Friday, 3 October 2014

Fun with Fungi !

Those of you that follow my blog may already know that I am fascinated by fungi, looking for these wonderful organisms and also painting them.

Well, at last I have finally finished producing my latest tutorial video on 'Drawing & Painting Fungi'.

It is a collection of some of my favourite fungi photographs, as well as some ecological facts and of course some hints and techniques on illustrating this inspiring subject matter.

Why not have a look ? (click on the image below).

This is just a quick blog post as I am busy packing up for my week's teaching in Dorset, which starts on Monday.

The Kingcombe Meadows Nature Reserve and the Kingcombe Centre, will no doubt provide some wonderful inspiration and subject matter for the course - Painting Autumn fruits, berries and seedheads (and hopefully a few fungi too !)

A Bracket fungi growing on a tree in the New Forest, Hampshire, UK

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Part 2: Botanical Painting & Technology - apps and more

Since I wrote the last blog post on this subject, I have had the opportunity to explore some of the apps (applications) available for use on tablet computers.

I will say first of all, that I am not endorsing any of the suggested apps, I am hopefully opening the doors of thought, as to whether there are any apps that can work alongside botanical art in all its stages.

When I was on the course at the Chelsea Physic Garden,  the majority of the apps that we looked at were compatible with Ipads, but there were many similar ones that work just as well with an Android operating system.

Colour references
Could there be a place for using tablets when working in the field ?  Perhaps for taking colour references ?

There are apps that incorporate the Pantone, CMYK, RGB colour range palettes.  These are standard colour palettes and each colour within has a code number, and as such could be used to match colours against natural objects, and then we record on the tablet or on paper what those colours are for a particular subject.  I must admit I would feel that I am missing out on the exciting process of creating those colours myself using watercolours, but perhaps if we are in environments where the sketching field kit cannot come out, it may be an option.

Another way of creating colour palettes is by using an app that converts the colours from your digital images into a palette.  There are several apps that do this.  The one I tried for Android is called Real Colours - Palette GeneratorYou can basically, take a photo with your tablet camera and then import it into the app, which will then generate the palette on your screen alongside the image.

As you can see above, only 5 colours were generated but you also get a range of colours in the middle section of the screen.  Other apps available may well generate a wider range of colour swatches.
Could it be useful ?  I tend to only use photos for reference when painting botanical portraits, but I think this is a bit of fun that lets you look at the colours found in objects in a new way.
Digital sketching and painting
Personally, I haven't used any of the apps available for this.  It is an interesting concept, but I am sure the stylus sensitivity may be an issue if we are wanting to produce fine detailed drawings. 
An Android app that you can use for sketching and painting is called Paper Artist.  For Ipads there are several apps available:
  • Artrage
  • Paper53
  • Brushes Ipad edition
  • Brushes 3 - that I believe has been used by David Hockney
Other apps
There are several apps that I have started using, some prior to attending the course.  One that I particularly like is called Photo Collage.  I can import images and edit them with the app in different page formats.  This I am finding particularly useful for step by step images of artwork that I can show on the blog and the Natures Details Facebook page. 

Choose the page layout
Add the images
Generate the collage
Once created the collage can be shared immediately by social media or alternatively you can save it and use at a later date.  I also use it to produce collages of plants in their habitats. The resolution that the collage is saved at is ok for internet use, but if you try and print it off or enlarge it the quality is not so good.  Personally, I see this as an advantage, that would hopefully deter people from taking your images.
Creating short videos using Animoto
This is a more recent app that I have discovered.  In the 'lite' version of the app you can upload a total of 12 still images, and any title pages would be included within these 12 too.  There was one particular template I liked and there is also a choice in music.
I think this app is fine for producing short videos of your work, particularly showing a step by step approach, but to get more from the app you would need to upgrade to the paid version which gives you more capacity.
Apps used for reference
There are many apps available to use for reference, some better quality than others.  Those of better quality seem to be more available for Ipads.  Nevertheless I did find some useful apps for Adroid.
Rogers Mushrooms: Fungi Identification Guide - this app comes in two versions 'lite' and a paid version and is compatible for Ipad and Android.  It is based on the popular id books by Roger Philips and covers species of fungi from both Europe and North America.
Tree Id: British Tree Identification Guide - this app is a detailed in what it describes as the native tree species found in the UK.  There seems to be lots of information to read, but I am yet to discover the variety of images available.  I am hoping there will also be images of individual leaves as well as the tree in situ.
RSPB Guide to British Birds - this app is the interactive companion to the book of the same name.  Although obviously not botanical, it would be of interest to those who enjoy many aspects of natural history.
Audobon guides - there seems to be quite a few available on varying themes connected to the natural world.  Most of the apps are also available for Android.
Flora EU - I have not viewed this app as it is not available for Android.
Unfortunately I could not find what I considered a quality guide to UK & European wild flowers for Android.  The alternative way to having this information is to download an e-book, of which there are several available from the Collins Id series.
Leafsnap - this is an app that at the moment is only available for Ipads.  I really do hope they bring out an Android version soon.
The idea is that the app identifies trees from the photos you take of their leaves.  There is a USA and UK version, the latter that has been developed in conjunction with The Natural History Museum, London.
Other tablet accessories
Whilst on the course with Elaine Searle, she recommended the Hoverbar available for Ipads.  It holds the Ipad in place and also has a flexible arm, so that the Ipad can be moved into any position.  She has the Hoverbar clamped to her easel whilst she is working.
To see more about this accessory go to:  Twelve South
There are many other similar clamps available of varying prices, but as of yet I have not tried any of them.
One other accessory that I found particularly useful was a card reader, so that you can download images from your camera to your tablet. 
Some people say how inconvenient it is not to have USB ports on tablet computers to enable you to do this.
Apple have one available for Ipads which connects to the power charging socket on the device.  There are also card readers available for other makes of tablet computers.
Well, I have come to the end of these two blog posts on technology and botanical art and I hope you have discovered some information that will be of use.
I still consider myself very much a traditionalist, but I do feel that there is a place for technology to help us in our pursuit of botanical knowledge and excellence.  Personally, it is the digital imagery aspects relating to my own photos that I find most useful.
I will be taking a break from the blog over the next few weeks.  It will be the beginning of my botanical art courses soon, all of which are full, and I will also be teaching a residential course in Dorset at the beginning of October.
Don't forget that I have my second solo exhibition coming up in November too !
Happy painting everyone !

Monday, 8 September 2014

Part 1: Botanical Painting & Technology - how useful are tablet computers ??

We may think that technology and botanical painting are poles apart, but if we think carefully we soon realise that there are several forms of technology that we use in our effort to reach botanical perfection.  A few things that come to mind are:

  • Digital cameras
  • Digital microscopes (connected to computers by a USB port)
  • Computers for research - either on specific plants, habitats, historical botanical art, viewing artist's websites, blogs etc
  • Online learning opportunities - either linked to an institution or individual tutor
  • YouTube - viewing 'how to' videos
  • Lightboxes - to trace our work
  • Desk-top publishing software - fine-tuning our images as near to the original as we can
  • Creating our own websites - either a templated site or building our own
I am sure there are probably more, but the purpose of this post is to talk about how useful tablet computers are to the botanical artist.

Last week I was fortunate to attend a workshop at the Chelsea Physic Garden with Elaine Searle.

The course title was 'Tablet Computers: friend or foe for the botanical artist'.  As a recent convert to using a tablet, I wanted to know if there were any other ways that I could use it in botanical art.  I had discovered a few for myself but wanted to learn more.

Elaine admitted that she is not an IT specialist, but as 'an early adopter of the tablet', namely the iPad, she has had the opportunity to explore its many uses.

A 'friendly' and useful Powerpoint presentation supported Elaine's teaching and the day soon developed into an open-forum but structured workshop.  The main focus centred around 3 areas:

  • Reference
  • Research
  • Creation
Below I will talk about how Elaine uses her tablet in these areas, and the way I use it is in blue.

  • Aide memoirs - taking photos with the tablet to record plants in gardens and other habitats. These photos are often used as a reference for possible subjects to paint.
  • I use my tablet (an Android model) to store similar images for the same purpose.  I prefer to use the camera on my phone which is superior to the one on the tablet, but because both are of the same make, compatibility is not an issue and files are transferred via Bluetooth.
The highly protected habitats found on Old Winchester Hill.  A perfect example of where photography does play a part alongside drawing special habitats.  
  • Specimens - reference photos for light on form. A plant is set up with controlled light conditions and this forms part of Elaine's preparation work.
  • This is something that I do not do specifically, but I can see how useful it can be, especially in teaching form and tone.
  • Specimen - reference for detail. These tend to be close up images to capture detail and botanical characteristics.
  • This is something I have been doing a lot of and find particularly beneficial from a botanical artist's perspective but for me it has also helped to alleviate eye-strain.  I find that I am using a magnifying glass less because I can zoom in to the image on the screen and have the tablet next to me whilst I work.  When taking a close up picture of a leaf for example, I will try and make sure there is always an indication of scale in the image, and I usually use a small plastic ruler. Alternatively, a piece of graph paper is useful.
Using a small ruler to indicate scale in plant photography
  • Sequential - images of painting in progress.  Very beneficial for students to see the progress of a painting through several stages to completion.
  • I like to take stage by stage photos too and as most of you know I use them on here in blog posts, but also on Facebook and for teaching.  Recently I have found an app that converts several images into a collage, which is useful for this approach (we will talk more about apps later).
  • Elaine produces short video demos that she can use in workshops.  These can be shown 1-2-1 or through a digital projector.
  • I thought this was a great idea.  So far I have just used my tablet to show my YouTube botanical art videos to very small groups of students or individuals.
Botanical Painting Reference
  • As a tablet is so portable, Elaine has a gallery of her own paintings stored on hers.  This means it is easily accessible and can be shown to students and prospective buyers.
  • I have started this, but I have to remember to keep it up to date, especially during busy times.
  • Examples of historic and contemporary botanical art can be stored in 'albums' for easy recall. These serve as inspiration, but can also be used as a teaching resource.
Summary - Part 1
One of the main comments from the day was that colour representation seemed to be better and more consistently accurate on a good quality tablet computer, than a normal PC.

In addition, we discussed the accessories available to hold tablets upright in our work area, other gadgets and also the use of apps.  
So as not to bombard you with too much information I will talk about these in the next blog post.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Watercolour paper - trying a different texture/grain

With the style of artwork that I create, I mostly use hot-press watercolour paper whereby the surface of the paper is very smooth.  This is due to being passed through hot rollers during the manufacturing process.  I can achieve very fine detail and it is also more beneficial to work on a smooth surface if the painting is going to be reproduced for illustrative purposes.

Occasionally I will use cold-press paper which is normally considered to have a more textured surface than hot-press.  I like using this for natural history illustration, especially when I am using granulating colours.  I love seeing the effect of these paints on the paper and how the paint often separates and settles into the shallow textured surface of the paper.

As we gain experience of using different watercolour papers, it is good to try a variety even if they are all of the same grain or texture.  A hot-press paper made by one company can be totally different to that made by another.  I go into more detail about this in two previous blog posts:

Choosing watercolour paper for botanical drawing and painting - part 1

Choosing watercolour paper for botanical drawing and painting - part 2

Where do I buy my paper ?
I buy Fabriano Artistico watercolour paper (HP) in traditional white and extra white from either Jacksons Art Supplies or Great Art.  In recent times I have been painting mostly using the extra white.
A year or two ago I placed an order for HP and unfortunately there were dispatch problems from the factory and I was mistakenly sent Fabriano Artistico in a surface texture that I had not heard of before.  I opted to keep it as I was intrigued to see what this paper could be used for.
It wasn't HP and neither CP.  After a bit of research I discovered the surface was called soft-pressed !  This meant it fell into a category between HP and CP.
What was needed was a test of this paper to see how it behaves.  Needless to say I have only just got round to it !
What does it look like ?
Looking at it the paper looks like a CP paper, but look closer and you will see that the undulations and texture on the surface are much closer together.
From Handprint
Here you can see the grain of the texture of the paper
What colour does it come in ?
Only in extra white
What weights and formats is it available in ?
300 and 640 g/m (square) in sheets and rolls.  (I was using the 640 weight).
On another note, it is 100% cotton and is internally and externally sized.
What is it like to paint on ?
This is the big question !  It is smoother to paint on than you think it is going to be.  It is very absorbent (reminds me a little of painting on Saunders Waterford HP).  I liked the way the paint moved on the paper in both fluid washes and with dry brush work. 
Disadvantages - yes there was a couple !  Because of its absorbency the paint went into the paper quite quickly (this may not suit some painters), this meant there was less time to complete any lifting of colour, for example if I wanted to retain or re-establish areas for highlights.  Although I didn't do huge amounts of this, I can imagine the surface not being that durable to a bit of wear and tear. 
If you want to get ultra-sharp detail, you may struggle to achieve this, but never the less I was pleased with the results.
What would I use it for ? 
You could use it for botanical painting, but I am really, and I mean really enjoying using it for painting birds.  My latest painting 'Yaffle' is being completed on it (painted in Schminke Artists gouache), but you will have to wait to see that !
I am also going to use it for my study sheets and I have even made this concertina sketchbook with it.
Rowan study sheet

Concertina sketchbook.  The covers of the book were cut out of grey board and covered in some delightful wrapping paper that I already had.  They were made slightly bigger than the paper itself to provide more protection to the pages within.  A ribbon was added to help keep the book closed.

Why haven't I heard of it before ?
Apparently, it used to be known as UNO.  Fabriano decided to re-brand it as Artistico Extra white.  The rough and CP textures were re-formulated but the SP and HP remained the same standard.
To read more about the original UNO paper, there is a good description and evaluation on the Handprint website 

Monday, 1 September 2014

New Year in September ???

Of course the title of this blog post refers to the academic year ! 

For me, a lot of my teaching takes place at Peter Symonds College AHED in Winchester, Hampshire.  So I am automatically tuned into the academic year.

For me it is an exciting time of year, new courses, new students, returning students, and of course so many inspirational subjects as we enter the Autumn.  There is a lot to be happy about.

The Summer holidays have been busier than normal with the opportunity to provide teaching at home for small groups of students and I also have several art projects I am working on long-term.  I also had been booked to teach a workshop for the Bristol and North Somerset Botanical Painting Society, on the subject of feathers, it was also nice to venture further afield with my teaching.

Garden painting day - Summer 2014
Introducing the delights of painting feathers
So what is in plan for the Autumn you may ask ??
The courses I am running at Peter Symonds AHED can be found on my website.  They include:
  • Botanical Art - Drawing & Painting Techniques - Beginners
  • Botanical Art - Drawing & Painting Techniques - Improvers/Intermediates - This course is full
  • Botanical Art - An Introduction to Drawing & Painting Techniques - NEW EVENING COURSE
  • Understanding Colour - using watercolour effectively - NEW AFTERNOON COURSE
  • There are also two Saturday workshops, one in the Autumn and the other in the Spring.
The last course is a very new one, and I am delighted that I have been given the opportunity to share my knowledge and passion of colour.  During my other courses we always spend a couple of sessions on colour theory and mixing, but it is never long enough, so to be able to design a whole course on the subject is very exciting !
In October I am teaching my first residential Botanical Art course, for 5 days.  It is taking place at the delightful Kingcombe Centre, set in the middle of the Kingcombe Meadows Nature Reserve, which consists of historical meadows, woodland and the most amazing ancient hedgerows.  All of these habitats are abundant with subjects for painting and in the Autumn the hedgerows are dripping with fruits and berries !  You can read more about the course here.
Black bryony berries © Sarah Morrish
With the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust I will be teaching 2 workshops this Autumn.
  • Natural World Print-making at Swanwick Lakes Nature Reserve on Saturday 18th October.
  • Drawing & Painting Autumn Fruits and Seedheads at Swanwick Lakes Nature Reserve on Saturday 8th November
For details on booking etc, have a look on Natures Details Workshops & Courses page.
Now for saving a very good piece of news until last, I will be having a second solo exhibition in November.  This will be taking place at Hardings Framers and Gallery in Warsash and will last for two weeks.  There will be a variety of work on display, both botanical and natural history themed, varying in size, and also cost, so there will be something for everyone.  More news to follow soon.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Painting a Sand dollar & using masking film

 I can't believe that it has been nearly a month since my last blog post.  What a busy old month it has been, more of that news later.

The sand dollar - I always admired these when my cousin brought some of her discovered treasures back from Florida, but had never had one myself to draw and paint.  Recently, a lovely friend gave me one and I was looking forward to portraying it. 

But what are sand dollars ?

"Live Sand Dollar trying to bury itself in beach sand" by John Tracy from Snellville, GA, USA - End of the line. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
As I was totally oblivious to their origins an internet search revealed more.  This is what Wikipedia had to say on the subject:
The term sand dollar (or sea cookie or snapper biscuit in New Zealand, or pansy shell in South Africa) refers to species of extremely flattened, burrowing sea urchins belonging to the order Clypeasteroida. Some species within the order, not quite as flat, are known as sea biscuits. Related animals include the sea urchins, sea cucumbers and starfish.
Sand dollars, like all members of the order Clypeasteroida, possess a rigid skeleton known as a test. The test consists of calcium carbonate plates arranged in a fivefold radial pattern.  In living individuals the test is covered by a skin of velvet-textured spines; these spines are in turn covered with very small hairs (cilia). Coordinated movements of the spines enable sand dollars to move across the seabed. The velvety spines of live sand dollars appear in a variety of colors—green, blue, violet, or purple—depending on the species. Individuals which are very recently dead or dying (moribund) are sometimes found on beaches with much of the external morphology still intact. Dead individuals are commonly found with their empty test devoid of all surface material and bleached white by sunlight.
The term "sand dollar" derives from the appearance of the tests (skeletons) of dead individuals after being washed ashore. The test lacks its velvet-like skin of spines and has often been bleached white by sunlight. To beachcombers of the past, this suggested a large, silver coin, such as the old Spanish or American dollar (diameter 38-40mm).
Other English names for the creatures include sand cake and cake urchin. In South Africa, they are known as pansy shells from their suggestion of a five-petaled garden flower. The Caribbean sand dollar or inflated sea biscuit, Clypeaster rosaceus, is thicker in height than most.
In Spanish-speaking areas of the Americas, the sand dollar is most often known as galleta de mar (sea cookie); the translated term is often encountered in English.

"Leodia sexiesperforata derivada 2013" by Louis Agassiz (Motier, 28 de mayo de 1807, - Cambridge, 14 de diciembre de 1873) - Leodia sexiesperforata, figura de Agassiz (1841) aparecida en: Agassiz, Louis (1841) Monographies d'échinodermes vivans et fossiles [Tome 2]. aux frais de l'auteur.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Those of you that follow me on Facebook at Natures Details would have seen the images of the finished result, but I promised I would write more about the painting process as well as the use of masking film, a new thing for me to try.

I drew the sand dollar using a 2H pencil on HP Fabriano Artistico 140lb.
Rather than leave a 'white' background to the picture, I wanted to portray some texture using several paint effects.
First though, I had to mask out the shape of the sand dollar, as I didn't want to get this area marked with paint.  What to use ?  I don't like masking fluid, so I thought I would try masking film.
It is very easy to use and this particular one has a matt surface so that it can be drawn on.
Basically, it is a low-tack plastic, that can be removed easily from the paper.
1. I first cut out a small square to cover the area of the sand dollar and applied it to the paper, leaving no air bubbles.
2. Next I drew over the outline of the sand dollar visible through the film with a fine line permanent pen.
3.  I removed the whole piece of masking film and then cut around the drawn shape.
4. The shape of masking film was then re-applied to watercolour paper and I was ready to apply the paint !

To get the first paint effect, that will represent a stony / sandy texture, I used a foam washing up pad.  I roughly cut out a shape to remove the straight edges of the pad.
1. I chose some 'earthy' colours from my palette and mixed up a good amount of each colour.  The first colour was a sand colour.  This I applied to the pad using a paintbrush.  If you were to dip the pad into a puddle of paint, it would soak up too much paint and the resulting pattern would be too loose and moist. 
2. The pad was then pushed gently onto the watercolour paper, transferring the pattern of the pad onto the paper.
3.  Once this was done, individual stones / grains of sand were painted in using a number 3 brush.  The colours were mixes that included burnt sienna, raw umber, burnt umber and natural sienna, with a little French ultramarine added when a more muted brown was required..
4. The second paint effect was splattering.  (The moral of the story - cover everything around you, unless you want to splatter other stuff as well !).  I used the same colours as before, in a slightly stronger mix and held a paintbrush over the painting tapping the handle with my finger to achieve the splattering effect
5. Once the paint was dry I was able to remove the masking film.

Now on to painting the sand dollar itself.
1. Using a size 5 brush the body of the sand dollar was painted using a light wash of buff titanium, a really handy opaque colour from Daniel Smith. 
2. To build up slightly darker areas and to give the sand dollar more form, I mixed a neutral /grey wash using French ultramarine, quinacridone gold and perylene maroon.  This applied using a size 2 spotter brush.  You can see how I have applied the paint in almost a stipple effect in the bottom picture around the outer edges of the sand dollar.
3. A darker mix of the neutral wash was used to paint in the fine detail, again using a size 2 spotter brush
4. In addition, a shadow was painted in around the subject using shadow violet (DS).

The finished results.
I really enjoyed completing this painting, it was fun to use paint in a different way.
This picture along with a few others will be making it way towards my second solo exhibition, which will be taking place in November.  More to follow on that soon !
Whilst reading up on sand dollars, I came across this video on Youtube, that shows these amazing creatures in action - Enjoy !

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Busy Bees in the garden and a pop-up classroom !

This weekend we have seen an influx of bees in the garden.  This summer the buzz of bees in the garden has been reduced.  There is some thought that the very wet winter and then the early spring and summer may have had an affect on wildlife, and apparently there are already signs of an early autumn.
A few weeks ago this was reported in the Guardian newspaper, with National Trust naturalist Matthew Oates, providing some of the facts:

The Heleniums - Helenium Mardi Gras, have been providing a wonderful array of colour in the garden.  This is their 2nd year and they have really 'bushed' out.  These Honeybees have been taking full advantage of the ready supply of nectar. 
Below is a what I think is a Buff-tailed bumblebee  Bombus terrestris feeding on  Knautia macedonica 'Melton Pastels' 
Below is a bumblebee (unsure of species), feeding on Helenium 
Honeybee on Verbena bonariensis
A new plant I have recently acquired is a newly introduced Echinacea.  It has a fantastic name - Echinacea 'Tomato Soup'.  Very apt for its redness !

A collection of flowers from the garden - what can you spot ?
The veg trough earlier on in the season
I feel that I have rather neglected our veg trough this year, and have not made full use of the space.  The lettuce has been good, growing Romaine in a cut and come again variety.
In addition the chard has done well, but is now being devoured by tiny caterpillars. 

The first crop of chard was softened in a saucepan with a little butter and then added to mashed potato with some grated cheese.  To finish off it was topped with mixed seeds and more cheese.  Real comfort food, yum !
Small carrots in the sketchbook.

 Now for the 'pop-up' classroom !  It's really just a gazebo that we picked up at a reasonable price.
This week my 'Workshops in the Garden' start.  There will be 3 over the summer with 3 or 4 students attending each.
As our garden is south-facing and is surrounded by a wall, it can get extremely hot and lately it has almost been a 'no-go' area in the afternoons because of the sun.
Our large sun umbrella was going to be used with the addition of another borrowed from Mum and Dad, but the gazebo does the trick providing more shelter so that all students can fit under it comfortably.
I'll post some photos from the first workshop later on in the week.
Happy painting !