|Old Rose Hips, on vellum 2013
|Guelder Rose, Virburnum opulus, on vellum, 2013
Natural vellum does not have the chalk wash surface coating, is thinner, therefore more transparent, has unique venation and warm colouring, it also has a slightly more shiny surface than than Kelmscott. These properties make it more challenging to work on. You need to use even less water than when using Kelmscott. The coating applied to Kelmscott alters the appearance of the vellum making it slightly more opaque but the luminosity is preserved. Kelmscott is no doubt the best surface for the botanical painter and is easier to paint on than natural vellum because you are painting on the surface coat rather than the actual skin. It's a very forgiving surface and errors can easily be removed by rubbing with fine grade pumice or by carefully scraping away a top layer of the coating with a scalpel. If you've never painted on vellum before always start with Kelmscott.
Back in 2007 I was gifted a piece of Rory McEwen's vellum, the large piece seen in the photograph above. It was given to me by the late James White of the Hunt Institute, following the 12th International, which I participated in back in 2007. The Hunt Institute were given his vellum by the family, following McEwen's death in 1982. They gift pieces to artists who show an interest in working on vellum, at their discretion. I've been a huge fan of Rory McEwen's work for many years, so it was a great honour. However I haven't felt confident enough to paint on it yet but hope to make a start shortly. So I'm brushing up on my technique at the moment. I find it takes me a day or two to get into the method of painting on vellum. It requires a very light touch and a lot of dry brush work. I've included some detailed images from my works below to demonstrate.
When working on vellum it's always a good idea to give it a rub down with fine grade pumice powder first. I put it in a small round bag, you can use muslin or I use a piece cut from a pair of ladies tights - works really well! Use small circular motions evenly over the surface. This removes any grease and blemishes from the surface. I didn't prepare the first piece of natural vellum and it still worked OK but was a bit greasy in places and resisted the paint slightly, but if you work dry enough it's not a problem. For my second attempt I rubbed it down very lightly taking care not to apply any weight.
|Detail from old rose hips, using dry brush over an initial wash
|Detail from Guelder Rose
|Detail of the leaf, showing dry brush and fine line work
|Painting on Kelmscott vellum, First layer
|Finished paintings on kelmscott
If you are just starting out with vellum. I would recommend starting with something small and simple, such as seed-heads or small fruits, leaves or flowers. The most difficult subjects are large shiny leaves and large smooth surfaced fruits. Building up paints to create such smooth surfaces is difficult territory until you get the hang of it....and wasting vellum is an expensive mistake!
Always tape down the vellum, although for very small pieces you can actually get away with not securing it. I tape smaller pieces to thick card which is a couple of inches bigger than the vellum, so that I can rotate it. Don't leave tape on the vellum for too long though because it will mark the vellum edge. Large pieces of vellum should be secured to a frame. It can also be glued to a surface to keep it flat.
One of the biggest problems with vellum is buckling, This is caused by incorrect storage, too hot, cold or damp or using too much water when painting. Water is most certainly the enemy of vellum, so always work fairly dry. I apply only one light 'wash' and then use various dry brush techniques. Pay particular attention to the edges, when applying the first wash - it's not like a typical watercolour wash, because unlike paper the surface of the vellum is non-porous, paint will sit on top - you want to avoid any pooling at the edges, if this happens you need to mop it up it using a small dry brush, you need to achieve a fairly soft edge. If you get an hard edge this will create problems later on when the paint becomes too thick, if you try to lift it later you will get into all sorts of problems. It's best to avoid this in the first place by using less water. Thereafter gradually build up the paint in layers of dry brush. Most of all remember to work work lightly and keep water to a minimum!
|Larger work on Kelmscott, life size foxglove, 2011
|Cherry leaf on Kelmscott, 2010. The background has been lightened for print on this image but it is more cream in colour.
For more information thers's also an article on my website about painting on vellum.