Wearable watercolours – the secret revealed

Wearable watercolours were the subject of my June post about a secret project I was working on.  Six months in the making, the final reveal happened on Christmas Day.

As with many such ideas, there were a few iterations along the way. The project started with a conversation about Christopher’s wedding. We were playing with the idea of creating a design and printing the fabric for the usher’s waistcoats or cravats. A friend, Cong, owns Textiler a business that does the printing part of it, and I was going to paint the image.

Ultimately, the decision about wedding outfits for the ushers was that a plain colour would be more appropriate. But by then, the project had grown and Christmas gifts were being planned.

Preparing for wearable watercolours

Four paintings were done to suit their particular recipients

Citadels, forests, mountains and misty lakes for the Lord of the Rings enthusiast (with his Elvish name incorporated into the design).

Quill pens to make her words fly for the budding journalist and already-successful blogger


Soaring flocks of birds reflect a love of exotic animals and the drive to fly high for the veterinary student in the family.

LoriThe wild abandonment of paint at speed for the artist who can’t resist the excitement of spontaneous little painterly masterpieces within the world inside a watercolour painting. Her favourite colour is indigo so it featured loudly in this celebration of paint.

The final results

On Christmas morning, every painting was accompanied by its lengths of fabric, all of which were as vibrant the originals. Now the next challenge begins. Four people have to decide what to make of their wearable watercolours. A waistcoat will almost definitely be in the future for one of them. A dress and a summer jacket have been under consideration for two of the others. I can’t wait to see the final results.
Wearable watercolours - paintings and fabrics

Wearable watercolours

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.

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.


Japanese Anemone (watercolour 4 x 6 inches)
Japanese Anemone (watercolour 4 x 6 inches)

This blog post is written for Val, who inspired me with her love of painting, and who generously allowed me to come and dabble with paint at her kitchen table soon after I met her.

Val moved in across the road a couple of years ago. She had been painting for a few years and is a keen gardener. She threw herself into village life with great enthusiasm and energy, and before long was opening her garden for the National Garden Scheme, painting with other artists in the village, and exhibiting locally.

Yesterday I heard the news that Val has terminal leukemia. I went to visit her today and although she is battling to breathe and feels tired all the time, her positive spirit is still amazing. She is a little frustrated that she’s been feeling too ill to paint, and also that long hospital visits are taking up a lot of time. Despite all of the challenges she is facing, Val has paintings on exhibition this weekend, and was talking about needing to find a few gardeners to help working on the garden over the next few months.

Val is in no doubt that life will have some huge difficulties in future, and she admits to having days when it all gets her down. But she is determined to persevere beyond the 4 month horizon she has been given, in order to celebrate her 80th birthday in style next April – and good heavens, will that be a party to remember if she has anything to do with the planning. Val doesn’t do email, websites or Facebook. She’s stayed staunchly in the real world, so she won’t see this post. Instead she will continue to connect with everyone around her.

However long she still has with us, she will leave behind a collection of gentle light and colour, applied to watercolour paper with the pure enjoyment of creating a lovely image. And each painting will hold within it, the zest for life that is Val’s laugh, her indomitable spirit, and her joyful energy.

Three Sisters (20 of 30)

Watercolour painting. Three Sisters (watercolour 4 x 6 inches)
Three Sisters (watercolour 4 x 6 inches)

Only seven days behind now, and I think there’s still an outside chance of catching up. But painting under pressure has the unfortunate side effect of producing a bit of painter’s block. I’m struggling to decide on subjects right now. So I’m going to sleep on it and painting again tomorrow afternoon.

In the morning, I’m doing stewarding duty at the Royston Art Society Annual Exhibition. This is always a highly organised and well supported exhibition so I am looking forward to being surrounded by a great collection of work tomorrow.

This painting – number 20 of 30 – shows three trees swaying in unison, sharing intimate space, and supporting each other – just like sisters. And like family members, their roots intertwine and go deep. Together they reach for the sunshine.

Three Sisters is available on the Running With Brushes website.

Just the coolest gift

I am going to have to play catch up on my 30 paintings in 30 days. I’m travelling at the moment with an intense schedule and there has just been no time for my brushes.

My trip has brought me to South Africa and I have managed to visit my family for the weekend on the way to my final destination. It’s always great to get some unexpected family time, and this time my sister managed to surprise me with an amazing gift.

Having designed the fabulous Running With Brushes logo in the first place, she managed to top that by producing a leather bag with the logo and my name engraved on it. It’s a drawing board bad and is perfect for transporting palettes and paper (as well as a fair amount of other art materials). Now I have no excuse to get my plein air painting up to scratch

Running with Brushes leather bag
My Running With Brushes leather bag

She couldn’t reproduce the colours in the RWB banner so she used words to represent it. In case you can’t read it on my phone-generated photo, it says: “Running with brushes and paper and pencils and pencils and paints and palettes and colour and inspiration and laughter and connection and fun” – which just encapsulates the project perfectly.

Bag pocket detail
Bag pocket detail

I feel so incredibly spoiled to have received such an awesome gift. It’s going to make me smile every time I use it.

Washing Girls meet up again (in Cambridge)

Last week this time we were coming to the end of a fabulous long weekend with fellow Washing Girl, Olivia Quintin, her husband Alain and their 14 year old daughter, Elyse. I recognised Elyse instantly from having seen Olivia’s portraits of her.

Olivia and Alain 1


For those of my blog readers who don’t know the history, the term ‘Washing Girls’ was first coined by Olivia and refers to the seven artists who took part in the 100 Wash Challenge, an online project to get each of us posting 100 watercolour washes online with notes. We had a year in which to achieve this.  It was both an amazing learning experience, and a great way to make friends with other artists.

Almost exactly a year ago, we travelled to Vannes to meet Olivia. At the time, I had no idea whether we would like each other, but we had spent so much time having virtual chats over the 100 washes, that I wanted to meet her. I said at the time that I wanted to meet all of the other artists but so far, life has got in a way a bit and I’ve only managed to get together to Olivia. (So, who is next, girls? Maggie, Theresa, Christy, Suzanne, Jane?)

I get a bit over-excited when we have visitors who have never seen Cambridge. I love the richness of the history in this place so I am always happy to play unofficial tour guide and take them on a walking tour of the city.  That was Friday’s focus. We did the classic Cambridge sites (and sights): The Backs, the whale at the University Zoology Museum, a wander down Old School Lane and then Trinity Street to have a look at the colleges. The Eagle pub and Kings College Chapel, and finally, a punt down the Cam to see the back views of all colleges while our young punter, Sam, told us all the snippets and anecdotes about the buildings as we glided past on the water.

Punting on the Cam
Punting on the Cam

And then of course for the rest of the weekend we ate and we painted (and ate and painted, and ate and painted) – not necessarily at the same time.  There were English meals (Roast lamb with mint, and full English breakfast), and a slap up South African braai (has to be done in our house). And there was painting in the garden and then down at the river. Our house is at the edge of the village and we are lucky to have a footpath that goes virtually from our back garden, alongside the churchyard, down through the trees, across the field and to the river. It’s a great place to take a short walk, and Alain and Olivia spent some time working on paintings down there. They found the bench at the riverside and painted the view: that electricity housing has never looked quite so charming as it does now.

Electricity by Alain Fortier (pastel 10 x 8 inch)
Electricity by Alain Fortier (pastel 10 x 8 inch)


Electricity by Olivia Quinton (watercolour 6 x 4 inches)
Electricity by Olivia Quinton (watercolour 6 x 4 inches)

Olivia painted up a storm for Running With Brushes. She created 10 paintings for the charity while she was with us, helping us get closer to  the first 100 mark which should happen today. It’s brilliant to have such support and enthusiasm for the project from friends. We loved having time with Alain, Olivia and Elyse (who is a fantastic assistant in the kitchen).

Et maintenant, nous pratiquons parler français. Parce que  Septembre prochain, nous allons visiter Belle-Ile avec Olivia et Alain pour une semaine de peinture.

Sisters in France

It doesn’t happen very often, so time with my South African family is very precious. This year I’ve had a week with my mother when we discovered the history of Bury St Edmunds and went over to Sutton Hoo. And now I have a week in France with my sister, my niece and nephew, and the rest of my family. We certainly fill the house.

What a brilliant week we’ve had. I’ve written before about my sister’s amazing way with drawing and design. She’s the one in the family with all the art knowledge. So it’s wonderful to be able to spend time with her in Europe where we are surrounded by art history. I learn so much every time.

We’ve explored the Art Nouveau trail in Nancy and been enthralled by the magnificence of the Renaissance cathedral at Reims (where we made the surprise discovery of a set of glorious Marc Chagall stained glass windows).
Yesterday, we decided to have a chilled day at the house. Lori and I got the paintbrushes out and painted up a storm. Well, to be accurate, she painted at an astounding pace, producing a wonderful collection of pieces for Running With Brushes.

I was struck (yet again) by the different styles of our painting. Lori’s strength is capturing the character of a people and animals. I’ve watched in amazement as she drew three pairs of eyes which, with only the irises coloured, were absolutely indisputably the eyes of her three children. This was just a holiday sketch.

These two paintings of animals have her characteristic style, in which she captures the mood and personality of the subject so well. I think I have confessed before that I am still too daunted by the prospect of painting people to try portraits, or figure painting. The same has always applied to animals. It’s really a ‘living thing’ barrier.

LBA009 Waiting for the Pack
Waiting for the Pack by Lori Bentley
LBA011 Prickles
Prickles by Lori Bentley

But this time I took a leap and managed to knock out a little frog. I’m fairly proud of this effort, particularly as I probably wouldn’t have attempted it without the backup of Lori sitting across the table from me.

RWB0031 Waiting for Lunch
Waiting for lunch

And then I reverted to painting things that don’t move again. 🙂 Somehow they feel so much safer. They’re certainly less complicated.

RWB0032 Juicy

But watch this space – you may find a lizard next time….

PS: Lori has just set up a Facebook Page for her designs and illustrations. It will be well worth following.

Repeat patterns

I’ve had a really busy couple of weeks with visiting family members from South Africa, who are here for the big event of the year – Nic’s Sandhurst Commissioning.

In the lead up to their arrival and the event itself, I was focused almost entirely on everyone else. Making sure everyone was in the right place, at the right time, with everything they needed, and that they were all comfortable. It was only after the event when I could relax that I realised that in so many ways, I had dropped into a repeat pattern of behaviour. As the eldest child, I was always the one who was told I had to be responsible for my younger siblings and friends when no adult was around. Those early messages really stick in the brain, and so often they are unconscious repeated for decades.

When I paused to think about it, I realised that the patterns were extending into the types of conversations I was having with family members, the places we visit, and the food we like to eat. If you really think about it, we’re stuck in repeats all the time. Some of them are worth stepping out of – and it’s when I recognise those that I get into my experimenting and boundary pushing phases.

But there are some patterns that are really cool. And the more I looked, the more I saw. Here are a few of the visual repeat patterns from my week.

Red stripes and red jackets
Red stripes and red jackets

The red stripes and perfectly aligned shoulders in the Sandhurst parade were so impressive. Seeing 600 cadets marching onto the parade ground was a visual thrill – the rhythm of boots and the patterns of uniforms moving in perfect synchonisation created a proper pageant.

Patterns on Nic's sword
Patterns on Nic’s sword
More patterns on Nic's sword
More patterns on Nic’s sword

Nic’s ceremonial sword has beautiful patterns engraved on the the blade. It’s a real work of art.

Cable: a repeat pattern with an occasional twist
Cable: a repeat pattern with an occasional twist

The cable in my latest jumper (which I hope will be finished this week because it’s been going on for far too long now!) is far less of a work of art. The repeat pattern of the cable has a nice little extra twist every so often.

I’m now thinking about how patterns manifest themselves in my paintings.

Nous sommes arrivés!

The final day of the London to Paris bike ride was the longest, in riding terms and in hours.

We set off from the country town of Gournay-en-Bray in glorious weather. The sun was shining, but it wasn’t so hot that the cyclists were melting away. This is what it should have been all week, ideally.

Although we had the overnight stops pegged down from information we’d picked up from the web, and had pre-booked all our accommodation, we were working out the meeting points during the day as we went along.  Ideally we wanted somewhere not too big that it made it difficult to find each other, but big enough to have at least a cafe or restaurant so we could grab a coffee and use their restrooms. We managed to get that sizing badly wrong on the last day.

Our first stop was in Gizor which looked, on the map, to be a small enough town to make it easy to locate each other. We chose a street to meet in, and the cyclist set off ahead of the drivers. By the time we arrived in the car, the town’s market was in full swing and it was utter chaos. Parking was almost non-existent and when we finally found a place that looked just big enough for the car and were lining up to start moving into it, the unpleasant little man parked in the space ahead, switched on his engine and very deliberately shifted his car a foot backwards ensuring that he had plenty of space in front of him, and the space was now too small for us to fit into. His defiant stare at us as we sat in jaw-dropping bemusement that someone could be so small-minded, was evidence that this was an intentional move. For the first time, I encountered a French man who lived up to the reputation given them by the English – that of being rude and selfish.

Now that's a picnic!
Now that’s a picnic!

We recovered from our annoyance when we found the cyclists in a cafe and realised that the market would be an ideal place to gather lunch. They set off and we shopped. Lunch was superb! One of the best meals of the trip – and not a pizza slice in sight.  We ate our French market picnic in a park in the next village we had selected. Perfection. Our only misjudgement was that this place was so small it only had a butcher and a baker. Parking was ample though.  Knowing that the cyclists would need to use them when they arrived, I went to ask if there were any public facilities in the village . ‘Oui’, said Madame Boucherie, and directed me to behind the boulangerie. ‘Non!’, said Madame Boulangerie.  So I practiced my Gallic shrug and searched no further.

We motored on to Poissy and checked in to the apartment we’ve booked for the weekend. Then made a mad dash to the supermarket to get coffee, tea and sugar (and returned with three bulging bags of food).

After freshening up, having a cup of tea and dumping any extra weight, left the car at Poissy and all four of us set off on bicycles to do the last 28km into the centre of Paris together. We were pleasantly surprised by the ease of the ride. The cycle paths which run more than half the way in, were easy to follow and in good condition. And when we hit the main streets of Paris at the tail end of evening rush hour, we found drivers to be very cyclist-aware and considerate. There were a few terrifying moments going round some of the notorious insane circles with no lane markings, but even there, the drivers paused to let us through. We saw surprisingly few other cyclists so perhaps the Parisienne drivers were simply stunned at the insanity of what we were doing.

We reached the Trocadero (our chosen finish point) at 8.30pm, 11 hours after the starting time that morning.

Kiff and Helen celebrating the end of 297 km of cycling.
Kiff and Helen celebrating the end of 297 km of cycling.

Would we do it again? Yes, probably, but perhaps over more days so there would be more time to explore the French countryside. This has been an amazing adventure.

If we have the energy, we’ll visit Versaille today and hope to manage to see Monet’s garden on our way back to Calais tomorrow. It’s a place I’ve wanted to see for years.