Monday, 11 September 2017

What do I want from a sketchbook ?

As a watercolourist my main concern is the quality of the paper. For my purposes, it should not be too thin and it should not cockle when water is applied to it. Neither should it bleed through to the other side. In short, I am looking for a reasonable watercolour paper rather than a cartridge paper.

The sketchbook should also be of a manageable size. If it is never likely to leave the studio then size doesn't matter, but for a sketchbook which is to be taken on location however near or far afield, it must not be too heavy or bulky and ideally should easily be held in one hand when in use. As I tend to paint standing up and there is not always a convenient wall to rest the book on, I want to be assured it will not droop at the edges when I am trying to apply a wash.

If such a sketchbook existed it would be a bonus if it looked good - after all,  it will be a faithful companion for some time, and a friend for ever.

So imagine my delight when I discovered the Stillman & Birn softback sketchbook in their "Beta" series.It has exactly what I long for, the cold press/NOT paper being 270gsm which makes it substantial enough to prevent drooping, and the binding makes it capable of laying flat enabling a free flow of paint over a double page spread if desired.

An extra bonus for me is that there is no compromise in the amount of paper. The sketchbook has 52 pages and its rounded corners makes it easy to fit into a small sketching bag without it becoming bent or creased. My favourite size for taking out and about is 5.5 x 8.5 inches.

If you have not yet discovered the Stillman & Birn range they produce a variety of sizes, weights of paper, textures and even colour. Enough for whatever style of sketching you enjoy.

In Britain, they are available from Jackson's Art supplies or you can go onto

Next, I'm going to try out the spiral-bound version...

Friday, 4 August 2017

Frustration is all part of the process

How many times have you heard someone say "I feel so frustrated. I'm not getting anywhere. Maybe I ought to take up something else" ?
How many times have you felt frustrated that your painting is not going well and you don't know why ?

Don't despair ! It happens to everyone, professional and hobbyist alike. It's a natural part of the learning process, and learning to paint is something which stays with us for life. Just when you think you have it sussed, you discover a whole new layer of meaning which needs to be investigated and understood.
No wonder we feel frustrated from time to time. It takes a while for new information to percolate through our brain cells and reveal its meaning. Each painting we do isn't the end of a journey, it is only a single step on our voyage of discovery.

It takes time to understand some of the lessons we learn upon our way. We all travel at different speeds and full understanding will come when the time is right for the individual. In this world where everyone seems to want instant gratification it is easy to become frustrated that every painting we do is not a masterpiece.

In time you will recognize that those moments when you appear to stumble are actually building blocks which are adding to your knowledge and your ability, and will take you another step along your path. Learn to enjoy the journey. It is all important. Take in as much as you can along the way.
Resist the temptation of so many who want to travel by the fastest means without seeing any of the treasures en route. They will understand nothing.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Painting outdoors

Painting outdoors is one of the most pleasurable moments a painter can have, yet many students are afraid of giving it a try as they see it as the "great unknown".
"I wouldn't know where to start" is the explanation I hear most often.

I can sympathize. The world is a big place and it tends not to come in handy 6 x 4 or 7 x 5 inch slices. The biggest problem and therefore the the most important decision is to decide what to focus on.
My advice (which I keep reminding myself as well as my students) is 'not to bite off more than you can chew' especially to begin with. Be realistic about how much you can expect to achieve in the time available.

In my view, I think it is better to attempt three or four small sketches rather than one large painting which is unlikely ever to be finished.

Which leads us to the next problem. How much to include?

This is as much to do with composition or design as anything. Why paint an enormous sky and acres of foreground when probably an old gate beside a tree will have so much more to say? Likewise, if there is a building involved, whether a charming cottage or a tumble down old barn, consider if a small section or corner will have more interest than trying to paint every detail of the whole building.

Painting outside implies that time is short any way. The light will change, probably faster than you can paint, so keeping it small and concentrating on one aspect makes sense.

Think of using the time to gather information. Spending time LOOKING is never wasted.

Remember, a painting doesn't have to be an exact replica of the scene in front of you any more than it has to be an exact copy of a photograph. There should be room for the individual artist's interpretation. You may end up with a little gem, a painting in it's own right, or have the finest first-hand reference available when you later enlarge or interpret it in the studio.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Morning meadow.

Morning meadow late June
7 x 10" watercolour

One of my favourite subjects to paint. Along the meadows there are always a number of views to paint at any time of the year. No two days are ever quite the same.

Shortly after painting this, the clouds increased and we lost the sun. Just shows you have to grab the moment. Tomorrow is another day, as they say, and there is bound to be something just as exciting to try and capture in paint. The hardest part is deciding where to start!

Monday, 22 May 2017

Iron age update

The Iron age Round house is making good progress despite some recent wet weather. It has been fascinating watching the posts going in and the walls taking shape. How did the original Iron age people manage to build such a tall roof without the aid of modern scaffolding ? Perhaps they made their own wooden version. Looking forward to the thatch going on.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Down in the meadow something stirs...

Across the fields in the meadowland criss-crossed by public footpaths in a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) lies a scheduled ancient monument dating back to the Neolithic age.
Recently some undergrowth has been cleared away and the ground prepared for a new building. But this is not yet another housing development given the go ahead as part of a local plan to meet the needs of current and future generations.
Far from it!
Here in this quiet corner of the countryside, an Iron Age Round House is gradually appearing post by post to help illustrate the history of this site and how it might have looked all that time ago.
I hope to sketch its progress.

Monday, 27 March 2017

All set for Summer!

So now it is officially British Summer Time (other countries presumably have to wait a while before Spring is over ) I am all kitted out with paper, sketchbooks and fresh tubes of pigment and ready to hit if not the streets, then the gardens and quiet corners of the Cotswolds and beyond

I have various set-ups from this pocket sketchbook and palette
when I want to keep things as simple and lightweight as possible,through a medium-size 5.5x8.5" sketchbook or 7x10" watercolour block and a medium size palette with a larger mixing area for when I have longer to sketch, and then my larger bag containing 8x12" sketchbooks and 9x12" or 12x16" watercolour blocks when there is some serious painting to be done..

Occasionally I will add an easel to this larger set-up, but only if I know I am going to stay put for a reasonable amount of time. There is no point in taking so many materials that you end up staggering from one place to another in search of something to paint and then being too exhausted to do anything!

I wish you all a happy summer of sketching in whichever part of the world you are!

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Storm Doris

Storm Doris passed this way today. Wet, as one might expect, and very blustery. Not exactly ideal weather for an easel. Hard enough for someone on two legs to remain upright despite a full shoulder bag which normally keeps one anchored.

I have been here many times before. Dog owners walk their canine friends along this route every day. I walk my sketchbook the same way, sometimes a block of paper which is gummed so it doesn't blow away. I usually keep loose paper and easels until later in the year.

Today the dogs seem keyed up, excitable, yapping and barking for the sheer pleasure of being able to, full of expectation of something different about to happen.

The dog-walkers are not so boisterous. Dressed in creative collections of assorted clothing, they concentrate on remaining upright and continuing on a more or less straight line without being blown too far off course.

Being so familiar with the scene (the buildings change little over time, it is the pattern of light across them which holds interest), I know I will be able to draw the main features later from previous sketches and memory. It is the fast-moving clouds skidding across the sky which fascinate. A whole range of tones and colour, there one moment, gone the next as Doris hurries on her way, faster than a pencil can scribble across a page, swifter than a brush can deposit water and pigment.

The answer is, I believe, memory, editing, and a healthy dose of trying to capture the FEEL of the moment and to hold onto it long enough to attempt to express it on paper or canvas as soon as possible, before the memory fades.

Luckily, I live only a few moments away.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Limited Colour

Winter is a good time to practice producing an image using a limited number of colours - in this case, three - French Ultramarine, Indian Red and Yellow Ochre, basically one red, one yellow and one blue, although they are all fairly subdued, as they should be at this time of year.

It was Claude Monet who said " In England, I was fascinated by the never-ending shades of Grey.. " Nothing much has changed since his time. It has been very grey of late.

Actually, there is a fourth pigment here, Cerulean, a turquoise-y blue, to add a splash of colour.

I am always interested by how one can change the mood of the image by the choice of palette used. It is all too easy, especially when using a photograph as reference, to try and match the colours exactly (although it is arguable whether the colours in a photograph are "exact" at all), when what we should be doing is painting the feel of the subject.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

January Plein Air

The temperature gauge in my car read 0 degrees but I was unprepared for the intense cold which makes ears, nose and hands ache. Ears and nose can to a certain extent be protected, but it is a difficult thing to draw and paint while wearing gloves - even mittens are tricky.

I was standing near Broadway Tower, a local landmark and Folly, built on an ancient beacon site with spectacular views all round, which means precious little shelter from wind, rain or as today, intense cold. There is also, which I didn't know, a nuclear bunker on site. A different kind of folly perhaps.

The trees are bare, stark against the large expanse of sky. The land drops away sharply behind the Tower from this position. No comforting distant horizon line where sky and land meet. No hills or woods to act as a backdrop against the old stone walls. Today the smaller branches and their little twigs are hung with frost giving the appearance of early blossom.

I chose the view as I enjoyed the little building in front of the tower and it was best seen from the side of the road opposite a handy lay-by, which meant I could draw looking over the low wall until my hands were ready to drop off, and then get back into the car and turn the heater on until it was warm enough to hold a paintbrush and apply some washes in relative comfort.

There are numerous other view points here and I am looking forward to making return visits as I know from experience that when painting plein air, no two days are ever the same.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Happy New Year

                                                                Little Brown Tea pot

At this time of the year it is traditional to take stock of the year just gone and make plans for the year ahead, catch up on all those things which have been pushed to one side to do 'later' and, in my case, try and stock up on art materials.

Although it has been cold recently, it has not been soooo cold as to make it impossible to paint outdoors, even with watercolour. There is a certain beauty in the winter landscape and the recent frosts have turned the fields and hedgerows into a land of crystal enchantment as if from a fairy tale.

However, if you live in part of the world where winter really means FROZEN, then perhaps January should be dedicated to the art of Still Life. Even traditional subject matter can be inspiring if you are willing to experiment with composition, change the size or format of your usual paper or canvas, and play with colours not usually to be found on your palette. It's all about being creative. We are always learning, and this seems to be the ideal time of year to play with our materials and see where it leads us.

Some of my New Year resolutions;

- Travel further afield for plein air painting and sketching.
- Push boundaries more - don't just stick with what I know I can do.
-Make better use of my sketchbooks.

Oh, and
- Try to update this blog on a more regular basis than of late. Who knows? I might even make it through to February !