Running With Brushes

I’ve finally got to the point where I can officially launch the project I’ve been dropping hints about for the last week or so. It’s taken a while because it needed some planning and I thought it deserved it’s own website, Facebook page and Twitter account. When I get around to it, I may go all the way and set up a Pinterest and a Tumblr page for it too. (I’ve not tried Tumblr yet so I may use this as an opportunity to learn about it).

This is a long term project so I’ll be writing about it more in future. It’s so long term in fact, I’ll be doing this for the next 3 to 5 years.

Running With Brushes is my personal challenge to paint 1000 postcard size watercolours to raise funds for Care For Casualties.  For a while after the idea occurred to me, I did think it was mildly crazy. But having discussed it with a few friends who basically said, “It’s fairly sane – for you”, I decided to leap in and do it.

Running with Brushes watercolour paintings
Running with Brushes paintings

I’ve been asked by a few artist friends if they can get involved – which thrills me. I’d love other people to get involved and have worked out how to include the work of others with full credit, as an addition to my 1000 painting collection. It’s so inspiring when people understand and have some enthusiasm for an idea. It was a superb boost when I was asked to produce three paintings with a particular theme for this project. All three have already been delivered and the funds deposited in my JustGiving page.

Running with Brushes banner by
Running with Brushes banner by

The fabulously talented Lori Bentley created a banner for the website and the Facebook page, and we’re up and running.

Now I’m going to ask for your help. Please help me by spreading the word. We need blog followers and Facebook Likes so that as many people as possible see the paintings as they are published. I am conscious that I need many eyeballs to convert to clicks for the charity.

If you’d like to get involved in any other way, please get in touch.

Finally, a use for my elephant dung paper

I’ve just finished day one of Georgia Mansur‘s Seductive Surfaces workshop and my brain is buzzing! Georgia has so much knowledge to share and so many techniques to teach, I found myself making a list of new materials to buy, and my head so full of new ideas I don’t know where to start.

I intended to take lots of photographs, but I’m afraid I was so busy having fun with new materials that I kept forgetting to take pictures. So there are a few, but perhaps not as many as there could have been.

The day kicked off with a discussion about creativity. Georgia shared her tips for loosening up and building creativity. The tone was set for the day, allowing everyone to create our first abstract paintings without judgement. So often, we are our own greatest critics. We beat ourselves up when we don’t think we have done well enough. Today was about suspending all that negative self-talk and just playing with new materials.

A tiny selection of Georgia's texture samples.
A tiny selection of Georgia’s texture samples.

Georgia comes well prepared with plenty of examples and samples for everyone to look at. Given how much information she has to share, these form a fantastic resource. Samples of different watercolour and acrylic paint effects were in constant demand during the day as we all wanted more and more ideas.

The start of Georgia's demonstration. Work instinctively with interesting materials
The start of Georgia’s demonstration. Work instinctively with interesting materials

The real work started with a rummage through Georgia’s treasure trove of paper, twine, lace, fabric, pictures and much, much more. Her demonstration started with a period of intuitive composition with a selection of texture-creating materials. Once the composition feels ready, the individual items get stuck down with gesso and the painting is left to dry. Things to remember: non-porous materials won’t hold paint as well (or at all, if they’re not coated with gesso), and organic materials must be completely sealed to ensure they remain intact over time (and to stop your painting being attached by insects). On an impulse I added the contents to one of a teabag to my painting, so this was valuable knowledge.

elephant poo paper.
Yes, it is elephant poo paper.

In a moment of curiosity, I bought some sheets of elephant dung paper in South Africa last year. I wanted to try it for watercolour painting. As you can see from the photo above, it wasn’t a successful experiment. The paper is just too soft and absorbent. There’s not enough structure to hold the pigment well enough so I wrote it off to experience and left the paper in a drawer, thinking I wouldn’t ever find a use for it. I had a flash of inspiration when I was collecting the materials for this workshop and fished it out of the drawer to bring along. It’s got a great texture for this sort of work: at last I have a use for it.

Seductive surfaces workshop - stage one
Seductive surfaces workshop – stage one

At the end of stage one (composition and gesso application) my painting included fabric, fruit bags, rafia, tea leaves, leather shapes, plastic bag, (and indeed, a smattering of elephant poo!)

After lunch, once all the gesso was thoroughly dried, we started applying colour washes with acrylic paints, and watercolour pencils.

Seductive surfaces workshop - abstract painting work in progress
Seductive surfaces workshop – abstract work in progress

There’s more work to be done – detail to be added and textures to be emphasised. That’s tomorrow’s job.

We’re also due to work on a new more structured painting tomorrow and I’m looking forward to trying out some of the textured  gels and pastes.

Repeat visits

I’m writing this blog post in between Open Studio visitors (Yes! I have actually had some. That made me smile). We’re almost 10 miles from the centre of Saffron Walden – possibly the furthest out of town of all the exhibiting artists, so I know we won’t get as many visitors as those who are centrally placed. But that’s OK with me. We spent last night setting up and can now be relaxed and take our time talking to visitors about the how and the why of my painting, and loval art in general.

For every artist, Open Studios is a different experience, and the goal is also very different. For some, it’s important to sell paintings because that’s how they make their living. I am in awe of their brave commitment to creating art full time. I just get a thrill seeing all my paintings displayed in one place. I’m always amazed at how many I have produced :-D.  It’s a good way to get a perspective on a range of your work, and a sale is a wonderful bonus. I do have the occasional crisis of confidence as well, but I think that’s all just part of the creative process.

I read a quote by Billy Connolly today that resonates with me:

“my art is pure and un-judged, I am creating for myself, it is personal and private”.

I can see why he says that.  While I get huge enjoyment from sharing my paintings, I find it’s important to remember that the fundamental point of painting is the creation of an image for it’s own sake.  I think the pleasure of art from the artist’s perspective has two distinct stages: First the thrill of watching the image emerge, and then you get to experience it again when someone else sees and enjoys the painting.

The process of preparing for Saffron Walden Open Studios has given me the opportunity to reflect once again on what I love about painting, and on how much I love seeing people get enjoyment from my work. That’s the real thrill of a painting sale too – you really know the painting is loved when someone buys it. Even more so when someone who already has one of my paintings comes back for more.

Road to Nowhere (watercolour - 38 x 20cm) SOLD
Road to Nowhere (watercolour – 38 x 20cm) SOLD
Flyaway Tree (watercolour -  39 x 29) SOLD
Flyaway Tree (watercolour – 39 x 29) SOLD

It absolutely made my weekend when I got the request from someone who wanted to buy these two paintings on the night before Open Studios. The lovely thing about it that they are going to join one of my other paintings already in the same house.

Today’s seems to be all about return visits. I tweeted a comment about how strange it is that Facebook page Likes seem to come in waves, rather like buses: a flurry and then nothing for a while. And got a lovely response from Susan  (@EarthWhorls) who tweeted back “your work is startling & beautiful – I would think you’d get lots of return visitors.”  (Thank you, Susan)

Open Studios in June

Where did the last three weeks go?  If feels like ages since I picked up my brushes. But there is good reason. In the interim I have had no studio days at all. I’ve been working in London and then whisked off to South Africa on a business trip so it’s been a bit difficult to get into the studio. For some reason I find it incredibly difficult to get my head into painting when I am working intensely, so the creative side of my life seems to get put on hold at those times. Ah well – it means I have something to look forward to when I have a break.

The next exhibition I’ll be doing is the Saffron Waldon Open Studios weekend of 22nd and 23rd June. We’ll simultaneously be opening out garden and serving tea and cake in return for donations to Care for Casualties. Fingers are firmly crossed for good weather. So if you’re in the area, do pop in and visit.

And if you’re further South, here’s the list of other artists taking part. I only wish I could go and visit some of the other studios.

Saffron Walden Open Studio page 2Saffron Walden Open Studios leaflet

The garden is looking marvellous just in time for Open Studios. Now we just need to hope it stays dry and sunny.

Blooming border in early June 2013.
Blooming border in early June 2013.

Abstracting the Landscape

I knew today was going to make my brain hurt – and I was thoroughly looking forward to it.

 Geoff Pimlott stretched us in all sorts of ways in the SEAW‘s workshop on Abstracting the Landscape. I’ve taken part in my fair share of workshops over the last couple of years and they typically start with a demonstration done by the tutor, after which everyone gets to feel thoroughly inadequate as they try to master the techniques just demonstrated. By the end of the day, the ‘Aha’ moments have happened and the new techniques are on the way to being learned enough to practice to proficiency level at home.

It was clear this one was going to be different when Geoff walked in with just two completed paintings, two wall charts, and three books in his arms.  Once we got going, it became obvious why he chooses to work this way: Abstracting is about the thinking process.

Geoff emphasised how important it is to understand the history and the background to the development of abstract painting in the last century.  We looked at the extremes of abstract work from John Nash whose work is quite representational, who uses extensive planning of the image and the harmony of his palette in his abstraction, to Bridget Riley, renowned for her use of repetition and colour patterns.

Two other artists Geoff recommended  we research were Sir Matthew Smith, and Ivon Hitchens. We were told about Artcyclopedia: a marvellous resource for those interesting in exploring the history and background a little more. The website stores details of paintings from 8000 artists, searchable by name, style of painting, location and many other criteria. I’ve always found that searching for the artist on Google and then just using the Images tab is quite useful, but Artcyclopedia gives an added level of search sophistication.

Of course technique is always critical to the success of a painting. The process of painting: the layering of colour, the use of shape, and repetition in the composition are all important. But given that the possibilities are almost infinite when you’re working on an abstract, it’s the thinking that is critical to success.  Decisions need to be taken about so many aspects. The artist must ask themselves:

– what am trying to emphasise about this landscape?

– am I going to interpret the landscape, or simply paint my reaction to it?

– just how representational do I want to be? How far can I push this?

– what colours does this painting need to make it really pop?

…. and so it goes.

As a gallop through my painting process today, I’m sharing the stops along my journey, (good and bad).

We started with a sketch, or painting we’d done before that lent itself to abstracting. We were looking for good rythme, shapes and ideas in our preparatory work.

Retreat Watercolour landscape painting.
Retreat (watercolour 21 x 21 cm)

We started out by thinking about what we wanted to say about the landscape in our ultimate paintings, and continued on to creating colour studies in preparation for the main event after lunch, which we already knew would need to be presented to the group (no pressure then).

I wish I had photographs of the work done by other members. Every one had their own approach. The use of colour was diverse. Some people used a range of geometric shapes to create their composition, interpreting the landscape through their composition. Others were more organic and it was all about the colour – a way of working that is particularly suitable when the abstraction is a response to the landscape, instead of an interpretation. That distinction was one I’d not thought about before. There is a vast difference between a painting which seeks to interpret the landscape, and one that is responding to the landscape. The former is a more intellectual process, the latter, much more emotional.

Geoff pointed out that, at heart every painting is an abstract. It is a two dimensional representation of the image which uses a range of techniques to create the illusion of three dimensions. So, if we strip out the illusion of three dimensions and actually try to flatten out the image, we are able to focus on other aspects we might want the viewer to see in the image.

Abstracting watercolour landscape colour study 1
Abstracting colour study 1

Stripping the image right back to it’s basic shapes – perhaps a little too minimal, but I do like the palette.

Abstracting watercolour landscape colour study 1
Abstracting 2

Looking for a moodier sky and adding in some detail. I rather like the rhythm of the fence posts, but combined with the greens it made this study a bit too representational.

Abstracting watercolour landscape colour study 1
Abstracting 3

Still too ‘green’ but adding a bit more complexity to the shapes to bring in the distant hills just visible in the original painting

Abstracting watercolour landscape colour study 4
Abstracting 4

This palette appealed. The addition of red seemed to bring a better energy to the painting.

So now, to dive in to the final painting:

Abstracting the Landscape (watercolour 28 x 38 cm)
Abstracting the Landscape (watercolour 28 x 38 cm)

I reverted to my usual love of extreme colour and texture. My abstraction process is definitely a response to the image. It’s a journey that starts and then finds it’s own way to some extent, each step directed and informed by what has just happened on the paper. That’s what I love about watercolour. Every painting has it’s own little surprises in store.

If I were to do this painting again I might not add in the grass abstractions in the foreground – they feel a bit over-representational in relation to the rest of the painting, but overall, I love the process. Expect a few more abstract paintings in future.

Geoff left us with the reminder that we had all started on a journey to abstraction that would, if we worked at it, help us to see the world a little differently, and as a result, to painting it differently. Artists get to choose just how far they take a paintings before stopping. Sometimes we get that bit wrong and it’s too late to pull back, but even if we do go to far, it’s only a piece of paper – and we’ve learned so much along the way.

Despite the fact that my brain feels stretched in so many directions with the new ideas that keep swimming around in my skull, I found the process and the end results both visually exciting and thought provoking.

Just for those who’d like to see the original and abstract juxtaposed – here they are again without the steps in between:

Retreat Watercolour landscape painting.
Retreat (watercolour 21 x 21 cm)


Abstracting the Landscape (watercolour 28 x 38 cm)
Abstracting the Landscape (watercolour 28 x 38 cm)

Deep roots

Deep roots (watercolour sketch)
Deep roots (watercolour sketch)

The RI exhibition’s theme for this year’s exhibition is Trees and Landscapes. The society chose this theme to cast a light on the plight of the UK’s shrinking woodlands and tree species under threat.

I had some studio time late last night and sat down to play with colour to get my painting  mojo starting flow before the weekend’s painting time. This little abstract emerged while I was thinking about trees. Somehow the concept of deep roots appeared on the page.  I’ll be putting this on the wall to remind me to explore the idea further later.

So many ideas – so few hours in every day.

On a different subject, yesterday David suggested he introduce me to Catherine de Ryck who is one of the organisers of the International Watercolour Biennial in Belgium. Unfortunately, time ran out and I had to leave to catch my train back to Cambridge. By coincidence I came across Catherine on Facebook today and we connected.  I had one of those big smile moment when she said in her comment, “I already know your blog”.  [Waves to Catherine]

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Exhibition Review – the RI at The Mall Galleries


With David Poxon at the RI exhibition, Mall Galleries
With David Poxon at the RI exhibition, Mall Galleries

A year after we met online via blog and Facebook, I finally got to say hello in person to David Poxon. David very kindly sent me an invitation to the preview of the exhibition.

This show is really inspiring. The standard of work seems to me to be higher than in previous years and there are some memorable pieces on show from members and aspiring members:

Shirley Trevenna has a number of paintings on exhibit.  Her unmistakeable markmaking and colour use make her works attention-grabbing from across the room. There’s something about Shirley’s relaxed style which seems to infect people looking at them.  Standing in front of a group of four of them, I found myself drawn into a discussion with a gentleman standing next to me who turned to me and asked, “So which one is your favourite.” We differed in our favourite of the group, but agreed that they were all exceptional. I was quietly smug to see that the one I had pointed out was in fact the catalogue illustration choice of Shirley’s paintings.

I was pleased to see two sketches by George Butler in the exhibition. I discovered George’s website some time ago. This young artist has the ability to capture the essence of a place and his sketches from conflict areas in the world are remarkable. Have a look at his series on the Syrian conflict if you want to get a real feel for the place.

Ann Blockley is one of a few artists under consideration for membership this year. As usual, her Foxgloves and teasels have wonderful depth and texture. Ann is another artists whose style is unmistakable.

David’s four paintings (two of which can be seen – just- in this photograph) won the Windsor & Newton award for the group of paintings by a member which are judged to be the most outstanding contribution to the exhibition.

Inevitably, there were some paintings on show that just didn’t do it for me. Some were too stiff, and a few just made me wonder what the artist was thinking. But I prefer to highlight the works I found inspiring. Those I really enjoyed seeing. Naturally, these are a just a few of the many artists whose exceptional works will be on show at The Mall Galleries.

This exhibition is on until April 18th and is a must-see if you can get to London in the next 2 weeks.

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Meet the Artist: Mary Frances Millet

What or who inspired you to start painting?

Vintage Kitchen Tools - by Mary Frances Millet. Watercolour
Vintage Kitchen Tools – by Mary Frances Millet. Watercolour

My mom worked at Mayfair Gallery in Glenville and she asked if I wanted to try art lessons there. I said, sure. At age 8 I was exposed to my first art class and was hooked. I was then placed in Dorothy Fredericks class at the Burnt Owl until I was a teenager.

What mediums do you use for your artwork? – Which is your favourite and why?

Watercolor, textile and paper collage, acrylic. I have also worked in clay.

Formally trained or self-taught?

I graduated from the Professional Institute of Commercial Art in Maryland which is gone now. I also took class for several years from Karen Rosasco, AWS.  I also have degrees in Occupational Therapy and Sociology as backup careers.

What is your greatest frustration about art or the art world? (If you have one)

That we need to be better marketers. Being an artist is wonderful and we should all know how to narrow down our choices of what to do with it. It’s very confusing trying to figure out which way to go. There’s so many opportunities.

Which contemporary artists do you admire?

Charles Reid, Mel Stabin, Jeanne Dobie, Karen Rosasco to name a few. There’s many many more. Old master artists: Hopper, Homer, Matisse.

What has been the highlight of your artistic career so far?

Past: When I exhibited at e Wiregrass Museum in Birmingham, AL and was the top bid and top seller at the art auction.  Present: partnering with MVP Healthcare offering art workshops to their employees as a team building and socialization effort. It’s so much fun. I am impressed that they would include art as part of a healthy lifestyle.

If you had one wish (regarding your art), what would it be?

To run worldwide watercolor workshops. I’m working on one right now in Greece.

How would you characterize your style?

Loose, splashy, colorful.

Collage by Mary Frances Millet
Collage by Mary Frances Millet

Do you have a signature painting?

Yes. It’s a watercolor/paper collage of two boats with fisherman talking to each other.

What’s in your calendar for the coming year?

I teach private individuals, groups and corporate art workshops. I’ll be at the Clifton Park Library teaching watercolor to kids in April. I’ll be exhibiting my Uncle Sam statue in April also. It’s a program sponsored by the Troy BID to install 5 ft fiberglass life size statues of Uncle Sam embellished by 20 local artists. Sept brings the workshop in Greece. May brings my first grand baby.

Watercolour and collage by Mary Frances Millet
Watercolour and collage by Mary Frances Millet

If you had one tip share with other artists, what would that be?

Think big. Get a social media coach.i have one and she’s the best. It’s tough to do it all yourself.

New question: how do you keep inspired?  

How do I not?? Inspiration is everywhere! A tree, a window, a shadow, a color, seasons, flowers, people. Im distracted by everything.

How can people find you on social media? (Twitter, facebook, blog address, any other social media?)

Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Pinterest and Workin on a blog and placing more things on etsy, eBay and Pinterest. There’s so much to do! So many paintings! 🙂

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Exhibition weekend

Friday morning found us carting loads of paintings, ceramics and wooden boxes to the gallery and starting the process of setting up the display.

– Clear the space

– Lay out the paintings

Exhibition setup
Exhibition setup

– Sort and group,

– Re-sort and re-group,

– Hang paintings (For anyone who hasn’t done it before – this takes a long time)

– Label the paintings,

– Print final painting list,

Exhibition: Ready for the preview
Exhibition: Ready for the preview

Sort out catering, pour drinks, print last minute labels, set out leaflets and cards, (and a million other little things) get showered and dressed up.

And breathe!

Exhibition preview
Exhibition preview

Exhibitions are hard work, but when they work well, they are a lot of fun.

Our weekend in numbers:

Preview night guests: Over 100 (based on acceptances)

Outside temperature: Sub-zero

Logs burned on the stove: Many

Paintings sold: Eight

Paintings commissioned: Two (and a further possibility)

Worthwhile? Oh yes! We all had so much fun with this, and based on their feedback, so did the visitors.

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The tables turned: interviewed by Helen K Beacham

A few weeks ago I posted an interview with American artist, Helen K Beacham as part of my Meet the Artist series.

Helen then neatly turned the tables on me by sending me a list of questions for a return interview on her blog. I found it fascinating to see her questions, which had a different angle to the ones I have in my interviews. They’re really great questions about my inspiration, my watercolour painting, and my work. I also realised how much thinking you need to do to write a good answer that gives reader a real insight into the artist, their ideas and their painting. I am grateful to all the artists on my interview list for the time and effort they have put into their responses for my blog.

Helen’s interview of me can be read here on her blog. (Thank you, Helen)

Trees in Japan (watercolour 380 x 480)
Trees in Japan (watercolour 380 x 480)

(Trees in Japan was one of the paintings featured in Helen’s interview with me)

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