Saturday, 21 March 2015


After another week working on the vine, I was feeling more than a little jaded! It's not far off being finished but by Friday I was pretty weary of it and unsure of whether or not it was heading in the right direction. So the decision was made to take a break, and, by way of a change I spent a couple of hours painting a butterfly on vellum. Beginning right in the centre of a sheet of Kelmscot vellum with the Swallowtail. Papilio machaon is one of our largest and most beautiful butterflies here in the UK. It is also one of the rarest and can only be found in the fens of the Norfolk Broads where the sole food-plant, Milk Parsley is present.

The Swallowtail, Papilio machaon on vellum
I really enjoyed painting the butterfly, particulary those red spots, and I think I must have been craving some other was good to get away from the turquoise for a while  Sometimes it's best to walk away from a painting when it gets to this stage. A painting (and painter) seem to go through various stages, from the initial enthusiasm with the washes, then it slows right down as the layers build, the detail stage and finally the finishing. This final stages can sometimes cause a bit of anxiety for me, when I start to question whether I could have done things differently, of course it doesn't matter because what is done is done.  At this stage I take a break and also photograph the work to explore it in detail on the computer screen, this helps me to see where more work is needed. I also turn the image to black and white in Photoshop to look at the values and play about with levels to see how the tonal values could be improved upon.

A black and white view helps me to identify where work might be needed regarding  the tonal values.
The colour of the jade vine is a very difficult one to depict because it varies so much across the plant, from green to turquoise and blue to purple. The flowers becomes more blue and purple as they age. This bizarre colouration is known as copigmentation which is due to the presence of the anthocyanin, malvin and saponarin. The flower has a different pH value inside in the colourless tissue compared to outer petals where it has a higher alkaline pH and this alkaline pH is is believed to be responsible for a reaction in the saponarin which creates the unique turquoise colouration. I tried to address the unusual colouration by layering glazes of different transparent colours and by adding a small amount of gum Arabic to the glazes to maintain the luminosity.

Tricky colour, layering of glazes and the addition of gum Arabic helps to maintain transparency

Tomorrow I shall try to finish the vine but have teaching work and other jobs to finish first, whatever happens, I have to be finished by Monday when it goes to the photographer. I've enjoyed doing it but these larger paintings (this one and the previous fritillary) require a lot of concentration. I try to paint or draw everyday and think it's important to do so but when working on the same piece for extended periods it can be tiring and I can lose sight of what I'm trying to achieve.  The butterfly painting is something I've had planned for a while and provided a much needed  break, once the jade is finished I hope to add at least one butterfly per day and aim to have at least 15 butterflies on the sheet of vellum.... the temptation of some small works and learning about each butterfly will hopefully help to drive me towards the finish line!

The latest version of the jade.....more over the weekend

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Vine Time, Take 2!

Last week saw the start of a new painting of the Jade Vine, Stongylodon macrobotrys, Family: Fabaceae ( Pea family). Completing work is always a good feeling.... and that's what I'm looking forward to doing with this piece! Painting can be a frustrating business at times but it's always best to finish, the alternative of having unfinished work lying around can be a bit depressing and a bad habit to get into. I'm currently working through all of my unfinished projects from the last 2 years and finally feel as though progress is being made.

A new Jade Vine painting underway, size 40 x 56 cm. I normally put the stems/ stalks in first but decided to start with the flowers this time, using a blue biased turqoise mix. The yellow biased mix will be added as a glaze later.

Last years painting, a larger flower......a bit too large!
 It's been almost a year since the previous painting of the vine and I have until the end of the month to submit for the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden Florilegium project. I started over because the first one is really a bit too large for the mistake! So this one is a simplified slightly smaller painting, not that it's particularly small at 40 x 56 cm but it feels a lot smaller compared to the larger version.
I actually prefer this flower, it's the one from Durham University Botanic Garden, and although the flowers at Kew were plentiful and considerably larger, this flower had the most intense colour.

Purple creeping into the turquoise flowers, is a sign ageing
I hobbled to Durham on crutches last March, having twisted my ankle the week before. I knew the plant was in flower as the garden manager had kept me informed of the progress before my visit. I  came upon the solo flower  hanging just inside the doorway of the hothouse. As I stood photographing and sketching it, I could hear people gasp as they opened the door behind me vivid was the colour, it created quite a talking point!  The flower was pretty much at the end of flowering period and some purples were creeping into the turquoise flowers. So here is the painting so far....more work tomorrow.

Still a long way to go but making steady progress! (Tracing paper is used to Keep the paper clean and to protect the work).

Painting specifications
For this project there are a number of specifications. Only 100% cotton archival quality paper can be used, which is something that I always use anyway.  Fabriano Artistico HP 300lb paper,  is my normal paper, so this was fine. For those interested and to clarify which side to use, it's the side without the writing, which is actually the back side of the paper, the front is the mesh side and where the writing is.
 The painting has to be produced to given size specification and there are two portrait and two landscape options, I chose the largest portrait size, this is why I've chosen the smaller flower, the previous painting had a flower spike almost 60cm in length. Plants must be painted life size, so the larger spike was simply too large and I didn't want to crop it.
 Paints must be ASTM lightfast rated with permanence I or II. The signature has to be in pencil , discreet , no logo style signatures are allowed.

The colour of this flower is very unusual! the basic hue is turquoise and it moves from yellow to turquoise, green, blue and violet. below are some of the colours used. I decided to start with a slightly more blue biased mix and add the more yellow biased mix on top.

Winsor Blue Green shade plus Aureolin seems the best option for the mix and both have ASTM II. But in the end I went for Hansa Yellow light because I don't like Aureolin. Also used is Ultramarine violet and some Cobalt Turquoise. Making sure the chosen colours have the correct light fast rating.
  In it's native habitat in the Philippines the jade vine is pollinated by bats, the green actually appears to glow at night, and attracts the pollinators, most bat pollinated plants which are white.To find out more about it click here

Some fallen flowers collected from Kew and taken back to the hotel for investigation. Bats hang upside down on the flower and drink the nectar as it pours out of the flowers and their heads brush against the pollen as they do so, as they move from plant to plant cross pollination occurs when the pollen brushes against the stigma.
Not exactly at its best but still worth investigating! A flower from Durham

I expect this painting will keep me busy for the next week or so! That's it for this week, will be interesting to see how much I actually get done by the same time next week!

Saturday, 28 February 2015

A Bit of Sparkle! Beautiful Blue Butterflies

Had a busy week dropping off paintings at Westminster for the SBA annual and also picking up from the Brompton hospital exhibition. I also managed a quick visit to the Manchester Museum to see the newly refurbished natural history section and even managed a quick look at the amazing and beautiful gun powder drawing installation 'Unmanned Nature' by Cai Guo-Qiang!  
The whole time I've been thinking about the butterflies! I really want to start the painting of a collection of British Butterflies on a single large sheet of vellum, but it has to wait because I need to finish off the Jade vine first. Monday seems like a good time to crack on with the vine, which left me with today to clean the desk and play about with the paints!

I've been looking at the iridescent paints on the Daniel Smith dot cards for a while and wondering what on earth to do with them, then it dawned on me that they would be perfect for some of the butterflies. So that's what I've been playing with this morning! Not sure whether it's a good idea or not.
Male Chalkhill Blue Polyommatus coridon (Poda 1761) Watercolour on vellum
I decided to try them on one of my favourite butterflies, a male Chalkhill Blue. It's not one of the smallest Blues, which makes it a bit easier,  it's got the most amazing delicate iridescent colour and is so shiny!.....I couldn't resist it!. It seems sensible to paint all of the butterflies individually before trying them on the large sheet anyway.

The beautiful iridescent paints on the Daniel Smith dot card
The wings of this butterfly really do catch the light and the colours on the dot chart offer some  perfect matches. I opted for a wash of  W&N Manganese Blue Hue first with a touch of Lemon Yellow added. Thereafter I used the DS Duochrome Lapis Sunlight to overlay a wash in selected areas and Cabo Blue,  also where there is a slight violet sheen violet pearl and in the more electric blue areas Iridescent Electric Blue. These paints are quite light in application so this is good.

Close up of the wing showing the light catches the scales and hairs.

A quick colour test on paper first was carried out in the Stillman & Birn sketchbook, scaled to x2 to make it easier. This allowed me to work out the drawing and vein patterns in the wings at a more manageable size. The colour will be different on vellum though as it's much more cream in colour. So I will have to make adjustments.

Working out the drawing and colours in the sketchbook

Fortunately I have quite a few small pieces of Kelmscott vellum left over from the skin used for the last Fritillaria painting, these will be perfect for the small studies. I worked life size this time, the butterfly has a wingspan of 35mm so it's pretty small. I tape the vellum to a piece of cream cardboard board using Frog tape, which holds the vellum in position better than masking tape. The bright green colour of the tape is a bit off putting, so sometimes I cover it with ordinary masking tape. It's always better to tape the vellum to a similar coloured background as the vellum because the skin is transparent, a darker or  lighter background will give a false impression of the colours. Taping to card instead of the drawing board enables me to rotate the work for easier access.

Ready! The difference in colour of the sketchbook paper and the vellum is clear to see.
The blue wash was laid down first - As suspected,  I had to alter the blue mix for the vellum, to make it cooler than the original mix, so reduced the yellow and added some Cobalt blue. The veins were lightly painted in on top using a mix of Sepia and Neutral Tint. To be honest I made a pretty bad job of this! but thought it would probably work out as more was added.

Early stages on vellum...hmmm didn't look so great!
 I added the darker markings and started to add the Lapis Sunlight. I gradually built up the iridescent colours and finally strengthened the darker veins and wing tips also adding some titanium white for the white border.

Beginning to add the dark wing markings

The body strange the hair looks almost dyed! the blue is brighter so I used cobalt for this. The iridescent paints were used again and finally the dark veins and leaf tips strengthened. I used a scalpel to create some fine hairs, as a final touch white was added to the wing tips.
 That's about it for now. It was a bit rushed and I'll take more time when it comes to the final piece. I hope the add the underside of the butterfly too, which is equally beautiful or the female, shes is brown in colour and not shiny at all. I might even add the food plant, Horseshoe Vetch Hippocrepis comosa, to the right hand side of the butterfly, but will have a think about it......for now I'm out of time. 

Work in Progress, adding the iridescent paint.

Heres a bit more about the Chalkhill Blue, Polyommatus coridon (Poda 1761):
 This beautiful shimmering butterfly is found on chalk but also on limestone downland. It declined quite dramatically due to loss of habitat from the intensification of farming and although the species has recovered fairly well in numbers its distribution had reduced and so is still designated as a 'species of conservation concern' under the UK BAP ( Biodiversity Action Plan), with unfavourable weather patterns causing the distribution problems. Unfortunately changes in climate present butterflies with a challenge which is altering their distribution and chances of survival. The more specialised the butterfly, e.g. only one food plant,  the more challenged they will be.
 Distribution of the species follows the availability of the food plant,  Horseshoe vetch, which is  found only on the grasslands, so the species is pretty much only found in the south east of England. The Chalkhill blue butterflies can also be seen feeding on nectar from Birds foot trefoil, several thistles and self heal, amongst other plants.
 There is strong dimorphism between male and female, she is a dark rich brown colour and although not so extravagant and shiny, she is equally beautiful,  I hope to paint her too!

The female lays just a single egg on the foodplant. The larva is concealed at the base of the foodplant during the day and as is the case with other  Lycaenid larvae, the Chalkhill Blue has a Newcomer's gland on the 7th segment which produces a honeydue secretionwhich attract ants. A mutualistic relationship is formed between the ants and the larva, which provides the ants with food and the larva protection against predators. Larvae are believed to produce vibrations and sounds that travel underground and communicate with the ants to advertise their sugar rich food source. This relationship is known as Myrmecophily and around 75% of Lycaenid's are believed to have such an association.

For more information on our butterflies, refer to
 The State of Britain's Butterflies 2011
JNCC The Butterfly Red List for Great Britain

There is also an excellent site called UK Butterflies

Thursday, 19 February 2015

It Starts with....Nothing!

After a great trip to Dublin the other week I felt enthusiastic about work and was looking forward to preparing two paintings for the SBA annual exhibition, titled, 'In Pursuit of Plants'  but what to paint?
Completing any painting is never without some form of struggle. It starts with nothing.... a blank page, or skin in this case, and slowly builds. There never seems to come a point when it's an easy process, some days go well, which is the best feeling.... and others don't, which is the worst ......... it can be extremely frustrating at times, especially with a deadline looming!

I decided to complete two paintings which were prepared for and planned last year., both are of Fritillaria imperialis 'Rubra' ( below).  

Work in progress (19th Feb), Fritillaria imperialis 'Rubra'
 on Kelmscott vellum, size 72 x 47 cm
It seems like a suitable subject,  F. imperialis first arrived in Britain from Persia in the sometime after the late 1500's, it is native to Turkey and also found in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it grows on scrub and rocky slopes.
Several cultivars of the plant are available and 'Rubra' is one of the older forms. Last year I purchased three different plants, the above plus Aurora and the yellow Lutea, all are very beautiful but smell terrible. The leaves are sprouting at the moment but unfortunately it won't flower until April so the work will have to be completed using last years reference and studies. I spent a considerable amount of time working on this 'foxy' smelling member of the Lily family last year so feel fairly comfortable with working in this way on this occasion.

The blank skin...this has to become a painting! The whole skin, Kelmscott vellum from William Cowley. It cost about £130 for this piece so I don't want it to make too many mistakes
 Both paintings are on vellum,  one is painted on a whole skin and has so far proved a very difficult painting. The skin has lots of imperfections which I rubbed it down with pumice but it still hassome flaws, nevertheless it's a very nice looking piece of vellum. The smaller piece, in contrast, is very smooth. This is just the nature of vellum, every piece is different, which is also part of the charm. Working on vellum is always time consuming, usually with plenty of error,  invariably I end up removing some parts and re-doing them. Recently I painted some small works on vellum to get back into the swing of it but these two works are considerably more challenging, largely due to the rich colours and large size. I knew that the darker green leaves would be difficult so decided to start there.

Beginnings, I always put the stem in lightly first with a tea wash, followed by the leaves, I like to make sure the stem is smooth and it's an integral part of a painting, a bad stem ruins a painting! The initial washes on the leaves are more of a yellow biased green mix, using Indanthrene blue Winsor yellow and a small amount of  Permanent rose

These tricky leaves, rotate around the stem in whorls. After the initial washes I vary the ratio of the green mix from the initial yellow bias to a more blue biased mix in the darker greens. I also used some Danial Smith Verditer blue to push the highlights forward and some paynes grey for the darkest shadows.
Painting is a very personal thing, I spend a lot of time on my own with a painting. I've been working on this one for days and not getting very far, in fact I've hardy been out of the flat for over a week and find I need this concentrated working time to 'tune in' to a larger painting. When it's not going so well I have to try to resist getting up, making endless cups of coffee, and general procrastinating, such as checking Facebook and emails every 5 minutes etc. this behaviour must to be curtailed if  I'm to complete on time but this week already I've watched 4 films, drank nearly 3 bottles of wine and chomped through a whole bag of wine gums!  I've painted and removed several leaves already. Today I had to make progress and with just a couple of days left the pressure is on! At first I can't decide on the right brush for the job and frustrating little things happen that make me want to walk away - the worst is the little bits of hair that break from the brush and weld themselves to the vellum! or the annoying little flick of paint at the edge of the brush stroke. Anyone who paints on vellum will no doubt know what I'm talking about ....but I put the headphones on and after a few hours it starts to fall into place.
I don't want to finish the leaves before putting the flowers in so move on to the flowers as soon as I establish the basics with the greens. Ideally I should have put the green crown in but for some reason I didn't.
The first wash in and adding detail. Cobalt Violet  and Verditer Blue both ( Daniel Smith). For the vivid orange, Transparent Yellow and Scarlet lake plus some Daniel Smith Transparent Pyroll Orange. This image from the second painting, which is a simpler study of just the flower head with pollinating bees.
I'd worked out most of the colours for the painting last year but decided to try a few additions from the Daniel Smith range in addition to my usual W&N pans. It's really important to work with  transparents colours if possible, particularly on vellum, because the opaques tend to be flat and heavy looking in anything other than an initial wash. This bright orange colour will require a significant amount of building up and I want to maintain that brightness and luminosity.

A messy business! I usually use Winsor & Newton pans but decided to try a few of the Daniel Smith paints. More so on the larger painting. They have some very nice colours but I have to say that I prefer the W & N pans for the dryer style of working required on vellum, I found too much gum arabic present in the Daniel Smith paints but the colours are good, albeit slightly unnecessary.

Building up the dry brush work, adding some Perylene maroon to the palette for the rich red/ orange
Adding the bees!
On the smaller work I decided to add bees. It's one of the things I'd noticed about the plant last year....the bees and flies love it! F. imperialis is also known as 'Mary's Tears', this is because of the huge nectaries, hence the appeal to pollinators! Last year I'd taken the potted plant into the house one morning to paint it ,when all of a sudden two large bumble bees emerged from the flowers and flew around the kitchen in panic before escaping through the patio doors.

'Mary's Tears' Huge nectaries appeal to potential pollinators
 Another interesting  story about this plant is that it is also pollinated in the UK by Blue Tits,  the birds can often be seen scurrying up and down the stems! This is the most northerly observation of a bird pollinated plant (ornithophily), and the only example in Europe , so is of some significance. In April I hope to be able to paint the yellow  Fritillaria ' Lutea' with a blue tit. I've never seen this portrayed in a painting before.
Here's a bit of further reading for those interested. There are a number of research journals  regarding this subject, (this is a downloadable pdf.). For more general observations on pollination  click here.

Blue Tit, Parus caeruleus. A pollinator of  Fritillaria imperialis. Image copyright WIkimedia Commons  

A study from last year F. imperialis 'Lutea' a subject for a painting later this year
I'm afraid that writing this blog is yet another form of procrastination, so I'd better get back to the job.
Will the paintings be finished on time?....probably. Will they be acceptable...I don't know!
But are we ever really satisfied with our painting?  probably not....but that's all part of the challenge and the fun!

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Back to Vellum and the Blog's Birthday

Last week marked 7 years of blogging for me! it's been interesting to look back and see what's happened in that time. The first image I ever posted on the blog was my very first painting on vellum, so it seems fitting to write a post about my latest work on the surface.

My most recent work on vellum, Three British Butterflies on manuscript vellum 2015 ( Comma, Red Admiral and Peacock abberation, painted life size)

My first painting on vellum, Foxglove dissection on Kelmscott vellum (6 x 4 inches)  painted during the summer 2007. I had grown the foxgloves from seed in my garden in Scotland. I've since moved house and the foxgloves have long gone but I can remember them clearly, they sprouted everywhere and were enormous!
Last week I had intended to start a larger work but got side-tracked by the butterflies.  I think it's fair to say that any large painting requires a significant amount of planning and practice, and none more so than a painting on vellum.  A decision had been made and the time had come to crack on with a painting I'd started preparing around 18 months ago... but it has been a slow start, full of distractions and not an awful lot has been achieved during the week. I don't see this as wasted time but rather part of the 'warming up' process. When I start a new painting I can never be sure whether or not it will work out but  I'm pretty sure that the more planning is put into a large pieces  - the less likely it is to go wrong! I'd like to have done more this last week but sometimes we have to accept it's a slow process. So I deviated from the large painting with some butterflies and moths as a warm up exercise. They're great little subjects to ease back into painting on vellum. I always find that painting on vellum it takes a couple of days to ease back into the technique. So two whole days were spent painting insects.
The process of building up the layers of paint on the peacock. Laying down the veins and outline first and then building up from light to dark. As a last minute addition I also used a very small amount of titanium white to dry brush  shiny white wing markings, this stands out well because the creamy colour of the vellum.
The finished Peacock, with its warning colours and large eye markings. This one is a abberation, with blurred eye markings. 

Adding the first wash to the final butterfly, The Comma.

The Comma butterfly. Again, working from light to dark. Marking out the viens first, followed by a light wash of the golden yellow mix ( transparent yellow and scarlet lake), thereafter various dry brush techniques were employed to build up the rich browns and patterns.  

Detail of the wing, showing the build up of the wing patters using 'dry brush' to create the scales and hairs on the delicate wings.
 The butterflies had  made a welcome change. I took me back to my days at  the University of Aberdeen, where I studied evolution as part of my degree some years ago. It was great to revisit mimicry in the wings of these beautiful creatures. As for painting butterflies, the process is the same as it is for plants. The manuscript vellum is slightly more challenging as a surface compared to Kelmscott, it's also quite a bit thinner. Darker and highly saturated colours are the most difficult to build up on the surface, simply because the paint sits on the surface and doesn't sink in, so the reds and blacks are good practise. With vellum it's not possible to use the same amount of washes as on paper, so after the initial controlled wash has been applied, the 'dry brush techniques must be used. Sweeping stokes and a form of 'modelling' dry brush techniques (similar to stippling but very dry) must be used to create form and the softness of the wings, and a 'drawing' style dry brush technique is used last to add the finer details.

Eyed Hawkmoth, watercolour on natural vellum, a subjec that really suits the warm tones of the skin. The 'eyes' of this moth  are a form of  mimicry which has evolved through natural selection to scare off predators. I might write a post about this it's a fascinating area several different type sof mimicry.

I used up a few small off cuts of manuscript and natural vellum for the moths and butterflies, the latter being off cuts from a whole skin. The natural vellum felt perfect for moths and I hope to paint more, it seems to work well for the scaley paterned wings.  After spending a couple of days painting the insects It was time to move on the the large autumnal painting but I will definitly paint more in the future.

Moving on
My current work is a fairly large painting  52 x 72 cm of autumnal subjects on natural vellum, as I've mentioned I had planned this some time ago, see this previous post. The idea was born from  the 30 day challenge works, which were all simple 'spontanious' paintings with no planning. but I felt that collectively they would make an interesting piece. All of the subjects in the piece were collected from my local park.  Life events had forced me to put the work on hold but I hadn't forgotten about it.
 Natural vellum was the obvious choice for the subject matter. The warm tones are sympathetic to the browns and golds of the dead and dying leaves and the rich coloured fruits.

The original inspiration for the piece, I no longer have the subjects so will have to work from my original observation drawings , photographs and some saved dried specimens.
  I opted to buy a whole skin of natural calfskin from William Cowley,  it arrived rolled onto a cardboard tube. Only one surface is suitable for painting and when first unrolled the it was a different experience compared to that a of ready cut pieces. The backbone and rib markings were clearly visible, this skin has a beautiful rich warm colour - it's a work of art in its own right! The vein markings should be very much part of the work and need to be considered in the composition, so although the planning of the drawing is icompleted, I want to be prepared to make small changes to accommodate the features of the individual skin.
Cutting the skin, the off- cuts will be used for small studies....maybe more moths
 First of all the skin had to be cut to size - a slightly nerve racking experience but it cuts easily with Stanley knife. Natural vellum is very thin and transparent so must be handled with care, if you've only painted on Kelmscott before this is a different!  Kelmscott is much more robust with a chalk wash coating and allows easy application and lifting of paint. On natural vellum it's hard to lift any paint overworking is a disaster.  The size also makes it difficult, buckling will be a problem if too much water is used. I thought about using a rabbit skin glue to secure it to a board before painting but decided it was too risky because of the size.  I gave the skin a very light rubbing with pumice powder to remove any grease.

I decided to use the A2 light pad to transfer the rough image onto the vellum because it helps to minimise the amount of pencil work on the vellum. It's never  a good thing to have too much pencil line because it makes the paint dirty. In fact I tend to remove the pencil on each section before I add paint leaving only a trace or work just inside the line, removing it after the initial wash.  The light pad worked very well because the vellum is so thin. I used a fairly soft pencil 2B sharpened to a long point to transfer the image and drew a very fine outline.
Using the light pad to trace the rough layout onto vellum, this approach  has the advantage of being able to switch off the light to check which parts have been traced's easy to get confused when tracing a large piece!

Part of the image traced onto the vellum
The vellum was fixed to the drawing board with Frog Tape. It's a pretty vibrant green colour but is much better than masking tape for securing vellum. It can be covered with normal masking tape if it's too distracting.
Finally! I made a start by applying the first 'wash'. It's not a particularly wet wash but quite controlled and applied in sections between natural divisions, such as leaf veins. Little or no primary material means I have to work from my preparatory sketches and photographs.
Slow Progress! After a day and a half , this is all there is to show.
I spent a day and a half prepping the vellum and made a start but ran out of time. I had a trip to Donegal planned and had to leave it there! .....There's always next week!

Monday, 5 January 2015

Out with the Old and in with the New Year

Having woken up on New Year's day with the cold from hell, I was feeling more than a bit sorry for myself. But there's always an upside to everything and being confined to the armchair provided a good opportunity to reflect and plan for the year ahead,  and, to do a bit of sketching.

Let the sketching begin! Crow skull, graphite on Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook paper, life size. 

Initially I thought I hadn't achieved all that much with work over the last year but making a rough plan at the beginning of the year and reviewing it at the end is very useful.  I won't be beating myself up too much about the 'incomplete things' - it was a hectic year! Life events tend to drain energy, time and money but things settled mid November 2014 when I finally started to put down some roots again. Now that I have somewhere to work and the Festivities are dealt with the time has come to get stuck into some serious work but I feel the need to warm up first with some sketching. In fact sketching has been elevated to the number one activity in my New Year resolutions! 

Roe deer skull, Graphite. Life size study A4 Stillman & Birn Zeta Sketchbook. Completed using the hatching.
The sketches don't necessarily have to be botanical and it's sometimes better if they're not - other subject seem to help me to loosen up the drawing style. I made a start on some old skulls, they're very good subjects, as are seed pods and shells, dead insects etc. .... you see they don't move or wilt! The aim is to work fairly quickly on these sketches, always from life .....and done on a regular basis. Sketching and tonal drawing is all important,  and a botanical painting is pointless if the drawing is off and the tones aren't there.  My daughter, Polly, is home from University too so she's been joining in and yes she's got a blog too!

Looking Back
Having had a good think about last year and looked at the positive things as well as the things I could have done differently it's not been so bad!  I'd forgotten half of the things so trawling through the blog made me realise that more has been achieved than I originally thought.
 Painting and drawing is my job. I teach people, sell original work and illustrate all sorts of weird and wonderful natural things, from rice packaging to the internal structure of a bony fish! It's a notoriously unstable and slightly chaotic work choice, particularly if you're a solo act. Sometimes it's hard to make the best decisions because I'm torn between what I want to do and what I have to do but wouldn't change it for anything else in the world. This career choice means that I have to work hard, plan well and be organised. It's not just about painting either, there's some serious multi-tasking including, promotion, websites, book keeping etc. etc.
RHS Show Orchid Show in April at the Lindley Hall. Great fun but unprepared!  Photograph courtesy of Alena Lang Phillips
Last year I wasn't terribly organised when I committed to the April RHS show, I had applied for the October, Shades of Autumn show - but for some unknown reason I ticked the box selecting the London Orchid Show as second choice.... That was my first mistake! Never put a second choice if you haven't got time! I've done 5 RHS shows since 2004 and always applied for London as first choice but never been allocated it, so felt I had to do it when it finally came my way. 

Behind the scenes the frantic preparation! before the plants die

 Other work commitments meant I was left with just a few weeks to paint 6 works on wasn't the best idea but it was 'do-able' if I kept it small and simple. That was a criticism by judges, they wanted more like this one, and less of the simple studies. It went a bit wrong at times and I didn't have time to present them properly either, but I got them all finished and made it to London. I have since done a bit more work on some of them and mounted and framed the the unsold ones. 

Fritillaria meleargris, exhibited at the London Orchid show
It was a great experience and I enjoyed it enormously, met lots of lovely people, many of who I've only ever communicated with via email. I was awarded a Silver and sold two of the paintings but I know that more time is needed to prepare for such high profile show and so I learned from it. Long term planning is the key and it's something I need to refocus on after the upheaval of the last 2 years. If I ever apply again I'll prepare the paintings and then apply for space when and only if I'm happy with them.
From the Royal Brompton and Harefield Exhibition flier

I also managed to exhibit 16 paintings at the Royal Brompton and Harefield Hospital Trust with my good friend Julie Whelan. A fantastic opportunity, thanks to Julie. Arts in hospitals is a great initiative, it brings a diverse selection of work into the hospital environment for the benefit of both patients, visitors and staff, and, with commission going to a good cause! We dropped off the paintings at the hospital and were given a tour of the old world famous Harefield, they have some super work in their collection including a beautiful urn by Grayson Perry. The paintings went on to be exhibited at the Royal Brompton until November.

Planning Ahead 2015
The new workspace is sorted and reasonably comfy,  so I'm ready to roll! I've had a clear out of materials and invested in some big vellum skins and other no excuses for slacking! This year I want concentrating on more complex works in graphite on paper and watercolour on vellum ( although I reserve the right to change my mind at any point).  Here's a bit more drawing practice underway.... just! I drew this rather complicated rough composition of bindweed during a trip to Germany in the late summer, decided to dig it out today as practice. I have to work from photos and some dried specimens, not my favourite approach but I want to finish it.'s going to be quite challenging!

A bit more drawing! you ever wish you hadn't started something! I'm working on Arches HP, size 18 x 24 block. I like this paper for graphite work but not for watercolour. It took an age to plan the composition but it will no doubt take much longer to complete. I can 'chip  away' at it when I feel like it tough as I'm only left with photo reference and a few dried specimens now. Who knows it may well run into the next flowering period!
Fortunately I took hundreds of photos! and captured quite a few mini beasts

.....and collected dried bits of the same plant from behind the shed at the bottom of my daughters garden!...I trod on a nail to get this!
Basically I want to keep drawing and painting this year to make up lost ground. Sounds obvious but putting together a body of work that I'm happy with is important, it won't be for any particular purpose, no specific exhibition or show and I'll decide what to do with it when it's complete. I won't be working to anybody else's criteria. Something to plod on with in the background and with the subjects I choose.

The Exhibitions Calendar ... OK what's achievable? 
I'm spending time researching the exhibitions calendar for the next few years. I hope to submit work for this years SBA Annual Show, In Pursuit of Plants. 
It's 3 years since I last did the SBA show and I aim to submit just one large piece on vellum.
Back in May I wrote about the Jade Vine painting. I'm almost ready to send off the digital image this month for the Sydney Florilegium Exhibition, which takes place next year at Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney.  I've worked on this over a two year period after tracking down the plant at Kew and Durham Botanic Garden.

I visited Kew to observe the amazing jade vine earlier this year. 

Work in progress. The finished painting will be scanned and sent as a digital image at the end of Jan, that's for the for printing. The original will be packed off to Australia shortly afterwards.

Teaching and Websites
Over the last few years I've written a number of online courses,  it's great fun and I have some lovely students. It's a constant learning curve for me as well as for the students and it's important to learn from their feedback. The materials are delivered via a dedicated course website, which I constructed and manage and we have a private Facebook group too. This year  I'm undertaking some new materials on Composition as well as adding to existing courses and developing things a stage further.....gotta keep up with the technology!

A video still from the  Botanical Watercolour Course
 My method of teaching, I hope, looks at the fundamental techniques and theory behind drawing and painting for the botanical student. It's not an 'easy option' approach and requires hard work but I believe it's an approach that will give students the building blocks that they need to develop their own style and to work independently as artists in their own right beyond the course. 

A still from the Course website

Blogging Birthday Ahead!
On Jan 18th I will have been writing this blog for 6 years! There have been some gaps over this period,  initially it felt like a bit of a waste of time - there seemed no way of finding others with the same interest but the amazing Sigrid Frensen found me and was thinking along the same lines. Sigrid had started a Botanical Art Facebook group, which I later joined as co-admin. It now has over 2000 members! So the whole Botanical digital world has grown enormously in the last few years and it's much easier to find people, and, there are now lots of amazing botanical art blogs to read. Writing the blog  is something that I really enjoy, hopefully others find it useful too and it's a brilliant way of keeping a diary for me..... I'll need to think about some way of celebrating!

Continue with the Sketchbook Project 
See my previous blog post. This time next year the project will be coming to an end and I'm very very excited to get my book back!

Finally... see more of the World and Exhibitions
One of the things I've pursued this year is travel, something that I hadn't really done a lot of up until a couple of years ago.  I've seen lots of exhibitions, including most recently the Picasso Expo in Brugge, also the Dali exhibition.  I've visited many galleries at home, looking at a wide variety of styles, from the fantastic Shirley Sherwood Collection and Marianne North at Kew, to Andy Warhol at Tate Liverpool and Turner Prize winner Martin Creed at the Hayward. It's something that has been invaluable.....diversity is definitely good for the mind! Travel has also given me the opportunity to draw and sketch plants away from home and in the field. Here's one from earlier in the year from a trip to Switzerland, Austria and Germany.

Linaria vulgaris, sketches
 I'm travelling to Donegal in a couple of weeks so will see what I can find there to paint....there's always something to paint no matter where you are, whether its from the back garden or further afield.

That's about it for 2014 and the rough plan for 2015!