Saturday, 7 November 2015

Hairy buds - how do you paint them ??

Well, this is the dilemma that I have been facing over the last year.........

Painting twigs and buds almost x20 lifesize means that every single bit of detail shows, and yes you guessed it, some of them have hairs too.  Looking at the twigs with the naked eye, you would never believe that those hairs were even there !

This was the case with a Field maple twig, showing the terminal bud as well as the lateral buds.

The painting forms part of my collection of artwork, which will hopefully be exhibited with the RHS in 2016.  The title of the exhibit is: Twigs & Buds in Winter - from Trees & Shrubs of Ancient Hedgerows

So far this painting has been the most challenging, and in the lead up to it I tried several ways of depicting the fine hairs found on the buds and twig.
  • Using masking fluid - I can't stand the stuff but I gave it a go trying several makes along the way !  I used a ruling pen, dip pen and a fine brush and just couldn't get the results that I wanted.
  • Using white gouache/body colour - this I am used to and I like permanent white, particularly the Daler Rowney one.  When I use it I tend to apply it to the area concerned in the painting and then add the colour on top, even though it is usually only a subtle hint of colour and often a neutral shade, such as a 'botanical grey'.  The gouache was just looking too blue, so back to the drawing board !
  • Painting the areas around the hairs - the negative space - I just wasn't brave enough to do this !

So what did I use ?

I came across this liquid acrylic made by Golden.  It is not acrylic ink, but is still quite fluid and can be diluted too.
What appealed to me was that it was available in Titan buff, which is like a very pale beige and a far more natural looking colour than a stark white.

The lightfastness rating was good and I also looked at the other properties, which were clearly marked on the back of each bottle.  I certainly didn't want shiny looking hairs, but I still wanted a good degree of opacity !

I tried out various brushes and I am especially a fan of spotter brushes, particularly the firmer ones, which tend to made of man made fibres and not sable.
Rosemary & Co Series 307 are proving useful and I opted for size 3/0, a size I wouldn't normally use!

The titan buff on my palette.  I had diluted it with a tiny drop of water.

The development of one of the lateral buds.  When you view a twig and bud through a microscope it is amazing how the colours are often more intense than if you saw them with the naked eye.

Initially for the tiny hairs on the bud tip I used a neutral colour to create some form and texture and then used the liquid acrylic to introduce the lighter hairs and create even more depth.

The hairs on the main body of the twig were of varying lengths and densities so this presented as another challenge !  Shadows under some of the hairs were painted in and if the liquid acrylic was still too bright, I toned it down with a weak wash of a colour that I sometimes call 'dirty paint water' !

At this stage some of the hairs still need more of a highlight, but not all along each shaft, but where the hair bends and hits the light.  (Thanks to a very helpful and good friend for advising me on this).

So there you are, I faced the challenge head on.  I'm not saying it is the right answer, and another time I may approach the same challenge differently, but I am relived to have now finished this painting.

Previously, blogposts relating to my RHS project could be found only on my Art & the Hedgerow project blog, but in the lead up to the project being finished I will be posting on both blogs.

I will be at the Kingcombe Centre in Dorset from Tuesday 17th to Thursday 19th November, working on the project.  So if you are around why not pop in and say hello and see me at work. 

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Exploring your art materials - Graphite pencils

As with all new art materials that I purchase, I always want to give them a thorough testing, especially before I make any recommendations.

We perhaps take our graphite pencils for granted at times and don't really give them the attention they deserve, thinking that they are a tool that takes us part way to producing a painted picture, if that is to be our chosen end result.

I have tried many graphite pencils over the years and I can be really fussy about how they perform, both for line drawing and for tonal shading. 

Things I look out for are:

* How smooth they are on the paper - I don't want to feel a 'gritty' sensation when I am using it

* I want each grade of pencil to have a good contrast across its varying degrees of tone, as well as across the whole range of grades - some of the cheaper makes of pencil will not have this contrast and I have often had students turn up with the cheapest pencils they could find, only to discover that an H performs just the same as a 2B, with hardly any difference in the range of tones each pencil produces

* It has to feel comfortable in the hand - is it the right weight and is the barrel shape comfortable ?

What are my favourites so far ? :

* Faber Castell 9000 graphite pencil

* Caran D'Ache Grafwood graphite pencil

So why use another ?

I have been hearing good things about Tombow Mono 100 graphite pencils, so I decided to try them for myself.  If I am pleased with them, I am hoping to use them for a new project, but more about that towards the end of the year !

The pencils can be bought individually, in boxes of 12 of each grade and also an assortment box, which contains grades 6B - 4H

This is a screen shot from the Tombow (Europe) website, with suggestions as to what various grades of pencils are useful for

How do I test them ?

The first thing I always do (and get my students to do before they even start drawing) is to test the tonal range achieveable with each grade of pencil.

To do this you need to produce a tonal strip which will show the darker tones, through the mid-tones to the lighter tones for each grade.  This will always depend on the amount of pressure you apply.

So to achieve the darker tones you apply more pressure and then as you progress further along the strip you lighten the pressure.

Whilst producing the tonal strips I prefer to hold the pencil like this as I feel that the pressure I apply can be controlled more easily.

At the softer end of this pencil range (especially 6B-3B) I found that I could achieve a really rich intense black without applying too much pressure.  There was still a variation between each grade though.  
So if I wanted a more intense black for the darkest tones of a drawing, I would use one of the softer grades of pencil and the 6B would give me the absolute darkest tone.

There was no feeling of 'grittiness' at all across the whole range.  I am especially aware of this as I move through to trying the harder grades (F - 4H).                           

I often use these grades for line drawing, both in sketching and more detailed work, so it is essential that I am happy with the feel and results.

Filling in small circles and creating tonal spheres is also a good way to see the varying tones each pencil produces.

I tend to fill each circle with graphite by creating very small ellipses, blending as I go so that no lines are visible. 

When creating these I would hold the pencil in the normal way as I would for drawing.

As I mentioned before in some makes of pencil the harder grades can still feel too soft and may shed some graphite as you shade with them.  From H to 4H I do not want to see this happening as I often like to overlay my tonal drawings with a wash of transparent watercolour. If too much graphite is shed this will make the watercolour look 'dirty' when the wash is applied.   The Tombow pencils in these grades were very favourable.

I hope that you have found this insight into testing graphite pencils useful.

Below is an example of where a graphite tonal drawing has had watercolour applied on top of the shading.

This beautiful drawing of a Barn Owl was produced by one of my students on a recent course - Sketching the Beauty of Owls 
Bronagh created an accurate line drawing first and then carefully put in areas of shading using H & 2H pencils.  The watercolour wash was then applied over the top, using a transparent mix of watercolours.  Where more depth of colour was applied, additional watercolour washes were added.

One of my graphite pencil sketches of a Tawny owl chick, drawn from a museum specimen.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

'A cracking good egg' - eggs and art

You know me, always fascinated by so many aspects of the natural world, and I am always up for illustrating subjects that don't always appeal to others.

Eggs are one of those subjects ......

This fascinating image of a variety of eggs was illustrated by Adolphe Millot (1857-1921), a French natural history artist who was Senior Illustrator at the Museum Nation d'histoire Naturelle.  The image was published in Paris by the Librarie Larousse (1897-1904)

It shows the eggs of various birds, a reptile, various cartilaginous fish, a cuttlefish and various butterflies and moths.

Previously I have had a commission for an illustration of Gull's eggs.  These eggs can only be collected under license and in the past the collecting of these eggs was common place along areas of the coast.  Many years ago they provided a rich food source, but in recent times they have become a delicacy in high class restaurants, with individual eggs costing a lot of money.

Now the license holders are few and far between.  Even though gulls seem common place in many of our towns and cities, in actual fact many of the species are in decline.

Gull's eggs can vary considerably in shape and colouration and can at times be quite elongated, like the one on the far right.

Quail's eggs are great fun to illustrate.

I was given a whole tray of Quail's eggs and many of them had some lovely colour combinations and patterns.  Most of them were considered too 'different' to be packaged up for sale in shops, so yours truly had the great opportunity to make her choice.  This has proved a popular painting, and several others have followed after this one was sold.

Hen's eggs - from Aurora, Twinkle and Star

Now for something a bit more subtle.  My friend gave me some freshly laid eggs and prior to cooking them I did this quick sketch.  The Daniel Smith Primatek colours came in useful for this painting, although unfortunately I didn't make a note of which ones I used.

More recently, I was given a Robin's nest.  The nest had been abandoned in early summer and throughout the summer the eggs within had remained intact. 

Painting a tiny Robin's egg on vellum.  Once finished, this will be part of a series of small paintings which will be framed using the frame seen above.

The small book is the Observer's book of Bird's Eggs, a book I have had since childhood.

The subtle colours of burnt sienna, natural sienna, buff titanium and graphite grey were all used in this painting (all Daniel Smith colours)

The pale creamy colour of the natural calfskin vellum was perfect for this subject and the graphite grey watercolour was used for the areas of shadow.

Now for some COLOUR !

This painting I called 'Dream Eggs'.  After painting one of the Quail's Eggs paintings, I felt that I needed to splash some colour around.
All of the patterns and colours are created by me, although of course there are some similar representations in the natural world.

It is hard to believe that out of all of the entire array of egg colours and patterns, only two colour pigments are responsible - a reddish brown and a bluish green.  Scientists have been investigating this for many years, and it was only in the 1970's that progress was made.

To read more about this fascinating discovery go the Audubon website.

Hard to believe that all of these colours and patterns are the results of just two pigments !

For further fascinating facts about bird's eggs why not have a look and listen at BBC Radio 4 Natural Histories series of programmes ?

Happy painting !

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Drawing Birds - here's one approach

After another successful Summer School Course, this time illustrating birds, I thought some of you would like to see the approach I take to drawing these wonderful creatures.  I drew and painted birds before I ever took up botanical art work, and through my life I have taken several approaches before I settled on one that I use most of the time.  It was quite reassuring to find that other bird artists follow similar approaches, as I discovered when purchasing the book mentioned below.

As with a lot of natural history illustration, nothing beats drawing from life and working in the field.

John Muir Laws has several wonderful quotes in his book 'The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds'

'The purpose of field-sketching is to learn from nature.  Train yourself to look and look again until you see.  Do not worry about making pretty pictures; instead focus on documenting on what you earn during a direct encounter with nature'
'A field sketch is not about making a perfect illustration; instead it is a tool that allows you to look more closely'
'The sketching process cements memories in your mind'
This very quick pencil and wash sketch of a Blue tit was one of my very fist field sketches.  It is very small and only measures about 6 x 5 cms.  It still sits a bit tattered on my pin board in the studio.
In reality sketching out in the field is not always possible.  When starting to draw birds it can be daunting sitting in a public place such as a bird hide or park, whilst people may look over your shoulder.  Using your garden is a different matter and I encourage this as much as possible, when observing birds but also when starting to make the first few tentative sketches.  Remember, nobody else has to see them !
I can hear you saying 'what about using photographs ?'  This is often frowned upon by some natural history artists, some of the reasons I totally agree with.  But using photographs alongside other resources can create a more holistic approach and encourage people to actually get out there to sketch too.
The resource table at the Summer School Course.  Not only photographs but also taxidermy specimens of birds, bird id guides, books from bird illustrators and examples of other artwork.
If using photographs you do need exceptionally good images and I am lucky that I have a good library of my own images, but also access to other images from a photographer friend.
For the Summer School we used the resources seen above all in combination with photographs. 
Each coloured photo had an accompanying black and white image, as near to scale as possible.  This enabled the students to really look at the details without being distracted too much by colour and pattern.

The central red line is the first line that is always drawn.  This helps to indicate the posture of the bird.  The angle of this line can vary considerably according to what the bird is doing.

If this line is drawn accurately, the rest of the drawing becomes easier.
The two green circles/ovals seen above in the first picture of course indicate the approximate shape of the body and head.
I have always found it easier to draw the body shape first, rather than the head.  If drawing the head first it is very easy to make it too large.

Once these two circles are accurate the outline of the bird can be drawn in.  Dependant on the position of the bird, some of these lines may be quite angular, so be aware of the outer shape and be careful not to make a bird look too rounded.

For the other details look closely at the groupings of the feathers and the direction that they may take.  These groupings can sometimes go across several areas of patterns, according to what bird species it is.

For this drawing of a Wren there was not a great deal of colour and pattern variation when comparing it to a Great tit for example, but I still needed to observe the directions and groupings of the feathers.

The next stage is to ensure that the wing and tail feathers are accurate.  In addition the angle of the tail needs to look realistic too.
Next we moved onto painting our drawings using artists quality gouache on coloured mountboard.

I'll be talking more about using gouache for bird paintings in a later blog post

Can you guess what bird this paint palette was for ??

The bird illustrations taking shape as the we moved through the 2 days of the course.
We also had a visitor that stayed around for the second day of the course.

The final pieces.  Everybody worked so hard and really enjoyed discovering more about their bird species and how versatile gouache can be - more about gouache in a later blog post !
The next course will be even more exciting as we will be using live birds as our subject matter !
Cherry and her beautiful owls Beebo and Eddi from the New Forest Owl Studio, will be paying us a visit in October for the 'Sketching the beauty of Owls' course


Monday, 27 July 2015

'Deeply Dippy' & Meeting the Devon Sketchbook

After spending a lovely week in Devon, I thought I would share with you some of our revisits and discoveries and how I documented them in a small concertina sketchbook that I made especially for the trip.

You may wonder why this blogpost is called 'Deeply Dippy' (copying the name of the song by Right Said Fred !)  Well, it kept coming into my mind when we had several opportunities to see one of my favourite birds - the Dipper.

I had previously seen Dippers in Snowdonia, but it had always been my wish to see them in Devon, slightly closer to home and their characteristic dipping movement.  I knew that they were often seen on the River Dart, which flows from Dartmoor down to Dartmouth and Kingswear, on the south coast of Devon.

We were lucky that the Dart flowed through the land belonging to the cottage of where we were staying, Apple Loft Cottage adjacent to Kilbury Manor near Buckfastleigh.  On our first evening my wish was granted and we saw 2 Dippers as well as several Kingfishers that flew at speed past us.

The 'golden' waters of the River Dart
Looking southwards along the river.  In the evening the Kingfishers would come from this direction and I presume return to their roost sites further up stream.
 The South Devon Steam Railway was nearby and one evening we watched several Dippers use a log below the bridge to perch on and occasionally go into the water looking for food.  We also noticed a couple of them fly in and perch on the brick work at strange angles, very much like a Nuthatch.  Perhaps they were on the look out as they came into roost before they went to the overhanging roots on the opposite bank of the river.

My only image of a Dipper.  Unfortunately the light was going.
This particular evening we saw 6 birds.  2 of them seemed to be flying to another territory whilst the other 4 were a family group that looked to be 2 adults and 2 juveniles.  We sat there for near on and hour as they fed at the waters edge and went in and out of their tree roots roost.

When we got back to the cottage I did a 'memory' sketch, as I had stupidly forgot to take my sketching kit down to the river.
The 'Dipper' page from the sketchbook (I used a reference photo) to complete the sketch.  The small sketch above the bird is of the perch that they used under the railway bridge.
Another favourite place that we visited was Wistmans Wood.  A small upland Oak woodland where the trees are hundreds of years old and grow stunted and twisting between the granite rocks on the valley side.

Left: Wistmans Wood can be seen on the right of the valley in the distance of this image.

Once inside the woodland there is something very special about it.  Some people call it 'spooky' but I definitely don't consider it this.  There is something about it though, and when there are no other visitors around you certainly feel at one with nature and landscape history.

Sunlight through the trees.  The branches are 'dripping' with lichens, ferns and mosses. 

The rocks are also covered with numerous mosses and on this visit some of them were home to English stonecrop, a delicate whitish pink flower with succulent type leaves.

Sketching in Wistmans Wood
Left: The Dartmoor bog page and right: The Wistmans Wood page in the sketchbook.

One trip we were really looking forward to was going out on a rigid inflatable (RIB) from Dartmouth and out to sea to the Mew Stone, a rocky outcrop where a variety of seabirds roost and Grey seals can often be seen hauling themselves up on to it as the tide changes.

It was very tricky to take any photos as we were perched on the inflated side of the boat hanging onto a rope to ensure that we didn't fall in !  We motored gently out of the harbour and noticed several Barrel jellyfish, but once in the open sea we moved at speed, which I must admit was very exhilarating !
As we reached the Mew Stone you could see the zones on the rocks of where different lichens grew and therefore produced these bands of colours in some areas.  The rocks almost glowed in the sun as the golden lichens shone out.  Seabirds were perched in several places and the rocks were bleached by bird guano.
A Cormorant perched on an area of the Mew Stone.
Just before we started to head back to Dartmouth husband spotted a Grey seal.  It was near the base rocks and then we noticed it playing with a bouy which it actually seemed to detatch from its rope.  It was great fun to watch as the boat bobbed up and down and I think it is good not to have photos of everything you see, memories are so important.

The Mew Stone sketchbook page.  As we docked at the quayside there was a small jellyfish in the waters known as a Compass jellyfish, so that made its way into the sketchbook too.
A bit more about the sketchbook
It was created using scraps of mountboard covered in coloured paper.
The internal pages were made from a sheet of Fabriano Artistico HP 140lb watercolour paper, folded into the chosen size.  This was great to use as it took a good amount of paint without buckling.
The end pages were then glued onto the covered board using an acid free glue.
A ribbon was attached to the back cover so that it could be held together when not in use.

There's not too much time to sit back and reminisce as next week I am teaching a Natural History Illustration Course at the Kingcombe Centre in Dorset. I'll be blogging daily from the course and you can catch the blog posts on my other blog Art & the Hedgerow.
Just a polite reminder that all images on this blog are protected by Copyright and are the property of myself Sarah Morrish at Natures Details. No images may be reproduced or copied in any form, unless permission is sought from myself.