Late bloomer

I’ve not been doing so much watercolour over the winter, but there is something about Spring subjects which just cries out for it. When my husband chose this apple blossom twig from the garden to sketch it was, quite frankly, irresistible to me too.

Apple blossom watercolour

I always find flowers difficult, and this was no exception, but I did really enjoy having a go. The complex shadows of the glass from the two windows were attractive, but not so easy to execute… must get the watercolours out more often, I could use the practice!

Spirit of experimentation

What was I thinking?

Well, the idea for this picture began on a visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park with good friends. There was a large exhibition of Tony Cragg’s work, which had some fascinating sculptures, seemingly abstract at first glance, but from which faces materialised as you changed your point of view. These were gloriously intriguing, but the item which attracted me most was a charcoal drawing where the artist had very quickly overlaid outlines of vases, all originating from a single point. It had a great deal of dynamism in its simplicity. I was very taken by it.

This prompted an animated conversation with Andy, my sketch buddy, about how we might take that picture as a starting point for something further, a stepping stone away from the realistic and into a more graphic or abstract vibe. I knew I wanted to explore using more than one medium, and I had some acrylic inks which needed to be played with. Experimentation was to be the watchword.

I did a small preliminary drawing to see if the composition I had in mind might work – I thought it could. First then was to mask the edges of the green-tinted A3 watercolour sheet, and put down my base drawing in ballpoint pen. Although I liked the delicacy of the ballpoint, once I’d put on the acrylic ink (used onto wet), the lines were wholly overwhelmed, so I used Crayola crayons to bump up the outlines. The red band in the middle started with silver oil pastel, then briefly went very red indeed in oil pastel, and was subsequently scraped back again as I wasn’t happy with its dominance. I’m not sure what that band is supposed to represent; it just wanted to be there, so I let it in.

And here’s what transpired…

Glasses ink and biro

I had hoped that the masking tape would hold back the acrylic ink and prevent it from straying; obviously that didn’t work! But I quite like the way that the ink has crept under the barrier and spread in some areas. Also interesting was the way in which the different colours of ink seemed to behave in the water, with the tendrils of pthalo blue spreading much further. This might have been down to the order in which I laid the ink on the wet areas (can’t remember which colour went on first).

So, although I’m still not sure about how the whole hangs together, I definitely learned a lot on this one, and had a pretty good time making it.

On the Edge

The last sketch of Madeira was made on our final morning, sitting in the sun at the statue of Christ the Redeemer and looking towards Funchal. Just a few minutes’ concentration, spying on the cruise ships in the harbour and the houses perched improbably, and seemingly precariously, on the cliffs.

Funchal tombow

The picture was made in black fineliner and black Tombow on a new W&N sketchbook with extremely smooth paper (not sure yet how I’m going to get on with its lack of texture; time will tell).

It’s complicated

On holiday in Madeira, we visited the Monte Palace Tropical Garden way up the mountain. The gardens looked like they had been extensively rescued and refurbished in the ’60s and ’70s, with some rather (to our eyes) brutalist sculpture and landscaping, but with an Oriental bent. Everywhere had a beautiful view to unfold, but trying to squeeze one of those views onto paper in an hour proved a massive challenge. I chose to paint a water feature based on the idea of the Madeiran irrigation levadas, the attraction also being that there was an unoccupied seat conveniently situated at the top of the steps, looking down.

I started with a sketch in fineliner, which looked fairly promising. About halfway through adding paint, the full sun disappeared as cloud moved over. How I hate it when that happens! The changing conditions certainly presented a challenge, as did all the vegetation, perspective, shadows, etc, etc. It wasn’t long before I realised that I’d been rather too ambitious in my scope. Have I learned my lesson? Probably not…

Madeira botanical gardens watercolour


Some sketches seem to be a breeze, others not so much. This was one of the latter, of my dear friend Suz, who is much prettier in real life than I’ve made her out to be here! Sketching living, breathing, moving people in watercolour is something I always find difficult, and this was no exception. (And the glass of wine I was drinking probably didn’t help.) But I did enjoy the process of trying.

Suz sunlounger watercolour

Now, moving swiftly on…

Far Away

So, it’s been a while… but I haven’t been idle. Well, not very idle. But when you’re on holiday, that’s part of the gig, isn’t it? We had a few days on Madeira – the extremely vertical volcanic island. If you haven’t been or seen pictures, it’s a very beautiful, but very vertiginous island, famed for its good walking along the ‘levadas’ or raised man-made irrigation channels. We did a great deal of walking, and in the end not so much sketching, but you really can’t have it all. Madeira’s not ideal for beach bums as the beaches are pebbly and the waves are strong, but if you like sitting on sun-warmed stones listening to pounding surf, then you’ll be happy by the sea.

And that’s what I did the first morning. The pebbles were so smooth and big, grey at first sight but much more varied on closer inspection. An ideal subject for watercolours, this one virtually painted itself, and turned out to be the nicest picture I did during the holiday.

Madeira stones watercolour

This was a new sketchbook with different paper to what I’m used to (not sure I’m keen on the tooth of this one, it’s very even and pronounced) and the strong sunshine and stiff breeze kept drying the paper much faster than I wanted. However, the sun did produce some lovely dark shadows, which were fun to add, giving a bit of depth to the picture. The various bleeds and crinkly edges seem to complement the subject – it’s wonderful when watercolour adds that bit of magic to a picture.

The Big One

It’s Challenge No. 4, and the painting which has been taking up all my spare time (not that there’s been too much of that) is finally finished. I think…

The Challenge this time which Andy and I set ourselves was on the theme of ‘Water,’ and we chose this fishing scene of my son and a friend. To be painted in acrylic, on a big canvas, 24 x 30 inches. We did our studies (mine’s here) and then gave ourselves a laughable 3 hours to see what we could get done on our respective paintings. It turned out that the answer was ‘not that much.’ However, we both decided it would be time well spent to press on and see what we could make of the scene, however long it took.

And it took hours. I have lost count, but I reckon I’ve spent at least 10 hours on this, over two weeks, although quite where the time has gone I couldn’t say. (As usual, the camera has bumped up the blues and whites in this pic).

Clapper bridge acrylic

Covering the big canvas was definitely part of that – I really underestimated the amount of paint it would swallow, and how long it would take just to get a basic covering of paint onto it, without even getting down to the details. One of the advantages of taking the painting more slowly was that I was able to be more critical about each session’s progress. I definitely learned a phenomenal amount. For example: how tricky it can be to get translucency and ‘believability’ into the water (I ended up layering paint, and then using a pretty dry brush to skid over the top); the importance of varying the type of stroke to show different textures; how to compensate for an over-exposed source photo which has made all the skin tones even whiter than standard English skin; and the difficulty of painting a face you can’t really see. I also learned that for big pictures I think I prefer painting on board rather than canvas. This is because the canvas gave a grainy final surface tricky to paint detail on, whereas the board would have been smooth textured and would have made the skin much easier to deal with (and particularly the faces) I’m sure.

So here it is, finally done. I’d like to put this one on the wall, I think. It’s a good memory of a very happy day, and now it’s also a symbol of another hurdle attempted. So that’s two reasons to be cheerful.