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

Costume Drama

My last little picture done at the V&A museum last weekend was made in the Fashion gallery, my last port of call before wending my way homeward. It’s one of the busiest galleries, and displays a selection of European fashion throughout the last centuries.

When I saw a free bench in front of one of the display cases, I nabbed it. It was lovely to have a proper seat; the downside was that the lighting throughout the gallery was extremely dim to preserve the delicate fabrics.

In front of me were some 18th Century co-ordinated accessories, definitely made for a rich and discerning customer. These had evidently been treasured throughout their owner’s lifetime, and many more lifetimes before being put on display for us. The same coral-coloured floral damask fabric was used for the shoes and hat, and the corset was also co-ordinated. I didn’t have time to sketch the dress, but you can probably imagine that it was equally patterned and frou-frou.

C18th costume chinagraph

I whisked out my pastel pad, a graphite pencil, white and black chinagraphs, and a deep coral Conte pastel. It was rather frustrating working in the very dim light, as I couldn’t really tell what effects I was getting, particularly with the white, so a lot of it was guesswork. Also, I would have liked to have achieved finer lines, but the chinagraphs and pastel had other ideas. But, on the plus side, I quite like how the pastel colour on the textured paper seems to suggest damask, without adding any detailed patterning.

I’m sure the young lady who originally owned these items would have been astonished to find out how many people have appreciated them since she last wore her outfit!

Vaulting Ambition

I’m lucky enough to live within easy striking distance of one of the greatest medieval English cathedrals – Ely Cathedral. It’s fondly called the ‘Ship of the Fens’ locally, as it can be seen rising impressively out of the flat farmland for miles around.

Yesterday was an unexpected holiday for my husband and me, so given that the weather forecast was appalling, we decided to go indoor sketching at the cathedral for a treat. This plan became not entirely straightforward. As luck would have it, Netflix were filming an episode of their new series ‘The Crown’ at the cathedral. It was as if the circus had rolled into town – I’ve never seen so many pantechnicons, lighting rigs and men standing round with coffees in one place.  As a result, parts of the cathedral were out of bounds to visitors, but we still found an accessible corner from which to sketch.

I chose the view towards the altar, which was lit by a huge daylight lamp and looked spectacular, with the intricate fretwork of the wooden screen showing starkly in contrast, and the octagonal lantern tower above it.

Ely Cathedral ConteThe experienced sketcher will already know what happened next – as soon as I’d got my framework laid out, they turned off the lamp, so the view I’d hoped to capture had changed character completely. Next, the fire alarm went off, everyone was evacuated…and then, fortunately, readmitted. No fire, thankfully. So, once we’d got settled back in, some serious sketching was able to commence. About half an hour later the main lights were switched on, which did help us to see what we were doing a bit better, but changed the shadows yet again. Ha ha! They were certainly keeping us on our toes.

I’d chosen not to bring watercolours, thinking that they might be too much faff for the type of scene I’d be sketching. I ended up being very pleased that I’d chosen to use A4 grey cartridge paper and conte pastels instead – these gave me the perfect excuse to omit lots of detail (and believe me, there is a HUGE amount of detail in the interior of this cathedral) and focus on the bigger structural elements instead. I find it’s just impossible to get too fiddly with a conte pastel.

The net result is still quite a complex picture, despite my reductions and omissions. There are a number of areas where, architecturally and geometrically, this drawing doesn’t add up. However, I find that the overall effect does capture something of how the interior felt, and the sheer, overwhelming size and complexity of the building. As I’m reminded whenever I visit, those medieval architects knew a thing or two!



Back to roses again today – they are in full swing in the garden so it would seem a shame to ignore them. The bush that produced this flower is a particularly beautiful example. Its blooms vary from yellow to deep pinky reds; I’ve no idea what it’s called as it’s one we inherited when we moved to this house.

Rose pastelI plumped for pastels today, as I’ve been doing so much watercolour recently I fancied a change. This picture was done on mountboard, almost entirely using the Conte hard pastel set I have, The one exception was a light flesh Reeves soft pastel which I used for some of the highlights on the petals. The foliage gave me a lot of trouble. I felt I just couldn’t get the greens I needed with the colours I had available to me.

I might try these roses again another time this summer, if I can catch them before they all finish, either using watercolour pens or paints. We’ll see.

I think that by the time Christmas arrives I’ll have quite a wish list of supplementary art materials. Must remember to add green shades of pastel to it!

Branching Out a Little

I’ve been wantinApple blossom Pastelg to make a picture in a long flat landscape format for a while, partly so that I can use it as my blog header. When I saw this apple bough laden with blossom this morning, I couldn’t resist.

I had a piece of blue mountboard waiting for something – turns out today was its turn. Since my collection of soft pastels is still very small, this picture was made using mainly the restricted pallette of harder Conte pastels. This turned out to my advantage I think, since the piece of board only measured 15 x 6 ins, so I was working quite small and I needed quite a bit of control over the definition of shapes

Overall, I enjoyed having a go at this. I’ve always found it a real challenge to depict plants, especially clusters of flowers – I think one of the keys is to build up a good repertoire of ways to deal with the repetition of petal or leaf shapes. I’m still working on that. Still, this has turned out cheerful and Springlike. Maybe I’ll pop it on my blog banner sometime and see how it looks.

Spring Greens (and Purples)

The garden is starting to look good as everything comes back to life, and I woke up this morning thinking it would be interesting to have a go at a pastel picture of a spray of green leaves. I was definitely full of optimism and feeling up for a challenge.

Firstly, I’m usuaHonesty flowers pastellly most comfortable drawing subjects with hard edges, not natural and organic beauty, so this was uncertain territory. Secondly, I wanted to focus harder than usual on composition (which to be honest is often the last thing I think of), as I’ve noticed that I could definitely improve in this area. Add to this the fact that I’ve only used pastels for portraits so far… so, I had a number of challenges on my hands.

In the end, it didn’t go too badly for a first bash. I like the play of the shadows on the table surface, but the actual flowers are too undefined and not how I’d imagined they would be when I started.  I’m fairly pleased with the composition, although I think the diagonal could have been less acute. All in all, a reasonable beginning.

Note to self: I must get some larger board as this size (12 x 14 ins) felt constraining with the bluntness of the pastels. Let’s go bigger next time!

Pastel Portrait – Roger

Dad pastel 1Pesky portraits, problem pastels! I thought it only fair to have a go at making a portrait of my Dad next. But he wasn’t very compliant when it came to having his photo done, and I didn’t have the time to do him from life when I last saw him. The light was very bright and squinty (for a change), and he wouldn’t behave! This theme has continued with this portrait…

Quite apart from having to re-draw the outlines several times as I’d just got them plain wrong, one of the biggest challenges here was the beard. The end result looks something like bits of Roger, but not entirely like him. I think I might have to have another go at a later date, but I can’t face it today! Why do we do these things?

Pastel Portrait – Patsy

Mum pastel 1Today has been my first venture into a pastel portrait of someone else (other than me). Against all advice in the books, I chose my lovely Mum. Partly this was because I had the opportunity to photograph her when others were coy, and partly because I really wanted the chance to make a very close study of her.

Of course, we think we know people’s faces, and on one level we do. But I hadn’t realised how much detail there is in a well-known face that we just take for granted – the curve of a smile, the shape of a nose. I know it’s been said before, but trying to put that down on paper totally changes the way I’m looking at faces. This was no exception.

The end result isn’t perfect, as anyone who knows my Mum will testify. But I think there’s enough of a likeness there for her to be recognised by this portrait, and I feel that’s a step forward for me.

New Media – playtime anywhere

It was Andrew Marr’s title A Short Book About Drawing which woke me up to the possibilities and immediacy of working on a tablet.

So far, I’ve been impressed by the Brushes app for iPad. It’s so intuitive, it is very easy to get started ‘painting’ and experimenting. Although I wouldn’t want to be confined to digital art, it does offer some true benefits.  One of the great advantages of drawing on a tablet is that it allows you to work in very low light conditions which present tremendous difficulties for traditional media. Plus, it requires no effort to get materials out and clearing up is a press of a button. Marvellous.

Here’s two similar pictures I’ve produced – one is using Brushes, the other’s in Conte pastels. It was an interesting experiment – the experimental digital version came first, and was much quicker (albeit not as accurate)!

Bec's Drawings      Sewing box

Seven Days of Portraits – Day 7

Following mSelf portrait 7y previous day’s work, I was very hesitant to knuckle down to this one, fearing that I’d take a step back. I finally took myself by the scruff of the neck and settled down to it.

I’d been tending to spend an increasing amount of time on the portraits, which coincided with using the dark boards, and this one took about 2 hours in total. The day was very changeable, and the light kept varying, which didn’t help; work was interrupted by a vast thunderstorm in the middle of the afternoon. I did make an effort to try to look less severe in this one; that was a struggle in itself.

However, persistence was finally rewarded. After some re-drawing of the features in the initial sketch (using the trusty white pencil) I finally produced a self-portrait which I think does capture ‘me’. It’s by no means perfect, but I’m encouraged that the progress from 7 days ago has been significant. It’s enough to make me want to go on and extend my experience to other people – anyone want to sit for me?