Tim Minion, Sketching Companion

Meet Tim Minion. He arrived unexpectedly. On the way to a fancy dress ball last week, we stopped to pick up pirate costume accessories. Tim was hanging out near the tills and I fell head over heels for him. At the time I acquired him, I had no real clue about exactly what use I would have for him. But within a few days, he’s become indispensable.

Tim Minion looking plump and smug

Timinion looking plump and smug

Tim Minion is now my sketching companion.

He faithfully transports my sketchbooks, coloured pencils, pens, and brushes. It’s quite amazing how much he can carry without getting bent out of shape.

There’s something quite liberating about having a Minion as a sketching companion. Tim Minion stops me from taking my sketching too seriously. There’s a temptation to strive for perfection in every piece of work. As a general rule, constantly aiming for excellence is a good thing. But with sketching, that’s almost guaranteed to negate the primary purpose of the exercise.

Tim Minion spills his guts

Timinion spills his guts

Once you’ve dug into Tim Minion’s insides to haul out sketch book and pens, it’s very difficult to be anything but playful. That state of playfulness immediately creates a looser piece of work. Capturing some of the essence of the subject in a few minutes is the goal. Working fast and being relaxed about the results are key factors for success.

Having all my sketching kit in one place (even if it is the innards of a Minion) means I can produce a quick image when taking a break. Often sketching time happens when I’m just sitting on a park bench, or a patch of grass under a tree. In that respect, its also great practice for plein air painting.


Recent sketches

These little images were the results of Tim’s portering labours last week in France. Done over two short sessions, this is more sketching than I generally do in a month. I’m really pleased with the output. Long may this last – hopefully having a Minion will keep the work flowing.

Sketch. Green chair conversation

Green chair conversation

One more sketch from last week provides a perfect example of the value of my sketchbook. The Tuilleries Gardens are full of lovely ponds and statues, with ducks, pigeons and finches strutting and waddling around, and people sitting in green metal chairs chatting, dozing, reading, eating, and relaxing in their own way. A cluster of five empty chairs caught my eye. They were grouped very close together in a way that made it look as if the chairs were themselves having a friendly conversation. This little sketch isn’t by any means even close to a finished work. It never will be. But it will remind me of the day, the idea I had when I saw the chairs, and the interaction between a group of inanimate items that made them seem almost human.

I’m going to enjoy Tim Minion’s company as we sketch our way through my travels.

Fred Ted and the military medals

Fred Ted's military medals

Fred Ted (watercolour)

Hayley Oats sent me a photo of Fred Ted and her grandfather’s military medals as part of the Everyday Treasures series.

Here’s Hayley’s story about Fred Ted and the Military Medals:

When I was asked by Vandy to provide something that should could paint that meant a lot to me, think what you would save in a fire,  was the description. Well I had a tough time.  I am the family historian for want of a better description, (although I think most of the family would say hoarder!)  as well as a wedding photographer…… so anyway after my initial reaction of photos and family history I sat and thought about it more.

Here’s my precious item.

Fred the big teddy bear is very special to me, he was given to me the day I was born by my grandfather, affectionately known as Big Poppa.  He was always the one who sat quietly in the corner of the kitchen whilst my grandma cooked and had a house full of people. The place was never empty, people popping in and out. If he wasn’t in the kitchen chair he was in his workshop with a car in bits to be mended or turning wood and making beautiful wooden, bowls, vases, fruit the list goes on. He was very creative. As a child I don’t remember him talking much, although I am assured he did, he was always there, just quietly observing. It was only when my grandma sadly passed away that I really started to have conversations with him and it was not long after that I got a job working with the Royal Engineers (Explosive Ordnance Regiment) that we started to learn about his time in the Second World War.

He started out in the Royal Artillery but was at some point yet to be defined, was recruited into the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the precursor to the SAS, for his explosives experience.  Up until this point we don’t think he had talked to anyone about his WWII experiences, and he was always a little guarded about the level of detail he would give, he said, “ I signed the official Secrets Act and some things should stay that way”  What we do know is that he was involved in Dieppe Raid of 1942 which was such a disaster, but that he made it into France to complete his mission, where the rest of his team were killed. He was also seriously injured: both his ankles were broken.  He told me he remembers leaning over a 5 bar gate, and then being carried on someone’s shoulders, but not really much else.  It appears he was found and carried back to safety by two , to this day unknown, Canadian soldiers. He recuperated in a military hospital in Kent.

We have many little anecdotes like this one:  After one SOE mission he asked the medical officer how he could relax and he said he should get blind drunk and everything would be fine!

After his time in Dieppe he was taken off active overseas service and became a military lorry driver in the UK.  Once the war was over he was discharged and had a successful career back at home in Yorkshire working for British Coal. In later years he was given a military pension because his hearing had been so damaged by his time in the Royal Artillery.

We hadn’t really heard any of these stories until I started my job with the Royal Engineers. Sadly, he died a short while after I started working there and so it makes those precious moments extra special. The military medals are his, they don’t look like many for a man whose service was so varied, (this is just a short highlight) but medals weren’t awarded to those in the SOE, as it was Clandestine operations they couldn’t give medals for things that didn’t ‘technically’ happen.

So Fred and the military medals, remind me of how precious it is to spend time with my family talking about our adventures so the stories can live on.  Fred and the medals, and this fabulous painting will one day pass to my nephew so he can carry on knowing the stories.

My Secret Narnia Project: a Sneak Preview

I’ve been working on a secret Narnia project for a little while. It’s still a secret so I’m not going to tell you everything about it yet. But I just couldn’t wait to share the paintings I’ve been doing for it – so here’s a little sneak preview.

Secret Narnia Project - Abstract version

Abstract version

As usual, my method has been to think about the project for some months. While I do that, vague images start to crystalise in my mind. These are the first two sketches for the project. I think there will be more. In fact I’m sure there will be more paintings before my secret Narnia Project is done – I have a few images in my head already.

One red tree

Secret Narnia Project – One Red Tree

There have been a few criteria to this project.

In the first place, it has to be predominantly, if not exclusively, deep red and grey/silver. Black might be an option as an extra colour or an alternative within the design.

The paintings need to have a feel of Narnia, but not be literal. This is an exercise in abstraction within a theme.

It has to appeal to a special person in my family. At the moment, the initial deliberations are in progress and some decisions will be forthcoming soon.

Next steps in my Secret Narnia Project:

- More paintings

- Finding a supplier who will screen print a small run of fabric

- You’ll have to wait to find out the rest….

I know which of these two I prefer – I’d love to hear what you think.

Martello Tower at Aldeburgh

Martello Tower

Martello Tower at Aldeburgh (Oil 50 x 50cm) completed under the guidance of Stephen Higton

The Martello Tower at Aldeburgh, seen across the water, was painted in a workshop with my friend, Stephen Higton.

Stephen has been my oil painting guide right from the start. I did my first ever oil painting in one of his workshops and knew then that I wanted to do more at some stage.

Unpacked - First oil painting

Unpacked – First oil painting

The image was quite simple (which was good thinking on Stephen’s part as it was easier to focus on technique and not have to worry too much about composition).  I have a fondness for my ‘firsts’. The pastel from my first painting session hangs in our lounge and Unpacked has a home of a bedroom wall in our house.

Inaccessible Pinnacle (oil 24 x 30 cm)

Inaccessible Pinnacle (oil 24 x 30 cm)

As soon as I posted a photo of my first painting online I was asked to paint a commission of  the Inaccessible Pinnacle. Conscious of my inexperience in this medium,  I took a deep breath and had a go. Fortunately, the recipient was happy with the result and this painting now lives in Edinburgh.

Getting back to painting in oils after a long break was great. I always have the best intentions, but somehow my watercolours kept calling me back.  The martello tower photograph Stephen gave us as a reference had more complexity in it than either of the previous two oils I’d done. I wanted to capture the early morning light on the water, the scattering of boats and the moody, dark shape of the martello tower on the horison.

I’ll have to find more time for oil painting.

A little more about the Martello Tower at Aldeburgh:

Built to defend the UK against Napoleon, the martello tower at Aldeburgh is the northern most in the chain. Now owned by the landmark trust, the tower can be rented for a holiday. Trivia: Almost a million bricks were used in it’s construction.

Note to art lovers: Stephen and Mita Higton are holding an open studio on June 29th, 2014. Worth a visit if you’re in Suffolk.

Garden sketching in France

Garden sketching - hollyhock flowerWhat do garden sketching in France and Facebook have in common? I’ll tell you.

I’m ambivalent about Facebook for the most part. I know many people are annoyed by the adverts, but I kinda accept that as part of getting a free service. The thing that does wind me up is when the gnomes who build the Facebook engine take it upon themselves to decide what I should or should not see of my friends’ news, and indeed which of the people who have signed up to see my page actually get any of the feeds.

However, overall I think it’s a pretty amazing resource if used well. I find it invaluable for keeping track of my family and friends across the world. It’s also a powerful collaboration platform for artists. I’ve met so many wonderfully talented people who share their knowledge and insights online with great generosity.

It was a photograph of a beautiful stoneware pot that became the catalyst for our trip which led to some garden sketching in France.

Mark Judson posted a photograph of this stunning stoneware pot just out of the kiln. I’m a sucker for gorgeous ceramics.  Just a tiny bit impulsively, I bought it there and then – and then had to work out how to collect it from the centre of France.
Stoneware pot by Mark Judson

We love rural France. We really don’t need much of an excuse to hop across the channel, so with a bit of a nudge from Facebook, off we went to collect my newly acquired treasure. Since Chenevaux was where I first started painting in earnest, I can never visit without getting out my brushes.

Caroline’s garden is in glorious bloom and there was plenty of sketching inspiration all around us.  The 86 rose plants make the garden a wonderfully fragrant place to relax. This is not a formal manicured collection of flowerbeds. Rather, it’s a celebration of nature with mixed borders that combine self-sown and carefully placed plants that complement each other perfectly.

Garden sketching - hollyhock flower

Garden sketching – hollyhock flowerAnd a little more delicate

Garden Sketching subjects:

A single red Hollyhock flower caught my eye. I love the depth of the colour and the fat blousy shape of the petals as they cluster up the tall stem.

And scrambling over the gravel in the driveway, and under the rosebushes, delicate blue Nigella flowers echo the blue of the sky.

Garden sketching - Nigella Flower

Garden sketching – Nigella Flower

Sometimes there’s as much satisfaction in sketching tiny elements as there is in painting a complex composition. It all helps to hone observation skills and master shape and tone.

Whittlesford Art Events

Whittlesford Art EventsThe village will be buzzing with Whittlesford art events this July. For the first time, four artists will be collaborating locally to stage complementary exhibitions as part of the Cambridge Open Studios programme.

Two watercolour artists (Jan Smail and Vandy Massey) and two mixed media artists (Sue Rapley and Val Pettifer) will be showing their work on three of the four weekends in the month of July.

Whittlesford Art Events July details

Visitors to the village on July 5th and 6th (weekend 1) will be able to see works in the studios of Jan and Vandy.

On July 12th and 13th (weekend 3) Jan Smail will have her studio open, and the works of Sue and Val can be seen at the Old School Studio.

If you want a real bonanza weekend, head out to see the Whittlesford Art Events on July 26th or 27th (weekend 4) when all four of the artists will be exhibiting.

Refreshments will be available at all the studios and there are gardens to be viewed at the same time as all three places have lovely garden elements.

Art lovers visiting the village can also pop in to Oxbow & Peach, purveyors or wonderful vintage pieces, and pick up information about some of the fabulous courses being run at the Old School Studio.

Over the past year, Whittlesford has become a centre for art events in the area thanks to the re-opening of the Old School Studio, Essex Framing and Oxbow & Peach. Together they create a great browsing experience for a creatively-focused day out. Cambridge Open Studios exhibition days provide the perfect opportunity to see the work of the Whittlesford Artists, Jan Smail, Val Pettifer, Sue Rapley and Vandy Massey at the same time as having a taste of the burgeoning art community south of Cambridgeshire.

Fuchsia watercolour sketch

A quick fuchsia watercolour sketch felt like a satisfying outcome of this evening’s studio time.

The past month has been a combination of intense, structured painting time – some in watercolour and some in oils, and no painting time at all as I travel and work away from the studio. Today, in a brief spell at home, I had a chance to spend a precious bit of time in the studio. As I walked through the garden, just coming into it’s best month for blossoms, I noticed the fuchsia’s starting to bud.

Fuchsia watercolour sketch

Fuchsia Sketch

I was reminded of a series of flower photos taken by Marc, which focussed on some gloriously fat blousy blooms. These may need to be captured in a fully worked fuchsia watercolour one of these days. But in the meantime, this fuchsia watercolour sketch is sufficient.

About the Fuchsia Watercolour

The petals of this particular flower are dense and tightly packed, like the underskirts of a sumptuously outfitted society lady dressed up for the ball. These flowers have a lovely old- fashioned feminine feel. They seem to dance and flirt as their petals open up.

Using HP paper enabled me to capture the delicate melding of colours, in the layers of petals. This was a quick, 20 minute work, not looking for perfection in any way. I like the sense of movement in this. The lost and found edges, and the sense of there being so many petals, the flower is ready to burst into a purple and pink floral explosion.

Right now, I have a half-completed oil painting on my easel and an Open Studio weekend fast approaching.  There are three weeks to go before I have visitors coming to see my watercolours. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to a wonderful weekend with the fabulous Olivia Quintin and Alain Fortier.  I sense a productive period of art work coming up.


Surging Spray in the Rain

Surging Spray (mixed media painting)

Rain and Spray (mixed media)

The surging spray in this painting, reflects the energy and dynamism at it’s heart. I’ve been reading Realistic Abstracts by Kees van Aalst. It’s a great inspiration book, and a valuable reference. It helps answer many of the questions an abstract artists might want to ask themselves.

Many artists find abstracts quite difficult to paint. In my experience, the added elements to think about in an abstract painting makes them more challenging than figurative works. There’s something fundamentally different in the thinking process between creating a painting of water in motion, and the process of creating a painting about water in motion. In one, the figurative image creates the mood – it’s about the image and the mood. In the other option, the mood is the whole purpose of the work. There a balance to be struck. At one end, facile images which don’t really say anything to the viewer. At the other, adding in so much complexity, the essence of the subject is overwhelmed.

Water in motion has many moods, from slow and gentle to surging spray

It can be a softly falling veil of rain draped like a curtain over distant dunes.
In the sea, it can slide smoothly and elegantly in flows and eddies. in deeper channels the water colour becomes more intense, creating tonal patterns on the surface.
It can tumble across the rock in glorious, riotous chaos, picking up natures tiny treasures along the way, and depositing them in new locations.
Then it reaches the pinnacle of it’s wild roller coaster journey landward. At the point of maximum velocity, it shatters into a multitude of tie droplets and becomes surging spray, flying triumphantly skyward.

This is the cycle of water in motion. Beautiful. Powerful. Elegant. Dynamic. I hope this painting does it sufficient justice.

Eugen Chisnicean workshop

This weekend I’ve done a quick trip to Leuven and back to attend a workshop taught by Eugen Chisnicean.

As a largely self-taught artist, I need to ensure that I constantly progress. I’d go as far as to say I thrive on regular challenges – they help me grow. The opportunity to do three days of work on landscapes with Eugen Chisnicean seemed good enough to warrant a 6 hour journey each way. So I signed up, we packed up the car and off we went. And it really was worthwhile.

Lieve Claes, who staged this workshop, is a super-organised lady.  She clearly has regular attendees who come from quite some distance for her sessions. There were artists from Holland and from various parts of Belgium.  Conversations were conducted in French, Flemish, Dutch and English throughout the three days, and somehow we all managed to understand each other. This may have been the first time in my life I’ve really been grateful for my Afrikaans lessons in school.

Eugen Chisnicean workshop plein air paintings

Plein Air painting location at Heverlee

As a general rule, we all quite like to come away from a workshop with a finished painting – this was the exception. We learned so much that many of us were happy to just do multiple practice exercises to consolidate all the information we had gained. Eugen is generous with the amount he shares and keen to make sure everyone really gets the principles.  This was not about learning a technique. This was much more fundamental and as such, far more valuable. The focus was on learning key principles of composition and how to apply them to create much more impact in a painting.

In the three days we worked on getting a range of 4 or 5 tonal values into a composition. We went out plein air painting for a full day. Eugen taught us about transition of shapes in the paintings point of interest. Then we pulled it all together.

We were stretched – and we loved it.

Back in my studio, the blue door reference paintings are off my walls. The walls now act as a reference for the workshop – carrying some of the example pieces I did over the past few days. None are finished works, and in some there are mistakes. They too are included on the walls to remind me what not to do.

Eugen Chisnicean workshop

Tonal values as a compositional tool

Eugen Chisnicean workshop tonal values detail

Tonal values detail – example on the studio wall

Eugen Chisnicean workshop

Transition of shapes – exercises on my studio walls

I’ve been reminded of some fundamentals this weekend:

- I need to keep working on my drawing – not my strong point so it needs attention
- Composition is critical and takes practice
- It’s worth really paying attention to tonal values in a painting – that’s what creates impact.
- And if you every want to be stretched as an artist, consider a workshop by Eugen Chisnicean. (I think it’s time we got him over to England)

When the brushes were down,  we spent the first evening exploring a little bit of the centre of Leuven and having supper with Eugen and his girlfriend, a very talented fashion designer and photographer. It was good to have time to chat about family and artistic journeys.  I love having a chance to talk to people who understand something about Russia and that part of the world – it feels like a bit more of a connection to my Russian grandmother who was a remarkable woman in so many ways.

About Eugen Chisnicean

Eugen has been surrounded by art all his life. His father is an artist and photographer. He attended the Children’s School of Fine Arts from the age of 11. He studied architecture and interior design at the Institute of Fine Arts in Chisinau.

If you want a taste of Eugen Chisnicean’s art, you can see his paintings online or watch him demonstrate on YouTube. Or even better – get signed up for one of his workshops.

Soap Bubble Painting – Less is More

And so to my next post about watercolours and soap bubble painting. If you missed the first post, you can read it here. 

I’ve used lots of photographs for these posts so they do come out a little longer than usual – but hopefully they show the progress and results better than I could describe them in words.

A google search revealed another interesting post about soap bubble paintings by Lemon Zest – but using a different technique. This is one I have heard of, but haven’t yet tried. I sort of made up my method as I went along. I’m sure it’s not unique, and it takes longer than the one I discovered on Lemon Zest’s page.

For the next stage, I thought I would try using smaller amounts of the soap foam so that the paper was less wet. Unlike in the first tests, in these most of the paper stayed dry. I prefer the results of this test. The effects seem clearer and I think there’s the potential for more control.

I used two different paper – both NOT, but one was much smoother than the other: offcuts of Langton and Hahnemuhle.

But, for those who are interested,  the results of part 2 of my soap bubble painting are detailed below.

 Soap bubble painting in pictures:

On Langton paper.

I didn’t tape the paper because I was just experimenting. Once the soap bubbles wet the paper, it started to buckle and the soap bubble painting started to get a life of its own.  Sliding down the sides of the paper it left a stain where it travelled. I put a glass jar on the corner to hold it down slightly and stop the soap moving as much.

watercolour soap bubbles 8

Just let it slide

Paper and soap bubble painting dried the next morning left beautiful ethereal marks.

Soap bubble painting

Let it slide – 24 hours later

On Hahnemuhle paper

This paper, while not a HP paper, is somewhat less textured than the Langton paper.

watercolour soap bubbles 6

Less is more – just a small patch on  dry paper

I decided to move the soap bubble painting by blowing on it to open it up a bit. I found the soap was almost too easy to move this way – it shifted very quickly in response to very little activity.

watercolour soap bubbles 7

Blown soap bubbles – making it move

I really loved this effect and now have loads of ideas for how to use this – unpredictable as it is.

Soap bubble painting

Blown soap bubbles – 24 hours later

And here’s one of my favourite bits of the delicious soap bubble painting.

Soap bubble painting

The details can be ethereal and really beautiful

There’s a third stage of this for those of you who aren’t completely bored with my soap and watercolour games, but I’ll give you all a break for now and post the rest another day.