Tag: Watercolour

Learning Lessons

Another couple of months slip by and I hardly know what I’ve done with them! Of course, our wonderful/terrible cavapom puppy still dominates, and is soon to make her debut in my artwork as the 5th in my series of Microcosms…

Fitting art around a puppy and, recently, deteriorating health, has been a struggle, but here and there I’m been about to break through it all and paint! To get back into oils I painted a beautiful Lurcher called Emrys. You might image one dog portrait is very much like another, but although some features like noses and eyes become familiar, painting this dog required an entirely unfamiliar palette, new facial shapes and proportions, and even different brushwork, to capture the smooth contours of short fur. I painted his face much more in sections, as you can see here, before blending them together. Those soft, soulful eyes were a delight to capture, and quietly watched me as I completed the rest!

Emboldened by my success with Emrys, I turned to completing a challenging painting of water and lemons, as part of my series on Life with Lyme. I struggled most with the lemons. Yellow is a notoriously difficult colour to work with, especially in shadow. Blue in shadow is dark blue; red in shadow is dark red; yellow in shadow lurches in greens and muddy browns. In truth, I made this painting a lot worse before I made it better! After a morning overthinking the yellows, mixing and muddying them, I stepped right back and looked at my reference photo at only thumbnail-size, to discover that what I was lacking was simply pure yellow itself. For the last couple of hours I finished this painting largely by taking a large brush (well, large for me!) and using lemon and cadmium yellow almost straight from the tube. A bit of wasted time perhaps, but another lesson learned!

In August I enjoyed returning to the more conceptual world of my microcosm series. After watching James Fox’s excellent series on Japanese art and culture, I became captivated by the concept of ‘Ma’ or negative space. This is the idea that the space between things is as aesthetically powerful as the things themselves. In music this would be the effect of rests between notes, in writing the things left unsaid, and in art the spaces between objects. Since May I had been musing on the globe alliums in the central bed of our tiny garden. This whole bed is designed around the sphere motif – from yew balls at the corners, to our lollypop privet, to our alliums and verbena bonariensis. The wonderful thing about the alliums is the space captured between the outer skin of flowers which forms the spherical shape. These tiny stars are held on spoke-like stems emanating from the centre. Microcosm is entirely the right word. As one friend pointed out, each flower is like a mini cosmos of stars, but you could look at this stunning structure at a microscopic level too, as a model of the atom itself – largely empty space with electrons orbiting a central nucleus.

So much for the ideas. The execution was fun but fiddly, with each tiny star requiring exact marks to capture the detail of tiny petals, stamen and stigma with clarity. After that it was a question of balancing light and dark so as to convey both the overall shape of the sphere and the recession towards the centre. I was delighted that it was snapped up before I had even completed it, and can’t wait to frame it and hand it over for display in the owner’s first house!

Lastly, I have been expanding my range of tiny treasures with seasonal fruit. We no longer think of strawberries or raspberries as seasonal treasures, thanks to their year-round availability in supermarkets. But, for the first time, this year my husband and I grew our own. With only one raspberry bush and three strawberry plants, each fruit was indeed precious and we generally ate them individually and without accompaniment, to really savour them. We even taste-tested the three varieties of strawberry plants we bought, and were amazed by the variation in flavour. However, the strawberry was an unexpected challenge, and took three goes before I achieved this version. The raspberry was more compliant, and soon my collection of tiny treasures will be available online, so do keep an eye out during September!

Usually I round off with a taster of things to come, but instead I wanted to end with some good news. First, a large selection of my work will be appearing in my first joint exhibition at the end of September, in Hurworth Village Hall, alongside other local photographers and artists. Second, after my disappointment with the rejection of my art from an exhibition a few months ago, I can now celebrate the acceptance of my third microcosm, ‘A World of Many Parts’ into the annual exhibition of the Society for Graphic Fine Art, which will be showing at the Menier Gallery from 2nd to 14th October. I can’t wait to see it on a London gallery wall. If you are in the area, please drop by!

Sunshine and Smiles

After the downbeat tone of the first post of 2017, I’m a bit shame-faced to be bringing you good news, sunshine and smiles! But, since the country seems to have been thrust back into murky cloud and fog, maybe a bit of brightness will be welcome.

First of all, a finished painting! I found this watercolour commission a bit daunting at first. The subject was the site of a proposal – a romantic pondside setting. There are few things as restful or romantic as sitting by the side of a pond, but they don’t often communicate as well in paint. Ponds don’t have the scale and reflective properties of deep lakes, nor the power and majesty of the sea, nor the animation of a river. In addition, I was I trying to capture the significance of a spot where two good friends had decided to spend their life together…

To begin with, my plan was to try and capture the moment itself – on bended knee etc. But the reference photos and my preliminary sketches persuaded me this wouldn’t work – it was transparent to me that I was drawing a re-enactment. If I remember my own engagement, I’m sure an onlooker would have seen intense emotion and excitement written all over my body language – you can’t recreate that. My initial reference photos also seemed too explanatory, with the sun coming in from behind and creating a very pleasing, but uninteresting photo. I asked for more reference photos and received an apologetic reply with some pictures taken at sunrise, with the sun blinding the camera and obscuring much detail.

But so often, in life as well as art, it is what you can’t see clearly which is captivating, not that which is laid out. From that point, the whole project came alive for me. The real focus of the scene are the benches, where the proposal took place. Despite the fact that they are in the centre of the composition, with a gleaming path leading towards them, I love that fact that they are all but obscured – both in shade and with sunlight streaming in front of them. The title ‘Into the Sun’, extends this metaphor a bit. When you commit to marriage it is quite like walking into the sun – there is so much ahead that you cannot see and yet it’s a beautiful and exciting sensation.

More prosaically, I had forgotten how challenging watercolour can be – it requires such decisive action and yet whatever actions you make are all but impossible to undo. I used masking fluid to protect the benches, bulrushes and tufts of grass on the bank to the left, but removed it too early in the course of the painting. I managed to recover these crisp highlights by scraping out with a blade, but it had me worried for a while! The question of balancing light was also tricky. Since the overall impression is so clearly of light, I was nervous, at first, of painting in the darks. However, perversely, the more depth I added, the lighter the painting became, because the contrast of the glaring sun became more pronounced. The bank in shadow was so much fun, because it responded to layers and layers of subtle colours – infused in, blotted out – to capture the prismatic light over subtle shadow.

I can’t wait to deliver it to its new home.

In other, very unexpected news, I opened an email from the international art competition, Renoartio, at the weekend to find this ‘Bonnie Smile’ at the top of it:

You could probably hear my squeal in neighbouring houses. Only the day before, my husband and I had been looking at the high calibre of entries for the December open art competition, and were doubtfully hoping that I would improve upon my position of 18th place in the November competition. To come top was completely beyond my expectations. You can see what impressive and varied artworks are submitted to Renoartio here, https://www.renoartio.com/past-winners/, and I’m chuffed that ‘Bonnie Smile’ will soon be among them. Of course, it’s a huge confidence boost for me and my art, but I think it also shows that no one can resist a golden retriever smile!

Big Picture, little pictures

I often write my blog when I’m feeling ill, which is partly because when I’m well enough to paint or study, I paint or study! But it’s also because I find it encouraging to look back over what I have created since my last post, while I’m potentially feeling a bit low about not being productive. Since my last post the big picture for me has shifted considerably – from looking at a future in philosophy, I’ve rediscovered my true home in art and art history, and from looking towards a year of studying a conversion course, I find myself with another year to devote to art full time with the hope of starting an MA in Art History and Theory in 2017. This new, big picture, has meant lots more little pictures, both already completed and in the offing. Here’s a whistle stop tour!

berriesMy first thought was, unsurprisingly, Christmas! However, having begun this painting of crystallised, melting snow on festive berries, I realised that November is utterly the wrong time for an artist to be thinking about Christmas – it is too late to produce any cards and way too late for card publishers. So, I’ll probably return to this in late December or January, because in the meantime I’m hoping to submit an artwork for national exhibition for the first time.

blighted-budThe deadline is mid-December and a very open brief, so I am opting for a still life that I have been wanting to paint ever since we first moved into our house: a bud vase brimming with the first roses that we picked from the garden. However, over the last couple of weeks I have been struck by the rose buds still lingering on our rose bushes – in November for goodness sake! Poignantly, these rose buds have been petrified at this nascent stage by the increasing cold, and rather than blooming the tight buds have been mottled and damaged with cold and rain and wind. So, beside the vase of radiant blooms I have interposed this symbol of lost potential, though I hope to make it beautiful in its own right. With the deadline fast approaching, I can only hope to put paint to palette asap!


However, just as my first ‘microcosm’ had been an inspired distraction, last week I had another idea for the series – and with the subject at hand, I felt compelled to begin, and with the lighting all set up and occupying our main study, I felt compelled to finish… The subject was of course, a ball of string, though from now on it will be referred to as a ball of wool, due to strict instructions from its new owner, ‘the lady in black’! After drawing the paper ball, I was interested to find another example of a man-made globe, with all the inevitable connotations of the way we manipulate our world in both constructive and detrimental ways. The ball of thread immediately attracted me – the cliché of our lives being interwoven is increasingly important in the context of globalisation and our improving awareness (in some quarters…) of the interconnected ecosystems in the natural world. And of course, it has been hard since the election of the most unsuitable president in US history, not to think that the world as we know it might be unravelling. From the start I wanted the ball to be unravelling from the centre – somehow that seemed much more significant – and so it was real moment of artistic resonance when I happened to be reading Yeat’s poem The Second Coming, which yielded the title of the piece: ‘The Centre Cannot Hold’. Lots of big ideas for a very little picture!


So much for the concept. The execution was another matter! You might suppose that this microcosm was much more repetitive than the first – and you’d be right, but not quite as right as you would think. The more I stared at each strand, and saw it made up of yet finer twists of thread, the more I could see how different patterns emerged depending on the tension in that part of the yarn. There was also huge visual variety created by the angle of the light – I set up a strong light source to the left of the ball, in part to emphasis the spherical shape and the central chasm, but also as a reference ‘the great globe itself’. Indeed, with such a strong light source, and so much eye-watering detail to contend with, the hardest aspect of the whole project was not to overwork the drawing, with the detail easily dominating the overall shape of light and shade. In fact, I’ve changed my mind, the hardest thing was actually the visual organisation required – keeping track of exactly which bit of which thread you were drawing at any particular moment was both headache-inducing and strangely mesmerising!

crumped-world-framedWith my ‘Crumpled World’ now framed (see left) and both microcosms already sold, I have many more ideas for the series, when I next have a microcosm-sized window of health and energy. But, with a diary now freed up for painting, I have these projects to look forward to as well: a watercolour of sunrise by a very significant pond, another canine project, a Lyme inspired series of still lifes and a new departure in wedding portraiture (if you recently had a wedding and would be interested in commissioning a guinea pig portrait for a huge discount (I’m talking 70% off my usual rate) then please get in touch!). I think that’s enough to be going on with… As I said: a big picture, made up of many little pictures!

Without Contraries is No Progression

“Without Contraries is No Progression”:


Those of you who follow my blog will have seen this commission emerge in bits and pieces over the last few months, and because it’s a composite piece, I myself didn’t get to see the parts really come together until the last moment when the frame was delivered and the whole piece assembled. The brief was simply to paint some views of the Battersea area of London, including St Mary’s church and with a loose focus on the contrasts of architectural styles.

With a little help from William Blake, who was married in the aforementioned church, the concept for the painting came to me very quickly, and was based on the quotation (and now title of the painting): ‘without contraries is no progression’. This comes from his ‘Proverbs of Hell’, part of a larger work called “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. The proverbs betray Blake’s starkly dualistic world view, and his perculiar conception of Hell as the source of energy, as well as evil. To me this idea of energetic, dialectic progression is very bound up with London: with its adversarial parliament at Westminster, with its contrasting cultural influences, and with the contrary aesthetic styles of various periods which are so evident in the patchwork of London architecture.

img_1669So, the contrasting architectural styles was an obvious starting point – from the classical proportions of St Mary’s, to the brutalist 1960s tower blocks, to the cutting simplicity of the modern flats in the watercolour image. But I also wanted to make contrast an artistic theme, so we have contrasting mediums (watercolour, pen and oil) as well as, perhaps less obviously, contrasting emphases. In the first painting I focused on the contrasting textures of the sleek glass apartments against the intricate, worn patina of the brick church. As I had hoped, watercolour leant itself well to this, as I used a loose wet-in-wet technique for most of the painting, and a sharper style for the church. The difficulty was resisting the temptation to meddle – there’s always more detail to add in a landscape, so the trick is knowing when to stop!


img_0010The central picture, in pen, was conceived as a focus on form. I hoped that abandoning colour would enable me to bring out the contrast between the classical, harmonious shapes of the church and the repetitive, modular structure of the tower blocks. I think this is apparent, although perhaps the detail was too alluring for me in this piece! As this was the first part of the work I completed, I was initially worried that its vintage look wouldn’t gel with the other two paintings – the idea was after all to capture the contrary nature of modern London! But in the final composition it does provide a clear contrast to the crisp finish of the watercolour and the softness of the oil painting.

img_1675I initially thought of the final painting as suggesting synthesis and ‘progression’, with the different architectural styles somehow brought into dialogue by the shared evening light. I can still see this aspect, but looking at it also makes me think of contrasts in colour, between the cool lights of the shadows and the warm, pinky tinge of the setting sun on the far bank, the trees and the church roof. Pleasingly, these soft hues offer a contrasting palette of colour from the first painting, which has the clean, bright hues that (I hope) evoke the clarity which follows a typical British downpour! Again, the level of detail here was a challenge, particularly given my unfamiliarity with urban landscapes, which are such mazes of shapes and details. Unlike watercolour, which encourages a decisive attitude to painting, oil painting allows a slower, more meditated way of working. On the plus side, this enabled me to get the balance of detail to haze right in painting the far bank – I came back to this area a few times to soften certain areas in terms of colour or line. On the other hand, areas like the trees seemed to invite unlimited levels of working and reworking!

I was really delighted to be able to frame the work myself – it’s always satisfying to determine the entire object that ends up on someone’s wall. A frame can completely change the look of a painting, as I have found now that my prints are being sold by the local Northallerton gallery. The manager is kind enough to show me how each customer chooses to frame their print, and each time the new frame picks out something different in the image. So perhaps it’s a good thing we artists leave this element of artistic choice to the customer at times, but framing a work nevertheless a very enjoyable exercise. The choice of pewter seemed apt – with both industrial and antique associations – and fortunately articulated the one point of chromatic coherence between the three images. Most importantly, my patron seemed delighted with the finished result!

This work feels particularly pertinent to me at the moment, since I seem to be living out Blake’s quotation in my academic journey! Having long yearned for the ideas-based approach of philosophy, I now find that studying academic, analytic philosophy is perhaps more of a contrary to my previous studies than I had hoped! Somehow I will have to find a way to synthesise the world of ideas about art and the world of art itself, but it has to be said that experiencing these contrary modes is nothing if not informative. And information is progress. Right?