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 already.....it'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!


  1. Happy Birthday for the blog. it's always great to read your latest posts and see your wonderful paintings :)

  2. This is fascinating Dianne. I love the butterflies and am in awe of your patience. I also really like the fact that you take your time. It's nice to slow down sometimes.

    1. Thank you Laura, it's good to take time. I'm guilty of not allowing enough time so trying to teach myself a lesson here

  3. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!!! That painting is going to be stunning! I look forward to seeing it finished!! The butterflies are fantastic too. I'm living the natural vellum too. It has so much more character than the kelmscott, even if it is a little unforgiving. Xx

    1. Thanks Shevaun, I really don't know how this one is going to tyrn out . Don't want to overfill ot and cover too much of the vellum. It's such an interesting skin and a big outlay, so hoping it goes to plan

  4. Fantastic, happy blog bday! I can't wait to see this finished. Xxx

    1. Thank you Claire, I'll post updates but if I go quiet you'll know it's gone to the dogs! ;)

  5. Looks fantastic and really interesting to read about the vellum, thanks for sharing it all.