personally I wouldn't use any paper that isn't 100% cotton, neither would I use any paper with optical brighteners. Longevity is a primary consideration if you are producing work for sale or for florilegiums etc. Without doubt a professional artist should always use archival paper, all of the papers reviewed here are archival, however there are some important points to consider regarding how 'archival' paper is measured. 
I prefer a more natural looking surface but some artists prefer the very white looking papers such as Fabriano 5 and no doubt the new Botanical Ultra Smooth Paper will be equally popular. The white paper can give more colour accuracy and brightness, but there's a down-side with such an un-natural white. Whilst both papers are technically archival, the standards for permanent and archival papers under ISO 9706 and 11108 don't actually measure optical brighteners, so this 'archival' status may be quite misleading (read more in a discussion on Wet Canvas here.)
In fact optical brighteners do decay in the daylight, therefore the paper will discolour over time with any UV and flourescent light and any advantage of 'whiteness' will most likely be lost - basically paper can't be that white without brighteners, it's the same as the biological whiteners in washing powder!
Papers that are only 50% cotton with the remaining 50% being wood pulp have less robust surfaces and will break down releasing fibres more readily, whereas 100% cotton papers will retain their smoother surface and can take considerable working. Some florilegium societies insist on cotton paper for archival purposes, so all-in-all these 50% cotton and brightened papers are inferior, they make painting more difficult and they will yellow when exposed to the light.
The only time I would use them is for commercial illustration work for reproduction and not for fine art paintings, in which case I usually use an illustration board. Of course you can argue that watercolour paintings should not be exposed to the light but I think the risk is too great and sticking something on the windowsill for 5 or even 10 years isn't really going to tell you very much about the life span of a paper at all.
Thereafter the next consideration is paper handling, for example; can you get clean edges and layer washes, how much can you work the paper without disturbing the surface and how easy is it to lift paint etc.
The thickness of the paper matters too, heavier weight papers are different to lighter weight ones, more robust, they don't need stretching, are easier repaired and less likely to dent or crease. I would always choose a heavier weight paper.
Having said all of this, these are my personal choices and paper choice really is personal, the only compromise that shouldn't be made is genuine archival quality.

What Tests did I Carry out?
For reasons already outlined above, I wouldn't normally use Fabriano 5 or the New Botanical Ultra Smooth, for anything other than illustration work. Therefore, I've focused mostly on  F. Artistico and Saunders Waterford HP. I haven't done anything terribly technical or sophisticated but simply painted some simple exercises using the various watercolour techniques and did a bit of overworking in the same way on each paper. These techniques include: dark to light grading, Flat washes, graded and blended washes, lifting paint from wet and dry paint. Some dry brush and a simple sphere. I've also painted some small studies on the new papers and tried removing marks with a magic eraser.

I worked with Indanthrene Blue, Winsor Yellow and also carried out some tests with Permanent Alizarin Crimson for the paint removal test.
The same examples of fairly standard watercolour techniques were used on all papers.
 Papers Tested ( all loose sheets): 
Fabriano Artistico HP 140lb /300g/m2 high white ( the new batch)
Fabriano Artistico HP 140lb /300gs/m2 high white ( the old batch) 

Fabriano Artistico HP 300lb / 640 g/m2 natural ( old batch)
Saunders Waterford HP 140 lb/300 g/m2 New improved smooth surface
Saunders Waterford HP 140lb/ g/m2 Old surface

St Cuthberts Mill New Botanical Ultra smooth 140lb
Note:Fabriano 5 - not tested for comparison but used previously

Comparisons: The Verdict
Fabriano Artistico HP 140lb high white: The new batch vs old batch.
This newer (allegedly poorer quality paper) seems to be more absorbent than the old paper, it's definitely more difficult to get clean sharp edges on washes and the surface raises more than I would expect when water is applied becoming a little 'woolly' with a softer appearance, making it hard to get the desired level of detail, particularly on small studies.

Old Fabriano Artistco on the left has a sharper edge in this graded wash, compared to the new Fabriano Artistico on the right, which bleeds into the paper slightly

I'm almost certain that this problem is to do with sizing rather than any change in the machinery used in production. The only time I've experienced this before is when a paper has been kept for some time in a damp environment. Could it perhaps be a bad batch rather than a production problem or a storage issue?

The colours appear identical on both papers and the washes are similar. Paint lifts in the same way using the flat brush to remove from wet and dry  Removing paint with the magic eraser was reasonable successful and the surface held up well but slightly better on the old paper. I was able to burnish the surface smooth using a piece of agate.

Although the papers handled differently and the new batch wasn't nearly so easy to work on as the old paper, the final visual appearance was much the same on both apart from the fuzzy edge which I found could be resolved. 
I think Fabriano Artistico is still a good paper and the difference is relatively minor, it's just different and not so nice but perhaps other users have a different experience. Paper differs over time, so I certainly wouldn't give up on Fabriano Artistico just yet.

Fabriano Artistico 300lb old batch
I also carried out the sme tests on my old favourite, the old batch of 300lb paper, which handles slightly differently than 140lb paper, particularly when lifting paint and correcting mistakes with the magic eraser, there was virtually no sign that the mark had ever been there on the heavyweight paper!  
Old Fabriano Artistico 300lb
I've yet to test the new batch of 300lb paper and will add information later. However I think that I used it before on an illustration a couple of months ago and experienced the same problems as noted above but that they were more pronounced on the heavier weight paper, with a much more fuzzy surface and raising on the surface.

Fabriano Artistico ( new batch) vs New Saunders Waterford (140lb)
The colour of the paper is virtually identical as is the general appearance of the surface.
With the flat washes, I managed to get a slightly sharper edge on the Saunders Waterford with less effort than on the Fabriano. The graded and blended washes were more successful on the Fabriano and they look cleaner in colour. Once the wash was down, the dry brush on top was much the same on both papers. I do feel that the colours look that bit brighter on the Fabriano than on the Saunders Waterford.
Lifting paint from wet or dry with a flat brush was much the same.
Trying to remove watercolour marks with a a magic eraser was more successful on the Fabriano, however wouldn't really recommend this on a 140lb paper anyway unless absolutely essential.

Fabriano Artistico on the left and Saunders Waterford on the right ( you can also see Saunders Waterford old HP behind). I still feel that Fabriano as the edge when it comes to colour clarity but the sharp edges were easier to achieve on Saunders Waterford. I tried The old Ruskin exercise from full saturation as dark as the pan of paint into the lightest wash, it was easier to control on Fabriano,  over-laying 4 flat washes, graded wash, which was much the same, blended wash slightly better transition on Fabriano but much the same, dry brush grading on top of wash seemed slightly smoother on Saunders Waterford , dry brush straight onto paper ( same), lifting paint from wet and dry. The colour of the two papers is identical, although it looks more grey on the left this is purely down to lighting.

Painting on the new Saunders Waterford HP
As well as the tests exercises I did a quick study of a Grape Hyacinth. I had previously painted the Sprekelia bulb on it last year (above).

Small study of a Grape Hyacinth on the new Saunders Waterford HP. I was fairly happy with the paper and would have liked to do more but can't paint much at the moment due to repetitive strain injury, so this will have to do!

I have been happy with the results on the new Saunders Waterford paper on both occassions with only minor reservations,  perhaps it could do with a little more sizing was my main observation. I would prefer to paint on a heavier weight paper anyway so look forward to trying the 200lb and 300lb versions. I would definitely use this paper as an alternative or in addition to Fabriano Artistico but stress that the Fabriano changes are not all that bad. 

St Cuthberts Mill New Botanical Ultra Smooth
As already stated already I wouldn't use this paper, it's more like a student quality paper in my opinion, but I always wonder why you would give a student inferior paper because it just makes the job harder! Having said that for watercolour sketches it's really not at all a bad paper, very smooth and takes washes reasonable well, from memory I'd say that it's better than Fabriano 5 because it's that bit smoother. The graded and blended washes turned out fairly well and dry brush worked OK up to a point, but it did start to break down, revealing fibres on the surface when I deepened the dry brush work on the sphere.
Botanical Ultra Smooth and it does lives up to that name,but its too white for me and the surface breaks down from overworking more easily than a cotton paper. Lifting paint withthe magic eraser didn't go well at all.
 Lifting paint with a flat brush was difficult from both wet and dry paint, I think because of the pulp content the paper sucks in the paint more. The magic eraser yielded a pretty poor outcome and the fibres became very apparent and raised, but the mark was completely gone. It didn't burnish very well leaving an unsightly fluffy and 'buckled' patch. I didn't attempt to paint anything else on it. I'm sure somebody else will though.

Final Thoughts
All paper manufacture varies over time, in the past I have found similar problems, which seem to have been resolved, I hope that Fabriano will resolve the issues, whatwever the ccause. Also other factors such as storage conditions will affect paper, particularly moisture, so these need to be considered too. This isn't a clear cut case of which paper is better because each paper has slightly different qualities.

Most of all though it's great to have more choice, and to have a British paper mill producing such high quality papers which provide a great alternative. This whole business has made me think about paper choice again, so that can't be a bad fact I've even decided to give Arches another try, even though I'd completely written it off a couple of years ago....and await a delivery

Coming soon: My experience of selling art online over the last year compared to selling through galleries.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

The Sketchbook Exchange Project, Work Resumes

Last week a box containing three sketchbooks arrived on my doorstep. These books belong to other artists involved in the Nature Sketchbook Exchange Project, which I've been involved in since 2014. The project stalled a bit last year, so it's great to get started again. Check out my last post on the project to find out more about it and also the project blog to see the wonderful work by the other artists. Here's are a few of my latest entries, I'm currently on my 12th book.

A selection of my sketchbook paintings
The Stillman & Birn Sketchooks, I currently have four books....two down and two to go!

It's always exciting to open the books to see what treasures are inside! Seems like a long time ago when we started this project but there's no rush or pressure with this project, which is what makes it so enjoyable. I can't wait to get my own book back at the end of the project.

An image of my sketchbook drawing
Looking forward to seeing what's inside my own sketchbook when it returns later this year, seems like a long time since this drawing in 2014
The last few books have been completed over the winter period and their contents reflect this time of year. My most recent entry is in the book belonging to one of my favourite artists, Aislinn Adams, from Oregon. I chose to paint tree seed pods during a trip to Barcelona last week and spent approximately one day on this entry. I seldom spend more time than this on any one entry, so this makes these exchange projects very achievable...they don't need to be masterpieces but a more relaxed approach in style and most of all they're fun to do.
Seed pod sketchbook painting
Collection of Tree seed pods from the park in Barcelona, a mix of graphite and watercolour

Maple seeds drawing and painting
Detail of watercolour and graphite studies of maple seeds
In November last year I started an entry in Ida Mitrani's book, I chose a collection of leaves from outside my flat, but I wasn't at all happy with this so kept the book until after Christmas and opted to complete a second entry, a 2 page spread of an Iris foetidissima seed pod, found in my local park.

leaf paintings in a sketchbook
Not terribly happy with this effort, so opted to complete another page in Ida's book.

Iris foetidissima seed pod watercolour
Iris foetidissima seed heads, my second attempt
I always paint directly on to the paper for my entries rather than gluing work in, some sketchbooks have pretty poor paper but the Stillman & Birn books that we have all used are great so there's no need to work on other paper, plus I've grown to like the idea of painting in another artists book.....there's an element of fear of messing it up but this also means that it's you can't make a mess. But if it does go a bit wrong, it doesn't really matter, it's part of the process. It's onto book number 12 next, which belongs to my good friend, Debbie Crawford....maybe I'll paint some flowers now that it's officially Springtime here in the UK.

If you've never been involved in such a project or don't keep a sketchbook, I really do recommend it!

Next week: I'll be writing a review of the two new watercolour papers from Saunders Waterford and discussing the changes to Fabriano papers.

watercolour exercises testing papers
Next week! Testing old and new papers, using a variety of watercolour techniques

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Small works, Plants and Insects

It's been a busy few weeks, which included my first ever SBA selection day last month. While I was there inspecting almost 1000 paintings, I was intrigued by the small number of miniatures that had been entered and it crossed my mind that I could try entering a few of my butterfly paintings in the Royal Society of Miniature Painters annual open exhibition in October. I would like to broaden my horizons slightly by entering different exhibitions and this is something perhaps to focus on over the next year or so. Butterflies seem like a good option and can be combined with botanical subjects, they're also one of my favourite subjects and their size means that they should fit the entry criteria for the Miniature Society, which states that main subject should be no more than 2 inches in size. For more information take a look at the Society website

Butterflies are a great subjects! here's a silent edited clip from one of my course videos, sorry it's a bit lengthy but it gives an idea of the process involved in working on small subjects on vellum.

Further inspiration to paint insects came after a visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum last weekend. They currently have an exhibition titled, 'Crawling with Life', it's a relatively small exhibition of Botanical subjects and insects by some of the finest botanical artists, including, George Dionysius Ehret, Maria Sibylla Merian and the Dietszch family amongst others. The exhibition runs until the 8th May and is well worth a look.

Poster from the Fitzwilliam exhibition, Crawling with Life, plus other goodies from the shop

Most of the works on display are on vellum, many have suffered considerable buckling over the years, which is not surprising given the age of some of the pieces but the actual paintwork is immaculate, vibrant and beautifully preserved, much more so than works on paper which seem to suffer more from fading, yellowing or foxing. I was particularly intrigued by the botanical works on vellum with black backgrounds, by the Dietzsch family. Their works span much of the 18th century yet despite their age, these paintings are incredibly vibrant and suffer no buckling whatsoever. The two Dietzsch sisters Barbara Regina, Margaretha Barbara and brother Johann Cristoph all produced works in this style, as shown in the exhibition poster, in fact it's difficult to tell them apart at times. 
I believe that the black backgrounds are painted with a type of gouache which is more opaque compared to watercolour and this is due to the larger pigment particle size which are suspended with a binding agent, usually gum Arabic, which gives good coverage, also a far higher pigment to water ratio makes for better coverage.  However I was perplexed about applying dark opaque paint to the vellum without creating a dreadful mess. 

An example of work with a painted black background by Margaretha Barbara Dietzsch, Apfelbten, 1795 copyright Wikimedia Commons

With all of this in mind I was inspired by both miniatures and black backgrounds on vellum and attempted to try both by painting a small tortoiseshell butterfly on vellum ( below) the work is about 2.5 inches square. I didn't have a great deal of success or time but haven't finished it because I'm suffering from a type of repetitive strain injury with my hand - so it needs to be rested for a few days - but I will persevere! Overall it's a bit untidy but I think i can refine it. I was very surprised though at how easy it was to lay down the black, albeit on a very small area. The best approach I think is to do it swiftly and not be tempted to go back over it. I also think it's better to paint the subject first and add the black last, simply because it proved quite easy to pick up black on the brush when working at the edge of a leaf. 

My first miniature, a work in progress! Small tortoiseshell butterfly on vellum with black background

I'll finish it off next week and maybe try one more on black, I'm not sure that I'll actually use the black background for the miniature society entries because I prefer the look of the vellum skin and it seems a shame to cover it but it's interesting to play with and of course to try new things. 

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

A Visit to Amsterdam and Bulb Drawing

Last month I took a day trip to Amsterdam with two missions in mind: the first was to to finally visit the Van Gogh Museum and the second to return to flower market for bulbs. I always think it's important to view a diverse range of art exhibitions and believe narrowing our influences also narrows the scope of the work we produce. The bulbs I simply wanted to draw!
image of pencils, sketches and bulbs
Sketching bulbs from Amsterdam's floating market

Every time I've been to Amsterdam it's been impossible to to get into the Van Gogh Museum, the queues are enormous, I'm sure Vincent van Gogh could never have imagined his popularity! This time pre-booked tickets were in order.

Van Gogh Museum buildingAmsterdam
Van Gogh Museum
It was well worth the effort, it's a beautiful museum with a well known but nonetheless fascinating story of a remarkable man, and while he is most famous for his paintings what I liked was his emphasis on the importance of drawing. The museum holds over 1100 of his drawings, most of which are never exhibited for conservation reasons. Van Gogh's earlier work, including the Potato Eaters had received a relatively poor reception and he had decided that he needed to undertake further study, he spent the whole first year of this study dedicated drawing and stated that: 'drawing was the root of everything'

Van vogh drawing self portrait
Self Portrait, Paris, Vincent van Gogh (1886) Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.  It's clear to see his distinctive style developed in the drawings
 It's very clear to see the emergence of his painting style in these beautiful works. In addition he often illustrated his letters to his brother Theo with thumbnail drawings of his paintings for advice on composition, it was great to see them in real life and many were very touching glimpses into his life.

So with my head spinning about drawing,  I set off to look for things to draw in Amsterdam's floating flower market, the Bloemenmarkt, which was founded in 1862, I never realised it was around in van Gogh's day
Amsterdam floating flower market
The floating Flower Market copyright Wikipedia Commons

I purchased a large bag of  bulbs! last year I painted some, such as the Sprekelia shown below, but this year, I'm definitely drawing them first.
Sprekelia bulb painting
One of last years bulbs from Amsterdam in watercolour, a lovely Sprekelia, which produced a beautiful red flower later in the year!
amaryllis bulbs at the market
A mass of Amaryllis bulbs at the market
 It was hard to choose but I settled for several Hyacinth bulbs and lots of Narcissus, I'm actually not keen on the flowers of either Genus but the bulbs are nice and I did buy lots of weird and wonderful plant corms, tubers and some not so pretty bulbs too! 

bulbs and ginger lily corm at the market
....and some nice plants for later on too! Hedycheum coccineum, or Scarlet Ginger lily pictured here
The Drawing
Bulbs have to be one of my favourite subjects and they're great for teaching both line and tone, perfect for simple form, texture, transparency - with the papery exterior and negative space drawing between those tangled roots. They're hypnotic to draw, here's a snippet below showing how!

Of course you can draw with any medium, not just pencil, it's an approach which should not restricted by medium, this is evident in many famous works.  Van Gogh used ink and various tools almost cutting into the surface of the paper at times. His approach easily translates into his painting. I'm afraid I'm bit conservative with my drawing but I am aware of important similarities in drawing and painting technique, for example the continuous tone technique is very similar to the dry brush modelling technique, which I use frequently,  with it's small elliptical motions of the pencil or brush. The secret I believe to a good tonal drawing though is good lighting, a full range of well sharpened pencils (2H- 8B) and not being afraid of doing to dark.

drawing of the outline of a bulb
Beginning some roughly measured sketching and then start to hatch, with very close strokes.
This is how: Starting with a roughly measured sketch made using an mechanical or regular, but well sharpened HB pencil, I then start to build tone, using Faber Castell 9000 pencils, I used a very tight  hatching technique with the same grade HB used for the initial drawing, this allows the tone to blend with the outline so that no outline remains visible. I also experimented with using a Tombow eraser for texture and small pieces of felt for blending.

Narcissus bulb drawing
 I start to build tone, using increasingly softer pencils and keeping a careful eye on the different tonal values between parts, i.e. the exposed interior of the bulb is tonally the lightest part and the emerging leaves are have a slightly higher light value than other parts of the bulb. I use dense hatching and decided to experiment with using a Tombow eraser to create texture, building more graphite over the top in layers using continuous tones on the bulb to create the smooth surface, working up to a 8B using the Koh-I-Noor woodless graphite set, which I found in my old art box. I  add in detail with the veins in the skin. In the emerging leaves I work with the direction of the shape, shading in a linear fashion. Always keeping an eye on the light direction overall.
Narcissus bulb drawing with bulbs
A selection of bulbs to choose from, some with lots of dry roots! others with virtually no roots. I used a fairlt dramatic lighting set up with an andled lamp at my side but in a darkened room. This gives more dramatic effect or Chiaroscuro

Narcissus bulb drawing
The roots are my favourite, especially these tangled dry ones, plot initially the prominent roots, and draw the network working carefully to make sure that the roots connect. Then start to fill in the negative space between the root, I layered in more distant roots by moving to darker grades....great fun to do!
drawing equipment, pencils, magnifying glass and pencil
Toolkit: The thing I love abut drawing is that you don't need much! I use either HP watercolour paper or a Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook. Very well sharpened pencils, using a Stanley knife and en emery file (for fingernails), an eraser and a cheap hand held magnifying glass. I drew these bulbs working with the sketchbook on my knee whilst watching TV.
I've always been fascinated by 'Tulip mania'.... I think I've got my own 'bulb mania' and thinking that  maybe I'll make the Amsterdam trip and annual pilgrimage, and maybe I'll persuade other artist to come too, and just maybe we'll visit the bulb fields....To finish off here's a lovely painting  by Vincent van Gogh, Flower Beds in Holland: Bulb Fields (1883)

Van Gogh's tulip field painting
Flower Beds in Holland: Bulb Fields by Vincent van Gogh, 1883 Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
This year,  I've also visited the Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt exhibition at the Leopold, Vienna and the Ruskin Library exhibition at Lancaster University, Life Distilled, which runs until April 1st, but well worth a visit at any time of year with constantly changing exhibitions and materials from their collection. Maybe more about those later....... if I can find the time.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Back to Drawing, Bindweed

Drawing is a perfect activity for the short dark winter days here in the UK. I've written a few posts on the subject, this one is a about my latest work which involves a few different techniques. I've put together a short sped up video to show some of the techniques used.

The subject of the work is Bindweed, Calystegia septum, also known as Hedge Bindweed or Trumpet Vine, it is a member of  the Convolulaceae family, which includes Morning Glory. A very common plant throughout Europe it is considered a nuisance by many gardeners due to is dominant climbing habit. However this feature appeals to me as it scrambles over other plants smothering them and creating a complex web of overlapping intertwined vines, this makes it quite a challenging subject.
In the video above you can see how I approach the leaves and background. The drawing is created using the continuous tone technique, which requires no obvious outline be shown. Thus the initial line drawing blends into the tonal work using continuous tone technique and different grades of pencil from 2H to 8B are used to create the tonal values. I start with the harder grades of mostly Faber Castell 9000 pencils, i.e. H grade pencil to lay a foundation on the leaves and gradually build up the layers and depth using increasingly softer grades, up to a 4B for leaves. You will also notice that I use a soft brush to constantly remove any debris, if you don't do this you may end up with dark flecks from small specks of graphite dust and from any erasing.

photograph od a leaf drawing
Laying the initial foundation for the back of a leaf using harder grades H - B in this case, working from light to dark
 For the lighter flowers I start with a 2H and for the dark background I add a layer of continuous tone using a 5B. Thereafter I smooth this using a paper stomp, this serves to remove the graininess. I then go over the background again with a 6B. I also use an 8B for the very darkest touches. A Tombow retractable eraser is used to take out a few fine lines, using it as a drawing tool rather than an eraser of mistakes. Creating the correct depth of tone is all about using the appropriate grade of pencil. Always remember that to achieve the darker tones you should never apply more pressure but should instead change to a softer grade of pencil to go darker.

photograph of bindwwed flowers
I wanted to capture the depth of tangled stems and took many photographs for reference

I'm working from photographs having started this piece in August 2014 but also made sketches and took many photographs as long ago as summer 2013 during a trip to Germany. I don't normally work from photographs but In this case I make an exception for two reasons: 1.I'm very familiar with this plant having painted it on numerous occasions 2. It's easier to complete black and white studies from photographs than it is to do colour work - simply because there are no colour matching issues which requires working from life rather than photographs.

First stages of drawing on the easel
Started last year with the initial outline and a few leaves but  I abandoned the job because of other work commitments. Note that I use tracing paper to protect the work and keep a piece under my hand so as not to smudge the pencil
Dried Bindweed vine photograph
Some saved dead stems are useful to observe the habit

I gradually build up the image and have a rough drawing of the whole piece which is A1 in size ( on Arches satine 140lb). However along the way I add leaves and move a few things around. The beauty of such a dark drawing is that there is scope for change. I see this piece as very much experimental, if it works all well and good but if not at least i learned something from it.

This is where I'm up to with the work, obviously there is a long way to go and this represents about one third of the overall piece.
Worki in progress photograph of bindweed drawing
This is the progress to date! yes it's a long term project with lots of layers of graphite.
Will keep you posted on the progress. It will be put away again for a few weeks while I concentrate on teaching and other work.

If you want to know more about drawing posts on this site - just use the 'search' facility on the right  to type in 'drawing'.

This is my last post for 2015. I'll be back with a review of the year early next year. 

Monday, 21 December 2015

Social Media and the Botanical Artist

I'm a big fan of using technology, social media and any pretty much any digital platform for sharing my artwork and information with like-minded people. The way we promote our work and communicate as artists has changed dramatically over the last 10 years and the priority has to be to get the work out there for people to see! I have to admit to muddling through with technology, but find most social networking services are very easy to use and they are free that's good enough for me! This post is about some of the online services that I use, plus information on the direct benefits of online networking along with a few reasons why I consider using social media to an essential part of the online toolkit.

Instagram is a photo and video sharing service which allows us to upload photographs from a mobile device, we can reach people who might be interested in the posts by using the #. Posts can be shared with Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr. I post a mix of personal images and my work because what I do in my spare time generally relates to much of my work and people seem to want to know about the artist as much as they want to view the work. With Instagram you can view the posts on a laptops but is only fully functional on mobile devices. I'm currently uploading a painting everyday under the #postapaintingeveryday. The idea being that I can share work completed over the past few years. Click to view.
I'm not suggesting that the online presence will be a miracle solution to all of your communication needs as an artist but it should be part of what you do on a day-to-day basis to promote your work, bear in mind that you do have to work at it - producing and writing about regular artwork and writing good content. The advantage is that with mobile technology much of the input can be done 'on the move' during what might otherwise be 'down-time'.

My online presence:
Two web sites, one for teaching and the other for my artwork, which should be kept up to date and be mobile friendly! websites can be promoted via social media
This Blog - I try to write regular posts with interesting and useful content
A Facebook Page which I sync with Network Blogs, Instagram, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn
An Etsy Shop
Private Facebook Groups for teaching
A YouTube account for videos, mostly private for teaching.
....and any other useful means of sharing, including pages on other websites for societies which I'm a member of, such as ASBA and the SBA etc.

Sounds like a lot but it actually takes relatively little time to manage. It's the content that takes time not the management.

Facebook Page
A Facebook Page can be used to promote your work as well as for sharing Blog and Instagram posts, it can be synced to reduce the workload. Posts can be wide reaching and you can use the 'Insights'  facility to find out the reach of posts but more importantly to see what interests your followers. Click to view.

The main things to keep in mind is that it's important to know why you are using these services and to identify who you are trying to use your online presence with a purpose.

Website for my work, 'Profile' page. This of course isn't free but the cost are small. I'm currently overhauling it to make it mobile friendly. More people access the web via mobile devices these days, so that's an important consideration. For me the website is the reference point for clients, it has my biography, exhibitions, work history and awards as well as a showcase for my work. I also provide links to my teaching site Facebook page and Blog. So that all are connected. Click to view
I built a basic website over 10 years ago and started this Blog about 7 or 8 years ago. Over time the importance and role of both has changed. There is no doubt that both are more effective if used in conjunction with social media. I'm currently overhauling my website but these days it yields less communication than the Blog and Social media but is still necessary as a point of reference for clients.
I'm always slightly confused when people voice so many concerns regarding Social Media, personally I believe the benefits far outweigh any costs, often people raise concerns regarding copyright and having work stolen ... actually that can happen anyway and as far as I'm concerned the risk is minimal. I just keep image resolution low and never splatter my name and copyright symbols over the images because it looks bad in a business that's essentially based on visuals.

Five Good Reasons why Artists should use Social Networking
1. Easy to use - Anybody can set up a Facebook page it's very easy to add a page, also Twitter or Instagram are incredibly simple, all are excellent networking tools. To be most effective make sure that you link with a blog and/or website, and share with other services. Keep your networking relevant, remember to post interesting information for the benefit of your followers.

2. Reach a wide audience with your work - Social networking really does get your work to a wide group of people, if I write a blog post which I sync with my Facebook Page via Networked Blogs it also automatically posts Twitter and I sometimes add it to LinkedIn too. For example a blog post networked on my Facebook Page about my sketchbook reached over 4,000 people on Facebook alone,  the blog has hundreds of hits per day, which then declines over time, which is why it's important to write regular posts ...the main point to consider is that your content should be interesting and not just self promotion or images of finished work with little written content. Think about whether you would like to read it. I compare the statistics using Statcounter on each site and there is no doubt that by linking social networking with blogs and websites the traffic has significantly increased to both.

3. Make new contacts - Facebook has to be the best of all the networking tools. I have met many artists in person and had numerous opportunities through Facebook. Several years ago I became involved  as an admin for a Botanical Artists Group, which now has around 4,500 members! From this group several other other self help art groups and projects emerged. It's unlikely that I would have met many of these artists without the groups. I've also made some very good friends and become involved with several projects such as the Nature Sketchbook Exchange.

4. Benefits outweigh problems - Perhaps you are concerned about spending too long on social media but learn to manage the time, recognise the benefits, manage you feeds and target effectively. If used correctly it's a useful tool which creates opportunities. Considering the time spent it is by far the most economical way of getting work to a wide geographic audience.

5. It can create opportunities - You can market your work successfully for free and as a consequence can even sell work through various avenues. If you're not convinced here's a few examples of some direct benefits which have to me from my involvement with Social Media: I have been invited to invited to be part of the Royal Botanic Garden Florilegium Project, which means I'll be exhibiting there in 2016 and will have work in a beautiful publication, I've had several large commissions through companies who have found my work through Google searches (you need to use tags effectively and make sure that your website ranks well on Google but that's another post) and one commission for  a Boots range came via Facebook messenger! I was featured in Scottish Home & Interiors and was  invited to write an two page spread for the ASBA journal.

A feature in Scotish Homes & Interiors came from my website

My teaching online teaching practice has also expanded and I have a busy schedule for the year up ahead. Most recently I've been invited to run workshops in the USA as well as closer to home for two botanical art societies. None of these opportunities would have occurred without an online presence or social media.

Article in the ASBA Journal, June 2015. Resulted from my Blog post on the project, which also emerged via social media.

This is just a brief overview of how I use my web presence to communicate art, hopefully it's of some interest. There are lots of technical articles online which tell you how to do it. This is my own experience as a user and I know I could and probably should do more but the bottom line is that  get out what you put in.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Sketchbook Travels no. 1 Australia

For almost 20 years I didn't travel abroad at all, this year I made up for it and ventured to the southern hemisphere for the first time. In October I was fortunate enough to travel to Western Australia and Indonesia, naturally the sketchbook came with me. It was well worth the long journey and the plants in Australia are stunning. I didn't sketch as much as I would have liked to but here a few pages of sketchbook studies from the trip. Can't wait to go back next year and spend more time there.
Swainsona formosa sketchpage
Sturt's Desert Pea, Swainsona formosa, A stunning little plant and the national emblem of Southern Australia. Had to include this one even though it's such a scruffy page! Would love to go back to make a 'proper' painting of it. Being from the pea family (Fabaceae), it reminded me very much of the jade vine flowers, but has this wonderful dark shiny 'bulbous' center.

After arriving in Bali for a few days I the made a short visit to Australia. While in Perth I visited King's Park and Botanic Garden, which was wonderful. It was great to see so many plants in real life that I've only ever seen in other artists' work or in photographs.
Australian native plants, sturt's pea and native cornflower
Sturt's pea can be found growing amongst the colourful wildflowers at the garden, here Brunonia australis, the native cornflower grows in the dry sandy soil. 
King's Botanic garden was quite a climb in the heat but I was met the incredible view across Perth.

View of Perth from Kings Botanic Garden
The beautiful blue skies of Perth from Kings Park Botanic Garden
 The sky was the most amazing blue, with the curious looking Baob trees and Eucalyptus flowers in abundance throughout the gardens.

Baob tree with view of Perth
Baob tree Andnsonia gregorii, overlooking the coast. The enlarged trunk is an adaptation to drought and enables the storage of large amounts of water.

 Plant life in Australia is very diverse, with over 20,000 vascular plants but the flora really is very different, with unique adaptations to drought and fire shaped by continental drift and climate change since the Cretaceous period. A favourite was Eucalyptus rhodantha, which I managed to draw.

Eucalyptus formosa sketchbook pages
Eucalyptus rhodantha, ' Rose Mallee' an endangerd plant from Westen Australia, has beautiful silver leathery leaves. Flowers are usually red but the form illustrated is a paler form.

Eucalyptus formosa sketchbook study page detail
When time is short - skip trying to paint the flower and make colour notes for reference instead. I love the little 'hats' which pop off this flower to reveal the multiple stamens.
Eucalyptus formosa photograph of red form
The more usual red  form Eucalyptus rhodantha
I chose two sketchbooks to take with me, the usual Stillman & Birn Zeta series hardback, with its heavyweight paper and a lovely brown leather journal with hand made natural coloured paper, by Gusti Leder. This German company is better know for their vegetable dyed leather bags etc. I have to say that the paper isn't as good as the Stillman & Birn but it's fine for sketching and note making and surprisingly I found that it takes washes better than expected. However it won't take much erasing or any overworking with watercolour but was good enough for my needs. If it goes wrong, best just to move on and sketch or paint the subject again, sketchbooks aren't supposed to be perfect...mine certainly isn't! 'Sketchbooking' is one of my favourite activities and I love the evolving layout on the page as it develops. I recently started a new course on just this subject and have a group of new students embarking on their personal sketchbook journeys. You can look at work by students on the blog for the coursework

Gusti Leder journal image
Gusti Leder Journal

I packed my normal watercolour box of W & N pans and a pencil roll with just a couple of brushes, Winsor & Newton series 7 miniatures, size 1 and 4, and Faber Castell 9000 pencils, grades 2H - 6B. Although with the Gusti sketchbook, found I couldn't use anything harder than a HB.

There were so many wonderful plants to illustrate: Banksia, Kangaroo paws, Bottlebrush and many more but sadly not enough time for all and after just 3 days in Perth I moved onto a new adventure in Indonesia.
I was sorry not to have more time to meet up with other artists and of course to paint and draw more, next year I shall return and hopefully stay longer to see more of this beautiful country when I shall run some botanical art classes, visiting New Zealand too.

View of Perth from Pan Pacific Hotel, sunset
Goodnight Australia until next time
Will write a post on the Indonesian sketchbooks studies at a later date....a very different experience doesn't belong in the same post