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.

Painting in Wales

Little Red Farmhouse (watercolour 6 x 4 inches)
Little Red Farmhouse (watercolour 6 x 4 inches)

This weekend, I needed to collect some paintings which were coming off exhibition at The Little House of Art in Glastonbury. We decided to make a weekend of it and so we found a cottage in Wales (which I know isn’t massively close to Glastonbury, but it worked for us). The setting was just about perfect. Quiet, beautiful, no internet connection, very patchy mobile phone connection. We were hiding away from the world for a couple of days.

I’m aware that one of the things I’ve not done enough is painting en plein air. Today provided me with an opportunity for a bit of practice.  I only had to go as far as the garden table so it was probably the softie’s version of plein air painting, but it still pushed me out of my comfortable studio where I have everything I need.

I love the patchwork of fields you get in rural England and Wales. They provide great angles and shapes for landscapes. And the view from the patio was rich material. I painted one small sketch of the hillside in front of us with a barn showing just above a line of trees. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photograph before I gave it away to the lovely family next door to us who had been phenomenally welcoming and very kindly provided us with basket loads of firewood for the stove in our cottage. So sadly, I can’t share that one with you.

The other painting I did was of a red farmhouse near the top of the hill with fields laid neatly out in front of it. The red building reminded me of the illustration on the packaging of one of my favourite childhood treats.  There was a brand of ice cream called Little Red Schoolhouse. They made the creamiest, most chocolatey ice cream I had ever tasted and I was utterly hooked on it. The ice cream was only made in 2 litre tubs so we had to persuade Mum to buy it for pudding if we wanted it. It was the best treat ever.  Little Red Schoolhouse ice cream doesn’t exist any more, and I suspect that it probably wouldn’t be nearly as decadently delicious as I remember.  But the red farmhouse on the hill brought back some lovely memories nevertheless and it so Little Red Schoolhouse made a comeback as Little Red Farmhouse in my plein air painting in Wales.

Poppies for Poppy

On Day 6 of the 30 Paintings in 30 Days challenge I posted a rather enigmatic note and a painting of a poppy. I was waiting for some information and a go ahead before I could post the story of the poppy painting.

In yet another global connection story, Fiona Ingram, South African based author of children’s book, Secret of the Sacred Scarab (beautifully illustrated by Lori Bentley), sent me an email asking if it might be possible to use one of my sketches for the title page of a book she has written as a fund raiser for an animal charity – Animals Fiji.

Unfortunately, the sketch she liked has been sent across to the USA, and the digital photo I still had was too small to be of any use. So I agreed to paint another similar to the original.  Three options were sent for Fiona to choose from – This was Poppy 2. The one that will be used for the book title cover is the Day 6 painting, and this, along with Poppy 1 will go into the Running WIth Brushes project.

Poppy 2 (watercolour 4 x 6 inches
Poppy 2 (watercolour 4 x 6 inches

I’m thrilled to be part of the Poppy project and I’m looking forward to being able to buy the book as soon as it’s published.

About Poppy:

Poppy is Animal Fiji’s most famous dog.  Fiona told me Poppy’s story: “Poppy’s nose got cut off in a hunting accident. She must have been in great discomfort but this never dampened her amazing friendly nature. She was brought to Animals Fiji Nadi clinic by a team effort between Master Pillay (a teacher at an inland Fiji School who saw her foraging for food – she was skin and bone) and Julie Hoskison from Myola in Sigatoka. The call went out and a young schoolgirl called India Davies in Melbourne, Australia began the fundraising. The word spread and Poppy attracted the attention of Chris Brown, the Bondi Vet. Poppy went to Sydney for facial reconstruction (by surgeon/vet Andrew Marchevsky) at the Small Animal Hospital Sydney (SASH) there. She made a wonderful recovery, and the Davies family became her new ‘forever’ family. Poppy looks great now but goes for 6-month check-ups to Doc Andrew.”

Fiona Ingram, an (almost world famous – Secret of the Sacred Scarab is about to be translated into Japanese. Woohoo! ) award winning children’s author, watched the hour-long program on Animal Planet and was moved not only to tears, but to contact Animals Fiji and offer to write Poppy’s story. Fiona has already written a wonderful heart-warming rescue story of a little dog named Champ, that was rescued by SAFE Rescue in California. Animals Fiji agreed and the project began. Although Poppy now has a new home in Australia and is basically cared for by a loving family, Animals Fiji are in desperate need of funding to help look after the many needy animals on the island. Poppy has become the spokesdog of the fundraising program. Poppy has a Sponsor a Vet Appeal, and all funds are gratefully accepted. Proceeds from the book go to Animals Fiji for continued animal care on the island.

Fiona started Caladrius Books (http://caladriusbooks.com)  as a way of creating animal rescue stories to make people more aware of the plight of animals in need, and to help raise funds for various organisations. Fiona already received watercolour images donated by a US artist for Champ’s book and remembered seeing images my web site, especially one of poppies. The rest is history.

Poppy: Animal Fiji's most famous dog.
Poppy: Animal Fiji’s most famous dog.

Poppy Photo by Tarn Davies, Poppy’s new owner.

One More Daffodil (Day 5/30)

This 30 Paintings in 30 Days challenge is certainly got me painting more. And it’s great to be part of something that so many artists are joining. There are over 400 artists taking part in Leslie Saeta’s challenge now.

One More Daffodil (watercolour 4 x 6 inch)
One More Daffodil (watercolour 4 x 6 inch)

Today is also a bit of a personal milestone – this is the my 40th painting in the Running With Brushes series.

I started out painting a very conventional floral – and then decided this daffodil’s trumpet deserved much more attention than I was giving it. So it’s now bold and glorious in it’s colour.

No time to write more today. See you again tomorrow.

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.

Keeping it simple

I came across these two videos by Vinita Pappas on Youtube late on Friday evening. I rather like the idea of the exercise of using only six brushstrokes to paint a subject. I’ve been itching to try it, but not able to get to my brushes so far this weekend.

One of the things I’ve learned from painting is to slow down a little and not be quite so goal oriented. When I started painting I had a bad habit: every time I picked up my brushes I expected to create a final painting that would be good enough to put in a frame – and I wanted to do it in a maximum of one or two sittings.

Now I enjoy each stage more and have many paintings that pause for weeks before I go back to them and start working on them again. I find the waiting time gives me a fresh perspective which can sometimes be very useful.

The six brushstrokes exercise really slows down the thinking process, and although the whole thing is done in one sitting, it’s a far more reflective process overall. Every brushstroke has to make a contribution to the end result so each one has to count.

Given how much I like painting loosely, I was looking forward to seeing what she did with the paper she wet and was briefly disappointed when the first video ended before she started on it.  But, there it was – Part 2 of her Confident Brushstrokes exercise:

I can certainly see that this would help develop confident brushstrokes, but that’s not all the value an exercise like this delivers. There’s the added benefit of learning to distill the image down to the essence of the subject, and of getting better at creating purposeful marks on the paper.

I’ve already started looking for my first subject. Later this evening I think the brushes will have to be exercised!

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)

Apple for the Teacher

Inspiration comes from the most unexpected places at times.

It’s almost three weeks since I picked up a paint brush and I’ve been wrestling with painter’s block for the last few days. I find it very difficult to paint when I am travelling. This is a barrier I know I need to tackle. For many reasons, I find my studio a far more productive place to work. In some respects it’s just the practical aspects of having all my tools and materials at hand immediately. There’s the familiar chair, the light exactly where I want it to be, and none of the time pressure associated with painting outdoors with shifting light and unexpected audiences.

I suspect there’s also the fact that my studio is filled with images that inspire me. There are fragments of paintings that worked well, art magazines, reference books, landscape photography books, and notes pinned up all over the walls. There’s very little blank wall space at all.

Even so, it takes time for me to work out exactly what I want to paint, and the tighter the deadline for works to be completed, the longer it seems to take to come up with a subject that inspires. That said, some of my best paintings have been completed the night before an exhibition – stressful though that is.


Watercolour painting - Red apple for the teacher
Red apple for the teacher

Last week, I was fortunate to have the benefit of a dedicated tutoring session from an expert in the investment world. He very kindly spent almost two hours explaining concepts I wanted to understand, drawing graphs to make the mechanics clear and translating the unfamiliar terminology. At the end of the session a lighthearted comment about providing an ‘apple for the teacher’ was made, and for some reason that phrase stuck in my mind. So when I needed to find a subject to get my brushes back to work, red apples came to mind.  

I felt very rusty at first – does anyone else get that feeling when getting back to painting after a while? By the time I finished the sketch I was raring to go again, and would happily have spent many more hours in the studio.

Next week, we’re driving the support car for Chris and Helen’s London to Paris bicycle ride in aid of Mind. We leave on Tuesday evening and I expect I will post a few snippets of news as we progress. I may even manage to paint something along the way.


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)

Spring brambles

Painting greens without using green paint again, the bright spring growth and shadows in the ridges of bramble leaves emerging in the warmth were a great subject for a couple of quick sketches.

Spring Brambles watercolour sketch
Spring Bramble leaf watercolour sketch

Taking a break on a walk through Hatfield Forest, I noticed the rich dark red rims on the edges of the bramble leaves. It struck me that there’s a significant difference in tone between the bright reds of autumn, and the dark red rims and veins in emerging growth of springtime. Autumn colours seem to blaze with resistance to the passing of the warm weather.  Red tones in spring are dark and deep, showing the intensity of the growing period just started.

The first little study of three leaves was done in my sketchbook.

Spring Brambles 2 (watercolour sketch)
Spring Brambles 2 (watercolour sketch)

New shoots burst forth, bright green from last year’s darker growth, speeding upwards towards the sunlight with the vigour and energy of spring.  My second sketch depicted the the strength, speed and flexibility of the newly sprouted branch, running obliquely from old-established sections of the plant.

There is such promise in the fields and hedgerows at this time of year.