Looking Up

Last Saturday I was lucky enough to be out for a mini art-athon in London with a friend. We met early at King’s Cross, and made our way over to St Paul’s. After suitable fortifications (almond croissant) and a quick catch-up we settled ourselves at the foot of a fountain in St Paul’s Cathedral gardens, and chose a view. No time to waste! My friend sketched one of the statues ornamenting the parapet, while I went for the famous dome, with some fearsome perspective from ground level. That Christopher Wren knew a thing or two about impressive buildings, and wasn’t afraid of a bit of gratuitous ornamentation.

I’d brought my Conte pastels with me, so decided to get them into play early in the day, in case I ran out of steam later. The sketching session was made even nicer by the drifting sounds of a brass group rehearsing somewhere nearby. I now think that atmospheric live music should be provided for all sketchers who would like it!

St Paul's pastel

Milling Around

Last Friday, my husband intimated that he was up for a bit of sketching, in or around our local haunt, Downham Market. He suggested a few options, but I had somewhere very specific already in mind, and when I suggested it, he agreed it had potential.

I’ve been eyeing up Heygates Flour Mill for some time. It’s a collection of industrial buildings and stores which have evidently been multiplying over many years as technology in the milling industry has developed. The result is a jostling scene of high towers, squat warehouses and silos made from a selection of industrial materials. To cap it all, there’s a good vantage point for sitting and sketching across the Great Ouse river, and hardly any passers-by. We packed up and went. This time we were in situ by 9.45, which meant that there were still some interesting shadows to observe, and that was a definite plus.

I opted for simple – a smooth sketchbook, fineliner and black Tombow and waterbrush. The aim was to produce a picture similar in flavour (although a very different scene) to my sketch of Besalu, which I’d really enjoyed making.

Heygates tombow

There was a lot of challenging stuff in this sketch, from the perspective and angles of the buildings and silos, to trying to find a formula to represent all the cars parked in front of the site, without drawing each one individually. No way was that on the menu!

At first I was afraid (I was petrified!) that I’d positioned the buildings too far to the right for the picture to be balanced, but once I had the bushes drawn in everything settled down, especially as I was able to get some good darks in the foliage with the Tombow. I really enjoy the way that you can use the waterbrush to  pick up a little paint from a dark area to add in lighter tones elsewhere. It feels very spontaneous.

All in all, I’m happy with this sketch – a change is as good as a rest, they say. I think that must be true.


Last Friday the weather was lovely, and we needed to escape the media tsunami resulting from Thursday’s referendum, so we headed up to the Norfolk coast. Our destination was Hunstanton, or ‘Sunny Hunny’ as it’s locally known, where there’s a good sweeping sandy beach, with the added interest of amusement arcades and a funfair to sketch. However, when it came down to brass tacks we dithered about looking for a view – probably because there were so many choices. Time was ticking on, and in the end we plumped for sketching the Sailing Club building, not least because we could sit in the sun with our backs to the warm sea wall, the sound of the surf soothing our ears. The view had a boat, which my husband wanted to sketch, and a building, which was my main objective.

Sailing club watercolour

Perspective once again was a tricky one. I did some pencil guidelines, but when it came to sharpening everything up with fineliner (absolutely necessary this time) I realised I didn’t get it quite right. Too late though. I knew the boats would be tricky, and they were. And in case you’re wondering, that large heap on the far left is a big stack of kayaks. I was at the end of my concentration by the time I reached them!  The sun was quite high but still casting the front and side of the building in shade. Consequently the ground shadows are quite small – I would have enjoyed playing with more contrast. However, the bit I like best on this is the backlit patch of grass in front of the building. Right at the end I discovered I’d forgotten to reserve the white of the flag, and had to lift it out with a damp brush before adding a little colour. Doh!

It was a good way to spend the morning, not too much conversation, no room for thinking about the EU. ‘Sketching as meditation’ worked its magic.


Curate’s Egg

Friday was a day off, all jobs on hold, so my husband and I went out into the wilds of Norfolk sketch hunting. The weather was glowering, although dry, and it was difficult to find a scene which pleased us both. I think that the lack of sun, and consequently shadows, played a big part in this. It’s easy to underestimate the impact a good shadow or two has on a slice of landscape.

Anyway, time was ticking on, we found this round-towered church at South Pickenham, and decided to just go for it. It’s a building which has obviously been added to and adapted over the centuries by builders of varying skill and ambition. The top of the round Norman tower is octagonal (although not convincingly so) and was added in the late mediaeval period. The main body of the church dates from at the latest the 14th Century, with the porch a positively modern Victorian addition.

Pickenham Church watercolour

As you can tell, we camped between the residents, who hopefully didn’t mind. There were a lot of perspective challenges here, and it was hard to believe my eyes as to the angles of slope on the rooflines, hence some inconsistencies. The foliage gave me a lot of trouble, but I’m quite pleased with the results on the yew to the left of the church. At home I employed a flat brush to introduce some further darks and changes of texture into the very large, dense tree on the right, and to sharpen up the lines on the church and grasses. As always, it was a battle to achieve sufficient contrast in the picture, especially given the dull conditions of the day. I’d have liked the outcome to have been fresher than it is.

This was the last page in my A4 watercolour sketchbook, so now I can archive this and move on to the delights of a new pad. Hurray!

Whites & Darks

I was lucky enough to have a few days in Venice last year, which was a real feast for the eyes. Since returning I’ve been occasionally turning over in my mind how to make a picture from one of our (many) photos. So many of the scenes are iconic and have been done to death by other artists. Finding something a little original is definitely a challenge.

However, today I dug out a photo of a little residential street, where the white and coloured washing was strung between the apartments to dry in the warm sunshine. The big draw was the contrast between the bright light on the painted surfaces and the cool shadows. I was initially tempted to use paint, but in the end coloured pencils won me over, in combination with an A4 black paper background.

Venice Washing Colour Pencil

It’s been a little while since I drew in coloured pencils, and I really enjoyed this very much.

Boal Quay

This is the second little watercolour which I’ve made of Boal Quay in King’s Lynn. The first was made from further along, nearer to the centre of town, whereas today we were on the outskirts looking in.

It was a tricky scene, with quite a lot going on. Painting boats makes my toes curl, and there was a lot of other architectural stuff to include too. One interesting problem was that the sky was very changeable, and so the light on the water kept varying from very dull, muddy and flat to blue and reflective. I used my masquepen for the details of the boat’s masts and fishing net hoists, the wind turbine at the back, and a few touches on the buildings. I was very glad that I’d brought the masking fluid with me as I ‘m sure I’d have struggled to retain the whites otherwise.

Boal quay watercolour 2

Anyway, I quite like this sketch, as I think I learned a lot. Above all, I feel a sense of achievement that I managed not to use my fineliner which is normally my crutch for adding crispness to sketches – I dug out a long-dormant rigger and used that instead (funnily enough, for the rigging, etc. Who’d have thought it?).

On the Line

Yesterday was a beautiful day, with light breezes, big scudding clouds and intermittent warm sunshine, a good day for sketching outside. Inspiration was slow in coming, but finally I decided to have a go at the washing line, attracted by the lovely purply-blue shadows being thrown onto the gravel and the shed.

In the end this picture took an awful lot of fiddling with to arrive at this stage. I struggled with the sky because the paint dried even faster than I’d expected and, even with lifting out, the clouds are rather lumpy. Getting the foliage dark enough to contrast with the sunlit areas seemed to take ages and many goings-over; in doing so, I did get to try out my new W&N Neutral Tint, which seems a very useful addition to the palette. On the plus side, I am pleased with the colour of the shadows of the washing, and also that I managed to get the paint edges crisp and dark enough not to have to use my fineliner to add definition.

Washing watercolour


The Dome

Not too long ago my son and I had a day out in London together. I had packed a few Tombows, my fineliner and my funsize sketchbook, but to be honest I didn’t think I’d really have a chance for any sketching as our schedule was quite packed.

However, after we’d spent time at the Science Museum (the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition was on), and also looked at the oriental swords in the V&A next door, we headed out to Docklands to rendez-vous with my husband who was going to pick us up in the car.

We arrived ahead of schedule at the ‘O2’, which used to be called the Millennium Dome, but now has become a commercial enterprise. As luck would have it, there was a Country music weekend happening – possibly my least favourite genre of all. The place was packed with folks in stetsons and cowboy boots, fringed garments and Daisy Duke shorts. We shuddered, and found a spot in the sunshine outside. The boy plugged in to the iPod, while I whipped out the sketchbook.

The Dome itself really is quite an extraordinary sight. I wouldn’t call it attractive, but it is distinctive. You may recall seeing it in The World is Not Enough, where James Bond slides down its sides. We didn’t do that.

Funsize O2

Anyway, when it came to sketching, there was a lot to look at, from the white plastic dome itself to the many guy-ropes holding it up, and the giant yellow antennae. The geometry was certainly a bit of a challenge, especially working so small. I used a sepia fineliner, a sepia brush tip pen and a selection of Tombows. On this occasion I chose to omit the throngs of Country-lovers. Maybe they’ll feature another time…

It’s Behind You!

This little ‘funsize’ sketch (3x3ins) was made on a visit to the ancient and very pretty Spanish hill town of Besalu, with its impressive medieval bridge. The weather was fine, so two of our party sat down at river level to draw the bridge; however, I didn’t think the tiny format of this sketchbook would cope very well with the bridge from our vantage point.

Fortunately, just looking in the other direction offered a  rather picturesque view of the buildings clustered on the side of the hill, in the shadow of a mountain, and this is what I chose.

Funsize Besalu

This little sketch is made in black fineliner and shaded with a black Tombow watercolour marker and waterpen to blur the paint. I was pleased with the effect and depth I achieved here, despite a fairly minimalist approach to materials.


So, you’ll be glad to hear that I’m almost at the end of talking about our Spanish trip…just a couple more posts and I’ll be done.

It was a beautiful photo taken at dusk which inspired me to paint this acrylic of the house where we stayed. The scene strongly reminded me of Magritte‘s Empire of Light scenes, where blue skies are the backdrop for extremely dark foregrounds, and the house lights shine out warmly into the night. I loved the expanse of dark foreground, and the bold contrasts in colour and shade. I knew I wanted to recreate this in paint, and after shying away from it for about a week I finally got stuck in with the acrylics yesterday.

The mental process is always so important – in what order does the paint need to added? For me, this really dictates what can and can’t be done; I’ve found that I like to paint with imperfectly blended colours on my brush, which means that strokes laid on can’t easily be corrected if I make a mistake later when painting the next ‘layer’. This does cause some head-scratching, finger crossing, and occasionally quiet cursing. But you know, it’s fun.

Here I began with a sheet of hardboard roughly 12×16 ins. I really didn’t want to go any smaller. This finished size caused some issues, as the camera wasn’t doing a good job on the colour reproduction, compounded by the shiny acrylic surface. Therefore I used my scanner, but only half the picture could fit at a time, which is why there’s a rather unsightly line down left of centre where I’ve inexpertly stitched two photos together! I’m happy to say that the real thing looks rather more convincing…

Mas Bernad Acrylic Scan

Anyway. After pencilling in the outlines, I laid in the purple-blue sky (there is a hint less red in it than shows in this scan), moving on to the main body colour of the house and the path surrounding it. That was a much harder colour to mix than I expected, mainly because I couldn’t decide what colour I was really looking for to convincingly portray yellow stone in deep purply night conditions. Tricky. Next I added a very dark green for the foreground grass and the background trees, with some even darker patches for extra density. The detail of the porch roof and the darks under the eaves and the side of the chimney followed. I went for it with the yellows to give the golden light spilling out from the windows. Then it was time to add in the tree at the front, and the window frame details. Standing back and looking at the painting from this point, I could see that the path still wasn’t dark enough, and I felt that the colour of the house was too flat, so I took further measures there to try to compensate. I used a 3/4 inch flat brush throughout, choosing to persist even for the fiddly areas, since I like the interesting, slightly unpredictable quality wrestling with it gives.

This picture represents two new challenges for me: to try an acrylic of a house and garden; and also to produce a painting with a ‘dusk’ feel. I like the darkness throughout, and I’m especially fond of the way the light shines from the partially obscured upstairs window. I know I learned a lot here, and I really enjoyed the process.