Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Saved by Vellum

So it's been an odd week. I apologise for the intensity of my most recent posts, but I think it's important to note as it influences one's work. Since I last wrote I have been seriously trying to deal with something internal. It's not external. It was, but it now no longer is. After frightening myself with my Hosta, I decided to just step back a bit. I went on a lovely bike ride. I am also now embracing my new job of looking after two cats and I've changed my music. Regardless to say, I felt disheartened by something and got a little blocked. I started to feel rather petrified by the AMOUNT of work I have to do between now and Spring. I am not procrastinating (never been much of a procrastinator luckily), but I am feeling a little mired and this has certainly blocked my flow.

So, I decided to get on with another commission... the Ginkgo. It's ok, but I am not really happy with it. I spent a week on it and then yesterday I put it to one side to get on with another commission (bit of an odd one, which I'll explain to you all at a later date). The project involves me having a work in progress on vellum. Luckily for me, I have a piece of mounted vellum. Its roughly A5 in size and was gifted to me by Sam and Christabel McEwen in 2013. I remember that when they gave it to me I cried. How silly. Anyway, for the past year and a half I have stored it in a box all wrapped up in tissue paper. I have got it out on occasion and just started at it. It reminds me of a time when I felt connected and understood by a ghost. It's strangely comforting.

After a half day of painting - drawn in and first layers of paint.

So yesterday I got my comfort blanket out and decided that the time to put some life onto it had finally come. I ordered some 'back up' vellum for the commission the day before, but something within me knew that I needed rescuing from this stagnant cave I seemed to have walked into and I thought about Rory. I needed to paint on his vellum. I needed to take a risk. Completely petrified, it certainly took me a while to actually pluck up the courage to paint on it. First of all I had to nip to the bakery and buy myself a massive chocolate croissant in order to zing up my sugar levels to the point where I became less timid and more gutsy. Then I messaged Dianne Sutherland to ask if I really needed to pounce it (I didn't have any at the time, but it is on it's way in the post) and then I just thought 'it's time to just get on with it'.

After a half day - a sense of scale...
I had two images of what I wanted to paint in my mind - either a sprout or two conker shells. I went with the conker shells as sprout was the wrong size for the vellum I had. I almost choose to paint one shell, but I liked the way the two shells spoke to each other. I was drawn to the masculine-feminine energy and the tension in the space between the barbs from either shell. So, with this in mind, I drew the drying husks pretty pronto and got going. Before I began I quickly reflected on a demo Sarah Gould gave at the Chelsea Florilegium and I remembered how everyone says you need a dry brush. I recalled Rory's teeny brushes in the showcase at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art and I re-watched Martin Allen at work in the Rory film. So when I started painting I was thinking 'dry, dry, dry' and 'small, small, small'. It didn't really work. I needed a bigger brush (I am now using a 4 Kolinsky spotter brush alongside a 0) and more water than I thought was possible. One thing is for sure, you do need some water to blend everything together. I was rather surprised by this, but I have concluded that it is because I am in Spain that I need more water. We are experiencing very warm weather at the moment and everything is drying out at a rate of knots.

Conker Shells - a work in progress on vellum

So this is what I have managed to do so far. I am happy with it and I am getting into the groove. I find myself forgetting that I am painting on vellum. It feels like second nature. Maybe I was a monk in a past life?! On occasion, I do suddenly remember I am painting on vellum (usually when something marvellous happens to a pigment) and I sit and think about it for a while. I think about the animal I am painting on and where it might have come from. Some people disagree with the whole vellum thing and that's cool, I respect that, but I couldn't think of a better use of my skin. To be culled for my skin, well that pretty harsh, but if I knew that it would make someone this happy and produce something beautiful, and that a part of me would not only be immortalised and treasured, but also used as an educational tool to hundreds of people, well I wouldn't be too upset.

- next post - my thoughts on actually what it is like to paint on vellum... Beyond the normal thing of 'it's tricky' or 'it's fantastic'...

Monday, 20 October 2014

Ginkgo Practice

Since my last post I have been busy trying to paint a Ginkgo biloba tree... To begin with, I felt like it wasn't going to plan, but I ploughed on through, as I know that sometimes a painting can suddenly take on a new life just with a little bit more work. However, I am still left feeling a little despondent about it. Not sure why it isn't flowing. I wonder if it is because I am back on Fabriano no. 5 paper and I have gone small... Capturing the foreshortening, all of the parallel veins, the shadows and the entire range of greens is surprisingly tricky in this piece and this certainly isn't helping. I think the composition might have beaten me. So again, for the second time this fortnight, I have put a painting to one side to mull it over.  

Ginkgo - a work in progress A3 sized

While I mull I have decided to take the plunge and have ordered some vellum. It is for a project I am working on for somebody in the UK and it is a requirement. Luckily Cowleys deliver to Spain, so I ordered a small piece of Kelmscott and some pounce from them. In the meantime, my piece of Rory McEwen vellum is looking straight at me on my desk... I might have a go on it tomorrow... I feel I need a breath of fresh air and his small mounted piece of vellum, or 'heroin for the botanical artist'* as I like to call it, might be just the ticket. 

*It's pricey and from what I understand, once you try it, you won't want to paint on anything else.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Mo Devlin and his frozen flowers

Photographer Mo Devlin takes an interesting approach to flower photography by first freezing his buds in order to produce these stunning, abstract compositions. You can read more about the process and see more pictures here.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

I scared myself

Has anyone ever had this? Has anyone ever actually been frightened by their own botanical illustration? I have been frightened in that I didn't want to make a mistake before. Where I was so precious about a piece I lost my nerve and had to walk away. I got a bit scared by my grapes, because for the first time I actually felt like I was painting something that looked acceptable... and I scare myself when I mix a colour first time, 'whoa! How did I do that?!'. But this fear is something far more sinister. I probably shouldn't be writing this, as it'll make you all think twice about my work in the future, but I have noticed that my painting has taken a bit of a creepy turn and this Hosta, well he is giving me the heebie-jeebies. I am not sure why my painting has gone a bit dark - I paint plants because they are beautiful - but for some reason a darkness is coming through. The Coffee and Monstera could be interpreted as lush, but I secretly there was something dark going on when I painted them. Then there's Ophelia, well she is OK - she's voluptuous and sexy, but she's still got that 'edge'. And Harry? Well he's just plain sinister. 

I am probably alone in this... It could just be that a part of me recognises an aspect of my persona that I have unintentionally transmitted onto paper. If this is the case, then I am probably the only one experiencing this strong reaction, but I thought I'd document it anyway in case other artists have had the same response to their own artwork and also to see if it really is just me or if anyone else sees the Hosta as bit unsettling. I might go and ask Aunty Terri next door... she what she thinks, but I'd be honoured to hear your own experiences and thoughts on the subject.

For me personally, the Hosta was supposed to represent 'the glory'. The spade like leaves that dig for it, the flower spike that rises like a flag on conquered ground. You get my drift... It was supposed to be about things like that, but in the end, it feels like I dug up a monster. Those spades feel like flat hands reaching out with their fingers together and that spike...  it's like a dagger or a spear. Instead of 'drawing' the Six of Swords, I have 'drawn' Eight. Instead of the Fool, I got the Devil.

It's a funny thing how we view our own work and how our mood changes the way we paint, but also how the painting technique might not actually change, just our perceptions of what it produces do. I think I am going to have to put this one to one side for a bit as I don't it's possible to paint when you loose your nerve. Painting is a risky venture. Every brush stroke is a risk. You bare your soul with every mark you make. Your thoughts, feelings and perceptions cannot be hidden once they are on a piece of paper. That is what is so magical about the process of drawing. It is so very revealing, it teaches you so much about how you see the world and how you feel about your place in it.

Another leaf at the back while I think about foreshortening

So yesterday was Columbus Day and everyone had a jolly good day off of work apart from our household, which knuckled down. I hid in the studio much of today. A dicky tummy meant it took me forever to get going, but I eventually sorted myself out. I felt like I hadn't made much progress considering the amount of focusing I had done, but actually, after taking these photographs I have come to realise that I did manage to translate quite a bit to paper. Tonight will be a Hosta dream night for sure. I always get at least one plant-themed dream while I paint a plant, and it's usually after that dream that I finally feel like I have cracked it and paint rather quickly from then on. Usually it happens a bit sooner, but I haven't been sleeping in my new room, so it's taken a while this time around. Plus I haven't sat with the Hosta for long periods of time until recently.  

Hosta - a work in progress

A close up so you can see that more paint and refinement is still required

A close up on the Hosta

So a little take on my views on foreshortening - as requested by some of you... This is going to be tricky for me, as I have had no training, but I am going to give it a shot. 

Foreshortening refers to the visual effect, or optical illusion, that an object or distance appears shorter than it actually is because it is angled toward the viewer. It's a tricky business interpreting the wonder that is our life here in three dimensional form at the best of times, let alone processing it all and transmitting it onto paper. Sometimes I really wish I could glimpse other dimensions in order to put mine into perspective. We take our 3D-ness for granted, and I think that is why it becomes so tricky to describe on the page. Conveying something that is 3D onto a flat surface something is difficult, but a great work out for the eyes, arms, fingers and brain (and maybe even the breath depending on how hard you are concentrating). 

As image-makers one thing is for certain, none of us can avoid perspective and foreshortening. If you want to your drawings to have a believable sense of volume and depth, you do need to develop a sound working knowledge of foreshortening and perspective. Here is a nice little video on foreshortening. I rather like what he does at about 8 minutes in. This is for figure drawing, but the same rules apply for any subject.

I think this is rather good at roughly 8 mins into the film

In the case of the Hosta, I have one leaf coming towards me and three going away. I usually find leaves that are coming towards me easier to deal with. My top tip, get your lines right at the beginning. So much information can be transmitted just by line. Lines are powerful. Use your eyes really carefully and question them. I think it is important to question your work all the way through the process at regular intervals (don't over do it as it can become too analytical though). The most important time to question your work and subject is right at the start. Question the arrangement and the space around the subject as much as the subject itself. What is that space saying? Is the space talking to the subject? What is this interaction? How does this plant interact with it's space, does it like it there and which direction does it grow through that space?

This is what I ask myself. So, when I start to draw the line, I double check all of the time. I start with the stems because that is what each leaf is perched on. These stems are literally supporting the leaves and therefore the scaffolding for the entire subject. I notice that there is a stem coming towards me, but that is all I do. I just give it a 'nod' and try to disregard it.  I use my pencil as a measuring tool and try my hardest to treat like all the other stems. If I think about it too much, my brain will start drawing what it thinks it sees and none of us want that. I do the same for the leaves, getting all of those lines drawn in (only the midrib and veins) using my eyes all of the time. So I guess my advice is to not trust what you think you see - ask if it is what you truly are seeing all of the time and if it is how it really is (nb. your brain is likely to be tricking you somewhere here). 

A close up on the Hosta

The leaves of a Hosta are pretty easy to foreshorten in a way, as they have parallel veins, but they are a nightmare in that they have highly rippled surfaces. I know that it is these ripples are what is really going to help give a sense of perspective. So, I mark a few of the strongest ones in with a pencil, but not many as I hate pencil. With the leaves that are going away from me, I can see that as the leaf goes away, the ripples get shallower, smaller and lighter. There is less contrast. However, in the case of the leaf that is coming out at me, this is in fact turned on its head. As the leaf comes towards me the ripples again become closer together, but the contrast intensifies and the lines become more crisp. When I add colour, I continue on this theme. I try to draw what I see to start with, but by the time the layers of paint build up I often have to start referring to photographs, as the plant has moved. I rather like doing this as I can feel my brain having to deal with the 3D and 2D complex in a multitude of forms. Photographs can help to bridge the gap between worlds.

The Hosta in it's entirety - still loads of work to do!

Plants are tricky to foreshorten, because not all of the leaves are the same size and you can't use basic mathematical rules as you can in life drawing. However, I always thought that made them easier to paint, because one has a little more flexibility. If someone paints a human with one arm disproportionately longer than the other, we are going to notice. It's going to look rather odd, but with plants, well... its flexible. The only time when it isn't, is when working with flowers that from a single species, as these will be all of the same size, or cones. ARGH! Cones... Foreshortening a cone is still the hardest thing I have ever done (actually no, the hardest thing was to paint a pebble - still can't do it). How I go about things is to practice, breaking tasks down into bite sized chunks, remembering to feel. For me it's about the relationship of the subject with its environment and then my relationship to the subject and my environment and then bringing it all together into something whole some and spiritual.

I will move onto light next and how I work with light. Light is very important when working with perspective, it is what will give the piece form.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Purple beans because I have just noticed I haven't blogged about these yet

Purple Beans - a work in progress

Purple Beans - a work in progress

These beans are from my back garden in London. I grew them this summer and hadn't realised that they were ready for cropping because the purple colour was so deep that they didn't reveal themselves to me at first glance. They remained hidden in the shadows of the vines, waiting, growing and becoming ever rougher and tougher. One day whilst sunbathing and tying up stray stems, I realised that they were there lurking behind the canes - I had just missed them all. So, within seconds, I put string down and dutifully picked them.

They were rather odd looking if I am honest, like the fingers of a dead man. Most likely a result of me neglecting them for so long. Over all that time they had pretty much gone over and had ripened into something more menacing and grotesque. Still, what an amazing shade of purple! I arranged them on the kitchen table in a pile that ended up being circular in shape and just stared at them. Gorgeous. I don't think I have seen such intense hues of indigo on a plant before. Especially something that isn't flowery...  The natural world never ceases to amaze me. 

Purple Beans - a work in progress

The fact that these beans are rather frightening to behold, I decided to do some playing around with a photograph of my painting. Using my nexus tablet, I colour inverted the entire painting. The result is even more spectacular and creepy:

I rather like the affect... looks very unworldly. I wonder if you could get the same affect with paint if you were to work in Gouache? It's certainly something worth thinking about as there are a couple of projects I am currently spinning out in my head (other than the Bare Necessities), one of which is about depicting the otherworldliness of plants in a rather scary way, and I reckon this fits in nicely.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Working like a loom

So I managed to get a few more layers of paint on last night after my first blog post and have worked for a couple of hours this morning while it is raining outside.  I decided to move over onto the other leaf on the left this time around, still working like a loom. This one isn't quite as tricky as the one at the back, but it's still hard going, especially that zone in the middle where all the lines bunch up with the foreshortening. 

Hosta, a work in progress. Jessica Rosemary Shepherd ©

So, I am writing another Hosta related blog post and this time it is on colour. When I mix a colour for a painting, I use a big brush, this is because I get very fed up of running out of colour very quickly and this used to happen all of the time (such as with Sally). Big brushes usually result in a lot of water being splashed about and therefore more colour being transferred onto the palette. So with a big brush in my hand I look pretty carefully at the leaf. Now often, I won't paint a subject straight away, I like to live with it for a while. I have been living with Harry for several months now and have moved him from one space, or light source, to another. I have seen him in London in polluted light, I have seen him in Worthing where the light is bright and 'sea-like' (slightly opaque?) and finally I have seen him here in Spain where the light is intense. I have seen him indoors, I have seen him outdoors and I have watched him under lots of different light bulbs. Over those months he has also physically changed. He was really blue when I first got him, then he turned green through too getting much light. Then again he changed like a chameleon to a sickly brown, then back to green to then finally return to blue. The Hosta recently has also put on new growth, which is noticeably less blue. When looking at these changes, I like to think that what I am seeing are all the colours that are actually in the leaf the entire time. As I am sure many of you know, when a leaf senescences what we see are the yellows and reds (anthocyanins) that were there all along, it's just the chlorophyll has been taken out. I will never forget the first time I did chromatography at school, seeing all the pigments present in a mushed up leaf separated out. I thought it was the most revealing thing I had ever seen and it is an experience that has embedded itself in me. With all of this waffle in mind, I am suppose what I am saying is that by sitting with a plant for a long time, moving it to different spaces and observing it closely (I recognise this isn't always possible) you really get to know what colour it is and how the light behaves on the surface of its leaves.

A chromograph of a leaf
Using this routine often means that I get lucky when mixing colours and I rarely, if ever, make colour charts. I also have a feeling that my eyes are a little 'green friendly'. It is the colour I always focus on when on walks - I am always impressed by the variety of greens one gets, and never the range of reds or blues or yellows. Even this evening, when watching the sun set, I found myself looking at the range of greens on a mountain top rather than the range of pinks, oranges, yellows and greys and even purples in the sky. 

Hosta, a work in progress. Jessica Rosemary Shepherd ©
So I mix straight away. It often takes five attempts, but for some reason (probably because I have been living with Harry for so long), I'd like to think I got him bang on first time around. God love these times. It has to be one of the most satisfying moments in ones life when you nail a colour first time.  So yes... a complicated mixture of New Gamboge (W&N), Cobalt Blue (Daler), Permanent Rose (Daler), French Ultramarine (W&N) and Cerulean Blue (Daler). The mixes change as I build up the layers. For example, I started adding in a touch of the Cerulean only just recently as I moved into another zone on the leaf, and when I changed leaves to the one on the left, I needed to start putting in more pink. So yes, no colour charts, most likely because I am lazy and I am very bad at painting in boxes all neatly in a row. So with the colour ready in bulk I change brush to a Rigger. It's not always a Rigger, but for Harry this is the brush of choice. 

If you can't live with your plant for a while, at least take some time to get to know it. Move it around and stare at it. When I look at green I go through a check list. Firstly, how much pink? (It's often more than you think (or red/purple) and I usually use Permanent Rose for this because I like to live dangerously). Which blue? (I mainly stick with 3 blues in all of my work - French Ultramarine or Cobalt Blue or Cerulean and for me it's just a question of which one. In this case it was unusual to use all three. Sally the Savoy had cobalt in, Caroline the Coffee was mainly painted using Ultramarine, but with a bit of Phthalo/Cerulean in the highlights). Then I ask how much blue (in the Hosta's case it was a lot). I then usually use Gamboge as a source of yellow, but to be honest I am just starting to branch out into the world of yellow-dom after making a trip to the local art shop just before leaving for Spain and so this remains to be a bit of unknown world to me. Personally I know deep down that I don't 'see' yellows very well and I realise this is something I need to sort out. This Spring I intend to spend a fortnight painting only yellow flowers to see if I can teach myself how to see the spectrum of yellow properly and gauge it's possibilities.

Hosta, a work in progress. Jessica Rosemary Shepherd ©
Right, where was I? Oh yes, with my rigger brush in hand, colour mixed I begin. For this piece the brush strokes are currently a mixture of wet washes and little, dry brush lines. I started with wet washes, especially on the leaf stems, but the leaves required something with more control and so I basically adopted a 'vellum painting' technique for these and am painting with teeny-tiny lines using a dry brush. It's taking FOREVER to do, but I actually rather like the affect. This is rather different to Ophelia, who was mostly painted using wet washes and huge brushes. There is certainly never a dull moment when painting plants - one has to keep experimenting, using different techniques that are empathetic to the subject being portrayed.

Ophelia (the same size as the Hosta - A1). Jessica Rosemary Shepherd ©

*I might try and write something about foreshortening next, as suggested by Julia Trickey, but to be honest I am learning that one as I go myself so it will require a bit of thought. Lets see how tomorrow goes...

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Flat, rippled leaves are tricky!

Hosta - work in progress.

So I'm now attempting the leaf at the back, which, due of the perspective and rippled nature of the leaf, is actually really hard work. As I paint the back leaf, I'm also still constantly revisiting the leaf at the very front, trying to strengthen the contrasts across its surface. This is to make the leaf appear as if it is coming forwards. I always put in crisp lines for those objects that are nearer, blurry and paler lines for those in the distance. So I whilst I do the back I frequently come to the front in order to also remind myself of all the tones present across the piece. I think one is always at risk of 'patch working' a botanical painting rather than 'weaving' because of the nature of the work and the need for accuracy. When painting, I endeavour to be like an old fashioned loom - putting in a little bit here, and a little bit there, working across the whole piece so it is unified. The details I put in last... If I were to do all the detail in one leaf, and then move onto another until that one is finished, and then again and so on, I would become concerned that all the pieces, although detailed, might not work together.  Colour mixes might not match and the piece could look disjointed and patchy. 

Hosta - a work in progress

So, with the Hosta I am pretending to be a loom and working my way around the paper, putting in the foundations. I've recently noticed that I like to get the extremities in rather quickly too. Not sure why I do that, something about seeing the 'whole' I'm sure... The edges, the space. I also work from dark to light for some reason. I put splodges of paint where the dark bits are first, which might be a little unorthodox for watercolour. The reason for this is because I don't actually draw the dark areas in with a pencil at the start. I only put the outline of the plant in with a pencil and do the rest of the drawing with a brush. I dislike pencils (they remind me of bad times at school) and I find that graphite greys up my watercolours, so I rarely use them. Drawing in the dark areas first primarily helps me to navigate my way around the leaf, which is really important when painting something like this Hosta. It has so many undulations across its velvety surface that it can get a little confusing. I am still getting lost when trying to observe it, despite mapping out the most striking features, and have to take regular breaks because my eyes lose their focus and start making things up, which is NEVER good.

So, here's a little account of my process... Briar, I hope you find this small write up informative. More to follow... Colours maybe?

Friday, 10 October 2014

Harry the Hosta

Hosta for Purbeck Plants

Hosta for Purbeck Plants. Yep, the beans have been put to one side for now. Commission come first. Dr. Who-esque-themed-pieces for my own wall have to wait...

Hosta for Purbeck Plants

I have put this one in here, as the colour is better in this image - yes I still need a decent camera...

This one is a more up to date image of how I left the painting last night. 

Saskia von Brockdorff and Carmen Lever

Work by Saskia von Brockdorf

My new neighbour in Belicena is a lovely lass. She is so kind, generous and gentle. I love her. I call her 'Aunty Terri'. A week has passed since moving into the new studio near Santa Fe and I haven't really been out of the house much. I have walked to the Panadería to fetch our daily loaf and I have been food shopping on a Saturday night (never doing THAT again as it's somewhat of a 'thing' for Spanish families to dress up and do their food shop on a Saturday night and so it gets very, very busy - but is rather impressive how they manage to make their weekly food shop into a sophisticated event). I have also been to the local café for mi desayuno, but most of my time has been spent trying to navigate myself around this huge house or around Terri's. 

Yesterday, Terri lent me a book. It was a prospectus for Winchester School of Art for the School of Fashion and Textile Design and inside I found some fabulous images. She thought I'd be interested in it and I most certainly was. I thought I'd share my two favourites here.  I especially like the boldness in both pieces. there is no shyness in either of them. Saskia doesn't appear to have a webiste, altough she has a fabulous pinboard on Pinterest, and there are some other things on there which I think you'd like too.

Work by Carmen Lever