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!

Monday, 5 January 2015

Out with the Old and in with the New Year

Having woken up on New Year's day with the cold from hell, I was feeling more than a bit sorry for myself. But there's always an upside to everything and being confined to the armchair provided a good opportunity to reflect and plan for the year ahead,  and, to do a bit of sketching.

Let the sketching begin! Crow skull, graphite on Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook paper, life size. 

Initially I thought I hadn't achieved all that much with work over the last year but making a rough plan at the beginning of the year and reviewing it at the end is very useful.  I won't be beating myself up too much about the 'incomplete things' - it was a hectic year! Life events tend to drain energy, time and money but things settled mid November 2014 when I finally started to put down some roots again. Now that I have somewhere to work and the Festivities are dealt with the time has come to get stuck into some serious work but I feel the need to warm up first with some sketching. In fact sketching has been elevated to the number one activity in my New Year resolutions! 

Roe deer skull, Graphite. Life size study A4 Stillman & Birn Zeta Sketchbook. Completed using the hatching.
The sketches don't necessarily have to be botanical and it's sometimes better if they're not - other subject seem to help me to loosen up the drawing style. I made a start on some old skulls, they're very good subjects, as are seed pods and shells, dead insects etc. .... you see they don't move or wilt! The aim is to work fairly quickly on these sketches, always from life .....and done on a regular basis. Sketching and tonal drawing is all important,  and a botanical painting is pointless if the drawing is off and the tones aren't there.  My daughter, Polly, is home from University too so she's been joining in and yes she's got a blog too!

Looking Back
Having had a good think about last year and looked at the positive things as well as the things I could have done differently it's not been so bad!  I'd forgotten half of the things so trawling through the blog made me realise that more has been achieved than I originally thought.
 Painting and drawing is my job. I teach people, sell original work and illustrate all sorts of weird and wonderful natural things, from rice packaging to the internal structure of a bony fish! It's a notoriously unstable and slightly chaotic work choice, particularly if you're a solo act. Sometimes it's hard to make the best decisions because I'm torn between what I want to do and what I have to do but wouldn't change it for anything else in the world. This career choice means that I have to work hard, plan well and be organised. It's not just about painting either, there's some serious multi-tasking including, promotion, websites, book keeping etc. etc.
RHS Show Orchid Show in April at the Lindley Hall. Great fun but unprepared!  Photograph courtesy of Alena Lang Phillips
Last year I wasn't terribly organised when I committed to the April RHS show, I had applied for the October, Shades of Autumn show - but for some unknown reason I ticked the box selecting the London Orchid Show as second choice.... That was my first mistake! Never put a second choice if you haven't got time! I've done 5 RHS shows since 2004 and always applied for London as first choice but never been allocated it, so felt I had to do it when it finally came my way. 

Behind the scenes the frantic preparation! before the plants die

 Other work commitments meant I was left with just a few weeks to paint 6 works on vellum...it wasn't the best idea but it was 'do-able' if I kept it small and simple. That was a criticism by judges, they wanted more like this one, and less of the simple studies. It went a bit wrong at times and I didn't have time to present them properly either, but I got them all finished and made it to London. I have since done a bit more work on some of them and mounted and framed the the unsold ones. 

Fritillaria meleargris, exhibited at the London Orchid show
It was a great experience and I enjoyed it enormously, met lots of lovely people, many of who I've only ever communicated with via email. I was awarded a Silver and sold two of the paintings but I know that more time is needed to prepare for such high profile show and so I learned from it. Long term planning is the key and it's something I need to refocus on after the upheaval of the last 2 years. If I ever apply again I'll prepare the paintings and then apply for space when and only if I'm happy with them.
From the Royal Brompton and Harefield Exhibition flier

I also managed to exhibit 16 paintings at the Royal Brompton and Harefield Hospital Trust with my good friend Julie Whelan. A fantastic opportunity, thanks to Julie. Arts in hospitals is a great initiative, it brings a diverse selection of work into the hospital environment for the benefit of both patients, visitors and staff, and, with commission going to a good cause! We dropped off the paintings at the hospital and were given a tour of the old world famous Harefield, they have some super work in their collection including a beautiful urn by Grayson Perry. The paintings went on to be exhibited at the Royal Brompton until November.

Planning Ahead 2015
The new workspace is sorted and reasonably comfy,  so I'm ready to roll! I've had a clear out of materials and invested in some big vellum skins and other materials.....so no excuses for slacking! This year I want concentrating on more complex works in graphite on paper and watercolour on vellum ( although I reserve the right to change my mind at any point).  Here's a bit more drawing practice underway.... just! I drew this rather complicated rough composition of bindweed during a trip to Germany in the late summer, decided to dig it out today as practice. I have to work from photos and some dried specimens, not my favourite approach but I want to finish it. Hmmm....it's going to be quite challenging!

A bit more drawing!
......do you ever wish you hadn't started something! I'm working on Arches HP, size 18 x 24 block. I like this paper for graphite work but not for watercolour. It took an age to plan the composition but it will no doubt take much longer to complete. I can 'chip  away' at it when I feel like it tough as I'm only left with photo reference and a few dried specimens now. Who knows it may well run into the next flowering period!
Fortunately I took hundreds of photos! and captured quite a few mini beasts

.....and collected dried bits of the same plant from behind the shed at the bottom of my daughters garden!...I trod on a nail to get this!
Basically I want to keep drawing and painting this year to make up lost ground. Sounds obvious but putting together a body of work that I'm happy with is important, it won't be for any particular purpose, no specific exhibition or show and I'll decide what to do with it when it's complete. I won't be working to anybody else's criteria. Something to plod on with in the background and with the subjects I choose.

The Exhibitions Calendar ... OK what's achievable? 
I'm spending time researching the exhibitions calendar for the next few years. I hope to submit work for this years SBA Annual Show, In Pursuit of Plants. 
It's 3 years since I last did the SBA show and I aim to submit just one large piece on vellum.
Back in May I wrote about the Jade Vine painting. I'm almost ready to send off the digital image this month for the Sydney Florilegium Exhibition, which takes place next year at Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney.  I've worked on this over a two year period after tracking down the plant at Kew and Durham Botanic Garden.

I visited Kew to observe the amazing jade vine earlier this year. 

Work in progress. The finished painting will be scanned and sent as a digital image at the end of Jan, that's for the for printing. The original will be packed off to Australia shortly afterwards.

Teaching and Websites
Over the last few years I've written a number of online courses,  it's great fun and I have some lovely students. It's a constant learning curve for me as well as for the students and it's important to learn from their feedback. The materials are delivered via a dedicated course website, which I constructed and manage and we have a private Facebook group too. This year  I'm undertaking some new materials on Composition as well as adding to existing courses and developing things a stage further.....gotta keep up with the technology!

A video still from the  Botanical Watercolour Course
 My method of teaching, I hope, looks at the fundamental techniques and theory behind drawing and painting for the botanical student. It's not an 'easy option' approach and requires hard work but I believe it's an approach that will give students the building blocks that they need to develop their own style and to work independently as artists in their own right beyond the course. 

A still from the Course website

Blogging Birthday Ahead!
On Jan 18th I will have been writing this blog for 6 years! There have been some gaps over this period,  initially it felt like a bit of a waste of time - there seemed no way of finding others with the same interest but the amazing Sigrid Frensen found me and was thinking along the same lines. Sigrid had started a Botanical Art Facebook group, which I later joined as co-admin. It now has over 2000 members! So the whole Botanical digital world has grown enormously in the last few years and it's much easier to find people, and, there are now lots of amazing botanical art blogs to read. Writing the blog  is something that I really enjoy, hopefully others find it useful too and it's a brilliant way of keeping a diary for me..... I'll need to think about some way of celebrating!

Continue with the Sketchbook Project 
See my previous blog post. This time next year the project will be coming to an end and I'm very very excited to get my book back!

Finally... see more of the World and Exhibitions
One of the things I've pursued this year is travel, something that I hadn't really done a lot of up until a couple of years ago.  I've seen lots of exhibitions, including most recently the Picasso Expo in Brugge, also the Dali exhibition.  I've visited many galleries at home, looking at a wide variety of styles, from the fantastic Shirley Sherwood Collection and Marianne North at Kew, to Andy Warhol at Tate Liverpool and Turner Prize winner Martin Creed at the Hayward. It's something that has been invaluable.....diversity is definitely good for the mind! Travel has also given me the opportunity to draw and sketch plants away from home and in the field. Here's one from earlier in the year from a trip to Switzerland, Austria and Germany.

Linaria vulgaris, sketches
 I'm travelling to Donegal in a couple of weeks so will see what I can find there to paint....there's always something to paint no matter where you are, whether its from the back garden or further afield.

That's about it for 2014 and the rough plan for 2015!