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.


  1. Excellent blogpost! What paper did/do you use?

  2. Absolutely stunning! So impressed...

  3. It's the Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook Monica

  4. I love your work Dianne! Please let me know when you do classes in London. ☺️


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