White Light, Blue City

Over the past two weeks I have been on an exhilarating exploration of Morocco in preparation for my submission for the Cox and Kings Morocco Art Competition: White Light, Blue City.

My journey started with selecting the photograph which would be the subject of my paintings. Competition organiser Katie invited participants to interpret their photographs as they wish. The challenge for me was that, while I find the blue city of Chefchaouen fascinating, the reference for my subject was basically almost entirely blue.

Not having visited Morocco before, I spent some time on research. I searched the web and looked at dozens and dozens of photographs of the streets, the doorways and the stairways of the city. I questioned people who have travelled to Morocco about what it feels like to be in the city. I experimented with the spices of Morocco to get the smells, colours and textures of the markets. (And yes, there is Turmeric and Paprika in the final paintings – I’m sure you can work out where)

Blue City

I found the city so enticing that I wanted to share more than just it’s blueness in my painting: to extend an invitation to wander up the stairways and alleyways, through the bustle and the spicy aromas of the marketplace, up towards the bright white Moroccan sunlight, to the cool oases behind the blue doors.

White Light, Blue City (39 x 58 cm. mixed media)
White Light, Blue City (39 x 58 cm. mixed media)

Thank you to Cox and Kings for the opportunity to take part in this fantastic challenge. It has been such fun.

If you want to have a look at the paintings done by the other participants, they’ll be blogging their submissions on their site: Jenny Keal, Concetta Perôt, Kim Dellow and Alan Reed. I hope they have all enjoyed painting Morocco as much as I have.


Spicing It Up

Art is just another form of communication – it’s a language just like any other. And like any other, it has to be composed of a number of building block. In the case of art, the classical ones (light, composition, tone) are all essential (words, grammar, punctuation).

And then you get the elements that are new and sometimes quite interesting – slang and regional accents, for example, some of which change over time, and some of which stick and become part of the language forever. Art has always had it’s experimental elements that build on the classical techniques. In some senses, because it is an intrinsically creative process, the pace of experimentation may even happen faster than it does in verbal and written language.

Last week while I was talking to friends and family who have been to Morocco, in preparation for the Cox and Kings Moroccan Art painting, a suggestion was made by Vahid who had just come from attending a conference in Rabat. He talked about the street food, the buildings, and the buzz. And the spices. For me, Morocco has two main colour groups – the blues and the earth tones. I’m focused on the blues right now, so the spices weren’t on my radar until that conversation.

The best part of painting is the playing so, inspired by my conversation with Vahid, I just had to experiment a bit. Google gave me a list of spices most often found in Moroccan cooking. Some of them were pretty colourless (salt, pepper and fresh ginger). But there were a few in my kitchen that fitted the profile and had strong colours. A few quick tests revealed a lot:


Cinnamon is a non-starter – It’s too dry and doesn’t bind to the paper. Even with a coat of fixative, it’s unexciting. The only thing I notices is that the very dry cinnamon rubbed onto the paper stops the paint from moving across the paper surface very well. The splatters stay very tight.


Paprika is much more interesting. The grains stay quite whole, but the colour of the spice does dissolve somewhat in water and leave a stain. The grains bind together to create a texture on the paper. Worth thinking about.


The really interesting one in the group is turmeric. The yellow colour stains the paper as soon as a bit of water is applied and it creates some great textures with watercolour.  I love the effect created by splattering wet painting onto the turmeric-treated paper.

The next stage was to try seeing how the spice affected the blues in my palette. More interesting results. And then there are the earthy rust and red colours added to turmeric paper. The difference is less dramatic, but the texture is still interesting.

Turmeric and paint
Turmeric and paint

A pure watercolourist would probably be horrified at these ideas – but I’m having a blast, getting a better feel for Morocco, and my studio smells amazing!

Next post will start dealing with the painting itself – I promise.



Blue Doors on my Walls

Blue Morrocan doors on my walls.
Blue Morrocan doors on my walls.

The more I paint, the more I need to think about it.  I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but bear with me.

The way I see it, it’s a bit like driving a car. When you start, you’re brain is frantically trying to keep up with everything it needs to do: clutch in, change into gear (OMG, which gear???), foot on accelerator pedal (which one is that? Oh yes, the right hand one.) Hold the steering wheel steady, ease forward, look left, look right. Brake! Brake!. Damn! Stalled. Start over.  When you start the process, you really need the instructor sitting next to you to tell you where to go because you’re just too damn busy working out what your hands, feet, eyes and ears are meant to be doing. Only once those become automatic can you stop thinking about it consciously, and focus on the journey itself.

Fortunately, the consequences of having an accident with paint are usually just putting a sheet of paper in the bin. After a fair number of those painting-related incidents, I started thinking more and more about where I was going with a painting, rather than what colour was on the brush and how much water to include. It also allowed me to become much more experimental with materials and techniques (which I think will be life-long learning because there is almost no limit).

So, back to my first point: these days when I embark on a new painting, I do a lot more thinking about what’s really in the image, why I find it interesting, and what I think will make it interesting to the viewer.

The Cox and Kings Moroccan art competition has got me going down that pathway and I thought I might share some of the process on my blog. So if you’re still with me after my rambling about learning to drive, you’ll see I have pictures of blue doors on my walls. My thinking process isn’t just a quick ponder over a cup of tea.  I’ve printed out the reference photograph on various levels of contrast, as well as in black and white. This gives me references to look at while I think about it. They will also be my guides when it gets to the point of deciding on colour and tone.

Since I’ve never been to Morocco (or in fact to anywhere in the North Africa, aside from Cairo airport), to get a deeper sense of the place, I can only draw on web research and talking to people who have been there. One of the reasons I chose this photograph (aside from my love of the colour) is the fact that it seemed quintessentially Morocco to me. I want the painting to capture something that tells the viewer it couldn’t be anywhere else on the planet.

From the friends and family who have been there I get the message that for them, Morocco represents warm people, relaxed environment, great street food. I’ve heard of fantastic hospitality and wonderful home meals where women went to the market to carefully select the ingredients and then cooked all day. A sense of age and a really lived-in city with old walls that show the marks of many hand prints, hard knocks and repairs over the years. How do I capture all of that in my painting? That’s the big question.

So my first stage is to read, and talk, and think about Morocco and in particular about the blue homes of Chefchaouen to decide what story my painting will tell about the place and it’s people.

One thing I do know is that in the process, more than a few blue doors will probably be painted. If you’re a Running With Brushes follower – expect to see a few there soon.

An while I do so, I will have blue doors on my walls.

If you’ve become intrigued and want to see what the other artists who are taking part in this competition are doing, here are the links to their blogs: