Cascade 1

A few years ago my sketching friend and I went to a workshop at Leeds School of Art. The focus was to study the work of David Tress and take inspiration from his work into our own art. In retrospect I really gained a lot from the session, moving away from detail and towards elements of abstraction.

With time on my hands I thought I could revisit what I’d learned, so I picked up a small, narrow piece of mountboard and looked for a subject. I found a photo of a waterfall in Wales which appealed and suited the dimensions of the card. By collaging packing paper and newsprint I created a textured base on which to paint with acrylic. I went a bit mad with colour (I thought at the time) but was pretty happy with the result.

It’s rough and ready, but I think it looks at home mounted on some brown paper.

Gold Leaf

My new metallic gold acrylic paint has been burning a hole in my pocket, so to speak. So I had a plan to use lots of it on a painting of another iris, inspired by a couple of paintings I’ve seen recently which employed gold or bronze backgrounds to great effect.

I used a canvas board, which is quite a new surface for me, but which has imparted some interesting texture to the picture. My initial sketch of the flower head was made directly on the canvas using a graphite stick. Once I’d laid in the background I soon discovered that my original composition was weak, as the flower head just floated squatly in the middle of a blank golden square. That would never do. I added the purples over a white base, including some deeper shades, enjoying using a rather dry brush to give a different kind of feel to the paint as the canvas texture showed through. Outlining the petals in black ink helped somewhat to give the flower a little more definition.

gold iris compressed

Standing back and appraising the picture, I had sudden thought to create some leaves by  using negative painting to create leaf shapes in the golden background. Although this improved matters, the composition was still missing something. Necessity being the mother of invention, I dabbed off some of the newly-dry purple paint with a cloth to blur the background a little, and then used my fingernail, to reveal the gold coating beneath, which I was relieved to see finally did the trick of bringing a bit more life and texture into the picture’s background.

I wonder whether I should have taken some photos while I was working of the different stages, but hindsight’s a wonderful thing.  I learned loads with this one, and also had the slightly reckless fun of experimenting to escape the difficulties I’d found myself in. Maybe that’s enough irises for a while now…


Blue Spray

The irises have been quite spectacular in the garden this year, and one dusk I was struck by how well the white irises stood out against the mass of foliage behind. I resolved to paint this, and thought acrylics would stand me in good stead, due to the vibrancy and depth of colour I struggle to achieve with watercolour. (Last year I drew the irises in pastels and then in ink; who knows what next year will bring?)

I used a lightly sanded piece of hardboard, larger than usual (24 x 9ins), sketched out the flower spray, and began by putting in a very dark green background. As I began on the flowers it became clear that there was going to be more blue in this picture than I’d originally thought, but it worked quite well with the dark green. I enjoyed the fact that I was able to show the flowers in three different stages on one stem, and it was a delight to see everything come together as I added the white highlights and the little sparks of orange stamens.

iris blue acrylic 3

Maybe some lessons on how to photograph large, shiny acrylic pictures would be a good idea?

Light and Shade

There’s an apple tree in the garden I’ve been watching, waiting for the right moment to paint it. The blossom has been emerging, and is now at its peak, the most wonderful point before it starts to wither and drop, cascading over the ground. Time was of the essence, and yesterday I managed to grab a couple of hours to make a quick acrylic painting.

I’m trying out canvas board, as previously I’ve painted acrylics on hardboard which has a very smooth surface, good for smears and blends. This behaves differently, but the texture of the canvas provides an interesting surface, albeit one where the paint dries faster due to being absorbed into the fabric. I worked with a large, flat brush throughout, from sky to background, finally laying on the tree and shadow last.

Apple Tree Acrylic

Before starting, I had an idea in my head about how this picture might look. The one I’ve ended up making is rather different though. Why is this so? Well, the conditions in the garden weren’t right for the image I had in mind – the light was wrong, and the vibe wasn’t there. Sometimes pictures just evolve away from my plans, there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it, as if they have a life of their own.

So this became a painting of two sides – object and shadow, light and dark. The blossom is all sweet, frisky and frothy; the shadow in contrast is almost menacing, without being intended that way. I initially thought it was going to me more ‘realistic’ than it has turned out. Strange.


Silver and Gold

The boys in my life wanted to go mountain biking; I didn’t. So I went with them to Shouldham Woods and made a picture instead. I had 45 minutes in which to find a location and actually do the painting. The time limit meant that I didn’t take as much care as I might have liked when finding a spot, but nevertheless I liked this view because it offered a pretty picture of a variety of trees, with some beautiful newly-golden-leaved silver birches in the distance. In this case I opted to use some masking fluid to preserve the white trunks; the time it took to dry was time well spent, as I quite like the unevenness of line this has produced. There was a lot of variation in greens, and I made a conscious effort to mix greens rather than use what I had in my paintbox, which I think has probably given a better result. As always, achieving the depth of colour for the Scots pine and the shaded areas took several goes as I’m never brave enough first off.

Shouldham hedgerow watercolour

I wasn’t very happy with this picture when I’d first completed it, but a few weeks on I feel rather differently about it and am now quite pleased to have it in my sketchbook.


My husband is learning to draw and wants to start to sketch people. When I suggested he could do worse than have a try at a self portrait, he commented that he thought it felt a bit vain to do so. That surprised me; I hadn’t looked at it that way. I countered that I think our own faces are the ones we are know best, and that at least we’re always available to model for ourselves. Anyway, in my limited experience, self portraits are rarely flattering, given the fixed stare, frown, clenched jaw and compressed lips which result from the intensity of effort involved.

It was a series of self portraits in pastel which prompted me to kick off this blog just over a year ago. It was a good adventure, and one which taught me a lot.  I’ve done a couple in watercolour since, but today was the time for a proper selfie in acrylic.

I got the mirror rigged up, paints out, and off I went – starting is often the scariest bit. The board (30x40cms) was prepped by a light sanding and then propped on my tabletop easel. Having sketched the basic features in pencil, I worked from the background forwards. For once I did have a plan for the background, inspired by the black glass of the oven behind me (I like to paint in the kitchen).

Self portrait acrylic apr 16

The skin tones really gave me food for thought, how to mix the right colours; it took quite a bit of trial and error, and I’ve still come out somewhat more tanned than I am in reality. The shadows on the face were especially challenging. What colour is that? The chin is definitely a bit odd (I might revisit that). The bit I like most, and tellingly which took least effort, was the ear. If the rest of the painting was as loose and yet still as convincing as that I’d be really chuffed. I found that the acrylics actually dried a little too fast for me to achieve the smoothness of skin tones I was hoping for. I can see how oils would be a bonus here. Yet the acrylics do offer a sort of coarseness which is appealing.

I’d hoped that using my 3/4 in flat brush throughout would help me to paint more loosely, but in fact it created some problems where detail was necessary, particularly round the eyes and nose. Rightly or wrongly, I persisted. I’d be interested to know what brushes other people use for portraits, all advice gratefully accepted!

As has been the case with every selfie I’ve done, this sort of looks like me, but doesn’t really. Having looked at my previous attempts I think that I am getting better at this business, although my stern expression seems to confirm my opinion that self-portraiture is a very serious business indeed.


Memory Test

Today I wanted to paint something in acrylics. I didn’t have much time available, but felt that I’d like to experiment a little. I usually (almost always) draw and paint from a reference or actual ‘thing’ in front of me. The downside is that this can mean that I follow that scene or image too slavishly, sometimes to the detriment of composition.  I thought it would be a good exercise to try to conjure a scene from my memory, using just my impressions of that scene for reference. The aim was to produce something that felt as ‘real’ as possible, testing my memory store of observation and learning from previous sketches.

Mountains Memory Acrylic

I found this exercise such a challenge – so much harder than painting something that’s actually ‘there’. The composition wasn’t very clear in my head, and I was eager to paint rather than to sketch my picture first. This has meant that the resulting painting doesn’t have a clear focus, other than the channel between two of the mountains. I’m happy that the eye is led in, but once in, it sadly has nowhere much to go. The grass in the foreground was an afterthought, and it doesn’t add any value; in fact cropping the picture to exclude it does helps the picture somewhat.

Mountains Memory Acrylic crop

What did I learn? Well, randomness in mountain shapes is harder to achieve convincingly than you might imagine. Ditto for clouds – time looking hard at them in future will be time well spent. Imagining how the light will fall, and what kind of light it should be, is key, and this should be established at the beginning, not halfway through. I should have spent more time on working out my composition, perhaps including the suggestion of a village or a few distant buildings for a bit more interest. In summary, I think this picture should be filed under ‘Learning Process.’ It’s becoming quite a big section!


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.




Snowy Glimpse

Sant Privat watercolour

While staying near Girona, we went for a long walk up in the foothills of the Pyrenees (from Sant Privat d’En Bas), attracted by the lure of seeing the Shrine to the Mother of God of Small Saucepans. Well honestly, who could resist? It was a long slog, relentlessly upwards, through the tree line before we reached the shrine, which if I’m frank had disappointingly few saucepans on display. However, we bore the disappointment bravely, and kept on ascending.

Nearly 3 hours’ upwards climb was rewarded at the summit with a wonderful view of a picturesque refuge with a backdrop of snowy peaks. We stopped for our picnic lunch (much needed) and I managed to grab 15 minutes in between mouthfuls to make this quick watercolour sketch. I’d have liked to better capture the sense of distance between the near refuge and the far peaks and mountains. The distant, snowy caps against the steely sky are by far my favourite part of this picture. It was pretty breezy, so fortunately all the paint dried quickly and we were able to move on…

Home from Home

This sketch was made outside in the April sunshine, as I tried to capture the scene from above our holiday rental cottage, taking in the wonderfully wide vista of mountains and woods.

The usual problems associated with working outdoors came into play; the breeze dried my paint faster than I was expecting (but only in some places!), the sun came in and out, the shadows changed, and I accidentally sat on a prickly plant. Beetles swam in my water. I belatedly and regretfully realised I’d neglected painting in watercolours while I’ve been playing with Tombows and suchlike. Ah well. Nose back to the grindstone!

Mas Bernard watercolour

Regardless of the technical issues with this picture, I’m very pleased to have captured a record of where we stayed; I know that in years to come this will conjure up some very happy memories.