Archives for category: Art

This bit of the perimeter of Cliffe Castle Park is the part I pass through most often, as it’s the entrance closest to my home, the corner nearest to Utley and the UAK school. The path from the gateway goes straight ahead, with the Beechcliffe Enclosure to the left and the school boundary on the

right until it reaches a junction between two beech trees. Turn sharp left and follow the tarmac path, and you’re heading up the hill towards the middle of the park. Go straight on, and you’re entering Moorside Wood.

Extremely fast sketch of the start of the path into Moorside Wood. (That rectangular thing is the iron cover that seals a spring that comes to the surface here)

I quite often linger at this point because it’s a good place to pause. There are often rabbits at the fringe of the hedgerow over near the school, sometimes happy to go on nibbling grass or sit quietly watching me as I watch them. Sometimes all I see is an upturned tail and two hind legs as a rabbit-bottom disappears into the undergrowth.

There’s a horse chestnut tree here too which had plenty of conkers this year, and some glorious toadstools that sprouted up under the beech, and stayed just long enough for me to find them and sketch them.

But the most remarkable tree is the copper-beech that stands at the corner where the path turns, and until this summer one huge branch spread right out across the path creating a magical archway of foliage that was extraordinarily beautiful. It was long and thick and more or less horizontal, and it was a constant wonder to me that the tree was able to bear its weight. Perhaps it was the drought of this long hot summer that finally brought it down, but it collapsed, in August, and although the tree is still magnificent I’m glad I have photographs to remind me of the way it was.

Before….

…… and after

The path into the wood is not paved with tarmac – or not clean, modern tarmac, anyway – so it can be muddy and it’s often dark. I think sometimes when the rhododendrons are at their bushiest, some people may miss the path altogether, which to me makes it all the more interesting. But walk just a few steps and there’s a clearing on the left, where a large tree fell a couple of years ago. The trunk is lying there, cut off from the stump which is still partially in the ground with its tangled roots exposed and this summer new shoots appeared sprouting from the stump, with huge and interesting leaves. My best guess is that it’s an American Oak, but I still have to make a proper identification.

Recently the leaves turned astonishing colours…….

The path continues on into the woods, and so will my exploration – next time, (amongst other things) how not to get lost by taking a path that looks like it leads somewhere and doesn’t, what Victorian tarmac looks like, and how a very small wood can feel like a forest……..

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Greens in autumn trees, Airedale

A friend (and reader of this blog) recently asked me about my greens. She very kindly said she thought they were delicious – which is a really lovely compliment – and asked if I could share something about my choice of pigments and mixing. Of course! I said.

It’s true that artists, and particularly watercolour painters, get more wound up about green than any other colour. Depending on how things are going, I feel this way too – excited one minute and then despairing the next. (But that’s watercolour for you.) These days I spend more time drawing and sketching rather than exclusively painting, so colour mixing isn’t quite the all absorbing preoccupation for me that it once was. But if you want to use colour at all, you do need to spend time getting familiar with the paints you’re using, and that means playing around a bit and finding out what works for you.

Colour mixes sketchbook page

Every now and then I do a page or two of colour mixes in my current sketchbook. If this sounds boring, it’s not – in fact it’s a very relaxing thing to do and since I love doing it I really should do it more often. It somehow manages to be calming and exciting at the same time, and it gets a background understanding of pigments into my head so it makes decisions about mixing much easier and quicker so that everything flows more smoothly. I don’t think it matters much exactly how you do these colour mixing charts – the important thing is just to be methodical and work out a way that feels enjoyable.

Where greens are concerned I like to start with a yellow that makes good mixes, and lately most of the time I use Transparent Yellow (Winsor & Newton). Starting with this and adding just one other pigment at a time in different quantities gives a huge range of mixing possibilities even with a very limited palette (and I never have more than 10 or 12 colours in my tin – mostly I use just 8). The pigments I most often add to yellow are Ultramarine Blue, Phthalo Turquoise, Winsor Green (blue shade), Paynes Grey, and Winsor Violet -Winsor Violet with yellow gives lovely complex neutral tones. Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine are my favourites for greys and neutrals. For really strong neutrals I go for Burnt Umber and Paynes Grey, and for really deep dark greens I sometimes use Burnt Umber and Winsor Blue or Winsor Green. Occasionally instead of Transparent Yellow I use Olive Green as a start and add variously to it – it’s not a green I especially like on it’s own.

Obviously sometimes I mix more than just two pigments – but rarely more than three, and I try to use mostly transparent colours.

Being a transparent medium watercolour relies on transparency for its luminous glow, and some pigments have more of this quality than others. Some are less transparent and some are opaque. So mixing two transparent pigments keeps a colour transparent, and the more you add semi-transparent or opaque pigments, the less luminosity you acheive. If you mix two opaque pigments together you end up with something dull. (Helpfully, all pigments are marked on their manufacturer’s colour charts with symbols that tell you what qualities they have.)

A note of warning – following what colours other people use can be helpful, but everyone has personal preferences and I’ve occasionally made the mistake of buying a slightly unusual colour just because someone else has said it’s a great favourite of theirs, and discovering I really hate it! I’ve found by experience that it’s better to get very familiar with the colours that you have, and then gradually experiment with others. I have a number of pigments that I rarely use but then re-discover, and others that are core essentials that always stay in my tin. As for the tin itself, that’s a whole subject on its own – I have three, in various sizes – but to round up, here’s a list of the pigments I always have available:

Transparent Yellow, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, Paynes Grey, Winsor Violet, Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Windsor Green, Permanent Rose, Windsor Red.

I’m doing a prolonged, slow walk around the perimeter of Cliffe Castle Park, sketching as I go. (There’s a map at the end of this post). Part 1 started (for no particular reason) in the Sensory Garden close to the Holly Lodge entrance, and I’m moving on in a northerly direction, anti-clockwise, across the Sports Field parallel to the Skipton Road….

Watercolour sketch of the view across Airedale from the top of the sports field

So…. if you leave the Sensory Garden through the gap in the hedge you find yourself at the top of the large, gently sloping field that stretches all along the lower edge of the park between the Skipton Road on one side and the path known as Dark Lane at the other. The views from here are some of the best you can find anywhere in the park – standing here looking across Airedale its hard to feel you’re in town and not way out in the country.

Sketch of oak sapling on the site of the venerable beech....

About two-thirds of the way down the field at this point you can still see the site of the giant tree that until last summer dominated the whole of this landscape. The Great Beech was truly remarkable and I wrote about it in a tribute post when I marked its sad passing – I wish I had sketched it before it eventually had to be felled, but I always found myself unable to draw it or even photograph it in a way that could express its enormous scale. I wish I’d tried to sketch it; it was extraordinary, and looking again at the photos I did take made me remember what it felt like to stand underneath its colossal branches. Generations of people in Keighley knew and loved this tree.

But the sapling oak that’s been planted here seems to be doing well despite the hot dry summer.

The field isn’t laid out for sports in any formal way – no pitch for cricket or football – it’s simply a good place to play games of all kinds, and big enough for a lot of games at the same time.

Quick sketch of girls playing rounders on the Sports Field, Cliffe Castle Park

A couple of weeks ago I watched a group of girls who’d come prepared to play a game of what looked to me like rounders, but while I sketched them a lot of discussion and organisation was going on, and after a while that game seemed to be put on hold and a tennis ball was batted about a bit. Hey, what does it matter what game you play? It was a lovely afternoon, not too hot, a pleasant breeze blowing, everyone enjoying themselves.

Sketch of two girls playing tennis in a rather informal way

I’ve seen all sorts of activities on this field; frisbees are popular, kites are sometimes flown, teams are organised, balls are kicked or batted or thrown (often for dogs).

Castellated top of the perimeter wall, Sports Field, Cliffe Castle Park

The castellated wall that runs round the edge of the park marks the boundary at the Skipton Road. Walls are a prominent feature of the landscape in the park, and they’re a subject in themselves – some are ancient, and some have been re-modelled and repositioned over time. From a sketching point of view a wall is a great thing to have in a landscape because it adds perspective and scale, and a nice sharp line to contrast softer shapes of trees and grass and people as well as often being a dark, solid form in the background.

Avenue of cherry trees at the bottom of the Sports Field, along the Skipton Road

Just inside the perimeter wall where the Skipton Road curves to the left at the roundabout there’s an avenue of ornamental cherry trees, and the unpaved path that runs along the edge of the field continues under the canopy of these trees, which in spring are a mass of pink blossom. In autumn the leaves turn delicate shades of apricot and lemon yellow and coppery red, and I picked up one or two windfall leaves that had already turned colour. I’m guessing that this line of trees may have been planted at the same time as the boundary was moved when the road layout changed – the older castellated wall ends just where the avenue of cherry trees starts, and the newer wall is lower and topped with flat flagstones. This means the trees are clearly seen from the road which was probably intentional, as they’re an eye-catching sight when they’re covered in blossom. But from inside the park they also successfully conceal most of the traffic on the Skipton Road, at least in summer, so the view is an uninterrupted leafy landscape.

To give an idea of where I started this walking project, here’s a map taken from one of the interpretation boards with my additions to show the location of the first two posts in this series. Part three to follow in due course!

Map of Cliffe Castle Park

For the whole month of June I’ve been taking part in a marathon international watercolour event, #30x30DirectWatercolor2018. By taking part I mean just doing as much as I could, when I could – not the painting-a-day that lots of of people signed up for – but I’ve been watching and reading about what all the others have been doing and it’s been an eventful month, full of wonders and surprises. The participants have been a richly varied lot – some professional artists, some experienced watercolourists, some complete beginners and some, like me, who use watercolour a lot but seldom without some kind of line drawing. This was all about jumping straight into paint, and thinking about shape, tone and colour. And simply enjoying what watercolour can do.

There have been some wonderful pictures shared (I’ve followed the whole thing on Facebook, though not on Instagram where many people posted) – but reading the stories that go with the paintings has often been just as fun and just as interesting as seeing the pictures. Like me, a lot of people found themselves flailing about in uncharted waters without having the familiarity of a pen or pencil to hang onto and almost every day someone would post cries of frustration or wail about how they felt completely at sea – but I never heard anyone say they were ready to give up. There were always responses of solidarity and support. ‘We’re feeling it, too!’ And as time went on, the unfamiliarity started to feel less alarming. Discoveries were made. Things got more exciting; possibilities started to outweigh the difficulties.

Watercolour is a very particular medium, and people seem to either love it or hate it. Some people try it once and never give it another go; others get so hooked on it that it becomes a sort of obsession. (It can get me like that sometimes – I’ve been known to dream about nothing more than pure watercolour pigments and the way they mix and interact; I remember a particularly vivid dream about cobalt blue and burnt umber……) One of the complaints you often hear is that it’s unforgiving and unpredictable – and therefore unmanageable – but its unpredictability is its greatest strength. At its best, in moments when everything aligns and goes mysteriously right, the most extraordinarily beautiful things happen.

We all know this. That’s why we never give up – it’s like a yearning or a quest for a mostly unreachable goal that we know to be sublime, and we try all kinds of things to acheive it predictably and regularly. Practice, practice, practice – but the thing is, practice alone is not enough, and there are no shortcuts.

Like dance, or calligraphy, or playing an instrument, or for that matter like reading a bedtime story or baking a cake, things will never go right if something inside you is wrong. It’s astonishing how clearly this shows up – but unsurprising. As I told myself this morning when baking whilst feeling hurried, harried, unbalanced and out of sorts; the cake bubbled out of its tin, burnt on the top and then collapsed in the middle. I took a deep breath, threw it out and started again.

What’s inside, shows up on the outside. It’s a simple fact; we need kindness in everything.

Watercolour drawing of Keighley National Shell Factory in WW1

When I was given a list of objects to draw to illustrate the Story Trail for the Keighley’s War exhibition at Cliffe Castle, some things seemed pretty straightforward, and others – well, not. One of them was a small sepia photograph of workers in the National Shell Factory in Keighley. Indistinct, detailed, crowded, complex, and behind glass – I was at a loss as to quite how I was going to approach it.

But as it turned out, it was perhaps the most fascinating and enjoyable subject of all the curious objects I drew, and a lot of this was due to the way I set about doing it.

My usual sketching method relies a lot on line, and a pen is what I generally start with. But here I could see that was simply not going to work – the photograph was simply a mass of complicated tonal values. So I decided to jump straight in with watercolour with almost no drawing, even in pencil, and build it in stages as a painting. (Click on any of these images to see them larger).

Stage one in the painting process, broad washes of pale colour

Once I’d got to the halfway point I realised it would be interesting to record it stage by stage, so I’ve had to simulate stage one by editing the second stage photo with a bit of bleaching and blurring, but basically the first thing I did was to put down large washes of pale colour and tone with no detail at all, reserving just a few small white unpainted areas. Then in the next stage I started to construct by blocking in more tone and colour, leaving pale spots for faces and highlights…..

Stage two, building detail slowly

Stage two, above, has moved on quite a bit from just pale washes. I worked with a 1/2″ dagger brush which was exactly right for this painting (I love this brush and use it more and more often – it gives you sharp, dead straight lines and very precise detail at the same time as lovely big, broad, fluid, flowing strokes. Very exciting.)

Stage three, below, doesn’t look a whole lot different but by this time I’ve started to deepen and darken certain areas and define some parts more clearly.

Stage three, more detail, darkening tones

And finally I worked in just enough detail to focus on some of the principal faces and some bits of machinery. (Here I did use a very small amount of line with a pen – and here and there a touch of watercolour pencil, plus tiny bits of white gouache for highlights).

Finished painting, details of faces, machinery, piles of munitions, the crowded factory floor and the roof structure overhead

I wanted to keep a feeling of the complexity of the scene which is extremely crowded and busy without getting carried away with the detail – so that the principal characters stand out as the focus of the story, along with the machinery they’re using and the work that they’re doing. It would be wonderful to know who these people were, their names, their stories – what exactly was happening there in the factory on this day, November 13th 1915. All I know about them as individuals is what I learned from studying the photograph, but drawing it let me sink into its depths, absorbing how it must have felt to work in this wartime munitions factory.

Just look – here’s the photograph.

Watercolour sketches of a pot of mint in the sunlight

Pot of mint in the sun on the kitchen windowsill – just watercolour with no line drawing to hang on to.

Sometimes it pays to turn everything on its head. Do something you do a lot of, but in a different way. You don’t really learn, or expand, or grow if you don’t shake things up a bit from time to time.

When I draw, I tend to think in terms of line and contour first. Sometimes if I’m drawing a subject that’s really all about big blocks of shape and colour it’ll be obvious that lines aren’t going to serve me well, and I’ll adapt – but still, in the main, lines are my way of getting a handle on things and so I’ll reach for a pen every time. Which is fine – except you can get stuck in habits that can be limiting.

So when Marc Taro Holmes threw up a new challenge for the month of June I decided I’d join in – no promises about how many days I’ll manage, but the idea of it is just too much fun to ignore.

#30x30DirectWatercolor2018 has its own public Facebook page for participants to post on, so anyone can see what we’re all up to – and people have been signing up from all corners of the globe. It’s all about watercolour with as little line work as possible – just what I need to get me out of my comfort zone and into thinking differently.

Close up of watercolor of pot of mint

I’m only going to do quick sketches and nothing in the least ambitious. But the fun will be sharing my experiences with others and seeing what everyone else is doing – and hopefully growing a bit in the process!

Some people draw to relax. I’m never quite sure whether I do this or not; I don’t think I do. I know I don’t deliberately pick up a pen and a sketchbook and think, ah, this is going to really help me unwind. No. I wish it were that easy. But – then again – perhaps that’s not what people mean, by saying that drawing helps them relax. Drawing takes energy and it can be exhausting, but it does bring me into a state of focused attention – and that more than anything is what I need, day in day out. But when I’m not well and have very little energy this something of a dilemma.

Partly, it’s what to draw. If I found quiet still-life drawings of flowers or fruit really got me going it might be easier, but I don’t generally get excited by flowers or fruit, it’s just not compelling enough as a subject and I can’t bring myself to start, especially if I’m feeling low. What I find totally absorbing is things that move, and that usually means people or animals, (quite why this is I don’t know) – but give me the chance to watch someone at work, or hanging out with other people just holding a conversation, waving their hands about occasionally, doing something not too impossibly fast – and I’m hooked. Once I start drawing I’m lost to everything else. Pain melts into the background. Tiredness doesn’t count. It’s always been this way.

Sketchbook pages with gesture drawings of people talking and drinking

So if I see anything going on outside that I can sketch from the window, I’m engrossed. This warm weather has brought people out of doors to stand around and talk to each other in the street, or chat over the fence. I can try to guess the conversation (!) and just enjoy understanding what’s happening by looking at body language, learning about people by watching how they stand, what they do with their arms and their legs and their heads. And then, if I there’s no live action, there’s always the TV (the sketches on the left hand page were done while watching a film).

It’s amazing really, all the things a sketchbook can be. This is a really restorative thing for me – connecting, observing, recording, this odd process that involves a pen and a page and me looking and looking and moving the pen……

Gesture drawings of people

Now, if I could figure out a way to find flowers as exciting as people, I’d be able to get this stimulating-connecting-sketching thing to work any time I look out into the garden. If only flowers moved.

This is a degu.

Watercolour drawing of a degu

At first glance you might be forgiven for thinking, rat? Mouse? But then you look at the tail…. and you say to yourself, hmm, dormouse? But the size rules that out (it’s bigger than a hamster) and you realise you’re looking at something entirely different from all of these.

Sketchbook page of degu studies in pencil

The first time I sketched them about a fortnight ago in their new home at Cliffe Castle all these thoughts were going through my head and I admit I was confused. In fact as I looked at their little rounded bottoms I kept thinking of guinea pigs, and just once in a while I’d suddenly see something in the eyes or the shape of a nose that made me think rabbit (though that immediately seemed ridiculous) so I kept on looking and drawing, although for a long while all my sketches looked either rat-like or guinea-pig-like – until I felt I knew what I was looking at. Degus. Very special little animals.

For sketching purposes it’s not that easy to see them clearly through the narrow link fence at the front of their enclosure (though after a while I discovered that if you crouch down until you’re on the same level as they are, you can see a lot better – perfect for children, a bit more awkward for me.) So to understand them better, when I got home I looked up some facts, googled photographs and did a couple of drawings from the screen –

Degus, sketched from photographs

– which meant that when I went back again to the animal houses a couple of days ago I had a better idea of what I’d be looking at. (I also learnt that they’re related to guinea-pigs and chinchillas and come from the high Andes, are active during the day but don’t like hotter temperatures, that they’re highly social, and that they live longer and are more intelligent than their near relatives).

Interesting facts – but I can learn a lot by watching.

So I stand with my nose pressed up against the wire, sketchbook and pen ready, and wait.

It’s a warm afternoon, and because of that they’re all inside their custom-built house which has two floors, several entrances and exits and lots of hay for bedding. I can imagine them inside all in a heap, snuggled together. (What’s the collective term for degus, I wonder?) I can just see a couple of noses, two pairs of beady eyes. They’re awake and watching me.

I don’t know if it’s getting cooler or whether they’re just curious, but one by one they start to come out of their house, sniff the air, look around. One or two of them do look at me, one from a lookout position at the top of the plank that leads to their second storey entrance, one perching on the edge of a large empty red bowl. I can see how their tails help them balance. I can see tiny toes, (I know there are five) and ears like crumpled petals.

Watercolour drawing of a degu

I can see their very impressive whiskers. And the tails – with their lovely black tufted ends that I try not to exaggerate, though it’s hard not to…

Watercolour illustration of a degu

Pretty soon one of them ambles slowly over to the green plastic exercise wheel, climbs in and gives it a whirl. I wonder whether I’ll be able to draw those flying feet and have serious doubts, but I give it a go anyway….. and there’s no squabbling when a second degu arrives and also wants a turn. They fit amiably side by side and go racing round together in perfect unison. I can’t draw that.

Drawing of a degu in an exercise wheel

The plastic wheel is also very good for gnawing….

Degu gnawing plastic wheel - pencil drawing

By now I’m beginning to feel I’ve started to get to know them, and the more I watch the more I want to touch and stroke those little rounded backs, feel the sleekness of fur, and if possible very, very gently touch a fragile ear with the tip of my finger. I can’t do that, but drawing almost does it for me; my hand may be holding a pen and touching paper, but my mind is feeling fur, whiskers, skin.

I love learning. I love going back to basics, doing exercises, practising. There’s no moment in any lifetime of art practice when drawing exercises aren’t a great thing to do – I really ought to do things like this more often.

We’ve had two Sketchwalks at Cliffe Castle Park now – the first one had to be rescheduled because of snow and I couldn’t get to it, but yesterday I was able to take part. It was refreshing, incredibly useful, and a lot of fun.

Louise Garrett led both workshops and we had an enthusiastic group of Sketchers on both days. The first session concentrated mainly on contour and line, and then looked briefly at tonal values – these are just a few of the drawings done on that day:

The second session was a chance to have a good look at composition, simplifying how we see when we’re sketching on location and exploring ways to organise what we draw in the best possible way. Louise had made us all adjustable cardboard viewfinders! We used them in a variety of different exercises and discovered what an incredibly useful thing this simple tool can be.

One of the things Louise asked us to do was to look at an earlier sketch we’d done previously in the glasshouses, and then draw the same object from various angles using a viewfinder. I had a sketch of a hanging cactus in my sketchbook that I’d done a few weeks ago, so I advanced on the same plant viewfinder in hand, and very quickly realised that if I’d had this handy tool with me when I drew it before, things would have gone much more smoothly from the start.

Hanging cactus, sketchbook page

Hanging cactus, viewfinder thumbnails

In fact, with the viewfinder I’d have been able to tackle the crazy angles of the clothes-airer that the cactus hangs from without getting all despairing about it.

Lastly, I made an effort to try to record as many of our group as I could with a quick scribble – hoping it would also help me remember everyone’s names.

Sketchwalk participants examining their cardboard viewfinders

Another pair of Sketchwalks will be happening later this Spring, and judging by the way the first two sessions went and the response we’ve had they’ll be well attended. Sketching on location is getting increasingly popular and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a complete beginner or a sketcher with a lifetime’s experience – these sort of practice sessions are a real boost, and a great way to explore drawing and enjoy it in the company of others.

Ever thought you might like to join in and try sketching in the glasshouses and the park at Cliffe Castle?

Ferns in a hanging watering can, in the glasshouses Cliffe Castle

Louise Garrett and I are planning a series of Sketchwalks at Cliffe Castle. They’ll be a kind of cross between what Urban Sketchers call a sketchcrawl (a fairly informal get-together at a prearranged spot to meet, sketch and enjoy each others company) – and a guided workshop.

We’ll be welcoming Sketchers of all levels of ability and experience – even those who have never sketched before but who’d like to – and exploring sketching skills in the newly opened glasshouses and around the park. A bonus is that the café in the glasshouses is now open!

The sessions will be led by Louise, and the first is on Wednesday February 28th, from 10.30 – 12.30.

The Sketchwalks are being supported by the Parks Dept and Cliffe Castle Conservation Group and are being advertised locally to anyone interested in sketching. They’ll be in sets of 2, the first set Feb 28th and March 14th, and the second set May 16th and May 30th. Numbers have to be limited, due to the workshop format and space limitations – so if you’re interested, more information is on Facebook here – and if you’d like to reserve a place, email cliffe.castle.park@bradford.gov.uk – and you’ll get your place confirmed.