Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The Pleasure of Sharing (more)

Well now, I knew the first post with this title was popular, but I hadn't expected it to be quite so popular. it really does go to show that we are all in need of really good advice, and when we find some, we hold it close to ourselves like a warm blanket. 

"Move out of your comfort zone. 
You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new." 
Brian Tracy

Many new tips do indeed get us to move out of our comfort zones, but I am a great believer that by doing so, we learn so much more and make greater progression towards our aims and goals. Of course, it's been over a year since the original post, The Pleasure of Sharing and so much more has happened, including picking up more tips. So, for today's post I thought I would introduce some new tips and ideas to add to the armoury.

"Each of us finds his unique vehicle for sharing with others his bit of wisdom."
 Ram Dass

Tip 1 Painting Black

I love the 'dark as you dare' hues that really make a painting sing, but achieving such dark mixes can be daunting. 

For all of my black mixes I only mix Primary colours of red, blue and yellow together or those colours which are complimentary to each other (opposite each other on the colour wheel. Cool and warm hues work to create a whole host of neutrals and black mixes. The best tip here though is to only mix colours you already have on your palette for the project you are working on. Don't introduce new colours on your palette, just to mix the darkest tones.

Tip 2 Tracing in Colour

Time to get the colour pencils out again with this one. A great tip I picked up from artist Denise Ramsay, when she shared her latest painting via Facebook. When you transfer a complicated composition from tracing paper to your watercolour paper, use colour pencils to help you see which bits of the drawing you have transferred. Change the colour whenever you move on to a different section of the piece. Simple but very effective, and stops you missing bits of your drawing, particularly on very complicated pieces.

"Scientia potentia est: Knowledge is Power"
commonly attributed to Sir Francis Bacon

                                                                                        (my personal favourite)

Tip 3 Picking out Highlights

This one means taking a sharp, pointy object to your painting and actually damaging it, on purpose. Sounds remarkably careless, but with a little care and precision, you can achieve very effective, tiny points of highlight on your painting by using a very sharp scalpel.

This should be the very last thing you do on your painting, as you cannot paint over damaged paper. Carefully, and lightly use a picking motion to gently lift the paint from the paper. Only do this for very small areas.

Tip 4 Black and White

I've been using this one for a very long time, as it often throws up things you can't see when a painting is in full colour. If you think a painting is finished, take a photo of it and turn it to a greyscale image, (many smartphones can do this very easily). By looking at your painting is tones of grey, you can see the tonal variation across the painting much more easily.

Colour can be a distraction when you are trying to judge contrast and tone. By looking at images on a greyscale, this becomes much more straightforward.

 Tip 5 Photo Finish

Taking photos to work from is very different from taking photos for pleasure. One of the big things to consider when taking photographs to use  as a reference is the background. A garden background that is full of colour can be very distracting, and can actually alter the colour you see in your subject. By bleaching out the background by using a large piece of white card when you take your pictures, you can take out the distractions and isolate your chosen subject.

Of course, there are some very clever pieces of software, (Photoshop) that can do this for you (if you have the time and the know-how) but a piece of card is a quick and simple solution.

Same subject, same light conditions, totally different look.
Even if I whitened the background using Photoshop, the first image would still be influenced by the darker bushes behind.

The second image shows more clearly how yellowy-green the snowberries really are.
Something that would be missed in the first image. 

Tip 6 Thumbnails

Working out a good composition can be a tricky business, especially of the subject is a new one for you. Thumbnails can be a really quick and instant way to see how something will work for you. For me, these little vignettes are a really important part of the painting process, and I can do loads of these before deciding which one works best for me.

Sometimes, to really get a feel for a painting, I will add a bit of watercolour to the sketches, to see if I am happy with the subject overall.

Tip 7 Tiny Hairs

Painting the very tiniest of hairs individually can be a very time consuming job, and may produce very uniform, unnatural looking hairs. By keeping your paint mix quite concentrated, you can use a dry brush technique, and paint several hairs at a time.

With a little paint on your brush, carefully splay the hairs of the brush out a little to form a comb effect. By stroking the brush along the edge of the stem or leaf, you will get a gently hairy effect. Use this technique best where you have very fine hairs on an edge. You can refine the hairs afterwards, and add any others individually. Sometimes you just can't get out of painting them all separately.

Tip 8 Draw a little every day

Practice makes perfect, and some would suggest 10,000 hours is needed to get very good at anything. Well, I'm not suggesting that but a good tip is to just do a little something in your sketchbook every day. 

By keeping your eye in, searching for subjects, interesting compositions and new challenges, your work will continuously grow.

Tip 9 Colour charts 

Like many artists, I love creating colour charts, and now have a good many to refer to. Colour charts are not only a useful reference, but of you get a new colour, you can see exactly where it will fit in with your current palette.

When I tackle a new painting, if I do nothing else, I will create a colour chart for it. Sometimes this might just be a general chart for the main colours, and go from there, but sometimes I will go further, with many mixes be tried out first.

The tip can go even further here, and I know there are several other artists who also do this. When making a colour chart, and working through a sketchbook study for your new painting, rather than just listing your colour mixes, put them also into the order you used them. Colours can change when you overlay them with others, so it's a good idea to know in advance what will happen

Neat and tidy
Pre mix chart for the Iris reticulata illustration 

A working colour chart for the peony seedhead painting
Tip 10 Pass it on

"If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it"

Margaret Fuller

Friday, 29 July 2016

What a Week! (and Painting a Lily)

Phew! What a truly exciting couple of weeks it has been. With the Squirrel Website already proving popular, the tutorials and Technique Tool Box tip videos going down pretty well, and the first of the sketchbook in practice exercises going online, it's been a happy whirwind of a month. Many of the new members have said that being a member is like a lovely get together. Just how I wanted it to be. 

Thank you to everyone who has dropped by, left a lovely message, signed up for the Freebie or taken out a subscription. 

Elsewhere, the You Tube channel has had something of a boost, with lots of new subscribers, eagerly waiting for the preview tip video for the next tutorial. It's been such a surprise, as just now I only have two videos on the channel. I'll have to make sure I keep adding plenty of lovely content, so everyone has something new to watch when they come on by.

Here's the trailer I made for the channel.

Speaking of which, the next tutorial for August will be a delicate pink lily bud. It's quite a challenge to capture white and pale flowers without them looking overly muddy, or flat. The disappearing edges are the most tricky, as without enough colour here to give them an obvious placement, the flower can have little shape or form against the white paper. A lovely challenge, even for complete beginners to tackle.

Here's the Pink Lily Bud, with some insights into it's progression

Starting with a sketchbook exercise to get the colours and tone right.

Generally, with all my botanical paintings, I start with a worked up sketch in my sketchbook. This one was actually done some time ago as a demonstration for one of my workshop classes, just to give a general look at how to tackle the subject. As I go, I make loads of colour 'dabs' in the margin, and if I remember, jot down the initials of the colours I used, and in which order I applied them.

It's a good idea to start with the palest colour, or hue that you can see and work up from there. In pale flowers, it's down to the shadow tones mostly, to bring forward all the dimension, forming the roundness of the subject. This can be very difficult as shadow tones tend to be quite grey. By deciding which colours I will need for the complete painting, I find I can mix naturally harmonious shadow mixes from these. But I won't spoil it for you, the rest is on the tutorial.

It was ages before I finally got the chance to work this little study into a final piece, and thought it would make a wonderful tutorial for students wanting to paint a pale flower.

Working the early washes and beginning to get the shape and form

My 'first wash' is actually a series of washes, to build up the whole piece to an even level of finish. Subsequent layers build up the initial layers to give a greater depth of tonal variation

The finished piece
After working wet-in-wet washes, the dry brush techniques can be deployed to really work up those fine details and surface textures. This one was an absolute pleasure to paint, and as it only took a couple of days to do, quite a quick little project.

Final thoughts: 

Last week, I was asked by the lovely Charlie O'Shields over at the amazing blog Doodlewash, to be a guest artist with the ever popular Guest Doodlewash series. It was a great honour and a lovely surprise to be asked, and be among so many wonderfully talented artists. In the interview, Charlie asked me about how I got into botanical painting, where I started, how I paint now, the kit I use, and what keeps me going. It was great to share my experience, and read back all the wonderful comments from the readers. Take a peek  

My happy badge of homour
Proud to have been Doodlewashed!

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Lift Off...

Ta Dah! Oh my, what a busy week it's been here at Squirrel HQ, and there's an awfully big reason why that has been so. The new tuition website has reached lift off...

Visit the shiny new home of Squirrel HQ, the Botanical So Beautiful video tutorials website at www.sketchbooksquirrel.com

With huge thanks to my lovely web design group at
Design Image

The site launched, with very little fanfare on Wednesday (also my wedding anniversary), just to see how things went, (and to get any early glitches and gremlins out of the way). And boy, did it go! 

It's been something of an outrageous whirlwind, and you all know me, I'm never one to go over the top with the me, me, me thing, so I was very surprised how quickly the whole thing took off. It has been so delightful to welcome so many people to my new site,(it's been hard to keep up) and with lots of wonderfully supportive feedback emails from many of the new members, I really hope we all continue to have loads of fun with the tutorials for many years to come.  

Already, the Little Red Chili has gone down a storm, and the Technique Tool Box videos, offering lots of practical tips and advice are proving popular. In the production line are the new In Practice... Sketchbook, and tutorial project videos for July and August, so I've got a busy few weeks ahead of me here at Squirrel HQ.

Little Red Chili and Prickly Bramble Leaf videos from the You Tube Channel, are now available as full tutorials on the website.

It would be really lovely to see you over on the new website. To welcome everyone, there is a FREE package on offer, as well as all the usual Squirrel quirky style. I'm not going to ramble on, telling you all about it, I'll let you all see for yourself. 

So, grab a cuppa, a nice slice of cake or a favourite biccie, settle down and have a good browse. I would love to hear what you think, but, be kind, it's a bit like my first day at school. Fun times indeed. An enormous thank you and huge hugs to absolutely everyone who has supported me on this one. You are genuinely wonderful.


Normal service will, of course resume once the pace slows down a little. We'll all have a get together here in a few days time, for a quiet regroup and a nice little chat. 

Thursday, 30 June 2016

From the Ashes

Crikey chaps, it feels like an absolute age since I last posted something for you. Well, even artists need to take a break now and then, and for the first time in a good few years, I went on holiday! Nothing outrageous, just a lovely relaxed week on the delightful island of Crete.

Across the Alps...

While on the island I came across the most wonderful botanical park. The Botanical Park of Crete is a delightful place, and even in scorching heat, there is much to see and enjoy. Tropical, Mediterranean,vineyards and citrus fruit orchards combine with a beautiful lake and even a small menagerie of goats and peacocks across the hillside site. As a welcome wherever you go on Crete, there is always something to intrigue the taste buds. For us at the park, it was slices of their homegrown oranges.

The flora was of course stunning, but this is a place in transition, and is still relatively new when compared to other botanical gardens. The fact that the place even exists is something of a miracle.

Even familiar species seem more vibrant in a sunny setting.
The colours have so much more zing too

The area around the park 20km from the main town of Chania is home to many small villages, including the small hamlet of Skordalou. In October 2004, a severe fire, caused by the strong winds from Africa bringing down an electrical cable onto the hot dry forest trees devastated the entire area. Within 24 hours sixty thousand 400 year old olive trees had been lost, and an area of 200km had been destroyed.

A family of four brothers lost their entire livelihood but immediately could see how the land could be used once more. The idea for the Botanical Park of Crete for education and enjoyment was formed. It's still very much a growing idea, (pardon the pun) but having got to know the Cretans, they are not people to give up.

Crete is an island full of flowers.
Even their highway roadsides are ablaze with colour

Rats! At this point my SD card gave up on me. Still, I've got some happy memories of this exotic corner.

Due to the economic recession in Greece, much of Crete is an island in waiting. Across the island there were many areas due for development that have yet to be completed. Many houses are built as a concrete outer skeleton that is then filled with brick and blockwork. Earthquakes occur in this area, so buildings must be pretty strong. Plans were in place for more homes on this hillside, and one or two were started. Many still lie empty.

The people were gorgeous, and so welcoming, Everywhere we went we were brought delicacies and wine, just for coming. Somewhere I hope to return to again.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

It's June. Why So Grey?

Here we are on the 1st of June, the start of the Northern Hemisphere's Meteorological Summer, and it's pretty nippy if I may say so. Cold winds, rain and a very dull, grey day is forecast. Hmmm, not very inspiring. Well, here at Squirrel HQ something is always made out of very little, so here's a post about greyscale, (or grayscale if you are Stateside).

A range of grey shades from white to black, as used in a monochrome display or printout

In the world of Game of Thrones however, Greyscale is somewhat different and described as:

  ...a dreaded and usually fatal disease that can leave flesh stiff and dead, and the skin cracked and flaking, and stone-like to the touch. Those that manage to survive a bout with the illness will be immune from ever contracting it again, but the flesh damaged by the ravages of the disease will never heal, and they will be scarred for life.

Well I never. Luckily in the real world of botanical painting, greyscale takes on the formal definition by taking in the shades of grey from white through to black, usually in the form of a graphite pencil drawing. Thank goodness.

White to black and back again

And everything in between.

Think about it in terms of your pencils and practice the chart.
Leave the first block white, then use all your grades of pencil to gently shade each block,
 all the way to the darkest black with your softest, darkest pencil.

Looking at the top row of the diagram above,
the middle grade is HB, with everything lighter to the left being H grades, and everything darker to the right, B grades. 

Working in graphite pencil is a lovely way to capture the beauty of plants, by bringing focus to the more architectural aspects without the distraction of  colour. Very often, courses in botanical illustration and painting will introduce monochrome pencil exercises, and studies as an initial element. By doing this, students can really focus their skills in drawing and understanding tonal contrast, without the pressure of colour recognition or watercolour technique.   

Rendering shapes such as spheres, cylinders and blocks is something I was very used to doing when I trained as a draughtsman, and luckily I haven't lost my touch. To shade the shapes below, I used all my pencil grades from the hardest 3H to the softest 9B, and a technique of gently, circular movements for the spheres, and strokes in one direction for the sides of the cylinder.

It's a really good way to get the hands and fingers warmed up for the day, and I still like to do little pencil exercises in my sketchbook now, especially when working on a new piece. For this exercise, I was asked to render a cylinder, block and one sphere. As I wanted to study the change in the direction of light and its effect on the sphere, I completed three. To get the shading right, I used a large ball bearing, and moved the light around it.        

Moving on to a larger pencil study of a dwarf rhododendron, again using all the pencil grades, and the same techniques as used for the exercises.

Pencil can also be used to lovely effect in combination with watercolour. For one of the hedgerow pieces, I decided to combine colour and graphite on the cranesbill element. Here, I wanted the focus to be on the flower species with the grass as a background suggestion of the growing habitat. The bright blue of the flower looked particularly pretty with the shades of grey.  

Botanical illustrations can look really good when you combine graphite pencil details with the watercolour painting of the subject. Here on the study of Iris reticulata I decided to use pencil for all of the dissections, and kept them to a margin to the right of the painting. Allowing the bud of the painted element to come slightly into the space of the dissections brought them together.   

Dissection of Iris reticulata

Greyscale is also really useful when you want to judge tonal contrast in your paintings. Very often I will use the scanner or phone to take a greyscale image of a work in progress to see how the contrast is looking. Without the distraction of colour, it's much easier to see where the areas of light and shade are, and where things could be improved. Here's how some of my paintings look without their colour. Weird, but somewhat satisfying  

Even when a scan goes wrong, it can create a useful image

Just the hint of colour amongst the greyscale.

Like one of those really old black and white photos that has been hand coloured
Without the colour, you are not wowed by the visual impact you expect. Instead, you may find yourself focusing on the finer detail, textures, shapes and contrast. Even when I think a piece is finished, I may look at it in black and white later, and think, oh that could have done with a bit more. 

Give it a go, and be surprised.