Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Sketchbook Project, nearly one year in!

It's been a bit of an unsettled year, although that seems to be the norm these days!  haven't painted as much as I would have liked but there has been one project that really stands out, the Nature Sketchbook  Exchange Project.

Latest entry, sketchbook no. 8, work in progress in Doreen's book. Bracken and Lichens ( on hawthorn) from the W. Coast of Scotland, near Fort William. The decomposing bracken is very dominant in the landscape and I love that rich brown colour. The abundance of the lichens on the trees alters the colour of the trees, in places it's so thick you can barely see the branches at all. Lichens are indicator species for air quality, so it's obviously pretty clean in that part of the country. Hopefully I'll find a few hours to complete these pages before the year end.
It's fairly self explanatory as a project but for those of you who don't already know about it,  the Nature Sketchbook Exchange is basically a group of 16 botanical artists exchanging, and working in, each others sketchbooks,  we work on any nature based subjects of our choice - so by the end of the project we have work by every other artist in our own book. I'm currently on my 8th book ( including my own) so about halfway through and about a year into it come January! This fantastic project was initiated by my good friend Shevaun Doherty,  who also has one of the best botanical/ nature art blogs out there!
No. 7 Sketchbook. Black Rose hips for Frances' book, I found these in Bentilee,Staffs, near my old school. My first bit of work in my new flat (Nov, Dec). I spotted these hips on a routine drive to my daughter's house and pulled off the road to collect some, there were hundreds on the bush, so I didn't feel too bad about taking a few.
 After a year I feel as though I'm settling into the project and not quite so nervous about working in another artists book.  What's been really great is the luxury of getting up close to other artists work, which gives an insight into their working practice. Each artists identity emerges through their entries and everybody brings something different to the project.
Also being able to paint whatever I fancy painting with plenty of time is a luxery, there's never a problem finding something for a quick study and I always keep my eyes open, constantly scanning for the next subject! .....It might just be something I spot while on the way to the shops,  I often stop the car and collect a few fruits or find some interesting leaf or branch lying on the ground!  I add as little or as much as I want to each entry and some pages are more finished looking than others.

No. 6. Not many notes here because there wasn't much to say. This is a fruit branch from the Wayfarer Tree, collected from a car park in Germany for Claire's book. I just fancied painting with no preparation, in trial and error fashion. Painted at my daughter's house, I borrowed her dining table while she was out because I was in between moving at the time ( Sept - Oct)

In the past I  never used to keep a sketchbook and kept rough work in boxes and on bits of paper but in recent years I've been re-educated into seeing the benefits of keeping a good sketchbook.
In addition to the project, I now keep several other sketchbooks which act as a plant library or painting and drawing diary. It enables me to paint things that I might otherwise forget about or just not bother with, usually because of a lack of time. Sketchbook work doesn't require a huge investment in time, so I often paint flowers and seeds from my travels or just document plants thought the year along with personal notes, it doesn't matter whether they are finished or not. It's proving an invaluable resource and making notes helps with the botany too.  Sketchbooks remind me of where I was and what I was doing at a particular time....I remember where the plant was and who I was with....... and all the little things that were going on around each entry at that point in time.

No. 5 A change of medium, Graphite Clematis from mums garden for Sarah's book. Drawn at mum and dad's house (July, August)

All of the artists working on the project use the same type of book, the Stillman & Birn Zeta series, hardbound, 8.5 x 5.5 cm, smooth,  270gsm,. Previously I thought that there was no decent sketchbook paper, but this is a really great book! I've purchased several now, in different sizes. Initially it felt a bit different because I pretty much always work on Fabriano Artistico for everything but I got used to it very quickly and love it!
No. 4 Dying anemone and a dead bee resurrected! For Jarnie's book. This sprawling plant had seen better days, I found the bee dead Queen bee in the porch. Painted in my previous house shortly before I moved ( May, June) 
I have started to notice a pattern with my layouts, most of my compositions sprawl across the pages but the entries are changing and I feel more relaxed about no trying to produce finished pieces in the more recent books, they are much more like my usual study pages.
No. 3 Fox Grapes and grape hyacinth for Terri's book. I grew these plants in pots from the bulbs painted in my own sketchbook cover pages at the start of the project (see below). ( March, April).
 Hopefully, this time next year I'll be able to post the remaining images from the sketchbooks yet to be received. I'm currently waiting for Shevaun's book, no idea what to paint but might find inspiration in Ireland when I visit in January. 

No.2 Fritillaria studies for Lorraine's book. My first attempt at painting in another artist's book.....bit scary at first but soon get used to it. It's only a sketchbook so mistakes are part and parcel! I  used these as part of the preparation for the RHS show paintings which were exhibited in London during April.
If you don't yet keep a sketchbook, I hope that you'll be encouraged to do so. It really is a good for pracice and reference but also a great escape....particularly when life is turbulent! 

No. 1 Beginnings, my own sketchbook. Inside cover page in graphite is a drawing /doodle styled work from the corners of the grey matter! The first pages of bulbs seemed appropriate subject to start with. Great fun to do but a bit over the top with the graphite, also I forgot to spray it with fixative so doubt there won't be much left by the time it's travelled around.
Bulbs seemed suitable for the beginning!
This time next year the project will be coming to an end and can't wait to see all the beautiful works from each artist in my book.... It will be something that I'll always treasure!

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Back to Work..... Almost! Organising the Materials and Equipment

It's been a very long absence from the blog due to yet another house move...... hopefully the last for a while.
This meant that the time had come to pull the art stuff out of storage!
I've relocated to a small flat in an Old Rectory in the village of Checkley, Staffordshire. As for neighbours, I have a beautiful church complete with graveyard. On the downside I still don't have the have the luxury of a dedicated studio to put all the art materials into, it's taken some adjusting too and I've had to streamline things significantly, because as much as I love Fancis Bacon's studio I don't think I could live in a 'Baconesque' workspace!  
What's next?  I've spent months thinking about my work, the main aim now is to undertake some larger works on vellum as well as some more complex graphite pieces, all of which have been in the planning for more than a year.
For the first time I'll be working  with whole vellum skins. Natural vellum  is a slightly more challenging surface than Kelmscott but I prefer the colour and venation  for the autumnal  subjects. The larger sized works will need space, which is something I'm pretty short of, so there's a real need to be organised.

artist desk
Trying to be organised!
So first things first.... time to sort out the new workspace. This will no doubt involve some trial and error and it's going to be tricky given the small working area! I've a decent window ( the one shown below and another larger window. A small desk fits into the window space so that will do the job nicely. The main problem is that I have too much stuff! - it's currently a bit like a cockpit that I have to climb into! 
Having had such a long break from the blog it seemed like a natural thing to take stock, and, I though it might be useful to write about the materials and equipment that I use as this always seems to be of interest. It will help me to decide what stays and what has to go. Being organised and comfortable in the workplace, with everything at hand is often more difficult than it might first seem.

Not very organised workspace! The easel sits at the side of the small desk with reference material pinned to the drawing board. Angle poise illuminated magnifier lamp is bolted to the desk and positioned over the drawing board. The long drawer in the desk houses rulers, dividers, viewfinders, painting mediums and various measuring devices as well as the smaller cutting mats.   
The first consideration is the desk and easel.  Having looked at lots of lovely desks including the ones that tilt, I decided that I didn't have enough room for a fancy desk or large table. When considering the fact that I prefer to work fairly upright, and, being a fairly 'dry' painter,  I decided that a separate easel is the way to go with a small desk alongside. This is actually an improvement - it's not the first time I've used the easel, it's particularly good for larger works and can tilt slightly to suit. An adjustable height seat can be raised and lowered making it easy to reach those difficult areas or I can stand.  I've always used a steeply angled drawing board, to me it's the only way to see the work accurately, otherwise the work is leaning away with and the perspective distorted, the spine becomes strained if you struggle to see the work properly by leaning over it...that's bad in the long term.  The only problem with an upright desk based drawing board is the redundant space behind the board, which tends to gather clutter. I already had my old easel from my art school days ( 30 something years!) so no need to buy anything new, which is a bonus! It's a radial easel, which is pretty heavy weight and made from beech wood. This type of easel can also be folded and stored too and the tripod feet allow good positioning at the base.
Radial easel has adjustable height and can lean a fair bit too if needed The tripod base allows the feet to tuck under the chair and desk, so you can get up very close or work further away at a height that suits, with the option of standing too. A pair of pliers is needed to secure the nuts, otherwise the weight of the drawing board can cause the support to fall
 The other advantage is being able to use different sizes of MDF drawing boards, which I had cut at the DIY store. This way I can use the most appropriate sized board for the work and swap between works. The board can be positioned at a comfortable working height on the easel depending on the size of the work, notes, photos and even some subjects can be pinned to the board so that they're in the direct line of vision. Having material in the line of vision is important when painting.  The desk alongside can be used to position and light the subject as well as for small works, sketchbooks and materials etc.

So what else do I really need in the work area?  First of all the technical stuff - this can takes up quite a bit of room. Technology can be really useful in planning work, especially when the subject is dying on you or short lived, occasionally its the only route available material. My first space saving idea  is to ditch the laptop from the immediate workspace and instead I opted for an iPad Air with the addition of the the small keyboard, which works a treat! The iPad or tablet is a very handy tool for viewing detailed reference materials, it can be positioned on the desk or on the drawing board ( again direct line of vision). With the right programmes it's easy enough to do most of the same things on the iPad as on the laptop. I use Photo Transfer App for moving photos from different devices ( iPhone to iPad I use the Air Drop but use Photo Transfer to the laptop).  Work on the laptop is done outside the painting area. I use a Canon wireless printer, which sits on a small table in case I want to print off any reference material. It's always useful to take lots of photos. tend to throw the photos onto the floor to get inspiration for compositions by looking at shapes. I use a combination of photos taken on the iPhone or iPad which can print directly to the printer.  For better quality I use an Sony alpha 100 DSLR camera.  It's an older  DSLR now but still takes great pictures. I use Photoshop Elements 13 to edit, having just upgraded I previously used PS 8 for a number of years. To be honest PS 8 does as much as I need.

For more complicated compositions - I tend to take lots of photos of the plant in situ (sometimes hundreds of photos!) 10-20 selected for printing, I throw then on the floor and look for good shapes and ideas, then make numerous thumbnail sketches.
The next problem is lighting and positioning subjects.  I've already touched on this and so far I'm finding it much easier now the space gobbling drawing board is gone from the desk because: 1. I've more free room on the desk for the subject and 2. I can pin some materials to the board.  The  magnifier lamp shown above is for the painting, and it clamps desk with a long adjustable arm - this is important! But I also need to light the subject and have several lamps which give off different types of light, some are warm light and others are daylight lamps so give off a cooler light, which lamp depends on what I'm doing and the outcome I'm looking for.  I use a regular low cost lamp with adjustable arm ( in the images above) this lamp is great for tying subjects to ( as shown)! The other lamp used is a twistable daylight lamp ( shown below). This type of lamp works well because I get a good adjustment on the angle. To light a subject well you have to play with the distance and the angle of the light. Too close and there's too much contrast ( lights are bleached out and the darks are black),  too far away means it's all mid tone and lacks drama. So again depends what you are looking for in the finished result.
Twistable daylight lamp ( note: the tin can reflects a little light back) I try to get a good range of highlight, mid tone and shade, with a little reflected light too)

Pinning subjects to foam board to position on the drawing board.
I place white card behind the subject so it's clear to see. I usually photograph it in situ. I use a retort stand ( which I can't find at the moment) and all sorts of jars, boxes and anything I can find to arrange subjects.  For ' flat' subjects, such as dissections and leaf portraits,  I secure the subject to foam board with florist wire and dressmaking pins and make good use of the sticky Oasis Minifix, which is brilliant stuff for the natural positioning of leaves etc. These can be places on the easel next to the watercolour paper.

 Having bad eyesight means that numerous magnifiers are a must have, the main one is the big illuminated Draper angle poise magnifier.  It's a bit heavy and cumbersome and given a choice I'd swap it for something more lightweight but the magnifier is a decent size and quality is good enough so it's stays. I use several smaller hand helds with magnification from a x 1 up to x5. They are used to see more clearly but also to check for clean edges and overlaps ( the brass one top left is good for this ). They're also useful for examining detail in the subject. I also have a loupe but its' disappeared at the moment.

A few of the various strength magnifiers
Paints and palettes.  I always revert back to my old faithful W & N Artist pans in the modified wooden paintbox, which I've had for many years. Most recently I decided to secure the pans with Velcro because they were always dislodging. The colours are arranged in W & N colour chart order ( I keep a painted reference card in the lid of the box as well as the chart on my drawing board. I tend to take out the colours I'm using and keep them on the palette. I prefer pans for botanical work as they're more suited to a 'dry' painting style, particularly when working on vellum. A common problem is having far too many paints, which is a mistake I made - an absolute maximum of 24 colours is all that are required but I've got them so may as well make use of them now.

Attaching the pans with Velcro stops them from falling out.

 I also have various tubes of paint, including Daniel Smith, W &N and Sennelier which I keep in the drawer. I use these for larger washes and store these in Tupperware! I don't use them very often but some colours are preferable for certain jobs.

Additional tubes, seldom used but still useful
 Limiting myself to two ceramic palettes, one is deeper at one side for mixing larger amounts of paint, the other has small wells and a lid which is very useful for mixing and for keeping the dust out....dust and fluff is the enemy! I use jam jars with lids for water, again the lid keep any dust out!

Ceramic palettes deep palette top and palette with lid.
  Brushes. The odds and ends live in old tin cans but most brushes now live in a folding brush holder, which was a free gift from Ken Bromley. This can hang below the drawing board on the easel for ease of access. It's also really useful for transporting them without damage. I use W & N Kolinsky sable, miniatures, rounds and flats, Rosemary and Co, spotters, designer and short flats ( my favourite little brush!) I also have some beautiful hand made brushes, which were a gift from the Brushman,  David Jackson. They have the finest points I've ever come across. I've also a few old da Vinci brushes, but supply has been an issue with these. 

Old tin cans make good additional storage containers

Brush Holder, very handy free gift!

                                    Pencils are kept in a pencil roll, for space saving.

I've always kept pencils in their tins until recently but have started to store them all in pencil rolls, they're lighter and more space efficient as well as easy to transport. I use mostly Faber Castell 9000 and sometimes Cretacolour Monoliths - all for tonal work. I use a variety of mechanical pencils for fine line drawing.

All other bit and pieces, such as sharps e.g.scalpels, blades, things for securing subjects, erasers etc. are kept in an old  Gillette razor box. This was given to me many years ago by a friend, I think it was a shop display box. It has a glass lid. I also keep the mechanical pencils and  leads in it- otherwise these seem to get lost..... I love this box!

A useful and lovely box for the sharps and easily lost items.

Various dried subjects and reference material, such as seed pods, shells, and skulls are kept in boxes. These are all handy reference material collected over the years and too valuable and sentimental to throw away.  Many have been the subject of paintings and some were nurtured from seed and produced seed themselves.

One of the boxes of old subject material
 Books are essentials too, particularly reference and the Floras. Many of the instruction type or  coffee table style books were sold or given away because of lack of space.  I've built tall narrow bookcases, which have been painted and strategically placed around the flat, they look OK and don't dominate too much. I also keep the sketchbooks in the book case.

 My biggest storage problem is paper, and vellum storage because of the size. Much as I've always wanted one, I don't have enough room for a plan chest, although you can get then in a coffee table style, but wouldn't want to keep paper and especially vellum near to a fireplace. So The paper lives in study cardboard boxes under the bed! The vellum lives on top of the wardrobe! I use Fabriano Artistico HP 140 lb imperial sheets and on a roll as well as 300lb imperial sheets. For graphite I use the same Fabriano or the blocks of Arches HP 140lb 18 x24 inches.

Small vellum pieces must to be kept flat and in dry but not too hot conditions, skins are rolled, so that's no so bad.  Here's the skin so you can see the problem once unrolled! Well that's my next paint the autumn collections started two years ago but this time onto vellum.....once I've flattened it!

Next project: Natural vellum skin to paint the autumn studies which I started in Sept 2013. Unfortunately I had to put this work on hold - it's been in the back of my mind since and I'm looking forward to getting started.
It's surprising just how much art stuff is accumulated over the years! I wrote a full list of materials when I moved was a bit of an eye opener! So if you're about to take up painting you might want to consider the size of the house! In this post I've mentioned just a fraction of what I've accumulated but limited it to the things that I use regularly. There's lots more, including microscopes, a large mount cutters, portfolios, a guillotine etc. etc. ....all of which take valuable space.... not too mention all the unfinished work and studies.

Now the workspace and materials are sorted all that remains is to start work!