Painting Autumn Apples in watercolour

I was painting autumn apples on day 2 of the 30 paintings in 30 days challenge.

Following the discipline of practicing active observation in a form of listening with my eyes,  my attention kept coming back to a basket of autumn apples in the garden. They were originally put there waiting to be eaten, but to my mind that were really waiting for me to start painting autumn apples.

The rich reds and crisp yellows were a dream colour combination and I set myself the challenge of capturing the diverse range of reds (in particular) that I could see in the fruit.

Painting Autumn apples  (watercolour 14 x 9 cm)
Autumn apple basket (watercolour 14 x 9 cm)

Painting Autumn apples

This painting is as much about tonal values as it is about colour. Given the dominance of reds in the subject, its critical to get the tonal values right. Without that, the painting is flat and lifeless. My initial focus was on the bright yellow of the apple furthest to the back of the basket.

By luck (although I would love to say that I had the foresight to arrange them that way) the darkest piece of fruit was in right next to it which gave me a natural focal point. But, the yellow apple is too close to the centre of the page for my liking. Lightening the green around the stalk of the darker piece of fruit in the process of painting autumn apples shifted that point of interest enough to the left to give me comfort in the composition.

I started this with water soluble pencils to mark out the basket and the basic positions of the apples. A few of the marks are still visible from the pencils. I find it less easy to get the intensity of colour with them, so I went on to painting autumn apples with pure watercolour once I had got my basic positions right.

Here’s a photograph of the actual basket of apples where you can see the colours that inspired this little exercise in painting autumn apples.
Painting Autumn apples

Painting colour – listening with your eyes

It may seem completely obvious to talk about painting colour. After all how could you painting without painting colour? But bear with me. Hopefully this will make sense by the end of this post.

Monday marked Day 1 of the current 30 Paintings in 30 Days challenge.  I’ve done a couple of these in the past and found them to be both demanding, and hugely valuable at the same time. They create a structure and a focus for painting time, and in the past have also provided a boost to the Running With Brushes collection.

I had actually decided that I wasn’t going to take part again this time, mainly because I’m pushed for time (as always). But I signed up nevertheless thinking that I could just dip in from time to time during the month and post what I could.

But then last weekend we spent time with some very warm and wise friends. It was a grounding couple of days in which we walked, talked, ate, wandered through beautiful gardens and along windswept beaches. We talked about family, history, books and life in general. We talked about the value of slowing down the pace of life and paying really focussing on the here and the now.

Listening – and I mean really listening, with full attention – is something we know is a huge gift. Not many of us are very good at it. We’re distracted by the noise of daily life.

So I got thinking about 30 Paintings in 30 Days and I will take part. Rather than post a fully formed painting every day, I am using this challenge as an opportunity to ‘listen with my eyes’. This is a marvellous opportunity to practice active looking and recording what I see. I’ll write more about my thinking on this theme as the challenge progresses, and as patterns in my perceptions emerge.

Painting Colours – Day 1:

Painting colour - Silver birch bark sketch
Silver birch bark sketch

On a walk through the woods I came across three fully grown Silver Birch trees that have been downed – probably by some huge storm: the roots are exposed and at least one of them is now growing horizontally.  Tree shrapnel is scattered across the meadow and I found this wonderful strip of bark with it’s lovely textures and colours. It made me want to spend some time focused on painting colour as I see it in the bark.

Painting colour of this foraged Silver birch bark strip
Foraged – Silver birch bark strip

Here’s the beautiful piece of bark with all is delicate colour variations. tree bark clearly isn’t just brown or grey. There are shades of green, blue and reds in this piece of nature’s art  – inviting you to have a go at painting colour.

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.

Sketchbooks
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 Project: a Sneak Preview

I’ve been working on a secret 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 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 winter, 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 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.

South West Rocks inspires Spray on the Rocks

Spray on the Rocks (watercolour inspired by South West Rocks)
Spray on the Rocks (watercolour 27 x 39cm)

South West Rocks was the first stop on our road trip up the east coast of Australia a few years ago. We had to drive up the coast from Sydney to Byron Bay within 24 hours of doing the long haul flight from England. The plan was to do the 12 hour drive to meet up with Nic who was coming down the coast from Cairns. South West Rocks was roughly half way along the drive so chose this small coastal town as our overnight rest stop.

South West Rocks is situated at the mouth of the Macleay river and the estuary is a haven for waterbirds.  The colours were crisp and clear on this perfect day we spent there.

Rocks in South West Rocks

Whenever I’ve looked through my Marc’s photographs this image of the rocks near the beach have captivated me. I love the rich colours and striations. There’s aren’t too many places where you can stand below the trees and see them at this angle at the top of the rise. This outcrop was only about three metres high, but looks a fair amount higher.

South West Rocks painting inspiration

Spray on the Rocks uses the colours of the stones in South West Rocks. The combination of the clear blue sky, and the red tones in the rock race give the painting a feeling of summer heat. The waterfall is artistic licence – and is included to create a cool contrast to the warm areas of the painting. The misty foreground allows the viewer to see the rockface through the spray bringing the cooler feeling of the water closer to the forefront of the painting.

The South West Rocks have formed a cliff face in the painting, increasing the height so give a greater sense of distance to the trees at the top of the escarpment.

The original Spray on the Rocks painting will be on show at Saffron Walden Open Studios and a limited edition of fine art prints are available.

In the Bag – Painting a leather handbag

In the Bag (leather handbag watercolour 37 x 27)

When I asked my sister, Lori for a Precious Artifacts story, she presented me with a photograph of her leather handbag

The original photograph of the leather handbag

Here’s the story of Lori’s precious leather bag:

I have always been a fan of Carrol Boyes functional art. I own quite a few of her pieces. When I discovered she had expanded her range to include leather goods I was thrilled.

I am not a person who owns handbags to match every outfit. I have a good black Coach leather handbag which has been in use for about 15 years now, but I didn’t have a good quality brown leather handbag. I lusted after this one. The leather is soft and it has the Carrol Boyes trademark pewter details, but it was quite expensive so I added it to my “maybe someday” list.

Then I unexpectedly landed a commission to do the illustrations for a children’s book. I had not done any serious drawing for many years and the job terrified and excited me at the same time. Having completed the job to the author’s satisfaction, and having been paid, I decided to spend part of the money on the handbag. A useful, constant reminder that being terrified and leaping through that fear brings rewards, both tangible and intangible.

How do you paint a brown leather handbag and make it interesting? With a monochrome subject there is a danger of a boring painting.

My approach to painting Lori’s leather handbag

I started with blue underpainting to get my tonal values in the right places. The exciting aspect of painting this was capturing the folds and shadows, and the rich colours.

leather handbag watercolour WIP 1
Blue underwash defines tonal values

I had used masking fluid to save the white paper for all the metal fasteners. Fortunately I was using 640lb Arches smooth so the fact that the masking fluid stayed on for many days was OK. This isn’t something I would advocate, but this painting took a while. I had my fingers firmly crossed as I peeled off the latex at the end. Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber started the process of adding the brown tones over the blue underwash.

leather handbag watercolour WIP 2
Masking fluid keeps metallic fasteners clear as the browns start to go on

I found I could only go so far with the depth of colour using only those two browns, despite the tonal underwash, and this is where things started to get interesting. What other colours can you see in a brown leather bag?

leather handbag watercolour WIP 3
Deepening the colour section by section

Adding purple and blue really brought out the richness of the colours. The contrast made the burnished reds in the brown sections come out much more strongly. I found that painting with my fingers gave me a much smoother texture for the leather.

leather handbag watercolour WIP 4
To get a rich burnished effect, the last stage of the browns were painted with my fingers.

The final stage was putting in the gold colours for the metal fasteners, the stitching details, and adding in the background. I wanted an earthy feel to this painting. Lori loves natural things – good quality leather, natural fibres, being in the bushveld. I also wanted the bag to feel rich and filled with value because of its significance to her. And above all – not just flat brown.

Hilltop Khayas Watercolour

Hilltop Khayas in watercolour
Hilltop Khayas (watercolour 24 x 28 cm)

This Hilltop Khayas watercolour was painted while I was on a few days holiday. I was staying in a treehouse in the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains in the Western Cape.

After two weeks of working in Cape Town, a couple of days off were called for and it seemed a very good idea to go somewhere well and truly off the beaten track. The main attraction was the fact that mobile phones could be switched off and internet connection was non-existent. We very seldom unplug. These days being constantly connected is almost the norm. A few days in a remote treehouse presented an irresistible opportunity.

Did it live up to expectations? It was without compare. Bird life was abundant. They surrounded the treehouse. They people-watched from the nearby trees. And the daring ones even made a dash onto the deck to check out the visitors. This was the view from the deck. The Outeniqua Mountains in the distance, and the little settlement up on the hilltop.

There were overcast times when the mountains almost disappeared into the mist, and then the sun would come out and then the brushes came out too – and the Hilltop Khayas watercolour had to be painted.

Hilltop Khaya reference photo
The view from the deck

If you look at the lefthand side of this photograph, you can see the line of the tree-filled gorge. The rust patches of bare rock show where the land drops dramatically away and the trees have no foothold. The contours of the land had to be incorporated into this painting.

The real challenge of this painting was dealing with the relentless greens. Painting this in realistic colours would have resulted in a boring image. Instead, I selected the landscape featured I found the most interesting – and painted them in an African palette of rusty reds, cool golden greens and deep darks for the shadows beneath the trees. The Hilltop Khayas watercolour epitomises rural African life: not a lot of material wealth, but true riches in the beauty of the unspoiled surroundings.

Hilltop Khayas watercolour

The original of this painting will be on show at my open studios in April and May. I am also making a limited edition of 25 fine art prints available for sale.

Note: Creative Commons License
Hilltop Khayas by Vandy Massey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Saffron Walden Open Studios 2014

Saffron Walden Open Studios

For the second year, I’ll be taking part in Saffron Walden Open Studios 2014.

I will be opening my studio at 19 Church Close, Whittlesford CB22 4NY for the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May. And there will be cake in the garden in aid of Care for Casualties. It’s a bit early for our garden to be in full bloom and I’d love you to visit us if you are around that weekend. (If you’re a garden fan and would prefer to visit later in the summer, I will be taking part in the first and last weekends of Cambridge Open Studios in July as well.)

Saffron Walden Open Studios 2014

The studio and garden will be open from 11am to 6pm on both weekends. I will be exhibiting a range of watercolour paintings, both framed and unframed. In addition to my full size works, my Running With Brushes paintings will be available to view. And for those who are interested in limited edition fine art prints, there will be an opportunity to view some of the range, and order prints for delivery within a week.
The Saffron Walden Arts Trust is a charitable organisation which coordinates, encourages and promotes artistic enterprises of all kinds in the Saffron Walden area. The trust provides practical support to local artists and performers to help them display their talents, with initiatives such as music festivals and craft fairs as well as open studio events.

The open studio events provide visitors with the opportunity to see the work of local artists by visiting their studios. Visitors can talk to the artists about their methods, influences and approaches to their art. I was only open for one of the two Open Studios weekends last year. Even so, I met some wonderful art lovers and had some great conversations. I am looking forward to the Saffron Walden Open Studios 2014 weekends this summer.