Archives for category: Art Practice

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.

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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!

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.

Quick observations in the playground

I don’t often write about it, but I suffer from ME/CFS (which I’ve had for 30 years).  It’s one of the reasons that I sketch the way I do (in short bursts, and fairly quickly), and also why sketching is so important to me (more of this in a minute).

When I started sketching the restoration work at Cliffe Castle I didn’t know how often I’d be able to get up to the park or how much I’d be able to do, because my condition is variable and unpredictable, but it turned out that I managed quite a lot. And somewhere along the line I realised that Urban Sketching of this kind, with the support and encouragement of other Urban Sketchers, had made a huge difference to the way I felt and to what I was able to do.

I also began to think that it was important for other people to realise this as well, because it’s probably not obvious that sketching on location is something that can be so useful in managing a chronic condition – not just to people like me with a disability but also to people who aren’t disabled, to make it easier for them to understand what I can do and what I can’t. And an added bonus is that I’ve become more confident and better at explaining this, which makes things easier for everyone.

The exciting thing is that this month’s edition of Drawing Attention, the online newsletter of the international Urban Sketchers organisation has picked up on this theme, and back in December I was interviewed for an article on the subject which has now been published! (Note: it’s better viewed in an internet browser on a computer rather than on a tablet or phone).

When I sketch I disappear into a space and time that separates me from everything else that’s going on around me, which is one of the reasons it’s so important to me and why it’s such a useful tool in a situation that would otherwise be overwhelming and exhausting. Drawing is tiring, but much less tiring for me than talking and listening and interacting with people (no matter how much I’m enjoying the conversation!)

I’m amazed at what the last two years have taught me. I hope more than anything that other people can discover this too. 

Fallen leaves

The days are so short now that the light is often fading by the time I get up to the park, so I’m watching where I put my feet (it’s often muddy) and with my eyes down what I mostly see is the ground. But this is often the best place to look for the most colour and beauty on a dark misty afternoon. I can’t help picking up leaves one after the other just to marvel at them – whole trees look spectacular when they turn gold, as some do – but individually every leaf is a world of beauty. There are so many of them lying around everywhere, making a nuisance of themselves on the paths and lawns and having to be raked and swept up – and yet each one taken separately is so incredibly lovely and every one unique.

Most of the trees have lost their leaves now, and this year some never turned the truly glorious colour we hope for in Autumn anyway, but near the Beechcliffe entrance there are three handkerchief trees that always turn a wonderful golden yellow, and these still glow in the fading light, so yesterday I did a fast sketch of one of them before the cold made me move on.

Handkerchief tree

I did a brisk walk, round to the pond, (enjoying the fountains) up to the Castle (a quick look at the animal houses that are still not finished, but it was too dark there to draw) and over to the playground where there were a few mothers, hands in pockets and coats zipped and buttoned, with children all open coated and un-gloved running about and climbing on things with never a thought for the cold.

Mothers in the playground

It may be damp and cold (and the forecast is for it to get colder) and the afternoons may be short and dark, but out there in the park there’s colour and life in the landscape. 

Not too long ago I was sketching up at the glasshouse terrace, the only part of the park that was still a building site. Walls were being built at the edge of the walkway that will curve along the front of the animal houses and aviary, and I was watching (and sketching) a skillful bit of bricklaying. After a while the bricklayer stopped to go off in search of something and as he passed me in the carpark he asked what I was doing, so I explained. (It seems he hadn’t been working on the site all that long and hadn’t seen me before). 

The conversation went like this:

Bricklayer: Are you an artist?
Me: Yes. I’ve been drawing this project since the beginning….
Short pause.
Bricklayer, thoughtfully: Only difference is, I draw with a trowel, and you draw with a pencil. 

I liked this, and wrote it down – though I didn’t really need to write it to remember it. It says a lot about what drawing is. Of course bricks (or Yorkshire stone) aren’t a sketchbook and a wall isn’t a drawing, but a trowel is a tool just as much as a pencil or a pen, and bricklaying and drawing both require eye/hand co-ordination and a lot of practice. When you do a lot of it and practise often, you get better at it and it more often goes well. Not always – and I imagine bricklayers have good days and bad days just as a sketcher does, though the consequences of a bad bricklaying day could be more serious and long lasting than the times that I do wonky unsatisfactory drawings. I can just turn the page and start another sketch, and try not to mind when things don’t go right – though it’s a fact that I never get over the feeling of uneasiness whenever this happens. After days of not drawing, when I need a lot of warming up before anything will flow there’s always a small sinking feeling, a nagging little voice that says you’ve lost it, it’s never going to go right. It does come right, eventually, after a fair bit of exercise, but it always feels the same. 

I was talking about this with a sketcher-friend of mine recently, Louise Garrett, and she had what I think is the brilliant idea of carrying a rough book around as well as a current sketchbook. Something to scribble in and do quick drawings with lots and lots of looking, lots of warming up. Drawing is like dancing, or singing. It’s a physical-neuralogical-emotional thing, and you have to respect that and be patient. And just do the work. 

My ‘Drawing The Work’ project and the exhibition now on in Cliffe Castle are going to be the focus of the October session of Bradford Museums’ ‘Responses to Art’ programme – this coming Thursday, 5th October, 10.30 – 3.00. Very unfortunately I’m not going to be able to be there myself, but Joe Bean from Yorkshire Urban Sketchers is going to come along and talk about Urban Sketching – and hopefully bring lots of examples of his own work. Joe loves building sites just as much as I do and draws them brilliantly – he’s just done a wonderful series of sketches of the demolition of the historic South Stand at Headingley Stadium. I’m thrilled that people will be able to see his work at Cliffe Castle and have a chance to hear him explain what Urban Sketching is all about – like me Joe is a passionate urban sketcher! 

Anyone interested in going along on Thursday should ring Cliffe Castle to book a place, on 01535 618231. It should be an interesting day!