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.

Garden sketching in France

Garden sketching - hollyhock flowerWhat do garden sketching in France and Facebook have in common? I’ll tell you.

I’m ambivalent about Facebook for the most part. I know many people are annoyed by the adverts, but I kinda accept that as part of getting a free service. The thing that does wind me up is when the gnomes who build the Facebook engine take it upon themselves to decide what I should or should not see of my friends’ news, and indeed which of the people who have signed up to see my page actually get any of the feeds.

However, overall I think it’s a pretty amazing resource if used well. I find it invaluable for keeping track of my family and friends across the world. It’s also a powerful collaboration platform for artists. I’ve met so many wonderfully talented people who share their knowledge and insights online with great generosity.

It was a photograph of a beautiful stoneware pot that became the catalyst for our trip which led to some garden sketching in France.

Mark Judson posted a photograph of this stunning stoneware pot just out of the kiln. I’m a sucker for gorgeous ceramics.  Just a tiny bit impulsively, I bought it there and then – and then had to work out how to collect it from the centre of France.
Stoneware pot by Mark Judson

We love rural France. We really don’t need much of an excuse to hop across the channel, so with a bit of a nudge from Facebook, off we went to collect my newly acquired treasure. Since Chenevaux was where I first started painting in earnest, I can never visit without getting out my brushes.

Caroline’s garden is in glorious bloom and there was plenty of sketching inspiration all around us.  The 86 rose plants make the garden a wonderfully fragrant place to relax. This is not a formal manicured collection of flowerbeds. Rather, it’s a celebration of nature with mixed borders that combine self-sown and carefully placed plants that complement each other perfectly.

Garden sketching - hollyhock flower
Garden sketching – hollyhock flowerAnd a little more delicate

Garden Sketching subjects:

A single red Hollyhock flower caught my eye. I love the depth of the colour and the fat blousy shape of the petals as they cluster up the tall stem.

And scrambling over the gravel in the driveway, and under the rosebushes, delicate blue Nigella flowers echo the blue of the sky.

Garden sketching - Nigella Flower
Garden sketching – Nigella Flower

Sometimes there’s as much satisfaction in sketching tiny elements as there is in painting a complex composition. It all helps to hone observation skills and master shape and tone.

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.

Oscilloscope: All The Fun Is Inside

Oscilloscope (watercolour and acrylic ink). Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
All The Fun Is Inside (watercolour and acrylic ink 21 x 13 cm)

I wasn’t expecting an oscilloscope.

The beauty of my Precious Artifacts series is that I never know quite what I’m going to get. It’s always a surprise when someone sends me their photograph and story. That’s all part of the fun, and the challenge.

Noel was the second person to come back to me with his Artifact for painting. An avid blogger and science enthusiast, Noel chose to blog about his subject. Here’s  the link to the post with photos of his 1970’s oscilloscope. When I first saw the post, I had a few thoughts:

– What??? Help???? How???

And then:
– Which one should I choose for the painting?
– How am I going to make this painting interesting?
– How do I deal with the complexity of all those wires?

Then I thought about Noel’s oscilloscope accompanying story. In his words:

“I love anything to do with science, I have since I was old enough to know what it was. First it was maths, and I ran out of maths books at school. They had to buy a new one for me and my mate. They cut it up and gave us different pages each, a few at a time – so they only needed to buy one book. Weird, perhaps they didn’t reckon on using it too often after we left.

A chemistry set arrived when I was nine – test-tubes of potassium permanganate and various other lovely chemicals, a meths fuelled burner and an asbestos mat. It is a wonder I survived long enough to be able to discover physics at thirteen.

Electronics, in particular fascinated me – this was the time of discrete components, and indeed valves were still around. I built an oscilloscope from a kit – surviving several 240 volt shocks in the process. (I still have the ‘scope, complete with two pentode valves, though the greater sense of self-preservation that comes with age prevents me from firing it up again!)

I have now dusted off the old ‘scope. Still totally fascinated by it, even after forty odd years.”

I realised that Noel’s fascination with science is all about working out the different elements. Then in how they work together and what they do in combination. It’s all about what’s inside:

So that’s what the painting had to reflect. The outside is a conservative, plain black box with the buttons all lined up in neat lines. If you just look at the outside, it all looks quite boring. To see the really good stuff – you have to look inside. That’s where the oscilloscope magic happens!

Creative Commons License
All The Fun Is Inside by Vandy Massey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Daffodil studies – working on observation skills

Daffodil studies
Shy Daff

I’ve spent some time this week on a range of daffodil studies.  

At last Friday’s meeting of the Saffron Walden Art Society, John Tookey talked about the benefits of sketching. Despite saying that drawing is not a particular strength of his, he managed to make it all look very easy. His demonstration results were impressive. Using pencil, marker pen, watercolour, and oil pastels, his landscape sketches very quickly displayed a remarkable range of tones and textures. I know that it’s not really that easy. But his point was well made: Sketching regularly hones your ability to observe and ultimately improves your painting.

I spend a lot of time experimenting – but not really on sketching. My experimenting is generally all about the colour and the texture rather than capturing the form. So with this in mind, I will start working on my sketching. There’s a sketch pad and pencils in my bag. Now I just need time.

In the meantime, although they’re a little more down my experimental path, this week I did a series of daffodil studies in different styles. I’m sure there will be more to come of this subject. I’ve got lots more images to work from and a nice collection of blossoms appearing in my garden. There’s certainly more than enough material to keep me painting daffodil studies at least as long as the sunny little flowers are in bloom. Hopefully, by the time the daffodils have faded I will be better able to capture the essence of the flower on paper.

Daffodil studies at various stages of development:

 

Picked daffodils - 3minute sketch. Daffodil studies
Picked daffodils – 3minute sketch

Done in pure watercolour. Timed to exactly three minutes. This one turned out to be semi abstract, but somehow quite appealing

Daffodil studies - trumpet frill
Daffodil study – trumpet frill

The frills on the trumpet are much more obvious on a variety that has a darker trumpet. The complexity of the frill is one of the most fascinating visual aspects of this flower.

Daffodil studies  with Daniel Smith liquid watercolour
Daffodil study with Daniel Smith liquid watercolour

Taking the frill a bit further, I added Daniel Smith Watercolour Ground to add some dimension to the blossoms.

Daffodil studies  - in Relief
Daffodil Study – in Relief

After the watercolour ground had dried ( a full 24 hours later) another layer of watercolour was applied. This is not my favourite of the studies – if feels a bit dense to me – but every one of these has been worth the time.

The watercolour sketch at the top of the page (Shy Daff) is one that was done using a reference photograph of a blossom taken in our garden. I found the angle of the stem really interesting because it’s so extreme and yet the flower is still pristine. The unusual perspective made it an ideal addition to my daffodil studies. Shy Daff is my favourite because it is simple, elegant, and doesn’t really need anything more to work all on it’s own.

Old Friends – Greatly Cherished

Old friends, like the Mastercard advert, are priceless. I am lucky enough to have a group of friends who have been an important part of my life for more than two thirds of my lifetime so far.

We shared boarding school experiences together in small town South Africa. Our school was an all-girl English medium school in the predominantly Afrikaans University town of Potchefstroom. We went through exam stress, broke school rules, got homesick together, and more. We all had a propensity for challenging the status quo: one of the characteristics that bonded us.

After graduating from school, we continued to meet up for lunches and social events. In time, two of us left South Africa to live in other countries which meant our  lunches became far less frequent and far more precious.

Every time I go back to South Africa, we make sure to meet up. Last month I managed to gate crash a birthday dinner for one of them. Her surprise made the evening together all the more brilliant. Thinking about our friendship after I got back home, I wanted to paint the way I visualise it, so I’ve done a small watercolour for each of the three wonderful women I count as some of my oldest friends.

Since we left school we’ve gone though even more together – through illness, job losses, births, loss of parents, broken hearts and brilliant joys. We’ve supported each other, influenced each other (for good, in the main) laughed together and cried together. I am proud to count these three as my old friends. I know that above all else, we will continue to challenge each other and support each other.

The three of my old friends at last month’s dinner:

Watercolour painting: Circle of Friends - Suzie
Circle of Friends – Suzie

Suzie – the birthday girl. Always expanding her knowledge. Intrepid traveller. Outrageously funny. Wonderfully warm.

Watercolour paintings.  Circle of Old Friends - Jen
Circle of Friends – Jen

Jen – Daring and adventurous. Just about to embark on a new and exciting venture. Indomitable, unsquashable and generous.

Watercolour painting. Circle of Friends - Charkie
Circle of Friends – Charkie

Charkie – Determined, warm, astute. Businesswoman of note. Collaborator in birthday party surprises.

There’s a specific colour that represents each one of my old friends – I’m sure they will work out which one is which.

 

Landscape Layers – Heat and Dust.

Layered Landscape (watercolour 17 x 13cm)
Layered Landscape (watercolour 17 x 13cm)

This is the latest painting to come out of the studio: a little watercolour called Layered Landscape.

After what felt like months of grey skies and rain we finally have blue skies again. Yes, I know, England has a reputation for being grey and wet but it really isn’t as bad as it has been this winter.

I find myself looking up into the sky quite a lot these days – just enjoying the blue. I’ve noticed recently the layering of different cloud types. I’m fascinated by the three dimensional element of them as they stack up.  When I had the impulse to paint a landscape in orange, blue and purple, the sky just had to featured layered clouds. This is a sky with cumulus clouds high up and altostratus clouds lower down. (For anyone interested in clouds, the Cloud Appreciation Society has a great gallery of images).

Layered landscape elements

The layering in this landscape doesn’t only occur in the clouds. The distant hills are layered, one behind the other. There’s a layer of trees and scrubby brush in the foreground through which the gentle undulations of the landscape can be seen. This is a dry land – the leaves are sparse on the trees, the branches are dry and twiggy through lack of water. Even the shadows of the trees are short under the relentless sun.  The heat of this burnt land is reflected and amplified in the layer of red dust hanging in the air.

Even in a simple landscape painted with only three colours, there’s depth and complexity in the layers.

I’ve got some new themes for paintings buzzing around in my head right now – and two of the Precious Artifact series are in progress right now. I’ve got the first of my Open Studios coming soon so I’ll be in the studio a fair amount of time over the next few weekends.