My sketching friend Andy and I recently took a day trip to London. We went a bit mad, visiting The Design Museum, The National Portrait Gallery, The National Gallery, The Courtauld Institute and Docklands. It was about 6pm by the time we arrived at Docklands, and although we were pretty tired and in danger of having art fatigue, I’d very much wanted to try a sketch of the London skyline from the side of the Thames.

Luckily, we found a free bench with a good view of Blackfriars Bridge, taking in St Paul’s Cathedral on the far left, and the OXO Tower on the near right. We set to. It was even harder than I’d expected, squeezing as much of the view as possible into A5.

Oxo tower tombowBlackfriars London tombow

I can’t say I was entirely thrilled with my drawings, but nevertheless I was pleased to have made the attempt. We rewarded ourselves afterwards with big juicy burgers and chips at one of the Docklands eateries, watching London light up as it settled into evening. A good end to a full and inspiring day.

Challenge No.1

Following our attendance at the acrylic course, my friend Andy recklessly threw down the gauntlet. The idea was that together we would choose a scene to paint in acrylics. On an appointed day, we’d set the timer for 3 hours and paint simultaneously, in ‘real time’. Since there are a couple of hundred miles between our houses, we would convene on FaceTime at the end of the three hours and compare our paintings.

Well, how could I resist? It seemed like an excellent opportunity to get back on the horse after the acrylic course, and we’d no doubt have a laugh comparing our approaches at the end. We were both going to try for a less detailed, more impressionistic style than usual.

Andy kindly shortlisted a few photos, and together we chose a colourful Hong Kong night-time street scene. I’ve tried to find the original photographer, to give credit, but it’s not been easy and I’m still not sure I’ve managed it. (There are so many reblogs and shares on the internet it’s a bit of a minefield to be honest). Anyway, I’d like to extend our thanks to whoever originally shot the image – it was tremendous fun to work with.

On the morning of the challenge Andy and I had a quick FaceTime to compare how we were feeling about getting started (excited, and a little nervous) and then signed off to get on with the task we’d set ourselves. This was the first painting I was going to make with my new Golden heavy body paints. I had my fingers crossed for a decent experience.

I picked a 16×12 inch canvas board. Knowing where to start was tricky. Having chosen turquoise underpainting, I then plunged in with a bunch of good darks for starters. It wasn’t long before I realised that it was becoming hard to tell what was what, so I needed to add in some reds to give more shape to the buildings. Very soon I added the beginnings of the light areas, and then over the course of the next couple of hours repeatedly returned to the darks, mid-tones and lights adding more definition as the picture evolved.  It felt quite haphazard. I normally paint quite fast, and after about 2.5 hours I realised that my strokes were becoming increasingly fiddly, and that it was time to stop.


After the 3 hours was up, we reconvened at our computers. The reveal was a strangely tense moment. Andy had taken a slightly different approach to me, choosing an A2 canvas and a warmer, mellower range of colours. He is always much more methodical than me, and had blocked in his buildings with beautiful luminous colour on top of his underpainting, but he needed more time to finish the picture. Interestingly, we both had struggled with the bottom right of the picture, largely because on the reference photo it was hard to see exactly what was there.

It was so interesting to be able to see how we’d both tackled the same subject, our colour choices and differing techniques, and where we’d chosen to bring out or downplay elements of the scene. Andy later completed his painting, and I’m very pleased that he’s agreed to let me share it on this blog (mine’s on the left, Andy’s is on the right). At the end of the process I felt totally spent, but to be honest, pretty happy at what I’d achieved.

This shared endeavour was very rewarding, as was the opportunity to see how someone else had approached the same subject, and the resulting similarities and differences. Suffice it to say, we’re already planning the next challenge!

Hard Lines

Not so long ago friends came to visit for the weekend, and since they enjoy sketching and photography, and because the weather was truly awful, with leaden skies and driving rain, we paid a visit to Ely Cathedral, that (relatively) warm, dry staple.

The cathedral was fairly busy that day, so we dispersed, each to their own dark corner to create a picture from whatever appealed. This was my second sketching visit to the cathedral (here’s the first), and it took a while for me to find a view. In the end the decision was largely dictated by the availability of a small wall to sit on, with some gentle lighting above – very necessary for a sketcher in the dark cathedral interior.

I’d travelled light, deciding to work in pencil for a change. I work much faster in graphite than paint, so I hoped my choice would mean I wouldn’t be the last to finish and holding everyone up. In fact I really enjoyed making the pencils work for me, trying to achieve some good darks and lights to show up the intricate stonework of the cathedral interior, and the contrast with the array of flags. Using graphite always feels rather comfortable and familiar, especially if it’s been a while since I drew with it. And there was enough technicality in this scene to mean I was very grateful not to have to wrestle with the materials as well as the daunting and complicated perspective. Those medieval cathedral designers knew a trick or two…




Back to Boughton

This weekend I was able to get back to the sleepy village where we’d sketched the week before, but this time I took my parents sketching. The weather was good enough to sketch under the tree I drew last time, which kept off the intermittent drizzle.

I had the advantage of knowing the site, and so I’d been giving a little thought to how I might approach it, which definitely helped.

The initial step was to try to establish the bounds of the picture – I knew I wanted to get the purple tree in the picture, and also the white house. Putting the outlines in with a quick pencil sketch ensured that everything I wanted to show was in the frame and that the perspective was ok.

Then it was on with the watercolours. I used a mop for the sky, then changed to a flat acrylic brush which saw me through the rest of the sketch, and which was particularly useful for achieving clean lines on the house roof and walls, and the strokes of the reeds.

Boughton pond watercolour

Since there was quite a lot of light on the water I masked the brightest highlights with masking fluid, ditto for the house fence which would otherwise have been pretty impossible to show. I completely edited out the many ducks (as, incidentally did my parents) – I just didn’t know how to tackle them without them making the picture look far too twee. Any suggestions on that?

All in all, I had a very good morning in a tranquil setting with people I love. Can’t be bad!

(Just squeezing this last pic in for the wonderful #WorldWatercolourMonth.)

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