Friday, 16 January 2015

Drawing & Painting Nature (iv) - Up close and personal with Winter twigs !

I may well have written a post about winter twigs on the blog before, but it's that time of year again when my eyes are peeled looking at trees when I pass them, to see how the buds are coming along.

This time, with the help of some amazing close-up photos I can show you 3 tree species and their winter twigs and buds in minute detail.

It may seem that trees are more difficult to identify in the winter months, but rest assured it can be an easier task than you think.  If it is an isolated tree in the landscape you can quite often stand back and have a look at its overall shape, but if trees and shrubs are often bunched up together such as in a species rich hedgerow, it can be more difficult to tell.

The painting below is an old one called Twigs of Kingcombe Hedgerows.  It is an old favourite and always raises much discussion about the variety of colours and textures, as well as beauty in winter twigs.  It also shows that if you look carefully you can soon tell the differences and start to identify trees on your winter walks.

Can you tell what species they are ?

© Sarah Morrish.  Twigs of Kingcombe Hedgerows

For my latest project I do really have to get up close and personal with winter twigs and the characteristics of each tree species.  I need to know every single bit of detail, especially of the buds, as I am going to be producing enlarged paintings of the buds themselves.  They are not going to be HUGE reproductions of the buds, but probably 5-10 times their actual size dependant on the tree and shrub species being studied.  So, onto my research.

A photographer friend came for a visit with his super macro lens and carefully went to work in capturing so much detail.  I could see the detail under microscope but I also needed digital images for reference too.

Here I am measuring the length of an Alder bud

An Alder bud up close

The female cones of Alder become darker and shed their seeds during winter

The male catkins of Alder, new this year, which will eventually turn more yellow and pendulous

The young twigs of Dogwood can appear slightly downy, although they are smooth to the touch.
As they age they become more shiny and redder. 


I was amazed with what I saw through the microscope.  Looking at them with the naked eye you just couldn't see the 'hairyness' of the young buds and bud scales.

The female flowers of Hazel emerging from their buds.

An enlarged version of the bud.  Underneath my hand you can just see the scale bar of the actual size of this bud and flower.  Here I am using a sable spotter brush

The edges of the bud scales often have a fringe of pale coloured hairs in places.  Along with this the twigs can often be quite hairy.

The beauty of the male catkins of Hazel.  They slowly open and release the pollen which then makes its way in the breeze to the female flowers

In this image you can clearly see the lenticels on the twig.

I hope you have enjoyed this close up view of winter twigs and their buds.  This will be an ongoing project, so I am sure there will be plenty more blog posts showing further features of other tree and shrub species.

If you would like a further read of other news, my winter newsletter is now published.  If you click on the link at the top of the right hand column, you can view and read a PDF of it.

There is also a link below that, that will take you to the page on the Natures Details website of the Summer School courses coming up in 2015.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Drawing & Painting Nature (iii) - with all good intentions !

Wishing everyone a very happy and creative new year !

The change of routine over the Christmas break was a welcome respite from the intensity of last term and the lead up to Christmas.

I didn't abandon my creativity completely, and spent some time trying to finish a couple of paintings for the SBA exhibition coming up in April.  Still a bit more to go until I can reveal them in their entirety.  One thing I did want to do was to get outside and do some sketching at Titchfield Haven Nature Reserve.

I have spoken of this wonderful place before on this blog.  One end of the reserve overlooks the Solent towards the Isle of Wight and you have the reserve on one side of the road and the beach on the other.  At low tide I love exploring the shallow pools and scavenging for treasures to sketch along the strandline.

We had planned the day of our trip carefully, ensuring that we would go at low tide when some of the wintering birds may have been feeding on the scrapes area of the reserve.  The weather was icy cold and in the morning the reserve and surrounding area were covered in a mystical mist, that soon disappeared once the sun tried to push through.

Ice topped reeds on the reserve

Rather than take my full sketching field kit I had just packed an A4 cartridge pad and an F pencil.  I soon realised that I wouldn't be brave enough to sketch in the icy cold conditions, and I soon became mesmerised by looking through the camera lens and capturing what I saw in that way !  Nevertheless I came away with several images that I can incorporate into artwork.  

Wrapped up warm against the chill

Frozen lichen

A very distant view of a Kingfisher.  We watched it from one of the hides for about 5 mins, fishing from the 'bendy' reeds

Defrosting seeds and 'fluff' on a majestic Bullrush

The absolute highlight of the day was seeing a flock on Bearded tits move around the reserve.  These are birds that I have always wanted to see, I certainly wasn't disappointed !  

The first more distant image of the Bearded tits.  Despite not getting close-up images at this stage, it is always a delight to just stand and watch them and observe their feeding and communication behaviour.

I was in for a surprise after having a warming cup of tea in the cafe.  As we came out the Bearded tits had moved round to a point where you could really observe them closely, and the images below are the results.

If you would like to find out more about these stunning birds the RSPB has a good information page on the species.

Male (left) Female (right)

So the moral of this story, is not to become too bothered if field-sketching does not occur.  Just enjoy your time watching and observing the wildlife.

Meanwhile, in the studio I have had two visitors over the Christmas break.  Two Little owls on loan from the museum service.  My aim was not to complete a finished painting of them, but use them as reference for a study page in my natural history illustration sketchbook.

Little owl - work in progress.
Graphite pencil on cartridge paper.

Well, I hope you have enjoyed the first post of 2015.

Soon I will posting information about the courses and workshops that I will be teaching in 2015, along with exhibition dates too.

Can I just politely remind blog visitors, that all images on this blog are protected by copyright and may not be copied or reproduced in anyway.  I do not allow any images to be used on Pinterest.

Many thanks, happy painting !  Sarah

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Wishing you a Happy Christmas !

The blog will be having a little break over the Christmas period, but I just wanted to say a big thank you !
I really appreciate the support you have given me with the Natural Year Blog.  It is great to know that so many people can take an interest in the natural world and art across the world.
Christmas blessings and happiness to you all.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Drawing & Painting Nature (ii) - from museum specimens

There are many of us that love drawing and painting nature, but actually getting out there and building up field sketches can be difficult, especially if mobility is an issue, but also some species are rare or difficult to see.  Also, we may have to complete a commission and need to research for this.

Drawing from photos is ok, but you cannot really get the feel of the animal concerned, its form, proportions, the way it moves, its behaviours, true coat or plumage colour etc  These all go to making up a really good composition.

When I worked as an Ecologist doing wintering bird surveys (wildfowl and waders), there was never any time for sketching of course, but I spent hours identifying different birds and watching their behaviour, sometimes through a telescope, and this all helped to lay those foundations for accurate observation.

In the old days - not doing a bird survey, but watching Harbour porpoises in Scotland
So where else can we observe nature ?  We can of course visit wildlife parks and zoos, but it can be daunting standing or sitting there sketching with people peering over your shoulder.
The other resource available to us are museums.  The specimens are of course stationary (which is a help) and in some cases you may be able to 'go behind the scenes' and draw from their collections not on display. 
In today's world of budget cuts, some natural science collections do not have a specific person responsible for them, so arranging access to collections can be an issue if that person's time is limited.
I am very lucky to have access to a Museum Services natural science collection and over the last few months I have been able to spend several visits sketching insects and birds, with many other items still on my wish list, including fossils too !

Stag Beetles and Rose chafer beetles
So the aim of this blog post is to give you some hints, tips and interesting facts about using museum collections as subject matter.
  • Approach a museum service with a flexible approach in terms of when you can visit.  Be aware that if the staff have other short-notice commitments, these may have to take priority.
  • Be aware of what you are wearing.  If you have to handle specimens or move boxes some clothing can get in the way.  When I first visited, I was in the habit of putting my glasses on my head when I didn't need them - if you are peering over drawers of delicate insects this is a complete no no, you can imagine the damage if your glasses were to fall.
  • Follow instructions of the staff when handling specimens.  If you are not sure ASK. 
  • I was able to take this Stag Beetle out of the drawer, but I had to make sure it was pinned to a piece of the special foam.
  • Wash your hands before and after handling specimens.
  • Some specimens may be extremely old and therefore their condition may not be perfect.  Usually they are still useful in some way.  Sometimes if there is more than one specimen of a particular species, using several of them together to get the information you need for your study is a good idea.
  • Bird specimens will have been posed in a particular position and bear in mind that if using an older specimen, this pose may not be truly accurate. This may be due to the taxidermist not having been familiar with the species, or it may have been posed by a less experienced or 'hobby' taxidermist, as some of them were in the past.
  • You will often find that those specimens created and posed in Victorian times may not be as accurate as some of those posed in more modern times, such as the 1970's when taxidermy was still taking place.

  • Remember the specimens will have glass eyes, especially the birds.  So take this into consideration.  They can appear somewhat stark, so if you can look at photos or actual birds to get the feel and accuracy of a natural eye.
  • The plumage on this Tawny owl was in excellent condition and I could really observe the details and pattern, as well as formation of the wing feathers.

  •  There were several specimens of Kingfishers that had been posed in different behavioural positions - diving and flying, this was a great help.
  • Be aware that space may be limited.  It maybe a good idea to take a limited painting kit, very much like a painting field-kit.  Although you can see above that my paintbox was rather big !
  • Remember to take other useful items, such as a magnifying glass and of course a camera.

I realise of course this may not suit everyone, and you may not be happy with handling what are dead animals.  One thing to bear in mind is that even though many specimens were collected in a time when it was considered 'fashionable' and the only way to increase knowledge as an amateur naturalist, they have quite often been gifted to the museum service as a result of a benefactor's passing, in some cases several generations later.

It is far better to keep such collections together, rather than spilt them up and sell them for profit.  Using them for educational purposes, in whatever way has got to be more positive.  I know when I visit the museum service, they are just thrilled that the collections stored away are benefiting me in my development as an artist.

As a treat here is a video of my latest sketch completed this week.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

A purple problem !

For me purples can be a bit of a problem, I can never seem to get that really rich purple colour that I am trying to achieve, particularly the rich velvety purples that you see in pansies.  Also when requiring more of a rich blue-violet mix too.
You may wonder why I am concerned about this in the middle of winter ?  I ran out of time in the summer with one of my paintings - of Round-headed rampion.  This is a plant found on chalk grassland and can be seen on Old Winchester Hill in Hampshire, as well as a few other sites in the South Downs National Park.  So I need to get this painting finished using field sketches and photographs.

But what purple to use ?  When I mix my own initially the mix looks perfect, but then it dries a little dull.  Sandrine Maugy has also mentioned this in her book 'Colours of Nature' and goes onto say that this is a common problem with purples.

When I first started painting with watercolours, way back in the depths of time, I would always turn to Dioxazine violet based purples (PV23).  Over the years there has been much discussion about the lightfastness reliability of this pigment, so I have steered clear of it for a long time.  If you would like to read more about this issue, the Handprint website goes into more details.

One suggestion is to use either Indanthrene blue (PB60) or Ultramarine blue (PB29) mixed with Quinacridone violet (PV19).  (Upon further research I have discovered that Daniel Smith's Imperial purple contains these pigments PV19 & PV29 - so maybe that is worth a try ?)

Those of you that have followed by blog for a while, know that I am fascinated with colour and its properties.  I know I work with a limited palette of 6 colours for teaching, but what I call my 'studio palette' has far more colours in it, that of course I am always willing to add to !  The 6 colours form my 'foundation palette' and the others are often used alongside.

So it was with delight that I thought I may have found a solution to the 'purple problem'.

Daniel Smith's Primatek range of paints have some gorgeous colours, some of which granulate, which can be an advantage when painting some subjects.  These paints originate from naturally occurring pigments.  One of these is Amethyst genuine.

So yesterday I excitedly started doing a few colour tests and these are the results.

Left: Amethyst genuine mixed with Winsor blue red shade (W/N), Indanthrene blue (W/N) and French Ultramarine (W/N)
Right: Amethyst genuine mixed with Anthaquinoid red (D/S), Permanent rose (W/N), Old Holland magenta (O/H)
  The mixes retained their strength even once dried and produced a nice range of blue-based violets and red-based violets.  This colour is meant to granulate, but I found in stronger mixes of colour the granulation wasn't that obvious in the final results, but was more visible in lighter washes.

I thought a solution had been found, but once I looked closer I noticed that there was a slight sparkle to the dried areas of paint.  This is common with several of the Primatek colours because of the natural pigment qualities.  But do I really want a sparkling Round-headed rampion ???

The naturally occurring sparkle to some lovely purples !
One thing to bear in mind, is that I am likely to produce cards and prints from the finished painting, so the sparkle will be a hindrance rather than a help in the reproduction process.
I have decided to keep on investigating and may well try Daniel Smith's Imperial purple next.
It would be great to hear of any of your favourite purple mixes, and I will let you know how I get on with my next purple challenge.
Happy painting !

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Drawing & Painting Nature (i) - Butterflies & Moths

I thought that we could do with some memories of the summer as we progress through the winter, in whatever part of the world we may be in.

My camera is always close by my side, although I must admit nowadays it seems to be my camera phone.  We seem to be able to catch images of nature in an instant, and this has certainly been the case for butterflies and moths.  Whether it be when I am out for a walk, in the garden or even looking at the few dead specimens I have.

These colourful and fascinating creatures certainly do brighten up the summer and at the end of the season I am always left with a collection of images that I would like to incorporate into my artwork.

But how to go about drawing and painting from the images ?  I think the best thing for me to do is to break my approach down into stages:

  • Find out the species of butterfly/moth.  Ensure that you have correctly identified it.
  • If you are drawing and painting from photographs, ensure that you reproduce the drawing to the correct scale.  Find out the measurements and proportions of the species, before you even put pencil to paper.
  • If you only have one image, look at other images in books and on the internet to ensure that you have the right characteristics.  Remember that there may be colour differences, dependant on the quality of your image.  The patterns and colours may also differ between the sexes of the same species.
  • Do not just work from one image, use several to refer to.
  • In some instances, especially when drawing from a set dead specimen, you can draw one side of the butterfly and then flip it and trace it to draw the other side.  The symmetry of butterflies is great, but one thing to remember is that this will be more difficult to portray when using a photo as reference, due to perspective of the wings and the position the butterfly/moth may be in.

This Painted lady can be considered symmetrical, take note of how the pattern on the wings is identical on each side.  The red line acts as a central-axis from which to start the drawing.
  • Once the thorax and abdomen are drawn, draw the outline of the wings.  As well as using geometric shapes to help guide you (as above), you can also create other shapes, some forming a figure of 8.
 You can see the blue line depicting a figure of 8 over this image of an Orange-tip butterfly.  This helps to get the proportions of the wings correct.  I am also always comparing where things are in relation to each other e.g distance and angles between two features.

Again, with this image of a Peacock butterfly, you can see a figure of 8 in place to act as a guide.
  • Once the outline is in place the next very important step is to draw in the venation of the wings.  This is essential as these lines will act very much like a map, and if drawn correctly will guide you as to where each marking goes.
The venation is quite clear on this slightly battered specimen of a Swallowtail, and you can see clearly how this would help you define where the markings need to go.

  • Now onto the painting.  There are various techniques to use when painting butterflies, but the most important thing of all is to get the correct colour match.  Again, if working from photos make sure you work from several and research to find out the most likely match.
  • Butterflies and moths are often hairy on the abdomen, thorax and the base of the wings.  Once the main features and wings of the butterfly are painted, I then work on this hairy detail last of all, using a small spotter brush.  I often mix a little permanent white gouache in with the watercolour too.  The paint is then applied using a hatching technique which helps to portray the texture of the hair.

This section from my 'Circle of Habitats - Grafham Water NR' illustration, shows several butterflies and also a moth.  You can see the hairy and textured abdomen and thorax of the Tortoiseshell butterfly on the and also the more subtle texture on the Common blue butterfly (right).
Another painting technique used is stippling.  This is useful to use when depicting some of the markings.  It has to be remembered that each of the butterfly wings are made up of tiny scales, so a solid shape of colour would not necessarily portray this.
This Speckled Wood butterfly from the same illustration is composed of mainly browns and neutral colours.  It would be very easy to paint sections of the wings in solid colour, but even on such a small area, there are still going to be tonal variations, dependant on where the light is hitting the specimen and the individual scales too.  So it is just as important to build up areas of colour gradually from light to dark.
I hope this has given you a good starting point in illustrating butterflies and moths from photos.  There are many natural history illustrators with years of experience of illustrating Lepidoptera, so here are a few of the artists that inspire me, with links to their websites.
Tim Freed
There are also several conservation organisations here in the UK and also overseas, that help to conserve butterflies and moths, by taking part in research projects, monitoring programmes and also maintaining valuable habitats for these species.

In 2015 I will be teaching a workshop for the Society of Floral Painters on the theme of drawing & painting butterflies and other insects.
In addition there will also be another exciting opportunity to come and paint these subjects at a Natural History Illustration Summer School, that I will be teaching in the summer of 2015.
News of this and another summer school will be launched in the New Year - watch this space !