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. 


  1. I enjoyed your blog and seeing what you are working on. The exhibit really sounds like it is a great one to see. I was wondering what brushes, size and brand are you using for the little paintings? I look forward to more of your blogs.
    Linda Sprouse

  2. Yes a great exhibition Linda! For the small works I used a size 2 flat for the larger black areas and sizes 1 & 2 W&N series 7 miniatures for the rest

  3. I love art and always looks for good art related post. This one is surely one of the good blog I have gone through. Thank you for sharing it