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.